Yesterday I saw the movie Whiplash, which tells the story of an ambitious young jazz drummer who is accepted into the best music school in the US, and then selected for the elite ensemble of the school’s most highly regarded teacher. Andrew soon discovers that the privilege of working with the charismatic Fletcher has its dark side, whose ‘motivational’ methods include psychologically, verbally and sometimes physically abusive behaviour (and this is not a spoiler – it is evident from the opening scene). Fletcher’s ethos is that nothing damages a talented person’s potential more than praise.
Whiplash was the most emotionally intense movie I have seen in a long time and raised a lot of interesting questions about creativity, drive and mentorship. Does praise engender mediocrity? Will a true genius rise to the challenge of being relentlessly pushed? Might some students with great potential be discouraged by this teaching method? What is the personal cost of pushing yourself to achieve impossible standards? Are there other ways to help people be their best? One of the things I liked best about this film is that it did not attempt to provide simplistic answers to these complex questions.
I couldn’t help applying the idea to my writing. I imagined the thrill of being selected to be mentored by a writer I greatly admire, then to be publicly and relentlessly criticised for everything I produced. Would it motivate me to work harder? Honestly, I don’t believe it would. A more likely outcome would be that it would cause me to lose all confidence, and give up writing altogether. Does that mean I don’t have the potential for brilliance? If I was a true genius, would I push through the discomfort, give everything just to show this writer what I was made of?
I would love to hear your thoughts on this. And I also encourage you to see this brilliant movie.