What 'Whiplash' Can Teach Us About Pushing a 'Great' Too Far

Every sport, art and industry has "greats." They are people who have exceeded all expectation and pushed their passion to the next level. Names like Louis Armstrong, James Brown and Duke Ellington are known by nearly everyone. Their amazing skill and passion for music, as well as pushing the limits of their own personal capabilities for the sake of the art, rocketed them to the top of the music world. But what created them? What drove them to be better than anyone else and exceed that even?

The movie Whiplash sought out to show the process of creating the next jazz great. Whiplash shows the conductor of the band, Terrence Fletcher, to be an extremely vulgar and forward character in how he feels and acts. He yells, insults and even slaps his students to prove his point and get them worked up. He later explains that he does what he does because of the origin story of Charlie "the Bird" Parker. Essentially, Charlie went on stage with Joe Jones band and butchered a solo. Instead of saying, "Hey Charlie, you gave it your all and tried, good job," Jones slings a cymbal at Charlie's head nearly decapitating him. Charlie then goes and practices and next year at the same event he plays the most beautiful solo heard by that audience. Fletcher's goal was to be Joe Jones. He wanted to create the next Charlie Parker, regardless of the process and pain in the process.

But is that what it takes? Many say that positive reinforcement is the true secret to inspiring others to push themselves as hard as they can. Others see positive reinforcement as acknowledging mediocrity to be acceptable. Fletcher says in Whiplash, "there are no two words more harmful when next to each other than 'good job.'" Deep down, no one wants to accept that this traumatizing, horrific method is one of many aspects of pushing someone to their full potential and create a new great. Fletcher may look like a sociopath for his methods, but he was trying to make those who cared push themselves to the next level, and in the process pushed many away from music altogether.

Does this justify Fletcher's horrible method of cruelty and abuse? No. Charlie Parker was nearly killed by Joe Jones because of a big screw-up, not in practice. Fletcher takes it to the extreme and instead of letting his students discover their own drive and passion, he fuels it more than enough for them. This all-out method involving extreme methods should be used sparingly with just a firm hand simply the rest of the time.

Nothing can justify sending some poor 19-year-old into an anxiety-filled world where the only thing that matters is the music. Friends, family and bodily well-being become a secondary priority under a teacher like Fletcher. The line between pushing someone through extreme actions and not enough care is a hazy one that is never the same between any two people, and is difficult to justify on either side because one is considered soulless and unhealthy while the other shows a lack of care and passion to help others exceed.