Notes from the movie Whiplash

Whiplash: Wikipedia

Whiplash is a fascinating movie on many levels regarding a topic that interests me deeply… How to progressively perform, and strive to become the very best in a chosen field. Personally, I found each step of the movie riveting and would recommend it to anybody who would find the above question even mildly interesting. The movie’s climax was immensely interesting, inspiring and supported by great acting. At any rate, the movie induced a blog post !

The story revolves around the mind and life of a student who wants to be among the greats in his field, and the way he deals with an abrasive, abusive and unorthodox teacher whose intentions are to bring out the best in a student. No movie is perfect - while some points in Whiplash do appear extreme and therefore relatively unrealistic - the overriding message and theme conveyed certainly rings out clearly, in an engaging plot.

I could relate to the following pointers from the movie:

Leverage stress to achieve new levels of insight and performance

The belief of the teacher, that the best performance or attributes hidden inside a person can come out only via repeated, unexpected and stressful prodding. I’m not sure if this works as shown in the movie, but I have found unexpected insights at times of extreme stress, that have were taken forward to habits that changed my life.

Weathering criticism

The mental conditioning required to weather and beat intense, sharp, depressing criticism along with verbal and physical abuse from a mentor or teacher and use the same as a motive force for self-improvement and eventually superlative performance. Though there are examples of extreme abrasiveness in leaders like Steve Jobs - such an approach would not be tolerated by most people today.

  • I know other stories of people working under such mentors, striving to learn and gain their approval and eventually winning the same. These efforts paid off by resulting in skills, thinking patterns and a superior mental conditioning. Finding such a mentor at the formative stage is probably the best thing to happen to anybody.

  • An effective strategy to find mentors is to shadow people on Linked in and learn from their profiles and activity. Some of them may be willing to connect and invest time in mentoring.

  • Another possibility to find like minded people and mentors would be to join the communities of on-line courses, like Datacamp and Dataquest, who have lively channels in Slack for paid members.

Getting back up after a fall

Everybody breaks. Just as the promising student in Whiplash breaks. But the champions among us rally, to stage a comeback and performance that make history.

Regularly surpassing the level of deliberate knowledge of your own performance, and thus improvement by exactly being able to measure your performance and pinpoint mistakes. This point is portrayed in a very interesting manner in Whiplash, where the teacher expects the student to know exactly what mistake is being made.

Be Great, not Good

Rejecting the ‘Good’ or ‘Good enough’ feedback from anybody. The goal is to be Great, not good. The goal should be to strive to set the precedent and not just follow a beaten track. The pinpoint focus should be on progressive improvement to become the best, and that entails never being satisfied and to be ruthless in rooting out flaws.

Achieving Balance : mind + body + surroundings

Great performance is about that perfect balance between the body, mind and environment to leverage the best result possible. I view the scene where the student survives a car crash, just to reach a performance and then not being able to perform, as a good example of overreaching, without strengthening the core, and thus inviting instability.

Go off the beaten track and Lose yourself

It was the ending of Whiplash that truly drove me to comprehend the points so far. It is twisted, unexpected and led me to truly enjoy the movie and appreciate that: despite the above points being reasonably discernible - the human mind and nature is exceedingly complex. Stability and reasoning are not the only keystones to the foundation of greatness. There has to be a healthy mix of some form of abnormal obsession thrown in, to make a stellar performance what it is. However, can this be practically repeated on a regular basis?

Learning velocity and Flow

There are several bodies of research work available today that can be studied to get closer to consciously stimulating a great performance. One such example is:

  • Unlocking the Talent Code With Dan Coyle on the Unmistakable Creatives podcast provides an insight in line with the points seen above, into what constitute outliers and performers. The interesting concept of ‘Learning velocity’ is explained by Dan with a lucid example. It is surmised that progress and maximum learning to become better occurs at the boundary line dividing what we know at the moment, and the unknown skills that beckon.

That point sems to be an amalgamation of several factors, that are typically present when someone is in ‘flow’. Perhaps this flow can be described as a heightened sense of what is, and what should be and the energy to strive and achieve what should be.. It certainly does feel logical to think that we become better by pushing that boundary.