Whiplash and Thoughts on Achievement

I saw “Whiplash“. It’s awesome. This is what its IMDB blurb says:

A promising young drummer enrolls at a cutthroat music conservatory where his dreams of greatness are mentored by an instructor who will stop at nothing to realize a student’s potential.

This movie got me thinking, again, about talent vs hard work, external pressure vs internal drive.

Eldest has been swimming and enjoying the team experience. He’s getting better, but he’s not very fast, and his technique needs considerable work (all the swim lessons he had as a kid are worth next to squat, it seems). But he’s been enjoying it and the team is very supportive.

When I watch him, my inner ultracompetitive workaholic  monster scientist wakes up. I look at him and at the other swimmers, and I scrutinize what he’s done or not done. I look at the mechanics of their strokes, when they turn, how long they glide before resuming with strokes. There are kids with beautiful technique, lots of experience, and presumably natural ability. There are other kids who may not swim much, but are into other sports and are generally athletic, and that control over the body appears to translate between sports (a number of winter swimmers also run track in the fall). Moreover, it seems like other kids with comparable swim experience to Eldest’s are better in part because they are very focused and because they are pushing themselves as far as they will go. My kid seems distracted at the start, and often seems as if he’s almost swimming leisurely. But perhaps I am being unfair and he’s doing all he can. It’s tough being the son of a pain-in-the-butt mom. I didn’t think I would be that mom. But I was always very competitive myself and I don’t like how much this swimming business upsets me.

Eldest doesn’t particularly care for my insights. I am no coach, and he tells me as much, but even I can tell that there are issues with his dive and his turns, plus his arms are not as straight as those of the fastest kids. But, there are many swimmers on the team and the season is too short for him to receive individualized attention. Or maybe they are selective about who receives their attention.

Anyway, I am focusing on keeping my mouth shut and letting Eldest do his thing. But boy, do I wish he had more of a competitive, go-getter streak. Not just in swimming, but anything really. I need to curb my extreme A-type-ness in order not to smother and alienate Eldest, who appears more laid back. I am aware of this difference between us, and I work on keeping my mouth shut. The problem is that there is always this tiny voice that wonders what if we’d just nudged him more earlier, maybe he’d be better at some things and maybe even grateful down the line… I told you, it’s not easy being the kid of an A-type mom. (Now imagine if I didn’t have my own demanding career and was thus free to pour all of my ambitions into my kids… Now that’s a truly scary thought.)

Back to “Whiplash”. The music school teacher is abusive in every sense — physically, verbally, emotionally. He’s a manipulative jerk. But, apparently, he believes that’s the way to entice greatness, by building up and breaking down those with potential, as he feels those with true greatness would not be deterred by abuse and would instead only work harder and harder in the face of adversity. I don’t know about that; in the process of uncovering a rare gem via great abuse, many will completely wash out and possibly kill themselves.

We see the lead character, a 19-year-old drummer, work obsessively and push himself to the limits (Bandaids are apparently a key part of equipment for drummers). That’s inner drive. What I still don’t know is whether or not it is possible to ignite that spark in someone who doesn’t already possess it. Sure, you can push and pressure kids while they are little, but at some point they will rebel unless what they are pushed to do is what they actually want to to do.

My DH and I don’t push our kids very much, and I wonder if we are mistaken. We are lazy  parents and let them chill. But at some point achievements start to count and you see that your kid might be behind because you didn’t know you were supposed to start pushing them much earlier. And does it make sense to insist if a kid doesn’t have talent? And who decides who has talent? I can judge talent for math and science and perhaps to a small degree art, but not much else. We all know “10% inspiration, 90% perspiration”, but what if the inspiration or natural ability are just not there?

Sort of like in this great old comic by SMBC:

That guy has 17 special talents. This other guy, not a single one.

Most people are unremarkable. Some, perhaps many, are marginally remarkable, at the level of high school or college or some professional community. None would be the wiser if most of us hadn’t been born at all. When you think about it, it’s quite depressing.

Sometimes I think the best thing I can do for my kids is to leave them alone to relax and enjoy their childhood with minimal stress and structure. Then they want to swim in high school and we see we are years behind the ideal time when one should have started with these activities, but we didn’t because my kid would not hear of competing during the many years I asked, then when he got around to wanting to compete, he turned out he was not the fastest guy around. What I need is a time machine to bring his current self to talk to his 5th or 6th grade self and make himself start to swim seriously. Also, I need a crystal ball to see when I will need the same type of intervention with the younger two kids and for which sport.

One thing that the teacher in “Whiplash” said was that “Good job” were the worst two words in the English language, because they encourage passivity. I tend to agree that they are overused, and that there is great focus on just showing up and putting in half-assed effort. Effort is a necessary but not sufficient condition for achievement.

I have a collaborator who dishes continuous praise to graduate students, for even the most idiotic of achievements (“You printed these 3 figures so you’d show them to us? Good job!”) There is no need to be abusive, but I don’t praise my graduate students until they have actually done something worth praising, something that took both effort and skill. Usually, when the materials are starting to come together for our first joint paper is when a student might expect to hear “Well done!” I might also praise for unusually good performance, when someone does someone much faster than expected, or shows uncommon creativity, originality, or initiative. So no, I am not an over-praiser because that cheapens true achievement, but I am not a praise-miser either.

Also, never outside of the US have I heard kids say so often and with such conviction “I am not good at x,” where x is something that they tried once or not at all. With my own kids, it gets on my nerves a lot that there are so many things they give up on before even seriously trying, and I don’t know how to fix that. I keep talking to them, that they just have to keep trying and they will keep getting better. It often falls on deaf ears.

But, on the other hand, many undergraduate students (and my own Eldest on occasion) have this idea that putting in great but perhaps misplaced effort is somehow supposed to be valued the same as achievement. Sometimes I get this as part of teaching evaluation, that I assign a lot of work and that the grade doesn’t reflect the amount of effort the student put in. The grade reflects what you have shown in terms of mastery. If you are between grades, sure, it may tip you over towards the higher one if you are a really hard worker, but hard work alone is not enough. You have to also work smart. If you don’t know how, you have to know to ask for help, as much help as needed until you crack the code of what the best way to apply effort is. That’s why people have coaches and advisors and supervisors…

I find that in trying to understand my kids I have serious limitations by simply being myself. I want to support their efforts and encourage them when they waver. But there is support and encouragement, and then there’s unwelcome pressure. The problem is that they can seem very alike.

Then there is just letting kids be. I grew up like that and it turned out I was plenty driven, but how to best parent the kids who may not be? What happens with the kids who are not driven themselves and who are also not pushed externally? Does everyone eventually find something they are passionate about? The world doesn’t wait for the indecisive to decide, and before you know it, it’s college admission time.

How do you determine that an effort is worth pursuing? That it’s something where you have the potential to be excellent, rather than barely above average with tremendous sweat? How do you decide you truly have no real ability versus that you would really get good with more effort? Where is the line between encouraging and badgering?

At my advanced age, I have found that I am doing better work than ever and am being more creative. Part is that I am finally believing that I am allowed to be here and do the things I do. I actually know that I can do this job and now I can, more often than not, actually summon this intellectual awareness to combat bouts of impostor syndrome. I have sufficient track record, so I finally have some confidence. I still think I am not at the tippity top, but with increased confidence the quality of the papers I publish has been steadily increasing and I am finally getting to the point of being bold and brave with my submissions, as opposed to conservative.  I have done a lot of work to earn my confidence. I envy those who were confident to begin with. Maybe that’s what having real talent means, never doubting that you will be successful (although considering how prevalent it is in dudes of certain demographics as opposed to others, I would say good old patriarchy has its hands in it, as well). I know the insecurity has been a driver for me, to get better and achieve. But now success is a different kind of driver, in that my appetites have increased. I think a good combo of external discouragement (leading to stubbornness, keeping at it and improving) and encouragement (leading to boldness and increasing ambition) may be the right thing leading to increasing performance. You need to grow your dreams, but you also have to grow the skills to match the ambition.


  1. After two decades of dealing with students, I am still still pissed off when students expect to be awarded for the effort, even though they did not actually master the subject. The same ones sometimes blame me for their bad performance – if only I had explained it correctly, of course they would get it. Those people clearly got too many “Good job!”-s as children.

    Then there is another, larger population, that does not expect to be able to fully understand my upper level class. They hope that if they just sit there, waiting very patiently, something will rub of. They never even try to work harder and walk away happily with their B-. I don’t get this at all. It offends my inner perfectionist and a glutton for challenge. How can you not even care? Those people clearly got the message that it is ok to suck.

    My 9-year old daughter recently said that she was not good at math. My heart skipped a beat, as I am a math-loving physicist. I don’t want to be that smothering mother either, but this clearly needed attention. She is actually perfectly good at math – not in a genius prodigy territory, but she never struggles with it either (there are other kids in her class that do). Where is this coming from? Are they already learning that math is for goofy looking asocial people? Or not for girls? So now I actively (and sometimes surreptitiously, in order to avoid rebellion) send messages that being smart is cool and that math is a superpower and that it is not ok to suck at anything that you are actually capable of doing well. I overpraise her math skills (not effort) to instill confidence, which actually makes her work harder, because she believes that she can do it. I hope I am doing this right…so far, so good.

  2. I’ve noticed that the students who claim they worked so hard also happen to be the ones who skipped class and don’t turn in every homework assignment. So my response is generally, “apparently it wasn’t hard enough.” Actually, that comes after a lot of questioning about, “Did you do…” and “I notice you skipped…” Though as I get older I don’t get these challenges anymore, possibly because they’re now addressed in the first day of class.

    Lots of other things to think about in this post. (And I still figure that my son will marry and support a lovely type A person, so I don’t stress about his type B tendencies.)

  3. I am laughing with you and most definitely not at you. My oldest son put me through these same machinations. I think it helped me to be a better parent and teacher.

    The first thing I realized is that I am also competitive and pushy and want to do everything 100% (even though I have way more on my plate than I should and it’s simply impossible). Most people get through life just fine not being that way. I want to live my life doing the best I can in everything, but most people are plenty happy not being that way, and it turns out that my son is one of those who is content with not stressing himself out over everything. Second, if he’s not really trying that hard at something it’s not terribly important to him, and I need to let it go. It was damn important to him that he have a job, and he worked very hard at it and did very well. I had never seen that in him, so I know the ability is there. He needs to pick what he’s going to do and be good at, just like I do, and I just need to get out of the way and let him figure it out. He also needs the freedom to explore his interests and learn from his mistakes.

    There are a lot of things I could undoubtedly do better at but I don’t because, in reality, they just aren’t as high on the priority list. It’s really hard not to try to make my priority list into his. I have a lot of friends who get by just fine and don’t even have college degrees. They have families they love and do things that make them happy. In a lot of regards, I think I’m jealous because they have a sense of peace that I struggle to achieve but never seem to get entirely or more than for a few moments.

    This has made me a better teacher because I finally get it why people aren’t trying 100%. I’m okay now with people getting Bs and Cs or doing things half-assed…it’s really not that important to them. But most of them will get through life (with or without a degree) and do the same things we all do and it’s really not worth my mental anguish one way or the other. I think I’ve learned that I would prefer they view me as someone who tried to help them along, even if they didn’t want to hear the message at the time. All of my negative teachers, the ones I don’t want to emulate, were the ones who were always critical about not living up to their expectations. I don’t want to be that person. I set the bar high and say, “Go for it. I really hope you’ll make it, but if you don’t, I still think you’re a decent human being.”

    My second child, of course, is the perfectionist, must do everything awesomely. In fact, I pushed him into advanced math because I wanted him to know that he *can’t* do everything perfectly but effort is more important than talent. I feel that I understand him better…but I also think I’m better at backing off and letting him make decisions for himself.

    The gist of it is that I think we push kids into what we think is important and don’t let them fail enough. We place way too much emphasis on winning and perfection and completely suck joy out of allowing them to just try and put in effort and do things for the simple enjoyment of doing them. I’m working very hard to let it go and not suck away anyone else’s joy or be critical because I have some bizarre metric for what is good enough.

  4. Hi there. From my perspective – I used to be a complete type A. I wanted to do everything in 100%, always perfect. I ended up getting really sick (probably not because of that, but no doubt stress contributed) and my attitude changed. Inside I think I would want to be competative, and always give 100%, but something has changed, since I got better. I do not stress out that much, and I feel that as Mareserinitatis said – some people are super fine with not being ” competitive and pushy and want to do everything 100% “, and I guess the attitude seems to be more healthy for the body, and mind (at least in my case).

    I envy both sides – the ones who don’t care at all (as they seem to be unaffected by others pressure, opinion, and do what they want, to a degree they want), and those who always give 100% (since they are the succesfull people, who do their job properly). Being in the middle suck.

  5. I wish you were my neighbour and we could talk about these issues to our heart’s content. See as a first generation immigrant, what brought us to this extent is sheer hard work and talent and we want kids to learn that. I can understand your frustration, but unless your kids have the drive where they want to be, it will not work. Another thing is that yes, the parent push kids even in US. Good luck.

  6. What I need is a time machine to bring his current self to talk to his 5th or 6th grade self and make himself start to swim seriously.

    No, not really. I started club swimming in 5th grade. I have lovely form but I was still always at the back of the pack. I am not much of an athelete. And really, do you not see that there is value in doing some things even when you aren’t competitive? I am glad I did track, volleyball, swimming, etc. even though I was never any good. I was able to compete with myself to try to be the best I could be. Plus, I now swim better than most, a fact I learned when I did my first triathlon.

    Is your son enjoying swim team even though he’s not at the top? I bet he is.

  7. I was raised by a Type-A, super pushy, control freak and competitive mom. How do I know she is a Type-A? Oh, evidence is everywhere, but just as an example, despite that she runs a successful business as a counselor with a MS degree in psychology from a good university, she has just got into grad school to get a PhD in psychology in her fifties.

    Here’s how my childhood and early school years panned out with a Type-A mom. I could easily read and write, when I was five. When school started, she would force me to study more and more, although I had done all my homework and went over the lessons for the next day. During the summers, she would have me go over the textbooks for the upcoming year. I was always ahead of class during the school year, especially in math and science. If I didn’t make an A+ in a test, she would make me lie about my grade when asked by a relative or a neighbor. I was perfectly fluent in a second language by 12! She was forcing me to pick a certain field for my grad studies that she thought was the most challenging and respected field!she basically was there in every freaking decision I’ve been making my entire life!

    Sure, it worked out and now I am a prof in a Tier 1 research university in engineering, which makes her real proud and everything. BUT, I have sad and dark memories of my childhood, every moment of which is tied to mom. I dislike her for pushing so hard and make me feel insufficient and “not good enough”. I could’ve enjoyed some more fun activities during my school years just like other kids and still turn out okay.

    Just recently in one of her courses, she was going over the different characteristics of Type-A vs B and C personalities. Sure enough she was shocked when I called her a control freak!! we had a long conversation about it and I used some of the examples above to prove my point, which did not go well and sadly made her cry. She is very sensitive to being accused of not have been a good mother. I am now realizing that I need to take all this resentment to a councilor, since there’s no point in dumping it on mom at this point. Especially that I know how terrible it feels to be told you weren’t good enough!

    It is really good that you are aware of your characteristics and are trying to control them. My mom when I was growing up, only wanted the bests of the bests for me and didn’t know at the time that as part of being a Type-A you can be a know-it-all and a true push-over. The levels of these characteristics varies in different people but I think it is important that we are aware of them and make sure they don’t influence the life of our loved ones in a negative way. Sometimes I think my mom just tried too hard. Just living with her and seeing her achieve her goals in life one after another was sufficient to make me a driven person like her. I think the same could apply to you. Your kids see how driven, competitive and hard working you are in life and that’s the best you can do for them. Be their role model, the rest will come along.

  8. cfroning, my son is really enjoying the team. The problem is that the team is ultra-serious. This year, he can be on it as the adorable freshman with little prior experience. But next year, just to remain on the team, I think his times would have to become better.

    He’s actually not bad at all when compared to the kids in other schools, but this particular team has been state champions for several years in a row, have 8-9 practices a week during the season and hadn’t lost a dual meet in two decades. So I think that just to be able to stay on the team in the coming years he would need to keep improving, which generally means he needs to work on his technique: stroke mechanics, dive, turns etc. I wish he would understand that he has to be deliberate about this, because I know he loves his teammates and the team and wants to remain on it and the team is really quite serious.

    I actually think he understands all this but doesn’t think it will be that hard to pull off in the long run; he might be overconfident, or just appropriately confident while from my impostor-syndrome standpoint it seems overt. On the other hand, the overbearing mom is in hyperdrive, strategizing about what he needs to be doing next year so he’s ready for the new season. I know I am a pain in the butt; he can’t understand what the fuss is about and I can’t understand how he can be so relaxed about it if he cares as much as he says he does (as DH reminds me, “Acta non verba”). Gaaaah.

  9. As someone training as a high school teacher, this: “many undergraduate students (and my own Eldest on occasion) have this idea that putting in great but perhaps misplaced effort is somehow supposed to be valued the same as achievement. ” frustrates me beyond belief.

    Maybe it’s because of my many years in academia, and knowing they are NOT equal, but this is very much the opinion of high school students, their parents, and quite possibly the majority of teachers. I know expectations should be different at a high school level, but figuring out where exactly I want to stand on this issue is something I’ll probably struggle with for some time.

  10. While my children are much younger, this definitely resonates with me, especially the swimming part. MY older child joined a swim team this fall (at age 7.5). There are kids hir age on the team for whom this is the second or third year of competitive swimming. And not surprisingly they are far more accomplished. At this juncture the ethos of the team is to challenge one’s self and my child is very much enjoying hir self and making great strides. But in the next few years, they will start to sort the children and “suggest” that some find different activities. ANd I can’t imagine trying to come onto the team at 12-13-14 not having been swimming on a team for years. And this team is really only one of the medium-competitive teams in our area. So on the one hand I hear the frustration of the OP- although at this stage my child is a very good listener and does exactly what the coaches say. But on the other hand, this drive for achievement at such a young age seems troubling. It is not as if most of the children on the swim team will ever swim in college or get a scholarship to do so (nor is the demographic of these teams such that college tuition is an issue for most). Why can’t we be comfortable with having a place for kids who want to do something because they enjoy it but not kill themselves over it

  11. cfroning, my son is really enjoying the team. The problem is that the team is ultra-serious.

    That makes sense. I ran into that with softball, not even making JV in high school. I did speech and debate instead, something more suited to my talents, and went to nationals.

    If he doesn’t make the team next year, it will either be a lesson to him in hard work or a realization that it wasn’t his top priority. Maybe he’ll get back to it when he’s grown up in a less competitive environment, like a masters swim or something.

    Either way, as it’s obvious you realize, mom isn’t going to be able to supply the drive externally. I found your description of your feelings as a parent honest and sympathetic.

  12. I am always surprised by how driven and competitive kids are brought up here in the US ( I was raised in Europe). Definitely does not fit all types of personality. I know that I would not have enjoyed it as a kid. I was actually encouraged at age 11 or so by a trainer to compete as a tennis player and turned it down.
    I enjoyed a relaxed childhood, with no extra-curriculum activities except for choir singing during lunch breaks at schools. And I thank my parents for not driving us crazy going from one activity to the next nor pushing us to excel at them. We enjoyed a lot of free playing during the weekends, playing tennis with my dad and brother and hanging out with the family.
    My mother was pretty strict, but never the A-type, and my parents were fine as long as we passed our courses with a C or B (and I remember failing several), and kept up with our languages learning (learnt 3, pretty typical for Europe).
    Result: sibling & me are both STEM professors in the US loving it!!
    What I learnt: life will help your eldest find his drive.

  13. I’m sure I could have been way way wayyyy better at any single one of my extracurriculars and curriculars than I was if I had just tried harder and focused… I was in karate, band, and choir and was only “better than average” at any one thing. But I liked this, and found it matched my personality – I was happy to dabble in a lot of different things, be halfways decent at all of them but not great at any. Which, to be honest, is what I do as a scientist as well. I know that getting a PHD is supposed to be some kind of hyper-specialization, but I have found there is still a lot of room to “dabble”. Which, makes me happy.

  14. I feel for your son in this situation! He is laid back and enjoying an experience that he has initiated on his own, and his mother is watching and critiquing him every step of the way? I can’t imagine enjoying that, especially during teenage years, no wonder he is rebelling in terms of taking your advice. You say all these things about how you accept that he is different but then you indicate by his responses to you that you were nagging him about the situation, which is sure to cause him stress. I think you should back off, not attend so many practices and meets, stop being such an expert in the whole endeavor- let this be his thing.

  15. Isabel, I only go to home meets; I never go to practices (I don’t think they are even open to the public) and I don’t go to away meets (most other parents actually do).

    It’s not easy to disconnect completely because considerable parental involvement is actually required (a lot of money and volunteering). But yes, I do need to back off.

  16. Fascinating. I am most driven to do good work when I don’t feel like I’m competing against others. When things get very competitive, or when people start scolding me about standards for grants, tenure, publications, etc., I start to hate my life. I get anxious and depressed.

    For a few years as a postdoc, I lived near a public track where various bootcamps would meet. On Saturday mornings, it felt like I was waking up to verbal abuse: “You’re not pushing yourself! You’re SLOW and LAZY. RUNNNNN!!!!!! That’s all you can do?!! Give me 30! Go go GO GO GO!” My boyfriend at the time kept saying he wanted to sign up for one. I couldn’t figure it out.

    After many years of wondering, I’ve come to the conclusion that the difference between me and people who like bootcamps… or who see others swimming, publishing, getting awards, etc., and reflexively want to beat them… may be that I felt traumatized by soul-crushing standards growing up. I grew up in an uber-competitive, productivity-oriented familial and academic environment. The competition wasn’t always explicit (it was enough to know that I was the only one of my friends not going to tutoring or Chinese school on Friday nights), but I had a sense of constant failure for not knowing, inventing, and achieving enough. Over twenty percent of my class went to Harvard, Stanford, or Princeton; our peers founded companies and were Olympic gold medalists. I’m not exaggerating. This focus on output over welfare always offended my humanitarian impulses, but it took me a long time to stop punishing myself through overwork and self-loathing. And I do mean punishing.

    I’m fortunate to have a genuine, intrinsic interest and motivation in what I do, but it’s very hard some days not to feel crushed again. (Through this blog, you’ve been a huge help in a few instances!)

    I think you’re giving your kids a gift when you lay off. If they’re not pushing themselves because they’re scared of failure, that’s one thing… but if they’re not pushing themselves because they’re prioritizing their own enjoyment of the activity over external achievements, that’s really good. It’s really healthy. Not everyone learns how to do it.

  17. “What happens with the kids who are not driven themselves and who are also not pushed externally? Does everyone eventually find something they are passionate about?”

    I had a friend who was at least as smart as I was in high school. After years of decline, her mother died of a heritable disease within six months of our high school graduation. It was not clear if my friend would develop the same condition.

    When applying to colleges, her father had urged her to think about the kind of lifestyle she wanted as an adult. My friend decided to go to a very good state school. She decided to become a real estate agent so she could have a low-stress, flexible job and plenty of time to read and do whatever the hell she wanted (her passion du jour!). She got a lot of crap from some people about “wasting” her education, but she’s happy and intellectually active, just not through her job. She can carry on deeper conversations about most things than I can, because I’m too focused on my research. And judging by the award she just got for her sales last year, she’s making at least four times what I do!

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