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.