Is There a Line? Ruthless perfectionism, fear, & high performance

There are very few movies that truly dive into the depths of an elite performer’s mind.  Whiplash is one such movie.

I watched it on the plane coming back from Australia in mid August…twice.  The acting captured me as did the way the characters depicted the ruthless perfectionism that is so frequently an ingredient associated with high performance.

Whiplash explores the pursuit of musical excellence whereby the main character, Andrew is relentlessly determined to become ‘someone’ in the drumming world. In his pursuit he is noticed by Terence Fletcher, a conductor attempting to produce the next Charlie Parker in his elite jazz ensemble at Shaffer Conservatorium of Music, arguably the best jazz music school in the United States of America.

Whilst there were multiple scenes of pure brilliance in terms of the portrayal of the challenges to become truly elite, the conversation between the conductor and musician in the hotel was the one that was particularly relevant for those of us working in high performance environments.

The rationale of the ensemble conductor’s relentless perfectionism was explained in the later part of the movie when Andrew asked Fletcher, “Is there a line?”

Fletcher’s reply included, “People did not understand what it was I was doing.  I was not there to conduct.  I was there to push people beyond what’s expected of them.”  

He went on to explain how his behaviour was “an absolute necessity” and that if he had said, “it was alright” then there was no way the next Charlie Parker would be discovered.  He believed that the next Charlie Parker would not be discouraged by his behaviour and concluded, “I never really had a Charlie Parker, but I tried.  And that’s more than most people do.  I will never apologise for how I tried.”

Despite being obsessed with greatness himself, Andrew asked the question to find out how far conductors (or teachers, coaches, & parents) go before it’s considered unproductive to high performance.

On this occasion Fletcher felt that he was trying to create special musicians; he was hell-bent on pushing people to do things that they did not know they could.  In truth, his antics are not unheard of in the elite performance space.

The yelling, the throwing of instruments and books, the slapping, the name calling, the storming out, the humiliation in front of peers…the list goes on; all behaviours to force people to expect more of themselves and to push people outside of their comfort zone.

Fletcher recounted the story where Charlie Parker was the target of a fellow musician’s, drummer Jo Jones, cymbal throwing that nearly decapitated him and how after that incident Charlie went on to practice even harder…to then go on to play the best sax solo the world has ever heard.

In a world where brilliance is sought the question of ‘where is the line?’ is extremely relevant in our world of helping people to become their best and in some cases that means trying to compete amongst, and become the world’s best.

How far should an artist be pushed to achieve greatness?

It’s a fiercely competitive world.  It’s a numbers game…For all those that rise above the adversity it’s likely that there are those that don’t and may get affected in a negative way.  

The psychology of dealing with adversity has been well researched and documented; it tends to favour those who ‘rise above’ the adversity.  

I guess the question really is, “how much adversity?”  Does fear need to reign for brilliance to surface?

Can we achieve this while also keeping mental and physical health high on the agenda?

For what it’s worth, I think we can with education and awareness of individual preferences and skill sets, whilst still keeping a firm and fair approach to expectations.

This piece is more for provocation than skill training, however if you are an instructor, coach, and/or parent it may cause you to reflect on the way you approach the creation of high performance in individuals and teams…

Andrea Furst PhD | Sport & Exercise Psychologist CPsychol HCPC Registered
Get in contact with Andrea –  Andrea is based in London and provides both face-to-face and virtual sport psychology services to athletes worldwide.