In case anybody thinks that my motivation-focused posts are a new thing, I wanted to revisit part of a talk that I gave at a meetup in Brighton back in 2016 (the slides are available online, although they’re mostly lacking in context).

Six years ago, I was awestruck when I saw the movie Whiplash (a film which I subsequently named my number one film of the 2010s and the number of parallels that I observed with career development in tech. On one hand, you have the driven student who’s desperate to become the best of the best, sometimes to the extent of neglecting personal relationships; and then there’s the mentor who’s obsessed with discovering the next superstar, and will stop at nothing to ensure that person shines.

If you haven’t seen Whiplash, I’ll avoid spoilers: the film depicts the relationship between famous jazz conductor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) and aspiring drummer Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), with Fletcher’s teaching style frequently veering between eccentric and abusive. We hear the extremes to which he’s pushed students in the past, and we witness it through Neiman’s eyes as - among other things - Fletcher throws a chair at him for being slightly out-of-time.

It would be all too easy for the film to portray Fletcher as an out-and-out monster, yet in a compelling scene (which is embedded below) the conductor makes a logical and impassioned (and NSFW) defence of his teaching methods:

Let’s dissect each of Fletcher’s points in turn, and see how in the past few years I’ve had a remarkable mellowing in attitude towards what he has to say (even if his actions in the film often go too far).

“I was there to push people beyond what’s expected of them.”

Workplace “expectations” are a funny thing. On paper, we are all “expected”, for instance, to carry out our day-job, which is often captured within our job descriptions. In essence, the expectations for our work are also “the bare minimum”: they’re a foundation on which to improve, to demonstrate initiative and greatness. Though people see expectations in different ways: I have extremely high standards for myself, so when it comes to completing my annual reviews, I rarely find myself ticking “exceeds expectations” even if I’ve done great work - because I expected to do that!

For as much as Fletcher’s message here might be laudable - a protégé may need some encouragement to blossom - when he later bemoans “I never really had a Charlie Parker”, it becomes clear that he cares less about the protégé themselves, and more about being heralded as being the person who discovered such a talent.

You cannot motivate effectively if you aren’t putting your mentee’s needs first - empower them to have agency in their own career, and make them want to go beyond what’s expected of them.

“He practices and practices with one goal in mind: never to be laughed at again.”

This true-life anecdote about Charlie Parker says more about his sticktoitiveness than it does about appropriate motivational techniques. Not everybody is going to be a Charlie Parker - and that’s okay. If somebody is excelling at a particular role, don’t assume that their career roadmap always needs to be a ladder. Maybe they don’t want to become a team-lead, or a manager. Maybe you can empower your superstars to bring other people up to their level. In orchestra terms, I’d rather have a full orchestra of people who are “8 out of 10” musicians, rather than Charlie Parker on his own because everybody else was “discouraged” during the search for his talent.

“There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job’.”

I actually agree in part, but with one major caveat. There’s a growing recognition in the harm of toxic positivity.), where opportunities to identify room for improvement can become quashed by a simple desire to say nice things. To that extent, don’t simply say “good job” to somebody who hasn’t done a good job. Sometimes, you just need to give some negative feedback (and there are plenty of tips of techniques to give negative feedback - a list which doesn’t include “throw a chair at them”).

However, it’s really really important that you should take the opportunity to say “good job” if it’s deserved. We’re working in task-oriented cultures where it’s easy to just complete one piece of work, and move straight onto the next one, with little time for recognition or reflection. The sense of accomplishment is critical to remaining motivated, and for keeping a laser focus on why we’re doing what we’re doing. If you’re managing people, ensure you break the cycle of just speaking to people when you need something from them, or when something’s gone wrong. Sharing positive feedback about their work doesn’t take you long, but it can stay with them for a long time.

“I actually tried… And that’s more than most people ever do. And I will never apologise for how I tried.”

Taken outside the context of the rest of the film - not only what comes before it, but also afterwards! - this almost sounds human. Yet while few who watch Whiplash will claim that Terence didn’t try, there are definite questions about whether the ends justify the means.

When you are leading or motivating people, ego cannot enter the equation. Mentorship is a two-way conversation. Your needs are unimportant compared to theirs; if you’re looking for somebody to stroke your ego, find somebody else to do it for you.

In my opinion… Fletcher owes a lot of apologies for how he tried.

Want to hear more? There’s a podcast!

If you’re a fan of Whiplash, and/or you’d like to immerse yourself in the film’s approaches to motivation, we talked about this on the Whiplash episode of the Screen Testing podcast.

Key takeaways 📝

  • It’s not about you, it’s about the person who you’re trying to help.
  • Have critical conversations when required, but keep positive feedback flowing when deserved.
  • By all means, display passion - but abuse (even if it delivers results) can never be justified.