Whiplash Review: Musings on Ambition

I watched the movie “Whiplash” this week. It sticks in my head, which may or may not be the sign of a good movie. While I loved the cinematography, music, and artistry of the movie, the moral or the story or something like that is lodged in my brain in a negative way.

The film is about a 19-year old drummer attending the most prestigious music school in the country. At first, I was really inspired by his passion and determination to become the greatest drummer of his time—he practiced almost non-stop, with razor sharp focus, and he improved. I thought, “hey, there’s something to learn here. I should really FOCUS more…”

If you haven’t seen the movie and don’t want to know how it ends.. stop reading now, go watch it and come back. Anyways, he devoted himself so fully to becoming "the best,” he alienated himself pretty much completely; he had no friends, pushed away a potential girlfriend, and even got into a car accident which could have ended his life. A big part of his actions were fueled by the desire to earn the favor of his family and his conductor, who had an equally intense focus and would berate his students constantly to “push them to be better.” We find out at one point that one of his previous students developed depression during his term with the conductor, and hung himself.  Now, I’m all for ambition and passion, I think it’s magic and it helps you slog through the dirty work of becoming an expert in your field. But I think pushing yourself or others so hard that it damages your health and relationships, with oneself and those around you, is no bueno. 

The way I see it, relationships are life. They are the priority. They are our lifeblood. Without them, we are only shells of what we could be. Ambitious pushing fueled by anger and a desire to earn power and a sense of worthiness bestowed by others (be it family or a conductor) can only get you so far. It leads to burn out, depression, and anger. We need relationships if we want to win the ultimate race. We need to nurture ourselves and each other. It’s like the story of the tortoise and the hare—the hare might sprint and get ahead in the short term, but if we’re gonna maintain our passion for the long haul, we need to be the turtle. We need to maintain a steady flow of positive influences and inspiration if we’re gonna play this game for any significant amount of time.

Also, I think, what’s the point of being the best? I will be the first to admit that I of course, always, want to be the best! But why? If the point of being the best drummer is to share a quality of music that’s never been made before and inspire people, then I think I could get behind it. But the way the drummer and the conductor behave and talk about being the best seems to strongly suggest it’s merely a prize for the ego. And I think we all know that even if they ever did win that ego prize, they still would feel inadequate and angry.

I guess my point is: I think we have to make sure our priorities are in order if we want to be content during the long process (and at the eventual end) of our journey towards expertise and creativity. PEOPLE are the reason we’re creating anyways (most of the time)—to share with others. Over the years I’ve come to hone my main goal as an artist—to inspire people and help our society grow towards increased mindfulness.

Yes I want to make a ton of money and I wouldn’t mind being famous, but now I understand that it’s not because I want to have a giant celebrity mansion (though I am excited to be able to afford high quality essentials), but because I want to Oprah the shit out of my money and influence and use it as a tool to help when chipping away at my main goal. I already do this—I take classes, go to workshops, pay professionals to make my business on the up and up. It’s small scale now, but in the future, I’d like to go bigger, for example by opening a space where creatives can work together, learn new things, and grow their projects. I want to be a voice and use my tools to share knowledge.

So yeah, in short: people first. We’re in this together. This ain’t a dog-eat-dog world any more—we’ve proven to ourselves that that doesn’t work in the long run. If we’re gonna win this race, we gotta win it together. It’s a lot more fun that way too.

Well, maybe it is a good movie after all—it made me think and start a conversation with you. Thoughts?