You know you have seen an effective movie when you are still thinking about it three days later. Recently I watched the movie Whiplash, directed by Damien Chazelle; starring Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons (watch the trailer here). The movie is intense and at the end of it I commented to a friend that I felt like I had been assaulted. The movie is about how far one man will go to challenge members of his elite band to become great. The band leader, Terence Fletcher, played brilliantly by J.K. Simmons, has a philosophy about music and truly great musicians. He believes that the greats will only appear if they are driven to becoming great. He asks his young up-and-coming drummer if he understands “how Charlie Parker became Charlie Parker.” The kid answers, “Jo Jones threw a cymbal at his head.” The two of them agree with the concept that without the abusive actions of Jo Jones, the great jazz saxaphonist, Charlie “Bird” Parker would never have become an elite player.
So goes the movie, with scene after scene of Terence Fletcher verbally and physically abusing every member of the jazz band. He is convinced that he must do this if he is ever to see a “Charlie Parker” or “Buddy Rich” rise up within the ranks of his band.
The day after I watched this movie I found myself contemplating the concepts as I went for a morning run. I wondered about the truth of the ideas presented in the movie. What is it that drives some people to become truly great at something? Is it always an abusive coach? Might it sometimes be an incredibly strong internal drive? Could it ever be a supportive coach? Why did I care to find the answer? Is it important to create the conditions that might generate an elite athlete, a great musician, or a brilliant scientist?
I thought about my own life and how I have often considered that I am much more of a generalist. I dabble in a number of disciplines, but have never become “one of the greats” at any of them. I am attracted to, and have worked hard at learning science, philosophy, theology, leadership, music, triathlons, and writing. What would my life be like if I had desired to become the best in the world at just one of these disciplines?
It soon occurred to me that perhaps we do need both generalists and specialists in our world. The specialist, such as a jazz great, or a Nobel Prize winning scientist, is a vital part of how humanity moves forward in any given discipline. The generalist is one who appreciates the pioneering work of the elite professional and gives their ideas traction in the world. As a generalist who knows something about many of the elite leaders in a variety of fields, the generalist can communicate the joy of discovery and excellence in those fields, inspiring others to achieve greater heights in the varied disciplines. Could it ever be possible that the generalist could play a significant role in gently encouraging the internal motivation that results in a “Charlie Parker?” The “Terence Fletcher method” most assuredly must not be the only method of developing greatness.