why “good job” is not always the best thing

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This was that one line in the movie which was a class apart. Perhaps not universally truthful, but definitely one for the brain to mull over.

Whiplash is a good movie with very strong performances that jolt you from your lazy seats. In Hollywood, that stops being a good thing when they cross a line to become slightly more on the manipulative end (read Birdman) and less on the real and convincing end of the spectrum.

But even though it got a little hard to believe towards the end (have you seen anyone walk a couple of blocks after being rammed by a truck?), it had a very pointed message to convey and did so pretty well – suck it, dude and don’t give up on what you want to do.

This post isn’t a review of the movie – it’s about several instances in it which made me think. Perhaps it resonated with me, personally, because I was coming out of a rut myself, and things in life hadn’t exactly taken a turn for the better. An intention to change things around fell apart and ended up being a slap in the face, meaning I was left to make my peace with life being one long, repetitive ride of monotony.

In the middle of the recovery phase I watched Whiplash, and felt pangs of both wonder and shame at how easily we give up on things we really, really want to do. I am aware that it would be ideal to take inspiration from a slightly more real example than a Hollywood movie, but if you set aside the whistles and bells, you know that all you have to do is be so sure of what you want that no-one can take that conviction away from you. And that you keep trying. i was glad this movie wasn’t about prodigies; that even if you’re really good you have to keep at it and keep getting better.

And of course, the moment where Fletcher (J.K. Simmons’ character) says “There are no two words more harmful in the entire English language than ‘good job’.” This hit me the strongest because I think that most of the time, the ordinary human’s reaction to “good job” manifests itself as complacence in the end and somehow you may end up falling short of putting that little extra fuel in whatever it is you want to do.

While writing this, I asked myself exactly why this scene bothered me and I was suddenly reminded of my English teacher from school, who did a rather excellent job of making me feel that I was good at writing. As the average class comparables were neither remarkable nor noteworthy (apologies for the snark), it had the high school student in me convinced that writing was my forte and my, ah- arsenal, as another teacher put it in a parent-teacher meeting at year end.

Of course, it is only a good couple of years after high school, when you’ve jumped head-first into the crazy, wonder-filled world of literature, full of scarily talented players; that you realize you are staring at a gaping hole in your own opinion of yourself you were so sure was true. And you’re looking left and right – wait, where’s the damn weaponry I was told I had?

Even worse, if this happens when you’re reading an awe-inspiring work of literary fiction, and one moment you are blown away by the depth of the writer’s work and their ability to put things into words and sentences in ways you couldn’t come up with while tripping on pot; the next moment you feel a strange sinking in your chest and the wretched thought has already entered your head: this is the kind of milestone you have to achieve and for all the “good job”s I got in high school, I might as well go BACK to school and start all over.

Of course, if I think about it – if I had somebody like Fletcher back then, I would most likely have shrunk into myself and wandered quite rapidly to the edge of a cliff. In all honesty this wouldn’t have done wonders for me. But that extra push you need, there are only two ways to get it – you or somebody else. And you will excuse me if I am not too hard on my thirteen year old self for not being self-aware enough to know what more I could have done (actually, I AM too hard on my current as well as thirteen year old self; but that’s a story for another day) especially when I was in a happy place believing that I was actually good at something.

I don’t blame anybody today. I do wish my schooling years were more fruitful, but you cannot change what has done and gone, you can only move forward, as Rocky says.

I also understand how much a “good job” can mean to somebody. And we mustn’t forget that sometimes when pushed too hard, people just close up and there’s a danger of them not trying harder.

I feel that the only constant thing in all possible, varying outcomes is to never give up. And this, of course, is something there’s no guarantee that school can teach you – either somebody comes across your life and makes that difference or you learn it the hard way. Or you receive a not-so-gentle reminder of the fact while watching a movie. Whichever way this lesson gets put in front of you, don’t ignore it. Sometimes we do not even realize that we’re giving up on something so soon. And all that remains is a wait for that moment when it strikes that maybe you gave up too soon.

Among the ones who were told “good job” and went on with their lives, I suppose very few are unfortunate enough to have that moment of self-reflection where they wonder if they could have been better at it and if they could have gotten farther than they had so far managed to. (I say unfortunate because, damn it- ignorance is bliss, gah!) Of course, nothing’s written on stone. Different things work for different people. I know this. For me, knowing full well the (limited) lengths of my “talents” a ‘good job’ would have done more harm than good. Having been given what I now think is a false sense of accomplishment, it felt like a rude shock to be faced with reality and the inevitable sense of inadequacy that is sure to follow in situations like this. I think this has somehow wormed its way into my conscience in that I am so dreadfully unsatisfied with my capacities as a creative person and constantly disappointed with how little time I get to devote to it in order to get better. There is no time to waste on bitterness, of course, and certainly none on maudlin journal entries (which is precisely what I do in an alarmingly repetitive manner). But on some days I do get angry when it becomes really hard to forgive the waste that was fourteen years of a school life. I am not perfect. Yet sometimes I get really angry and sad at the same time looking at the long hard road that lies ahead – never quite knowing how to keep going when you feel you’re not good enough and never quite knowing how to give yourself a break and admit that you’re not that bad at this, either. It almost comes as close to wishing that they’d never told me I was good at it, because the ensuing disappointment was starting to suffocate me. You just cannot help but think how things would have been different.

Believe me, you would rather have a monster breathing down your neck pushing you beyond the norms than end up one day unhappy with your own capabilities. I think it’s better to be pushed to your limits because otherwise you will never really know just how far you were willing to go to get what you wanted. If you aren’t pushed, or you don’t fight harder even when pushed, it’s like you never did care enough in the first place. So even if you do get a ‘good job!’, always be open to the possibility that there are heights waiting to be reached. Nothing’s ever really too far if you believe it to be possible.
(Of course, no-one’s asking you to bleed all over your drums, though. Yikes.)

A necessary roughness, if you will, goes a long way in shaping you into who you are. And you end up being proud of what you become.

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