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Why “Whiplash” is both right and wrong about praise and criticism

The movie industry has finally done it: they came up with a film which may make me hate jazz for the rest of my life. And in the process, they managed to make me think about rewards and criticisms. How do these function in what you do?

I’m not going to spoil the story for you – the trailer for the movie is available to watch here (and, it being a jazz movie, “Whiplash” has a remarkable soundtrack too). The main thing you need to know is this: JK Simmons plays a music teacher from hell. For this guy, the two most harmful words in the English language are “good job.”

Speaking in a recent interview, the actor mentioned “a kind of numbness, a sameness, a lack of motivation” that pervades a culture which distributes praise too easily. Against this devalued, meaningless praise his character offers something quite nightmarish and bordering on sadistic. Punishment is not a good enough word for it: abuse, humiliation and violence would probably be close enough.

I’m not going to watch “Whiplash” for several reasons (the love I have for jazz is one of them). But I did watch the trailer, and I followed the argument presented above quite carefully. One thing I want to make clear: there is absolutely no way to justify anything that is done on screen by Terrence Fletcher, Simmons’ character. But his absurd methods and actions made me notice the absurdity behind empty praise – and the shock one may feel at being mistreated by unjust cricitism or abuse is, in “Whiplash,” contrasted with the disappointment and emptiness you feel when hearing an empty “good job” thrown your way.

So here’s a question for you: how does praise and criticism play out in your life? How do you do them – when you need to resort to some encouragement or critique? How do you react to them – when you’re on the receiving end of such words or actions?

I prepared a worksheet which helps develop this kind of thinking in a coaching or self-coaching process. It helps you look at patterns, phrases and emotions associated with praising or criticising in your life. The worksheet is available for BRAVE Academy learners. If you’re not a BRAVE client yet, head over and find out how to become one.

And if you’re just interested in thinking about it some more, here’s a project: spend the next 14 days actively noticing how you, and the people around you, work with praise and criticism. Is there something you’d change once the two weeks are over? Share this with me on Facebook or Twitter.

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