On Whiplash, Hemingway, Capote, and Being the Best

Every year my wife and I watch the award ceremonies.

Generally, we’re only concerned with the Oscars, Emmys and the Academy Awards, which I always find strange because we’re both musicians and both love broadway musicals… but I try not to question such things.

Each year, after the awards are announced, we take it upon ourselves to watch most or all of the films that win (and many that are nominated) simply to soak in what is considered “the best”.

For yesterday, that meant watching Whiplash.

Now, if you haven’t seen the movie, i’m not here to critique it or to spoil it for you, so don’t worry. The basic premise is this: Andrew Nieman (played by Miles Teller) goes to Shaffer Conservatory of Music with dreams of being the greatest jazz drummer in the world, and he realizes that (in part by J.K. Simmons character Terrance Fletcher throwing chairs at his head) being good at things is really really hard.

There’s one particular line in the film that keeps running around in my mind. It was in the previews for the film and it undoubetly was a big reason that J.K. Simmons won best supporting actor. 

There are no two more damaging words in the English language than ‘good job’

Simmons makes the point in this simplified fashion by telling a story about another famous Jazz musician who was humiliated and subsequently went home to practice with the intent of never being laughed at again. But the compelling part of his argument touches on a subject I have been preachinig from the rooftops for the past ten years (first in music and now in writing).

Being good at something – and I mean being very good – doesn’t requre being somehow brilliant or a genius. It does not require a high IQ or a quick learner or perfect pitch or an eye for space. Because things like this can be learned, and there are a whole heck of a lot of people out there in the world with perfect pitch or perfect tempo who are doing what I’m doing — watching Whiplash on the couch. And even drive, which many business professionals and CEO’s will tell you is the most important quality — isn’t really what makes someone good at something. Sure, they do a LOT of things… but not well. There are plenty of driven people in the world who are just plain bad at what they do.

Being good at something is easy – it means doing exactly what you want to do, exactly when you want to do it.

Accuracy + Intention

I heard a quote from Hemingway once – “When you’re in a room — act like you’re the best damn writer in that room. Unless, of course, I’m in that room as well — in which case — I’m the best damn writer in the room.”

I have no idea if the quote is real, but the concept is solid. Hemingway was a champion for not just his brand of overbearing suffocating confidence, but for accuracy and intention. He picked a word because that was the RIGHT word — not because he sort of liked it, and not because it seemed to kind of fit in that spot, and not because he couldn’t think of a better one. It was as if he picked each word he wrote out of a hat after analyzing every other possible word in the English language and going “Yes, this is the correct word.” And that’s what he did when he walked into a room as well. He walked into a room because he wanted to — not aimlessly and not without purpose. He did so with every intention of proving something.

That type of accuracy, that level of exactitude, that style of specificity — that is what it means to be good at any form of art.

Someone else told me once that when Truman Capote wrote “In Cold Blood”, he actually put every word of every chapter on an index card, and one by one he ordered them in their proper way. He would switch cards around until he found just the right arrangement. Again, no idea if its true, but it’s an inspiring thing to consider.

There are lots of reasons the “greats” have etched their name in history. There’s a lot of inherent talent there (we like to remind ourselves) but many times we fail to consider the fact that hard work beats out lazy talent every day of the week.

So yes, working hard, being driven, being confident — these are all good things that successful people do. But these things do not make them the best. Because in all of art, in every facet and every form of creative media, the one thing that always holds true is this:

Those who are the best do exactly what they intend to do, exactly when they intend to do it.

And that kind of determination doesn’t come cheap. There are no tips or tricks to make you better at something — just a mountain of hard work, a complete immersion in your particular craft and an iron will that decides why something is good and why it is not.

Personally, as I fumble through editing my own novel, I find myself considering what “level” of exactness I want to acheive. It’s not hard to look at many of the great literary minds and see the time they spent on their work as justified when considering exactness to this magnitude. It certainly makes me look at my own book in a different way.

To me, what I take away from all of this is having an answer to a question. The question is always “Why?” and the answer is always “Because…” followed by a whole lot of previous ideas. The answer is never “I don’t know.”

If Hemingway or Capote wrote a book with a main character named Steve, you better believe they’d have about a hundred reasons why that was the best name to choose. When Beethoven wrote a Bb in the key of E major, you better believe he had a flippin reason, and you better believe he did it because that was the best way to get across what he was trying to show.

So the next time you write a line, or compose a chord progression, or choose charcoal over oil paint, or cast an unknown actor, or pick out an outfit, or even walk into a room — do it with purpose.

Whatever your craft, do it accurately, do it intentionally, and you will be good at it.

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