Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

The Surprising Benefits of a Creative Rivalry

Mohammed Ali had Joe Frazier; for Bill Gates there was Steve Jobs –chances are, you too have at least one close rival. You monitor their achievements with admiration, and also – admit it – a touch of envy. Lessons from history and psychology show us how these relationships have the potential to help or hinder creative success – but it all depends on how we handle the competition.

Don’t Avoid a (Healthy) Rivalry

A close competitor could be just what you need to super-charge your performance. Consider the extraordinary flourishing of creativity that occurred during the Renaissance in Italy. In a 2010 article for McKinsey Quarterly [pdf link], Bernard Ferrari and Jessica Goethals give the example of Pope Leo X commissioning Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling while at the same time hiring the young Raphael to design the tapestries for the lower walls. “Knowing they would hang directly below the ceiling painted by Michelangelo, Raphael pushed himself to new heights of creative brilliance,” they write.

We also have contemporary research to back up this theory. Gavin Kilduff at New York University’s Stern School of Business showed that a runner’s performance was given a powerful boost when a close rival was in the race, such that they ran each kilometer five seconds faster, on average.

Prove Naysayers Wrong

What if things get personal and you receive taunts and goading from your rival? Psychologists in England have shown negative feedback from a rival can be turned to your own advantage by the desire to prove them wrong.

The team led by Tim Rees at the University of Exeter recruited dozens of student athletes to perform a blindfolded darts challenge. A researcher dressed as a supporter of a rival (and superior) university subsequently demoralised the participants by giving them false and discouraging feedback about their performance. Crucially, it was the students who said they’d been motivated to prove this experimenter wrong, who were more able to avoid a negative spiral and turn around their performance on later attempts at the game.

Don’t Obsess Over Your Rival

With the wrong mindset, healthy rivalries can mutate into dangerous obsessions especially if a rival consistently and overwhelmingly outstrips your own achievements. If this happens, the initial spur of the contest can turn to depression and despondency: a particular risk if you work alone with little support.

Greg Clydesdale of Massey University alludes to this issue in his 2006 analysis of the contribution of rivalry to the success of The Beatles. Paul McCartney and John Lennon benefited consistently from rivalry with each other, he observes, and with The Beach Boys. In contrast, this inter-band rivalry often left the latter’s sole composer, Brian Wilson, despondent. Writing in 1991, Wilson described his feelings after The Beatles scored a monster success with “I Want to Hold Your Hand:”

“I was depressed, really low … ,” he recalls. Although he was able to alchemise this frustration into the hits “I Get Around” and “Help me Rhonda,” it’s easy to see the potential threat of this kind of despondency to creative work .

It was the students who said they’d been motivated to prove this experimenter wrong, who were more able to avoid a negative spiral

“Given the linkage between depression and reduced motivation levels, this [situation] would leave open the possibility that, in some circumstance, competition can have a negative effect,” observes Clydesdale. If you find yourself becoming demoralised by the superior performance of a rival, the trick is to surround yourself with supportive friends and colleagues, and remember the bigger picture.

Be sure to avoid engaging in “upward comparisons.” Focus too on how far you have progressed and remember there are plenty of people who look up to your success and achievements. A very real possibility is that you’ve allowed the personal rivalry to divert you from your own path, away from your strengths and into creative areas dominated by your competitor.

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The lessons for creatives are clear – the presence of a rival can be good thing, pushing us to the limits of our ability. If you’re struggling with motivation, it’s even possible that the introduction of a little head-to-head competition could be just what you need. However, rivalries should be handled with care. Guard against obsession and if the competition is doing you no favors, cut free and focus on your own game.

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How about you?

How has a rival helped you in your creative pursuits?

More insights on: Motivation, Office Dynamics

Christian Jarrett

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Dr. Christian Jarrett seeks out exciting new research and showcases its relevance for life. A psychologist turned writer, he’s blog editor at the design collaboration platform InvisionApp.comcontributor to WIRED, and author of The Rough Guide to Psychology. On Twitter @Psych_Writer.
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