Do you have a rival? Someone whose work makes you jealous? Or who you secretly want to beat at the next award show? When they do something that makes you wish you did it, do you throw out whatever you’re working on and start again? If not, find one. Your work might get better.
Brian Wilson had The Beatles. Since both the Beach Boys and The Beatles recorded for Capital, they got to hear each other’s albums before they hit record stores. Rubber Soul inspired Pet Sounds. Pet Sounds led to Sgt. Pepper’s.
Pablo Picasso had Henri Matisse. In fact a MoMA exhibit earlier this year focused on how each artist’s genius pushed the other to re-examine his own work.
You have got to be able to picture side by side everything Matisse and I were doing at that time. No one has ever looked at Matisse’s painting more carefully than I; and no one has looked at mine more carefully than he. Picasso told his biographer Pierre Daix.
The list goes on. Michelangelo had Raphael. Steve Jobs sparred with Bill Gates. Magic Johnson pushed Larry Bird. In every case these rivalries made both parties better, more inventive, more creative.
Rivalries can be competitive and bitter. One need only look at Hemingway and Fitzgerald or Gore Vidal and John Updike.
But they can be comparative and inspirational as well.
In 2010, MckInsey and Company, the consulting firm, suggested that both companies and individuals look to the Renaissance to understand the value of rivalry.
Rivalry can mean outright competition—a zero-sum contest in which two individuals or teams go head-to-head and one is declared the winner at the expense of the other. But in the Renaissance, rivalry was linked to a second notion, called paragone.
In direct translation, paragone means “comparison.” During the Renaissance, it implied the placing of two artists, or their individual works, side by side in order to judge them, weigh them, distinguish them, and critique them. With paragone, two equal rivals were compared and celebrated for their relative achievements. Comparing two or more works in this way did not diminish one at the expense of the other. In fact, artists were sometimes commissioned to work on similar projects simultaneously, with each one presenting a subject in his own unique and brilliant way.
An integral part of the philosophy of paragone was the belief that such direct comparison could motivate artists to greater feats. For example, in 1515 the young Raphael was commissioned by Pope Leo X to design ten tapestries for the lower walls of the Sistine Chapel. Knowing they would hang directly below the ceiling painted by Michelangelo, Raphael pushed himself to new heights of creative brilliance.
I can attest that it helped both my career and the early success of Mullen. As an agency we would pore through the work of rivals that were bigger and more creatively successful. First we’d dismiss their work as not being that great. Then we’d admit that it was. And finally we’d hang it on the wall and try to beat it. When the time came to pitch against one of them and punch above our weight, we were motivated to exceed even our most inflated expectations.
In my own case I had personal rivalries, many acknowledged, some not, with writers inside and outside the agency. We knew we were keeping tabs on each other’s work, comparing ourselves to one another, struggling to make each other jealous (in a good way), and counting who earned the most hardware at the annual award festivals.
It’s healthy to have rivalries as long as you keep them positive and practice paragone. Here are my suggestions.
- Find someone whose work you admire and believe is better than yours. It can be a colleague, a competitor, even a friend.
- Compare what you are doing and working on to their best work.
- Be honest. This is perhaps the most important thing.
- Study or dissect what makes their ideas or executions better.
- Learn from what they are doing without copying.
- If possible compliment them (in person or via social media) and perhaps start a dialog. Everyone likes flattery and fans of their work.
- If possible, agree to learn from each other.
- Push your work to equal or exceed that of your rival.
One thing that’s worth noting is that in the digital community, rivalries are more collaborative. In the old ad world they were a bit more cutthroat. I’d steer toward the collaborative ones.
For anyone striving to improve the quality of his or her creative output, rivalries offer inspiration, motivation, and a means of keeping us honest. Whether they’re friendly and acknowledged or anonymous. What’s key is that you use yours to spur yourself on to better work. Got rivals?