Joshua Wolf Shenk talks about competition in his book Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs. “Competition is when you need to kick the guy’s ass to get what you want. Rivalry is when you want to kick the guy’s ass. But such animosity – such oppositional passion – can actually lead both parties to each get more of what they want.” Who is your competitor or rival? Do you act as a foil for your competitor? Below is an excerpt from the book.
In the mid-1970s, at Everett High School in Lansing, Michigan, nobody could touch Earvin Johnson Jr. on the basketball court. He was only fifteen years old but a local sportswriter had already dubbed him “Magic.” “You’re special, Earvin,” his coach told him. “But you can’t stop working hard. Just remember-there’s someone out there who is just as talented as you, and he’s working just as hard. Maybe even harder.” Magic nodded politely but he was thinking, I’d like to meet this guy, because I haven’t seen him.
“Truthfully,” he reflected later, “I wasn’t sure anybody like that existed.”
He did exist. His name was Larry Bird. He grew up in French Lick, Indiana, with two older brothers. “Mark and Mike were older than me,” Bird said, “and that meant they were bigger, stronger, and better – in basketball, baseball, everything. They pushed me. They drove me. I wanted to beat them more than anything, more than anyone. But I hadn’t met Magic yet. Once I did, he was the one I had to beat.”
His freshman year of college, Magic saw Bird on the cover of Sports Illustrated and was “blown away by his stats” (32.8 points per game on average and 13.3 rebounds). When the two played in a tournament, he saw that it wasn’t just numbers. “I couldn’t wait,” Magic said, “to call home and tell my boys, ‘Man, this dude named Larry Bird is for real.’” Bird was just as impressed: “I’ve just seen the best player in college basketball,” he told his brother Mark. “It’s Magic Johnson.”
On March 26, 1979, they faced off in the NCAA Finals. A sophomore at Michigan State, Magic was now a Sports Illustrated cover boy too, A senior, Bird had led Indiana State through an undefeated season, Thirty-five million people — still the largest audience ever for a college championship — watched the game, and they saw Indiana take a drubbing. Double-teamed, Bird missed fourteen of twenty-one shots. When the buzzer sounded, the dueling stars were the very picture of victory and defeat. As Magic, still panting from the game, wrapped one arm around his coach and the other around Bryant Gumbel for a postgame interview, Bird made his way to the Indiana bench, draped a towel over his head, and put his face in his hands. On national TV, Magic stuck out his tongue in delight, praised his coach, dodged the big question about when he’d leap to the NBA. Then the camera cut to Bird, now with his face buried in the towel
Sports nicely illustrate the fundamentals of competition because they’re built on what the philosopher James Carse calls “finite games” — clear contests, bounded in time, with rules designed to produce a winner and a loser (or rankings from the most to the least successful). Any impurities that leach in – a controversial call by the referee, say – are overwhelmed by the final score, the official record, the glum faces of postgame agony, and the raised arms of postgame thrill.
Though competition rouses us with specific promises of victory-a towering trophy, an impressive title – the most primal desire may be for triumph itself. Certainly, direct face-offs improve performance in all manner of conditions, an effect that has been validated empirically: One study found weightlifters able to bench-press an average of two kilograms (about four and a half pounds) more when competing with another person than when facing a crowd alone. Another found that people could squeeze a handgrip twenty-one seconds longer. Competition, compared to solo performance, has also been linked to increased heart rate and blood pressure, even when the challenge requires little physical exertion (as when study participants race toy cars).
What these studies suggest and measure, epic stories help us really see and feel-whether in business (Steve Jobs versus Bill Gates), politics (Abraham Lincoln versus Stephen Douglas), art (Pablo Picasso versus Hanri Matisse), or advise-giving (Ann Landers verusu Dear Abby). In sports alone, the sheer volume of epic pairings – Jack Nicklaus versus Arnold Palmer in golf, Muhammad Ali versus Joe Frazier in boxing, Chris Evert versus Martina Navratilova in tennis (and we could go on) – makes it seem like the rule, not the exception, that great work emerges from rivalry.
The irony is that, while an animating motivation comes from a desire to best someone – which is, at bottom, a desire for separation, for distinction – top players end up developing a strange attachment to one another, even a need for the other. Playing with the best brings out your best, and if the other guy is gunning to beat you, that may be bad for your stress level but it’s ideal for your performance.
What makes the attachment between rivals all the more poignant is that defeats, setbacks, and even humiliations may in retrospect seem like a shove down a better path. By 1998, the contest between Steve Jobs (who’d been exiled from Apple and had just returned to save a near-bankrupt company) and Bill Gates was so lopsided that Gates told a journalist: “What I can’t figure out is why he is even trying. He knows he can’t win.” But Jobs, by applying lessons learned in his exile (and by working effectively with others), would make Apple the most valuable company in the world. In his mid-forties, Abraham Lincoln (a one-term congressman and a prairie lawyer) found himself so outpaced by Stephen Douglas (an eminent U.S. senator) that he wrote in a note to himself: “With me, the race of ambition has been a failure – a flat failure; with him it has been one of splendid success.” Yet Lincoln framed an antislavery platform in contrast to Douglas and rode that local rivalry to national renown. In the presidential inauguration of 1861, it was Douglas who held Lincoln’s hat.
For stories of winning responses to stinging defeats, nothing beats the saga of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. In the fall of 1979, Bird started as forward for the Boston Celtics and took his team to a 61-21 record. (The year before, they’d gone 29-53.) But the Celtics didn’t make it to the finals; Bird watched the games at a Boston restaurant. In the sixth game, Magic Johnson led his Los Angeles Lakers to the title over the Philadelphia 76ers.
Not only that, but Magic was series MVP.
“I was pissed,” Bird said. He was burning still from the NCAA finals, which even decades later he called the “biggest game of my life” and the “toughest loss I ever took.” Now Bird considered himself down by two.
Bird didn’t know it, but he had fueled Magic’s performance. The day before game six, Magic had learned that Bird had won Rookie of the Year — he’d gotten sixty-three votes, compared to only three for Magic. “I was jealous and I was mad,” Magic said. “I thought I had a great year. When I heard I only got three votes, I took it out on the Sixers. I wanted people to recognize my play the way they had recognized Larry’s.
“It wasn’t anything personal against Larry,” Magic added. “Well, actually, it was.”
Watching, anticipating, and responding to each other quickly came to feel like a necessity. Bird called the competition “a crutch” -”I had to have him there,” he said. First thing every morning, he would look up Magic’s stats in the newspaper. “I didn’t care about anything else,” Bird said, Magic felt the same. “When the new schedule would come out each year,” he said, “I’d grab it and circle the Boston games. To me, it was the two and the other eighty.”
In their second NBA season, in 1981, Bird’s Celtics took the NBA championship. The next year, Magic’s Lakers reclaimed it. At last, in 1984, the two met in the finals-which Bird relished as a long-awaited rematch of their college duel. The Celtics won in seven games. “I finally got him,” Bird told his teammate Quinn Buckner late into the celebratory night. “I finally got Magic.”
Magic was crushed. “It’s probably the first time ever in my life I was depressed,” he said. “It took me years to get over it,” he wrote in 2009. “Actually, I’m not sure I’m over it yet.” Bird savored his rival’s pain. “I hope he was hurt,” he said around the same time. “I hope it killed him … to not only win the game makes you feel good but just knowing that the other guy was suffering, and you know he was.”
Yet even this suffering was stimulating. “That championship series redefined his whole career,” said Magic’s teammate Michael Cooper, “because he never stopped working after that.” In 1985, the teams faced off again for the championship. This time, the Lakers took it in six games,
Even their off-court encounters were dramatic. Though Johnson often made friendly overturns, Bird always rebuffed him. In 1986, Converse introduced a Bird show and a Magic shoe, and the company persuaded them to shoot a commercial playing off their rivalry. Bird surprised Magic by making small talk between shots and even inviting him for lunch. When they met the next season, Magic found himself saying, “Hey, let’s go have a beer.” Bird said no way. “If me and him got to be really good friends… he could still play the same game,” Bird said. “I couldn’t. That’s just the way it is
Magic and Bird were foils for each other. Foil is the perfect word, because it has two complementary meanings. As a verb, from the French fouler (to trample), foil means “to prevent something undesirable; to impede, hinder, or scuttle.” As a noun meaning “a thing that by contrast emphasizes the qualities of another,” it derives from the practice of putting metal foil (from the Latin folium) underneath a gem to enhance its shine.
Foils who seek to stymie each other can also bring out each other’s best qualities. “If I’d beaten Pete [Sampras] more often,” Andre Agassi writes in his memoir, “or if he’d come along in a different generation, I’d have a I better record, and I might go down as a better player, but I’d be less.” Until recently, research psychology had no vocabulary for these relationships, I because it studied competition only through staged encounters. The subjects were always strangers and they performed in contests with a zero- sum game – one guy wins, the other loses, and that’s that. But over time, mere competition can evolve into rivalry, which the scholar Gavin Kilduff and colleagues define as a “subjective competitive relationship,” where the stakes feel higher “independent of the objective characteristics of the situation.”
Put another way: Competition is when you need to kick the guy’s ass to get what you want. Rivalry is when you want to kick the guy’s ass. But such animosity – such oppositional passion – can actually lead both parties to each get more of what they want. In a study of runners, Kilduff found that the presence of a true rival in a race (as opposed to mere competitors) led to faster times – an average of twenty-five seconds in a 5K.