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Why You Need a Rival To Boost Your Creativity
Maria Brito --  Contemporary Art Advisor Maria Brito -- Contemporary Art Advisor
New York , NY
Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Why You Need a Rival To Boost Your Creativity

As long as we live ruled by our egos, we humans are bound to get triggered by a friend (or frenemy) who is doing better than us. I remember being so competitive in school that I wanted to get the best grades not only for my own sake, but to one-up everyone else. This was truly the wrong motivation and slightly unhealthy, but I did it anyway and it took me as far as Harvard Law School. As I got older, I became more competitive against myself, and since I'm always connecting the dots among things that others miss, I stopped looking around me and stayed centered on my own efforts. However, rivalries, one-upping, and competitiveness, if handled in a healthy way, can be used as fuel for creativity in business and in art.

Rivalries Increase Performance

Rivalries aren't just between stranger-competitors, they breed between people who already know each other and have some history together. For rivals, the psychological stakes are more important than any prizes or titles and that's exactly what motivates them. Psychological scientist Gavin Kilduff of New York University found that people report higher performance when competing against their rivals. Kilduff argues that interpersonal relationships have a huge impact on motivation, which explains why rivalries increase performance and creativity. People are more competitive with their friends than they are with strangers when a task impacts their self-evaluation.

Rivalries Can Make History

Take for example the intense and insane competition that Pablo Picasso had with Henri Matisse. I mean, Picasso gaslighted Matisse years after they met each other, because Matisse thought Picasso was a mentee, a protégé, and Picasso just worked harder and harder to top Matisse. It all started when Picasso moved to Paris, and Gertrude and Leo Stein, American art collectors who were backing up the promising young artists of the early 20th century, wanted him to meet Matisse. It was 1905 and Matisse was the big star of the moment - he was 36 and experimenting with new forms for the human figure and its proportions, playing with perspective, adding wild colors to his canvases, not following anything that had been done before. Picasso was 24 and a newcomer in Paris, whose successful start in Spain aided his reputation as a phenomenal young artist across Europe. But he was not Matisse. So when the Steins introduced Matisse and Picasso, the two artists became "friends".

Matisse showed Picasso the ropes in Paris and the Spanish genius soaked it all in, strategically. Picasso spent time visiting Matisse's studio, and Matisse thought that Picasso's style was so different, there was no way he could have ulterior motives. Oh boy, little did Matisse know what was coming his way. One night, in 1906, Picasso went to have dinner at the Steins, and they had just bought and hung La Bonheur de Vivre, a painting that Matisse had exhibited at the Salons des Independents and that encapsulated what's now known as the pillars of modernism: audacity, saturated colors that didn't match reality (for example: parts of the grass were yellow, parts of the forest were red), sensual bodies cavorting in groups, distorted perspective plane, and on and on. Picasso was shocked by this painting: how could Matisse be so original, so creative, and how could he topple him? This thought became Picasso's obsession.

Towards the end of 1906, with the rivalry pulsing through Picasso's veins, he started planning a painting that would finally top Matisse's La Bonheur de Vivre. He had the idea of painting a group of prostitutes because that would be scandalous enough. After many sketches, and many notebooks planning for his big artistic coup d'état, the first version on canvas wasn't quite right. It was missing a punch - just five prostitutes, with one of them squatting, was not enough. And once again, Picasso, fishing for Matisse's creativity, visited him and saw that Matisse had bought some African masks. Picasso took one of the masks in his hands, becoming both fascinated and intrigued by the object. Months later, the Demoiselles sported angular bodies and faces, defying attitudes, ownership of their sexuality and (surprise!) two of them wore Picasso's Cubist version of African masks. This would certainly do, Picasso rightly thought.

Although the success of the Demoiselles wasn't immediate, this was the painting that gave Picasso the confidence to know he could be more inventive, more risk-taking, more creative, and more daring than Matisse. And that's exactly what happened after Picasso's massive cultural and aesthetic breakthrough. Picasso's career took off in ways that have never been replicated in the history of the art world. The Demoiselles have been described as the most influential work of art of the last 100 years because Picasso changed history with this work. Those days of cute nude women, sweet ladies lounging in beds covered in silks, beautiful dewy flesh - that was over with the Demoiselles. Picasso replaced what was known as the nude in art with a novel group of sexually aggressive, assertive, defying figures that scared and lured artists, collectors, museums, academics, and critics alike.

When Feuds Fire Up Creativity


Have you ever feuded with family? Siblings can be the most triggering rivals. There were three Brontë sisters, but many know only about two of them: Charlotte, who wrote Jane Eyre, and Emily, the author of Wuthering Heights. But there was also Anne, who was rumored to be a better storyteller. The other two sisters were always trying to make Anne stumble. Particularly Charlotte, who sabotaged her sister's career by criticizing her and telling her that her writing wouldn't stand a chance. It has been even said that Charlotte may have taken the idea for Jane Eyre from Anne's Agnes Grey. The good news is that amidst all these cutthroat tactics, the Brontë's left us some of the most incredible works of English literature. Their rivalry benefited us all.


Rivalries Can Change The World

The world of business is no different from the fiery and passionate world of art or literature. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates went on to have a 30-year-old rivalry that lasted almost until the day Jobs, died but it also spurred the success of Microsoft and Apple. Gates was a genius at coding and Jobs was a genius at marketing and at using his intuition in the pursuit of user-friendly computers (and later music players, phones, and tablets). Gates looked down on Jobs because the Apple-man "couldn't program." Jobs thought that Gates was "narrow" and needed an acid trip to become "a broader guy." Ouch! They kept pushing each other's buttons, and in 1985, when Gates announced the first version of Windows, Jobs lost it and called Gates a rip-off because of the use of graphic interfaces, which Jobs said to have invented for the Macintosh.

These attacks grew and continued, with Jobs always trying to grow Apple and make it a more successful company than Microsoft. But Microsoft was invariably always ahead with the rise in the use of PCs and sales of Windows to virtually everyone who owned a computer. Then in 1996, after having resigned due to tensions with his board (he was never fired from his company, that's a myth), Jobs came back to Apple as its CEO and the tide started to turn in Apple's favor. Jobs was fueled by a desire to create beautiful products that helped people relate to technology in a much easier way - a goal that was far outside of Gates' desires as he never cared much for aesthetics but favored functionality instead. With Jobs' big comeback came the release of the new generation of Macs - the nicest-looking computers ever created. Then there was the iPod in 2001 and with it a complete revolution that altered the music industry forever, then the iPhone in 2007, which changed everything about the way we communicate, live, work and consume any form of media. Today Apple is a $2 trillion market cap company and Microsoft is worth $1 trillion. Not bad for two that guys feuded for so long.

The Matisse-Picasso, the Brontë sisters and the Jobs-Gates are only three among hundreds of thousands of examples that show how rivalries can push creativity to the max. Frenemies can be motivators, and instead of looking for vengeance, healthy creative rivalries can bring about innovation and new contributions to society. I'm unsure if the friendship can survive though - neither Picasso and Matisse nor Jobs and Gates were what we could call "friends" after all the things that transpired throughout the years. But they all went on to have extraordinarily creative and lucrative careers and gave the world a piece of their genius through their art and their products, influencing and inspiring others looking for their own big breakthroughs.

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