Why do we have rivals and what do they do for us? A friend recently wrote to me about our blogs and noted, with some pique, that a rival blogger barely deigns to notice him. Because they went to college together he cares; because my loyalty is all with him, I don’t care at all. When I in graduate school, I chose a rival and the thought of her can still make me tremble with unkind thoughts. I chose her because she was my better: I sought her friendship in the hopes of learning how to be more like her, to be smarter, a better teacher, more learned. I was ruthless. When she was ill, I stopped by her apartment, unannounced, with lovely soaps and coffee. That—and my sycophancy—was enough: I had purchased the right to be in her circle.
All along, I knew this to be hollow and instrumental. This was not simply the savvy or genuine interest we have in getting to know someone who might one day prove useful (an expert, an editor, a genius, or simply a generous and sympathetic mind), this was a campaign and it still amazes me that I waged it. It was not without cost to me. She could be cruel. She would toss out tiny specks of gossip like crumbs, but these crumbs were poison: upon further examination, the message of each was “I am more connected than you; I learn the important information faster.” But I still learned it faster than my more ethical friends and, in so doing, I learned some ways to compensate for the “gee whiz!” in my personality. Something was missing in my mind, in my training, in those days: she had it; I have it now. Making her into a rival helped me acquire it quickly.
A rival is poisonous but, in work as in love, a rival sharpens our swords. Without rivals, we might sink too quickly into complacency. Though the pleasure of work for its own sake, the sake of a loved one, or a small, appreciative circle is soothing and essential, sometimes we need a rival’s challenge.
Have you seen this lovely little parody? A mock-interview with an early witness of the printing press (Gutenberg is mad! No one wants a machine-printed book!).