Jobs and Gates. Edison and Tesla. Michelangelo and Raphael. Newton and Leibniz. 

These are just four examples in the "pantheon of epic rivalries between creative giants," writes author Jacob Burak in a fascinating article on Aeon. Burak makes a compelling argument that arch rivalries can heighten creative accomplishments. In addition to all of the immortal examples from the arts and sciences, there is academic research to support the point. Burak writes: 

Think of rivalry as a type of über competition driven by mutual obsession, with the rivals propelling each other to spiraling achievement, and investing more mental and emotional resources in each other than circumstances would ever dictate on their own. In 2014, across two sets of studies involving undergraduate students and runners, Gavin Kilduff, a psychologist at New York University, found that rivals tend to be the same age, gender and social status. True rivals know each other and, indeed, often have long, enmeshed histories. Rivals are, by definition, evenly matched--but the higher the level of their attainment, the more they propel each other on.

It all makes a lot of sense--until you ponder two significant clarifications.

1. For every creative genius with an arch rival, you can find one who was a solitary master.

I'll cite examples in two distinct categories.

The first is Michael Jordan, widely considered the best basketball player in the sport's history. In many ways, Jordan is the perfect counterargument to the rivalry theory. His direct predecessors in NBA stardom, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, were prominent for their rivalry--and the way it motivated each of them. Their rivalry was so much a part of their story, that their careers are frequently narrated in tandem.

But Jordan, who by most counts was a better player than either Bird or Johnson, did not have a signature rival at any stage in his career. It doesn't discount anything Burak writes about the power of rivalries to motivate. It just means that you can, indeed, be a "creative genius" without an arch rival. Jordan is far from the only example in basketball. LeBron James has never had a real rival either. And when his career is over, he might be the second best player in the sport's history--behind only Jordan.

Or consider two of the biggest creative geniuses in American poetry: Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman. Dickinson's biography is practically synonymous with introversion and solitude. She did not have an active rival, in the sense that Burak uses it.

Whitman, for his part, was far from antisocial. But if you read his biographies, you'll be hard pressed to find anyone who emerges as an active artistic rival for him, either. And as a genius, Whitman is on par with Michelangelo, at least according to legendary Yale professor and critic Harold Bloom, who asserts that Whitman's best poems "have their peer only in Milton's 'Paradise Lost,' in Bach's endless fecundity, in the glory of Michelangelo's Sistine ceiling--baroque masters of sublimity." 

2. The rivalry is a red herring. 

No one would dispute Burak's central point: That a rival can drive a creator to invest "more mental and emotional resources... than circumstances would ever dictate on their own."

To my mind, though, there's a clearer way of thinking about creative genius. Is the key to unlocking its power the rivalry--or is it the relentless self-investment in mental and emotional resources? Another way to pose this question is this: Is it the rivalry, per se, or is it the ruthless drive and work ethic that that rivalry spawns?

If it's the latter--the work ethic--then you can make a case that the rivalry itself is a red herring. Rival-less geniuses like Jordan, James, Whitman, or Dickinson can achieve levels of creative genius as long as their work ethic has all of the hallmarks of a rigorous creative process. 

Recent academic research has shed light on those hallmarks. The keys include adopting a growth mindset; being unafraid to embarrass yourself; and to put your work in, every day. You can do all of that without an arch rival. 

And even if you have an arch rival, as Newton did, the rival is only as useful as the obsessive work he or she motivates. In a recent post on Quartz, creativity expert James Clear explained that Newton's iconic eureka moment, when he saw an apple fall to the ground in 1666, was not really a eureka moment. It was a moment that spawned a 20-year project that would culminate in his creative genius. 

"What most people forget," Clear writes, "is that Newton worked on his ideas about gravity for nearly twenty years until, in 1687, he published his groundbreaking book, The Principia: Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. The falling apple was merely the beginning of a train of thought that continued for decades."

In short, it's simply not true that every creative genius needs a rivalry. What every creative genius really needs is motivation--and a relentless work ethic.

Yes, a rivalry can help you find that. But if you've found your calling, you don't need a rival to stay hungry and driven. You just need more time in the day.

Published on: Oct 14, 2015