The Engine of Rivalry
Rivalry is both generative and destructive. The key is knowing the difference—and the pivot point.
“Rivalry exists at the very heart of human social relations.” —René Girard
The great social theorist René Girard realized that people are naturally inclined to desire what their neighbors possess—or even what their neighbors simply desire. And he realized what this meant: that there is a principle of rivalry governing nearly all human relationships.
There is something curious about this. Apart from sports, politics, and business, rivalry is not something most people openly acknowledge in the broader context of everyday life. And even in those major spheres where it is, it seems to be treated relatively superficially.
Michael Jordan famously used his rivals to motivate himself to perform. He even imagined his rivals saying or doing nasty stuff that they did not say or do—just to fire ‘himself’ up. (Notice how that is not really even possible: in order to fire ourselves up, we always need a model. All the self-talk in the world is no match for the right model.)
I was fascinated by the documentary The Last Dance, which detailed Jordan’s competitiveness during the Chicago Bulls’ championship runs. Yet there was something missing. We mostly hear rivalry spoken about in win/lose terms, or motivating terms—rarely in regards to the formation of one’s identity. But this is the most important thing that rivals do, according to Girard. Apart from just motivating us to ‘win’, rivals determine our desires—and our desires eventually shape our identity.
The title of one of Ryan Holiday’s books is “The Obstacle is The Way.” Maybe sometimes. But it wasn’t the case for Dante when it met the three creatures blocking his path, and it often isn’t for us either. When it comes to our rivals, the obstacle is surely not the way. If we think that vanquishing or overcoming a rival is the way to happiness, we’re painfully mistaken.
This mindset is what Girard thinks leads to an infinite game. It ends with a man thinking that his fulfillment can be found under the only rock on earth that is too heavy for him to lift. In fact, his inability to lift it is proof.
Yes, this is a form of masochism. And that’s why Girard devoted a significant portion of his magnum opus, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, to explaining the mimetic origins of sadomasochism. (And why I will devote an entire newsletter to this in the new year. Pictures optional.)
I’m going to hit pause on the writing for this edition because I’d like to share a 9-minute video that I made with The Big Think on the topic of rivalry. In it, I tell the story of Ferruccio Lamborghini and his rivalry with Enzo Ferrari. This was one of the most enjoyable parts of Wanting to write—and it only made it into the text because I stumbled upon a tiny book written by Lamborghini’s son, Tonini, at a car museum in Italy. If I had to guess, there can’t be more than 1,000 copies in print in the world. When I started reading it in Italian, I realized it contained details of Lamborghini’s feud with Ferrari that had never before been told in English, and I felt a responsibility to investigate and share them. The result is what you will find in the third chapter of my book, and you’ll find snippets of it here. I hope you enjoy some of the live footage below.
One last but most important thing: I want to thank all of you again for reading. It’s been a difficult year for me at times, especially this last quarter, but I end it extremely grateful for your support. Between the Discord channel, our Zoom events, and the many emails and comments that I get from so many of you, I continue to be amazed at the thoughtfulness and engagement. It makes me desire to do better—to raise my game to the quality of my readers here, and to meet and then surpass your expectations here, especially the premium subscribers.
And with that, I’m going to extend an offer of 40% off the annual plan subscriptions —and the discount lasts forever—between now and Dec. 28. You can take advantage of that offer here. For those of you who already subscribe, please consider giving the gift of Anti-Mimetic to a friend. Or to a rival…
Enjoy the flick.