There are two kinds of creative competitions. The first, a rivalry, is the healthier of the two. With a rivalry you find someone whose work you admire and try to top them. Paul McCartney has said that listening to the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds drove them to create Sgt. Pepper’s which consistently shows up on critic’s lists as the best album of all time. Usually with Pet Sounds at number two. The members of Monty Python talk about how they respected the comedic taste of the other group members so much that it drove them write more and better sketches to top everyone else at table reads.
For this kind of rivalry to work you need to find a living person who is around your age and produces work you admire and aspire to. If it is someone you know, it makes it even better because you’ll have someone whose opinion you respect to bounce your ideas off of. Pick something of theirs that you admire and create something better. Top them. If you can’t, throw it away and try again.
The second type of challenger is an arch-nemesis. This can be more dangerous and more fruitful. It involves picking someone you don’t like who is successful and using them to define yourself. By picking someone who has qualities you don’t like or respect, you are forced to define what you are. Also, watching them succeed will eat on you and drive you try even harder. This is where the danger comes in.
Tesla and Edison hated one another to illogical distraction. Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys hallucinated that Paul McCartney and Phil Spector were out to get him.
One of my favorite recent arch-nemesis confrontations was between Larry the Cable Guy and David Cross. Larry is a “low brow” comedian who has lots of jokes about bodily wast and David Cross is an independent comedian given to long rants about George Bush. Cross made an offhand comment about Larry in Rolling Stone that led Larry to devote a chapter in his book to Cross. Then, Cross wrote an 11 page rebuttal, manifesto, clarification on his website. Not only is this response incredibly funny, it also is a great clarification of what Cross believes and who he is. That is useful information for anyone to have about themselves.
So, if you want to produce smarter, more creative, more vibrant work, consider a rivalry or arch-nemesis. The constant challenge of having to create better work will drive you to new heights!