We've just discussed the importance of rivalry in great achievement. The compulsion to outdo -- or just keep up with -- a sibling or friend or colleague can be a great motivator.
I have two brothers. In the last few months, one, Jon Shenk, has been honored at the Academy Awards; the other, Joshua Wolf Shenk, is hailed as "brilliant" in David Brooks's New York Times column this morning. Brooks praises Josh's great new piece in The Atlantic, called "What Makes Us Happy?" But did Josh ever stop and consider whether all his success is making me happy? You raise a little brother to do good in the world, and this is the thanks you get...
(One of my first emails this morning read came from my friend Erez, who wrote: "ooh, the sibling rivalry must be scorching!!!" And he ought to know, because his younger brother is also quite the overachiever.)
Gore Vidal once said, "Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies." It may be the best expression of envy ever, and anyone with a grain of ambition recognizes that gnawing feeling of watching a peer succeed in a way that you desperately wish was your own. But that's just the annoying pull of the dark side; there's also an incredibly uplifting force of good at work here, reminding us that success is not a zero sum game, and that, in fact, watching peers succeed is an enormous gift on several levels:
• You get a boost of rivalrous motivation; if you had to pick just one thing, motivation is the difference between good work and great work.
• You get to see first-hand how mediocre work becomes transformed into extraordinary work. You witness the dogged persistence, the slow improvement, the eagerness to fail and learn from mistakes.[i] You understand intuitively that your friend or relative doesn't have any innate advantage; they've just applied themselves well and refused to give up.
• Success begets success. Having Jon and Josh's great work recognized over the years has earned them relationships with other smart and successful people, many of which I've benefited from. (It has also flowed in the other direction, I hope).
Are there some successful peers who I'm not happy for? Yes, but I'm working on that....
[i] On the subject of greatness comingfrom nothingness, a fertile quote from Brian Eno basically sums up much of the thesis of my book:
"What would be really interesting for people to see is how beautiful things grow out of shit . . . . Nobody ever believes [that it happens that way]. Everybody thinks that Beethoven had his string quartets completely in his head, that it somehow appeared there and formed in his head, and all he had to do was write them down . . . What would really be a lesson that everybody should learn is that . . . things come out of nothing. Things evolve out of nothing. The tiniest seed in the right situation turns into the most beautiful forest, and then, the most promising seed in the wrong situation turns into nothing. . . ."I think this would be important for people to understand because it gives people confidence in their own lives to know that that’s how things work. If you walk around with the idea that there are some people who are so gifted, that they have these wonderful things in their head, but you’re not one of them, you’re just sort of . . . a 'normal' person. [But with this insight], you could have another kind of life. You could say, 'Well, I know that things come from nothing very much and start from unpromising beginnings, and I’m an unpromising beginning -- I could start something.'"