Amy Cragg: You're on the road for months on end, you miss holidays, you miss seeing your family, you're so tired on a daily basis that even talking on the phone sounds just exhausting.
Adam Grant: Meet Amy Cragg. I cannot imagine spending my days the way she does.
AC: I'm a professional distance runner.
AG: Is that a job?
AC: Yes, it is. I race marathons and road races and track races, and that's my job.
AG: It's not just a job for her. Amy's at the top of her field. She can run a mile in less than six minutes 26 times in a row.
AC: My dream was to make the Olympics in the marathon.
AG: For five years, she'd been running professionally in pursuit of that milestone.
(Clip) Commentator: The women's race in the Olympic marathon trials down to a lead pack of four at the moment. Only three comprise the US Olympic marathon team.
AG: In 2012, Amy missed the Olympic marathon team by one spot. In a race that took her nearly two and a half hours, she was just one minute and 12 seconds too slow.
(Clip) A bittersweet moment as she finishes in fourth place.
AG: Four years later, she had another chance. It was 2016 in Los Angeles. After all that grueling training, Amy started out in the front of the pack and stayed there for over an hour. But halfway through, Amy started to struggle.
AC: And there was one point where I started kind of hurting, and I think I said, "This feels a little spicy." It was just a little too much in my legs for knowing I still had 13 miles left. I could completely bonk and not be able to finish.
AG: Then something wild happened. Amy was running neck and neck with one of her toughest rivals, Shalane Flanagan, Olympic medalist and holder of three American records. And Shalane actually slowed down to help Amy.
AC: And she was like, "You know what, it's OK, we're going to stick to each other, we're going to cross that finish line together." I was like, "OK, this is going to be good."
AG: So who won?
AC: I won. I ended up winning.
(Clip) Amy Cragg! Redemption! Four years ago and now the winner.
AC: Shalane helped me every step of the way to give me the best possible chance of making that team.
AG: They were vying to compete on the biggest stage in the world. An opportunity that comes around just once every four years. It's supposed to be every runner for herself. And only the winners get the big sponsorship dollars. So why did Shalane give up her advantage to help her opponent win? And should you ever do that?
I'm Adam Grant, and this is WorkLife, my podcast with TED. I'm an organizational psychologist. I study how to make work not suck. In this show, I'm inviting myself inside the minds of some truly unusual people, because they've mastered something I wish everyone knew about work.
Today: rivalry, and how it can bring out the best in us rather than the worst in us.
Thanks to Accenture for sponsoring this episode.
In any workplace, competition is inevitable. Rivalry is a special form of competition where you're driven to beat a particular opponent. Think about your job. Odds are you have at least one rival. That colleague who's vying for the same promotion. The peer you're pushing to outperform. Your counterpart at your company's biggest competitor. Your rival is the person you constantly compare yourself to. And that can be highly motivating. Throughout history, great achievements have been fueled by great rivalries. Think Edison and Tesla. Picasso and Matisse. Serena and Venus. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.
Gavin Kilduff: You know, rivals may not only motivate us when we compete against them directly, but we may be following their success from afar and using that as fuel for our own motivation.
AG: This is Gavin Kilduff, and NYU management professor and an expert on rivalry. In one study, Gavin and his colleagues found that your rival's success can actually drive your success.
GK: Yeah, absolutely. In this particular study, we looked at how the performance of a given college basketball team in March Madness was affected by the performance of their top rival in the prior season. And we found a positive correlation.
AG: In plain English, the better your rival did last year, the better you'll do this year. It was true in the NBA, the NFL, the NHL and Major League Baseball, too. Especially if your rival won the championship. And what if your rival struggled last year?
GK: Not only do you do better when your rival does better, but you might actually do worse if your rival does worse.
AG: Wait a minute, are you saying that as a Michigan fan, I should be rooting for Ohio State, because I just feel a little sick thinking about that right now.
GK: I would say swallow your pride, and if you really want what's best for Michigan going forward, you want them to be inspired.
AG: This is so weird, though, because you're looking at athletes who are at the very pinnacle of their sport. Part of what I'm puzzled by is shouldn't they already be as motivated as possible?
GK: Yeah, that's a great question, but we're not always completely in control of our motivation, right? It's not a fully rational process.
AG: Gavin led another study of long-distance runners and found that they actually ran faster when their rivals were in the race.
GK: The models came out such that you'd be expected to run about five seconds per kilometer faster if one of your top rivals showed up to the race, as compared to if none of them were at the race.
AG: You can see an extreme version of that dynamic with Amy Cragg and Shalane Flanagan. Back in 2000, before Shalane came on the marathon scene, only one American woman qualified for the Olympics. She trained alone in her home on a treadmill. Since then, Shalane Flanagan has won an Olympic silver medal and been the first American woman to win the New York City marathon in 40 years.
Shalane Flanagan: My name is Shalane Flanagan and yeah, I was always competitive.
AG: Shalane doesn't train alone. She's had 11 training partners, including Amy Cragg, and every single one of them has made it to the Olympics. Shalane's at the top of her sport, but she brings her rivals to new heights with her. And she knows exactly what's at stake when she does.
SF: I knew that if I brought on Amy, there was a good chance she could beat me, there's always that chance. But she was a vital component in me extending my career, and I was at a point where I needed people to train with in order to continue.
AG: Training with her rivals makes Shalane better. But it also makes them better, too. Amy remembers one of their first intense training sessions together, at 8,000 feet elevation in Arizona.
AC: We finished the workout, and we're putting our normal shoes on for the cool-down — she's going to kill me for telling this — and I hear Shalane go, "Oh my gosh, that was hard. I taste blood." And then she says to herself, "That's so awesome."
SF: She was like, "Oh, my gosh, I'm training, like, with a masochist. What did I get myself into?"
AC: But at the same time, I was like, "You know what, I came to the right place. I'm going to find out exactly what I'm made of here."
AG: And yeah, they're friends. But that doesn't stop them from getting a little bloodthirsty.
AC: There's no holding hands across the finish line or anything like that. I will race you to the finish line.
AG: Oh, so I'm hearing the competitive edge come out a little bit.
AC: I'm really competitive. When it comes down to it, I'm a professional athlete, and I'm there to run and place as high as I can.
AG: There are different flavors of competition, from the friendly to the ruthless. And where you fall on that spectrum matters. What's important here is that the way Shalane and Amy compete is collaborative. And it goes both ways. You heard it when Shalane slowed down to help Amy halfway through Olympic trials. But later in that same race, Amy turned around and did the same thing. That day, the weather was uncomfortably hot. Shalane remembers it vividly.
SF: Gosh, it was February in LA. We had heard it was going to be a warm day. It was not ideal marathon weather.
AG: Toward the end of the race, it was Shalane who started to struggle.
SF: Really, with 5K to go, it got really bad, I was starting to not be able to see very well, I felt like, really weak, I felt like I wanted to stop. And I told Amy, "You know, you can keep going, I'm not feeling good."
(Clip) They're both hurting. What I'm intrigued by is when Amy Cragg will give up this seniority to Flanagan, and actually cut loose. Flanagan looks to be hurting a little bit more than Amy Cragg, who glances across there.
SF: But she refused to leave my side. And I'm like, "No, Amy, you can't do that. You can't sacrifice your race, you need to get going." And part of me selfishly was like, "Oh, thank God," because if she was gone, I felt like I was going to literally melt into the road.
AG: Amy had a tough decision. She couldn't miss her chance at the Olympic marathon again. She and Shalane were nearing the finish. But other runners were gaining on them, fast.
AC: We slowed down quite a bit, I don't even know. The last three miles were pretty slow. And there was a moment where I didn't know what to do. The one thing I remember thinking, I was like, "She is going to be so angry at me if I let this one go because of her." And so I think I said one more thing to Shalane, I said, "You've got this, I'll be at the finish line," and took off.
AG: Amy took first place and secured her spot. But what about Shalane?
SF: I literally thought of Amy, waiting at the finish line for me and that was my motivation.
AG: Shalane took third, and qualified for the Olympics, too. But I wondered how Amy felt about running ahead. Did you feel bad about that, given that she had kind of rescued you earlier in the race, and then here you are, beating her?
AC: No, I don't feel bad about that at all. When it comes down to it, I am a competitor, I'm there to race. That's kind of what it comes down to. But at that time, the goal was to make that Olympic team together.
AG: Training intensively together didn't just build a friendship. It created a rich supportive rivalry. They had a better shot at running their best races, since they even helped one another during competitions. The fuel Amy and Shalane are describing isn't just in their heads. Gavin, the NYU researcher, found that when you're competing against a rival, your body actually responds differently.
GK: People coming face to face against a rival exhibited a spike in their physiological arousal. So their heart rate, specifically, went up, and that extra excitement, physiologically, predicted greater risk-taking.
AG: Risk-taking. It might lead you to a bold idea or a creative new direction. But it could also guide you down a destructive path. One of Gavin's experiments was with students at the Ohio State University. He told them their pay for participating in the study would be doubled if they lied to a student from another school.
GK: So Ohio State students were four times as likely to lie to a Michigan student as compared to a Virginia or a Berkeley student.
AG: Wait, I knew there was a reason why they keep beating us in football. I think they've been cheating all along.
GK: Exactly. The stakes of competition are really high when you're competing against your rival, and so what I found is that people become just more willing to do whatever it takes to defeat their rivals. They will be more likely to try to cheat or lie to get an advantage and to actually end up outperforming the rival.
AG: I heard a version of this recently when I was onstage with Sir Richard Branson, the billionaire founder of Virgin. Back in 1990, Branson was working to get his airline, Virgin Atlantic, off the ground.
So let's talk about airlines a little bit. You said if you want to be a millionaire, it's really simple: First, be a billionaire, then start an airline.
Sir Richard Branson: When we started in this industry, there was Pan Am with 300 planes, there was TWA with 300 planes, and so it goes on. And we actually had one plane against all these. On paper, people thought we'd have no chance at all of surviving.
AG: But Virgin was actually shaping up to be a potential rival to the big carrier: British Airways. Things got ugly.
SRB: And they went to extraordinary lengths to get rid of us. They set up a department behind locked doors with a team of people that was illegally accessing our computer information and finding out the names of our passengers, ringing them up, pretending to be from Virgin, and telling them that, "I'm so sorry, the flight has been canceled today," and then switching them to BA.
AG: British Airways never directly confirmed these allegations, but ended up calling their actions "regrettable." The scandal brought them tons of bad press, and created lots of publicity for Virgin, along with a settlement fee, which Branson paid out to his staff.
SRB: It was known as the British Airways Christmas Bonus.
AG: In any rivalry, there are opportunities to compete and to cooperate. There's a whole science showing that you can do both effectively, but the order in which you do them matters. You can see this in one of my favorite experiments. Imagine you're playing a video game where you get to win cash prizes for attacking enemies and defending your territory. In one round, the other players are your teammates. In the other, they're your competitors. Researchers actually tried this a few years ago, and changed up whether competition or cooperation came first. When people competed in the first round, they had a hard time working together as a team in the second round. They pretended to get along, but they actually hoarded key information for themselves. That's called cutthroat cooperation. Once they defined their teammates as adversaries, they struggled to adapt to the idea of helping them succeed. Kind of like we saw with British Airways and Virgin. But what if people started out cooperating in the first round? It turned out they made a smooth shift to competing in the second round. They naturally adopted a pattern of friendly rivalry, where they tried to beat each other but not to undermine each other. So think about what that means for your own rivalries.
Your early interactions can cast a long shadow. When you first come across some new competitors, you might try getting off on the right foot by complimenting their work or even inviting them to collaborate. If you want to build a supportive rivalry, it's about more than just starting cooperative. You have to have a reason to cooperate. Some colleagues of mine have studied that in an unexpected industry: food trucks. To check it out, let's go to Houston.
Oscar Santaella: We have lamb, pork loin, pork ribs.
AG: It's 7am at an industrial kitchen in Houston. Oscar Santaella is getting his food truck ready for the day. It's Wednesday, which means he'll be parking outside Cty Hall.
OS: Alright, OK.
AG: Oscar sells Brazilian grilled meats. He opened up his food truck — "Churrasco To Go" — five years ago. Back then, he knew nothing about running one of these things. He'd worked in kitchens, and people kept encouraging him to leave restaurants and start a truck.
OS: I have some people pushing me, like, "Hey, open a food truck, it's kind of cool, it's an endless line for, like, ever. You're going to be making tons of millions." But I didn't know, like ... It's kind of impossible, you know?
AG: Impossible because there's a lot to learn. And the people who can teach you? You're their competition.
OS: At the beginning, like, it was very, very hard, because I had nobody behind me, like, "Hey, go this way, go this way."
AG: Oscar had to learn quickly, because competition was heating up as more and more trucks hit the streets. Just a year or so earlier, there were mostly taco trucks all over the city. Now, it seemed like these gourmet food trucks were everywhere, and growing fast.
OS: Every day was like a brand new food truck on the streets, right?
AG: OK, in this situation, imagine that you're a food truck owner. You started before Oscar. You worked hard to learn the ropes, used your savings to build your business. You staked out a prime spot at City Hall. And now, Oscar rolls onto the scene. How are you going to view him? As competition, of course. But that's not how Oscar was received. He was welcomed with open arms by other vendors. His competitors actually helped him. One of those supportive rivals was Guli Essa, who stepped in early on when Oscar was about to run out of money. Guli's truck is called "It's a Wrap!"
Guli Essa: It's a spin off of the movies, so all of their wraps are, like, names related to film. The crowd favorite is the Bollywood — that happens to be the Indian-influenced one.
OS: So, she called me that Friday, "Hey, this is Guli from It's a Wrap." Can you cover me tomorrow for an event?" "Yes!" So she says, "It's going to be good, so be ready."
AG: She helped him get into a new space to sell and earn some money in a tough time. Oscar was overwhelmed with business that day. In the weeks that followed, he and Guli started working together at prime real estate around the city. And this happens all the time in Houston.
OS: I've never seen them looking at me like a competition. No, they never think that way, you know what I'm saying? They say, "OK, let's give a hand to Oscar." So that's why I like it.
AG: It can't be one-sided. A few years later, Guli put her food truck on the back burner.
GE: I had a child very late in life, when I thought I couldn't have a child, so I was like, "Baby!" you know? So I was like, forget the truck, I'm all about this kid.
AG: And when Guli was ready to get back in the game, she had lost some of her key relationships with the places where food trucks could park.
GE: I was out of the loop. And then when my child got a little older and I needed to work more, I had to go to Oscar and be like, "Hey, now I need your help, because you're out there and I'm not, and I need to get back in there." He was, of course, "Oh, yes, yes. Call this person, call this person."
AG: Why would Oscar and Guli do this for each other? They aren't just being nice. Psychologists find that rivals become allies when they form a common identity that transcends their differences. Instead of competing against other individuals, you see yourself as part of a group that's working together to achieve larger goals. That might be a group of tech companies collaborating to teach coding boot camps in rural towns. Or a group of podcasters working together to attract new listeners to the podcast world. In the case of food trucks, competitors don't always work together. New York City is known to be more cutthroat. In Austin, where there's lots of flexibility, it's common for trucks to work independently. But in Houston, where city regulations are getting increasingly tight, rivals banded together to fight for opportunities.
Emily Santaella: You can just see, by the number of regulations that the city has implemented on food trucks, just how much the industry has changed.
AG: Oscar's daughter, Emily, has been working for his food truck for a few years, since she was in high school.
ES: I was like 16, probably. Started helping out on weekends. So really, it was just the norm for me, growing up.
AG: There are all kinds of rules and regulations, many of them new. You need permits to park in certain areas. There are hefty fees to set up at truck festivals. And rules about how close you can park to another truck. To grow the food-truck economy overall, the owners have to channel their competitive instincts toward building a coalition.
ES: I think we have come to a conclusion that the more we work together and help each other out, the easier it is for everyone. If you band together, the city and the government will notice and realize like, "Hey, we can't just put them on the side."
AG: If you succeed in building the industry with your rivals, you can expand the pie and everyone will get a larger slice.
The food truck community in Houston has evolved a collaborative culture. But if you want to build a cooperative vibe with your rivals, there are deliberate steps you can take. Even when the stakes are really high.
More on that after the break.
OK, this is going to be a different kind of ad. I've played a personal role in selecting the sponsors for this podcast, because they all have interesting cultures of their own. Today, we're going inside the workplace at Accenture.
Dorian Twiggs: I was given an opportunity to have a whole new career.
AG: This is Dorian Twiggs. She used to be a mortgage underwriter.
DT: Which was my specialty. I had been doing that for over a decade.
AG: One afternoon, Dorian was at home in Detroit. It had been a hard day.
DT: I had a cousin who passed away, and I literally was just sitting and I was just breathing. And the phone rings.
AG: On the other end of the line was a job offer from Accenture. They wanted to hire her as a mortgage underwriter. She'd have to move to North Carolina.
DT: I just said, why not? And I was comfortable underwriting mortgages, so I'm like, "Ah, this will be a breeze."
AG: She made friends quickly and loved her new job. But then, there was a problem.
DT: There are times when people are just not refinancing, people are not purchasing, there is no work. What do you do? You lay those people off.
AG: That's what a lot of companies do. Even though the evidence is clear that massive job cuts are a bad strategy. You often end up having to replace the very people you've let go, because you underestimated how critical they were. Meanwhile, those who stay end up with survivor's guilt, and they fear that they'll be next, which can stifle their creativity or motivate them to jump ship. So I was excited to learn that Accenture had a different approach. They believe talented employees are worth keeping, even if that means training them in an entirely different field. Accenture has a whole program around that. It's called "new skilling." Dorian learned about it when Accenture gathered dozens of Charlotte employees together.
DT: And there was a sign up that said "Accenture Technology." And I remember sitting next to a guy who said, "Oh, my God, they're going to put us in technology." And I laughed at him. I'm like, "There's no way they're putting me in technology."
AG: But Accenture's philosophy is that employees can surprise a lot of people. Even themselves. Dorian signed up to become a specialist in technology testing.
DT: I'm like, how do I make a career out of technology, when I'm competing with people who have studied this, because that's what they're into?
AG: The training was intense.
DT: It was a roller coaster. There were tons of experts who came in, they made themselves available during the weekends, but it was still scary.
AG: Six weeks later, Dorian was certified as a technology specialist. Today, she's thriving in Accenture's technology department.
DT: I'm in a career now that I didn't even know existed.
AG: And she hopes to become a mentor in the "new skilling" team.
DT: Because I would love to pay it forward, I would love to talk to people and explain how it's OK to be scared, it's OK to be nervous, it's OK to start from scratch, you know, at whatever age you are. It's OK, it works out.
AG: Dorian was recently named a tech star, an award that goes to only one percent of Accenture's technology employees.
DT: Sometimes I look back, and I still cannot believe I am where I am at today. I have learned so much, I have grown so much, it really has taught me that I am limitless.
AG: Accenture is working to become one of the most truly human companies in the digital age. Learn more at accenture.com/careers.
Alright, look, I really want to go back to sports. Not just because I like them. They're where you can see rivalry at the extreme: the same stars, competing intensely, over and over, with their careers on the line in front of the whole world.
(Clip) With Norway once again at the top of Winter Olympic medal count, many are wondering, what is the secret to the country's success?
AG: When I watched the 2018 Winter Olympics, I kept wondering: Why is Norway so dominant? 39 medals, 34 in skiing. How did a nation with only five million people set a record for the most medals ever by a single country? To find out what their secret sauce is, I started reaching out to some Norwegians I knew. Sure, it helps that they have a lot of snow. They invented competitive skiing, and some parents there even put babies on skis before they can walk. But I kept hearing about how their culture of rivalry is a key ingredient in their success. So I went to Colorado, where the Norwegian Olympic team was kicking off the ski season at Copper Mountain. It was opening day and some people were goofing around.
There's somebody wearing what looks like a ... Is that a rabbit? No, it's a fox suit.
At the bottom of the slope, I found Aksel Lund Svindal. He looks like Thor on skis.
Aksel Lund Svindal: I am a downhill skier.
AG: Not just any downhill skier, though.
ALS: No, I'm a competitive downhill skier, and I guess you could say I'm a fairly successful downhill skier.
AG: So when you say fairly successful, how many Olympic medals do you have?
ALS: I have four Olympic medals ... Yeah, two golds, one silver and one bronze.
AG: And that's only "fairly successful" to you?
ALS: I have five world championship titles, which is probably, you know, more impressive, if you can say it like that, than two Olympic titles.
AG: A skier that decorated should be fiercely competitive. But Aksel and his Norwegian teammates live and work by an unusual code. Two decades ago, when Aksel was 18, he met an upstart named Kjetil Jansrud.
ASL: He's only 15, but we had some timing, I remember, and he was pretty fast, too. Kind of like, annoyingly fast, so ...
Kjetil Jansrud: You wouldn't root for me then!
AG: Kjetil has won four world cups, and an Olympic gold, a silver and two bronzes. That makes him Aksel's biggest rival. But they're also surprisingly close friends.
KJ: I would say best friend also, because it's weird how we can spend 250 days a year traveling and then, when you get home, it's still, "I'm bored, what are you doing, want to hang out?"
AG: It almost sounds like you miss each other. What Aksel and Kjetil have is a supportive rivalry. And psychology suggests that there's an essential foundation for that to work: respect. Actually, a specific kind of respect. Research distinguishes two kinds: the respect you're owed and the respect you earn. Owed respect is egalitarian: being treated with the dignity that you deserve as a human being. Earned respect is meritocratic: being valued for your performance or your contribution. In so many teams, stars get special privileges, and newcomers get hazed until they've earned respect. But on the Norwegian alpine team, it's owed respect that comes first.
ALS: When I first started skiing with the World Cup team, there wasn't any like, "You're the rookie," you know. "You have to prove yourself" or "Go, make my bed," stuff like that. It was just like, if you are a good enough skier to be part of this team, you are 100 percent part of this team in every way.
AG: This is enforced every day, in small ways and large. Not just by coaches, but by the skiers themselves. If you act like you're better than others, you could be banned from the dinner table.
KJ: Skiing fast is not the same as gaining respect.
AG: And they teach owed respect early. Aksel remembers how this went when Kjetil first joined the team. One day in practice, Kjetil sped down the mountain much faster than the older skiers. He was waiting at the bottom for them to arrive.
ALS: Some guys were a little annoyed, but then again, it happened over and over again.
KJ: That's a situation where you can either get a smile on your face and be bragging about it, and be celebrating, which is not good for a team culture.
AG: How did you show it?
KJ: The thing is, it's ironic, because I was trying really, really hard to hide it.
ALS: That's the thing, but there was no way he could hide it.
AG: What did he do, was he dancing?
ALS: No, he's standing, trying to be all calm, he was like, "So, how was your time?" And then he's like, cracking up, smiling so hard. It's like, you know that he's winning, because looking at his face, it's like the worst poker face I've ever seen.
AG: So you got caught with your hand in the cookie jar.
KJ: Yeah, exactly.
AG: What did the guys say to you then?
KJ: I didn't think people said that much, other than you can feel the vibe. If you want to find your place in a group, then you have to also look at the small vibes you're getting from everybody, and I think I pulled that off after five or six years.
AG: The owed respect on the Norwegian alpine team isn't just about equal treatment in practice and at meals. They all help one another in competitions, too. Even as they're trying to beat one another. You can see it in the way they communicate in the biggest races in the world. In 2006, Aksel was at his first Olympics in Italy. After the race had already started, the weather took a turn for the worse.
ALS: All of a sudden, the clouds really came rolling in and it got super foggy. The difference between start number one that had gone in the sunshine and whoever, you know, start number 15 or 20 that was going to go next, was just so big that everyone could see that this was kind of a joke.
AG: So they started the race over the next day. But two other skiers on the Norwegian team had already been down the ski run.
ALS: Which is crazy, when you think about it, because that means that they had tried the course and they got to go on the same course over again.
AG: It's a huge advantage.
ALS: It's a huge advantage. But what they did is that they tried to take me and Aamodt through the course, turn by turn, to tell us how it was.
AG: Did it ever cross your mind though, like, "Holy cow, these people are potentially giving up Olympic medals to help me."
AG: You think that's normal?
ALS: Well, I think ...
(Laughter) It didn't seem that crazy, actually. I mean, it seemed like a really good, smart thing to do.
AG: Aksel didn't win. But his teammates also got the extra information about the slopes. And one of them ended up with the gold medal.
Like running, skiing is an individual sport. It's supposed to be zero-sum. Every skier for him or herself. Their livelihoods and their legacies depend on beating their rivals. Aksel: You know, in order for someone to win, someone has to lose.
AG: But here are skier vying for the Olympic gold medal, telling their competitors everything they know about the course. A Nordic code of humility, known as "Janteloven," states that no one is better than anyone else. The philosophy is introduced in their youth sports programs, which generally focus more on learning and development than individual rankings.
Tore Øvrebø: There is a culture of sharing at all levels, and we compete when we have to.
AG: This is Tore Øvrebø. He was an Olympic rower, and now is the director of Olympiatoppen, the Norwegian organization for training elite athletes. He stresses that even in a highly competitive individual sport you can still have a team where people try to make each other better, despite the fact that on race day, you might lose to your teammate.
TØ: We think it's a better way to achieve the highest performance levels possible for individuals, if they don't have to compete all the time. They should share knowledge, they should share secrets. Because the point is not to beat the kid on the other side of the street or in the neighboring city or in the neighboring valley. It should be about beating those that do not speak Norwegian.
AG: (Laughs) Very good! The sharing is another sign of owed respect that helps to bond the team together. But there's something else, too. Like in the food trucks, the individual competitors see themselves as part of a larger group. Norwegians against other countries.
So if you want to develop a friendly rivalry, there are a couple conditions that make it easier. The first is about status. Supportive rivalries are more likely to emerge when there's a clear hierarchy between rivals. There's evidence that people have less conflict and are less cutthroat when they agree on who has higher status or seniority. More accomplished people are less likely to be threatened by junior competitors, who in turn, often look up to their more seasoned rivals as role models. Sort of like a mentor-mentee relationship. Which is what unfolded for Aksel and Kjetil. Being a few years older, Aksel was the first to reach the pinnacles of success at the Olympics and the World Cup. He respected Kjetil as a rising star, and Kjetil looked up to him.
GK: I mean, in that case, I think that similarity is being reduced a little bit, which could take a little bit the edge off the rivalry, a little bit of the intensity.
AG: That's rivalry expert Gavin Kilduff, again.
GK: You might actually see a rival as kind of an apprentice to some degree. You hear about athletes who talk about passing the torch on to the next generation. I think that's a perfect example of cooperation taking the negative out of rivalry.
AG: A second condition that supports friendly rivalry has to do with how we handle emotions. And here, we can learn something from the Norwegian skiers, too. If you're in a really cutthroat competition, when your rival loses, you might feel "schadenfreude." It's a German word that literally translates to harm-joy — pleasure at another's misfortune. Ouch. And in typical competition, when your rival wins, it's natural to feel green with envy. But in friendly competition, the emotions are a little more complex. Here's Kjetil:
KJ: You can get jealous, and think, "Why him?" Or "When is it my turn?" Or whatever. Or you can look at it a different way. I remember looking at the World Cup and looking at Aksel getting podiums and then winning his first race, and everybody was, the whole team, me included, was cheering, because it felt like a small victory for everybody.
AG: If you want to know what kind of rivalry you have, pay attention to how you feel at the end of a competition. A supportive rivalry is all about the right mix of emotions. Research shows that many Americans are uncomfortable with conflicting emotions. We want to feel joy or envy, not both. But the Norwegian team has learned to accept the duality and normalize it. It's OK to envy your rival's success, as long as you celebrate it, too. Even in huge competitions. In the 2018 Olympics, Aksel skied first and then shared his course report with Kjetil. And so who won?
ALS: Well, I won, he got second. So it was a pretty awesome day for team Norway.
AG: Aksel may have won that day, but he doesn't win every time. Aksel, how do you feel in a big race, think World Cup or Olympic level, when Kjetil beats you?
ALS: So, I feel slightly disappointed, because I want to win, myself. But then, you come back to the hotel, it's like that atmosphere, everyone was happy, because this was a good day. That's the moment where you forget about that entirely.
KJ: I would not expect him to be sorry for me when I come in and I'm behind him. Because I think that's a very clear understanding between us all these years. That in that race, you're skiing for yourself, and if you come in and win, that's fine. You get to be happy, I get to be a little frustrated. Just the way it is.
AG: Shortly after we talked, Aksel announced his retirement. In the final race of his career, at the World Championships in February 2019, he came in second place, just two-hundredths of a second behind the winner: Kjetil.
So what does all this mean for your work life? For me, I've started to shift the way I approach competition. I've always enjoyed competing in sports and definitely at board games. But I've avoided it professionally, where the stakes just feel too high. I want to root for other people to succeed, not for them to fail. But now, I'm a little more comfortable with mixed emotions. I can try to beat my rivals and cheer for them, too. And I had a chance to test it out not too long ago. I heard from a mutual friend that a fellow author, Simon Sinek, was competing with me in book sales. Look, I'm not thrilled to admit this, but normally, I would have started looking for metrics where I was winning. But I'd been thinking a lot about supportive rivalry. So I decided to do something a little different. I invited him to share the stage together at a conference. And then he took the next leap. He opened the event by telling the whole audience what he respected about me.
Simon Sinek: You make me unbelievably insecure, because all of your strengths are all of my weaknesses.
AG: Yeah, I have to say, the insecurity is mutual.
Then he volunteered to be a guest speaker in my class. And I ended up inviting him over for dinner. Since then, we've exchanged feedback on books and talks. I think we still enjoy one-upping each other, but it feels friendly now. Kind of like the fun you have at family holidays when you're trying to dominate in ping-pong or trivia.
Some competitions are zero-sum. But our feelings about competing don't have to be. Supportive rivalries click into place when you're working for something larger than your own success. Helping your country succeed, if you're a Norwegian skier. Advancing the whole food-truck community, if you're running a gourmet truck in Houston. Making the Olympics with your teammates, if you're an American marathoner.
So find a rival you admire. Tell them why you respect them. Explore what you can accomplish together. And then, bring on the friendly competition, and bring it on as hard as you can.
WorkLife is hosted by me, Adam Grant. The show is produced by TED with Transmitter Media. Our team includes Colin Helms, Gretta Cohn, Dan O'Donnell, Grace Rubenstein, Angela Cheng and Janet Lee. This episode was produced by Jessica Glazer. Our show is mixed by Rick Kwan. Original music by Hahnsdale Hsu and Allison Leyton-Brown. Ad stories produced by Pineapple Street Media.
Special thanks to our sponsors: Accenture, Bonobos, Hilton and JPMorgan Chase. For introductions, thanks to David Epstein and Tom Ratcliffe with the runners; Reynir Indahl, Nikolai Tangan and Anakin Jeppson with the skiers; and Scott Sonenshein with the food-truck owners as well as for the research there. Also for their research, Kristie Rogers on respect; John Hollenbeck, Michael Johnson and their colleagues on how the order of cooperation and competition matters; Nancy Katz on integrating cooperation and competition; and Jennifer Aaker on mixed emotions.
Next time on WorkLife.
Woman 1: I met with a venture capitalist and during our meal, I put the chocolate desert ball in my mouth. It was actually part of his extremely expensive marble art collection.
AG: How to overcome the awkwardness of networking and build lasting connections.
You know the classic study of Olympic silver medalists looking unhappier than bronze medalists, right?
ALS: That's a study?
AG: Yeah. It was after the 1988 Olympics. You freeze-frame at the end of different races, and the silvers looked more miserable.
KJ: Exactly, but to put it this way, swap out Aksel with an Austrian or an Italian or whomever — I would have been way more disappointed. If I didn't really use my chance in that Olympics to ski fast enough to get the gold medal, I'm so happy that my teammate did it, instead of actually someone else.