Umpires, Not Kings

Competition over scarce resources is at the heart of our evolution as a species and the success of Western democracies. We are the product of millions of generations of survivors who bested their rivals for food, shelter, and mates. From two single-celled organisms competing over an energy source to a pair of sisters grinding through practices in pursuit of Grand Slam trophies, competition has inspired endless effort and innovation.

Charles Darwin kept his work private for 20 years before learning a colleague was advancing a similar theory, prompting him to write On the Origins of Species. Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison feuded bitterly on their way to establishing the building blocks of our electrically powered economy. Hemingway and Fitzgerald pushed one another to invent modern American literature, and Jay-Z and Nas mined their disdain for each other to spin lyrical and literal gold.

Common Thread

From flame-broiled burgers to retina displays, companies are spurred to improve their products not by ideals or curiosity, but because if they don’t, the other guy will eat their lunch. Avis made an entire ad campaign out of the premise: “When you’re only No. 2, you try harder.”

Business history is a tale of competition, redoubled effort, and greater innovation. In 1869, Central Pacific laid 10 miles of railroad in less than 12 hours from fear that Union Pacific would get there first. In 1978, Airbus entered the U.S. market for the first time; Boeing responded with three historic aircraft in five years (the single-aisle 757, the twin-aisle 767, and a revamped 737). It took a near-death experience at the hands of Japanese manufacturers to wake Detroit from its victory coma.

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