(2-minute read)

Fall is my favorite time in New York because there is so much great art to experience. The widely anticipated Manet/Degas exhibition opened at the Met Museum, and my fellow art nerds and I were flocking to get a first look. As tempting as it is to turn this into an art history musing, I’ll refrain in favor of discussing the importance of maintaining work friendships that include a healthy degree of rivalry. 

The takeaways will have more meaning with a few sentences of context.

The artists Edouard Manet and Edgar Degas were born two years apart in Paris. Meeting by chance while admiring a painting at the Louvre, they became lifelong friends, competitors and even detractors of each other’s work. They shared a similar circle of friends and exhibited in the same salons for much of their careers. Through decades of friendship and tumult, they remained close allies and associates. The characteristics of their decades-long friendship offer a guide for building a healthy and productive peer-rival relationship.


Purpose and Passion

The friendship between Manet and Degas began when Manet was an established artist, and Degas was still finding his artistic voice. In short, Manet was a senior-level executive, and Degas was a middle manager.

When considering a worthy peer-rival, look for both a purpose and a passion-driven partner. Finding a partner with an equivalent title is less important than identifying someone driven by and able to articulate their belief in how their work benefits customers and the community. Look for a partner outside of your organization to limit the possibility of internal politics.

These are the partners you want, as they are people sustained by a boundless curiosity about their work and the world.


Competitive Interaction

If you were an artist in the 1860s, the state-sponsored Salon was the ‘it’ place to exhibit your work. With limited exhibition space and many artists competing for a showing, Manet and Degas were competitors. Healthy competition ups everyone’s game. Look beyond the comfortable relationships, as this is where affinity bias resides, to competitors, vendors, and peers whom you admire and who will, most importantly, challenge you, helping you continually question, assess and grow.


Productive Conflict

Jealous tiffs, slashed paintings and petulantly returned artwork. Manet and Degas fought often. Disagreement forces us to be clear on what is important and to make persuasive arguments, both critical pieces of a peer-rival relationship. Conflict also teaches us to manage emotional responses in the moment and long term. Working through conflict is an obligation in service to the larger friendship.


Shared Associations

Manet and Degas ran in the same social circles and frequently visited each other’s homes. They were social friends, a crucial element for establishing a deep foundation of trust. Having friends in common builds trust and creates familiarity and accountability. Familiarity allows each to understand the full context of a situation, making it easier to have productive conversations. Sharing a social network creates accountability for actively working through disagreements.


In-Person Meetings

Unless a letter was sent, the only way to interact in the nineteenth century was to meet in person. For the relationship to be successful, ample face-to-face time should be allowed and accounted for. In-person time spent discussing and debating issues with a peer-rival gives you space to explore ideas and the information needed to position and explain a decision or chosen direction to your team.


Peers, friends, rivals: Manet and Degas’ 20-year relationship elevated their work and solidified their places within art history, so much so that we are talking about these two friends 150 years later. As a result of the rivalry, each became more focused, articulate and driven.

Using their rivalry as a model, who can you elevate, and who can elevate you?

Possibly, a century and a half from now, people will reflect on and seek to emulate your relationship with your peer-rival.

Book Recommendation: The Art of Rivalry by Sebastian Smee

If you are buying a book, please shop your local bookseller- thank you!


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