Sunday, September 7, 2008

Rivalries are created by weak teams

Issue date: 11/7/97 Section: Resources

Even before I was a freshman at Penn 3 1/2 years ago, I had heard from Penn people that Princeton University is Penn's mortal enemy.
So one day around this time freshman year, I e-mailed my Princetonian friend Jamie to hear his take on it. He laughed in his response; even if it was over e-mail, I could still hear it. No one there knew we were "rivals" in any way other than just playing a dinky football game against each other once a year. I realized what was up and quickly created an imaginary dialogue in my head between our two universities and two other Ivy Leaguers, Harvard and Yale.
Penn, I've noticed, proudly declares to the world, "Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Penn are the four greatest universities in the world. So our only competitors are Harvard, Yale, and Princeton." Princeton then replies, "Ha! What are you talking about, Penn? The three greatest universities are Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, so our only competitors are Harvard and Yale."
Yale then says, "Ha! What are you talking about, Princeton? The two greatest universities are Harvard and Yale, so Harvard is our only competitor." Harvard then says, "Ha! What are you talking about, Yale? We're Harvard. We don't have any competitors."
I saw this myself at the Penn-Princeton game my freshman year, when we would chant "PrincetonÉ You Suck!" and the Princetonians would just stand there in silence, as if to say, "Okay, you're right; we do suck as long as you say so, Penn." Or when I saw one Yalie wearing a T-shirt declaring, "Harvard sucks and Princeton doesn't matter" and another, "Huck Farvard."
And Princeton is right. They're the better school not because their faculty or students or resources are any better -- if they are in fact better, which they may not be and in too many cases aren't -- but because they have the quiet and honest confidence to be able to stand there and listen to us. And Harvard's better than Yale not because their faculty or students are better (if they are), but because they have the quiet honest confidence so that they don't need to wear "Yale sucks" T-shirts. Because they believe it, they don't have to shout it.
Such undeserved inferiority complexes aren't limited only to Ivy League universities. Having spent the summer doing research at the University of California at Berkeley, I discovered that UCLA considers Berkeley to be their big rival, but no one at Berkeley knows of this.
Berkeley considers their rival to be Stanford, but Stanford considers their rival to be Harvard. That is, after all, why they wear T-shirts declaring, "Harvard: Stanford of the East." We don't see any such T-shirts in reverse in Cambridge, though.
I would go a step further and suggest that in today's world honest two-way rivalries generally don't exist. Creating a "rivalry" is the weak way a group tries to assert itself over another group. This doesn't necessarily mean that this group is really any worse than their imagined rival is, but it just means that they think they are.
This explains why, for example, France considers America, including our language and our Coca-Cola-ization of the world, to be their greatest cultural enemy, but in America we are able to view France and the French as friends and appreciate their strengths. And why, as I just recently discovered from my mom, my little brother thinks the two of us have a heated rivalry, while I never imagined such a thing.
The way to greatness, as Harvard has recognized, is not to tell imaginary competitors how much better you are. Instead, you must quietly and confidently work at being the best.They've internalized Margaret Thatcher's summary of such competition, "Being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to say you are, you aren't."
Penn will truly triumph over Princeton the day when Penn undergrads to stop saying how powerful they are and instead start believing it.

No comments: