Is a Killer Instinct Necessary in Business and in Life?

Must you hate your opponent?

In one of my all time favorite movies, Searching for Bobby Fisher, the prodigy chess player Josh Waitzkin talks with his coach about an upcoming match against a highly touted player.

"You have to hate your opponent, Josh, they hate you," coach Bruce Pandolfini says.

"But I don’t hate him," Josh responds.

"You have to hate him. Bobby Fischer hated his opponents," the coach says.

At the end of the movie Josh ultimately wins the crucial match, but not before offering a draw to his opponent (which is rejected).

I recently met a business executive who gave up chess as a hobby because it was "too brutal" — the glorification of destroying your opponent and seeing the blood as pieces go down. His favorite chess games are when he "isn’t playing chess" but when he’s "dancing on the board."

The executive extends this metaphor to business: cooperation is the answer, he says. Winning is important, but most effective in the spirit of cooperation.

Is a "killer instinct" necessary in business? Must you hate your opponents? I have to say I’ve been struck by my friend Chris Sacca’s (Google) frequent tip of the hat to Yahoo on his blog, or Jeff Nolan’s (SAP) occasional nod to Salesforce.com.

Everyone wants to win and kick the competition’s ass, the question is how this spirit should manifest into entrepreneurial truisms. Thoughts?

9 Responses to Is a Killer Instinct Necessary in Business and in Life?

  1. Mike says:

    In one of my classes we discussed this concept a bit; it goes by the nifty name ‘coopetition.’

  2. Great post Ben … often people don’t know who their competition is but they believe so intensely that they need a competitor that they manufacture an “enemy”. and people who “hate” the other side are often inneffective. in politics, i find the best strategists are those that are friendly with the other side. Karl Rove and Donna Brazile (who managed Gore 2000) are good friends.

  3. TK says:

    Hmmm… I think companies and entrepreneurs are better when their is a laser focus on success. And success is often defined and measured by doing better than your competitors. I am not sure this is “hatred” but I do believe that there needs to be a level of antagonism.

  4. Dani says:

    Competition is often couched in metaphors of war. It (I argue) palpably changes how we think about competition–that it is about ‘killing’ an ‘opponent,’ etc.

    Here’s a famous Lakoff article on metaphors & war:

    http://www.arieverhagen.nl/11-sept-01/Lakoff_1991.html

    …and here’s a series of Sontag books that look at how metaphors affect how we view illness:

    http://www.susansontag.com/illnessasmetaphor.htm

    …I could talk about metaphors all day. It’s why I love poetry, for starters.

  5. Koncasj says:

    I am not sure if it’s hatred, nor if it’s even necessary. I think what’s necessary is a healthy respect for your opponent and a hunger to win.

  6. jeff nolan says:

    I used to need an enemy I could hate… that business was a zero sum game where I only won if everyone else lost. Then I grew up.

    There are some very good words of wisdom in the comments here. Respect your competition because if you don’t you can’t learn from them. Remember that you are primarily competing against yourself, always strive to be better regardless of what your competition does. Yes you have competitors that you will sell against, but you won’t really win if your only strategy is to attack your competitor. This leads to perhaps the most important piece of advice, compete fairly because your customers will judge you based on how you compete.

  7. Ed Diril says:

    I love nature as a teacher.
    Nature is built upon the cooperation (aka interdependence) of many species which behave in a way that maximizes diversity and growth. Ever wonder why there are so many different kinds of birds for example? Are they all really necessary?

    I take nature’s stance towards business (and reality in general). The goal is to maximize diversity and growth. Some ventures will fail and some will succeed. In the end, it all contributes to growth.

    This translates to accepting change as a staple of life. Those who see competitors in the market are the ones who focus on keeping the status quo and resist (even fear) change. They also tend to have a scarcity mindset which stifles both their own growth and those who depend on them.

    The only way to survive and thrive is to embrace change, see the opportunities it creates, focus on interdependence and work to maximize diversity and growth. Just like mother nature!.. With this mindset, what competitors offer become the minimum threshold for the next spurt of change and growth. One does not focus on beating them per se, but creating more value than what is currently available on the market.

  8. stefanie says:

    I met Bruce Pandolfini on a train from NYC to Albany. He invited me to bring my 8-year-old nephew to watch his trainees play later that day. He was nurturing and kind, and he promoted a mix of collaboration and good-natured competitiveness among the kids. I think that’s the recipe for success.

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