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How Competition Can Foster Creative Growth

by | Collaboration

Have you ever played a competitive game against someone? A sport or a board game? It brings out your best effort. In a similar way, you can leverage the power of competition to help you gain new insights, develop new skills, and grow as a creative.

In chapter five of The Accidental Creative, I described a practice I’ve used for years called head-to-heads. It’s a meet-up between two people that’s designed to share insights, stimulate new thoughts and provoke good conversation. The discussion can be on any topic – such as books you’re reading, a conference or seminar you attended, or something you’ve been working on that you’d like to share – but the main goal is to “out share” the other person and provide the most value to the conversation. (Think of it as a two person Ignite event.) Head-to-heads are an invaluable tool for personal growth.

Here are a few principles for making your head-to-heads successful:

Set a time and be consistent. Make this a priority on your calendar and don’t violate it. If you’ve set a time and made a commitment, it will cause you to have to prepare. Once per month is the perfect frequency because it allows enough time between for each of you to have experienced something new to share with the other person.

Vary your subject matter. Remember that the goal is to bring something new – an insight, new resource or piece of work – to the table each time to spark conversation. With this in mind, think strategically about the kinds of topics you introduce so that you’re diversifying and challenging one another to think in new ways. A few prompts to help think of topics are: what are you currently interested in or curious about? What have you read recently that would be of interest to the other person? What’s a dangerous new thought you’ve had recently that you’d like to share and defend?

Choose your partner wisely. You want to choose someone who will challenge and stretch you. A good method for choosing your head-to-head partners is to ask, “if I could see inside anyone’s notebook right now, just to see what they’re currently thinking, who would it be?” There needs to be a mutual respect between participants.

Come prepared. Bring about fifteen minutes worth of content to discuss. It can be the main points of a book you’re reading or a lecture you heard, your thoughts about an industry trend, or a discussion about the process you utilized on the work you’re sharing. Whatever your choice, remember that the goal is to spark discussion and enlighten the other person, as they will be doing the same for you.

Will the sparks fly every single time you do one of these? Absolutely not. Just like anything, you’ll experience ups and downs. But I have rarely had a head-to-head in which I didn’t walk away feeling more energized and with some new insight at-the-ready to apply to my work. If you bring your best effort to them, you’ll get the best out.


So here’s the question: what do you think about this idea (head-to-heads), and if you were having one today, what would you share?

Todd Henry

Todd Henry

Positioning himself as an “arms dealer for the creative revolution”, Todd Henry teaches leaders and organizations how to establish practices that lead to everyday brilliance. He is the author of five books (The Accidental Creative, Die Empty, Louder Than Words, Herding Tigers, The Motivation Code) which have been translated into more than a dozen languages, and he speaks and consults across dozens of industries on creativity, leadership, and passion for work.

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  1. FJR

    I think its incredibly useful to have someone with whom to share provocative ideas in this way, but I dont understand why there is a competitive element in this. My preference is to head-to-head with a really smart person who is living a different life and having different experiences from mine.

    • Todd Henry

      The competitive element is there to inspire you to bring your best thoughts and efforts to the table. Just like running with a peer causes a level of accountability for each runner to “keep pace”, head-to-heads provide a level of accountability that challenge us to continue looking for new insights to share and to continue bringing your best to these meet-ups.

      • Matthew

        I can see where a competitive component would be fairly easy to implement in this, assuming the two participants can agree on who brings the most valuable information. Whoever “wins” gets a free coffee the next meeting (or whatever you’re meeting over). This way, not only are you meeting to share ideas and information, but you also “owe” the other person, so there is a double incentive to meet.

  2. Porter Anderson

    Todd, this is really an interesting idea. How well do you need to know the person you head-to-head with. I’m tempted to think it would be advantageous to work with someone I didn’t know well for maximum potential surprise and, maybe, less inhibition in terms of one guy honking off the other guy, etc. (I think we’re all a little careful of our friends’ feelings.)  How do you find your partners?

    • Todd Henry

      Hi Porter,

      Great question! I find that it works best with people I know and respect, but don’t interact with frequently. They are people who I find naturally fascinating and who I respect for their thoughts and accomplishments. To your point, with people you know very well there is often not enough space for surprise and growth.

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