Worthy Rivals
Who do you think of when hear the word “mentor”?

  • Mr. Miyagi of course!“Wax on/Wax off”
  • Obi Wan Kenobi:“Trust the force, Luke”
  • Yoda:“Do or do not, there is no try.”

Why is it in that in movies, the mentors are always old, wise and male?
That can’t be right!  In real life, a mentor can be anyone, really.

  • Young or old.
  • Wise or unwise.
  • Male or female.

The important thing is that they spur your development to greater heights.

I’d like share with you today the 3 best mentors in my life.  None of them were particularly old or particularly wise. Not all of them were male.  None of them had a catch phrase.  In fact, my 3 greatest mentors weren’t even aware they were mentoring me!  However, they all pushed me to my limits. They all taught me amazing lessons. They were all “worthy rivals”.

For those of you unfamiliar with the term, let’s start with a definition of “worthy rival”.  A worthy rival is simply someone who does something as well or better than you. They reveal our weaknesses and push us to constantly improve.   They excel at one specific thing, revealing our weaknesses and suggesting where we can make improvements.  If a mentor is someone who spurs your development, a worthy rival fits the bill, wouldn’t you say?

My first worthy rival was Laura Santelli.   Laura was my “mental” rival.  I got to know her during my senior year in high school, when Lisa transferred in from another school.  Before then, I was the big brain on campus.  Everyone knew I was the top student, with a 4.0 GPA through my first three years. And then Laura showed up, with her horn-rimmed glasses and her perfect GPA.  Oh man, Laura was such a know it all – even more than myself!  If I raised my hand high up in class, she’d raise hers just a little bit higher.   All year long, we competed for the top academic prize.

And then it happened.  I blew a test in advanced geometry and got a B in the class!  Laura ended the year with a 4.0 grade point average.  I finished with a meager 3.9.     Curse you Laura Sentelli and that big math brain of yours!

My second worthy rival was Tono Saha, from Bratislava, Slovakia.   Tono was my “physical” rival. Nearly every weekend in my 20s, Tono and I would meet in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park and engage in an epic tennis match. Tall, thin and athletic, with sharp Slavik cheek bones and heavily-accented English, Tono was as quick as a cat on the court. Time and again, he would run down all of my best shots, then crack a blistering passing shots that made my head spin. Luckily for me, Tono couldn’t really serve, nor could he volley at the net. Those just happened to be my only two tennis skills, along with lobs and slices.   (All the sneaky stuff we non-athletic tennis players rely on.(   I would serve and volley. Tono would beat me at the baseline. I would throw up a lob (because I have no ground strokes)… Tono would miss the ball and curse at himself in a mix of Slovakian and broken English.

“Boha Tono, you idiot!”

Good times! 🙂

My third worthy rival was Tom Pendergast.  Tom was my “spiritual” rival”.  When I first met Tom as a freshman in college, he had already adopted a daily Zen meditation practice.  I mean, who learns meditation as a teenager? After graduation, I went to Japan to teach English—in part because I knew Tom had spent time meditating at Tofukuji monastery in Kyoto.  I’ll admit it, I wanted to be more spiritual than him. I even went to Tofukuji, just to check it out. There, I was greeted by an old wise monk (straight out of mentor central casting), who said…

“Oh yes, our dear friend Tom.   Come in, come in!  Any friend of Tom’s is a friend ours.”

Great (sarcastic).  Tom’s a Zen celebrity in Japan as well!

Thanks to Tom, I eventually learned meditation myself, doing a 10-day retreat at a Thai monastery.  I remember writing my buddy Tom and saying, “Hey man, just got back from meditating in Thailand.  I’m off to Kathmandu now for a 7-day retreat at a Tibetan monastery.”  And he’d respond, “Cool.  I’m heading to Kyoto for a 1-month intensive session.  We’re going to learn zen koans!”

“Come on. Not fair!!!”

Now, I’m not advocating that you seek out more competition in your life. What I am saying is that worthy rivals can be very effective mentors.  They focus your resolve. They push you beyond your limits.  They make you better. The trick is to focus not on the competition but on the improvement.

After all:

  • Bjorn Borg had John McEnroe.
  • Magic Johnson had Larry Bird.
  • Muhammad Ali had George Foreman
  • I had Laura, Tono and Tom.

I urge you all to find your own worthy rivals and embrace the lessons they have for you.

And who knows, maybe they’ll even teach you a catch phrase.

–Dave Blum