No one likes second place. And when you’re striving to do your best, you don’t want to see someone effortlessly running ahead. But there is plenty of research (and historical evidence) that shows how our brains think even better if we have someone we’re trying to outdo. In short: competition can be the best motivation.
A study out late last year looking at runners found evidence that they ran faster in races where they were facing the runner they considered their rival. And this extra speed comes from their brains pushing their legs that much faster — it’s that sharpening of their focus to prove something to themselves that goes beyond just crossing the finish line.
And of course we all know about the famous creative rivalries of Lennon and McCartney, or how together they slaved over Sgt. Pepper’s to outdo Pet Sounds by their rivals the Beach Boys.
But rivalry doesn’t necessarily mean cut-throat competition, or even in-person arm-wrestling; a healthy creative rivalry can be as simple as finding someone in your field who’s doing the kind of work you’d like to do, mapping their course, and setting your own challenge. Your rival doesn’t have to know you even exist; the internet has plenty of potential rivals, whether you look through Tumblr or Instagram or cruise the digital shelves on Amazon.
What you need to zero in on is that one person who you feel outshines you, but is still in stalking distance. If you’re a painter, the point isn’t to flip through the best work of Gerhard Richter and start making comparisons. We’re sorry, but if you’re reading this, Gerhard Richter probably isn’t feeling you nipping at his heels. There is someone you’ve seen, though, where you think, “This is really good, but I bet I can do better.”
Then, without them ever knowing, they are who you peek at when evaluating your own work.
This is who you see a few steps ahead, who makes you put the extra hour in trying to fix that one thing that isn’t quite right. They’re who taunts you when you’re tearing your hair out to feel like you actually created something better.
But the trick is to never make this opponent an enemy.
Yes, you want to feel like you’ve won, that you bested your opponent, but you need to keep this healthy and inspirational. You’re not hoping this person loses their touch or gets lazy or something bad happens to them. This is about your own improvement, not someone else’s destruction.