As usual, it’s all about mindset. Shifting your perspective about the way in which you relate to your competitors can make all the difference. Who among us hasn’t experienced the thrill of competing against someone you’d really, really, like to beat? Just as Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words imply —  “Our chief want is someone who will inspire us to be what we know we could be” — we all need that person who can inspire us to reach our potential, and I believe it’s that valuable, competitive energy a rival offers, that can help you do just that. Your rival’s accomplishments can urge you to excel, to grow, to strive to be the best you can be.

A study published in 2014, based on Gavin Kilduff’s research, was the first to show associations among rivalry, motivation and performance, and the data suggests that a rivalry really could help improve your performance. Once a rivalry has been established, both parties are more motivated to win, pushing themselves to try harder. And it’s this enhanced motivational component which can, in turn, generate a superior effort for everyone.

So, how do you identify a potential rival? In an Academy of Management Journal report on a later, collaborative study, Kilduff and co-reserachers Hilary Anger Elfenbein, and Barry M. Shaw, explain that there are three factors necessary to create a rivalry: “similarity, repeated competition, and competitiveness.” And once a rivalry has been established, their research indicates that both competitors are much more motivated to win than they otherwise would be.

In other words, this means that a rivalry can be the driving force that pushes us to become stronger, faster, smarter, and more creative. Sports rivalries are the ones we most often think of, but there have been rivalries in music, art, business and science that have been responsible for great leaps in creativity and innovation. Just think of Raphael and Michelangelo, or Debussy and Ravel, or Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, or Freud and Jung, to name just a few. And the more intense the rivalry, it seems, the higher the chance for remarkable accomplishments.

Here’s how I see it. The competitive spark of a rivalry can help you to:

  • Identify areas for personal improvement (everyone needs a plan!),
  • Provide immediate feedback as to your own progress along the way,
  • Make you more accountable for your own successes and failures,
  • Encourage you to work harder, and
  • Inspire you.

Remember, a rival is someone who can make you better at what you do, but only if you’re careful to channel that competitive energy into positive action. However, it’s only the subtlest shift in perspective that makes a rivalry a positive thing, rather than a negative one. A rival shouldn’t be someone you hate for being your competition, but, rather, someone you admire, who inspires you, who will push you to be better. Plus, the positivity makes it a lot easier to recognize and applaud their accomplishments, as well. No matter what your endeavor, reaching your goals will never be easy, but having someone motivating you along the way certainly helps.

Whatever your passion, finding your rival, that person who inspires you to be the best you can be, can give you a huge competitive edge to help you reach your goals.

So get out your notebook (you have one, right?)  — and start planning!






Deborah Bennett Elfers
I was practically born on a boat, though on a working lobster boat rather than a sailboat. In my early days, I sailed quite a lot on a Sunfish, but not very elegantly, as in our little neighborhood “fleet,” the boat was primarily used as a weapon in a wildly popular game of “kill the other guy!” Who could have imagined way back then, that one day I’d become so passionate about all things sailing?
Deborah Bennett Elfers
Deborah Bennett Elfers

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