Rivals usually are seen as bad guys, somebody to pummel until you're awarded first prize. And we like to be seen as being in a class all our own. There is such a thing as friendly competition, however, and typically, having someone at your level to compete against can be just the spark you need to reach your best.
1. You get used to a little failure.
Sometimes you'll be the victor with better scores, project awards or a pay raise. But sometimes you'll have to watch as your rival gets the praise and perks, too. This not only keeps you properly humble in a way that most people can respect better, but also conditions you to see a little failure as normal rather than completely devastating.
2. You know someone understands you.
One reason people get so impossibly depressed and burned out at work is that they feel like no one really grasps the responsibilities they have or the pressure they're under. But when you have a friendly rival, you know you're not alone and that someone else really does get exactly what you're going through, since they're running the same race. In some cases, that even can mean being able to turn to your rival for advice and support, including in finances or other resources. Adam Grant, organizational psychologist with The Wharton School, notes some cases where this has happened between companies in Harvard Business Review.
3. You play more fairly.
You probably naturally try to preserve your own reputation to get ahead. But when a rival is a more like a buddy, you also work in a way that doesn't risk their reputation, too. You learn to work by the rules with respect and are able to hold your integrity more easily, which helps others to trust you in every corner of what you're doing.
4. You focus better.
It's practically written in our DNA not to like being beta. If we see someone "better", we almost automatically feel the need to prove our own ability, because we want to maintain our status and feel secure in it. So having someone around who can compete with you on good terms can light a fire in your belly to work harder, take a little more risk or stay on task. As an example, a 2014 study of long-distance runners by Gavin Kilduff found that race participants could shave nearly 25 seconds off their time when they had a rival in a 5k with them, versus when no rival was against them.
5. Your strengths and weaknesses become clearer.
People who don't compete against you often don't want to hurt your feelings, and they might not be in a position to assess your qualifications or results. But a friendly rival purposely looks at you to see both flaws and positives, learning from you even as they try to figure out the best way to overcome you. So you can trust your rival to give more accurate feedback when you ask for it, which lays a better foundation for future growth and development practice.
6. You become a better analyst.
Some of how you judge a rival admittedly is purely emotional and subjective. But real competition means going to the facts, including metrics. Just as your rival learns to evaluate you, you learn to objectively analyze them and their activity. In the long run, this teaches you to take a more evidence-based approach that fosters fairness.
Since a friendly rival can be so beneficial, it's worth asking your mentors to point you in the right direction about who could be great to battle. Then feel each other out and get a sense of each other and how you're alike, since rivals aren't polar opposites--it's your similarities that both put you in the same class and provide empathy. Then make sure you have opportunities to go head-to-head--tell each other about and simultaneously apply for the same projects or competitions or play some sports together, for example.
But in the end, make sure that your primary goal is not merely to beat your rival, but rather to create or do something no one else can, as author Srinivas Rao recommends. By doing this through the competition, you'll keep a fantastic sense of your own individuality and exactly what makes you unstoppable.