How to Read Your Competition Like a Pro

A man sits at a laptop at a white desk.

When I think about competition, I think about how it can make me better. 

My daily work as a newspaper reporter is all about competition and outsmarting fellow journalists who are just as hungry for a story as I am. Scoop or get scooped, as we say. 

While it can make for a stressful work environment, competition can be the foundation for a lot of growth too. Being able to read your competition is essential not just to getting ahead but also to growing your skill set and building lasting success.

You’re not always going to come out on top, but that’s the catch of working in a competitive environment. In those situations — where I’m not the first to break the news or get the investigative story — I think about how I can learn from that, and what the person who got the story did differently.

After all, just like Winston Churchill said, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”

You have to keep moving.

Whether you experience competition from people who work in your office or from people who are in the same field, it can help to know how to handle the inevitable rivalry. 

First things first: how to spot the competition. Sometimes it’s one of those “you know it when you see it” situations. They have to win at everything. They are hyper-competitive. 

But other times, it’s more subdued. They consistently churn out good work and it doesn’t feel combative; they’re just working for themselves. 

You can learn from both types of competition and use it to your advantage.

Look for the positives

Oftentimes we see people we consider as our  “competition” separate from people we consider “mentors.” But there’s no reason why they have to be on different ends of the spectrum. I learn a lot from the people who I’m trying to out-do everyday. Even more, I respect them and most of the time I genuinely like them as people. 

This is the most obvious benefit of competition: being driven by people who are passionate about the same things as we are. 

It’s the perfect foundation for innovation. Tweaking your method until you outdo somebody else. Then, they do the same thing, so you have to improve again.The cycle is never-ending. It’s the reason why we have modern technology, like lightning-fast computers and internet browser preferences. We can even credit the lightbulb to the work of nearly 20 people (though Thomas Edison often gets the praise). 

Look at your personal goals and your profession’s goals to find the positives in competition. There’s a lot of room to find a silver lining, whether it be picking up a new skill or working to create a solution.

If your competition has forced you to learn a new skill or get out of your comfort zone, that’s a plus.

Learn from their strengths 

There are few feelings sweeter than the clickity-clack of my iPhone typing out “#BREAKING” and knowing I’m the first one with the news. But when I’m not and my heart sinks reading the 140 characters I was so close to typing myself, I immediately start thinking (okay, sometimes it’s more like obsessing) about how they got to the story first. 

Did they put in more hours? Do they know more people? Do they have more experience? A little bit of everything? Ask yourself what strengths your competition has, and, more importantly, how you can incorporate those strengths into your own work. 

Maybe your peer spends more time brainstorming or they’re a better organizer. These skills aren’t out of your realm of achievement. Perhaps they are really great at networking or just have a different experience that lends to how they achieve success. You can get those things too.

Whatever it is, try to imagine how that edge could be adapted to your work. Most of the time the “secret sauce” we imagine our competition having isn’t so secret at all. It’s a simple recipe we can make too.

Of course, their strengths might not be yours. It’s okay to identify your own and put in a lot of effort there. Even just being aware of how the competition stacks up can help you better your own strengths and prepare for whatever is thrown your way next. 

Think ahead

When you are trying to stay ahead, you have to adapt and know when, and how, to be flexible. Reading your competition is only half the battle. You can ask yourself ”what would they do?”, but then think beyond that. How do you go a step further? What’s the backup plan? 

Good competition is like chess. You have to simultaneously think like them so you stay in the game, but also differently enough to keep your edge. 

In a competitive work environment being prepared is the golden rule. If there isn’t any room for setbacks, make sure you’re prepared and can mostly anticipate any new developments. Not everything is foreseeable, but being the most prepared you can be keeps you agile. 

When to let go 

I often see competition as my motivator, but sometimes it becomes too much. I get too caught up in rivalries that aren’t beneficial to my own work. It’s easy to do, especially when we want to be the best at our jobs because we truly love the work. 

Occasionally you need to take a step back and ask if the competitiveness is serving you and your work. Ask yourself what role it plays in the main goal. If the cost of the competition isn’t worth the return, maybe it’s not an investment you should be making, or at least maybe it deserves less of your attention.

It can be difficult to step away from these situations. Sometimes it feels like giving ground or defeat. It’s not. Think of it more as a strategic move. An investment in something more valuable.

The bottom line is that competition is constantly changing and evolving, so try to accept it and minimize the overthinking. You’ll be better for taking calculated risks, prioritizing your time, and letting go when it’s not serving the overall purpose.

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