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Using Competition to Succeed as an Author

Your competitors aren't your rivals – they should be your inspiration.

On the surface, competition doesn’t seem like natural fuel for creativity. After all, society has framed creativity as a relaxing pastime. An elusive state of mind. When many of us think of the environment in which creativity flourishes, we imagine a lone artist pottering in a field, an author scribbling notes in a warm coffee shop, a team of friendly product designers passing around a sponge ball as they brainstorm. The mainstream message is clear:

“You can’t rush art.”

“You’re either an artist or a sell-out.”

“Competition is the death of art.”

Look at some of the world’s most revered creators, however, and you’ll realise that many don’t share this sentiment. Rather, it’s a message the media perpetuates because it represents the opinions of the majority who, statistically, don’t make a living from the work they create. Meanwhile, those who pursue creativity as a job often thrive on the competition that exists in their industry and use it to achieve mastery over their craft.

Look at the authors who are excelling in the modern age of publishing. While some claim they no longer enjoy writing because they “sold out,” many don’t feel the chafing of golden handcuffs. They see the publishing industry as a game they enjoy and bestseller lists as leader boards. They don’t scorn competition and other authors’ talents but, instead, praise their peers and view readers’ tastes as parameters to challenge their skills.

Admittedly, some studies suggest that pressure can stifle creativity, but it depends on how individuals view competition. Tie your identity to the success of your art and you’ll inevitably lose your mojo if you encounter setbacks. Maintain a healthy distance, however, and you can channel a competitive spirit into creativity and motivation, which you can use to your advantage. There are five easy methods you can use to make this happen.

Identify Your Preferred Game

Have you ever struggled to master a computer game then used cheat codes to make it easy? At first, becoming invincible in Grand Theft Auto or giving yourself unlimited money in The Sims is thrilling. Some players love the freedom to express themselves without rules. After a few minutes, though, we split into two camps. While many of us love the unbridled fun, some of us experience an unexpected sensation: boredom. Getting everything we wanted ruins the game. It’s only then that some of us realise we don’t want total freedom and ease after all; we want to struggle for our progress. We need limits to challenge us. It’s a creative exercise.

Remember this fact the next time your results frustrate you. If you’re not enjoying the process, ask yourself:

  1. Do the rules of the game energise me?
  2. If not, am I playing the right game?

What many authors realise is that they only want to create a passion project — the authorial equivalent of exploring the map without engaging in challenges. They like the idea of competing in challenges but not the reality. In reality, they prefer to shun achievements and play their own game. Meanwhile, others realise that the challenge is the game. They’re just yet to figure out how to win a literary award, hit an income target, or compete for a spot on the USA Today bestseller list. Once you identify the game you want to play, you can overcome frustration and focus on earn the achievements that matter to you.

Turn Envy into Curiosity

Once you identify if you actually want to compete in a field, establishing comradery with other authors is a good way to accelerate your ability to succeed. How do you react, for example, when one of your peers suddenly “breaks out” on Amazon or nabs a six-figure deal with great contract terms? If you’re like most people, you probably congratulate them but say it through gritted teeth. You smile but envy their success. Do you wish it were you? Do you go as far as to wish they hit a speedbump so you could gain ground? Few authors admit to having these thoughts, but it’s common to experience them when your friends do well and you’re struggling.

Instead of letting their success turn you bitter, however, consider what you can learn from their situation. When your internal voice stops saying “It should have been me!” and starts asking “What can I learn?” the frustration dissipates. The switch to curiosity enables you to replace a destructive force with a creative one. Instead of wanting to tear down a friend’s empire, it refocuses your attention onto studying their blueprint to build your own. And it works both ways. Using curiosity, not only can you learn from their successes but also their failures, encouraging them with grace either way. All round, it helps you excel no matter where you are on the leader board.

Befriend Your Peers

Authorship is often called a lonely profession. However, that’s only true if you hide away, never communicating with your peers for fear of giving them an idea they can use to outpace you. Embrace your fellow authors and you’ll learn that we aren’t playing a zero-sum game that rewards those who hoard information. On the contrary, entertainers who work as a team often do better on average. Look at the world of sport. The world’s five richest sports are team sports, and eight of the 10 wealthiest sportspeople play as part of a team. Rather dividing their share of a pie, working together leads to more food overall. A team is greater than the sum of their parts.

In artistic spaces, a concept called “scenius” produces a similar result. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, it’s the idea that several interconnected people can express genius traits as a result of living in a competitive environment. The scene creates genius; hence, scenius. Take, for example, the Authors XI cricket team. It contained a young P. G. Wodehouse, A. A. Milne and J. M. Barrie. What about the Inklings writer’s group? C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkein. And the Romantic poet scenius? William Blake, Mary Shelly, Percy Shelly and William Wordsworth. The trend is clear: befriend talented authors and the close proximity will drive you all to excel.

Appreciate Innovation

Lots of authors who had traditional publishing deals a decade ago envied the financial success of the self-publishing vanguard like Joe Konrath, Hugh Howey and Amanda Hocking; the Kindle Millionaires. Collectively, these trad authors scorned Amazon for “increasing competition.” Yet many of those same authors are now experiencing a career revival, hitting new heights as a result of self-publishing that they might never have seen had Konrath, Howey and Hocking not stoked the fires of innovation. This is true for many authors who view innovation as a threat until they try it themselves. As Henry Ford once said:

“If I had asked the public what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.”

Remember, just because your competition bushwhacked their way into uncharted territory and changed the game, their innovation won’t necessarily harm you. On the contrary, it often exposes new methods and audiences all authors can use to succeed. Without Mark Dawson, would we understand Facebook ads? Without Coleen Hoover, would we see TikTok’s potential? Without savvy erotica authors, would we have the software we now use to sell direct? Yes, when competition innovates, it trounces current efforts, but it also creates new opportunities and tools. Appreciate innovation and it can help you become one of the early adopters who thrive.

Invent a Rivalry

When you’re competing with the entire world, the competition seems insurmountable. After all, there are millions of them and only one of you. Give your competition a face, though, and the whole mental exercise becomes less daunting. It’s because you can see the flaws in one person, and you can also visualise them working when you feel like slacking. This practice gives you a concrete image of who you’re competing against but also a sense of achievability, knowing that no individual person is perfect. As fashion mogul Tommy Hilfiger once said:

“I looked at my competitors and I thought that, if they could do it, I could do it.”

Creating a concrete rivalry gives your goal clarity, even if that rivalry only exists in your head. Michael Jordan famously imagined single basketball players had slighted him before a game so he could muster extra motivation to beat them. That way, for Jordan, the goal then wasn’t the be the best — which was impossible on all fronts; it was to beat this one person who he considered to be his best rival, ergo, becoming the best by default. Try this tactic as an author and, suddenly, you aren’t pitting your limited talents against their endless ones to get more book sales, Twitter followers, awards and email subscribers. You’re in one race with one competitor. Do this and the drive and focus it provides can compound your skills and victories.

Don’t obsess over competition to the point where you forget your reasons for writing in the first place, because doing so will sap all enjoyment and actually deliver you adverse results. Yes, you might “win” at a chosen game, but is it really winning if the cost is your long-term happiness? Use these methods in ways that align with your personality and goals, however, and they will act as jet fuel funnelled into your creative engines, giving you a powerful advantage in your chosen competitive arena.

Daniel Parsons

Daniel Parsons

Dan Parsons is the bestselling author of multiple series. His Creative Business books for authors and other entrepreneurs contains several international bestsellers. Meanwhile, his fantasy and horror series, published under Daniel Parsons, have topped charts around the world and been used to promote a major Hollywood movie. For more information on writing, networking, and building your creative business, check out all of Dan’s non-fiction books here.