Many believe that to be excellent, one will have to compete with each other. However, there is no end to competition. The excellence threshold that one may achieve via competitions will not be there with oneself forever. In other words, it is not sustainable. It comes and goes. Someone else will take over the crown from you one day. So, what can you do about it?
Either you walk away from the mainstream of competition or keep on competitng for the sake of competing. You know that by competing you create enemies with others and within you yourself. The others [those who lost in the competition] do not normally appreciate and respect you as the winner. They may even hate you and will find ways and means to topple you. And you yourself will not be at peace inside. You worry at all times in case you loose out in the competition the next time around. So, you start clouding your thoughts with negative and crooked ideas just to maintain your crown. Whereas you should be thinking positively and proactively all the time. You should be innovative in your ideas and tasks in order to stay ahead of the pack. No, it does not and will not happen in the world of competition!
I don't believe in competition as the only way to achieve excellence. You don't have to compete to reach the acme that you have set. You don't have to climb the highest mountain for the sake of looking down on others and thumb your chest to proclaim that you are the best. So what? You think people do care? At best you may be part of history that nobody really bothers.
I believe that one will have to be distinctive - being different not for the sake of being different. But one could be differentiated in a unique way. People love to look up at someone who is unique in his own way. So, how could one be distinctive?
Firstly understand the environment you are in and the constraints that you are facing. If you are a new bloke around the corner don't even dream of joining in the competition with the established lots. You will be eaten alive!
Be creative and find your own space within the environment or move to another environment that is less crowded. Develop a niche and be very good at it.
For instance, you may well be a new university, still very green and fragile. You are part of the thousands of universities in the world. Not many know you and many don't care to make an effort to know you. You will be laughed at the moment you open your mouth to say that you want to be in the league of the THES 500 good universities in say so many years' time. You must remember that you have just learnt how to walk, while others have been running for many many years.
It is near impossible if you want to compete with them. So what shall you do? Forget about spending time and resources to join in the competition. Forget about them. Build up yourself in an environment that is not too crowded. Develop that distictiveness in certain fields that others will respect you and may not want to join in the bandwagon. Even if they desire to do so, you are already far ahead in your distinct fields.
That is what precisely a number of less known universities in the US has done. They could not and will never be able to compete with the giants like Harvard, MIT, Caltech, Stanford, etc., But they develop distinctiveness in their chosen fields. By doing so they gain respect and enjoy some prestige in those fields.
As such, I would suggest that new universities do not waste their resources and time to compete to be in the league. You just cannot be a Harvard or a Cambridge even in a thousand years' time. But you can be on the global map in certain fields that you have developed to a point of being distinctive. You are just different and people love you because you are one of a kind!
I am impressed with a lesser known university in the UK - the Cranfield University. Just read the following statements by the university and you will understand what I am trying to arrive at:
" Specialist and bespoke".. university
"Cranfield University is distinctive..."
"Niche study areas ... in keeping with our established ethos, we work only in key areas. Thus we can offer facilities and expertise beyond the reach of more conventional institutions..."
" Cranfield - we've been shaping destinies in this unique way since 1946"
" Our name is synonymous with the leading edge in our field, ... embraces aerospace, ...defence...and life sciences"
Cranfield University is distintive in the areas of aerospace engineering, defense studies and automotive engineering to name a few. By being distinctive in these fields, the university has enjoyed the prestige and respect among its peers and the industries. Its graduates are very much sought after by the industries, especially.
It does not bother to compete in order to be ranked within certain band arbitrarily set by THES for example. It is just unique... one of a kind. It is really good in its bespoke fields. And it has attracted top-notch academics and passionate researchers and good students all over the world as well.
How then can one be distintive ? You may ask. Ok, let's exchange ideas on it and come out with creative and innovative solutions.