Here is what I came up with with the search mere competence on my blog.
The idea is a very simple one. You stand out just by being competent, because you can't take that for granted in the least. If you do the high school stuff, like marshal good evidence for a meaningful, well-articulated thesis, you will publish articles. I review articles all the time that shouldn't have even been sent to a journal at all. Imagine an article that doesn't really have a point to it, is just a bunch of information strung together. These are by people with PhDs, who know a lot of shit about their field, but they don't know how to write an article yet. So I am overjoyed when I get something competent, that I can work with to get to the level of being publishable in a revise-and-resubmit.
You don't have to compete with people to be competent, because those who aren't aren't even worth bothering with.
Once you are competent, then you are free to make your work even better, because who wants to be merely competent. I don't happen to think Helen Vendler is brilliant. What she does is look at some poems and ask, what are they doing? She writes well and has made a career out of having some actual ideas about poets, what makes them distinctively themselves. She is not theoretically informed; basically, a New Critic. Yet she has risen to the top of her field with traditional style and theme criticism on canonical authors.
Put another way, being competent means you are doing what you are supposed to be, on the positive side of the ledger. Once you are at that level, it is hard to be merely competent because it is extremely dull. That is where the fun really starts, then.