A Bigger Prize

Published: March 1st, 2011
ISBN-10: 0802719988
ISBN-13: 978-0802719980
Publisher: PublicAffair

Purchase from:
Guardian Bookstore | Waterstones
A BIGGER PRIZE: Why Competition Isn't Everything And How We Do Better was first published in 2014.


The Observer
My Egg's Bigger Than Yours. Tough Cluck
By Ian Morris, the Observer
Review Publication Date: March 9, 2014

While studying natural selection, William Muir, a geneticist at Purdue University, ran an experiment measuring the egg-laying productivity of two flocks of chickens. The first group was a so-called free flock, in which animals could roam and mingle as they pleased, while the second comprised only the most productive birds. After several generations, the free flock was cranking out eggs at a furious pace. But for the descendants of the �high achievers, it was a different story. Most had been killed by hens that saw them as rivals, and the few survivors were in a sorry state, harrying and pecking at one another unforgivingly. "That describes my department;' said one of Muir's colleagues shown evidence of the damage.

One of many scientific studies referenced in Margaret Heffernan's new book, the parable of the chickens is intended to show what can happen when a group of tiber-competitive individuals is brought together. Economists have taught us that competitive self-interest ultimately benefits everyone and makes society more productive, but Heffernan believes the opposite. In her view, the ascendancy of competition in all walks of life has impoverished people and the planet in countless ways.

This is a brave exercise. The idea that competition is a necessary force for good is deeply ingrained in our collective psyche. Many ridicule the adage that taking part matters more than winning, regarding this as an excuse for mediocrity and underachievement. Others will see the spectre of communism in any anti-competition diatribe. Realising her challenge, Heffernan makes clear from the outset she is no apologist for the Soviet Union, which actually prioritised competition in many areas, and that she is not against competition per se. "We are all competitive but we are not only competitive," she says.

What follows is a meticulously researched and engagingly written argument that even the most strident proponents of competition will find hard to refute. Tackling subjects as diverse as family life, sports and education, the early chapters show how an obsession with competing has stripped so many activities of their true value-the only goal being to come first at any cost -and benefited the few at the expense of the many. Increasingly eager to assess students and schools through tests and rankings, Britain and America still lag behind egalitarian, exams-averse Finland on educational proficiency, according to one high. Walking on eggshells: a genetic experiment showed that hens are more productive when less competitive. Alamy profile study. Competition has also spawned an epidemic of cheating and illicit behaviour, writes Heffernan. For an indication of that, look no further than the Olympic Games-"full of corruption, cover-up, performance.enhancing drug use", in the words of Victor Conte, who was convicted in 2005 of supplying steroids to athletes.

Just as revelatory are the sections dealing with the various misdemeanours and missteps of the business world: stultifying hierarchies that pit colleagues against one another; a short-sighted focus on share price over sustainable growth; and a relentless march towards greater efficiency, whatever that means for the safety .of employees. All are cleverly shown to be the products of a system for which competition is the singular concern.

Heffernan seems a part of the zeitgeist that has emerged in the wake ofthe 2008 financial crash, taking aim at socio-economic principles that have long appeared sacrosanct. But while some authors are content just to pick flaws in the current set-up, Heffernan's narrative is replete with examples of individuals and organizations that have found alternatives, from the bosses that have turned their companies into co-operatives to Nobel-prizewinning economist Elinor Ostrom, who demonstrated there are practical ways to overcome the problem of resource allocation. Universally relevant and hard to fault, this is an important contribution to an expanding genre.

Jack Covert Selects - A Bigger Prize
Review by Jack Covert, Founder of CEO-800-READ

Online Publication Date: April 11, 2014

In everything from sports to business, from educational achievement to ideas, our society encourages vigorous competition. In her new book, A Bigger Prize, Margaret Heffernen warns that there are some significant detriments that come with 'our outsize veneration of competition.'

Winning always incurs costs. When siblings grow up in rivalry, they struggle to relate with trust and generosity. When schools celebrate the top of the class, they demotivate the rest. When the rich win tax cuts, inequality grows. As sports become fiercer and richer, careers shorten and injuries abound. When executives are encouraged to compete for bonuses and promotions, they pay in lost friendships and stunted creativity. An obsession with score-keeping constrains thinking and undermines the very innovation it hopes to spark.

So what is the solution? Ms. Heffernan believes that working together ('connect, communicate, collaborate') is the key to combating the costs inherent in traditional competition, and that we are more capable of doing this today than ever before.

New models for sharing information, pooling resources, organizing complex projects, and inventing new products abound, amply demonstrating that great work, inexhaustible innovation, and passionate commitment amply and easily supplant exhausting rivalries.

But working together is something we've been doing since the dawn of human existence, and while readers may be skeptical of her premise and wonder how we can 'reset' our culture to be one of cooperation instead of compromise, Heffernen offers a simple reminder that we have always been able to obtain a greater payoff together than we can earn as individuals.

A Bigger Prize is almost Gladwell-esque in the way the stories and research wind together into a myriad of engaging anecdotes that help us better understand ourselves and each other. It shows how competition plays a destructive role in our personal relationships, our politics, in science, and our ability to trust or even believe in the inherent goodness of others.

One of the problems is that, when we win, we want to be seen winning, and that narcissism can irreversibly alienate us from others. Collaboration becomes an impossibility. And when we are constantly looking around at how others are doing and how we stack up, we actually lose rather than strengthen our sense of autonomy. Competition becomes an addiction we cannot shake, a fence that limits our ability to roam. Ridding ourselves of it is liberating.

And freedom was the reward: not life on a beach or endless parties, but work enriched by others and the social capacity to connect to people without fear, intimidation, or distance.

That's certainly motivation enough to learn more about non-competitive models of working and living, and definitely the Bigger Prize.