Why Winning Is Overrated
By Damian Whitworth
Review Publication Date: March 1, 2014
Everywhere Margaret Heffernan looks she sees fellow citizens who have become terrible C-words. After years of corporate breakdowns, ethical corrosion, financial crashes, stalled politics and overheated rhetoric, she thinks it is time we re-evaluated how we run our lives. We have become a society of hateful competitors.
Fear not. This is not a polemic from a 1970s sociologist or a dreary. Educationalist advocating non-competitive sports days. Heffernan, an American who studied at Cambridge and lives in Britain, has run a variety of internet businesses and is the author of the bestselling Wilful Blindness, which examined the phenomenon of people ignoring the truth when it is in plain sight.
The thesis of A Bigger Prize, which bears the clunky subtitle "Why competition isn't everything and how we do better", is that we are gripped by a "quasi-religious fervor to compete". Even though Darwin scholars can't agree whether Darwin himself would have been a social Darwinian, we accept that nature seems to provide a "survival of the fittest" justification for the way we struggle against each other. The reality, says the author, is that competition often doesn't work. The best don't necessarily rise to the top, and so-called efficiency has a strange habit of creating waste. The cost of competition can be seen at home where sibling rivalry leads to a lack of trust and generosity. Endlessly assessed and ranked, some children self medicate, others buy coursework over the internet, while increasing numbers starve themselves.
Heffernan talks to couples who compete in their marriages. David was successful at work, so his wife, Susan, says she dominated domestic life. "I wouldn't let him win at home ... so he had an affair at work." An employee of a Wall Street hedge fund describes how no one shared ideas because they hoped to set up their own funds. "Every other person constituted a threat. It was very unpleasant."
Sport is becoming fiercer and richer and more than 30,000 American cheerleaders end up in emergency rooms every year. Heffernan criticises the system of architecture competitions which she claims (architects may dispute this) cannot be won with smaller, subtler buildings. Constructions like Renzo Piano's Shard appear "oblivious to the inequality they came to symbolise". "I am not at all convinced that small is beautiful but I am persuaded that big is dangerous," she writes. She examines the hubris of RBS's colossal growth under Sir Fred Goodwin and heads to North Carolina to examine the environmental impact of massive pig farms.
Rather than relentlessly driving to be the biggest, the first or the best, Heffernan argues we need to collaborate more and better. For scientists sharing information is vital, but individuals are haunted by the prospect of being scooped by rivals. The Human Genome Project was a triumph of international collaboration and data sharing, despite the fact that Craig Venter at Celera was running a rival project to map the human genome. John Sulston, the Nobel prizewinner who had a lead role on the project, says that competition didn't make the project faster or cheaper and led to thousands of genes being commercially patented by Celera.
Musicians complain that some top performers are so focused on themselves that they don't hear the music. Adele, on the other hand, used more than 100 people on her album 21. Heffernan says even supposed heroic soloists like Steve Jobs work best with peers, like Jonathan lve at Apple and John Lasseter at Pixar. Heffernan praises companies that do not pursue remorseless cost-cutting and outsourcing. She visits Emma Bridgewater's pottery factory in Stoke-on-Trent. Wages might be higher than in Malaysia but customers pay for quality and creativity.
Sometimes it feels like the author is overstating the place of competitiveness in modern life and underplaying the huge amount of co-operation that already exists. But while any sensible person already recognises that excessive competition is not healthy, this is a timely view of how a compulsion to compete is often counterproductive and could cause graver problems on an increasingly crowded planet.
Pushy types really are everywhere. On the book's cover the publisher, apparently without irony, has a line stating that Heffernan's previous book was shortlisted for a business book of the year award. A book prize? Sounds a bit darned competitive.