A Bigger Prize: How We Can Do Better Than the Competition by Margaret Heffernan, Public Affairs, $27.99, Hardcover, 391 pages, 9781610392914
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.