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Get into the best schools. Land your next big promotion. Dress for success. Run faster. Play tougher. Work harder. Keep score. And whatever you do — make sure you win.
Competition runs through every aspect of our lives today. From the cubicle to the race track, in business and love, religion and science, what matters now is to be the biggest, fastest, meanest, toughest, richest.
The upshot of all these contests? As Margaret Heffernan shows in this eye-opening book, competition regularly backfires, producing an explosion of cheating, corruption, inequality, and risk. The demolition derby of modern life has damaged our ability to work together.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. CEOs, scientists, engineers, investors, and inventors around the world are pioneering better ways to create great products, build enduring businesses, and grow relationships. Their secret? Generosity. Trust. Time. Theater. From the cranberry bogs of Massachusetts to the classrooms of Singapore and Finland, from tiny start-ups to global engineering firms and beloved American organizations — like Ocean Spray, Eileen Fisher, Gore, and Boston Scientific — Heffernan discovers ways of living and working that foster creativity, spark innovation, reinforce our social fabric, and feel so much better than winning.
On a beautiful August day, the New Hampshire sunshine streams through the tall pine trees surrounding the Cheshire County Fair. On the outer perimeter, cart horses and pigs are scrutinized and judged, some garnering rosettes, others being returned to their owners, for whom they are both livelihood and pets. Kids try their hand at milking cows and goats or driving their first tractor. After lunch, Slackwire Sam unicycles up and down his loose clothesline; in the far corner of the fairground, tug-of-war is scheduled for the end of the day.
An inner circle of food stalls offers fried dough, blossoming onions, corn dogs, and cotton candy. Families four abreast carry paper cartons of calamari and fries or cones overflowing with fluorescent ice cream. Clutching goldfish swimming in plastic bags, three young girls compare prizes while twin brothers walk side by side, sporting matching T-shirts: THE 2ND AMENDMENT: AMERICA’S ORIGINAL HOMELAND SECURITY. In the dusty heat, we are all sauntering slowly, eating, talking, and seeking out small patches of shade, when the announcement comes over the loudspeaker: the demolition derby is about to begin!
Gently—it is too hot to rush—the direction of the crowd turns toward the central stadium and up the bleachers, where seats in the shade are soon occupied. Conceding defeat, the rest of the spectators shift reluctantly toward the sunny side, spread out, and don hats. Aficionados place towels carefully on their laps.
In the center of the arena, eight rusty wrecked cars rev their engines. Car 49 sports flags decorated with skulls; car 38 proudly promotes its sponsor—WB Paint Worx—in hand-painted electric red, white, and blue logos. Car 72 displays steer horns on its roof, while car 3 advertises McCue’s billiard hall in nearby Keene.
“Are you ready?” the loudspeaker blares. The crowd starts to join in the countdown—“five … four … three … two … one”—and the cars reverse out of their alignment, struggling to gain traction in the dust. Now they’re off, whirling and spinning as they drag themselves into collisions. The goal is demolition, and the last car left running wins the prize.
“Get serious, guys—we need some contact!”
As the cars drag themselves around the arena, radiators steaming, the spinning tires throw up dirt made damp from oil spills and water. The crowd screams and ducks as the dirt goes flying, landing on laps and smearing my sunglasses. Now I understand why the woman next to me brought her towel: this is part of the fun.
“Eileen, you gotta hit somebody!”
Driving car 23, Eileen can’t possibly hear the crowd through her crash helmet, but she knows what to do. Whizzing around, she heads off to smash into car 49, an easy target as its undercarriage drags along the ground. Then she backs up and charges into the corner where Kyle in car 25 is stuck—trapped by three dilapidated vehicles that back up, accelerate, and smash into him. The radiator explodes against the arena wall, the car accordions, and Kyle is out of the game. Once a car can’t move, all of the rest move in to pulverize it.
With doors, hoods, and fenders now dispersed across the dirt, just four vehicles remain. Car 72 can only drive in reverse now and limps with a flat tire; everyone is starting to lose power, but the derby can’t finish until one more goes down. As if sensing blood, cars 35, 66, and 72 head for Eileen, but she outmaneuvers them, gets behind 35, and, catching it on her front fender, rams it against the wall.
“We’ve got our three!” and the crowd erupts into applause as the local fire brigade walks onto the field to clear the wreckage and prepare for the final.
As I sat in the stands on that beautiful August day, I couldn’t help but think that I was watching some kind of parable. All around the world, rusty, dilapidated institutions and ideas seemed to be crashing into each other, driven by a competitive spirit that offered the brutal simplicity of winners and losers. After five years of corporate breakdowns, ethical corrosion, financial crashes, stalled politics, and overheated rhetoric, all that remained was the grim drama of the contest.
Wherever I looked, competition had become the default motivator, as though, exhausted and demoralized, no culture or politics could proffer a superior driver or decisive alternative. As complex social, financial, legal, and environmental challenges piled up on one another, a kind of despair seemed to descend: we don’t know what to do, let the market decide. Put it out to competition, make people compete, the best will rise to the top—won’t it?
Fans of competition regularly looked to Charles Darwin for intellectual support. Most cited “survival of the fittest” without recognizing that the term came not from Darwin but from Herbert Spencer, who had handily translated “natural selection,” giving it his own favored political spin. Since a world of winners and losers is natural, the social Darwinians argued, we would do better to tone our competitive muscles than question the ways of nature. We are, after all, the product of an evolutionary contest in which the best of our genetic inheritance has survived while the rest has perished. Although even Darwin scholars couldn’t agree whether Darwin himself would have been a social Darwinian, nature itself seemed to provide the ultimate alibi.
Social Darwinians were hugely aided by the many people who were familiar with Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene but who had never read it. No wonder publisher Tom Maschler suggested that the book might better be called The Immortal Gene. As Dawkins himself conceded in the thirtieth anniversary edition, many people took the title at face value, didn’t bother to read the text, and concluded that the book must be a vindication of raw, unbridled selfishness. The selfish gene is only out for itself, it is who we are, and there’s nothing we can do about it. That the book said nothing of the kind—in fact it mounted an eloquent and powerful counterargument—didn’t matter. The title had become the work.
Nor were the avid competitors devoid of data. At the end of the nineteenth century, one of the world’s first social psychologists, Norman Triplett, had demonstrated that cyclists ride faster against a competitor than when cycling alone. And even though much of Triplett’s subsequent work added layers of refinement and contingency to his result, the headline stuck: everyone works harder, faster, better, when they’re up against each other. Sport became the ubiquitous metaphor, profusely obscuring what it sought to illuminate.
As a consequence, organizations—public and private—had come to rely on competition to choose and motivate people, to inspire investors and consumers, to justify everything from doomed mergers to sweatshops and price hikes. What had been tested by competition must be better. Never mind the cost, and never mind that competition is designed to benefit the few, not the many—we lived in a dog-eat-dog world and what mattered now was to be top dog. Schools might no longer be about learning, work might now have little to do with self-fulfillment, and society might not be about relationships anymore; what mattered was to read the manuals, bone up on techniques, buy the equipment, pay the trainer, swallow the supplements, and always keep score.
Winners have always, of course, been more susceptible to this argument. Since competitions work for them, they understandably find it hard to see what might be wrong with their strategy. Losers rarely write history. And anyway, competition is fun: it’s dramatic and exciting, there’s a winner, and you always know just where you stand. At a moment in time when no one seemed to know where to go or what to do, wasn’t that clarity good enough?
And yet, just as we’d learned that individuals aren’t rational and markets aren’t efficient and we went ahead operating as though they are, so we also recognized that competition quite regularly doesn’t work, the best do not always rise to the top, and the so-called efficiency of competition seems to throw off a very great deal of waste. It was comforting to designate these ideas “perverse outcomes,” as though each one was an anomaly, but as aberrations mounted, they started to look more like a norm.
As this grim contest has played out over the last few years, the “Prisoner’s Dilemma” has come into its own.* The Prisoner’s Dilemma has been applied to so many problems and settings—from the Cold War to drugs in sports—that it has been called the “E. coli of social science.” Game theory is largely absent from this book—I’m far more interested in practice—but in all the many permutations of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, one finding remains critical: when each prisoner competes for himself, instead of collaborating with his fellow, they both lose. The individual pursuit of self-interest proves collectively defeating.
Over the last fifty years, we have seen this played out on an epic scale. In our quasi-religious fervor to compete, we have expected fabulous efficiencies, miraculous economies, infinite creativity, and dazzling innovation. Instead, we have found ourselves gasping for air in a sea of corruption, dysfunction, environmental degradation, waste, disenchantment, and inequality—and the harder we compete the more unequal we become. This is no coincidence, but the inevitable outcome of our faith in competition as a simple panacea for the many and complex challenges that we face.
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. When pharmaceutical companies win patents on lookalike drugs, it costs us the critical new medicines that never get developed. When food producers aim to dominate their markets with low prices, we all pay the costs in environmental and social degradation. And when the pressure to win exacerbates cheating and corruption, it costs us the legitimacy of our institutions and the credibility of our beliefs.
Over the last fifty years, we have leaned heavily on competition, hoping that it will solve our problems, motivate our children, and reinvigorate companies and institutions. But we have shied away from the uncomfortable truth that our outsize veneration of competition has left us ill equipped to solve the problems it has created. If we are to invent new ways to live and work together, we need high levels of trust and give-and-take: attributes that competition specifically and subtly corrodes.
As if in recognition of this, a rising generation is avidly seeking the tools and environments in which sharing, co-creation, and trust are endemic and reinforced. And increasingly, they are not disappointed. Evolutionary science has shown us why we have survived to defy gravity and build monuments of lasting beauty and meaning—because we know how to work together. 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. The wildly collaborative and creative individuals and organizations described in this book testify to the human capacity to cooperate, to share, to look across broad horizons, and to dig deep together. Our talent for coalitions, our ability to cooperate, even the creation of language itself—the ultimate tool for collaboration—testifies to an immense human capacity for solidarity.
Perhaps the long legacy of the Soviet Union explains the queasiness with which many approach the subjects of collaboration, cooperation, and altruism to this day. Rather as Darwin feared killing God, we fear that any renunciation of competition must kill capitalism and return us to the corruption and cruelty of the Soviet experiment. Such a conception is, of course, historically inaccurate—the Soviet Union incited competition regularly and viciously in all walks of life. But the polarization implicit in it reflects the poverty of our win-lose mind-set, which blinds us to the greater opportunities and energies that lie elsewhere. We can find better ways to live, to work, and to rebuild our failed institutions for the many, not just the few. All around us are examples we can and must learn from.
We are all competitive, but we are not only competitive. No book, sermon, movement, or political party will ever change the insatiable human appetite for status and distinction. But working together is human nature, and if we look carefully, we can see individuals and organizations all around us to show us how. These trailblazers know that growth, learning, and creativity always depend on a vast array of people and ideas, freely shared and generously celebrated. They appreciate that fairness, safety, and trust are essential to the unfettered exploration that generates new ideas. They don’t accept that the only measure of success is the number of losers left in the dust. And they entirely reject the idea that true achievement can be measured at any single moment in time. These are people who aren’t driven to keep score but rather are motivated by the belief that great work is done together, that efficiency is gained by trust, and that safety opens the floodgates of the mind. They have everything to teach us—and sharing is what they do best.
When I first started to explore these themes, the first response that greeted me was astonishment: You dare to question competition? What else is there? In the years that have passed, that reaction has shifted. Now when I discuss my work, I see in people’s faces and hear in their voices a sense of relief and hope. Yes, there is a better way to live and work. Yes, the alternatives are real, significant, practical, and sustainable. There are forms of success that are better than winning. For all of us, there is a bigger prize.
*Dreamed up and given its name by a Canadian mathematician, Albert Tucker, the game has been used to model competition and the variety of ways in which it can play out. The Prisoner’s Dilemma poses what looks like a simple scenario. Two members of a gang are arrested and placed in solitary confinement, where they have no means of communicating with each other. The police don’t have enough evidence to convict the two on the main charge, so they plan to sentence each to a year’s imprisonment on a lesser charge. But they also offer the prisoners a bargain: if one testifies against his partner, he will go free and the partner will get three years in prison on the more serious charge. As in all good social-science scenarios, there is a catch: if both prisoners testify against each other, they each get two years in jail.
“I want the first one!”
As Alice brings in a plate of cake slices, Harry stretches over to grab his piece. He’s wound up, tense, and excited. He’s hungry, of course, but it’s more than that. He doesn’t just want cake. He wants to be the first to get his cake and eat it.
We aren’t in a poor home—there’s no shortage of food. In this comfortable country house with sunny windows and a big open kitchen, there is more than enough warmth and light and cake to go around. Harry’s parents, Alice and Paul Hobbs, are kind, loving, and calm. They’re both lawyers; of the two, Alice had the more dazzling career until she stepped down to spend more time with her three boys.
And that’s the clue. The tension, the excitement, the slightly wired feeling in the room—it isn’t about cake. It’s about those three boys, each one of whom wants to come first, get the most, be the best.
Harry is eleven. He competes with Tom, who is eight, and four-year-old Oliver. All three boys are handsome, boisterous, even charismatic in their as-yet undeveloped enthusiasms. You can tell as you watch them that they’re neither spoiled rotten nor lacking for anything. Growing up with plenty—of love, attention, stimulation, support, and, yes, cake—has had its effect. The boys are bursting with potential that requires only time to unfurl. So they aren’t competing because there’s a shortage of anything. They’re competing because they’re human. And they compete all the time.
The next morning, as the sun starts to burn off the mist on the broad lawns that surround the house, Tom is up early making porridge and getting ready to go for a swimming lesson.
“Where’s the chocolate spread?” Harry asks.
His father Paul isn’t sure, but Harry knows for a fact that his mother bought some on Friday and that it hasn’t been opened yet. He conveys this information with the ferocity of a government minister at the dispatch box arguing his point. His father duly finds the chocolate spread.
“You can’t let him have that!” Tom protests.
“Yes, he can!” Harry counters.
“You can’t, Dad.” Tom is distraught. “You can’t let him have the chocolate spread. I’m going swimming. It will all be gone before I get back.”
Food isn’t the only point of contention in the Hobbs household. Footballs, TV time, Monopoly pieces, outings with Grandma, the place in front of the fire, bedtime—anything and everything can be fought over. It’s exhausting for Alice because it never stops.
“If I give them each a candy, there will be endless squabbling—a Smartie is worth more than a Gummy Bear. If I hand them each a cookie, I just have two hands and the third one will always ask: where’s mine? As if I’m not going to turn around and get the other cookie. If for some reason I don’t give them a candy, they’ll argue about whose fault it is that there aren’t any candies today.”
Alice has invited me to observe her three boys because she recognizes how competitive they are. Their desire to win against each other is so naked and unmediated. Like the rest of us, Alice understands the need for identity and territory to call one’s own, but her sons’ open fight for it disrupts her family and unsettles her home.
The constant competition is also very draining. Every bedtime the boys fight over something. When they aren’t in school, contests, spats, and conflagrations erupt with monotonous regularity, and their mother recognizes that they are competing for her attention and approval, of which there can never be enough. The heat in the household invariably centers on Harry, who is handsome, tall with curly light brown hair, has presence, and exudes a sense of being top dog.
“Harry plays rugby at school,” his mother tells me. “After a match, if he hasn’t scored a try, he’ll have a reason: he wasn’t placed right, he wasn’t given the chance. He won’t ever say the other boy played better. Deep down inside, he cannot bear to say to himself: ‘He scored the try because he’s better than I am.’”
Tom is smaller, quieter, and a deeper character altogether, as though he has knowledge that he’s not sharing.
“Tom will watch Harry play rugby and say, ‘He played well,’ or, ‘That was a great kick,’ and he does it without any sense that it has cost him anything to say that. Generosity comes easily to him, but he won’t put himself forward. He doesn’t do his own PR. He’s much quieter, and he won’t challenge.”
The youngest, Oliver, clearly loves being the baby of the family, the safest spot because no one wants his position.
“Oliver just loves getting stuck in. He’s only four, he knows he can’t touch his brothers. But he’s keen to show that he can play the game, that he counts, and that there’s no reason he should be left out. But in the family pecking order, well, he’s just above Rocket the dog.”
At school Harry has to be—and invariably is—top of his class. He’s good, his mother says, at marketing himself. His father Paul thinks he has the makings of a CEO, or perhaps an MP.
“Harry has to be top dog; he has to be. He’s very careful to ensure that everyone likes him,” Alice says. “The teachers and the kids all like him because, of course, at school they have no idea what a bully he is at home. Because he is a bully. He wants to make Tom feel bad. He can’t be generous. He has to be the best. Whenever I praise Tom, you’ll see him rise up and have to put him down.”
We are sitting in Alice’s sitting room, which is lined with deep cream sofas. For the moment the house is quiet, but Alice is on tenterhooks; she knows that moments like this don’t last long. And indeed, just a few minutes later, something upstairs crashes to the floor, we hear howls of protest, and somebody starts crying. With a weary sigh, Alice rises out of the sofa and leaves to adjudicate.
Harry has to win. He needs his siblings to lose. You can see it in the way he carries himself, the way he watches every move they make. Later in the day, when Alice tries to tell me what a strong swimmer Tom is, Harry stands in front of me, as though trying physically to block the words from reaching my ears.
Over the next two weeks Alice keeps a diary of her sons’ interactions. It is relentless.
Wednesday the 12th: Tom has insisted on a trip to visit his grandparents alone because Harry has had several visits himself; there’s an element of evening out the score.
Thursday the 13th: Oliver in a song and dance show at school. We told him how well he’d done. “Tell the others,” he said, “because they said it was going to be rubbish.”
Saturday the 15th: Major argument over rugby balls.
Sunday the 16th: Much arguing over small things; bickering and unsettled. Particular issue when Harry wanted to go fishing with Granddad and it’s only safe for Granddad to look after one boy at a time. Tom very upset.
Monday the 17th: Huge fight over bathtime. Tom decidedly smug that he was “getting away with it.”
Tuesday the 18th: Argument over a cake Oliver had been given at a birthday party. He had almost finished it (with brothers pleading for a piece at every mouthful) when a piece broke off, landed on the floor, whereupon the dog licked it. Harry then grabbed it—and ate it. Yuck! He was scolded by me, but the look on his face was telling me he thought it was worth it for the prize of a piece of unexpected cake, even if dog-licked. Tom, excluded from it all, with no doggy cake, went into meltdown.
Wednesday the 19th: Tom invited out to see the new Johnny English film. Harry was clearly envious and disappeared into the study for hours. He emerged triumphant, declaring he had worked out how to download films and was downloading, yes, Johnny English 1. Given our rubbish broadband speed, it took ages and then even longer to watch it back on the computer. This did not diminish his pleasure one bit. Not sure if the film was any good, but he had succeeded in clawing back a piece of Tom’s treat by undermining the novelty. Predictably, on Tom’s return he announced, “Well, I’ve seen Johnny English 1, and everyone thinks that it’s better.”
The diary goes on like this, day after day. It’s exhausting to read and must have been enervating to live through. Earlier in the year, Harry had gone on a weeklong school trip. The difference, Alice tells me, was absolute. The mood, temperature, conversations—everything in the family changed. It is sad, she reflects, to be so happy when one of your children is gone.
What Alice and her husband have on their hands is a bad case of “sibling rivalry.” The phrase was first coined by psychologist David M. Levy in 1941. That it took so long to name such a common phenomenon seems remarkable. Sibling rivalry kicks off the Bible, with the murder by Cain of Abel, the first act of violence in a very violent book. In the ancient world, Acrisius and Proteus start their quarrel in the womb. Polynices and Eteocles, the sons of Oedipus, kill each other over Thebes, and Romulus and Remus do likewise over the location of Rome. Shakespeare is replete with rivalrous siblings: King Lear pits sister against sister and brother against half-brother, The Tempest encapsulates a lifelong rivalry between Antonio and his brother Prospero, while The Taming of the Shrew draws comic steam from the pitched battle between amiable Bianca and the shrewish Katherine. Novelists from the Brontës and Jane Austen through to Saul Bellow and Jonathan Franzen have appreciated the energy and tension that the presence of brothers and sisters is bound to supply.
- On Sale
- Apr 8, 2014
- Page Count
- 416 pages