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article imageHow competition hurts us: An interview with Margaret Heffernan Special

By David Silverberg     Aug 14, 2014 in Business
What makes us competitive, either in business, education or dating, can be detrimental to our career success and overall well-being, argues author Margaret Heffernan in her new book A Bigger Prize. She spoke to us about competition's ugly side.
If we follow the sports analogy, fierce competition should be pushing us to be the best in our respective fields. When an opponent wins, don't we want to boost our performance to overcome that opponent next time around?
But Heffernan will quickly point out how the heavy competition of the Olympics spurned the rise of performance-enhancing drugs and even corruption within the Games' own management. "I don't think we need competition to motivate people," Heffernan says in an interview.
Her book A Bigger Prize: How We Can Do Better Than The Competition concisely sums up Heffernan's view on how cooperation rather than competition can better elevate us to success.
"People are highly motivated to do creative work and they want acknowledgement and support, but they don’t need to beat anybody to do that," argues Heffernan, who previously wrote Wilful Blindness on executives who look the other way when crises strike.
In A Bigger Prize, she focused on several industries reliant on competition to move up the leadership ladder. In education, teachers and schools compete for board dollars and credibility, but that hunger can lead to cheating (by students) and incompetency (by teachers).
Turning to economics, Heffernan has some harsh words for investors and businesses prioritizing a short-sighted eye on share price over sustainable growth. Why should countries measure themselves with GDP instead of a more applicable metric such as a happiness gradient?
The cover for A Bigger Prize
The cover for A Bigger Prize
Via PublicAffairs
When asked if competition can break down monopolies and inspire companies to innovate, like Google vs. Microsoft, Heffernan says head-to-head competition can create tunnel vision. "The more these companies fixate on each other, they more alike to each other they become," she says. "Benchmark against yourself, not another company."
She writes in the book: "Using competition to identify the best and then using the best to inspire the rest turns out to be a great theory; it just doesn’t work in practice." She identifies the key costs to going the competitive route: painful stress, unhealthy habits and general unhappiness. Is competition really worth it outside your football fantasy league?
One of her most amusing chapters analyzed the online dating scene, which has increasingly become hyper-competitive. But in our interview Heffernan says the competition aspect really rears its head at the wedding phase: "Those in their 20s feel like a wedding is a hugely symbolic event, very important to their social status. There's an exaggerated veneration of weddings but what about the marriage?!"
But that's not to say competition has no place in our lives whatsoever. Heffernan sees value in competition for short-term tasks like asking your children to clean their rooms and make a game out of it. Or enrol those same kids in sports leagues to promote extracurricular exercise...just don't be an aggressive hockey dad or soccer mom, she warns.
What's next for Heffernan? She's working on a business book to be published by an upcoming imprint from the TED Talks team. The book will look at small changes made within companies that can hugely impact corporate culture.
For information on Heffernan's work visit her website.
More about margaret heffernan, Competition, a bigger prize, Olympics, Sports