Competition is bad for us says Margaret Heffernan
Margaret Heffernan offered some startling observations as she talked about her book ‘A Bigger Prize‘ at Bristol’s Festival of Ideas this week. She stopped just a little short of our views on the subject – here’s our take on what she had to say.
The biggest problem with competition is that there are so many losers. Whether in education, sport, business or society, the more intense the focus on competition the greater the cost to everyone – including the ‘winners’.
Beginning with education, Heffernan described how the Finnish have remodelled their ideas of success around collaborative working and a commitment to NOT measuring performance. She argued passionately that a focus on grades actively undermines a love of learning, the very thing that’s most important to an education. Studies conclusively show children learn best collaboratively – independent learning comes next, and competitive learning is the least effective approach to learning of all. The Finnish system was created with the involvement and agreement of all political parties because they felt education was too important to be a political football. They decided not to grade work at all until a final standardised exam, and to honour the principle that everyone should succeed. The test of their system is not how many fail, but how many thrive, so there’s no clear ‘top tier’ as teachers and pupils define success together in their exploration of human understandings of life. Without the league table fight for ‘high performance’, parents have no means of applying pressure to their offspring and the uniform approach to inclusive and interactive education ensures their children get the opportunities they need to explore their own particular natural talents. Doubtless the evidence for all this is included in the book, so I recommend a first hand read.
We then heard an interesting tale about pecking orders. Knowing the healthiest (and most productive) hens were at the top of the pecking order, someone decided to see what would happen to egg production if he compared an ‘average’ flock, with a ‘super’ flock of chickens selected for their high egg laying capacity. Over a few generations, the average flock thrived and as a whole produced increasing numbers of eggs. The superflock decimated itself in the fight for dominance and production collapsed. Applying the pecking order logic in human terms leads inevitably to tunnel vision, excess and cheating according to Heffernan – effects which become very pronounced in elite sport or elite circles of business. Obsessional focus on the competetive goal progressively undermines people’s ability to deal with loss of status, and leads to a narrow outlook so people miss important signals and find it much harder to adapt or change course.
Fortunately, humans are equipped with a brain that can override the ‘selfish gene’ response, and Heffernan offered a couple of business examples (Emma Bridgewater Company and Arup) where a culture focussed on collaboration produces great results. She didn’t dismiss competition entirely, saying it’s healthy for boring or low-stakes tasks to make them more fun and engaging. Overall though, her view is that collaboration is a much better way because a focus on competition results in phenomenal levels of waste and increased risk.
A short talk, is always a shallow dip into an author’s thinking, and Heffernan has clearly thought deeply about collaboration and competition. What we would have liked to hear her say is that competition regularly involves collaboration. Like Heffernan we at Happy City look to the natural world for guidance on how things (including us) work, and we find the boundaries between competition and collaboration are rather blurred. Teams of all descriptions compete by collaborating, and it’s more helpful to think in terms of a ‘both’/’and’ world. The truth is that nature is an ever changing business, and we strive to keep our balance as the energy for different activities and ideas comes and goes. As Margaret herself said – collaboration works as long as both parties are passionately committed to mutual success – if one party is striving for dominance, collaboration will break down.
The interesting point (to us) is the phenomenal power of collaboration – people brought up on a diet of competitive thinking expect the most aggressive people to win, but history suggests this isn’t always the case. Heffernan’s example was the way collaborators outpaced and outperformed the private bounty hunters in the global race to map the human genome, and it’s worth noting that when aggressors do win, it’s generally a temporary arrangement.
The Happy City Initiative campaigns for happiness to be taken more seriously because we believe it focusses the mind on mutual success. There is certainly a bigger prize for us all to claim when we let go of the story of humans as consumers and embrace our own wisdom about the things that really matter in life. The Emperor cloaked in GDP Growth has no clothes – and we know it.
If you want to register your ‘vote’ for finding a better way to steer the economy, we recommend you join Action for Happiness, the UK’s movement for positive social change.