Margaret Heffernan on how we are killing creativity

Thanks to the competition encouraged – even required – in a dog-eat-dog world, humanity might be losing out on best ideas and practices.

COMPETITION is good. This is the all-pervasive paradigm modern society lives by.

The concept has been institutionalised – in our schools, places of work, and societal structures, where we jostle for grades, promotions and positions of power and influence. The assumption is that competition leads to innovation, better service, less complacency.

But what if this conventional wisdom is wrong?

What if, in creating a society where the only option is to win or lose, the pursuit of extrinsic rewards (like money, medals and prizes) ends up eclipsing our intrinsic drives – the source of true creativity?

Margaret Heffernan was in her 40s and running a software company at the height of the dotcom boom in the late 1990s when a creeping sense of suspicion began to come over her.

“I ran software companies in Massachusetts, and my companies were part of a big conglomerate of companies,” she says. “Many companies in that group all stayed in the same headquarters. And they all competed fiercely for the attention of the chairman.”

Heffernan is what one would call “intrinsically driven”. And she sees power struggles as an unproductive distraction from the real goal at hand. Which explains her next move: “I chose to take my company away from headquarters so that we could be on our own, because I really wanted our business to have a very open, creative culture.

“What was interesting was that people said to me, ‘You know, you won’t be near the centre of power, people won’t see what you are doing’. And I said yeah, I don’t want to be thinking about competing for power in the network, I just want to be doing a great job.”

That experience made one thing clear to Heffernan: that for creativity and innovation to thrive, there must be a climate of safety and freedom. Many years later, she would research the subject and find that half a century of research indicates we can’t be motivated by many things at once. And short-term rewards like money, medals and prizes crowd out the longer-term, self-generated drive.

Since then, Heffernan has become well-known for raising a critical voice that questions the prevailing wisdom of business leadership, entrepreneurship and innovation. Her TED talks on wilful blindness and daring to disagree (watch the video below) have garnered millions of online views. (TED Talks are a series of global conferences that disseminate “ideas worth spreading” and are broadcast live over the Internet at no cost; go to for a link to Heffernan’s talk.)

Heffernan speaks clearly and thoughtfully over the telephone from her Singapore hotel room during a brief respite from her recent book tour. She knows what she wants to say, and says it confidently – that usually comes when your ideas are built on an exhaustive amount of research, which hers are.

But what makes her really talented is her knack for weaving divergent ideas into one single, comprehensive story, and showing how it relates to real people and real life.

Asking the question

Heffernan’s latest book, A Bigger Prize: Why Competition Isn’t Everything And How We Do Better, is the result of two long years of research and a lifetime of observations. It is, in many ways, the most difficult and most risky book that she has ever written, she says. Perhaps because it turns everything we think we know about competition on its head.

Ever since classical economist Adam Smith (aka the father of modern economics) expounded on how rational self-interest and competition can lead to economic prosperity, the positive aspects of competition have been accepted almost unquestioningly among capitalist societies. Heffernan’s interest in finding out how true this assumption really is was sparked by an interview with a bank manager that was part of her research for her 2011 book, Wilful Blindness.

“He said, ‘Look, Margaret. We didn’t like subprime (referring to the risky – ie, subprime – home loans in America that played a major role in precipitating the 2008 global financial crisis). We thought subprime mortgages were horrible. But we were in a competitive place for sales people, and these things had a really high commission, so we thought we had to sell them if we were going to keep our sales force.’,” Heffernan recalls.

She thought that was interesting. Because classic economic theory says competition sparks diversity and choice. But what actually happened in banking was that competition made everybody copy each other.

“That made me think, OK, under what conditions does competition work? Under what conditions does it not work in the way we thought it did? That’s what sent me off in pursuit of this book.”

Every stage of our lives today, from toddler to adult, is fraught with make-or-break decisions directed towards achieving a set of narrowly defined goals.

Good grades get you the best school; the best school gets you the best university; the best university gets you the best job; and the best job – supposedly – gets you the best life, wife, family. Achieving the grade, getting the promotion, attaining the status has become the end game.

And everything in between – the thrill of learning, the satisfaction of a job well done, of working with others on a project because the project, not the credit we will get for it, is important – gets buried in a pile of desperate, anxiety-riddled rubble.

Perpetual hysteria

The message may sound obvious. But the examples and case studies Heffernan brings to the table in A Bigger Prize really bite.

She reveals the institutionalised hyper-competitiveness we live with – for instance the competitive school system where for some kids to rise to the top, many must languish at the bottom – and the message, and its application in our own lives, really hits home.

Essentially, the problem with these systems, she argues, is that rewards are always relative – ie, there will always be someone who has done better, won more, achieved more. In other words, where there are winners, there must be losers. Or, as Heffernan put it during our interview, “It’s gonna be antisocial, if your success depends on someone else failing.”

Her research findings actually caused her to wonder if she should proceed: “To be honest, I was kind of scared of writing the book. I thought people would think I was crazy. Saying you don’t believe in competition seems to be a lot more dangerous than saying you don’t believe in God!”

She wondered if she would be committing professional suicide. And yet, she kept finding situations where competition didn’t work the way received wisdom says it does. “And that’s really what kept me going.”

Instead of the big fights she was gearing herself up to face once the book was published, though, Heffernan says she is encountering an immense relief.

“It’s as if I’ve said something people always knew, but because I dared say it, they could give themselves permission to say it and think about it now.”

One book review that appeared in British newspaper The Observer describes Heffernan as a part of the zeitgeist that has emerged in the wake of the 2008 financial crash that is “taking aim at socio-economic principles that have long appeared sacrosanct”.

Heffernan is inclined to agree. The economic crisis, she says, has made many people challenge a lot of the things capitalist societies assumed to be absolute.

Inevitably, there are chapters in her book that take a look at how fierce and ruthless competition arises from the social Darwinian culture that is rampant within the corporate world today. Corporate pecking orders, public ranking systems and bonus structures that pit internal business units and teams against each other, make for perverse incentive systems.

Cheating and sabotage are rife, dissent is repressed, innovation is stagnant, and ideas remain closely guarded secrets as individuals keep tight-lipped, afraid of someone stealing their idea and getting the credit for it.

And it’s no different in the world of science.

This is especially worrisome because, at a time when climate change, antibiotic-resistant diseases and feeling eight billion people all pose planet-sized challenges, we need the richest array of scientific solutions the world can offer. However, the scientific ecosystem described by researchers is one where scientists see themselves as small businesses competing in a zero-sum game for credit and funding.

Young researchers trying to get into the game end up not trusting their colleagues enough to collaborate with them, while rival research groups compete rather than share information, wasting time and resources.

“Science is a team sport, but the rewards are individual,” Heffernan quotes one scientist as saying.

About the author

Margaret Heffernan is many things: a journalist, a director and a producer of radio and television programmes. She’s run trade associations, public affairs campaigns, and developed software companies and interactive media products for blue chips.

In fact, her list of accomplishments (which includes being named one of the Internet’s Top 100 by theSilicon Alley Reporter in 1999) is so exhaustive that trying to pigeonhole her is futile. But if you had to, “high energy thinker” would probably be the best fit.

Related story:

'Nobody wins unless everybody wins'

Sound bites from the interview

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