Entrepreneur Heffernan (Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril, 2011, etc.) systematically deconstructs the social myths associated with hypercompetitiveness while providing a formidable case about how counterproductive, and even perverse, it can be.
The author considers the effects of hypercompetitiveness in the realms of family, education, sports, scientific research, and business and corporate leadership. She shows that in each subject area, there is a ruling principle at work under which “the product [or result] is prized over the process.” In education, making the grade becomes more important than doing the work for its own sake and actually learning in the process. In sports and business, “winning” is the name of the game. Heffernan strengthens her argument by referencing scientific research that proves why hypercompetitiveness, reward-based systems and hierarchical ranking systems don't work. Instead, they have been shown to encourage cheating, gaming the system, secrecy and lack of transparency. This kind of research goes back at least 100 years. The author refers to the work of Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, who proved decades ago that rewards based on performance undermine internal motivation. She also discusses work from the 1950s on the lack of correlation between rewards-based education and creative productiveness, examining how destructive certain kinds of curricula can be. “Using competition to identify the best,” she writes, “and then using the best to inspire the rest turns out to be a great theory; it just doesn’t work in practice.” The costs—excessive stress, unhealthy habits and general unhappiness—often outweigh the benefits of fostering success through competition. Heffernan helpfully compares these consequences to scientific studies of the behavior of chickens in regard to pecking order and other concepts. She also discusses alternate approaches that have been applied successfully in education and business.
The step-by-step accumulation of argument and evidence is overwhelming in its thoroughness and attention to detail.