There are days when I get quite angry at Martin Sandbu of the Financial Times. Or Annie Lowrey of the Atlantic. There are few things worse in the life of a professional journalist than opening Twitter or Facebook and seeing friends sharing a brilliant, beautifully written piece capturing just the insights you were about to express and just the plaudits you were about to receive in your own, not-quite-ready piece. The pain is multidimensional. Other readers will associate the good work and the good ideas with them, and not you. The discussion and praise will drive readers to their publications’ websites and not yours, earning the approval of their bosses, rather than your own. In a world of finite journalism jobs and awards, success necessarily has a zero-sum element.
Yet most galling, in many cases, is the way in which their success is built on your work. They are not plagiarising, to be clear. Rather, the issue is that no idea occurs in a vacuum. Journalists read each other’s work, argue with each other on Twitter and swap ideas at conferences. My own writing is built on a million little lessons learned from other gifted scholars and writers, even if I think of each finished piece as mine. However grandly we thank those who have helped us get where we are, it is hard not to assert an exclusive property right over one’s own work, particularly when there are rewards to be fought over.
All professional life is like this. The idea behind patents is to reward innovators with a temporary monopoly while allowing the ideas within the innovation to be public. Trade groups organise conferences to swap news and best practices, then send their members back out into the economy to compete against each other. Tech companies, ad firms and banks ruthlessly borrow from and improve upon the strategies pursued by their competitors. The economy depends on this to grow. We all see farther by standing on the shoulders of giants, then grouse when others try to perch on our own. And we seethe when the person who rises tallest and sees farthest is lavished with praise and rewards, when their lofty elevation is owed mostly to the lattice of people beneath them.
Zero-sum competition is unavoidable. As individuals, we respond to incentives, and so individual rewards are the price we pay to encourage people to develop their talents and work hard in ways that benefit others. The question, for companies and for society as a whole, is how much to lean on the spirit of bloody-minded competitiveness as a motivating force.
At The Economist, for instance, our bosses link individual promotions and pay rises to performance, understanding that we journalists are motivated in part by our own narrow self-interest and ambition, base creatures that we are. But assembling each week’s issue is a highly collaborative process. Journalists do not simply write their own pieces, but also help edit and proofread, debate leader lines, and contribute ideas to colleagues or help answer their questions. That means that each story is the work of many hands, and each journalist has a hand in many tasks. If the folks running The Economist were omniscient beings, capable of seeing exactly what everyone had done, then they could design a perfect compensation system to reward people in precise proportion to their contributions. They are not.
That makes the setting of rewards tricky, as Bengt Holmström, who won a share of the Nobel prize for economics in 2016, pointed out. If each person is responsible for lots of tasks, some of which (like writing a piece) are much easier to see and assess than others (like offering suggestions to a colleague), then pay systems which strongly reward individual effort will nudge workers into spending more time on the easily observable stuff and much less on everything else. There is little sense spending time helping others, and neglecting one’s own projects, when the big bonuses are handed out to individuals based on what little the bosses can see. Group rewards have their own risks. When performance bonuses are shared across a team, individual members might be tempted to shirk and let others carry the load, or to spend most of their effort claiming credit for the contributions of others.
There is no easy way around this trade-off. Some firms try to overcome it by gathering much more data on how employees use their time. Yet that risks dehumanising the workplace. An alternative approach, which seems to work reasonably well at The Economist, is investment in a collegial, collaborative culture. (The anonymised nature of the publication, which carries no bylines, helps.) Though that, too, has costs, like inflexibility – an organisation which ingrains one way of behaving into its employees’ minds cannot easily get them to flip to another – and the inability to support multiple personal brands and viewpoints alongside the house identity.
Across an economy as a whole matters are more complicated. Too little attention on individual achievement is a recipe for economic doldrums, as we saw in old Soviet-bloc countries. Why put in the time to excel if you can’t be rich or famous? But too great a focus on individual excellence can also lead to social crisis (resentment within America towards its elites suggests the conditions for trouble are building). The more fantastic the riches earned by the winners of social contests, the greater the social pressure to concoct narratives justifying the fortunes: like the notion that, but for the promise of tens of billions of dollards, this or that tech-company founder might have chosen the life of a postman instead.
The existence of massive inequality creates a demand for people to argue that massive inequality is appropriate and deserved. That, in turn, undermines the public sense that society makes individual success possible: by building schools, funding research science, obeying laws, and so on. If success becomes too much like a lottery – such that, however hard they work, the probability that most people will earn big rewards for their efforts is low – then the incentive to contribute is dulled. If the giants walk away, we have a good idea what will happen to the fellow at the top.
All that can be hard to remember in the face of professional disappointment. But best to simply appreciate the craftsmanship, get cracking on the next big project, and remember to be generous when your turn at the top comes.