What is Big Think?  

We are Big Idea Hunters…

We live in a time of information abundance, which far too many of us see as information overload. With the sum total of human knowledge, past and present, at our fingertips, we’re faced with a crisis of attention: which ideas should we engage with, and why? Big Think is an evolving roadmap to the best thinking on the planet — the ideas that can help you think flexibly and act decisively in a multivariate world.

A word about Big Ideas and Themes — The architecture of Big Think

Big ideas are lenses for envisioning the future. Every article and video on bigthink.com and on our learning platforms is based on an emerging “big idea” that is significant, widely relevant, and actionable. We’re sifting the noise for the questions and insights that have the power to change all of our lives, for decades to come. For example, reverse-engineering is a big idea in that the concept is increasingly useful across multiple disciplines, from education to nanotechnology.

Themes are the seven broad umbrellas under which we organize the hundreds of big ideas that populate Big Think. They include New World Order, Earth and Beyond, 21st Century Living, Going Mental, Extreme Biology, Power and Influence, and Inventing the Future.

Big Think Features:

12,000+ Expert Videos


Browse videos featuring experts across a wide range of disciplines, from personal health to business leadership to neuroscience.

Watch videos

World Renowned Bloggers


Big Think’s contributors offer expert analysis of the big ideas behind the news.

Go to blogs

Big Think Edge


Big Think’s Edge learning platform for career mentorship and professional development provides engaging and actionable courses delivered by the people who are shaping our future.

Find out more

Promoted to the Level of Incompetence

December 2, 2011, 12:00 AM

What's the Big Idea?

Each year, the Ig Nobel awards recognize the most improbable achievements in science, medicine, and technology - the surprising findings that make you laugh, then think, according to the award's presenters. Last year, an Italian paper won an award for pointing out that it’s better to promote people randomly than to promote them based on perceptions about their skills - research which should provoke more thought than laughter. Watch here:

The issue, says behaviorial economist Dan Ariely, is two-fold: first, promotions are often rewarded based exclusively on the results an individual achieves - or seems to achieve - without taking into consideration the myriad factors over which he or she had no control. It’s a myopic way of measuring performance, and it leads to the promotion of the luckiest over the best and brightest and most dedicated.

“Imagine you were in charge... [of a] seafood restaurant and you decided to open a new restaurant in the gulf” - a week before the BP oil spill, he says. “Would you get promoted after that? You just opened your restaurant, you spent a lot of money, all the seafood supply is dissolved and there’s no more tourists.” You might have been the most careful, wonderful employee, but ultimately, your actions, “from the outcome perspective, [were] awful.” 

The second problem with this scheme is the assumption that if a person really excels in his or her role, he or she should be handed more and more responsibility - creating an endless chain of advancement that is not necessarily effective or even beneficial for the employer or the employee. The Peter Principle is a satirical-yet-poignant comment on the tendency of hierarchical organizations to repeat what works over and over again ad nauseum, until finally it falls apart. (Think The Fast and the Furious V).

What's the Significance?

In most workplaces, “you get promoted and promoted and promoted until you don’t perform that well,” says Ariely. But to what end? Ultimately, “if you follow this process, everybody will get to the level of incompetence.” That’s life, you could say, and you’d be right: Ariely’s own research focuses on the “predictable irrationality” of human behavior, demonstrating how often we make choices based entirely on illogical assumptions. However, Ariely believes that we have the power to make better choices through self-reflection: by redefining the way we understand certain concepts like success.

Think about it - are you going after that promotion because you really want to put in more hours and challenge yourself with a supervisory role, or because you've always seen it as the next step? Perhaps a great manager is just that: a great manager, whose experience should be valued and shared without the unspoken expectation that she venture further and further up the ladder, always grasping at something just out of reach. 


Promoted to the Level of In...

Newsletter: Share: