• July 2013

How Competitive Are You?

Are you a “top dog”? Do you want to be?

Your answer to that question is the theme of the July issue of Be Inkandescent magazine, and the focus of Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman’s new book, Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing. The in-depth research that unfolds over 250 pages will fascinate and educate you about the fine art of competition.

Also in this issue:

  • Rita Moreno, now 81, has rocked the red carpet for decades. Learn about her life as an actress, dancer, and barrier breaker for Hispanics as this month’s Truly Amazing Woman.
  • Kristine Carlson takes us beyond the concept of winning and losing with her TEDx Talk on what it means to wake up to an inspired life. She’s this month’s featured Inkandescent Speaker.
  • Dave Beck gives us insight into whether we need long-term-care insurance in this month’s Retirement column.
  • Blo of San Francisco is our featured fashionista company this month. Co-owner Sonja K. explains how as a 20something she is gaining a competitive edge providing customers with style, sass, and “frequent-dryer miles” in this month’s Fashion column.
  • And speaking of winners, meet our team of Inkandescent Interns for summer 2013. These six high school and college students are all scholars and critical thinkers who have an ambition to learn about our holistic approach to PR and marketing. Led by our former intern, and current editorial assistant Ashley Freund, we are excited about what they’ll accomplish and learn. Stay tuned for more.

As President Dwight Eisenhower said, “What counts is not necessarily the size of the dog in the fight—it’s the size of the fight in the dog.”

Here’s to fighting the good fight. — Hope Katz Gibbs, publisher, Be Inkandescent magazine. • Illustrations by MichaelGibbs.com

Inside the Science of Winning and Losing


By Hope Katz Gibbs
Founder and Publisher
Be Inkandescent

For a decade, it’s been a constant drumbeat, issued by leaders of our nation and corporations, to employees and even to our youngest students: we must all be more competitive. At last there is a primer on the science of winning and losing.

In Top Dog, authors Ashley Merryman and Po Bronson reveal the hidden factors behind every sort of win and loss—from bringing home an Olympic gold medal in swimming to bombing the SAT. The two award-winning science journalists also dive deep into the psychology of rankings, the neuroscience of mistakes, and the DNA of fearlessness.

Best of all, they unveil cutting-edge science through interesting stories ranging from pilot flight training, NASCAR brawls, political try-outs, ballroom dancing, CIA spies, and Wall Street.

Packed with fascinating insights, research, and “aha” moments, the book makes it tough to pick out just a few ideas to share. That said, here are our three favorite bits from “Top Dog.”

1. How Worriers beat Warriors—and when they don’t. Are you a worrywart? If so, research shows it’s how your brain is wired—in this case, with slow-acting dopamine clearers called COMT enzymes.

“This makes people capable of handling complex planning and thinking ahead about likelihoods and consequences,” the authors explain, adding that Worriers tend to be aggressive because they are pretty temperamental.

“Warriors,” on the other hand, have fast-acting dopamine clearers, the authors note, “making them ready to handle threatening environments where maximum performance is required despite threat and pain.”

Both approaches, and brains, are necessary for human tribes to survive, as they explain in Chapter 4. Pointing to research from a major national Taiwanese university that took samples from 800 junior high students in four regions of the country, Bronson and Merryman report that in a regular classroom, on a daily basis, the Worriers have the advantage.

“Thanks to high dopamine levels, they have better memories and attention and a higher verbal IQ. They’re superior planners and can better orchestrate complex thought.”

But, they explain, as the pressure intensifies, Worriers become distressed and frustrated; in the Taiwanese study they scored 8 percent lower than the Warriors. The good news, the authors share, is that those with the Worrier gene aren’t doomed when thrown into a stressful situation.

“The Worriers can handle stress, and even outperform the Warriors, if they train themselves to handle the specific stress of certain recurring situations. By acclimating to their stressful environment over a long period of time, they learn to perform.”

2. Why Michelangelo needed an agent. “Society accepts that market competition and product innovation go hand in hand,” the authors explain. “But for some reason, it’s often assumed this same dynamic doesn’t drive creativity in the fine arts.”

But it does, they insist in Chapter 11, pointing to historian Rona Goffen’s book, Renaissance Rivals, in which she explains the concept of paragone, a debate from the Italian Renaissance in which one form of art—architecture, sculpture, or painting—is championed as superior to others.

For instance, Leonardo da Vinci’s treatise on painting, touting the difficulty of painting and supremacy of sight, is a noted example. Michelangelo’s treatise on the superiority of sculpture is a famous response to da Vinci’s treatise. Bronson and Merryman explain that da Vinci believed artists thrived under the pressure of a highly competitive environment. He regularly invited artists to visit his studio to see his works-in-progress.

Michelangelo, on the other hand, was said to have been miserable working alongside other artists, especially da Vinci. In fact, when he was asked to paint the Sistine Chapel, he turned down the offer. But his finances eventually forced him to make a different choice.

So what is the impact of competition on creativity? The “Top Dog” authors showcase research by Regina Conti at Colgate University, who hosted a series of “art parties” for kids ages 6 to 11 at a Boston day camp, and at a local Catholic school.

“At half the parties, the kids were told it was a contest, that their collages would be judged by adults and that the three best would win nifty prizes,” they explain. “The rest of the kids were given no such competitive framing, and no rewards were promised. Those kids were, in theory, just doing the collages for the fun of it.”

Did the contest made the kids more creative? Yes, Conti’s study found, for there are actually two kinds of kids: those who seemed to become more creative in going for the prize, and those who became less creative and didn’t like having their work judged.

Sounds just like da Vinci and Michelangelo, right? So what causes the difference in motivation? Agency. “The kids high in agency loved the collage competition and were more creative,” write Bronson and Merryman. “The kids low in agency didn’t like being judged or compared, and they became less creative.”

The bottom line? “Paragone—the Italian word for competitive debate—has come down to modern English and understanding as ‘paragon,’ often to describe something without peer, and in particular, diamonds. We can’t forget that diamonds become peerless because they’ve withstood centuries of heat and pressure. That’s what kids need to have: clarity and strength of vision built up over time—a brilliance that can withstand enormous pressure.”

3. Last but not least, consider the power of the home-field advantage. Did you know that those who negotiate on their home turf can take away up to 160 percent more than the away-team opponents? That’s according to research by University of British Columbia professor Graham Brown.

It’s true for high-level diplomats, as well as companies and individuals. In fact, Bronson and Merryman write in Chapter 2: “Someone asking his boss for a raise is more than likely to be successful if he’s in his own office than in his boss’. When two teams at a firm work together on a project, the team hosting the coffee and bagels in their conference room is likely to take charge of the entire endeavor.”

Why? Because being at home changes the style of play, the authors say. “The home advantage is also stronger when the result seems uncertain—such as the beginning of the season, the start of the game, or if the home team’s behind at the halfway mark.”

While the Inkandescent Group is as consciously competitive as the next company, it was our pleasure to fly to California to interview the authors on their own turf.

Click here for our interview with Bronson in San Francisco.

Click here to listen to our Q&A with Merryman in Los Angeles.

• Don’t miss Bronson and Merryman’s Tips for Entrepreneurs on the 7 Things Entrepreneurs Need to Do to Gain a Winning Edge.

7 Things Entrepreneurs Need to Do to Gain a Winning Edge

By Ashley Merryman and Po Bronson
Top Dog

Here are some Tips for Entrepreneurs who want to stay on top of their game.

1. Find a Contest

If you find yourself lacking motivation to take the next great leap with your company, find a contest. If you’re only working for yourself, goals may get fuzzy—nice to attain, but the value in contests is that they have clear deadlines and rules; there are exacting requirements you must meet.

There’s added public pressure: others will be watching to see what you achieve. You’ll find yourself working with a new intensity. In a concentrated period of time, you’ll be forced to prioritize, then make choices that move you forward.

And this contest-driven momentum and clarity can persist regardless of the contest’s outcome. In studies of German biotech competitions, even though only one firm won, most of the contest entries had evolved into companies a year later. The contest catalyzed their dreams into reality.

2. Think About What Went Wrong the Right Way

When you make a mistake, it’s hard not to kick yourself and say, “If only I had not done _____.” That’s what the researchers call “subtractive thinking,” wishing the one thing that actually happened didn’t occur. The problem with subtractive thinking is that it doesn’t help you do anything differently the next time you face that problem.

Instead, try additive thinking. Mentally, go through a series of, “If only I had done this instead” thoughts so that you see how other approaches might have affected the outcome. The more possible scenarios you can come up with, the better off you’ll be. And this won’t just help you the next time you have the same issue; this practice also readies the brain to think more creatively going forward.

3. In General, Beware of Following “The General Rule”

One of the more fascinating studies from the past couple of years was a Harvard analysis of companies’ meetings. The researcher found that, in an average meeting, people listened to the person with the most specific knowledge in an area (e.g., the salesperson who worked directly with a client).

But in a high-pressure meeting, everyone listened to the Most Important Person in the room (e.g., the SVP of Sales). He had less specific information, but he knew the general rule—what the company/others did in similar situations. And most firms then followed the MIP’s “general rule” approach. This, in fact, had a huge negative effect on performance.

So here’s the crucial thing. The researcher also found that 82 percent of meetings she’d attended were high pressure. Meetings are held to solve a problem, meet a deadline, etc. And thus when it comes to key decision-making, companies all too often take their expertise off the table. Under pressure, they inadvertently deprive themselves of all that special knowledge and experience they had worked so hard to acquire.

Remember to use what you’ve learned.

4. Seize the Home-Field Advantage

I think we all know about the home-field advantage in sports. But the research says it’s just as relevant in any business setting. If you want to be the one in charge, have the meeting in your office. If that’s not possible, get to the conference room, restaurant, wherever—first. And don’t just hang out at the door, waiting for everyone else to arrive. Instead, “make yourself at home.” Spread some papers around. Rearrange the room so it better suits your needs. If you’re in a restaurant, learn the waiter’s name, order a bit of food, and get to work.

In lab experiments, professor Graham Brown has found that even small actions like this resulted in a windfall: it increased the value received by someone in a negotiation by as much as 160 percent.

The reason for this is that the home advantage has evolutionary roots. It’s about having a safe place to call your own—thus a win at home is more satisfying, a loss more embarrassing. And because of that, people in a confrontation on their own turf are more aggressive, more engaged, and more fearless. And the “away team” respects and defers to the home team.

5. Collaborate, but Only When You Really Need to

It’s fashionable right now to say that the key to success is collaboration. But the truth isn’t so clear-cut. The research says that, in many ways, entrepreneurship is a solitary endeavor. Small businesses are typically started by just one person working alone (or perhaps with a member of the family).

And if you look at it from the perspective of enormously successful companies, the game-changers are still often driven by a single person’s vision. Think Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Michael Dell, Richard Branson, Mark Cuban, Warren Buffett, Oprah.

So don’t bring people on a team or into your firm just because “you should” or “you just need another voice.” Instead, bring people on when you have a problem or weakness that needs addressing, and you want someone’s particular skill set to help you resolve it.

6. Don’t Just Put People on a Team; Instead, Construct It

There’s an idea that everyone on a team should be equal; teams should be democracies. But research out of Harvard has found that teams work best when there is a clear hierarchy—when everyone knows each other’s role and responsibilities.

So before a team is created, determine exactly what each person will do and how that relates to the team’s purpose. Then, here’s the step that I think most of us forget. Ask: “What will each team member learn from being on this team?” (If they aren’t going to learn something, then they shouldn’t be on the team.)

And before the team begins its work, discuss all that—the team’s purpose, each person’s role, and each person’s learning goal—with each member. If everyone on the team knows what’s expected of them, how it contributes to the whole, and what they’ll gain from the experience, they’ll be more invested. There will be less squabbling over tasks and more doing the work.

7. Play to Win

When you begin a company, your focus is naturally on what you hope to accomplish, and you play to win: you’re willing to take the risks necessary to achieve this victory. However, once the bills start coming in, investors want to know what’s happening with their money, and clients and employees are worried about deadlines, and it’s easy to lose sight of the initial goal.

Rather than playing to win, you may find yourself switching to a mindset of “playing not to lose.” This isn’t a mindset of losers. What it means is that rather than pursuing the gains of the win, your actions are driven by a desire to avoid making any mistakes. You focus on the minutiae of running the company, obsess over details, and don’t move forward until everything is perfect. You start avoiding risks.

But risk-taking—a certain degree of fearlessness—is one of the entrepreneur’s great strengths. Don’t lose that. Yes, you have to make sure you have a quality product that gets out the door on time. Do that. But don’t let it prevent you from pursuing growth and new opportunities. Because a Six Sigma policy of perfect fulfillment wasn’t why you started this in the first place. Pushing yourself to make something happen, against all odds—that’s why you’re here.

This is the age when magical technologies make more and more radically fun ideas plausible, even easy. You’re only limited by your creativity.”

– Martha Beck

Ambition is the germ from which all growth of nobleness proceeds.”

– Thomas Dunn

That which grows fast withers as rapidly; that which grows slowly endures.”

– J.G. Holland, novelist

Whatever you do may seem insignificant, but it is most important that you do it.”

– Gandi

We need to learn to set our course by the stars, not by the lights of every passing ship.”

– General Omar Bradley

Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”

– T.S. Eliot

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

– Mary Oliver

My goal was to tell the life side of the story. We have become a nation of voyeurs that expect sensationalism, and that offends me.”

– Kathleen Jo Ryan

Patience and perseverance have a magical effect before which obstacles vanish.”

– John Quincy Adams

Never never never never give up.”

– Winston Churchill

We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”

– Joseph Campbell

You often meet your fate on the road you take to avoid it.”

– Goldie Hawn

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.”

– Mark Twain

Acknowledging the good that you already have in your life is the foundation for all abundance.”

– Eckhart Tolle

Practice kindness all day to everybody and you will realize you’re already in heaven now.”

– Jack Kerouac

With ordinary talents and extraordinary perseverance, all things are attainable.”

– Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton

A man is a success if he gets up in the morning and goes to bed at night and in between does what he wants to do.”

– Bob Dylan

Always look at what you have left. Never look at what you have lost.”

– Robert H. Schuller

When a dog runs at you, whistle for him.”

– Henry David Thoreau

That man is richest whose pleasures are the cheapest.”

– Henry David Thoreau

The only person you are destined to become is the person you decide to be.”

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Remove those ‘I want you to like me’ stickers from your forehead
and, instead, place them where they truly will do the most good—on your mirror.”

– Susan Jeffers

Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.”

– Groucho Marx

Our deepest wishes are whispers of our authentic selves. We must learn to respect them. We must learn to listen.”

– Sarah Ban Breathnach

Think of yourself as on the threshold of unparalleled success. A whole, clear, glorious life lies before you. Achieve! Achieve!”

– Andrew Carnegie

If you want to be busy, keep trying to be perfect. If you want to be happy, focus on making a difference.”

– Lisa Earle McLeod

Nothing is a mistake. There’s no win and no fail. There’s only make.”

– Corita Kent

There is little success where there is little laughter.”

– Andrew Carnegie

A person who learns to juggle six balls will be more skilled than the person who never tries to juggle more than three.”

– Marilyn vos Savant

A great secret of success is to go through life as a man who never gets used up.”

– Albert Schweitzer

It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves.”

– William Shakespeare

It is easier to fight for one’s principles than to live up to them.”

– Alfred Adler

Let us seize the day and the opportunity and strive for that greatness of spirit that measures life not by its disappointments but by its possibilities.”

– W.E.B. Du Bois

A diamond is a lump of coal that stuck with it.”

– Norwegian proverb

Some things are destined to be—it just takes us a couple of tries
to get there.”

– J.R. Ward, Lover Mine

If your success is not on your own terms, if it looks good to the world but does not feel good in your heart, it is not success at all.”

– Anna Quindlen

He who wants to tear down a house must be prepared to rebuild it.”

– African Proverb

Passion makes perfect.”

– Eugene Biro

The only way to compel men to speak good of us is to do it.”

– Voltaire

Permanence, perseverance and persistence in spite of all obstacles distinguishes the strong soul from the weak.”

– Thomas Carlyle

It is to no purpose to turn away from the real nature of the affair because the honor of its elements excites repugnance.

– Carl von Clausewitz, On War

No man will make a great leader who wants to do it all himself, or to get all the credit for doing it”

– Andrew Carnegie

It is possible to fail in many ways…while to succeed is possible only in one way.”

– Aristotle

Nobody talks about entrepreneurship as survival, but that’s exactly what nurtures creative thinking.”

– Anita Roddick, founder, The Body Shop

Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”

– Thomas Edison

Confidence is the most important thing you can teach someone… if you can teach them confidence, you don’t have to teach them anything else.”

– Vin Diesel

If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.”

– John Quincy Adams

There are children playing in the street who could solve some of my top problems in physics, because they have modes of sensory perception that I lost long ago.”

– J. Robert Oppenheimer

Do not follow where the path may lead. Go, instead, where there is no path and leave a trail.”

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”

– Friedrich Nietzsche

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