Po Bronson refers to a huge reservoir of social sciences in analyzing how we compete. And, he uncovers many counterintuitive findings. Most everything we were told or we intuitively believe is wrong when it comes to competing. I'll share just some of those insights below. The book has obviously many more.
Forget about the power of positive thinking. When it comes to competing you need focus, intensity, and readiness to face expected obstacles and adversity. A bit of insecurity and self-doubt motivates you to try harder. Instead, positive thinking makes you mellow and take success for granted without being aware of the needed effort to actually succeed. Many studies have confirmed that positive thinking is not associated with superior performance. "What matters is not Positive vs Negative Thinking, it's Additive vs Subtractive Thinking" states Bronson on pg. 163. Additive thinking is reviewing your performance and uncovering opportunities for improvement. Subtractive thinking is regretting you did not do this or that without thinking of the necessary skill improvement needed to move forward.
Teamwork is way overrated. People underestimate how much time is wasted in teamwork. 62% of software projects are delivered late. 49% are over budget. Productivity per person can drop 40% even within a small team.
Forget about team spirit. Some of the most productive teams had a hostile environment. Think of Abraham Lincoln's "Team of Rivals" and the fractious geniuses of the Manhattan Project. Some of the best orchestras are the ones associated with the most discord among musicians during practice. They are perfectionists who push each other to superior collective performance. "A conflict free team means no one is bringing anything to the table that might engender controversy." From a performance standpoint, that's bad.
The word "teamwork" alone is a major talent repellant. In the workplace, if you want to recruit and attract top talent do not mention teamwork in your add. Top talent wants to be challenged and have the opportunity to excel and demonstrate their superior contribution. A workplace can be egalitarian and noncompetitive, but it will repel top talent who is looking for recognition and compensation for their superior performance. The profile of elite scientists and geeks is not team oriented at all. They are very competitive. The top 6% of physicists produce over 50% of all published papers. At TopCoder, the top 5% of prize earners received 80% of the total prize pool. At Linux, the vast majority of implemented computer codes are generated by a very small elite of top notch computer programmers.
Motivation at work is complex. The more complicated the job, the worse people perform when being monitored. Also, introverts work most productively without supervision that they find distracting. They work better alone and in a competitive environment. Meanwhile, extroverts are stimulated by interaction. Without it, they get bored. They work better in a team and in a cooperative environment.
The winner is not the one who practiced the most (the "10,000 hour" bit as outlined in Malcolm Gladwell OUTLIERS). It is the one who performs best under pressure. When people say "at the top level it is all mental" they don't grasp that the mental mindset directly affects physiological responses and athletic performance. In other words, the mental drives the physical.
Genetic make up plays a huge role on how we handle stress. Our behavior is ruled by the catechol-o-methyltransferase (COMT) enzymes. The COMT enzymes reduce excess dopamine level, a neurotransmitter that fuels the brain reward center. Some people have fast acting COMT enzymes that reduce excess dopamine quickly. This allows them to handle stress well and even to need stress to perform at their best. In regular conditions, they may be unmotivated. Others have slow acting COMT enzymes that take longer to reduce excess dopamine. They get overwhelmed and don't perform well under stress. But, they may be more focused under normal conditions. And, some people have a balance of the two speeds of COMT enzymes behaving somewhat in between the two described profiles. Pro Bronson shares an excellent table on pg. 71 that outlines the behavioral differences between the fast COMT individuals (Warriors) and the slow COMT ones (Worriers). The Warriors have sub-optimal dopamine levels under normal conditions (bored easily), but optimal ones during stress (perform well under stress). They are good test takers and are good at rapid task switching. Somehow, when malfunctioning they are prone to schizophrenia. The Worriers are just the opposite. They have optimal dopamine levels under normal conditions (focused in daily life). But, they have too much dopamine when under stress (freak out). They are not good at rapid task switching. But, they have a better working memory. When malfunctioning they are predictably prone to anxiety.
Surprisingly, Worriers can handle stress when the later is somewhat predictable within a specific profession. For instance, Worriers ultimately can make for the best pilots even in stressful situations. With experience they learn to handle all the customary stressors of their profession. And, with superior working memory, complex planning, and thinking capabilities they can over time excel and surpass Warriors capabilities.
There is a strong genetic gender gap. Regardless of COMT genotype, estrogen slows down dopamine reabsorption by 30%. Women have a strong leaning towards slow COMT related psychological behavior.
Women are much better at assessing their skill level and their probability of winning. Men are often overconfident. As a result, women compete much less readily. Often, if they don't feel they have a fair chance of winning they won't feel like wasting their time. Meanwhile, men will more readily compete without investing much time in assessing their probability of winning. This is why there are so few women in Congress. It is not discrimination. After all there are more women voters than men. Women are a lot less likely to throw their hat in the ring when probability of winning is low. And, in politics on your first few campaigns, one's chance of winning is often low.
Women manage or reduce risk more than men. In gambling, women make smaller bets.
Women are better stock analysts on Wall Street. Women are under represented in this field clearly because of cultural discrimination. Wall Street is one of the last bastion of cultural machismo still standing.
Men are risk takers. Thus, they account for the vast majority of venture capitalists, start ups, and high tech company founders. For women, those fields do not provide attractive odds (they are right). Women are focused on the probability of losses. Men are focused on the gain potential. Both psychological profiles play an important role within our business culture and economy.
Women thrive in a competitive academic environment. The strong academic performers will pull all the other girls up. Boys react differently. The strong performers will actually cause the performance of the weaker ones to deteriorate as the latter get discouraged and intimidated. As a parent, consider placing your girl in the best possible school with the smartest peers possible. Put your boy in a school with the best teachers, but not necessarily the most academically competitive peers. To study the early academic challenges of boys, I also recommend the excellent Why Boys Fail: Saving Our Sons from an Educational System That's Leaving Them Behind.
How one interprets stress in sports is key. Stress can be interpreted as a threat and puts one in a prevention-oriented mode (risk averse, minimizing losses). Stress can also be interpreted as a challenge associated with a gain-oriented mode (seeking opportunities, risk taking, maximizing gains). Po Bronson refers to it as playing not to lose vs playing to win. Those different mindsets have strong physiological implications. In sports, the prevention-oriented mode through the noradrenaline vs adrenaline equilibrium causes your veins to constrict, reduces your aerobic capacity and lung functions, and affects your glucose production. In other words, it impairs athletic performance. Thus, playing not to lose is often counterproductive and actually causes one to actually lose. When playing to win all the physiological effects are opposite and enhance athletic performance.
Bronson's analysis of the Mauresno-Henin 2006 Wimbledon women's final was excellent. He demonstrated that set by set the one who played conservatively lost to the one who went for her shots. One should also factor that grass is the surface that does favor a playing to win strategy (on clay it may be the opposite).
How one interprets stress at work is also key, but it is different. In a gain-oriented mode, your amygdala is turned down, and your brain's reward center is turned up. You are more creative, work well under pressure and tight deadlines. But, you may make more mistakes as a result. In a prevention-oriented mode, your physiological response is just the opposite. However, this mindset has its benefits. You are more focused on the details. You are more diligent, make fewer mistakes. You can anticipate obstacles. Our information age requires from us that we have both psychological systems and thinking styles highly tuned up. And, that we have the ability to shift mode as needed to optimize our work performance and the one of the firm.
Are you a good sport? How you handle wins (that's the easy part) is very predictive of how you handle losses (not so easy) and vice versa. Bronson has an interest list of four archetypes of win/loss styles on page 237. You will most probably identify with one of those. Hopefully, it won't be too embarrassing. But, if it is, it will eventually lead you to wisdom or at least humor. On one of the last pages, Bronson has a great concluding statement: "with experience, people learn that winning and losing are just short-term consequences to the long-term goal: improvement."
There are a lot of interesting "effects." The "network effect" is the positive competitive and cooperative force triggered by talented people specializing in a discipline living and working proximate to each other. Silicon Valley and Hollywood are such clusters of talent with strong network effect. Richard Florida in Who's Your City? studied this concept in fruitful details. The "Matthew Effect" is the dynamic whereby an early champion receives an increasing amount of resources, positive feedback, adulation so that he distances himself further from the remainder of the field. The "Mark Effect" describes when organizations take steps to equalize the competitive field by redistributing the resources that would otherwise automatically gravitate towards the early winners. This is most prevalent in k-12 grades.
Out of 240 pages of studying the science of competition, Bronson offers one single page of self-help (pg. 239) on how to leverage the science to make you a better competitor. And, that's the way it should be. Bronson focused on the science, not on the pop psychology that plagues the self-help genre. Once you study the science, the self-help part becomes self-evident, yet very challenging. It relates to knowing thyself (what COMT type are you?). How do you frame stress (challenge vs threat)? What mindset, working environment, and sports are optimal for your own performance? Within your psychological profile, what can you change? What should you accept and work with to improve your performance in life?