Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing Hardcover – Feb 19 2013
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"You gotta get it . . . [a] fascinating topic that we all deal with on a daily basis."―Fox & Friends
"A terrifically useful book about the science of competition (which you should read right now)."―Daniel Coyle, author of The Talent Code
"Cutting-edge science behind life's triumphs and failures . . . insight from politics, finance, science, sports and economics to tip the odds in your favor."―NPR.com
"Remarkable . . . this book will help you rise to the occasion . . . wildly counterintuitive."―San Francisco Chronicle (Literary Pick)
"Fiction may lay claim to imagination, but works such as TOP DOG are what push the envelope of our reality . . . stunning . . . Prepare to delve into the external factors and personal dynamos that make you who you are."―Coffin Factory
"I tell my staff, I tell my friends-you must read TOP DOG. I was a good poker player before I read it. Now, I'm even better."―Phil Gordon, World Poker Tour Champion, author, and CEO of Jawfish Games
"Accessible for fans of pop science, yet substantial enough to have practical applications . . . will have folks rethinking the impulse to win at work and play."―Publishers Weekly
"An easy, highly satisfying read . . . surprising . . . fascinating. Grade: A."―AVClub.com
"There is intense competition in just about every aspect of life . . . There's not an app for that, yet, but there is a book: TOP DOG . . . a good primer on the behaviors that can sink or lift us in a competitive world."―Seattle Times
"Illuminating and entertaining . . . surprising insights."―Kirkus
"Intriguing . . . the authors persuasively argue that technical skill is only one part-in many cases, the least important part-of what it takes to come out on top."―Booklist
"TOP DOG should be mandatory reading for every serious athlete, coach, and managers-both on and off the field. Amazing science, terrific storytelling, and insight to burn."―Pat Williams, cofounder/SVP, Orlando Magic and Basketball Hall of Famer
"Such a provocative text . . . If you read NurtureShock, you already know about the power of their prose . . . game-changing steps to assure success in winner-take-all showdowns, for everyone from adults in offices to students in classrooms."―Tavis Smiley, The Tavis Smiley Show
"A great read for those paralyzed by the fear of failure as well as those who hunger for success."―Huffington Post
"In TOP DOG, Bronson and Merryman turn their attention from the science of child development to competition: why men are overconfident and women are better at gauging risk; the advantage of playing on home field; why younger sibs are more competitive than first-born. And much more."―Toronto Star
"I cannot recommend it more highly . . . An essential book-if you care about competition, winning, losing, or humanity, you must buy this book . . . Fantastic."―Jack Abramoff, The Jack Abramoff Show
"As the beta-dog head of a trophy-challenged family, I was surprisingly inspired by Bronson and Merryman's compulsively readable and rigorously researched book. TOP DOG will turn everything you believe about competition (good, bad, and ugly) upside down. Awesome!"―Sandra Tsing Loh, host, The Loh Down on Science
"The authors provide an exhaustive culling of medical literature as well as reader-friendly anecdotes drawn from business, sports, the arts, and the military."―Inc. Magazine
"An exciting look at the genetic, psychological, and situational factors that impact how people perform when competing . . . abundant research . . . snappy writing."―Audiofile
"Highly recommend to anyone wanting to dig deeper into how we humans really function and why."―Myrtle Beach Sun News
"[The authors] once again poked conventional wisdom in the eye . . . fine and fascinating volume . . . highly readable prose, with great stories . . . I would give this book a lot of stars."―Utah Daily Herald
"[The authors'] breezy, accessible style is backed up with impeccable references to peer-reviewed journals and authoritative books."―Winnipeg Free Press
"Turning common sense on its head . . . an untangling of winners, losers, biology and psychology and how each plays its role in the rise and fall of competitors . . . imploring you to turn up your competitive fire, and, quite possibly, become the next top dog."―Express Milwaukee
"I highly recommend it to anyone who is a coach, business leader, entrepreneur or parent."―Honolulu Star-Advertiser's "Career Changers"
"Groundbreaking book on the science of competition . . . based on cutting-edge science . . . told through easy-to-grasp stories."―Free Lance-Star (VA)
"From every perspective-attorney, administrator, educator, and parent-TOP DOG won me over. I was captivated by the thought-provoking ideas, first-rate prose, and unforgettable science."―William M. Treanor, executive vice president and dean, Georgetown University Law Center
"Brilliant, phenomenal, inspiring. I love this book. Through TOP DOG, I finally have a science-based understanding of competition-and I know how to use that science to bring out my absolute best. Whether I'm preparing for a race or thinking about how to grow my business, TOP DOG's my training manual for excellence."―Roisin McGettigan-Dumas, track and field Olympic finalist, CEO/Entrepreneur, BelieveIAm.com
"If you wake up in the middle of the night worried that you might not have the right stuff, TOP DOG is for you. Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman use lessons from virtuosos in every conceivable discipline-skydivers, ballroom dancers, NASA managers, Renaissance artists-to deconstruct and distill what we need to do to compete successfully in our hyper-competitive age. TOP DOG is that rare thing-intelligent, illuminating and filled with practical advice."―Anne Kreamer, author of It's Always Personal: Emotion in the New Workplace and Going Gray
"Amazing . . . mind-boggling . . . Every page, you go, 'Oh, whoa.' Really wonderful . . . just fascinating reading."―Leo Laporte, TWiT.TV
About the Author
Top Customer Reviews
The authors compile a pretty strong case that competition fosters creativity and best efforts from individuals. Drawing largely on the worlds of sports and business, they suggest that competition is a necessary component for success. They also cite neurological and hormonal evidence for how the body responds positively to competition, at least for people who embrace rather than fear competition. They build a relatively compelling case, but there are some important flaws.
First, they do not discuss the science of losing and how the body and brain respond to inevitable failures. In this regard, the recent book The Hour Between Dog and Wolf offers a more complete science of winning and losing. Second, by failing to ignore the consequences of failure, they overestimate the value of competition. Look at Wall Street and what rampant competition for bonuses has done. Granted, there is government protection from failure, but that is due to another form of competition- lobbying. Competition has also failed to bring more women into high finance, despite their superior performance in that arena. Third, some of their evidence is misleading.Read more ›
Top Dog is that rare book that combines psychology with physiology while also attempting to provide some practical insights that readers can apply. I believe that those who are looking for physiological information will probably like this book the best. The psychological insights are next best. The practical lessons come next in value.
Those who think that competition has been downplayed too much as a mechanism for social improvement will find powerful arguments here for ways that vying with others can lead to accomplishing much more.
For me the big takeaway message was that individuals perform best in quite different ways: Some need to be part of a team; others need maximum stress, many need very little stress, and still others need to identify with a purpose. While I was quite aware of what my own best combination is, I hadn't given much thought to how that might differ for others. While I'm helping students prepare for competition in the future, I intend to pay much more attention to first understanding what is optimal for each one. That was well worth the time I spent reading the book.
While it was good to know a lot more about the various hormones and their effects on competitors, the book had a lot more of that information than I can use or interested me. If you are a student of physiology, you may well have the opposite reaction that much more should have been included.
If you want to get a quick sense of the book's practical tips, they are efficiently summarized from the bottom of page 238 through 240. If you decide to read the book, you may find those three pages to be a good place to go when you decide to refresh your appreciation of the book.Read more ›
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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?
As a book about competition, there is lots of interesting stuff in Top Dog. There's info about the differences in how men and women decide when to compete. There's a breakdown about people who fare well in competitions and those who do not (these groups will forevermore be known as "Warriors" or "Worriers"). There's discussion about the various hormones that are released in competition and how they affect us (spoiler--testosterone doesn't necessarily make you super-aggressive). The authors seem a bit over-invested in defending competition against forces determined to "support and nurture" people into growth and maybe fairly so.
Overall, I found this book lacked a clear point or thru line to hold the research and studies together. I'm a lover of all the behavioral economics and brain-science that's been coming out in the last few years: Dan Ariely, Daniel Kanheman, Chip and Dan Heath, anything that provides insight into our thought processes and offers a few clear applications in the real world is fascinating to me. The info in Top Dog was interesting and some of it I'll try to apply, but overall I found it's points scattered and not terribly useful. Moreover, the narration often spoke as if a "Warrior" mindset and risk taking were implicitly good which I thought was an odd prejudice considering the research cited in the book (at least sometimes) implied the opposite.
o The book begins with how people react to stress and competition - the biological reasons why some people freeze up under stressful situations and others do not, and why competition improves some people's skills but degrades that of others.
o The book describes how a genetic variation can drive some people to be "warriors" - those who respond better to new situations and have less of a tendency to freeze up under them, and others to be "worriers" - those who are less tolerant of new situations and more likely to freeze up when confronted by them. Lest one think that we should all strive to be warriors, the book points out that worriers tend to have better working memories, are better organizers and can be habituated to specific stressful situations and can then handle them successfully.
o The book contrasts those who seek to win and those who seek not to lose and how the latter strategy often leads to failure in a competition.
o The book discuses the many different biological responses between men and women and how each handles competition - why men are more likely to take on competition with very little chance of success, whereas women tend to compete only when there is a realistic chance for success.
o Much of the book is devoted to the competition between teams. It discusses how men and women differ in their response to being in a team.
o The book contains lengthy discussions of the effects of the hormones testosterone and cortisol - how they interact with one another and how their influences are generally completely different from what people generally believe them to be.
o The book shows how the results of behavioral psychological studies and biological measurements can be used by parents, teachers, coaches and business managers to improve the ability of those they are leading and to realize some of the inherent biological limitations of those they lead and how to act accordingly.
o While the book does not contain footnotes, it does contain 79 pages of sources and references keyed to each chapter.
My only reservation, and it is not enough to outweigh my 5-star rating, is that the degree to which environmental factors, such as the conditions under which a person is brought up in, are not considered. I would have liked to have seen a clearer statement that the observations in the book represent average ones, often expressed in statistical terms, but that individuals can and do rise above any genetic tendency that they may have. Nonetheless, this is a terrific, well-written and most illuminating book, and I highly recommend it.
1. The first time you do something that is very risky you have a high degree of stress but if you repeat the activity successfully your stress level goes down.
2. People tend to do better when competing against someone else as compared to competing against time or a standard.
3. People tend to do better when competing against others of about the same ability as compared to people who are much better than they are.
4, Men are more competitive than women and prefer to work in teams, while women are more cooperative and prefer to work in pairs.
%. The environment affects success--hone court/field advantage.
One not intuitive finding is that women make better stockbrokers than men because they are not willing to take the risks men do. Also in sports when one person or side is ahead late in the contest he/she may switch from trying to win to trying not to lose with the result that a loss does occur.
The authors seem to favor competition over cooperation as a means for success.
In sum this book can be interesting and you can skip over some of the studies.
First, the basics of how stress and our reaction to it work. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that produces adrenaline, the body's way of contfronting on stressful situations. COMT is an enzyme that degrades dopamine. People's bodies produce varying levels of dopamine, low dopamine levels leading to an overall competition-avoiding personality, etc. These two 'work together' to determine how a person will react to stress and competition. If your body produces a lot of dopamine naturally, but also produces a high level of COMT (to degrade the dopamine), you may handle stress and competition quite well. If you produce the same high level of dopamine but have a low level of COMT (meaning less dopamine is degraded), you may end up being the type who gets stressed very easily, "overreacting" to mildly stressful situations. Low dopamine levels and high COMT may produce someone who doesn't react strongly enough in stressful or competitive situations. Etc.
But the book also talks about the differences in how men and women generally compete. Conventional wisdom tends to say that women aren't very competitive naturally (and those who are have simply learned to get on in a man's competitive world. But like much common wisdom, there is only a grain of truth to this. Pouring over studies of behavior and neuroscience, the authors make a case that women are as competitive as men, but simply are more judicious about when they enter competition.... generally when they believe they have a realistic chance of winning. Women, in other words, look at the odds of whether they have a chance to win, and if they think they do, they compete every bit as hard as men. Men, on the other hand, tend to place more emphasis on what they would gain if they did win (than what their chances are of winning). The authors do refrain from suggesting that one strategy is better than the other; in fact, both strategies may have evolved because they have survival value in different contexts. But they do give some surprising stats showing, for instance, that women investors and money managers have a better track record with their somewhat more conservative strategy than men, who frequently make riskier investment choices.
There are some other great challenges to the conventional wisdom here. Foremost is a reassessment of what testosterone and oxytocin are and do. For a long time, scientists told us that testosterone was simply the "aggression drug" and that oxytocin is the "care/empathy drug." It turns out that things are quite a bit more complicated than this. Studies are showing that testosterone can not only increase one's aggression, but increase allegiance with a group when that group is in competition with another group. (Soccor players with high levels of testosterone seem more likely to do things like pass the ball and assist so that team mates can score.) Similarly, oxytocin does not just increase care and empathy, but care and empathy toward those in one's in-group (it also increases aggression against those in the out-group).
Lastly, I think an overall message we should take from the book is that competition is not necessarily the bad, intrinsic-motivation-killing, thing (especially when kids are concerned) that we have been told it is by the "self-esteem movement." Yes, some people do not thrive, but wither, when they are faced with competitive situations. But most actually do better when they compete either against themselves or others. Kids who compete often learn to care more about the activity they are doing (sport, music, etc) than those who do not compete at those same activities. Competition also helps people learn to deal with being in stressful situations, both at how to be successful in them AND cope with lack of success. (Of course, they are also careful to acknowledge that healthy competition has necessary conditions, like competitors being mindful of sticking to rules of fair play, and the competition being designed so that competitors believe it to be a fair fight.)
Overall, this book was very interesting to read. While written in a easy-going style, there is much information here, and those wanting to look at the more scholarly literature will find a large section of citations pointing them to articles they can pursue further. Teacher, parents, company executives, and just the generally interested lay public should all be able to find something in this book that can help them understand why and how we (should) compete.
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