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Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing Hardcover – February 19, 2013

4.2 out of 5 stars 98 customer reviews

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Q&A with Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman

Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman

Q. Are you refuting the concept that it takes ten years of practice to get great at anything?

Po Bronson: Not at all, we feel our book is additive to that story. Nobody is judged on how they practice. They're judged on how they perform when it counts. Practicing is not the same as competing. You can pitch a million baseballs to your son until he perfects his swing--but wait until he faces a pitcher who wants him to miss. You might have ten years of experience in the advertising industry, but how do you handle the day your biggest client tells you they're leaving for a rival agency?

Ashley Merryman: The truth is, nobody puts in ten years before they start competing. The world doesn't work that way. We are all thrown into competitive situations, long before we've had enough practice. Our results are still judged; our fate is still determined by how we do. To survive these trials, we need more than practice. We need competitive fire.

Q. Did researching this book change how you each compete?

Ashley Merryman: I'm a girl. All my life, I've been told to "play nice." I heard it on the playground and then the grown-up version they say in boardrooms: women are better at coalition-building, not competing. The science says that's wrong. And it's not just about toughening up. Women are prone to weigh risks more carefully than men; when women are confident they have a good chance to succeed, they'll compete. Sometimes this is an asset (in certain domains), but sometimes it's a hindrance. I've learned to recognize when to tap into my gender's knack for risk-analysis, and when to ignore it.

Po Bronson: I didn't let many people know it, but before working on this book, I'd had a full-hip replacement and a few unsuccessful surgeries on my leg. I had many setbacks during rehab; I could barely walk at times. This affected every dimension of my life--it sapped my energy for my writing work and my volunteer projects. I was just losing my edge and my will to fight. Researching the book inspired me; it reminded me who I am. It restored my zeal for attacking big challenges. I hope the book does that for readers, first and foremost: gets them eager to surmount the challenges in their lives.

Q. Everyone says that companies must innovate to remain competitive--but does it work the other way around? Doesn't competition destroy creativity?

Po Bronson: There is a belief that creative genius is fragile and needs to be shielded from competition and comparison. But the research says that's a myth. Leonardo da Vinci loved to have his art put side by side with the work of others for debate over whose was best; Bach, too, liked to compete against other musicians in public concerts. Chemical fire extinguishers, food canning, transcontinental air travel--each began as the prize winner of a competition. Competition doesn't kill creativity: it facilitates creative output by supplying motivational drive.

Ashley Merryman: Whether professional musicians or school children, studies have shown competition fuels creativity and even improves the quality of the work produced. More than that, the skills that make you a great competitor--such as a willingness to push boundaries, trust one's instincts, problem-solve--those are the same skills needed for innovation.

From Booklist

Bronson and Merryman follow up the best-selling NurtureShock (2009) with this intriguing look at the nature of competition. Most of us are taught from an early age that it’s good to be competitive, but we’re not usually taught how to compete. Sure, we can learn how to play a sport, and we can practice the skills, but practicing is not the same as competing. You can perfect your baseball swing in practice, but how do you react when you’re facing a pitcher who wants you to miss? The key element of competition, the authors say, is the ability to compete under pressure in situations that are not under one’s own control. Using plenty of real-world examples, from Olympic athletes to fighter pilots to intelligence operatives, 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. Expect lots of talk-show play for this one. --David Pitt

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Twelve; F First Edition edition (February 19, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1455515159
  • ISBN-13: 978-1455515158
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.2 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (98 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #723,043 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
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.
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Format: Hardcover
The Science of Winning and Losing is Top Dog's subtitle which drew me in. I read it assuming that it would explore why people win or lose, and perhaps give some advise on how someone might "win" more frequently having read the book. Instead, It's an argument in favor of competition for learning and developing skills, with lots of research and studies to back up that argument. So, win number one goes to marketing.

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.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman (authors of Nurtureshock) have written a book whose large message (kind of) bucks the trend of the self-esteem movement: while some people do worse under the pressure of competition, competitive situations (whether against oneself or others) seem to bring out many people's best. The book is devoted to 'filling in' that basic thesis with scientific data from a vast array of fields from behavioral economics to neoroscience.

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.
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