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We all know at least one of those so-called “born competitors.” She's the co-worker who’s obsessed with beating everyone else in sales each month. He’s the guy at the gym who always picks weights that are 10 pounds heavier than yours.
Whether you thrive from the pressure of being pitted against your peers or it leaves you with a racing heart, competition can affect all aspects of your life, from your career to your relationships.
We asked Ashley Merryman, co-author of Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing, to weigh in on the neuroscience and psychology of competition—and why she thinks there’s no such thing as a person who isn’t competitive.
What exactly happens when humans compete?
By and large, people improve in competitive situations. Comparing yourself to others helps you understand how much more you need to work—and creates benefits over time. Incremental improvement is still moving forward, even if perfection is impossible. You can’t evaluate yourself in the [same] way in a vacuum. For example, when more people take the SAT at the same location at the same time, everyone scores lower. Why is that? Because the more people in the room, the less you know who exactly you’re competing with—and how hard you need to work to excel.
Your book looks at how psychology, neuroscience, and environmental factors work to make someone successful. Is one more important than the others?
The goal of the book was not to say, “There’s one competitive style that’s the ‘top dog,’ and the only way to win is to become that prototype.” We all have different competitive styles, and we’re helping to figure out how to recognize the style that best suits you to enable you to do better when you’re up for a job or promotion.
My co-author, Po Bronson, and I are good examples of two opposite competitive styles. Po prefers fast competition, whereas I’m good at long-range competition. I’m trained as a litigator, and in six months, I can work you into the ground. It’s important to identify what parts of competition you’re good at and what parts will be challenging—and then decide how to move forward.
You also discuss how some people are “warriors” and some are “worriers.” What dictates the category people fall into?
The competitive gene regulates the recycling of dopamine in the prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain that deals with high-level planning, thinking, memory, rule-changing, and adaptation. An enzyme from a gene variation determines whether a person will be a worrier or a warrior—only 50% of the population has both variants.
Worriers have higher levels of dopamine, but in moments of stress, their brains get overloaded with it. Warriors, on average, don’t have enough dopamine, and they are thus more lethargic and don’t pay attention. But moments of stress and pressure bring dopamine to optimum levels in their brains, so they may need stress and pressure to perform their best.
Of course, your competitive makeup isn’t your destiny. Although you can’t change your genetic code, you can train yourself to handle stress in a particular situation. Worriers can feel overwhelmed initially, but over time, they can learn to become accustomed to a particular brand of stress and be able to better manage it.
What advice would you give to warriors versus worriers to enhance their chance at success?
I would advise warriors to look for jobs in an environment where there are new projects, activities, and learning curves, so they can push themselves to remain engaged. A warrior managing minutiae is a recipe for disaster; they’ll be too bored. On the other side of the coin, worriers can handle stress—they just need to get used to the particular stressor that they encounter at their jobs.
For example, I love to sing. When I was a young girl, I got so nervous for auditions that I only tried out for parts that I really wanted, but I should have auditioned for every part. It’s not about torturing yourself; it’s a stress inoculation model that helps you become accustomed to things. Auditioning for parts I never would have gotten would have been helpful because there was no negative outcome to be afraid of.
Are women really less competitive than men?
There is no evidence that women in competition are any less committed, determined, or competitive. A lot of research shows that women are more calculating about competitions: They really only enter competitions if there’s a 50-50 shot at winning. Men are good at ignoring the odds.
Take women on Wall Street, who are better financial analysts because they’re really committed to making sure that they’re right. These women were accurate more often than men by a margin of 7.3%. Since women take the extra time and care to make sure they’re right, they are more confident. The only issue with this is context: Women need to ask themselves whether the situation requires being so careful and calculating about the odds of success.
What are common misconceptions about the path to success?
There’s a popular idea out there that you need 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to be a success. I’m not saying that practice isn’t important, but who gets 10 years before they’re expected to perform well? Ultimately, it’s not who practiced better or more who wins, it’s who performed in the moment of pressure and competition.
Another misconception is that anger is a bad thing. Really, it’s the catalyst for change. Researchers say that anger is a motivation when you see an obstacle in your way, and you think you can do something to change it. If you encounter an obstacle that you think you can’t change, it doesn’t lead to anger, but despair. Anger is a desire for problem-solving.
We’ve also always been told to think positively in order to generate positive results. But the research says that’s just not true—positive imagery may actually impede progress. It’s risky to constantly have positive expectations for outcomes. What happens if you don’t succeed? Now you’re unprepared to deal with failure, you’re doubly disappointed, and you don’t know how to move forward. If you’re just anticipating a positive outcome, it becomes an all-or-nothing situation. But if you’re thinking in terms of the obstacles in your way, it becomes all about progress.
Is it true that some people aren’t capable of being competitive?
When people say they’re “not competitive,” they’re worried that, to be competitive, they have to be cut-throat and aggressive and that they need to cheat. Research shows that none of this is true—the best competitors respect their opponents.
Competition is about motivation, passion, and pushing yourself. It’s good to pick your battles—if it’s just a parking space, let it go. Knowing which competitions are worthwhile doesn’t mean you’re not competitive. It’s a gift I wish we all had.
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