The Difference Between Playing to Win and Playing Not to Lose

By Guest Post

This post originally appeared on Laura Garnett’s personal blog

For those unfamiliar with the work, “Top Dog”, by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman is an illuminating book about the science of winning and losing. The book provides some key neurological data that can help us all with managing the art of challenge, especially when it comes to figuring out your Zone of Genius.

Zone of Genius

Once you know what your Zone of Genius is, there is then the challenge of operating in it. It’s not always easy at first. I have developed five key principles to operating day to day so that you are leveraging your genius 80% of the time and in control of creating peak work experiences. One of these principles is believing in yourself. This one sounds easy, but its probably one of the most challenging. It’s difficult because it changes on a daily basis. One day you may be on top of the world and the next be overthrown by a wave of doubt in your abilities. The advantage of knowing your genius is that you can really push the boundaries of possibility within it, but it also requires stepping out of your comfort zone, which can create more doubt.

The key concept in Top Dog is the idea of playing to win or to lose. I believe this is a core component in believing in yourself.  At the heart of playing to win or lose is being confronted by either a threat or a challenge. It’s a simple psychological difference that directly impacts empirical results.

“A study was done by Alter and Aronoson with Princeton undergrads. The researchers presented the students with a test of GRE questions. For half the students, the questions were presented in a threat context–they were a test of the students’ ability, a judgment on whether they truly belonged at Princeton. The other students got the same questions, but in a challenge context. That test was titled “Intellectual Challenge Questionnaire,”and the questions were construed as brainteasers. Nobody was expected to solve them all. In the threat context, the Princeton undergrads got 72% correct. In the challenge context, they got 90% correct.”

“A threat situation alters the way the brain sensitizes to risk and reward. The amygdala, deep in the limbic system, is highly attuned to fearful stimuli. The risks of a situation become prominent in the mind. Meanwhile, the brain’s reward center–though activated by the opportunity – is still the lesser partner.”

Challenge vs. Threat Environment

All this changes in a challenge frame of mind.“In a challenge state, you’re not expected to be perfect, and not expected to win, but you have a fighting chance to rise to the occasion. You’re free to take risks and go for it, which activates the gain-orientation system. A cascade of hormones is released that suppresses l-TPJ activity, and the brain gets comfortable, as if everything is familiar. Decision making shifts back to automatic mode. The hormones dampen the amygdala, making you fearless, and they juice up the reward networks, making you highly attuned to the spoils of victory. Competitors breathe freely, feel energized and approach opportunities.”

Based on this knowledge, creating a threat situation greatly impacts your ability to perform. Think about how often we create our own “threat” situations. We sometimes think or expect the worst, and mistakenly, feel it’s a way to avoid failure – hoping to be pleasantly surprised rather than disappointed by dreaming too big.

It’s almost as if we unconsciously think that if we create worry or fear that we are being more careful and calculated, but the truth is exactly the opposite. Creating a “challenge” versus a “threat” environment will help you achieve more. Which is why we need to believe in ourselves and pro-actively create the environment that will maximize our capabilities.

According to this book,“Competitive fire will never ignite, or be expressed, when our orientation is just to get through the day. Competitive fire will flourish when long-term goals are high, and when it’s accepted that risks and mistakes go hand-in-hand, and we are free to let ambition reign.”

Dream big in your long-term goals. Let ambition reign by creating challenges and a positive environment where you are your biggest fan. Play to win and guess what? You will.

What are your thoughts on working in a “challenge” or “threat” environment? Which one do you believe is more conducive to your productivity? Let us know in the comments below!

photo credit: steve9567 via photopin cc


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