Ashley Merryman on the Science Of Winning & Losing

Ashley Merryman on the Science Of Winning & Losing

Ashley Merryman joins us for Episode 12 of the Optimal Performance Podcast. Ashley is co-author of New York Times best-seller Top Dog: The Science Of Winning and Losing along with Po Bronson.

Get ready for an amazing discussion on developing your champion mindset. Ashley Merryman literally wrote the book on winning.

She's on the show to talk about performing under stress, how to approach competition whether you're a novice or a pro, and how to inoculate yourself against stress over time.

Ashley Merryman


What You'll Hear From Ashley Merryman in this Episode:

  • FACT OF THE DAY - Research has shown that judged competitions elicit a stress response greater than jumping out of a plane for your second or third attempt  (even after you've competed hundreds of times)
  • The secret to dealing with stress... how to control YOUR response.
  • How to rise to the occasion in life's biggest moments
  • Find out the biggest benefit of competition (SURPRISE: It's NOT winning!)
  • Why failure is crucial to achieving success
  • How to adapt the champion mindset, learn from your experiences, and make progress
  • When to compete and when NOT to compete...
  • The "Worrier" vs. "Warrior" gene - which one are YOU?
  • Where to get more of Ashley
  • Ashley Merryman's Top 3 Tips to #liveoptimal


Get Top Dog THE BOOK

Ashley Merryman's WEBSITE

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Ashley Merryman on the Science of Winning and Losing

Ryan: You're listening to the Optimal Performance podcast sponsored by Natural Stacks. If you're into biohacking, performance and getting more out of your life, this is the show for you! If you want more on building optimal performance, check out

Alright, happy Thursday all you optimal performers.Welcome to another episode of the Optimal Performance podcast. I am your host Ryan Munsey, and if you're watching this on video you will see I'm not in our normal sound studio. I'm actually in Austin, Texas this week, hanging out at Natural Stacks headquarters. Our guest as always is joining us via Skype, Mrs. Ashley Merryman, co-author of 'Top Dog'. Ashley, thank you for hanging out with us this morning.

Ashley: Thanks for having me!

Ryan: So, for all of our listeners, we need to tell them who you are and why you're awesome; why we're so excited about this episode! The book, like we mentioned, is 'Top Dog', and you co-wrote this with Po Bronson, 'The Science of Winning and Losing'. So we're gonna talk a lot about competition and optimal performance, right?! So this book was a New York Times bestseller for how many weeks?

Ashley: Uh, I lost count.. Is that bad?!

Ryan: No, that's great! That's a perfect answer.

Ashley: It's just on the list, that I don't really, that I'm just like 'Yay!!'

Ryan: And you guys have also been named Best Book of 2015, so congratulations on all your success with that! Alright, so before we really dive into our content today, I wanna mention our Fact of the Day. We're gonna kinda tailor this one to this specific episode. In the book 'Top Dog', you talked about a study performed on competitive dancers and that on average for these competitors; they'd been in 131 competitions. Yet even after that many competitions, their stress response from the competition was equal to the stress response of a first or second parachute jump, for people jumping out of an airplane. So, you know, I just find that fascinating and I'm sure that that's something.. Obviously you spoke a lot about that in the book but you know, let's talk a little bit about, you know, what causes that. I mean, if I've done something 131 times why am I still gonna have the same stress response that I would jumping out of an airplane?

Ashley: Because competition is special. It's never the same twice, it's always new people, new circumstance, 'what is my opponent doing?', 'what's different in terms of how I got here?', whether we're talking about mood state or psychology or: 'oh gosh! When I was dancing, my shoe broke!'. Well, catastrophe! Your broken shoe.. What do you do, right?! So, it's always going to be new and you can get excited by it, and that's important and we can talk about that later; how do we interpret the stress response? Which is crucial. But if you've never jumped out of an airplane, and they actually did this as an experiment in Germany, where they had people who had never gone and some of them did as many as 3 jumps within the span of an hour. And once they got over that first initial: 'oh my gosh, the door's opening and I'm gonna fall through space!', it was pretty much the same every time and they went okay, well that's.. They knew what they were afraid of and they'd gotten a direct exposure to that and then they kept going. And the research actually has studied people who are regularly parachuting or doing other extreme sports, and the appeal is not the life risking, you know, oh my gosh, daring deed that we all think it is. But the appeal for them, and the sort of constant risk taking in extreme sports is controlling as much possible of the environment as they can, and then moving on.

So, you can't do that in competition, right? Because a lot of the deciding factors may have nothing to do with you, or at least not with something that you can control. And your job then is to respond in the moment, and how are you going to respond? You can anticipate things going wrong, you can anticipate changes, but you're not necessarily going to control them. As a friend of mine, Tom Chaby, said: 'in moments of chaos, the only thing that you can do is control your response to it, not whether or not it happened in the first place.'

Ryan: So how do we get better at controlling that response?

Ashley: Well first, some of it is as simple as labelling it and interpreting it positively. So, I'm obsessed with challenge and threat and the biology that there are these psychological states that actually have biological consequences. And, you know, a challenge state is when you think you have the skills, resources and ability to do it, and we can talk about that later but, to get on track to your answer, those butterflies in your stomach, right when you start a competition. You can say like: 'oh my gosh, I'm really nervous, I'm gonna freak out', or you can say: 'oooh, I've got butterflies, I'm kinda excited!'. And that interpretation of 'I'm excited', actually helps you perform. They've done research where they've now coached people, Jeremy Jamieson, did a study with Harvard grad students, where he told them: 'okay, you're doing a practise GRE, right, they're stressed out. They're Harvard undergrads trying to get into grad school. He said: 'now, in the practice test, if you feel sort of arousal, well research has found that stress can facilitate performance. So don't think because you're feeling some sort of tension that you're doing badly'. Now what he didn't mention is the recent research that he was talking about was the study that he was doing right then! But the people who heard that actually scored higher in the math, and 65 points higher in the math section in the actual test. Because he had told them to interpret that stress as a positive. And why that works is because you only get stressed about things you care about. You can't get stressed if it's not important. So other research at Harvard has found that the worst possible thing you can tell someone when they're nervous.. Well, what would you tell me? If I called you and said: 'oh, I've got this big podcast interview and I'm all kinda nervous?', what would you..

Ryan: I think that the default answer is just, relax.

Ashley: Yeah, calm down, yeah. And Harvard studies 90% of us would say 'calm down', and that's turned out to be the worst possible advice. Has it ever worked? When you were upset, when you were nervous, and somebody told you to calm down?

Ryan: Yeah, that's the last thing I wanna hear!

Ashley: Yeah, you just get more either upset or angry or anxious.

Ryan: Right

Ashley: And now you have two reasons to be upset! You were upset about the thing that you were upset about, and now you get to be upset about the fact you can't calm down! And someone told you to. And that's.. And you're in the wrong. So what you need to do is channel these into more positive things, saying that this is engagement, you're looking forward to this, this is exciting. And then we can talk more about the challenge and moving into that threat. But not, you know, being excited is a positive. And the researchers actually, they sort of try and wanna change the dialogue. Because we think of stress as a bad thing. So they are actually trying.. They've come up with, you know, 'distress', which we all know. And that's really what we mean by stress, right? Distress. And so they actually use eustress, to be a positive, excited, still stressful, still difficult, but on the positive side.

Ryan: Yeah, and you know, our audience is a very competitive group. Our overriding theme is you know, to live optimally. We are people who want the best out of everything that we do. So I think that the things you guys are talking about in the book and the things that you can bring to our episode today is very pertinent to the way that we're trying to live our life. So, you guys use examples of like I know you've talked about the American Relay Swim Team in the book, where, like you said, that eustress; that being able to bring out the best that I.. I can't remember the swimmer's name, but the guy who swam the anchor leg for the US..

Ashley: Jason Lezac

Ryan: So not only did he do what needed to be done to win the race, but he swam a personal best by, you know the numbers, but it was something astronomical

Ashley: Well his time actually beat the World Record. You don't actually get the World Record for doing the middle leg of a relay, you only get it for the first leg, but yeah. He always does better in a team setting, and in that particular instance with the Beijing Olympics, everyone in the US, in the Relay Team, knew they were gonna have to do their lifetime personal best to win the gold. And if they didn't win the gold, that meant that Michael Phelps wasn't going to beat Mark Spitz' record, and almost everyone in the pool had a gold medal, had a World Record. So the expectations for everyone, not just the American team, but the French and Australians, was astronomical. But what I think's really interesting and you know, there's people walk away from that thinking about Jason, and they totally should, he even came from behind to do this amazing victory, but 5 of the 8 teams beat the World Record that day.

Ryan: Yeah, there was.. Yeah, whoever came in 5th place broke the previous World Record and they didn't even medal.

Ashley: Exactly

Ryan: Right

Ashley: And I think that's really important. Because to me it shows that yes, they went home, they didn't win a medal, but I have to believe that whatever they thought was possible had been forever changed. On the next day, they knew in a different pool, they could win the World Record, they could do it. Because they had just done it. The fact that other people were doing it with them doesn't diminish from the accomplishment. It probably facilitated it, right? Because all of them had to be at their very best. But in doing that, it inspired them and it changed their belief of what the best means. And, you know, in thinking about a competition, and this is probably going to sound, it may even sound idiotic, but it was fairly well into the research about competition that I actually figured out what the benefit of competition is. Its not winning. Because we can talk for an hour, we can talk for a year. I can without hypertely say: 'I wrote the book on competition!' Because I actually did, right?! But I can't guarantee you a win. If anything, I can guarantee that the more you compete, the more you're gonna lose. Because your competition got better. The people who didn't care, they dropped out. Its the people who are committed and passionate who are staying in. So you may over time, lose more than you actually win. So the benefit of competition can't be a win.

Ryan: What is it?

Ashley: It's improvement. In the moment, like those swimmers in Beijing, and over time. Because over time, yes there's ballroom dancers, they have the cortisol response, they have the stress response, but the guys who win figure out how to deal with that.

Ryan: So that's my question. Let's think about the average person, the average person who reads Top Dog or the average person listening to this podcast. In that situation, you know, it would be easy to wither and not rise to the moment and put out your best performance. Now I get what you're saying in the book, where in that environment when, like you said, you're around 5 other teams who believe that they can, and I know when I travel and I'm around other like minded people, if I go to a conference or you know, I think performance is elevated when you're in that kind of an atmosphere where other people share that belief and, you know, it's easier for you to believe because everybody else believes. So my question is, let's say you don't have the benefit of being around 5 teams of 4 people, so there's 20 people who believe they can set a World Record. You know, if you're just going through your daily life on your own, how do you cultivate that belief and how do you rise to whatever challenge is in front of you?

Ashley: Well, you have to set goals that are based on yourself. So, competition is valuable because it means you're looking to the person next to you and saying: 'is my goal high enough? Can I push myself further than I thought I could?', and you may say: 'hey they're actually not pushing as hard as I am, so maybe I'm on the right track'. So maybe it's reaffirming you, but you're using people as reference points. Great competitors respect the opponent, respect what they're doing. Great competition is not about tearing people down. It's really important to understand that. You have to respect the institution of the competition, so that it keeps going, right? So you have a bigger picture and you understand that it takes a really long time to get good at something. And that's okay. So then, going back to the benefit is improvement, what are the measurable skills? What are the things that you can on a day to day basis say, 'I improved?', and then you keep moving that bar. But if you walk in knowing you're gonna lose, you're not going to compete. And you're not going to do your best. I mean, that would be ridiculous!

Ryan: Right

Ashley: So, at that point you've got to change the bowl and find, well what can you be successful at? What will you improve it? What will you learn at? So I think that that's, you know, a really important thing. And understanding, you know ideally, yes, people are going to inspire you, but it's your personal best that is at stake; whatever that is. You know, it may be that you're just starting out.. I'm just starting out as a runner, and I'm not gonna compete against the Olympians, I'm no idiot. But I'm trying to say, okay, well here's how I improve and I'm sticking with it, and I am improving. On my schedule, not theirs. So that's really important.

Ryan: Yeah, if you don't mind will you share with us some of the metrics that you use to make sure that you are progressing? And how do you...

Ashley: I just have an app, and it's telling me how fast I'm going and my distance and pace. It's nothing fancy.

Ryan: It's just as simple as trying to go a little bit faster, a little bit farther every single time, and that's it?

Ashley: Yes, exactly! And I also sort of, before I run, say: 'okay, am I gonna try and go faster today? Or am I more focused on endurance and distance?' But again.. So I'm trying to practice what I preach, which is actually really hard because my standards for what I wanna do are really high. And I don't like doing things I know I'm bad at. So I mean, it's true, it's just hard.

Ryan: I'm right there with you and I think most people are too! Yeah. Is that something that.. Is that a personality thing? Are some people that way and other people are not that way? Is it something that we learn in childhood if we grew up competing a lot?

Ashley: I do think that getting.. Well, you know I always have a hard time with these conversations. You know the phrase: 'what doesn't kill you makes you stronger?', I'm like, 'yeahh.. Sometimes it kills ya!'

Ryan: Yeah, try that jumping out of your plane with no parachute!

Ashley: Yeah, sometimes it just doesn't work. And so I wanna be careful when I say things like 'oh, I read an essay and I learnt losing is good for you', and people are like ohhh, so we should always have blood sports, even for kids! And I'm not about abusing children, I'm not about making people feel like failures, its about that constant movement and progress and feeling that everything is an opportunity for growth. Even a loss, even a success. You probably grow more from a loss than you do from a success because we don't take apart success in the same way. But I think, yes, as parents, coaching is institutions. We have lip service, 'oh yeah, failure is a learning experience', but do you actually get to learn from it? You know, if your boss says: 'everyone should fail and learn from it', and then you make the wrong photocopy and you get fired, well how did you learn from that, right?!

So you know, where you make a mistake and you get cut from the team. You're going to learn, life experience wise, but I wanna make sure that we're consistent when we say things like 'mistakes are good', 'failure is good, you can learn from it'. That's all true, but we need that room to keep going. And I'm not convinced it's there. And to me, that's the kinda thing when you're asking: 'well, what makes someone more willing to try things that they suck at?'. I think that's the factor. You know, there's gender differences in terms to sort of risk aversion and by and large women are really good at calculating their odds of success, and guys are really good at ignoring them.

Ryan: You guys, you talk a lot more about that in the book. So if people are interested, I mean..

Ashley: Yeah, we have data, it's not just me whiffing, there's actual data! But it's that question, well, 'am I going to be good at this?', 'am I going to succeed?', and if the answer's no, I don't even try. And that's something that.. I wish women were a little more willing to say: 'I'm going to grow from this, I'm going to learn from this experience, whether or not the outcome is positive, in that, you know, the actual box score'. And I kind of occasionally wish guys would stop saying: 'yeah I got this!', and just think about it just a little bit more! We can all learn from these strategies.

Ryan: Okay, well let's say somebody tries something and fails or they compete and they don't finish as well as they would like to. What is the secret to finding the positive or deconstructing that so that you can learn and improve from it?

Ashley: Well, we don't naturally take apart our successes. You know, like I just said. Even expressions like: 'don't look a gift horse in the mouth', but that's a problem. Like I love baseball, and you know in baseball superstitions, you have to wear the same socks for the entire month of October because it might have been the socks, which is the reason that your favorite player caught the fly ball.

Ryan: Right, or the play off beard!

Ashley: Yes exactly! And you do everything because you've never actually taken the time to figure out what is the thing that actually matters, right? You know, and granted I'll not change my socks if I think that's it! For a while I was going to games and I had a particular food that I ate at every home game and we won, every time I ate it, and the one time I experimented, because I'm a scientist, we lost! I just thought you know, I'm a science reporter, I should.. And then so I changed and then we lost and I was like 'ohhhh see!', causation, causation!

Ryan: Who's your team?

Ashley: Ummm, I root for 3 teams actually. The Washington Nationals, The San Francisco Giants and The Padres.

Ryan: Okay.

Ashley: Grew up in San Diego, so you gotta root the Padres!

Ryan: Okay, fair enough

Ashley: But so anyway, I'm just rambling at this point, but I was laughing at the superstition! I think that it's easier to take apart your failures but I think the same process works though. The researchers talk about the difference between the counterfactual, and you know, are they sort of positive or negative, additive or subtractive. And here.. So, say I have a job interview and I'm late, so I don't get the job. They've hired someone else before I've got there. Now, it would be natural to say: 'uh, man. If only I had not overslept, I could have been at the interview and now I don't get the job'. Well that's a counterfactual, right? That's saying, if I had done this, an outcome would have been different. But it's not very helpful in the future, is it? Because what it's doing is pretending that the one thing that did happen didn't actually happen, right. So how does that help me get the next job interview? It doesn't.

So the better thing to do is, rather than subtracting the one thing that did happen, you add things that could have happened. Oh, okay, so if I had planned other ways to get to the job then I wouldn't have been caught in traffic so I could've maybe still gotten there on time. If I had planned what I was going to wear the night before, instead of freaking out.. Oh my gosh, I don't know what I'm going to wear for my job interview! And that took extra time, then maybe I would have gotten there on time. If I had set not just my alarm clock but my phone, then maybe I could've actually gotten up on time. So now I have this universe of new options that are actually going to help me prepare the next time. And even this process actually starts teaching you how to think more creatively in other contexts. So the more you practice these positive counterfactuals, then you can also start doing it the next time you're preparing for a race, or a difficult call with a friend or something like that. So it's remembering that problem solving is coming up with new options, not just ruling out the one thing that actually happened.

Ryan: Gotcha, gotcha. As a former athlete, myself, and as a gym owner and a strength coach, I mean, we call that looking for the gap? So where do you wanna be, where are you now, and how do we close that gap? And a lot of that, you know, I have experience in lean factory manufacturing too, and they're always looking at that rapid continuous improvement too. So it's, how do we make this more efficient? How do we cut down on waste? How do we not lose time and labor, things like that. Like you said taking those lessons and applying them to other areas and other aspects of your life can have huge benefits. And you know, if you become, it's just finding those little ways to compete in every little thing, even those things that aren't necessarily competitive.

Ashley: Well, you know, I wanna push back on that a little bit because a great competitor knows when to compete, and when it doesn't matter. It's neither about being constantly competitive at everything, because that's exhausting, and if it's not exhausting for you the competitor, then the maladaptive hyper competitive person is just as killer for finding a parking space at the mall as they are to get a promotion. So you have to pick and choose what things actually matter.

Ryan: I would agree with that. And, well, that goes back to what you said earlier, like respecting, respecting the game, respecting your competition

Ashley: Yes they're all related

Ryan: And again, like, knowing what is important and what isn't

Ashley: Right, yeah.

Ryan: So, I wanna shift gears just a little bit. You posted something on the Facebook page that you guys have, where you shared an article from ESPN where it talked about youth specialization being a disservice to kids..

[unclear 24:30]

As a strength coach, I mean, that's something that we talk a lot about. We're on the same side of that argument as you guys are. So, why is that a disservice a kids?

Ashley: Really? Specialization?

Ryan: Yes

Ashley: So many reasons! David Epstein, the author of The Sports Gene, has written a lot about this so definitely check out his work as well. But, for one thing, you know, sheer fatigue, muscle development. Kids need actual time to be able to develop one set of muscles versus another. One set of motor skills versus another. And if they're just constantly doing the same thing, I mean, the researchers are finding that you know, baseball pitchers are getting Tommy John, starting earlier and earlier and earlier, they are wearing out their elbows before they're even out of high school! Some of them are even doing it prophylactically; 'oh just give me the surgery now so I don't have to blow out my elbow later'. Well no, actually. Just take a couple months off and rest or do something else.

I also think that early specialization in terms of being.. Remember I said it takes a long time to get good at something. If you are constantly doing one thing then you are not really accepting the fact that it can take a long time to get good at something, because you are expecting these constant results in a particular context. I think other research also indicates that learning one set of skills, in terms of strategy, responding to stress, responding to opponents, those seem to at least on some level be transferrable skills. So you're still learning how to compete in lacrosse, by taking a season off and doing soccer or baseball, because you are still in that moment of engagement and attention, and creative problem solving. And again, remember I just said, learning it in one context helps you figure it out in something else. But if you only have that sort of one note approach, 'this is how we do this in this sport', how are you going to even be able to break out of that mold? Because you haven't seen any other ideas. So I think it also helps in terms of the mental approach and the strategy. I also just really, you know, you're supposed to spend about 30% of your time in recovery and if you don't.. Burn out, physical injury, exhaustion, the list goes on. So, to me, I don't see any upside and I see tons of downsides. And remember Johnny Football! The same year he got drafted in football, also got drafted by an MLV team.

Ryan: Yeah, yeah.

Ashley: So a lot of the great athletes even currently, are multi sport athletes and have no problem with it, right?

Ryan: Right, right. So, does that pattern of taking time off or maybe switching gears, does that apply to adults as well?

Ashley: I think so. I mean, there's less research in terms of the actual physical, although I just mentioned recovery is really important and if you're always playing the same sport then you're not recovering. And you know, in strength and conditioning, you don't do the same reps every day, right? You switch back and forth, that's what you're doing. You're giving one part of your body rest and visiting another. And in terms of cognition, researchers into creativity research have found that engineers who watch a documentary on the history of China have more interesting engineering insights for 2 weeks after watching something that had nothing to do with what they were working on.

Ryan: Yeah, I've been lucky enough to see Steven Kotler and some of his colleagues speak on the Flow state and the way that the brain works there is, it goes through phases and you have this kind of accrual of information and it's almost like a struggle phase, and the brain actually needs a break and time to process and assimilate that information before you can actually enter the flow state. So if your brain never actually gets away from it, if you don't get that space, then you cannot actually enter the flow state. So yeah, from a cognitive standpoint that's absolutely perfect.

Ashley: It's why babies sleep all the time. Because they process what they've learned in sleep, and then you know babies, all they do is go.. Wow, did you see what I just did? That was incredible, I've gotta take a nap. Right, the more you learn, the more you need to sleep. That's true for adults too. So, in terms of that recovery and time to process and you know, all of the research says: taking a walk, pulling yourself away from something, is important and there are different studies in terms of, you know, that say you get extra benefits from being in nature, or something like that. But that willful, I'm stopping for a moment and just thinking about it, but that's important. It has to be willful, you know. That 'I'm distracted because I got a text', does not help clear your mind. What you have to do is you have to choose, I'm gonna stop working for a little bit, go take a walk, maybe check Facebook, and then come back to the problem, because your brain is still working on it even if you're not cognitively. That sort of forcing yourself to switch, here's the text, here's this, here's that, that does not lead to insight.

Ryan: Right, there is a difference between space and distraction.

Ashley: Yes, there is.

Ryan: Okay, so I wanna go back to something you said earlier where you were talking about, you know, maybe not that you're advocating losing, but that it can help you learn and that we should compete and maybe..

Ashley: Well I am advocating losing, in the fact that I hate 'everybody gets a turkey' programs for younger kids

Ryan: Right, I agree with that.

Ashley: I really, really hate this. And so, in that way you can say yes I am. I wrote an essay that was titled 'Losing is Good For You', what I mean is we don't necessarily need to orchestrate experience as a failure, it's about how we respond to the ones that are inevitably going to happen. And people do that. Parents have asked me: 'oh should I intentionally enroll my child in something I know they're not good at so they will experience failure?', like, they're a kid, they're gonna screw up, there's no need to manipulate the situation. It's how we respond to the loss and the failure that's important!

Ryan: Well I wanna know if you feel like that same approach applies in the business realm. You know, for like an entrepreneur or you know things like that. So billionaire Peter Thiel would disagree, you know, he thinks that it wears in the behaviors that lead to failure in the first place.

Ashley: But is it what leads to failure?

Ryan: You know, like if it's almost like learned behavior, if you fail or if you lose. And I mean, let's look at, you know, realistically in a business sense, you're not just losing in a competition, you may be losing capital or other things. So what are the upsides and the downsides to maybe competing in that realm before your proverbial 10,000 hours?

Ashley: Well I'm not a big fan of the 10,000 hours!

Ryan: I know!

Ashley: I mean I guess sprinters are the best one.. They run their way about 2,000 hours. And yeah, we wrote about it in Top Dog.. You don't get the medal for who practiced more.

Ryan: Right. Well that's why I threw 10,000 hours in there. I know how you feel.

Ashley: You were baiting me and I took the bait! Go figure! I mean, you can definitely get into a mindset that you suck, and that you can you know, do self-fulfilling prophecies, you can get to strategies, but I don't think that's inevitable. And I think that that shows a flaw in how you responded to the failure. You didn't learn from it. I mean, I mentor a lot of kids in the inner city, and I always tell them, you know, first mistakes free! You've gotta learn from it. And when I get down on them is when they've screwed up and they've done the same thing twice, because they didn't learn from it.

Ryan: Right.

Ashley: And one of my other kids said: 'does that just mean I have to make new mistakes all the time?', and I said, well yeah actually! That's exactly what it means. Make new ones, I'm cool with it. You just keep making the same one, you haven't learned. So to me, I think that that's a problem. If somebody is repeatedly doing that, they're not changing their strategies, they're not thoughtful about what they're doing, and maybe they're even so afraid, maybe they're afraid of success. Maybe they're doing that on purpose, I don't know. But I don't think that success, I don't think failures breed failures inevitably. In the brain in terms of our response to mistakes, you actually can perceive the mistake before you even cognitively knew it, right? You just feel it was wrong before you actually remember what happened, you're like: 'ohhhhhhhhh', and sometimes we can actually perseverate on the mistake; you just keep repeating it over and over again, you can't get past it. But the more you do that, the less you learn from the mistake. So if someone is doing that consistently then I think there's a different problem. It's not that they haven't... It's not learning from the mistake.

Ryan: Gotcha. So how...

Ashley: And Biz Stone, the head of Twitter, I saw him speak a few months ago, and someone asked him: 'what do you look for in a VC, you know, someone's coming in saying we want money', and he said 'I want someone burnished by failure', which I thought was a lovely line and pretty striking. So at least in the Silicon Valley, I think, a mixed track record could be a good thing.

Ryan: Okay, okay. So I wanna ask you, you mentioned you know, that people may be afraid of success. So, there's a really famous quote, I can't think of who said it right now or exactly how it goes, but it's something like, you know, 'our greatest fear is not that we are unable to or inadequate, that we may actually reach that and that we may be afraid of what our true power really is'. Why does that seem to be so prevalent?

Ashley: I'm not really convinced!

Ryan: So, I mean, but why would somebody be afraid of success?

Ashley: I think that's just succeeded as a Facebook and Twitter meme! And I'm not really convinced by that. I think that most of us just don't know how much power we have, and it's not the fear of it, I think we just don't realize it.

Ryan: Why would somebody be afraid to try to discover how much they have or what they are capable of?

Ashley: I don't know, I mean, that's just sort of guessing. It's going to depend on the individual.I mean it could be that they grew up, you know, making mistakes, they grew up in a non supportive environment.. There's gonna be a million different reasons why someone's that way and there are going to be cultural, economic differences, I can't say one particular thing. I just think the more important thing is challenging yourself to do more. And that to me is the value of that quote.

Ryan: What is that?

Ashley: That the idea that you're supposed to challenge yourself and push yourself beyond what you've set as your own limitations.

Ryan: Right, right.

Ashley: So I do like the quote, but..

Ryan: Just for a different interpretation.

Ashley: For a different reason, yeah!

Ryan: Okay, cool! So I guess, knowing everything that you've said, what do you think would be more important? The joy of victory of that character building defeat?

Ashley: If you wanna stay in the game you have to have both. I mean, the reality is, if you're constantly losing, you give up! And who would blame you? So you need to have the positive experience of winning to keep motivated, to keep being engaged, and you also need the defeats to not take that one for granted. To keep pushing yourself.. I was reading a study of gold medal Olympians, and they asked them, and pretty much every one of them said the reason that they had won the gold at one Olympics was because either the last Olympics they didn't even make the team, or maybe it was a succession of games depending on the sport and you know, it was a round robin or something and they lost one of the earlier matches and then they realized, oh, we're going to actually have to fight for this, to earn this. Which made them change their strategies, work much harder, throughout the rest of the Olympics so they could actually be successful. So I think that you absolutely need both. And if you're lucky enough to win all the time, then again, setting your own goals and challenging yourself.

But it's interesting, some of this is also about timing and experience, so like, the novice, no competition. No competition. I don't care if it's a 6 year old learning to kick a soccer ball for the first time, so novices need time to learn how to get good at something. Whereas the elite, they're competing against themselves; they're trying to pursue excellence. So, it's those people in the intermediate who really need competition; they're trying to figure out if they're good at something, and how good are they and what do they need to improve? So for them, competition against others becomes more important for skill building than it is for the elite, and for novices, if you introduce competition too fast then they're just going to give up. And you know, the difference between when do you give negative feedback or positive feedback, that positive feedback is more effective when you aren't really committed: 'I'm just not really sure I want to do this', 'oh but you could be so good at this! Did you see how much you've learned?'. And negative feedback is more effective when you are committed, because that reminds you of the distance between where you are now and where you wanna be.

Ryan: Okay, that's really cool. Now, so if somebody is a novice, how would we know when we are at that intermediate or ready to compete level?

Ashley: It's up to them. It's up to them. It's not up to you. It's up to them.

Ryan: Well, like if I.. As a novice..

Ashley: No, but I mean, no, as a coach, you need to be you know, asking them?

Ryan: No, no, I mean I'm saying, if I'm the competitor or if I'm the athlete, if I'm the novice.

Ashley: Mmmhmm, right. Well I think then you know, you'll hear about competitions, you'll hear about opportunities, and decide 'yeah, I'm ready for that'. Or maybe you'll set a goal, you know. 'I'm going to be in a race', or 'I'm going to compete at this particular point in time', so here's what I need to do to get there. And you can always say: 'do you know what I realized? This is harder than I thought.. It's taking longer, I'm going to skip this one and go to the next.' But, you know, it's that desire to compete, I don't think that's hard. I think that you know, the: 'oh my gosh, I am completely outclassed, what am I doing here?', well there you go. Why are you there? And I think, you know, we have that all the time.

Ryan: So in your book, you talked about two polar types of personality, you know, The Worrier and The Warrior. Warrior and Worrier.. Let me try it, annunciate! So, I guess for a lot of people and myself included, when I listened to the description of that, I kinda find myself at sometimes falling into each category, so tell our listeners a little bit about what each of those classifications means, but also how does somebody know, can you be one in certain situations and another one in other situations? Are we inherently both or neither, either? how does that work?!

Ashley: Well, what we were writing about was science in terms of a particular gene variant that changes how much dopamine you have in the prefrontal cortex, whether it's at baseline or in moments of stress. And the researchers have come up with the sort of 'Worrier', who is predisposed to having high levels of dopamine and under stress actually has too much, it's sort of like flooding the car with gas, the engine just cannot do it. So, the 'Warrior', actually underperforms until moments of stress and then they get optimal dopamine and then they actually succeed better. But, you know, if you wanna talk about genotypes in an average population, it's about 25% of us have the Warrior gene variant, both of them, some have, about 25% have the Worrier, and about 50% of us are in the middle and have one of both. So certainly you can be. My goal is not to say, well I'm a Warrior, so you know, this is how I do things, and write myself off. Or I'm a Worrier, and I get stressed and this is.. I can't do this.

I don't want to pigeon hole people that way. I want them to use these as sort of tools to say, oh you know, I do kind of flip out in moments of stress so maybe I should prepare for that, or you know, where are my strengths? Where are my weaknesses? And use that as sort of a way to test yourself in terms of your approaches, you know, maybe be a little more forgiving as a manager. Especially for the Worrier who was really great in practice and flipped out on game day. What happened to you?! Well, I think it would be a little easy to say.. Well they must have the comp gene variant that makes them a Worrier and they can't handle stress! Well, the research shows that the Worriers who freak out over stress, over time, practicing that particular context, can actually get better. It doesn't change their genotype; a new experience of stress in a new context and they may freak out again, but it helps make them follow the Stress Inoculation Model. So, small exposure to stress over time and then they kind of get used to it and then they become engaged. And especially if you're feeling like you're the Worrier, the person who's overwhelmed with stress, pursuing that Inoculation Model rather than just going, I can't handle it, so I should just not do it.

Ryan: Gotcha, gotcha. Well, that about wraps up this episode! Before we let you go, couple of other things. Number one. Where can our listeners get more of you?

Ashley: Um, well at, I have a Twitter, which is also @AshleyMerryman, and there's a website with some information about the book, obviously the book is "everywhere", if you will, but if people have questions or something, feel free to reach out to me anytime.

Ryan: Okay, cool. Via Twitter or the website?

Ashley: Twitter or the website, there's an email that goes straight to me.

Ryan: Cool, alright. So, last question that everybody on the show has to answer. What are your 3 top tips for our listeners to live optimal?

Ashley: Uhoh! Well, we didn't actually go into the real science of challenge and threat, but in terms of how to approach things, everything should be an opportunity for growth. It doesn't mean you're going to succeed, when I said earlier, you don't have to win the Box Car, but how are you going to learn from this experience? If you know going in how you're going to learn, then that event is going to be successful, so go for it. Get enough sleep, because no one gets enough sleep and sleep affects cognitive ability, it affects testosterone, which affects muscle development, everything. So, and, if you're not sure you get enough sleep. Here's the simple question. Do you wanna answer? Are you brave?

Ryan: Okay?

Ashley: Do you use an alarm clock?

Ryan: I do.

Ashley: You are sleep deprived.

Ryan: I would've told you that. You didn't need to ask me, I would've told you!!

Ashley: But if anybody out there is wondering, well I think I get enough sleep.. If you use an alarm clock and don't be telling me, oh well I wake up right before my alarm! No, no, no, no. If you still use an alarm clock, you are sleep deprived. If you had had enough sleep you would wake up on your own. It's physically impossible to get sleep when you don't need it.

Um, and my one more tip. Hmm. Well, I talked a little bit, and we wrote a lot in the book about the difference between playing to win and playing not to lose. And playing to win is about what's the good that's going to come from a success? And, thinking of the bigger picture and being willing to take the risks. And playing not to lose is about preventing mistakes. And it's not even about a win, in the good outcome. It's more pushing a loss down the road. Well, I didn't lose today.. But tomorrow I might! And the reality is, we do both. And I want people to do both.

I want my engineer not to just play to win and say: 'oh, the bridge looks beautiful!', no, I want them to master every mistake and make sure that all the bolts are in the right places. But it's about timing. So I want people to choose to play a win, and use that to.. Use that mindset for being an entrepreneur. Use the vision of what you want. And then at a certain point, playing not to lose is about fulfillment; you know, I want your product to be safe, I want you to do the things that you committed to do, and not let people down. But it's a conscious choice, it's not just a switch that's somewhere along the way, 'oh my gosh I've come so far and I just don't wanna screw up now'. That was playing to win and now you're playing not to lose. So to me, having that vision of when you wanna achieve something and going for it, and taking the risk, do that as much as you can, and then only play not to lose just to make sure it's alright when you're moving forward.

Ryan: Okay, awesome. Those are great tips! Thank you so much, Ashley! So, like I said, this is the end of our show. Before we let our listeners go, we wanna remind all of our listeners that you can find the shownotes at, and for this particular episode, it'll be and also, make sure that you go to iTunes and leave us a review and we will read them on the air. We got a really cool one about a week ago: 'Great podcast, lots of useful information, I'm always looking for ways to improve myself both mentally and physically, and I can say thanks to all the valuable information, I've been able to surpass what I thought were my limits, so thanks again for what you guys do!'. Limits Shattered. So again, if you're enjoying the podcast, head over to iTunes, leave us a 5* review just like that one and let us know how we're helping you guys. And until next Thursday that's it! We'll see you guys soon.

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