Top Dog

"To be successful, you have to be able to perform when it counts. You have to be able to handle the pressure. You need to not wilt in the competition."

- Top Dog, page 9

We live and work in a world where competition separates the haves from the have-nots. Succeeding in our jobs and moving up the corporate ladder frequently involves going head-to-head with a colleague in what amounts to a “friendly competition.” To be successful in life, to advance in your career, the authors of Top Dog argue that you have to be comfortable and able to stay focused when competing.

Many of us don’t view ourselves as competitive. We are not the type to try to win, no matter the cost. Bronson and Merryman term this type of competitiveness as “maladaptive” competitiveness, and they distinguish it from “adaptive competitiveness” which is characterized by a determination to rise to a challenge while maintaining respect for the rules. Adaptive competitiveness, the healthy type of competitiveness this book explores how to motivate, is marked by “constant striving for excellence, but not desperate concerns over rank.”


The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

Aretas and the Benefits of Competition

"The Ancient Greeks did not fear that competition bred immoral behavior. They believed that competition taught moral behavior. Only by competing could people come to attain the full nobility of the human spirit. In simplest terms, they learned to fight fair, with honor and mutual respect for opponents. Aretas meant that competing had shaped you into a better person: competition challenged you to become the best you could be."
- Top Dog, page 14

Bronson and Merryman provide evidence contradicting many of the commonly held beliefs about the dark side of competition. In particular, they pay a good amount of time showing how competition doesn’t hurt creativity, rather, it enhances it. Taking the view of the Ancient Greeks, the authors argue that attaining excellence through competition is a supreme virtue, that competition challenges you to become the best you can be.

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Bring Out Your Competitive Fire

"Healthy competitiveness is marked by constant striving for excellence, but not desperate concerns over rank. It’s adaptive competitiveness that leads to the great, heroic performances that inspire us all."
- Top Dog, page 11

To reap the benefits of competition, we must be sure to remain competitive in the adaptive sense, as discussed by Bronson and Merryman. That is, we must remain determined to improve ourselves and rise to meet a challenge head on. Rather than focus on what we could potentially lose, people who perform the best and benefit the most from competition are those who remain gain focused while maintaining a healthy respect for the rules.

Citing study after study in fields as varied as elementary education to professional sports, Bronson and Merryman note that it is the competitors who remain gain-focused that continue to improve their performance. Those who are gain-focused play to win; they increase their effort and take smart risks. Those who become loss-focused tense up, dwell on mistakes, and are unable to recover from those mistakes.

The key to maintaining a gain-focus is to train yourself mentally to accept that mistakes will be made, but to realize that just because you made a mistake, it doesn’t mean you have lost the competition. In most competitions, an early mistake is hardly enough to cause you to lose the whole thing. Those who are able to learn from mistakes, adjust, and move on are those who will perform the best (and grow the most) in a competitive setting.

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Creating a Competitive Workplace

"A workplace can be egalitarian and noncompetitive, but it will repel the stars, who fear they won’t get the recognition and compensation for their superior value."
- Top Dog, page 60

How do you structure competition in the workplace to motivate greater effort from your employees? Bronson and Merryman argue that to “revive” someone’s competitive spirit, all they need is an “equal match and a fighting chance”. The authors point to research showing that the smaller the competitive field and the closer the competition remains, people will continue to increase their effort, as long as they still believe they have a chance at winning.

The prize structure is also important; if you set the first prize too close to the second, it will not create enough competition, but if you make the first prize too much greater than the second, you may encourage cheating and other forms of “maladaptive” competitiveness.

Top Dog explores many other dimensions of competition, exploring the benefits that can arise from healthy competition while also acknowledging the potential for competition to elicit maladaptive behaviors that, despite increasing effort, might actually hurt performance in the long run. I recommend Top Dog for any manager that utilizes competition to motivate his/her employees, as well as for any individual who would like to learn to thrive in a competitive environment.

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William Zahn

ABOUT William Zahn

WHO ARE YOU? I am a marketing professor and scholar who, in addition to education, is interested in writing and consulting. I am married with our first child on the way...
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