Episode 52: Interview with New York Times Bestselling Author Ashley Merryman, Part 2


Description: (00:45) Brad continues his fascinating interview with Ashley Merryman, where he explores her new ideas on parenting and competition. Ashley picks up the commentary on the topic of competition as presented in her New York Times bestselling book, Top Dog. She and her co-author, Po Bronson, offer an assortment of interesting insights that challenge our conventional notions of parenting and competitive success. She will be presenting at the next Primalcon in Oxnard next September.

(02:30) Listeners can learn what makes for healthy competition. Some of the surprising insights mentioned: We only really rise to the level of better competition if the race is close and we can glimpse the possibility of success. As referenced in a study of SAT scores based on the size of the test taking population at a certain location, or the grouping of cadets at the Air Force Academy by academic performance, close competitors mutually benefit, while those well behind the leaders can get discouraged and fall further behind. Another example includes the popular show Sesame Street, which was intended for low socioeconomic kids to build skills, but ended up helping out the already advantaged kids even more.

One more mentioned example comes from Basque country, a place where a new computerized grading system on kids’ report cards indicates each of their grades in comparison to the school-wide average grade. Initially, there was an outcry about the policy, but the “comparison to average” ended up helping all kids elevate their grades!

(06:29) Ashley was asked about Tim Noakes’ (Primal Blueprint Podcast guest) Central Governor Theory. She talks about how although psychology and physiology once seemed separate, research now suggests that they are intimately connected!

(07:50) Ashley is thumbs down on “positive thinking”! Research from Gabriele Oetingen of NYU and Hamburg says positive thinking is problematic in two ways:

  1. If you expect a good result, but something bad happens, then it can seem to be a disaster.
  2. If you encounter obstacles and difficulties, then you’re left without good coping strategies.

Some people believe we shouldn’t think about negative outcomes, since that will encourage them to manifest. So, instead, Gabriele suggests a strategy called “WOOP.” First, think of a Wish (a peak performance goal) and envision the desired Outcome. Then, consider the potential Obstacles that might come up, and formulate a Plan to overcome the challenges. Overcoming obstacles thus becomes part of the goal, and actually strengthens motivation because you expect obstacles instead of becoming thwarted or discouraged by them. Ashley references the study of hip replacement surgery patients: Those who adopted a realistic mindset before the surgery (e.g., “recovery is gonna be tough”) did better in rehab than those who adopted an irrationally positive mindset. The former accepted that obstacles would happen and they developed self-efficacy to deal with them.

(14:00) Brad asks Ashley how she addresses this idea with corporate management vs. staff.

(17:55) Ashley references another example. She talks about the amazing USA swim team relay performance at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The medley relay was Michael Phelps’ final event of the games. He was joined by three teammates, each of which completed 100 meters of their specialty stroke. Michael was already holding seven golds in seven events. He was looking to make history with an 8th gold and complete the most perfect Olympic performance ever. Surprisingly, the USA was not favored to win this event. A gold medal for the USA required a superhuman lifetime best performance from all four members. This is exactly what happened, particularly with anchorman Jason Lezak, who pulled off a world-record level swim in the freestyle stroke that allowed the USA to win the gold by a hair. Virtually every country in the race swam at record pace thanks to the spirit of competition at the highest level.

(22:06) Ashley was asked about the currently controversial “10,000 hour rule” that suggests the mere completion of massive volumes of practice will lead to success. This concept of “practice (high volume practice to the tune of 10,000 hours – that’s five years of a full-time 40-hour/week job!) makes perfect” was originally presented by researcher K. Anders Ericsson, and popularized by Malcolm Gladwell and Daniel Coyle in their books Outliers and Talent Code respectively. Today, the theory is being successfully discredited by David Epstein in The Sports Gene, and others like Scott Barry Kaufman.

Even K. Anders Ericsson says his original work has been misinterpreted. It was a study of a small group of elite level violinists (a pre-selected population of already high performers), and the conclusion was extrapolated, in error, to try and apply to the much more complex world of sports.

In contrast to this erroneous concept, Ashley offers the quote: “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.” There are many more memorable insights about competition in Top Dog, and Ashley has agreed to return to the Primal Blueprint Podcast in the future for a Part 3 episode. You can also catch Ashley in person as she presents at PrimalCon Oxnard on Sept 23-27, 2015.

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