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Understanding Winning

“Winning too often is as disastrous as losing too often. Both get the same results: the falling off of the public’s enthusiasm.”

It was Knut Rockne, the legendary football coach at the University of Notre Dame, who said, “Winning too often is as disastrous as losing too often. Both get the same results: the falling off of the public’s enthusiasm.” It’s a wry statement, but beyond the humor, Rockne’s observation underscores the fine line between winning and losing and between winners and losers. The science of winning is interesting and has begun to illustrate that who wins and who loses is not strictly coded in our genes, nor is it God playing with dice. It’s about when and how we take risks, which does involve some hard wiring, as well as some external pressures from the environment. Keep reading to learn more about winning and winners.

Win Big or Go Home?

Maybe It Should Be Go Home and Win Big

Winning can mean many things, but to many people, it means winning the lottery. And this is true even though winning a lottery is not easy — and doesn’t automatically lead to an easier life. If you don’t believe it, consider these facts: the odds of winning a typical Powerball jackpot remain 1 in 292 million; if you do win, assuming it’s a prize over $5,000, the IRS will take 24 percent of the prize; and, finally, a 2004 study found that 85.5 percent of American winners continued to work after winning the lottery.

So, you might think twice before you invest in those weekly lottery tickets. But if you decide to play, you should pay attention to where you live. Data suggests that certain states are luckier than others. (Can you say Hoosier, anyone?)

Warrior or


Competition is pervasive in our culture. The drive to win, to succeed, may be one of the most basic instincts of all — and remains a powerful force in human nature. Ancient humans competed against each other for food, shelter and mates, and the winners were those most likely to pass on their genes.

Do you know people who seem obsessed with winning, whether it’s competing for attention on social media, beating last month’s sales figures, buying the biggest house in the neighborhood or lifting the heaviest weights at the gym? Chances are they have the “winner gene.”

In 1957, Dr. Julius Axelrod — an American biochemist who was later awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine — discovered that the gene responsible for competitiveness controls dopamine levels in the brain, which have a significant effect on whether people perform well under pressure and stress. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter — a chemical released by neurons to send signals to other neurons. One of the pathways through which dopamine flows plays a major role in reward-motivated behavior.


What Is Your Competitive Style?

In a Forbes interview with Ashley Merryman, co-author of Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing, the science journalist explains, “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.”

Typically, ‘warriors’ don’t have enough dopamine, so they are less likely to pay attention to details. But because moments of stress and pressure bring dopamine to optimum levels, it can actually help warriors perform at their best. If you’re a warrior, look for a job in an environment where there are new projects, activities and learning curves, so you can push yourself and stay engaged in your role.

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On average, according to Merryman, ‘worriers’ have higher levels of dopamine, which give them advantages such as better memories and longer attention spans. If you’re a worrier, you will succeed in a job that requires planning and complex thought, but in moments of stress, you can feel overwhelmed.

Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.
Vince Lombardi

Of course, your competitive makeup isn’t your destiny. Although you can’t change your genetic code, you can figure out the competitive style that best suits you to enhance your chances for success, just as you can adapt to a source of stress and be able to better manage it.


Are You Playing to Win?

There is no ideal type of competitor, says Merryman — people are either playing to win, which requires focusing on success, or playing not to lose, which requires focusing on preventing mistakes.

“If you want to grow, if you want to challenge yourself, if you want to innovate, you have to force yourself to be playing to win.”



Do You Have The ‘Winner’ Gene?

• Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, New York: Hatchette Book Group, 2013.

A Cobalt Understanding Quiz
Winners vs Losers
Rooting for the Underdog

Dare to Compete?

Top 10

Most Watched Sporting Events In The World

Ever wonder which sporting events attract the most viewers? Although you might be thinking Super Bowl or the so-called World Series, not one of the top 10 most-watched events is American.

Winning Ways

In The Workplace

A 2017 workplace survey by Gallup reports that 85% of employees are “not engaged or are actively disengaged at work.” The survey finds that the economic consequences of this global ‘norm’ are approximately $7 trillion in lost productivity annually.

How can you harness the instinct to win to engage your employees and improve productivity? If your workforce is predominantly made up of 30-something millennials, competition may be a good thing.

Engaging the hearts, minds, and hands of talent is the most sustainable source of competitive advantage.
Greg Harris, Quantum Workplace

Although millennials are often called the “trophy generation” for being rewarded just for participating, studies show they thrive on competition. But they are a naturally collaborative group, too, so the best way to motivate them, many say, is to make competition fun and design it to help them better understand their roles and how to excel in them.

According to Gallup, “the new workforce is looking for things like purpose, opportunities to develop, ongoing conversations, a coach rather than a boss, and a manager who leverages their strengths rather than obsessing over their weaknesses. They see work and life as interconnected, and they want their job to be a part of their identity.”

Engagement is a renewable daily decision that is voluntarily given when the company has proven worthy of it.
Jason Lauritsen, Talent Anarchy
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Balancing Healthy Competition with Emotional Connection

In his 2016 book Payoff: The Hidden Logic That Shapes Our Motivations, social scientist Dan Ariely shows that motivation is tied to how closely employees feel connected to their work and the company—and the degree to which others appreciate their work.

“When we are acknowledged for our work, we are willing to work harder for less pay, and when we are not acknowledged, we lose much of our motivation,” says Ariely.

When you lavish praise on people, they flourish. Criticize, and they shrivel up.
Richard Branson, Virgin Group

Experts find that because no two people are motivated the same way, you should offer a blend of recognition tactics to keep your employees engaged and motivated in a variety of ways, for example:

  • Help people feel connected to your organization by making your company culture inclusive. Create emotional bonds by celebrating achievements, business wins, as well as employee anniversaries.
  • Organize events that include employees’ families, such as summer picnics or holiday celebrations, to create shared experiences and deepen emotional attachment to your company.
  • Connect the company’s mission and values to performance, such as teamwork, quality, and empowerment, to reinforce corporate values and strengthen a sense of belonging.
  • Promote interactive engagement through healthy, structured competition that’s rewarded with incentives, through events such as fundraisers, sales contests, or even a product naming competition. These events can bring people together to compete in a friendly environment where they can be recognized for their achievements.
  • Offer a variety of rewards to recognize accomplishments — for example, pool points from all initiatives from which employees can redeem their points for a selection of awards — to offer choices and acknowledge individual differences.
Learn more:

Download a free copy of the Gallup report, “State of the Global Workplace”

Get a free ebook from Quantum Workplace featuring 50 inspirational quotes from leaders on employee engagement and workplace culture

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Forging a Prized Reputation

Winning isn’t just for athletes, of course. Some of the most famous — and prestigious — awards in the world are the prizes established by Alfred Nobel, a Swedish inventor, engineer, scientist and businessman who also wrote poetry and drama. Nobel’s many interests are reflected in the prize he established in 1895 when he wrote his last will, specifying that the bulk of his fortune should be used to recognize “those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit to humankind” in the categories of physics, chemistry, medicine, literature and peace (economic sciences was added much later in tribute to Nobel). The Nobel Foundation provides a wealth of information about prizes and prize winners on its website, including an inspiring video, “Women Who Changed the World” highlighting the achievements of women around the world who have been awarded a prize.

Cobalt’s Understanding(x) Series examines complex topics with the goal of increasing understanding among laypeople. At the end of each year, we hope to have a portfolio of materials about the chosen topics that will become part of the public record — a resource for teachers, students and citizens to draw upon in their quest for clarity and connection. If you have any suggestions for topics to be considered, drop us a line.