Top Dog

By Mark Aoyagi

Top Dog by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman explores the science behind competition, winning, and losing. I have had the pleasure of meeting Ashley at the last two American Psychological Association conventions, and can vouch for her eagerness and thoroughness in researching and sourcing for this book.

Top Dog addresses aspects of competition that are both puzzling and counterintuitive. In providing insight, they explain research that is both foundational and current.

For example, have you ever noticed that sometimes the presence of spectators provides you with a rush of energy that facilitates performance, and sometimes they feel you with dread and ruin performance? These differences can be explained by classic research in sport psychology. First, the understanding that when a skill is mastered we generally enjoy putting it on display for others. When in the learning stage, we generally find spectators make us nervous and are a distraction. Still, this does not explain everything as there are experts that do not perform well in front of audiences and novices who do.

The second understanding is that each person has their own zone in which they perform their best. The presence of spectators is energizing (which in itself could be perceived as excitement, anxiety, or both by a given person), and therefore helpful for people who prefer a higher level of energy when performing, and harmful to those that prefer a more relaxed state.

Full of useful information such as the above, Top Dog is definitely worth a read for any performer, coach, or leader interested in competing better.

Tagged: anxiety, competition, energy, excitement, win

Source: The Performance of Your Life


By Mark Aoyagi

Putting many of the principles of Thinking, Fast and Slow into action, Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein provides some excellent food for thought. The utility of the book is how the authors make pragmatic use of the advances made by Kahneman and other psychologists. Thaler and Sunstein deem any person in a position to influence (however subtly) the manner in which humans choose as “choice architects.” To illustrate this subtlety, consider that how much ice cream you buy at the supermarket is at least partially dependent on how good (or bad) you feel about the fruits and vegetable you bought (or didn’t) when you first walked into the grocery store. The produce is invariably and intentionally at the front of the store to take advantage of the understanding that if you feel good about buying produce you are then much more likely to think it is okay to buy ice cream – after all, you’ve earned it with all that healthy produce you are going to eat!

Thaler and Sunstein provide suggestions for how choice architecture could nudge people into better decision in situations where humans do not develop good decision making skills. As discussed here, our decision making abilities do not improve in the absence of regular/predictable environments, an opportunity to practice, and clear, rapid feedback. The authors identify financial decisions, health decisions, and social programs such as education, health insurance, and marriage as areas where we could benefit from nudges and better choice architecture.

Nudge provides many ideas for how our lives are influenced on a daily basis. The main takeaway for me is the necessity of understanding your values, beliefs, and purposeful direction of your life. Then, in situations where choices are difficult or you might feel yourself being pulled to make a choice that is not necessarily consistent with your values, take a moment to consider how choice architecture might be influencing you.

Tagged: choice, decision making, inspiration

Source: The Performance of Your Life

The Power of Habit

By Mark Aoyagi

Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit identifies the ways that habits shape our lives – and performances – and also how they can be changed once we become aware of them. A habit is simply the result of a loop in which we are cued by a trigger, unconsciously activate a routine, and then receive a reward that satisfies a craving (again, usually this craving is outside of our awareness). Habits serve the function of saving processing effort in our brain, which means we are meant to be unaware of them. This is what makes changing a habit difficult. But, once we are able to bring a habit into awareness, Duhigg provides a four step process for changing a habit:

1) Identify the routine

2) Experiment with rewards

3) Isolate the cue

4) Have a plan

Duhigg also provides several examples of athletes and performers achieving greatness because they developed the right habits. Michael Phelps visualized success under adverse conditions, which allowed him to swim for gold despite his goggles filling with water. Tony Dungy took the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from a laughingstock to a Super Bowl winner (although he wasn’t coaching when they won) by changing habits so they could play faster by not (over) thinking.

As the author notes, the real power of habit is recognizing that your habits are your choices.

How are your habits impacting your performance?

What habits could you re-engineer to be more productive/effective?

Tagged: cues, effectiveness, focus, habits, performance, productivity, routines, triggers

Source: The Performance of Your Life

Give and Take

By Mark Aoyagi

Give and Take by Adam Grant offers a fascinating examination of how being a giver can result in being successful. In fact, giving can result in more success than those who take or those who seek to be matchers (i.e., reciprocal relationships where you give some and get some). Of course, givers can also end up as the least successful of these groups, and Grant spends a significant amount of time exploring what makes the difference between givers who are successful and those who are taken advantage of.

The book provides some scientific evidence for an earlier post about being focused on giving or getting. Among many applicable anecdotes, one of particular relevance to performance is the finding that teachers and coaches who are givers are much more likely to develop expertise in their students and athletes. This is because their caring, kind approach and patience help to make learning fun, which in turn allows their pupils to sustain the motivation necessary to achieve expertise.

Finally, evidence suggests that when givers are in a community, more members of that community tend to also give. Of course there are caveats, but in general givers are more likely to cause others to want to be generous rather than to take advantage of them. So, what can you give today?

Tagged: expertise, giving, motivation, success

Source: The Performance of Your Life

How Defaults Affect Us

By Mark Aoyagi

Departing from the default option causes more regret/blame if things go wrong. For example, the default after a bad loss is for a coach to make changes in personnel or strategy. Failure to do so will produce blame or regret if the team loses again. It is important to note that the change is not necessarily a good thing, just a way to avoid regret/blame.

How strong is the effect of defaults? How important are your vital organs to you? Evidence suggests that whether or not you elect to be an organ donor is largely determined by whether the default is set for you to donate or not. If the question is setup so you have to check a box to opt out of donating your organs, you are very likely to donate. If the questions is setup so you have to check a box to opt in to donate your organs, you are very likely to not donate. The decision itself is so difficult to consider that we will defer to the default option rather than go through the process of trying to figure out what we really want. This also affects us when we are deciding to sell a stock or not: it is easier to hold because it is the default – no action is necessary to hold the stock.

Again, there is not a reliable way to overcome this tendency. However, it is important to be aware of so we can make better decisions. Are you changing the lineup to avoid blame or because it is really best for the team? Are you holding the stock because you think its value will increase or because you don’t want to beat yourself up if you sell it and then it increases? We can’t predict the right answer to these questions, but we can do a better job of identifying which option is more consistent with our values and beliefs and basing our decisions on the value/belief rather than the default.

Tagged: beliefs, choice, decision, default, focus, values

Source: The Performance of Your Life

Hate to lose?

By Mark Aoyagi

So do most people. But what are the effects of our aversion to loss?

Consider: professional golfers putt better for par than for birdie. In other words, when all variables are taken into account (e.g., length of putt, difficulty of green, etc.), a professional golfer is more likely to make a putt when going for par (i.e., trying to avoid a bogey, which is the same as taking a loss on the hole) than when going for birdie (when they can still miss and not lose par).

On the other hand, hating to lose can cause us to persist even when situations are against us. For example, a person who only wants to pursue victory will have a tendency to back off when victory is unlikely. A person who hates to lose will often put forth effort until the very end, regardless of the score.

There are many biological reasons for our hatred of losing (a single cockroach can ruin a bowl of cherries, but a cherry does nothing for a bowl of cockroaches), and it is relatively futile to try and fight this biological urge.

Thus, it is important to recognize how it can help us (serving as motivation when our situations look bleak) and hurt us (providing less focus and effort when seeking gain rather than avoiding loss). In financial considerations, loss aversion can make us avoid taking risks that are actually beneficial for us.

So, the next time you are faced with a decision or performance situation, take a moment and examine it from both a loss averse perspective (likely to be your natural reaction) and a seeking gain perspective (likely to require you to pause and use intention and effort). This won’t tell you what to do, but it will give you a better perspective on your options and provide an opportunity to make a choice more consistent with your values.

Tagged: focus, gain, loss, motivation, risk, values

Source: The Performance of Your Life

Thinking, Fast and Slow

By Mark Aoyagi

If you are interested in finding out more about why and how humans make choices and our (ir)rationality then Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman is definitely for you. This book has informed, influenced, and changed the way I think about many things, and provided the psychological understanding and evidence for many other important ideas.

An example of this is the parameters under which skill and expertise can be developed. With the recent attention given to Ericsson’s 10 year/10,000 hour rule of expertise, it has become apparent that the rule holds up better in some environments and settings than others. Kahneman identifies 3 conditions that must be present for skill/expertise to develop:

1) an environment that is regular enough to be predictable (for example, this is the purpose of the rules in sport)

2) an opportunity to learn these regularities through prolonged practice (Ericsson provides some specific parameters for deliberate practice)

3) rapid and clear feedback about the correctness of thoughts and actions (Ericsson and others also identify the critical role of a coach/teacher/mentor in skill development)

If these conditions are not present, then skill/expertise cannot reliably be developed. An example of this would be the stock market. This is why so many (and the existing evidence) argue against the utility of financial advisors. While some have experienced success, it is primarily due to luck as opposed to skill/expertise that is readily repeatable.

Tagged: choice, coaching, expertise, practice, rationality, skill, teaching, thinking

Source: The Performance of Your Life

Have a Good Crappy Day

By Mark Aoyagi

I first heard this from Dr. Ken Ravizza. A lot of times we show up to the “big” competition with heavy legs, a nagging injury, a cold or flu or worse, a recent breakup, relationship stress, jet lagged, tired, stressed, or just in a bad mood. Then there is bad weather, bad food, bad officiating, nasty fans, and teammates that are distractions. And it is tempting to think, “This just isn’t my day.” It is just a fact that sometimes we are less than 100%. In fact, we are almost never at 100%.

However, many times we show up with 80% to give, but think it is just not enough and so end up giving only 60%. The self-fulfilling prophecy that it was not your day comes true. But what if the prophecy only came true because you gave 60%? What if 80% was enough that day, but you didn’t give yourself the opportunity to find out?

And here’s the real catch: we never know ahead of time how much we truly have to give! We may think we have 80%, but if we give ourselves a chance find that we feel better as the performance progresses. Developing a mindset of giving all you have on any particular day starts with training. Get the most out of training sessions when you don’t feel great. Like everything else, this will show up in competition as well.

Have a good crappy day!

Tagged: competition, focus, mindset, performance, training

Source: The Performance of Your Life

The Black Swan

By Mark Aoyagi

The Black Swan provides access to the unique perspective of Nassim Nicholas Taleb. While at times I found his writing style less than appealing (though I suspect this is an instance where if I knew the author and his personality I would actually find the writing humorous and entertaining), his message is certainly thought provoking and worthy of serious consideration. In short, black swans represent occurrences that are both unexpected/improbable and highly meaningful. The name comes from the fact that years ago all swans were thought to be white. Every time a white swan was seen, it added more and more evidence to support this belief. However, it took the discovery of only one black swan to completely disprove the belief. More recently, the housing market crash was a black swan because previously it was thought that real estate always increased in value. This was true – until it wasn’t.

This line of thinking has many implications for performance. One of the most interesting is that Taleb would say it argues against the hedgehog principle made famous in Collins’ Good to Great. The hedgehog principle comes from accounts of great companies focusing on the one thing they can do best in the world (or in their industry). However, the analyses used to support the principles in Good to Great were all retrospective analyses. In other words, hindsight. As we know, hindsight is 20/20. Taleb would argue that it is only in hindsight that you can know what your best thing is because it involves a lot more than just you (for example, market conditions and the fickle whims of consumers). While we do not always like to acknowledge it, there are many things that influence our success that are outside of our control, and if you believe the black swan principle, are completely unpredictable ahead of time. The black swan strategy involves less overspecialization and more redundancy (another idea that is anathema in the efficiency-focused world of business and performance). This allows for you to capitalize on what you do well while also providing a buffer for the unexpected events that can dramatically change the conditions in which you are operating.

Tagged: efficiency, focus, hedgehog principle, performance

Source: The Performance of Your Life

The Rule of 1/3s

By Mark Aoyagi

Simply put: 1/3 of your performances will be average, 1/3 will be great, and 1/3 will suck. Keeping this rule in mind can help add needed perspective throughout your career.

When things go wrong, it is just getting one of the sucks out of the way so it is more likely the next time will be a normal or a great.

As you continue to develop your skills and improve your standards change and greats become normals. Just keep in mind that as soon as we perform a great, oftentimes we expect it to become a normal. It is not a normal until you are reliably performing it 1/3 of the time.

Understanding the Rule of 1/3s helps keep you on the Mastery path.

Tagged: focus, mastery, performance, trust

Source: The Performance of Your Life