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What we learned about the science of competition and risk taking

Many of us can relate to the weight of questioning what we should do with our lives. Po Bronson, who for years had been working as a bond salesman, found one day that he wanted to explore another path and endeavored to write a book based on that very question. The result has been years of study into passion, risk taking and resilience.

    Speaking in our Chicago office 13 years after he wrote “What Should I do With My Life?”, Bronson shared how resilience fuels risk taking and the connection between competition and risk taking.

    Resilience is a risk-taking tool

    Bronson explains that it’s a myth to think there is one single passion out there for each person. In fact, the happiest and most successful people are able to make the best out of any situation, finding passion in anything they try. He also discovered that the happiest people are the most resilient.

    The experiences that cultivate resilience include failing. When humans encounter and overcome failure, it helps them understand that the downside of risk-taking is not nearly as bad as one might fear. Resilient people are able to take calculated risk and adapt in uncertain situations. One of the best lenses through which to view this experience is that of competition, when the risk-taking behavior can lead to a clear success or failure.

    Visualize the competition

    Bronson identifies the first step of competition as a visual analysis of the matter at hand. For example, a baseball player up to bat considers the pitcher’s behavior, while a soccer player may size up the goalie before taking a penalty shot. At this point a chemical called oxytocin is released in the brain, which aids the competitor in how to react during the competition. For traders, this analysis has changed over time. Traders used to interact with their competition in the pits of the trading floors but, increasingly, they only have the numbers in trading screens to analyze. The human brain still releases oxytocin, but it is in reaction to analytical patterns in the market.

    A lot of research and experience is required to understand to decide when to take a calculated risk and trade in a market. It’s not as simple as determining whether the goalie is tall enough or quick enough to block your shot – it takes time to understand what a market looks like when it’s time to engage in the competition.

    Manage your reactions throughout a competition

    Bronson also explained that it’s useful to consider our reactions to events throughout a competition. While winning, be mindful of how you react. Are you getting overly confident and reckless, or irrationally conservative? During a competition, testosterone and cortisol levels compete in our brain. If you’re winning, testosterone spikes, whereas cortisol spikes if you’re losing. It is common, while losing, to feel unmotivated due to that increase in cortisol, but understanding the brain chemistry responsible can help you shake the feeling and focus back on the task at hand. The most successful behavior is to remain consistent and observe if those analytical indicators are still present. The simple act of thinking about behavior can make someone keep their reactions consistent.

    Thank you to Po Bronson for being part of our speaker series, which gives our employees direct access to big ideas, breakthroughs of interest and exceptional people.