Ian Robertson is a clinical psychologist, leading international researcher, and celebrated author. His latest book, The Stress Test: How Pressure Can Make You Stronger and Sharper, is an eye-opening study of why we react to pressure in the way we do and how to be energized rather than defeated by stress. He recently joined Ryan Hawk, host of The Learning Leader Show, to discuss how to cultivate winning mindsets in a stressed-out culture.
This conversation has been edited and condensed. To listen to Ian and Ryan’s full conversation, click here.
Ryan: You have studied people who are winners, why they win, [and] the neuroscience of success and failure. When you look at the people who have sustained excellence, what are some of the common [characteristics] they all share?
Ian: The most important one is the ability to set goals for yourself that challenge you, but are neither too big, nor too difficult, nor too easy. When you achieve that goal, that’s a success experience. From my research, I know that there’s something called ‘The Winner Effect’, which applies across all species, which means that if you win a competition—having success and achieving a goal—you’re more likely to win a subsequent competition, to achieve success the next time. The bottom line is, success breeds success. That’s a biological fact in nature.
One of the best ways of achieving success is by having very clear and specific goals for yourself and achieving them. The partner of that is a certain degree of self-belief and self-confidence to actually go for goals, but actually, that confidence follows on from achieving goals. The critical thing is [setting] goals and achieving them.
“The bottom line is, success breeds success.”
Ryan: In your book, you say Mike Tyson, for example, would fight weaker opponents on his return from jail to build his confidence. Can you share other ways that we can implement success breeding success into our lives?
Ian: It wasn’t just Mike Tyson. The US boxing world has known about this phenomenon of trying to get your would-be champ to have a few matches against the so-called “tomato cans”—opponents who they’re destined to beat because they’re either older, weaker, or just not as good. The mere act of winning a contest actually makes it more likely you’ll win a subsequent one.
Winning actually changes your brain a little bit, increasing the receptors in [your] brain for critical hormones linked to, first, motivation, and secondly, aggression. In a contest, you generate the hormone testosterone to prepare and that has a bigger effect on your brain because there are more receiving stations for it. That’s the likely biological mechanism for the winner effect.
In our own daily lives, it’s important to realize the difference between extrinsic motivation and intrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation is where you want to be number one, always [on] top. The problem with that is there’s always going to be someone better than you, so you’re never going to be guaranteed to have the winner effect. Whereas, if you set your own goal, vis-a-vis, your own standards and your own aims, that’s a more guaranteed way of getting that biological boost of success that comes from the winner effect. Winning against your own standards is a more stable way of building the brain circuits associated with success.
“Winning actually changes your brain a little bit, increasing the receptors in [your] brain for critical hormones linked to, first, motivation, and secondly, aggression.”
Ryan: What if you contrast this [with] people like Elon Musk or Steve Jobs who set these moonshot goals, where they would set these insane dates to have a rocket, or an electric car, or an iPhone ready. If you look at their work versus your research, there seems to be a conflict there. What are your thoughts on that?
Ian: For every Elon Musk and Steve Jobs, there are a thousand people that should have set moonshot goals for themselves and haven’t and been frustrated and disappointed with life. Both of them in their way were geniuses with a vision but most of us are not geniuses. That’s the challenge.
Generally in life, the problem is not getting what you want, it’s knowing what you want. If you’re driven by a real passion or vision for something, that is an incredibly motivating, life-enhancing thing to have. Both Steve Jobs and Elon Musk, had overarching visions, things that give them that sense of excitement. That’s a treasure that anyone who manages to find it in life should really cherish and nurture. But then that’s never enough. You need to find your Wozniak colleague and you need to set goals [to] produce [something] by a certain time.
“Generally in life, the problem is not getting what you want, it’s knowing what you want.”
Ryan: You also discuss the children of ultra successful people. How do we develop resilience in our children despite the fact that perhaps we’re able to provide financially everything they could even want and need? You talked about how Picasso did such a terrible job of this and how Warren Buffett and Bill Gates are working to not let this happen to their kids.
Ian: Success conveys power. Particularly, financial success gives you a sense of power. Power changes your brain physically and changes the way you think and feel. One of the things it does, in extreme forms, is foster narcissism. Great success creates this hunger in people to believe that it is something God-given, something so special in them that has made them successful. They want to feel utterly unique.
Success is not necessarily the reward of virtue. There is so much randomness [and] also other factors like sheer hard work, persisting through failure. Picasso succumbed to that kind of narcissism, which then [had] a damaging effect on his children. His staff referred to him as “the Son” and he called himself “Le Roi the King.” To his poor son, Paulo, he represented an unattainable goal. He could never set goals for himself because in comparison to this deity that he constantly interacted with, everything he did seemed earthbound and useless.
I call this phenomenon that very successful people have narcissistic self-preoccupation and credible smugness about their success, “hiding the ladder.” They hide the ladder of mundane chance, randomness in business, persistence through failure—all of these things which are inevitably a part of success.
That can hugely demotivate the children of successful people. Bill Gates has recognized this—he didn’t leave his children to expect a huge amount of money. Now, it was big by ordinary people standards but compared to his fortune, it was very small. Warren Buffet has maintained a very modest lifestyle. These very successful people have to be careful that they keep a visible ladder down for their children, so the children don’t feel like they can never aspire to the level of success of their parents.
Ryan: You also write about a study of students who, when they believe they can influence their IQ, did better in school than those who thought their IQ was static and fixed. This goes hand in hand with Carol Dweck’s work in the book Mindset—having a growth mindset versus a fixed mindset.
Ian: Carol Dweck’s work has showed that the theories we hold about what the origins of our own abilities or our own personality or our own emotional competence affect the extent to which we believe we can control them. Telling a child they’re really bright or they’re really clever implicitly gives them a fixed mindset about their intelligence. That [it] becomes something they have rather than something they do. They’re much less likely to persist through if they hold a fixed mindset.
Why? Because failure becomes a threat to their ego because they have this notion that they have been endowed with brightness in the way that the magnate feel endowed with success. Then, any evidence of lack of success or cleverness becomes a threat to their ego.
“The theories we hold about what the origins of our own abilities or our own personality or our own emotional competence affect the extent to which we believe we can control them.”
Ryan: I think it behooves parents to have that open dialogue with children, to explain and to have conversations about why your children do well or do not do well when it comes to school. It’s so important to explain why somebody is being successful versus just stating the fact that they’re really smart.
I’d like to transition to some of your most recent work [on] stress and your latest book, The Stress Test: How Pressure and Performance Can Make You Stronger and Sharper. How can stress make us smarter?
Ian: Part of mastering your mind is dealing with the bodily response to being tested in a situation, performing where there is a possibility of success or failure. The autonomic nervous system generates the fight or flight response in the body. The sympathetic autonomic nervous system, the peripheral nervous system, increases heart rate, makes the skin slightly more sweaty. The reason it does this is to prepare to cool the body in case for either fighting or running away.
It takes blood supply away from the internal organs so that’s why your stomach gets a little bit tight because it doesn’t want to waste energy in digesting and wants to make sure there’s a maximum amount of energy given to the muscles. It takes away blood supply from your skin, which is why you might go a bit pale. It makes your breathing faster to oxygenate your blood to prepare for fight or flight. It generates certain chemical hormones, particularly cortisol, which is a hormone that temporarily improve mental and physical functioning. Another one called norepinephrine changes [what] your brain is paying attention to and in certain dosages makes different parts of your brain communicate with each other better. That’s the whole fight or flight system [that] is activated in any situation where we feel challenged or threatened.
Take the example of the norepinephrine system—like many of the brain’s chemical messengers, it has an inverted U-shaped function. That is, too little [and] our brain underperforms and too much in our brain [causes it to] underperform. There is a sweet spot in the middle with optimal brain performance and a moderate amount of stress. We can perform better under moderate stress because the activation of the fight or flight system actually pushes our brain up into a state where it pays better attention, thinks faster and remembers better.
Stress is defined as where we feel that the demands made upon us exceed our ability to cope with these demands. That gap between what we think we can do and what’s been expected of us depends on our perceptions and in the context. In thinking about frightening situations, it’s possible to change them from threat into challenge. If we do that, we can actually control to some extent where we are on that upside down inverted U-shaped function of norepinephrine. We can actually control our brain chemistry by the way we think about situations to produce better performance.
“Part of mastering your mind is dealing with the bodily response to being tested in a situation, performing where there is a possibility of success or failure.”
Ryan: Let’s say you have a big presentation or a speech, and you’ll say something like, “I’m really nervous or anxious.” If you say that to yourself, you’re going to perform much worse than if you say, “I am really excited about this opportunity to get up on stage and give a speech.” Talk to me about the science behind saying that to yourself.
Ian: The bodily symptoms of excitement are exactly the same as the bodily symptoms of anxiety. How then do we know which emotion we’re experiencing? We only know which emotion we’re experiencing by context. It’s only because I’ve opened the lottery-winning email and seen that I’ve won $10,000 [that] my mind says, “This beating heart and dry mouth must be excitement, not anxiety.” That’s an example of the context creating the emotion.
One way of us creating our own context is exactly how you described. If you’re waiting to have a big presentation and you say to yourself, “I feel anxious,” you’re creating a context that’s interpreting these symptoms [as] anxiety, [which] is more likely to tip you over the sweet spot into the far side of the norepinephrine curve where your brain won’t function as well. If you say to yourself, “I feel excited,” then your mind is interpreting that same set of symptoms as something positive. When you do that, you push your brain into that sweet spot because you’re adopting what’s called a challenge mindset.
Our brains and our bodies react in fundamentally different ways to these two different mindsets. If you’re waiting for that big challenging presentation, if you say to yourself, “I feel calm,” that’s not going to work with the brain. Why? Because you have none of the symptoms of feeling calm— slow heartbeat, dry skin, stomach feels quite normal. It’s much less easy to trick the brain into interpreting these symptoms as ones of calmness because the heart is pumping and you’re breathing fast and your skin is sweaty.
“We can actually control our brain chemistry by the way we think about situations to produce better performance.”
Whereas, excitement and anxiety are very, very close to each other, so it’s easier to trick the brain into interpreting them as excitement rather than anxiety. If you do that, you’re going to get better, because you’re nearer the sweet spot of norepinephrine activation in your brain.
Ryan: How about happiness. Can too much of it be bad for you?
Ian: Yes. That’s why overprotecting our children is not a good idea. If a child [or] adolescent has had little or no adversity in their lives, they will end up more emotionally vulnerable as a young adult. Why is that? Well, is because they’ve never had the experience of dealing with failure, with anxiety, with feeling low, with having to deal with a tough situation maybe where people are not being very nice to them. You have this rather precious ego that has seldom known the downside of failure, of feeling the ego bruised or feeling anxious. You cannot go through life never experiencing these emotions because life is just not like that.
If you’ve had very little experience of these feelings of anxiety, they can really feel alien and terrifying. Whereas, children and adolescents who have had not severe but moderate levels of adversity, they have learned [that] sometimes you fail, sometimes you’re excluded, sometimes you feel anxious. but because they’ve experienced this emotions in the past, they know from past experience that they don’t last. You don’t feel anxious forever. You don’t feel depressed forever. These things pass. There is a resilience. It’s a bit like being vaccinated against measles. You have a little bit of the disease injected into you in order to boost your immune systems, so when the disease comes big time, you’ve got a defense against it. Well, inoculation works that way to deal with stress.
“You don’t feel anxious forever. You don’t feel depressed forever. These things pass. There is a resilience.”
Even more interestingly, if you have adults who suffer back pain, for example, the ones who have a very little experience of adversity in their lives are much more likely to be disabled [and] on severe pain killing medication than people with the same amount of back pain, who have suffered moderate levels of adversity in their lives. Finally, people in their 70s who have experienced moderate levels of adversity maintain their cognitive functions at higher levels than those who have no adversity. That’s because challenging, stressful situations can actually push your brain up to that sweet spot of functioning. Moderate degrees of adversity and stress can generate positive effects, not just cognitively but also emotionally.