In all the centuries of competition, which winners stand out the most? Across the arts, sports, politics, who has best risen to the challenge of how to win? Who better to ask than Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, authors of the hugely influential "NurtureShock," and a new book, "Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing"? Here, Bronson and Merryman rank the top 10 competitors of all time, providing a countdown that takes us from the art world of Renaissance Italy to a lottery-winning family in 21st-century Norway.
10. Leonardo da Vinci
The Renaissance master loved competing. He'd participate in public debates and the equivalent of painting duels, where he'd take one wall, another artist would take the other, and the best mural would win. He taught his apprentices in open studios, with them painting side-by-side. He told his students they shouldn't be afraid of having their work compared to others: it would inspire them to work harder.
Researchers have found da Vinci was right. In studies looking at competition and creativity, it isn't just people's effort that increases when they go head-to-head--the quality of their work improves, as well.
9. Robert Kennedy
As Kennedy led a Senate investigation into organized crime's role in the Teamsters Union, he grew to despise Teamsters leader, Jimmy Hoffa. One evening, on the way home from work, Kennedy drove past the union headquarters, and noticed that the lights were still on in Hoffa's office. Kennedy returned to his own office, saying that as long as Hoffa was working, he would, too. He let his hatred continue to fuel the investigation, well beyond that evening.
For years, researchers said people shouldn't get angry, but more recently, anger has come to be seen as a productive force. Anger is triggered when you perceive an injustice, but you believe you have the power to change the circumstance. And those who know when to turn it on (and off) have higher levels of overall well-being than those who are happy all the time.
8. Johann Sebastian Bach
At one point early on in his career, Bach had challenged Louis Marchand, a French keyboardist and composer, to a musical duel: Bach would meet him on any public stage of Marchand's choosing, playing any instrument Marchand wished. Bach's challenge was accepted. It wouldn't be pistols at dawn, but harpsichords at Dresden. But the night before the competition, Marchand ran away.
One of the most important things to ask in any competitive situation: is this a winner take-all game? If it is, the contest's real goal isn't about rewarding the winner--it's about identifying who's the best and getting rid of the other guy. (This may be exactly what Bach's intention was--there's a rumor both Bach and Marchand were up for the same royal appointment.) Compare that to when "everyone wins!" There, the goal isn't to weed people out; it's to get more people in the game.
7. Susan B. Anthony
While most famous for leading the fight for women's right to vote, Anthony was constantly battling for equal rights, in and out of the ballot booth. She was an early abolitionist. A teacher, she demanded equal opportunities for all for education. She fought for women to have equal rights to own property (at the time, women weren't allowed to even have their own bank accounts). Anthony helped organize early workers unions, arguing for equal pay; she wanted everyone to have the same voice in the process.
According to Hungarian researcher Dr. Márta Fülöp, the most important thing in any competition is fairness. Fülöp says that an uneven playing field leads to cheating--if the game is unfair, then the rules don't apply. That goes true for those who are advantaged, just as those who are hurt by the inequity. Of even greater concern: for many, when they perceive that the competition is inherently unfair, they just give up, feeling they're doomed from the start.
5 & 6. Harvard/Yale (Tie)
Two of the oldest nation's universities, Harvard and Yale compare themselves in everything--from student SATs to endowments, Nobel-winning professors to presidential alumni--and the rivalry reaches a pinnacle each year during the Harvard-Yale football game, played since 1875. In the past hundred years, Yale's team has gone into "The Game" on the back of an undefeated season ten times. But they only won three of those games: a comparatively crummy Harvard team was able to defeat Yale's otherwise flawless team.
Why? Rivalries are competition squared, and there's no such thing as an underdog in a rivalry game. And the more similar the rivals, the more passionate the fight: it's through the tiniest of distinctions that they prove how "different" they are. So even in a losing season, on game day, even the lowliest members of the team will give their all.
4. Florence Nightingale
Nightingale wanted to create a regiment of nurses to serve in the Crimean War; however, there was a tiny problem: The doctors didn't want them. But Nightingale and her new nurses sailed to the war zone anyway. It was a huge risk: their time, money, reputations and of course personal safety were all at stake. Nightingale simply assumed she'd work it all out when they got there.
When the nurses arrived, they weren't allowed to do anything but sit in their quarters. Then a huge battle sent scores of wounded to the hospital. Doctors became desperate for any help, even from nurses. Soon, Nightingale's nurses were revolutionizing health care around the world.
You don't have to sail head-long into a war zone, but according to University of Virginia's Jeanne Liedtka, it's a fear of uncertainty that stands in the way of real growth and innovation. In a sense, the best leaders' plans are just decisions about which risks will be worth taking.
3. The Bad News Bears (Fiction League)
Yes, the goal of a competition is to win, but no win is ever guaranteed. And let's admit it, sometimes you realize you're the worst player on the worst team in Little League.
True competitors understand it can take a long time to get really good at something. In the meantime, you still have to give it your all. Each competition is a fresh opportunity to test yourself, to see how much you have accomplished, and to discover what you still need to work on. You have to figure out, "How will I get them next year?"
2. The Ancient Greeks
When beginning the Olympic Games, the Greeks wisely chose contests such as boxing, footraces, chariot races, and so on--events where everyone in the stadium knew immediately who'd won and lost. After about 700 years, a cheating scandal stunned the panhellenic world: one of the boxers was rigging his matches.
The officials decided to permanently memorialize the scandal at the Olympic stadium's entrance: statues were erected, with inscriptions of the cheating athletes' names and roles for everyone to see. In the Olympics that followed, there were only a handful more known instances of cheating.
If you want a competition to last, it's actually pretty easy: you need clear rules, results everyone agrees upon and clear consequences for rule breakers.
1. The Oksnes of Norway
First, a man called Lief Oksnes won the Norwegian state lottery. Then, a couple years later, his daughter, Hege Jeanette Oksne, won the drawing. Then last September, Lief's son, Tod, won, too. Combined, in the past six years, the Oksnes family has won about $4 million. When Tod's win was announced, the Norwegian officials couldn't even guess what the odds of a triple-winning family would have been. The remaining family members say they're waiting for their turns at the jackpot.
What's the Oksnes' secret? It's not how they pick the numbers--it's that after the first win, any sane person might have said, "Well, the likelihood of this happening again is astronomical," and then quit playing. (If not the first time, the certainly the second.) But the Oksnes continued to think about what would happen if, crazily enough, they'd won. And so they kept on playing, and they kept on winning.
Here's the thing: if you focus on the odds of success, you're almost always less likely to try. It's when you focus on what you could win, that's when you go for it.
Po Bronson is the author of five books, including "What Should I Do with My Life?," a #1 New York Times bestseller, and "Nudist on the Late Shift." With Ashley Merryman, Bronson co-authored "NurtureShock," which was a New York Times bestseller and is considered one of the most influential books about children ever published. Their new collaboration, "Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing," will be published in February.