What I’ve learned: Ashley Merryman on winning, raising children, and why she won’t tell you how to do either one

Nurture ShockAshley Merryman writes books about why people do the things they do, and though that might seem like an area ripe for longs list of life-changing tips, she won’t give them to you. At least on paper.

She’s not quite as strict about it in person. Her speech at SBJ’s Game Changers conference in New York last year gave me one particular bit of information that I now use frequently. When faced with a tough situation, she said, how you frame it can determine how you get through it. Do you look at it as a challenge? Or as a threat? One way can help you rise to the occasion. The other can make you cower in fear.

She used a tennis example to illustrate it, which worked for me because I’m on the courts three of four times a week. One of Merryman’s friends told her that, since reading the book, when faced with a crucial point, he now asks himself, ‘Challenge or threat?’ Or, rather, the abbreviated it ‘C or T?’ I’ve started using that in my own game, and while I can’t say that I’m winning more, I’m facing more of the tough points with confidence.

Merryman sat with me for a few minutes after her presentation to talk about challenges, threats, and what she’s learned while writing and researching (along with her collaborator, Po Bronson) the books “NurtureShock: New Thinking about Children,” and “Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing.” I originally posted this back in the fall, when I thought this blog was getting started. But the fall got busy, and things got pushed back, and so I thought it was worth reposting as I restart the blog.

Where did C or T come from?

Merryman: We wrote about the difference between playing to win and playing not to lose in one chapter, and then later in the book we talked about the bio-physiological components of challenge and threat. Then [Captain] Tom Chaby, who is a retired Navy SEAL and former commander of SEAL Team FIVE, called and said, ‘I just shortened it to ‘C or T.’” Tom told me how he used it, and I thought, I’m going to try that myself. It’s just like this really quick gut check. And you might say the answer is ’T’, but if it is, how do you compensate for it? How do you plan for it? Or can you change it? It’s a nice way to remind yourself to ask, what are you reasonably expecting? Oh, wait, I’m prepared. There is a reason I’m here. So I love it.

How do you research and write?

Merryman: I go to a lot of scientific conferences, and I go to as many sessions as I can. In scientific publishing it can take years for a study to come out. So I ask them, What are you working on now? What have you been working on that is in press somewhere? How does it all fit? I love doing that, and then, because I’m just a complete geek, I’ll spend x number of hours, it depends on the topic, researching and finding scientific journals and articles, and I just print them out and sit on my couch and read. And I’ll make notes, or just think about them. I’ll divide them into two piles … that one’s useful, that one’s not on point … and then after I have a section of a few hundred pages, I’ll stop and synopsize or take notes, and then I’m literally going through that same pile again, but I’m now looking for the stuff that I already liked. The science dictates my writing more than anything. Because what I’m looking for is good science. Something that is innovative. Something that explains our views in a new way. Something that makes you think, ‘Ahhh, I always had that, but I didn’t know what to call it!’

Have you always been a science geek?

Merryman: No, but I’ve always been a geek. I’ve been working in the social science and science reporting realm since 1999 or 2000. But my background beyond that has just sort of been as a writer. So my undergrad was screenwriting at USC, and I’ve done some speechwriting and some freelance. I’m trying to communicate an idea. I’m sort of agnostic as to what media. Sometimes it’s a book, sometimes it’s a speech.

Nurture ShockDid you learn anything from writing “NurtureShock” that helped “Top Dog” become what it was?

Merryman: I think you learn that you can do it. That’s a good thing. Structurally, though, the books were so different. Top Dog was all about competition, but there are fewer researchers who are focused entirely on competition. So I was tracking ideas more than a particular researcher’s entire oeuvre. There are 85 pages of sources in Top Dog and about 75,000 words of sources in Nurture Shock. I’m also writing about stuff that’s interesting to me. Can you apply this to your life? All of it! Otherwise, I probably wouldn’t have cared in the first place.

Why do you not like lists of tips?

Merryman: Because everybody writes a book with bullet-point tips, and they may be great but no one ever explains why they got the tip, they just give you the tip. Every person on the street is more than happy to tell you how to raise your children. Maybe they’re right. Maybe they’re wrong. How do you know? So we decided to go in an entirely different direction. There are no tips. This is not a subtle thing.  It’s in the introduction. There are no tips. We just said, ‘Here’s the science, you can tell us if it applies in your family.’ It’s still based in the idea that if I explain to you that being stressed can halve your grade on a test, I think that I don’t really need to say more than that. For me, I learned the science and it changed how I behaved, just like that.

What’s next for you?

Merryman: I’ve been thinking thoughts. I have a few essays that I’ve got in the hopper that I’ve got to figure out how to do something with. One, I’m just so dying to get out, and I’m definitely … I’m thinking thoughts.