Why are some people highly successful in life, while others just get by? Authors Jeff Brown and Mark Fenske say the difference between the high-achieving and the merely average is due not to IQs, life circumstances, financial resources, social connections or luck but to the workings of the brain.
In "The Winner's Brain," Brown, a Harvard cognitive-behavioral psychologist, and Fenske, a neuroscientist, present evidence showing that the brains of the high-achieving operate differently from those of the average person. Brain scans measuring neutral activity show these processes at work, they say.
The good news, according to Brown and Fenske, is that the brain can be reshaped and rewired by employing the strategies successful people use to overcome obstacles and reach their goals.
"The brain is active and subject to change no matter what you do -- this is one of the key discoveries of modern neuroscience," they write. "What sets the owner of a Winner's Brain apart is the desire and the know-how to take charge of the process."
Brown and Fenske say that transforming your thinking, emotions and behavior as well as the physical structure of your brain is not unlike doing bicep curls to reshape and add inches to your arms.
The authors have identified five "brainpower tools" commonly used by successful people: seeing opportunity where others don't, accurately gauging and being willing to take risks, being able to stay focused on a goal, possessing the energy to take action and being able to accurately assess one's strengths and weaknesses.
The bulk of "The Winner's Brain" describes how to acquire these tools using eight strategies: self-awareness, motivation, focus, emotional balance, memory, resilience, adaptability and brain care. With the help of writer Liz Neporent, Brown and Fenske intertwine stories, studies and step-by-step tips to explain each of these strategies, talk about the science behind them and offer practical ways to develop them.
Although reading about boosting brain power could be about as exciting as, well, doing bicep curls, the authors know their audience. They liberally cite scientific studies throughout the book, but they are writing for a popular audience, not an academic one.
They've juiced up their thesis with stories of well-known achievers such as actress Laura Linney, musician B.B. King, Olympic gymnast Kerri Strug and comedian Phyllis Diller. They also write about a very focused high-rise window washer, London cabbies who have enlarged their hippocampuses by memorizing city routes and the Central Park Jogger, who pushed herself to recover lost motor skills and become a motivational speaker after she was attacked and left for dead in 1989.
As writers of any good self-help book must, the authors make a convincing case that change is within reach. And though their tendency to refer to people as Winners with a capital W gets a bit annoying, they offer plenty of tools to help anyone develop habits to better achieve life goals.
-- Anne Colby
Photo: "'The Winner's Brain: 8 Strategies Great Minds Use to Achieve Success," by Jeff Brown and Mark Fenske with Liz Neporent, Da Capo Press, $25