Home All Alice in “Performance” Wonderland – Non-Zero Challenges the Red Queen

Alice in “Performance” Wonderland – Non-Zero Challenges the Red Queen

written by John Yeager 11 March 2007

John M. Yeager, Ed.D, MAPP, is Director of the Center for Character Excellence at The Culver Academies in Culver, Indiana. John consults with Dave Shearon, and Sherri Fisher at www.FlourishingSchools.com, an organization that integrates best practices in education with cutting edge Positive Psychology research. He co-authored the recently published book, Smart Strengths: Building Character, Resilience and Relationships in Youth. Full bio.

John's articles are here.

     In 1954, the sports world was shocked when Great Britain’s Roger Bannister broke the four minute-mile barrier by six tenths of a second.  For years, track and field experts and enthusiasts claimed that breaking 4 minutes was impossible.  However, less than six weeks later, the Australian John Landy bested the new record time by more than a second.  Bannister’s accomplishment not only cracked the mile time, he also changed the belief system that one could run four laps of the track faster than thought humanly possible.  His efforts renewed a sense of optimism and resilience that has eventually brought the record down to 3:43.13 – set in 1999  by Morrocco’s Hicham El Guerrouj.

      Bannister’s crowning achievement was only the tip of the iceberg in pressing the envelope of human performance.  Five decades later, the bar has increased in not only sports, but in the enterprises of business, education, health care, and the legal system. As people more quickly adapt to achievements, expectations increase. This is the legacy of the “hedonic treadmill.”  The development of expertise sets comes through trial and error until the skill becomes a habit and a person performs within their respective enterprise with machine-like precision.  However, we are all imperfect human beings and not mechanistic automatons. 

      John Corlett, of the University of Ottawa, paints a compelling illustration about human potential in an article entitled, The Red Queen Effect:  Avoiding Life’s Treadmill.  Corlett quotes the character of the Red Queen in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. The Red Queen says to Alice that “it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place.  If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”  This sounds very familiar in keeping up with the today’s “speed of life.”

     Corlett draws an important parallel from what the Red Queen says.  He claims that:  In biology, the evolution of relationships that evolve between predators and their prey has been known as the Red Queen effect. Any adaptation in a prey species is matched in subsequent generations by counter-adaptations in predator species.  As the hunted become faster and more agile, so are those that hunt them.  This arms race escalates in perpetuity, with neither side ever able to gain sufficient advantage to be safe from the threat of being eaten or starved to extinction. 

     The predator/prey relationship is alive and well within the competitive enterprises of business, education, sports, health care, and the legal system.  Many of these ventures are considered to be zero sum games – characterized by situations where one’s gain always results in an opposing loss for someone else.  Alfie Kohn, the author of No Contest, calls this phenomena “mutually exclusive goal attainment.” 

     Martin Seligman claims “good things and high accomplishments, studies have shown, have astonishingly little power to raise happiness more than transiently.”  This prompts an important question:  What is the cost-benefit ratio between the aspirations to high performance and the enjoyment and satisfaction that results from the competition? 

Robert Wright, the author of Non-Zero, has claimed that as societies become more complex and interdependent, there is a movement towards finding team solutions to organizational performance – that people believe they matter to the success of the team.  As interdependence in an organization increases, we find that we do better when our fellow employees, students, and teammates also do better.   This is characterized by win-win situations within business, education, etc. and enhances the attention and readiness to compete in zero-sum climates by bringing out the best in ourselves and others. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  

     Relational trust is a key to the non-zero climate and can help bring a flow state to organizations, where members are highly engaged and absorbed in productive activity and healthy processes.  Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the author of Flow, claims that this state of total attention is a complex and dynamic balance of differentiation (increased self-efficacy and uniqueness) and integration (deep level of harmony with respect to others).   Those who are able to perform in a flow state tend to maintain a high level of concentration and attention that enhances the opportunity for successful performance.

     The Red Queen could learn a thing or two by employing flow and non-zero in her tool box of skills.  That would be very instructive for Alice!


Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience.. New York: Harper Perennial.

Kohn, A. (1992). No Contest: The Case Against Competition. Houghton Mifflin.

Seligman, Martin (2004), Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press.

Wright, R. (2000). Nonzero: The logic of human destiny. New York: Vintage Press.

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Christine Duvivier 11 March 2007 - 8:18 pm

:razz:Hi John,

I enjoyed your article– especially the questions you raise about zero-sum games. I was fascinated that you referred to Alfie Kohn– I haven’t read that particular book but found “Punished by Rewards” compelling. I agree wholeheartedly that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Thanks for giving me reason to pause and think about these questions.

Jeff Dustin 11 March 2007 - 8:20 pm

Do you know of any exercises for increasing attentional resources? In other words, what can a person do to increase his or her ability to focus upon whatever topic be it a sporting skill, three very good things or whatever topic?

I think you have a unique perspective on flow that could contribute quite a bit.

John Yeager 12 March 2007 - 10:21 am

Christine: Thanks for your kind words. I think more and more organizations are realizing that relational trust is a pre-requisite for success. John Y.

John Yeager 12 March 2007 - 10:29 am

Jeff: A helpful resource to look at concentration/attention is the work of Robert Nideffer and his “Test of Attention and Interpersonal Styles.” This focuses on sport environments and address broad/narrow and internal and external aspects of attention (a 2X2 design).

A good exercise for attention is developing cues or anchors – positive thoughts through imagery (that uses all the senses – audio, visual, kinesthetic, gustatory (taste), and olfactory (smell). This is similar to going to one’s “happy place.” Attention is the minimization distraction, therefore, when the physical or mental cues are habituated (like touching the “tip of your finger to your tip of your thumb, it automatically brings you to the frame of reference needed. So, there is quick shift from the distraction, preventing it from gaining magnitude; and expanding the magnitude of the intended attentional focus.

John Y.

Sherri Fisher 12 March 2007 - 1:27 pm

Hi, John:

Great article! I particularly like the way you contrast the potential hedonic downsides of competition with the human capital return-on-investment of a non-zero collaborative approach. Sounds like it builds meaning, too 🙂

John Yeager 12 March 2007 - 1:30 pm

Sherri: I like the terminology you us of “ROI.” John Y.


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