The Winner's Brain 

By: Mark Fenske



Jeff Brown and Mark Fenske wrote The Winner’s Brain to teach us the 8 strategies that great minds use to achieve success. Here’s what they do differently than the rest of us.

Self Awareness

Winners are aware of how they relate to the rest of the world, and how the rest of the world relates to them. A high level of self-awareness makes you more effective in your relationships, your work, and everything else that is important to you in your life.

There are three things that are important to understand if you want to make self-awareness work for you.

First, you need to understand your strengths. Understanding what talents you have and how you can use them to accomplish your goals is critical if you are going to succeed.

Second, you need to understand your weaknesses. If you mistakenly view your weaknesses as strengths, you’ll always be focussed on the wrong things.

Third, you need to understand what motivates you. If you are able to deploy your strengths (and minimise your weaknesses) against something that is inherently motivating to you, you’ll have the recipe for success.

Most people aren’t aware that self-awareness is a skill that you can develop. One of the best ways to do this is to focus on mindfulness.

As the authors point out, mindfulness connotes a present-centred, uncritical and nonreactive way of thinking about yourself and your circumstances. You can see your strengths, weaknesses and motivations for what they are, leading you to clarity about what steps to take next.

Speaking of motivation…


Winners use motivation to slide over obstacles, even when the rewards are a long way off, or when the tasks seem small and mundane.

Most people think of motivation as something magical that either happens or doesn’t, without their control. However, the science tells us that motivation flows through your brain in a three-phase process.

The first phase of the process is something the authors call mapping, because this is where the brain maps out the final destination. This happens in the front half of your brain, which sifts through all of the possible objectives and possible outcomes, and settles on what it considers to be the best goal given the circumstances. If you were driving a car, this would be like locking in the destination on your GPS.

Once your brain locks on to the goal, it enters the second phase of the process called the rev phase. Dopamine starts to kick in giving you the “urge to do something”, and start working towards your goal or destination.

The third and final phase is “drive”, where the rubber meets the road. This process is sustained by the use of the limbic system and regions of the prefrontal cortex.

It’s not important to understand the science of what’s happening, but it is important to understand that winners are experts at getting all the way through this 3 step process, whereas average people stall out somewhere along the way.

This becomes critical when you need to get the mundane but important tasks done to achieve your goals. The antidote to this is to focus yourself on the concrete aspects of the tasks at hand, and to associate the completion of these tasks with the overall goal you are trying to achieve.


Winners have the ability to focus on the most important details, and under a wide variety of circumstances.

In our culture of constant distractions, it is becoming harder and harder to focus on the deep type of work that leads to accomplishing our biggest goals.

The science suggests that even though our brains possess an enormous amount of resources to help us focus, it can still only focus on one thing at a time. You’ve heard this all before, so instead of focussing on why we get off track, let’s focus on a strategy for getting back on track when we inevitably do.

  • First, admit to your self that you are off track.
  • Remind yourself of the original task and why it’s important to you.
  • Eliminate the factors that derailed your attention, like your cell phone and email.
  • Choose a starting point, and cue yourself with a word like “go”.
  • Pay attention to the small details of what you working on, giving you new perspective and immersing yourself in the work.

Emotional Balance

Winners recognise and anticipate emotional responses in themselves and others so they can start, stop, and adjust emotions to fit any given situation. Basically, they use emotions to their benefit instead of letting themselves be controlled by them.

All of your emotions are caused by brain activity. Some of this activity is involuntary, and some of it is voluntary. But in either case, how you feel dictates how you will act.

Most people associate feelings like happiness and contentment as always good, and feelings like anger and aggression as always bad. However, winners understand that “good and bad” isn’t the best way to look at their emotions. A better way to look at them is “helpful or not helpful.”

In any situation you encounter, there are two emotional factors that will help determine your success - choosing the right emotion, and choosing the right level of that emotion. For instance, there are many situations in which anger and aggression might be the appropriate response, but too much or too little will derail the situation.

Winners know that there is a connection between their emotions and their actions, and also that they can choose their emotions. A useful tool for choosing your emotions is to reframe the situation to fit your needs. It might sound trite, but viewing a situation as a challenge rather than a problem really does make all the difference in the actions you’ll take next.


Winners use memory to help them anticipate the future and adapt well to novel circumstances.

We don’t spend a lot of time thinking about our memories, but in many ways you are the sum of your remembered experiences. Outside of what is going on around you at this very second, everything else is in your head.

And what an amazing head it is! At 18 months, toddlers start to learn and retain the meaning of up to 10 words per day, and by the time they become adults they will have the ability to recognise about 60,000 words. But why do we store memories in the first place?

Harvard Medical School researcher Moshe Bar says the following:

Most people view memory like it’s a videotape or a photo album containing all of your life experiences. But really it’s there to directly influence the present moment and the way you perceive and interact with your environment.”

In other words, your memory is designed to help you imagine, simulate and predict possible future events. It’s there to help you make the best possible choice, right now.

This makes what you store in your memory and what you discard a fairly important factor in how you’ll succeed in life. So how do we create a memory bank to help us get to where we want to go?

One thing you can do is to expose your mind to as many new experiences as possible. It doesn’t have to be anything profound like jumping out of a plane. It could be as simple as learning some new words or trying out a new brand of shampoo. Cultivate this habit, and over time you’ll be giving your mind the ability to call upon an increasing reservoir of memories to help you get to where you want to go.

Another thing you can do is to repeat the things you really want to remember. The more you perform an action or learn something in a particular way, the easier it becomes to retrieve at the very moment you need it.


When winners fail, they get up at least one more time than everyone else. They reframe failures so they work to their advantage, and recognise that the journey is only over when they say it’s over.

Psychologist Julian Rotter created the term “locus of control” to describe a person’s belief about what caused good and bad things to happen in their lives.

When you have an internal locus of control, you believe that you are the master of your own destiny. When you have an external locus of control, the opposite is true - you are at the mercy of external events and there is very little you can do about your fate.

Here’s the interesting part. The Winners of the world are not only better at getting up when life knocks them down, they actively search out situations that they know they are almost certain to fail at. They expect to fail. Not because they’re not good enough, but because what they are trying to achieve is so big, that they are bound to get tripped up along the way.

One thing you can do to build your own resilience is to find yourself a resilience role model. They are not hard to come by. Stephen King, the famous novelist, received so many rejection letters that he developed a system for collecting them.

JK Rowling was rejected dozens of times before a publisher agreed to take on Harry Potter. She was so poor that she couldn’t afford a computer or the cost to photocopy her book, so she manually typed out each 90,000 word manuscript to give each publisher.


Winners have the ability to adapt to changing circumstances, just like the brain is always changing based on how you use it. Winners are very strategic about this fact, always fine-tuning their brain for continued success.

Cab drivers in London are forced to learn the streets of London in almost photographic detail, which contains over 25,000 different streets and thousands of places of interest, like hospitals, hotels and statues.

That on it’s own is remarkable. But even more remarkable is the fact that by storing all of that knowledge in their brain, they actually reshape their brains. In particular, their hippocampus grows in proportion for how long they have been on the job, highlighting the fact that the shape and size of your brain is influenced directly by what it experiences.

Every time you think a thought, feel an emotion or take an action, there is a resulting change in your brain. These small changes add up to large effects over time.

One thing that you can do to change your brain in a positive way is to meditate. Studies have shown that as little as eight weeks of meditation was enough to detect increased thickness in the brainstem nuclei responsible for the release of serotonin, which is partly responsible for feelings of happiness and well-being.

Brain Care

Winners take good care of their brains with the right foods and the right amount of sleep and exercise. What is good for the body is typically good for the brain.

When you are working out, you are increasing your blood flow and bringing in a higher volume of oxygen from the air. The result is more oxygen to the brain, and better brain function. The long-term effects of this is to increase the capacity of capillaries serving the brain so that you get this effect not just while you are working out, but all the time.

Arthur Kramer, professor of psychology at the University of Illinois suggests that 30 minutes of moderate exercise three times a week is enough to do the trick.

Now that we’ve covered exercise - what type of fuel does your brain need to perform at its best? Getting the right amount of fats in your diet is critical. You should have a 4:1 omega-6 to omega-3 ratio for optimal brain function. Eating a few servings of cold water fish like salmon each week should do the trick.

Finally, after you’ve exercised and eaten well, you need to get your sleep. This isn’t anything you haven’t heard before, but it bears repeating. Carlyle Smith, a sleep researcher and psychology professor at Trent University has done research that suggests a full night’s rest can translate into a 20-30 percent improvement in motor skills.

If you struggle to get the sleep you need, one of the best ways to fall asleep and stay there is to meditate. Not only will it help you fall asleep, but doing it regularly will help you increase the quality of the sleep you have. It’s a double-whammy cure for insomnia.


Your brain is finely tuned piece of machinery, and how you use and take care of it will ultimately determine the success you achieve in your life. Please take care of it.