Barking Up the Wrong Tree

The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong

Eric Barker
Rating: 9.2

“In this compulsively readable, brilliant kaleidoscope BARKING UP THE WRONG TREE, Barker is your rollicking guide through the science of success. You’ll discover what pirates and inmates can teach us about honesty and generosity, how to network like the world’s greatest mathematician, and much, much more.”
-Daniel H. Pink, Author of Drive and To Sell is Human

Yin and Yang – Opposite Life Choices

High school valedictorians do well in college and in life; most of them earn graduate degrees and almost half get top jobs. But they rarely change the world. Kids who conform excel in class and keep conforming throughout their careers, yet rule breakers are the ones who shake things up. A study of 700 American millionaires reveals they had a mean grade point average of 2.9.

“When you align your values with the employment of your signature skills in a context that reinforces these same strengths, you create a powerful and emotionally engaging force for achievement, significance, happiness and legacy.”

Outliers have different approaches and different genes. Their unique mix of personality traits gives society its greatest geniuses, musicians and leaders. Yet they frequently suffer depression, violent tendencies and alcoholism. But some factors that seem to be disadvantages sometimes become a competitive edge. Olympic swimming champion Michael Phelps looks out of proportion on land, where he’s not much of an athlete. But his long arms, short legs, and big hands and feet make him weirdly aquatic and perfectly built to win gold medals in the pool. People who survive tragedies, like losing their parents at a young age – for example, Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, Gandhi and Michelangelo – often go on to incredible accomplishments.

“Success is not the result of any single quality; it’s about alignment between who you are and where you choose to be.”

Good fortune often accompanies bad. When you pursue one life path, you give up another. When you make a decision, you incur opportunity costs. Discover what you do well, and err on the side of playing to your strengths rather than fighting your weaknesses. Once you know your strengths, interests and values, find a company that values your strengths and the type of person you are.

“Nice Guys”

In the short run at least, people who are nasty, lazy and disagreeable often do better than nice, hard workers, so long as they flatter their bosses or otherwise make a good impression. Nice guys get paid less and passed over for promotions.

“Research shows that what makes students likely to be impressive in the classroom is the same thing that makes them less likely to be home-run hitters outside the classroom.”

Over time though, jerks who get away with laziness or cheating rub off on others. If they’re unchecked, eventually almost everyone around them will grow selfish and distrustful. Ultimately, the group will collapse. Even one bad apple can diminish group performance by more than a third. And, if you get ahead with antisocial behavior, you may kill the conditions that allowed you to succeed. You’ll also have created a bunch of people you can’t stand working with. So be nice.

“College grades aren’t any more predictive of subsequent life success than rolling dice.”

Niceness can help some individuals. Wharton professor Adam Grant discovered that the good people he calls “givers” do either quite well or quite poorly. The difference lies in whether givers retain a healthy dose of skepticism. If you are trusting and helpful while remaining wary, you end up on the top. Don’t think in “zero sum” terms, where everyone else’s wins are your losses.

“You do need to be visible. Your boss does need to like you. This is not proof of a heartless world; it’s just human nature.”

If you don’t get reciprocation when you play nice, retaliate. Cooperate, and everyone wins. Cheat, and everyone loses. Help others think about the long term by building relationships. Join firms and teams you respect. Toot your own horn gently but loud enough for the boss to know your work. You’ll find it easier to give when you like those you work with. However, don’t give endlessly or you’ll get taken advantage of, and you won’t have time to get your work done. About two hours per week helping others should suffice. Balanced givers live longer, happier lives.


To build perseverance, turn your struggles into a game. Challenge yourself to accomplish small pieces of a bigger goal. Make a game out of it and you make it fun, so you keep coming back for more. Create your games using these WGNF guidelines:

  • Make them “Winnable” – Even though people lose at well-designed games 80% of the time, they persevere in the knowledge that they can win. Lots of people do win, and they know they will if they keep trying.
  • Build in “Novelty” – Great games introduce new challenges at the right time and offer levels with increasing difficulty. Never make the game impossible to win.
  • Attach “Goals” – Identify objectives for the challenges that you set. Think of video games that captivate people with clear goals, constant feedback, as well as achievable but hard levels.
  • Give “Feedback” – Like video games, your Fitbit and collecting air miles, games capture your attention because they provide a stream of feedback. You need feedback from your challenges and goals. Set a goal for your daily progress against larger objectives.

Have “Grit,” but Know When to Quit

Perseverance often leads to success and happiness. That doesn’t mean that you should never quit or give up. You have only so much time and energy. Choosing to do one thing means rejecting another. Life is a series of trade-offs.  “Strategic quitting” means deliberately doing less of one thing so you can do more of another.

“Hard work doesn’t pay off if your boss doesn’t know whom to reward for it.”  

You may not know what to focus on, so try lots of things. Fail fast, learn and move on. Knowing when to quit and what to stick with doesn’t come easily. When you date, you wonder if you should marry. Is this person the right one? Mathematicians calculate that your odds of finding your soulmate are one in 10,000 lifetimes. In the short term, love matches work better, but their successes fade after 10 years. In the long term, arranged marriages succeed at a far higher rate.


So how do you make a choice? The answer lies in the WOOP process: “wish, outcome, obstacle, plan.”  Dream about what you want, specify the outcome you want, identify the obstacles in your way, and then craft a plan to overcome them. This process works only when your goals are achievable – that is, if you have the qualifications for the job or a path to getting them. WOOP can act as a wake-up call. If you don’t know what to focus on – where to get gritty – run your projects through WOOP.

Extrovert or Introvert?

In most cases, for most careers, you should act socially like an extrovert – whether or not it comes naturally. Build as big a social network of associates and both close and distant friends as possible. Extroverts and those with bigger networks achieve more success; make more money; and lead happier, more productive lives, even if they just pretend at extraversion. People who get out, make friends and remain active socially enjoy longer, healthier lives.

“Having ‘friends’ stacked like books in a digital library on a network is not the same as actually talking to people…That’s not a relationship; that’s virtual stamp collecting.”

Take, for example, Isaac Newton, perhaps the “smartest person who ever lived,” who accomplished all he did “entirely on his own.” Introverts tend to do better academically and in reaching expert levels in their fields, whether science, investment banking, programming, sports or music. Introverts commit fewer crimes and less adultery, lose less money, and get in fewer accidents. Most people land somewhere between introversion and extraversion. Either way, unless you’re Isaac Newton, you must build networks and collaborate.

Listen, Don’t Talk

Make friends, and build your network by helping other people, by listening rather than talking, by asking their opinions and advice, and by asking them for help. Allocate time to build your network. Connect or reconnect on social networks, but meet people in person or, at least, on the phone. Join interest groups, book clubs or professional groups with members who resemble the person you aspire to be. If you want to improve your health, for example, join a group of fit, active, healthy people. Don’t avoid people at work; those with the biggest social groups learn about opportunities sooner and earn promotions faster.

Be Confident with Caution

Successful people have more confidence. The more success you achieve, the more confidence you gain. The more confidence you have, the more you earn. Even if you have no basis for your confidence, having it helps. Even faking confidence pays dividends. Leaders especially should put on an air of confidence even if they don’t feel it. Smile to make yourself happy, stay optimistic to increase your chances of success and strike power poses to gain confidence. But know that the benefits of “faking it” don’t last long. You are deceiving yourself as well as others. Overconfidence can get you hurt. Narcissistic CEOs regularly wreck companies. Powerful leaders often lose people’s empathy, commit more infidelities and tell more lies.

“Don’t be afraid to do some experiments and quit the ones that don’t work…you need to try stuff knowing you might quit some of it to open yourself up to the luck and opportunities that can make you successful.” 

A little uncertainty and self-doubt helps you listen more, share credit, avoid acting belligerently, and remain open and curious. Humility helps people avoid mistakes, even if you force it on them by requiring them to follow rules or procedures. You need confidence, but with caution. Optimism helps, but some pessimism keeps you from doing silly things. Seek a balance. Instead of trying to show confidence or doubt, you may do better by improving your ability to forgive yourself. Self-compassion makes you feel good about yourself without arrogance. The benefits of confidence and humility include becoming stronger, more positive, healthier, happier and even wiser.

Should You Work Insanely Hard or Settle for “Good Enough”?

If you’ve decided you want to lead your field, prepare for monstrous dedication and work. You’ll need the 10,000 hours it takes to achieve expertise and a multiple of that number to achieve eminence. Super smarts won’t help you; only hours and hours of hard work will cut it. This means learning and improving on your own time. Happily, hours of focused work don’t feel as taxing when you’ve chosen a field that deeply interests you and leverages your strengths. That passion and the importance of having “meaningful work” make your choice of career and organization supremely important, especially if you live to work.

“YouTube started out as a dating site…eBay was originally focused on selling PEZ dispensers. Google began as a project to organize library book searches.”

If you choose wisely and make the commitment, you might become the best at what you do. But high achievement comes at a high cost. A strong passion for a career often leads to strained and broken relationships with friends, spouses and children. Achievers must make these choices; few can have it both ways. When highly productive scientists and artists of all sorts marry, their output and contributions plummet. Expect this, even if you love your work. If you hate your job, overwork may lead to burnout.

“Good enough is almost always good enough.” (Swarthmore College professor Barry Schwartz) 

Unless you aspire to greatness on the scale of Einstein or Mozart, reasonable work hours will make you happier; you may get more done and have more ideas. Get your sleep. Otherwise, you’ll walk around like a drunk, functioning at a level far below most well rested people, even those who aren’t as naturally smart as you are.

“Gratitude is the tactical nuke of happiness and the cornerstone of long-lasting relationships.”

Find a career that suits you, and don’t obsess about it. Overcome the rat race by setting your own goals and defining what you see as personal success. If you compare yourself to others, you set yourself up for stress and disappointment.

The “Big Four”

To lead a balanced life, devote your time and energy to “four metrics that matter most”:

  • “Happiness” – Strive to find “pleasure and contentment” in your life.
  • “Achievement” – Work toward reaching challenging meaningful goals.
  • “Significance” – Ensure that your actions have a “positive impact.” 
  • “Legacy” – Live your life in ways that benefit others.

Take Control

To have a sense of control over your life, manage your time. Track where you waste time, and work to use your time more productively by devoting it to your big four. Free up time for things other than work by talking to your boss about your priorities.

“Success does not lead to happiness as often as happiness leads to success.”

Instead of making a to-do list, schedule your day to get things done. Build in “protected time” to focus on “deep work,” as opposed to the “shallow work” of emails, phone calls and meetings. Find a quiet place for concentrated work. Plan when you want to leave the office for the day, and make sure you do it. Close the day by reviewing what you want to get done tomorrow.

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