“Much of what we’ve been told about the qualities that lead to achievement is logical, earnest–and downright wrong.” - Eric Barker
In “Barking Up the Wrong Tree”, Eric Barker (see what he did there?) takes a look at some common misconceptions about success. Should I play it safe? Should I be overconfident and fake extroversion? Should I network more or practice my skills? For each of these Barker examines both sides, tears them apart, and comes up with a neat solution to the paradox.
Unfortunately, the book is written in the tired ‘self-help’ formula. I cringe every time I see the words, “research shows that…”. To be fair, Barker does his research, and has extensive references in the back. The writing isn’t bad, just not exceptional. Still, “Barking Up the Wrong Tree” is worth a read for the ideas and counterintuitive concepts.
I recommend this book for anyone who:
- Is in some sort of (quarter/mid/late)-life existential crisis
- Is willing to take some time to try new things and get to know themselves
If you’re looking for a path to success and are totally lost, “Barking” is a great place to start.
If you’re interested in more from Eric Barker, he’s got a blog at bakadesuyo.com
The following are rough notes I took while reading. These are mostly paraphrased or quoted directly from the book.
Should We Play it Safe and Do What We’re Told?
Is it better to be an outlier with handicaps and superpowers, or live at the middle of the bell curve?
College grades aren’t any more predictive of life success than rolling dice.
Two types of leaders: “filtered” through formal channels (Chamberlain), “unfiltered” through the window (Lincoln). Unfiltered leaders rock the boat.
Intensifiers - traits that are normally bad, but in certain contexts become huge positives.
Not bad genes or good genes, “differential susceptibility hypothesis.” Context dependent.
Dandelions - come out okay under almost any circumstances
Orchids - more sensitive to everything. When well tended in a nice greenhouse, their beauty will put hte dandelions to shame.
Hopeful Monster - “an individual that deviates radically from the norm in a population because fo a genetic mutation that confers a potentially adaptive advantage” - Johnson & Bouchard
Chopping off the left side of the bell curve improves the average but there are always qualities that we think belong in that left side that are also in the right.
efforts to reduce aggressiveness and misbehavior in young boys did improve their grades but also reduced their liftime earnings. “The economic Value of Breaking Bad”
Are you filtered or unfiltered?
What are my strengths?
“What are you good at that consistently produces desired results?” - Drucker
“Feedback analysis” - When you undertake a project, write down what you expect to happen, then later note the result.
Pick the right pond.
Put yourself in an environment where your biases and predispositions and talents and abilities all align.
Do Nice Guys Finish Last?
Flattery works even when the boss knows it’s insincere
Feeling powerless makes you unhealthier and *dumber
Acting selfish encourages others to do the same.
Takers, givers, matchers. Givers end up at the bottom, and at the very top.
Income peaks in those who trust others an 8⁄10.
Ethical people are happier
100 hours/year of giving seems to be a good guidline for not overdoing giving.
What program wins prisoner’s dilemma tournaments?
Trust first, then generous tit-for-tat (trust, but betray if betrayed previously, occasionally forgive). Trust, but don’t be a wimp.
Don’t be envious. Don’t be the first to defect. Reciprocate both cooperation and defection. Don’t be too clever (can ruin your reputation as trustworthy).
Best way to punish takers is gossip
- Pick the right pond. Look at the people you’re going to be working with. You will become more like them.
- Cooperate first
- Being selfless is silly.
- Work hard, but make sure it gets noticed
- Think long term and make others think long term
Do Quitters Never Win and Winners Never Quit?
Depressed people make more accurate predictions than optimists
Optimism is associated with better health and a longer life
Stories (that we tell ourselves) are a filter, imposing order on a chaotic world by removing informatation. Stories can keep us going because of their inaccuracy.
Resume values: money, promotions
Eulogy values: kind, trustworthy, courageous
What if you have a story that isn’t working, that isn’t getting you where you want to be? Rewrite it. Play the part.
Turn tough situations into a game. With the structure of a game, boring can become rewarding
“If you are immune to boredom, there is nothing you cannot accomplish” - David Foster Wallace
Whiny neutered goats fly. Winnable, Novel challenges, Goals, Feedback.
We crave ease, but stimulation is what really makes us happy. Add novel challenges to create engagement.
When Pillsbury made instant cake mix less simple–you had to add eggs yourself–sales soared.
“Life satisfaction is 22 percent more likely for those with a steady stream of minor accomplishments than those who express interest only in major accomplishments” - Amabile
Once you’ve found something you’re passionate about, quitting secondary things can be an advantage, because it frees up time to do that #1 thing.
Grit can be a liability if you don’t quit what’s not working.
What would you do if you were ill and could manage only 1 thing a day? That’s what matters to you most.
Try lots of little experiments to see what works best
If you don’t know what to focus on, try lots of things, know that you’ll quit most of them. Once you discover your focus, devote 5-10% of your time to little experiments to keep learning and growing.
Job-hopping is correlated with higher incomes because people have found better matches.
Nobel prize winning scientists are 3 times more likely to have a hobby outside of their field.
Premeditation of evils. If X happens, I’ll handle it by doing Y.
For any goal setting: Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan.
- Do you know what you need to be gritty at?
- Are you optimistic? Flexible optimism: A little pessimism keeps us honest. Low risk or high payoff, be optimistic - Seligman
- Do you have a meaningful story?
- Have you made it a game?
- Do you know what your most important thing is?
- Have you added some ‘little bets’?
It’s Not What You Know, It’s Who You Know
Extroverts make more money
Drinkers make 10% more than abstainers
Extroverts are happier, even when alone
Introverts are far more likely to become experts in their field
Extroversion is associated with increased crime, overconfidence, financial risk taking.
Top sales people are in the middle of the introversion-extroversion spectrum
You can learn to build a network even if not extroverted.
- Do not be transactional, look for opportunities to do something for the other person.
- Find similarities
- Listen without judgement
- Offer to help
- Reconnect with friends you already have
- Find your superconnectors
- Make the time and budget for networking
- Join groups of people you want to be like (or start one)
- Always follow up
“You can’t not play politics; you can only play them badly” - Al Benstein
Having few friends is the equivalent of 15 cigarettes a day
Find a mentor(s)
- If you’re doing everything you can to advance yourself, getting a mentor wont be hard
- Study your mentor. Make sure they are the right mentor for you
- Don’t waste their time
- Follow up
- Pay it forward
- Keep calm and slow it down
- Use active listening, “what” or “how, not statements
- Label emotions, “sounds like this really upsets you”
- Make them think
Believe in Yourself…Sometimes
“No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself, and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true.” - Nathaniel Hawthorne
Incompetence is frustrating, but overconfidence can do much more damage.
As someone becomes an expert they deliberately seek out negative feedback so they know how to keep improving now that their mistakes are fewer and subtler.
Be confident or not? Have self-compassion. Self esteem is always either delusional or contingent, neither of which lead to good things.
- Believing in yourself is nice. Forgiving yourself is better.
- Adjust for your natural level of self-esteem
- Need more confidence? Earn it.
When challenged, focus on improving your skills, not looking good
- Don’t be a faker
Work, Work, Work…or Work-Life Balance?
Price Law: 10 people out of 100 will produce half the stuff worth paying attention to.
Hours aren’t enough. They need to be hard. Deliberate practice.
Ambition + hours => Success
Unemployment is bad for your health, being emotionally disconnected from work is worse.
Einstein neglected his wife and children. “Probably the only project he ever gave up on was me.” - Hans Albert Einstein.
Creative workers spend less time with their spouses, and the time they do spend is lower quality (tired from work)
Marriage has a noticeably negative effect on output among scientists, authors, jazz musicians, painters, criminals.
Burnout isn’t just an acute overdose of stress; it’s pretty much clinical depression.
Solution: make work fun, take some downtime to let your mind wander (and become a better problem solver).
Get enough sleep.
Use first few hours of the day to do important work, manage your energy, not your time.
There’s always someone to compare yourself to Work is always with you in your pocket
Define your personal definition of success. “What do I want?“. You can’t have it all.
Metrics that matter:
- Happiness - Enjoying
- Achievement - Winning
- Significance - Counting (to others)
- Legacy - Extending
Satisficing: Don’t waste too much time on decisions. Think about what you need, pick the first thing that fulfills those needs. Barry Schwartz
Having a plan gives you the feeling of control and reduces stress
Balancing work and life
- Track your time. How much of it goes towards the above metrics?
- Talk to your boss. Talk about priorities, plans, expectations
- To-Do Lists are evil. Schedule your work
batch your shallow work (email checking, social media). 
- Control your context
- End the day right–and on time
Have a “shutdown ritual” where you close out the day’s business and prep for tomorrow.
What Makes a Successful Life?
What’s the most important thing to remember when it comes to success?
Alignment between who you are and where you choose to be.
Know thyself. What are your intensifiers? Are you a Giver, a Taker, or a Matcher? Introverted or Extroverted? Under-confident or overconfident? What do you naturally fulfill and what do you neglect?