Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong

Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong

by Eric Barker

In Barking Up the Wrong Tree, Eric Barker uses breakthrough scientific research to bust many of our beliefs about career success. The book offers incredible insight into what separates the extremely successful from everybody else, while also revealing why we don’t have to use the same ‘logical’ path as everyone else to live our dreams. Using startling statistics and humorous anecdotes, this book takes the guessing out of success so that you can finally understand and choose the life you want.

Summary Notes

Play By Your Own Rules

“We’re generally encouraged to play it safe, but is doing the normally prescribed ‘right thing,’ and not risking the ups and downs of extremes, the path to success—or to mediocrity?”

We’re all familiar with the mainstream narrative—study hard, follow the rules, do everything right and you’ll succeed in life. However, school rewards those who do as they are told - those who conform to the system are rewarded with good grades. 

You don’t even have to be the smartest kid in your class to reap the benefits. Many valedictorians confess that they simply worked harder or gave their teachers what they wanted without actually learning the material. School also rewards generalists who can pass multiple subjects rather than specialists who are passionate about one subject. The result is that the academic high achievers graduate without ever truly mastering anything. 

When they leave school, they get good jobs but this doesn’t necessarily mean that they will accomplish any kind of meaningful breakthroughs.

A great leader isn’t always the person who is thoroughly vetted, plays by the rules, and rises through the ranks. There is another type of leader who sneaks through the system, breaks the rules, and makes unexpected decisions. Indeed, this kind of leader often endangers the institution. However, they can also break the dogma that’s holding back the institution and bring about positive transformation. Your biggest weakness can be your greatest asset! 

Our problem is that we’re too quick to label things as good or bad. Some people are just different, and in some cases, what makes them weird is exactly what the world needs. Creative people tend to be slightly more psychopathic than the average individual but not as extreme as a psychotic. Yet this slight divergence from the norm is the reason why they can create magnificent art, develop incredible technologies, become sports superstars, and generally outperform the average person in specific tasks. Therefore, we should tolerate each other’s weaknesses and allow those who are different to play the game of life by their own rules.

Actions to take

Nice Guys Can Finish First

“Being a Taker has short-term benefits, but it’s inherently limited. In the end, nobody wants to help you because they know what you’re really like”

The world is not short of people who will happily cheat and lie to succeed. Most people are realizing that working hard and playing nice doesn’t lead to success. Even research shows that flattering your boss has a far greater impact on your career than actual hard work. Furthermore, jerks make more money and have better credit scores than colleagues who are much more agreeable. Why is this so?

The reality is that we tend to associate kindness with weakness. When you act like a jerk and break the rules, you’re perceived to be more powerful compared to obedient people. In an organization, managers who are solely focused on gaining power climb up the ladder the fastest. They succeed because they are assertive, know what they want, and aren’t afraid to talk about their achievements. On the other hand, feeling powerless at the office correlates to an increase in high blood pressure and coronary artery disease. 

But does this mean we should all become selfish jerks who connive and cheat our way to the top? 

The problem with bad behavior is that it tends to spread quickly. Once people realize that cheating is the only way to get ahead, everyone jumps on the bandwagon and the level of trust diminishes. Whether it’s in a team, organization, or country, just one bad experience with an untrustworthy person is enough to encourage you to stop trusting everyone around you. 

As a result, group performance drops as the culture quickly descends into cut-throat competition. The few good people are forced to leave and the organization eventually collapses. In other words, selfishness doesn’t work if you want to succeed over the long term.

So, are nice guys doomed to always finish last? The answer is yes—and no. Statistics show that nice guys end up at the bottom as well as at the top of the success ladder in every profession. 

“Givers” (individuals who are always looking to help others) tend to be on the extreme ends of the spectrum. “Takers” (those who give less than they receive) and “Matchers” (those who match giving with receiving) tend to end up in the middle of the spectrum. The reason why some Givers are at the bottom is that they act like martyrs, constantly denying their needs and thus being exploited by Takers. The Givers who reach the top of the success ladder do so because they trust and help their colleagues, thus earning their respect and support when they need it.

At the end of the day, you want to be a Giver rather than a Taker or Matcher. Takers win in the short term but eventually, nobody wants to work with them, especially other Takers. Matchers experience limited success because they’re always waiting for the other person to be good to them first. Givers, however, receive help from other Givers as well as Matchers. This allows them to live longer, happier, and more successful lives.

Actions to take

Sometimes Quitting Is The Best Path To Success

“While grit is often about stories, quitting is often an issue of limits—pushing them, optimizing them, and most of all, knowing them.”

Our culture constantly pushes the narrative that grit is the magic sauce that guarantees success. The message is that if you work hard and persevere through the suffering and setbacks, you can overcome the odds and succeed. Studies show that people with grit are happier, healthier, more popular, and experience greater life satisfaction. With such positive evidence, why don’t more people have grit? The simple reason is that we’ve ignored the true source of grit: the stories we tell ourselves.

Stories are important because they help your mind make sense of things. Dreams, movies, sermons, and comic books all contain stories that can inspire you to overcome obstacles and achieve your goals. It doesn’t even matter if the story is true or accurate. Sometimes telling yourself a fake story can help you persevere. Successful people know that as long as your story is meaningful to you, it can give you the power you need to change your circumstances. 

But what happens when your willpower is depleted and the story is no longer enough to keep you going? You can simply add an element of fun by turning the challenging situation into a game. For example, if you’re feeding an infant, they may at some point refuse to eat. Telling them a story of how the food will make them healthy and strong won’t work. However, if you pretend that the spoon is an airplane and the baby’s mouth is the runway, then they are more likely to play along and keep eating.    

Now, some situations are beyond your capabilities and no matter how much grit you apply, you simply cannot move forward. This is where you have to embrace strategic quitting. Research shows that by quitting things that make you miserable, you become happier, healthier, and less stressed. By quitting boring jobs, unproductive relationships, or unattainable goals, you eliminate things that aren’t leading you toward your priorities. Once you know what and when to quit, you can then apply grit to the things you truly care about.

Actions to take

Introverts Can Succeed In Their Own Way

“We have this huge distinction between work and personal. Guess what? Your brain doesn’t.”

In today’s world, success is based on how socially connected you are and your ability to leverage your network. Research shows that extroverts earn more money, receive more promotions, and achieve a higher level of career satisfaction. The higher up the corporate ladder you go, the more likely you are to find extroverts. This is because talkative and self-promoting individuals are perceived to be more intelligent and competent and are thus given leadership opportunities. Outside the workplace, research shows that extroverts are luckier and happier than introverts.

But does this mean that introverts cannot be successful? Despite all the benefits of extroversion, introverts can also make a huge impact on the world. Since an introvert spends so much time alone, they have the time to master a skill and gain a higher level of expertise than the average person. In fact, 90% of top athletes are introverts, with only 6% of sports achievers claiming to be extroverts. The same also applies to the best musicians, investment bankers, chess players, and even scientists.

Though extroverts dominate most positions of leadership, this doesn’t mean that they are more effective leaders than introverts. In organizations where employees are passive, it is the extroverted leader who shines. However, if the employees are motivated and energetic, the introverted leader performs better because they know how to listen to and assist their team. 

The main challenge with extroverts is that they have poor listening skills, so they gradually lose status with colleagues and teammates. Statistically, extroversion is linked to higher incidences of infidelity, crime, financial impropriety, and car accidents. But we never hear of the downsides of extroversion because of the inherent bias in society.

Ultimately, it isn’t about one being better than the other. The world needs both extroverts and introverts. It’s also highly likely that you are a little bit of both—67% of people are actually ambiverts. Ambiverts tend to be great salespeople because they can combine the social drive of the extrovert with the good listening skills of the introvert. 

The important thing is to know where you fall in the spectrum and use your superpowers accordingly.

Actions to take

Low Confidence Is Not Always A Bad Thing

“Low self-confidence may turn you into a pessimist, but when pessimism teams up with ambition it often produces outstanding performance.”

Without a doubt, confidence plays a huge role in your success.  Studies show that self-esteem is directly tied to your earnings, with confidence being regarded to be just as important as intelligence. Overconfidence also causes you to take on bigger challenges, thus increasing your visibility at work and making you more likely to be promoted. 

It also seems that fake confidence is just as effective as the real thing. It gives you a feeling of power and control that lowers stress, improves your mood, and makes you more resistant to pain.

However, the problem with fake confidence is that the illusion doesn’t last forever, and it can lead to a denial of reality. This is the main reason why CEOs make colossal mistakes. When you’re too confident, you become arrogant and ignore information that’s staring you in the face.

Overconfidence does more damage than incompetence. Incompetence comes from inexperience, and inexperienced people don’t have much power and authority anyway. Overconfidence is the preserve of experts and leaders, and when they make a mistake, the entire organization suffers. Overconfidence also reduces empathy and causes you to dehumanize others, thus harming teamwork.

As long as you don’t let it take you off course, low confidence can actually be a good thing. It allows you to admit your mistakes and learn from others. You become more open to new ideas and can take advice from both experts and novices. Actively listening to others makes you more approachable and even boosts your brainpower. This kind of humility and vulnerability has a massive payoff especially if you’re a leader. 

However, you don’t need to lower your self-confidence just to reap its benefits. The alternative to self-confidence is actually self-compassion. Self-compassion enables you to set reasonable expectations for yourself instead of deluding yourself into chasing unattainable goals. When you fail at something, you forgive yourself instead of judging yourself harshly. It also prevents you from engaging in egotistical behavior, thus helping you maintain healthy and strong long-term relationships.

Self-compassion is more powerful than self-esteem because it is unconditional. You no longer have to prove yourself or pretend you’re awesome. It enables you to become proactive when things go wrong because you’re not wasting time bashing yourself or blaming others. Simply put, it’s easier to forgive yourself than to maintain self-confidence. At the end of the day, self-compassion makes you happier and allows you to see yourself and the world much more clearly.

Actions to take

Overwork Can Sabotage Your Success

“In today’s world, “having it all” isn’t possible when others determine the limits in each category.”

If you want to achieve amazing success and make a great contribution to the world, you must work hard. You must pursue your goal with dogged determination and treat it as an obsession. 

In almost every profession, the top 10% of workers produce 70% more than the average employee and 800% more than the bottom 10%. This is only possible by spending 60+ hours a week engaging in productive work. Studies show that being smart doesn’t lead to groundbreaking achievement as much as working more hours does. 

On top of that, those hours need to be intense. It’s not enough to just count the hours as they go by. You should be pushing yourself to the limit every single time. You should be constantly raising your expectations until you feel you can’t go on anymore. This is why we rarely become experts in our everyday activities. You may be engaging in a task for hours every day but because you’re doing so mindlessly with no serious focus, your skill level doesn’t improve.

Now, overwork is bad for your health as it increases stress and reduces overall happiness. The only time it is correlated with increased health benefits is when you’re engaging in meaningful work. This means work that’s important to you and you’re passionate about. Research suggests that people who have meaningful careers live the longest even though they work longer hours than average. Having a career you hate, on the other hand, is linked to reduced happiness and heart disease.

But where do we draw the line with hard work regardless of whether it’s meaningful or not? How much is too much? 

The solution is to realize your limits and find ways to have a good career as well as supportive, satisfying relationships. It’s possible to work less, spare some time for fun and still be successful. Companies that give employees predetermined time off from work experienced an increase in productivity and improved client satisfaction. When you incorporate fun and relaxation into your work, you actually learn more and perform better.

Hard work doesn’t automatically lead to good work. Society glorifies individuals who work longer hours and shames those who don’t. But, if you desire long-term success, start making conscious decisions on how to live your own life instead of allowing other people’s expectations to control you.

Actions to take

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