All Articles Leadership Inspiration How to succeed instead of barking up the wrong tree

How to succeed instead of barking up the wrong tree

Eric Barker’s writing is based on the idea that “Here’s the best we’ve got right now.” His book aims to go beyond platitudes to help people find success.

10 min read


barking tree book cover

“Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty … I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.” ~ Theodore Roosevelt

That quote from the 26th president of the United States is more than a century old, and his admonition can feel quaint as we stumble about, obsessed with the next nugget of information, the easiest, quickly, least intensive way to fix something, advance in life or entertain ourselves.

That impulse is understandable and sometimes even important in a world where we also like to burn ourselves out. But there’s something tying together these twin impulses of easy gratification and overwork: The mistaken belief that big changes can — easily — be accomplished in one fell swoop, whether through a burst of output or the right lifehack.

Eric Barker’s “Barking Up The Wrong Tree” (May 2017, HarperCollins), the book adaptation of his long-running blog, might be mistaken as a promise to fulfill all your life and career hopes and dreams. It is not. Barker’s book can be a guide, a way to weed out some of the worst advice and reflect on yourself and your goals, but it cannot solve your life for you.

I’ve long admired and learned from the way Barker synthesizes the science, social or otherwise, about human behavior and outcomes and gives people practical ways to inform themselves and take action. This is not easy to do with credibility, and sometimes even means revising your earlier advice as new science becomes available. Talking about career and life success can also lead writers to rely on platitudes, something Barker said he was keenly aware of in writing this.

You want to be positive, useful and helpful, he told me, but you also have to be truthful and “intellectually honest.”

I recently spoke with Barker about the book, his approach and the long journey he’s taken from a blog idea to a powerful brand and, now, published work.

The origins of “Barking Up The Wrong Tree”

Like many things on the internet, Barker’s blog started as a way for him to share what was on his mind. He described a career “at a crossroads,” which included being an undergraduate philosophy major, writing screenplays and getting an MBA. After graduating, he started to notice that “the maxims of success” everyone hears about were contradictory, or didn’t apply to him, or were mixed in among piles of research or the rest of the internet. “The good answers are equally buried in with the bad answers!” he told me.

At first, the blog featured abstracts from scientific studies. As time went on, Barker began to combine various sources of thinking and research, advancing next to interviewing researchers directly to get further into their work and insights. That’s how the blog evolved — and the book is a way to explore these ideas, note which work and which don’t, and do so “in exhaustive detail.”

“To be great, we must be different.”

That quote, early on in Barker’s book, stuck with me throughout my reading and even into my conversation with Barker. This doesn’t mean one can’t do well by following the rules and guidelines, but it does offer a challenge — and an opportunity.

I asked him how he worked to define “success,” as the precise definitions of the words we use are cricial to this book and most of our discussions about careers and leadership. “I address this directly in the work/life balance chapter, where one of the biggest problems I think people experience comes right down to that definition,” Barker told me. Society has this idea of “success” that doesn’t necessarily leave room for people’s goals to differ from the public standard based on context, or strengths or wants.

Having a personal definition of success matters. So does having a strategy, though not all are productive. Barker cites the “collapsing strategy,” in which everything rises or falls based on one metric.

“The problem with that, that’s kind of like saying, ‘Screw happiness, screw my health, my relationships, the only thing that matters is money, and I want to make that number go up. And I’m going to devote every hour of my day to that. Well, guess what? You’ll probably be successful at making that number go up. Of course, you’ll find your’re miserable, you’re divorced, your kids don’t want to talk to you, and you’re going to have a heart attack.”

Another common mistake in the pursuit of success is what Barker calls “sequencing.” Essentially, you decide to focus on one area, then shift to another, and so on, regardless of the demands of the moment.

Barker instead pointed me toward the researchers Nash and Stevenson, who devised the four key metrics worth seeking in a successful life:

  • Happiness
  • Achievement
  • Significance
  • Legacy

Keeping track of all of that looks tough. “But if you look at your hours, you look at the time you’re spending in your day, and you’re making regular little donations into each one of those four buckets, then you’re doing pretty well,” Barker told me. “So, we can have four metrics we can use to kind of determine success, but the specifics of the goal are specific to the person. You don’t have to be a billionaire, you can be a stay-at-home mom — either one has a definition of success, and that’s something we need to tailor to our goals and our strengths.”

OK, success. Got it. What do I do next?

Barker’s book can help you examine the common beliefs about networking, career aims, risk-taking, perserverance and grit, and more. He does so by looking at all of the ideas, not just the ones you might think are correct or that he mgiht think are correct. There are a lot of ideas in this book — here is just a sampling of the topics covered:

  • How successful are valedictorians?
  • What can we learn from people who literally cannot feel pain?
  • Why gangs and pirates are more cooperative than you might think?
  • When you should quit, and when should you push forward?
  • Why Paul Erdos had little of what you might call social skills but was the greatest collaborator mathematics has ever seen.
  • The good and bad of baseball (and fishing!) legend Ted Williams’ legendary focus and competitiveness.
  • When is working more worse than working less?

The book is probably best as a straight read-through, at least the first time around. I base this off my own reading and talking with Barker about it. You can jump into, say, Chapter 5 and not feel lost, but again, we’re trying to build a habit of contributing to each of those four buckets mentioned above, not simply improve one area at the expense of the others.

Risk, trends and contrary examples

One reason success is so difficult to plan for is because, well, life has variables and outliers. Trends don’t account for every individual experience, and one can usually make a counterargument even if in the long run the other side wins out.

This extends into much of the research Barker talks about. For instance, nice guys don’t necessary finish last, as trust and fairness are incredibly important to the fabric of a society — even, maybe especially so, to pirates and.prison gangs. At the same time, many nice people do have worse outcomes. This seems confusing, right? Barker quotes Adam Grant, who did the research into these nice people called “Givers”.

“I looked at the other end of the spectrum and said if Givers are at the bottom, who’s at the top? Actually, I was really surprised to dicsover, it’s the Givers again. The people who consistently are looking for ways to help others are over-represented not only at the bottom but also at the top of most success metrics.”

While there are also lots of jerks who do well, particularly in the short run, Grant found the “Givers” at the top also made more money.

In another chapter, Barker documents a Boston College researcher’s look at salutatorians and valedictorians. Nearly all graduated college, a majority going on to finish graduate school, and they’ve generally enjoyed success. “But how many of these number one high school perfomers go on to change the world, run the world, or impress the world? The answer seems to be clear: zero,” Barker writes. These high performers do well within the system, so why would they break it.

A third example from Barker: Research by Gautam Mukunda has shown that when we think of great leaders, we’re really thinking about two types: “filtered” and “unfiltered.” The former are like those valedictorians, following the process through and through. The unfiltered leaders aren’t reliable in this way. They will change or break systems.

Being a maverick sounds great, right? And certainly, if you look at your strengths and goals and see that conforming to the system won’t help you, you might want to become a maverick. But Barker has a word of caution for these care-free sorts, as these people can have qualities that “were often negative at the mean — qualities you and I would consider ‘bad’ — but due to the specific context, they became positives. Like [Winston] Churchill’s paranoid defense of the British stage, these qualities were a posion that under just the right circumstances could be a performance-enhancing drug.”

“Barking Up The Wrong Tree” is full of these examples of how research into both sides matters, and how context matters and that individual results may vary. In all these cases, though, it’s better to have all this information than to make a decision without it.

One of Barker’s strengths is being able to work through all this science and research without making it abstract and impenetrable, but also without condescending, oversimplifying or making leaps beyond that of the text. These questions don’t have easy answers, and all one can do is bringing “intellectual honesty” to the questions, helping people see the truth, whatever it is.

But sometimes the science is muddied by new findings, or even reverses itself. Social science is imperfect. Barker’s had to deal with this in the blog, and he’ll probably have to continue doing so. But, as he pointed out, it’s not like any science stands still, whether social science, medicine, or otherwise.

“Science is always progressing, and we’re always learning new things,” he said.

What can’t this book do?

Any helpful business or career book, like “Barking Up The Wrong Tree,” will spur you to rethink how things are done and why. It will give you ideas and insights you wouldn’t have encountered elsewhere. But such books are guides at best, not answers in themselves..

As I wrote last year, citing David Burkus’ “Under New Management,”

“If you’re seeking inspiration on doing things differently and smarter, this type of book might help. Notably, though, it won’t guarantee success or prescribe a specific solution for your organization – that hard work is up to you.”

If you’re looking for a way forward, but don’t expect all the answers to be magically delivered, “Barking Up The Wrong Tree” — the blog and the book — might be for you. As Barker told me, “This is meant to be, ”Here’s the best we’ve got right now,’ because that’s the only thing that’s honest, and fair.”


James daSilva is the longtime editor of SmartBrief’s leadership newsletter and blog content, as well as newsletters for entrepreneurs, manufacturers and other fields. Find him at @SBLeaders or email him.