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

Should We Play It Safe and Do What We’re Told If We Want to Succeed?

Schools reward students who consistently do what they are told. Academic grades correlate only loosely with intelligence (standardized tests are better at measuring IQ). Grades are, however, an excellent predictor of self-discipline, conscientiousness, and the ability to comply with rules. Essentially, we are rewarding conformity and the willingness to go along with the system.

School has clear rules. Life often doesn’t. When there’s no clear path to follow, academic high achievers break down.

Following the rules doesn’t create success; it just eliminates extremes—both good and bad. While this is usually good and all but eliminates downside risk, it also frequently eliminates earthshaking accomplishments. It’s like putting a governor on your engine that stops the car from going over fifty-five; you’re far less likely to get into a lethal crash, but you won’t be setting any land speed records either.

There’s an old Swedish expression that says most kids are dandelions but a few are orchids. Dandelions are resilient. They’re not the most beautiful flowers, but even without good care they thrive. Nobody goes around deliberately planting dandelions. You don’t need to. They do just fine under almost any conditions. Orchids are different. If you don’t care for them properly they wilt and die. But if given proper care, they bloom into the most gorgeous flowers imaginable.

Most people are dandelions; they’ll come out okay under almost any circumstances. Others are orchids; they’re not just more sensitive to negative outcomes but more sensitive to everything. They won’t flourish in the dirt by the side of a road like a dandelion would. But when they’re well tended in a nice greenhouse, their beauty will put the dandelions to shame. As writer David Dobbs said in a piece for The Atlantic, “the very genes that give us the most trouble as a species, causing behaviors that are self-destructive and antisocial, also underlie humankind’s phenomenal adaptability and evolutionary success. With a bad environment and poor parenting, orchid children can end up depressed, drug-addicted, or in jail—but with the right environment and good parenting, they can grow up to be society’s most creative, successful, and happy people.”

“A hopeful monster is an individual that deviates radically from the norm in a population because of a genetic mutation that confers a potentially adaptive advantage.”

Creators exhibit more psychopathology than average persons, but less than true psychotics. They seem to possess just the right amount of weirdness. Too often we label things “good” or “bad” when the right designation might merely be “different.”

We spend too much time trying to be “good” when good is often merely average. To be great we must be different. And that doesn’t come from trying to follow society’s vision of what is best, because society doesn’t always know what it needs. More often being the best means just being the best version of you. As John Stuart Mill remarked, “That so few now dare to be eccentric, marks the chief danger of our time.”

  1. First, know thyself. By figuring out whether you fall into the filtered or unfiltered camp and by knowing where your strengths are, you’re miles ahead of the average person in terms of achieving both success and happiness. Modern positive psychology research has shown again and again that one of the keys to happiness is emphasizing what are called “signature strengths.” Research by Gallup shows that the more hours per day you spend doing what you’re good at, the less stressed you feel and the more you laugh, smile, and feel you’re being treated with respect.

  2. A second piece of advice: pick the right pond. The unfiltered leader who is an amazing success in one situation will be a catastrophic failure in the other, in almost all cases. It’s way too easy to think, “I’ve always succeeded, I am a success, I am successful because I am a success, because it’s about me, and therefore I will succeed in this new environment.” Wrong. You were successful because you happened to be in an environment where your biases and predispositions and talents and abilities all happened to align neatly with those things that would produce success in that environment. Ask yourself, Which companies, institutions, and situations value what I do?

Do Nice Guys Finish Last?

The lesson from cases of people both keeping and losing their jobs is that as long as you keep your boss or bosses happy, performance really does not matter that much and, by contrast, if you upset them, performance won’t save you.

Axelrod offers four lessons we can learn from TFT [Tit-for-tat]’s success:

  1. DON’T BE ENVIOUS. Most of life isn’t zero-sum. Just because someone else wins, that doesn’t mean you lose. “Tit for tat won the tournament not by beating the other player but by eliciting behavior from the other player [that] allowed both to do well.” Don’t worry how well the other side is doing; worry about how well you’re doing.

  2. DON’T BE THE FIRST TO DEFECT. Influence guru Professor Robert Cialdini says that not only is reciprocity one of the key elements of being influential and winning favor with others but it’s also essential that you go first. Matchers wait and miss too many opportunities. And Takers trade short-term gains for long-term losses.

  3. RECIPROCATE BOTH COOPERATION AND DEFECTION. Never betray anyone initially. Why make someone question your motives? But if a person cheats you, don’t be a martyr.

  4. DON’T BE TOO CLEVER. You need to be able to teach the people you’re dealing with because you want the relationship to continue. You cooperate with me, I cooperate with you. You betray me, I betray you. It’s that simple. Getting too clever muddies the waters, and the other person can quickly become very skeptical of you. Once that person sees clear cause and effect, he or she is more likely to jump on board and realize that everyone will benefit. Now, in zero-sum games like chess you want your intentions to be unclear, but in the iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma, it’s the exact opposite. You want the other player to see what you’re doing so they can join you. Life is more often like the latter.


When you take a job take a long look at the people you’re going to be working with—because the odds are you’re going to become like them; they are not going to become like you. You can’t change them. If it doesn’t fit who you are, it’s not going to work.


Givers outdo Matchers because they volunteer help without waiting to see what the other person will do.


turns out that the best way to punish Takers in the workplace is good old-fashioned gossip. Warning others about Takers will make you feel better and can help police bad behavior. Also, as Adam Grant acknowledged, giving too much can lead to burnout. A mere two hours a week of helping others is enough to get maximum benefits, so there’s no need for guilt or for martyring yourself—and no excuse for saying you don’t have time to help others.

It turns out that the best way to punish Takers in the workplace is good old-fashioned gossip. Warning others about Takers will make you feel better and can help police bad behavior. Also, as Adam Grant acknowledged, giving too much can lead to burnout. A mere two hours a week of helping others is enough to get maximum benefits, so there’s no need for guilt or for martyring yourself—and no excuse for saying you don’t have time to help others.



Entice others with ways you can help them down the line. The more things seem like a one-off, the more incentive people have to pull one over on you. The more interactions or friends you have in common with other people, and the more likely you are to encounter them again, the more it makes sense for these people to treat you well.


TFT never came out ahead in a single game, but it won out in the grand scheme of things. One reason was because it could teach its opponent to behave. That means giving second chances. You’re not perfect, others aren’t perfect, and sometime people get confused.

Do Quitters Never Win and Winners Never Quit?

Stories are the invisible undercurrent that promotes success in a shocking number of the most important areas of life.

Picture your funeral. The people who loved you have all gathered to pay their respects. They’re going to praise the qualities that made you so special, that they will miss the most. What do you want them to say? Taking the time to think about that can help you find your eulogy values, which will guide your decisions.

A lot of psychological research shows that instead of behavior following our beliefs, often our beliefs come from our behaviors. As the old saw goes, “Actions speak louder than words.” Wilson calls it the “do good, be good” method. When people do volunteer work, their self-perception changes. They begin to see themselves as the kind of people who do good things for others.

Instead of merely focusing on intentions, make sure that in your day-to-day actions you are being the main character in your perfect story.

We can apply game mechanics to our lives and turn dull moments into fun ones. What all good games have in common:

  • WINNABLE: Good games are winnable by design. They don’t make games you can’t win. Each game has clear rules. We intuitively know that and it makes us very positive about our chances if we persist. We’ve got good reason to be optimistic. You may not be able to overhaul how your company does things, but like Joe Simpson, you can define a game for yourself that is winnable. Is your game to learn as much as possible at the office so you’re ready for that promotion? Do you want to get better at giving presentations or acquire another skill set? All of these are winnable.

  • NOVEL CHALLENGES: Good games continually have new levels, new enemies, new achievements. Our brains love novelty, and good games make sure we’re always stimulated by something just a little different, honing our attention. We crave ease, but stimulation is what really makes us happy. We try to subtract at work, do less, check out. These are signs of burnout. We don’t need to subtract; we need to add novel challenges to create engagement.

  • GOALS: Good games are very clear about what you need to do to win. They serve to focus you and guide decision-making. You can’t get what you want until you take the time to decide what you want. Goals can be intimidating. We don’t want to fail, so often we don’t set them. But if you make your game winnable, setting goals will be less scary. Failure is okay in a game.

  • FEEDBACK: You always know where you stand in a game, how you’re doing, and what you need to do to perform better. Research shows that the most motivating thing is progress in meaningful work. So you need a better way to score your work game. Amabile recommends taking a moment at the end of every day to ask yourself, “What one thing can I do to make progress on important work tomorrow?” It gives you a goal to shoot for. Give yourself a clear idea of how to measure or achieve that, like Joe Simpson’s twenty minutes, and you’re on your way to a motivating system.

It’s Not What You Know, It’s Who You Know (Unless It Really Is What You Know)

Networking isn’t just a skill anybody can learn. It’s a skill you already know. Make friends.

It is better to give than to receive. Look for opportunities to do something for the other person, such as sharing knowledge or offering an introduction to someone that person might not know but would be interested in knowing. Do not be transactional about networking. Do not offer something because you want something in return. Instead, show a genuine interest in something you and the other person have in common.

Let’s review some of the fundamentals of friendship, which are intuitive but also backed by science.

  • YOU LIKE IRON MAN? I LIKE IRON MAN TOO. See that boy playing with the same toys you like to play with? Introduce yourself. We all choose to be friends with people who are like us.

  • LISTEN AND ENCOURAGE. Ask them questions and listen. You’re likely to hear something you can connect over.Rresearch has demonstrated that asking people questions about themselves can create a bond as strong as a lifelong friendship in a surprisingly short amount of time. FBI behavioral expert Robin Dreeke said the most important thing to do is to “seek someone else’s thoughts and opinions without judging them.” Found something you both have in common? Great. Don’t be afraid to pay the person a sincere compliment. Just say whatever positive thing honestly comes to mind.

  • BE A GIVER. When people say they’re having trouble with something, try to find a way you can help.

How do you actually get started? There are a number of great techniques that can make the process easier, less time consuming, and not so intimidating:


How do you get an amazing mentor who is right for you? Here are five principles:

  • WASTING A MENTOR’S TIME IS A MORTAL SIN. Asking your mentor a question is like a power up in a video game. Don’t waste them. Use them when they’ll really count.
  • FOLLOW UP. You need to consistently hit them with a conversation defibrillator to keep the relationship alive but without being a nuisance. Do what they said, get results, and let them know they made a difference. This is what mentors want. You want these interactions to become conversational back-and-forths, not one-offs.

Here are four quick steps adapted from hostage negotiation and clinical psychology that can help you turn wars into friendly discussions:

  • KEEP CALM AND SLOW IT DOWN. Don’t get angry. How do you control your anger? Al Bernstein recommends pretending you are talking to a child. You wouldn’t try to rationalize with a screaming child, and you wouldn’t get angry with them for yelling. You’d just dismiss the hysterics and deal with the underlying problem. Slow it down. The other person’s anger will subside with time if you don’t aggravate them by yelling back. Rushing things leads to pressure, and that only intensifies emotional decision-making, as opposed to rational decision-making.

  • USE ACTIVE LISTENING. Don’t judge anything they say. Just listen and acknowledge. Every now and then paraphrase back to them what you’re hearing. Your goal is for them to reply “Exactly.” If you can repeat back to them the gist of what they’re saying, they can’t shout “You just don’t get it! You don’t understand!” See it as a game. Play detective.

  • LABEL EMOTIONS. Respond to their emotions by saying “Sounds like you’re angry” or “Sounds like this really upsets you.” Hostage negotiators use this to show understanding and to cool hot emotions. And neuroscience research shows that giving a name to feelings helps reduce their intensity.

  • MAKE THEM THINK. We want to calm the rage monster in their head by bringing the thinking part of their brain back online. Again, use questions, not statements. Al Bernstein likes to ask “What would you like me to do?” This forces them to consider options and think instead of just vent. Pretend to be Socrates. Don’t solve their problem and tell them what to do. That puts you back in a war metaphor. Help them solve their own problem by asking questions, feeding their responses back to them, and subtly helping them consider whether what they’re saying makes sense. If they come up with a solution, they’re more likely to follow through with it. They don’t have to concede defeat and say “You’re right.” They’ll be less defensive if they solve their own problem.

Believe in Yourself... Sometimes

  • BELIEVING IN YOURSELF IS NICE. FORGIVING YOURSELF IS BETTER. Self-compassion beats self-esteem. We don’t need to see ourselves as larger than life and it’s often better if we don’t. You don’t want to fall into denial or be a jerk. You want to keep learning but not feel bad about yourself. You need to avoid self-worth that is contingent on fantasy-based illusions or constantly proving yourself. So be self-compassionate. It’s got all the upsides of confidence without the downsides.

  • ADJUST FOR YOUR NATURAL LEVEL OF SELF-ESTEEM. Are you normally pretty confident? Then enjoy the benefits but keep an eye out for delusion and stay empathetic. Seek situations that challenge you to keep yourself humble. Strive to keep an open mind instead of assuming you already know the answer. Be nice. Don’t end up as an emperor in your own mind.

  • ABSOLUTELY HAVE TO HAVE MORE CONFIDENCE? EARN IT. When Daniel Chambliss studied top swimmers, he found that by them focusing on “small wins” every day their skills progressed and their confidence in their abilities did too. When you have a competitive mind-set you always risk underperforming and feeling like a loser. When challenged, focus on improving your skills—not doing well or looking good. Studies show “get-better goals” increase motivation, make tasks more interesting, and replenish energy. This effect carries over to subsequent tasks.

  • DON’T BE A FAKER. Faking it is too hard and the price of failure is too high. Even if you’re successful in tricking others, this all too often leads to tricking yourself, which is the most dangerous scenario of all. As Richard Feynman famously said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.”

How to Find Harmony Between Home and the Office


Write down where each hour goes as it happens. Don’t rely on your fallible memory. Do this for a week. Where are your activities taking you? Is it where you want to go? Note: this will be depressing. I assure you, you’re wasting more time than you think. Beyond that, note which hours are contributing to which of the big four:


Or is that hour going in the “None of the above” bucket? Look for hot spots in your schedule. When do you waste the most time? When do you overdo one of the big four at the expense of another? You’ll get more bang for your buck changing your routines around these hot spots than by a vague notion of “working less” or “trying to spend more time with the family.” By the same token, look for trends that are working. When do you get disproportionate results? Early morning or late evening? At home or at the office? Try to make those moments more consistent.


Proactive employees who have plans, ask about priorities, and try to head off problems are valuable. The people the boss has to come to after the fact to correct errors are the real difficult ones. And when you produce results, you’ll get more latitude. More latitude means more freedom and control to execute your plan. Handle it right and it’s an upward spiral for everyone.


Decide when you want to leave work and you’ll know how many hours you have. Slot in what you need to get done by priority. Cal calls this “fixed schedule productivity.” You need boundaries if you want work–life balance. This forces you to be efficient.

Also, at least an hour a day, preferably in the morning, needs to be “protected time.” This is an hour every day when you get real work done without interruption. Approach this concept as if it were a religious ritual. This hour is inviolate. Emails, meetings, and phone calls are often just “shallow work.” You want to use this hour for what Cal calls “deep work.” One hour when you will actually move things forward instead of just treading water. Shallow work stops you from getting fired—but deep work is what gets you promoted.

Research shows that two and a half to four hours after waking is when your brain is sharpest. Do you want to waste that on a conference call or a staff meeting? What if you’re totally overwhelmed at the office? If you never get a break from interruptions, then do your protected time at home for an hour before work. Peter Drucker cites a Swedish study of twelve executives that showed they literally could not work twenty minutes without being interrupted. The only one who was able to make thoughtful decisions was the one who spent ninety minutes working from home before entering the maelstrom of the office.

Planning out every day so rigorously is a pain at first but it works. For extra credit, you may want to start planning out your free time too.

I know what you’re thinking: all that shallow work isn’t going away. A good way to deal with the busy work is in “batches.” Rather than reactively living in your inbox, schedule a few intervals when you process emails, return phone calls, and shuffle the papers that need shuffling. After that session is over, turn off notifications, silence the phone, and get back to important stuff. Three batches a day works for me, but a job that requires frequent interaction may need more. The point is to be able to control and schedule these periods as much as possible so they don’t creep into the time you’re doing deep work.


I know controlling your environment can be hard. Shared workspaces, open-plan offices, chatty colleagues, and bosses that look over your shoulder. This is why I recommend a simple solution for at least part of the day: hide.


Those last moments at the office every day loom large in terms of how you feel about your job. Cal Newport recommends a “shutdown ritual” in which you take the time to close out the day’s business and prepare for tomorrow. Research shows that writing down the things you need to take care of tomorrow can settle your brain and help you relax.

What Makes a Successful Life?

How do you find alignment? As the Oracle at Delphi said so long ago, “Know thyself.” What are your intensifiers? Are you a Giver, a Taker or a Matcher? Are you more introverted or more extroverted? Underconfident or overconfident? Which of the big four do you naturally fulfill and which do you consistently neglect? Then align those qualities with the world around you. Pick the right pond. Find a job that leverages your intensifiers. Create a story that keeps you going. Make little bets that expand your horizons. Use WOOP to turn your dreams into realities.

What’s the most important type of alignment? Being connected to a group of friends and loved ones who help you become the person you want to be. Financial success is great, but to have a successful life we need happiness. Career success doesn’t always make us happy, but the research shows that happiness does bring success. Your relationships are what bring you happiness.

Take the time to figure out what you are and find the right body of water for you.