Barking Up the Wrong Tree - Critical summary review - Eric Barker

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Barking Up the Wrong Tree - critical summary review

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Personal Development

This microbook is a summary/original review based on the book: Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong

Available for: Read online, read in our mobile apps for iPhone/Android and send in PDF/EPUB/MOBI to Amazon Kindle.

ISBN: 978-0062416049

Publisher: HarperOne

Critical summary review

What is it that really creates success, both social and monetary? Does hard work matter? Or is it playing by the rules? And is it true that nice guys always finish last? Eric Barker set out to interview experts and look into research about success. He believes he has come upon the solution for how to be successful in life. So whatever it is that success means to you, get ready to learn how to achieve it!

Playing it safe

The Race Across America is the toughest competition in the world. Cyclists have to cross the entire U.S., from San Diego to Atlantic City, in less than 12 days. There are no breaks or stages. Every time one of the cyclists decides to rest, eat, sleep, or go to the washroom, it gives the others time to overtake them or to extend their lead. Unsurprisingly, two men have died in this contest.

Jure Robič, however, has won this competition more times than anyone else. Many times, he has finished the contest in less than nine days, and in 2009, he finished a half a day ahead of the competition. However, he is neither exceptionally gifted nor does he have the best trainer there is. In fact, he has been described as “completely uncoachable.” How has he managed to perform so well?

The answer is simple: he is insane. Literally. When he cycles in the contest, he gets hallucinations and reads meanings in the cracks on the street. He once even started fighting a mailbox. Apparently, “An unsound mind can help an athlete ignore pain and push his or her body beyond its naturally conservative limits,” scientists like Philippe Tissié and August Bier noted in the 1800s.

So what happened to playing by the rules to be successful? Let’s look at another example: High School valedictorians. They are the crème de la crème of their respective years, but Barker says none of them go on to change the world. Rather, they usually get good jobs and settle comfortably into an established system. To change the world, he says, you will have to question the system, and performing well in school does not prepare you for that.

Those who get good grades in school also have good general knowledge. To become a valedictorian, for example, it is not enough to be exceptional in math, you must also perform well in history and other subjects. To be successful in the real world, however, you will need to be a specialist in your field. And this specialization is not rewarded in school - in fact, a study of more than 700 American millionaires showed they had an average college GPA of 2.9.

Another quality that gets you ahead in life is creativity. When Pixar hit a slump in 2000, they hired Brad Bird to shake things up. He wanted the unfiltered talents and the “crazy” artists in his team - anyone who had not been listened to up to that point. The result was the film “The Incredibles,” Pixar’s highest-grossing film until then.

The same features that can make someone difficult to deal with can also make them champions: creative people are often disorganized, which is why teachers find them a nightmare to deal with. But if their talents are allowed to flourish, they can create real change. These “intensifiers” can turn their biggest weakness into their biggest strength.

Do nice guys finish last?

Michael Swango killed at least 60 patients in the course of his medical career, making him one of the most successful serial killers in American history. Long before he finally got caught, the people he worked with had already noticed the very high death rate of patients in his care, so much so that his fellow students in medical school gave him the name of “Double-O Swango,” as he also seemed to have a license to kill.

Still though, he went on to practice medicine for 15 years. He carried a notebook with him containing newspaper clippings about violent incidents, and when asked about it, he replied that if he were ever in a murder trial, this would prove he was of unsound mind and would save him. Even when he was caught injecting a lethal drug to one of his patients, he was allowed to continue practicing.

As the example of Dr. Swango shows, bad guys get away with a lot of things. And sadly, this does not seem to be the exception. Research suggests that being “the bad guy” in any given job will actually make you successful. Rather than hard work, it is flattery - whether fake or real - that gets people a promotion. When Jennifer Chatman of the University of California tried to find out at what point flattery would backfire, she realized there wasn’t one. 

Similarly, the Harvard Business Review reported that “men low in the personality trait ‘agreeableness’ make as much as ten thousand dollars a year more than men high in agreeableness.” So, being mean also has its advantages. And yet, we are told to play nicely to become successful. 

While being the bad guy has many advantages in the short term, if we see someone with bad behavior getting ahead in the long term, it affects the behavior of the entire group. This creates a downward spiral of bad behavior and explains why work teams with even just one “bad apple” show performance deficits of 30% to 40%.

So it is not necessarily true that good guys always finish last. Wharton school professor Adam Grant looked at success metrics and realized that good guys were finishing both last and first. The bad guys (the takers who always take and never give) or the matchers (who give and take in equal measure), ended up somewhere in the middle. But the givers (those who give more than they take) ended up both at the top and at the bottom.

It makes sense if you think about it: some givers are martyrs who get taken advantage of, but other givers end up at the top because people are indebted to them. Givers tend to be richer as well: for every dollar donated, a giver’s income goes up by $3.75. And while bad guys might win in the short term, good always wins in the long term - even Dr. Swango was brought to justice in the end.

Is it what you know or who you know?

One example of a giver is the mathematician Paul Erdös. The son of two mathematics teachers, he grew up secluded, without friends or siblings, surrounded only by math books. He was incredibly gifted: when he was three years old, he could already multiply triple-digit numbers. By the age of 21, he had already earned his PhD in math. 

He produced as many as 50 academic papers in a year and went on to receive at least 15 honorary doctorates. But what he is most remembered for is the Erdös number - a number used to classify any mathematician in terms of how many degrees separate him from Erdös himself. That’s because what Erdös did most of all was collaborate with other mathematicians. He routinely traveled, visiting 25 countries, fostering new talent - thus making a normally very lonely profession less so.

This leads us to the question: are extroverts really more successful? Dealing with other people certainly breeds success, and research even suggests that extroverts make more money than introverts. Large networks lead to promotions and job offers. And, to top it all off, Barker says, extroverts are happier than introverts!

Networks, consequently, are one of the key elements of success. You might, however, struggle at networking. So how do you go about it? One of the most successful networkers in Silicon Valley is a shy introvert also known as Panda. His recipe for success is to be a friend to others. You already know how to make friends. So be nice to others and do them a favor, without expecting anything in return. 

Yuval Noah Harari underlines that the human race as a whole has only managed to become this successful by extending the traditional definition of family: friends are family. Our nation is our family. Our work is our family. Collaboration on such a large level is what sets humans uniquely apart from other species on the planet. 

As the example of Panda shows, you do not have to be an extrovert to be successful. In some professions, it can even be beneficial to be an introvert: Olympic gold medallist David Hemery found that nearly nine out of 10 top athletes identify as introverts. After all, to be truly excellent, you will need some 10,000 hours of practice, so you need the time to immerse yourself fully into your training without distractions from others.

How to be successful

To be truly successful, you need a strong work ethic, says Barker. No one who has ever been successful in any field managed to do so without putting in concentrated work effort. Research has shown that those in top positions produce much more than other people at their companies, “The top 10 percent of workers produce 80 percent more than the average, and 700 percent more than the bottom 10 percent,” Barker says.

You might think that those people tend to be smarter or more talented than the rest, but that is not true. The threshold hypothesis shows that smart only gets you so far. From an IQ of 120 onwards, everyone has an equal chance of success - the only difference lies in how much effort you put into becoming successful.

It is also not enough to put in 10,000 hours of practice. You only get better if this is focused practice, intended to push yourself to get better at what you are doing. Just because you have spent a lot of your time driving does not mean you are now ready to take part in Formula 1, right?

However, being passionately submerged in your work can take its toll on your personal life. Just take Albert Einstein as an example. While he had a family, fame, and friends, he had the ability to tune everything around him out to focus on his work. This stretched his family to a breaking point. His wife eventually divorced him, and his son famously said, “Probably the only project he ever gave up on was me.” 

To be successful to the degree of Albert Einstein, Ted Williams, or Mozart, you will have to spend all your time dedicated to your passion. There is simply not enough time to combine true mastery and a happy private life. 

But to be truly happy in life, we also need the support of loved ones. As bestselling author Shawn Achor found in a survey of 1,600 Harvard students, the correlation between social support and happiness is higher than that between smoking and cancer. True success in life is about alignment. To be successful, align who you are with where you choose to be and surround yourself with a supportive network.

Final Notes

Accepted truths about success are not all they are cracked up to be. Following the rules might help you to get an excellent university degree, but for true success you need to be able to think outside of the box. Being a giver will make you more successful than being the bad guy. A strong work ethic and networks are also key ingredients to success of any kind. 

Fellow bestselling author Adam Grant describes “Barking Up the Wrong Tree” as follows, “Delightfully puckish, evidence-backed, and full of insight, this book answers questions about success that have puzzled us for far too long.”

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Who wrote the book?

Eric Barker is an author and the creator of the blog “Barking Up The Wrong Tree”, which served as the basis for his book of the same name. He holds an MBA from Boston College and a Mas... (Read more)

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