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

What are the true causes of success? Which attitudes and habits can truly help you attain your personal and professional goals? Blogger Eric Barker deconstructs all the myths and good advice that you’ve probably received over the years to find out which strategies and attitudes can actually cultivate success. In this book summary, you will learn about why certain myths don’t fully explain the mysteries of success, and why all true success is, above all, profoundly personal.

Learn how to debunk traditional success myths and cultivate success on your own terms.


  • Have an interest in the scientific research behind success stories
  • Seek new strategies for reaching your goals
  • Are curious about the veracity of conventional success wisdom

Book Summary: Barking Up the Wrong Tree - The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success is (Mostly) Wrong


This wide-ranging self-help style guide to a better life and career covers an enormous amount of territory. From whether to play it nice and straight, manipulate like Machiavelli, or “fake it until you make it,” lifestyle expert Eric Barker reels you in with all sorts of research-based evidence on one side, only to yank the carpet out from under your feet with at least as much evidence for the other alternative. His back-and-forth style continues through more than 250 pages of studies and stories, cases and examples, including how to get off the unhealthy wheel of competition, create your own definition of success and plan your life accordingly. As Barker points out, for every expert and every study, there are equal and opposite experts and studies, so read with a bit of skepticism and trust your judgment as you decide what applies to you. We recommend this guide about making productive career choices and finds that it would be especially useful to anyone just starting a career.


  • Often, your disadvantages in one arena mean you have advantages in another.
  • Learn about your strengths; then find a career and an organization that encourages and appreciates what you contribute.
  • Play nice, but not too nice. Extend trust, but retaliate if anyone tries to step on you.
  • Don’t measure your success against other people. Define success for yourself.
  • Quit extraneous activities so you can devote more time and “grit” to what matters.
  • Turning your work into a game can help you build perseverance.
  • Get out in public, make connections, build relationships and create the network you need for success and happiness.
  • Practice self-compassion, which combines the best of confidence and humility.
  • If you aim for prominence, prepare to devote your life to work.
  • If you want a good career and a worthy life, find balance in the “four metrics that matter most”: “happiness, achievement, significance” and “legacy.”


In school or in the professional world, you may have received a lot of well-meaning advice about how to succeed: get good grades, never quit, and don’t get duped into being the nice guy who finishes last. But do these myths about success really lead to high achievement and innovation?

By examining scientific research and consulting with experts, Eric Barker discovered that success doesn’t come from following a uniform set of rules. Instead, it’s the result of a personalized process in which you take stock of your strengths, pick your goals wisely, and choose the appropriate context for your ambition. By exploring the more nuanced realities behind conventional wisdom, Barker reveals better, more-personalized strategies for success.

Playing It Safe

Is success the natural outcome of following the rules? Are the achievers who do things by the book more likely to be successful? Are good grades, good behavior, and good test scores the real harbingers for success in adulthood?

Karen Arnold, a researcher at Boston College, sought to answer these kinds of questions by following 81 high school valedictorians and salutatorians from graduation until their deaths. Her findings reveal that playing it safe can have mixed results.

On the one hand, most of Arnold’s subjects led very comfortable lives. Nearly all of them graduated college with high GPAs and the majority of them also attained graduate degrees. Almost 90% had professional careers. If success is defined by financial security and a well-adjusted existence, then these individuals are unequivocally successful.

However, Arnold noted that none of these high-performers was changing the world. They weren’t revolutionizing their chosen industry, or becoming famous. They weren’t inventing technologies that would forever alter how humans interact, or making movies that change how we see the world. In short, none of them was an innovator or a visionary. They were not stars or geniuses or revolutionaries.

Arnold concluded that playing by the rules in high school wasn’t necessarily a precursor for success. Academic success rewards students who do as they’re told and who work hard, but high achievement in high school isn’t necessarily the result of intelligence or creativity. Instead, it merely attests to a student’s ability to conform to a given system. In the end, following the rules doesn’t necessarily cultivate success. It simply eliminates the good and bad outliers. The subjects in Arnold’s study weren’t struggling financially or professionally, but they also weren’t winning MacArthur “Genius Grants” or Nobel Prizes. Playing it safe insulated them from both abject failure and the highest levels of success.

Success, then, isn’t necessarily based on your ability to follow the rules. Instead, the highest levels of success are the result of proper alignment between your skills, your ambition, and your context. Swimmer and Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps exemplifies the power of proper alignment. According to normal physical standards, Phelps’ body is completely out of proportion. His wingspan is greater than his height and his legs are too short. He’s not good at running and he even struggles to dive off the starting blocks. He isn’t made to move on land. But in the pool, Phelps is unstoppable. His freakishly huge wingspan makes him a strong swimmer and his disproportionately large feet serve as ideal flippers. Had Phelps tried to be a gold-medal sprinter, he would have certainly failed. But Phelps was able to succeed because he found the right context for his skills and aptitudes.

Harvard business professor Gautam Mukunda argues that success requires two steps. First, know yourself. Become aware of your natural aptitudes and strengths. Know if your legs are too short to be an Olympic runner, or if you have the boundary-chal-leng- mindset of a scientific innovator. Which rules do you naturally follow, and which ones do you eschew? After taking stock of your unique skills, choose the proper context. When you’re looking for a profession, ask yourself which companies and industries will be most likely to value your aptitudes. Know if you should go to the pool or to the track. By aligning your skills and your environment, you’ll be more likely to attain your goals.

Nice Guys Finish Last

Are hard work and fair play really the gateways to success? Or does rule-breaking actually help you get ahead? Does playing fair pay off, or does it hold you back?

Sometimes cutting a few corners and bending the rules really can give you an advantage. Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer’s research reveals that employees who are able to make a good impression on their bosses tend to receive better performance reviews, even if their performance is actually less impressive. Managing your impression on your boss might actually be more useful than putting in extra hours to improve your sales figures or polish your budget reports. UC Berkeley researcher Jennifer Chatman found that flattery has an extremely powerful influence, even if the boss knows that it’s insincere.

While cutting corners might have short-term gains, it can also come with adverse consequences in the long-term. Cheating tends to reinforce itself. It changes the collective standard of behavior, so if you start using flattery to make inroads with your boss, the chances are high that your co-workers will start using the same strategy. When the group’s consciousness is more focused on office politics than actual work, the entire company starts to suffer.

In the long run, rules and rule-following are essential for stability and success. Even the most notorious rule-breakers seem to realize this. David Skarbek, a political science professor at Brown University, observed that rules are especially important for prison gangs. Prison gangs usually exist, not to perpetuate violence, but to curb and control it. Gangs provide prisoners with a system and a family. They create a sense of order for a new inmate who has been recently separated from the normal networks of family and friends. Research reveals that prisons tend to be more peaceful with gangs than without them.

Niceness and rule-following aren’t just for suckers. Adam Grant, a professor at the Wharton School, studied the effects of altruistic behaviors on success. While nice guys, who Grant categorized as givers, were at the bottom of the success spectrum, givers were also at the top. Becoming a successful giver depends on your particular form of generosity. In other words, how you choose to be nice will be what shapes your success.

Givers at the bottom of Grant’s success metric were nice guys who were a little too nice, individuals who were a little too quick to make sacrifices for other people. These givers always put in extra hours at work or volunteered their time on a film production, but they usually did so at their own expense. Unlike the self-sacrificial nice guys, Grant discovered that successful givers understood the importance of reciprocation. They were quick to offer their help to others, but they stopped doing so if those friends and colleagues weren’t willing to return the favor. A successful giver knows that it’s useless to volunteer on a friend’s short film if that friend won’t do the same when you’re the one in the director’s chair. A successful giver knows that it’s silly to put in extra hours if your boss never knows about it.

Being nice isn’t necessarily a recipe for failure, but the wrong kind of niceness will lead to perpetual struggle. You will always commit to projects that won’t reward your effort, and teams that won’t honor your contributions. The solution? Be nice, but do it wisely. Don’t be so helpful that you sacrifice your own endeavors or needs. Give to others, but cease doing so if those others won’t give back in return. Surround yourself with people who will match your level of niceness, colleagues who will help you if you help them. Know your goals, and be helpful to others in ways that will be useful for you, too.

Quitters Never Win

Collective wisdom holds that grit — the ability to hang in there and persevere even when the going gets tough — is essential for success. Angela Duckworth, a researcher from the University of Pennsylvania, has found that grit, not innate abilities or intelligence, largely determines the happiness and success of children.

But how can you cultivate your personal grit? Is it the result of fortitude and the ability to withstand pain, or are there other factors that can help you hang in there?

One of the keys to having grit is positive self-talk. Author and psychologist Martin Seligman found that optimistic self-talk actually increases the likelihood of positive outcomes. Optimists tell their personal stories differently, and they have alternative narratives for how they understand themselves. Seligman explains that optimists and pessimists talk in different ways about permanence, pervasiveness, and personalization. For example, pessimists tell themselves:

  • that bad events will last for a long time
  • that their hardship is all-encompassing
  • that failure is their own fault entirely

The result of this self-talk is that pessimists assume the worst. They decide that all obstacles are insurmountable, that they cannot trust anyone, and that they will never recover from a failed test or a defeat. Because pessimists believe that their hardship is the permanent, definitive quality of their lives, they behave in a way that reinforces that belief.

On the other hand, optimists tell themselves a more hopeful story.

  • that hardship is temporary
  • that their problems have a specific cause and a limited effect
  • that they are not at fault

This hopeful narrative sets up the optimist for enhanced performance, for she believes in her power to improve her circumstances and possibly succeed in the future. Failure is not a permanent reality, and a single bad grade doesn’t change the landscape of an entire life. Instead, hardships and failures are changeable. Because optimists believe that they can exercise more control over their circumstances, they are more likely to actually improve their lives. These kinds of personal messages reinforce feelings of individual grit, and make you more likely to work toward success instead of giving up.

As you work toward your goals, pay attention to how you talk to yourself. What narratives and beliefs are you reinforcing, and are those ideas making it more difficult to reach your goals? Remember that your self-talk influences your behavior, so try to cultivate more-optimistic patterns of thinking that will help you be successful.

Who You Know

Perhaps you’ve been taught that getting ahead in life has more to do with who you know, not what you know. Maybe you notice that the colleagues who receive promotions are the ones who grab beer with the boss after work, or that the filmmakers who are most prolific are not necessarily the most gifted, but they are always the most well-connected.

The term “networking” usually comes with highly slimy connotations. Perhaps you instantly picture some smooth-operating stereotype, a guy who always manages to rub elbows with the right people and say the right things in order to get funding for his film or nail down a book tour. Is disingenuous schmoozing really the only way to the top?

Social networks are indeed a critical piece of the success puzzle, but it doesn’t have to be as slimy as it seems. Networking can also be a strategy for creating authentic connections, finding collaborators who have the same goals, and meeting fellow artists who share your aesthetic.

Pretend that you want to make a movie, and you want to find the perfect director for the script. You could try to sweet-talk your way into a fancy restaurant in Los Angeles in the hope of casually bumping into Michael Bay, but is the Transformers aesthetic really the right fit for your coming-of-age script?

When it comes to networking, you don’t need to connect with far-off, famous bigwigs. Instead, try to find the people who are the right fit for you. Another approach would be to get to know the filmmakers in your local community, and figure out which of them share your same interests. In this case, networking isn’t about climbing to the top of the totem pole. Instead, it’s about finding kindred spirits who share your vision.

Finding your people doesn’t require tricking them into liking your ideas. It might be as simple as talking about your favorite movies. If you and your potential director both adore Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird and Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, maybe she’s the right fit for a movie about growing up.

Networking is essential for success, but just make sure that it’s a form of social connection that authentic and honest, not two-faced or manipulative. By finding the people who truly share your goals and values, you will be priming yourself for success.

Believe in Yourself

Believing in yourself is indeed crucial for success. That’s because a high level of confidence allows you to be open to new possibilities. Leadership coach Marshall Goldsmith posits that confident people are more likely to succeed because of how they interpret the stuff of life. Where others see obstacles, confident people see opportunities for growth. Confidence is so powerful that it even pays off to fake it until you make it. Simply acting like a confident person, even if you’re not really feeling it, can improve how you perform on an exam or during a presentation.

However, confidence does have its downsides. Goldsmith also explains that while high self-confidence can lead to success, confidence can also make it more difficult for an individual to change. Confidence that’s too high can border on arrogance, and arrogance can cause you to overlook your own weaknesses and growing edges. Overconfidence can inhibit your ability to be aware of your blindspots as well.

Overconfidence can also alienate you from your collaborators and colleagues. At the same time, bosses who show humility tend to be more popular with their employees, and leaders who can show vulnerability usually end up winning public respect.

Self-compassion is even more useful than confidence. For example, an overconfident student who fails a math test might not be able to accept his poor grade. He might argue that the test was somehow rigged against him or argue with the teacher about why his wrong answers should have garnered a higher grade. Because an overconfident person cannot tolerate failure, he cannot learn from it. However, a student who has self-compassion can forgive himself for a failing grade. Because he can acknowledge his mistakes, he can learn from them and improve on future tests.

Instead of using overconfidence to comfort yourself for your shortcomings, see if you can be a bit more generous with yourself. Remind yourself that you are not a failure just because you experience failure. If you can have self-compassion, you’ll be able to learn from failure instead of simply avoiding it at all costs.

Become more familiar with your own confidence levels. See if you can treat obstacles as a positive opportunity for improvement. If overconfidence gets in your way, see if you can use humility in order to learn from others and self-compassion in order to learn from yourself.


“We all know the good life means more than money…but none of us is exactly sure what those other things are or how to get them…We all know love and friends and other stuff are important too…but they’re a heck of a lot more complicated and we can’t just have them delivered to our house by Amazon Prime. Evaluating life by one metric turns out to be a key problem. We can’t use just one yardstick to measure a successful life.” – Eric Barker

If money isn’t the only measurement of success, what else should we be measuring?

4 Subjective Measurements of Success

Achievement: Do you feel like you’re winning?

To feel like you’re winning you need to consistently accomplish meaningful goals. Start by setting and hitting small but meaningful goals each day. I find that writing 500 words for my next video script or reading three chapters of a book gives me a feeling of achievement and sense that I’m winning. Hitting small goals like this every day leads to a larger achievement (like writing a book or running a successful YouTube channel) that I can look back on and be proud of.

Legacy: Do you feel like you’re influencing others in a positive way?

To feel like you’re influencing others in a positive way you need to pass on your values and help others find success. If you’re a parent, you might generate a feeling of influence by taking the time to teach and instill your values in your children, who go on to pass their values on to their children.

Significance: Do you feel like you’re needed by the people closest to you?

To feel like you’re needed you need to be there for the people that matter most to you. You want to find a way to be valuable to the people around you so that you will be missed when you’re gone. I felt needed in my previous career when I refined my organization and presentation skills so that my team could rely on me to provide clarity on the project we were working on.

Happiness: Do you feel like you’re enjoying life?

To feel like you’re enjoying life you need to find a way to enjoy the day‐to‐day experience of life and be grateful for what you have. Make a habit of stopping during the day and appreciating one small thing that’s going well. Be playful and listen to music during the day to experience happiness without the needing to attain specific results.

What can you do to consistently generate a feeling that you’re winning, influencing, needed, and enjoying life?

  • Put yourself in environments that leverage your intensifiers. Intensifiers are qualities that, on average, appear to be negative but become strengths in specific environments.
  • Winston Churchill’s paranoia and stubbornness are negative qualities in a peacetime environment, but signature strengths in wartime.
  • Michael Phelps’s body is far from perfect. His short legs and long upper body make him an awkward runner on land. But in the pool, his awkward physical qualities enabled him to become the most successful swimmer of all time.

Asperger’s is a typically a negative condition in most work settings, but a strength as a tech entrepreneur. A person with a mild form of Asperger’s is more likely to challenge social norms and not feel intimidated by other people, two qualities that every successful tech entrepreneur needs.

To identify your intensifiers, create a mind‐map of your so‐called flaws; a list of attributes that most people find odd and negative. After you’ve generated a collection of attributes, try to identify specific contexts where each attribute could be considered a strength. Some flaws, like chronic procrastination, won’t be very useful in any situation. However, a few so‐called “flaws” can become your signature strengths in the right environment.

When you develop and leverage these signature strengths, you maximize the rate of progress you can make towards meaningful goals and will often feel like you’re winning. By developing and leveraging your signature strengths, you’ll stand out and have a better opportunity to influence others. Your signature strengths will make you uniquely valuable, which will ensure that you always feel needed. And according to a recent Gallup study, when you routinely leverage your signature strengths, you’ll smile more often, be less stressed, and enjoy life. All of which leads to a satisfying and successful life.

“What’s the most important thing to remember when it comes to success? One word: alignment. Success is not the result of any single quality; it’s about alignment between who you are and where you choose to be. The right skill in the right role. A good person surrounded by other good people.” – Eric Barker


Yin and Yang – Opposite Life Choices

High school valedictorians do well in college and in life; most of them earn graduate degrees and almost half get top jobs. But they rarely change the world. Kids who conform excel in class and keep conforming throughout their careers, yet rule breakers are the ones who shake things up. A study of 700 American millionaires reveals they had a mean grade point average of 2.9.

“When you align your values with the employment of your signature skills in a context that reinforces these same strengths, you create a powerful and emotionally engaging force for achievement, significance, happiness and legacy.”

Outliers have different approaches and different genes. Their unique mix of personality traits gives society its greatest geniuses, musicians and leaders. Yet they frequently suffer depression, violent tendencies and alcoholism. But some factors that seem to be disadvantages sometimes become a competitive edge. Olympic swimming champion Michael Phelps looks out of proportion on land, where he’s not much of an athlete. But his long arms, short legs, and big hands and feet make him weirdly aquatic and perfectly built to win gold medals in the pool. People who survive tragedies, like losing their parents at a young age – for example, Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, Gandhi and Michelangelo – often go on to incredible accomplishments.

“Success is not the result of any single quality; it’s about alignment between who you are and where you choose to be.”

Good fortune often accompanies bad. When you pursue one life path, you give up another. When you make a decision, you incur opportunity costs. Discover what you do well, and err on the side of playing to your strengths rather than fighting your weaknesses. Once you know your strengths, interests and values, find a company that values your strengths and the type of person you are.

“Nice Guys”

In the short run at least, people who are nasty, lazy and disagreeable often do better than nice, hard workers, so long as they flatter their bosses or otherwise make a good impression. Nice guys get paid less and passed over for promotions.

“Research shows that what makes students likely to be impressive in the classroom is the same thing that makes them less likely to be home-run hitters outside the classroom.”

Over time though, jerks who get away with laziness or cheating rub off on others. If they’re unchecked, eventually almost everyone around them will grow selfish and distrustful. Ultimately, the group will collapse. Even one bad apple can diminish group performance by more than a third. And, if you get ahead with antisocial behavior, you may kill the conditions that allowed you to succeed. You’ll also have created a bunch of people you can’t stand working with. So be nice.

“College grades aren’t any more predictive of subsequent life success than rolling dice.”

Niceness can help some individuals. Wharton professor Adam Grant discovered that the good people he calls “givers” do either quite well or quite poorly. The difference lies in whether givers retain a healthy dose of skepticism. If you are trusting and helpful while remaining wary, you end up on the top. Don’t think in “zero sum” terms, where everyone else’s wins are your losses.

“You do need to be visible. Your boss does need to like you. This is not proof of a heartless world; it’s just human nature.”

If you don’t get reciprocation when you play nice, retaliate. Cooperate, and everyone wins. Cheat, and everyone loses. Help others think about the long term by building relationships. Join firms and teams you respect. Toot your own horn gently but loud enough for the boss to know your work. You’ll find it easier to give when you like those you work with. However, don’t give endlessly or you’ll get taken advantage of, and you won’t have time to get your work done. About two hours per week helping others should suffice. Balanced givers live longer, happier lives.


To build perseverance, turn your struggles into a game. Challenge yourself to accomplish small pieces of a bigger goal. Make a game out of it and you make it fun, so you keep coming back for more. Create your games using these WGNF guidelines:

  • Make them “Winnable” – Even though people lose at well-designed games 80% of the time, they persevere in the knowledge that they can win. Lots of people do win, and they know they will if they keep trying.
  • Build in “Novelty” – Great games introduce new challenges at the right time and offer levels with increasing difficulty. Never make the game impossible to win.
  • Attach “Goals” – Identify objectives for the challenges that you set. Think of video games that captivate people with clear goals, constant feedback, as well as achievable but hard levels.
  • Give “Feedback” – Like video games, your Fitbit and collecting air miles, games capture your attention because they provide a stream of feedback. You need feedback from your challenges and goals. Set a goal for your daily progress against larger objectives.

Have “Grit,” but Know When to Quit

Perseverance often leads to success and happiness. That doesn’t mean that you should never quit or give up. You have only so much time and energy. Choosing to do one thing means rejecting another. Life is a series of trade-offs. “Strategic quitting” means deliberately doing less of one thing so you can do more of another.

“Hard work doesn’t pay off if your boss doesn’t know whom to reward for it.” ”

You may not know what to focus on, so try lots of things. Fail fast, learn and move on. Knowing when to quit and what to stick with doesn’t come easily. When you date, you wonder if you should marry. Is this person the right one? Mathematicians calculate that your odds of finding your soulmate are one in 10,000 lifetimes. In the short term, love matches work better, but their successes fade after 10 years. In the long term, arranged marriages succeed at a far higher rate.


So how do you make a choice? The answer lies in the WOOP process: “wish, outcome, obstacle, plan.” Dream about what you want, specify the outcome you want, identify the obstacles in your way, and then craft a plan to overcome them. This process works only when your goals are achievable – that is, if you have the qualifications for the job or a path to getting them. WOOP can act as a wake-up call. If you don’t know what to focus on – where to get gritty – run your projects through WOOP.

Extrovert or Introvert?

In most cases, for most careers, you should act socially like an extrovert – whether or not it comes naturally. Build as big a social network of associates and both close and distant friends as possible. Extroverts and those with bigger networks achieve more success; make more money; and lead happier, more productive lives, even if they just pretend at extraversion. People who get out, make friends and remain active socially enjoy longer, healthier lives.

“Having ‘friends’ stacked like books in a digital library on a network is not the same as actually talking to people…That’s not a relationship; that’s virtual stamp collecting.”

Take, for example, Isaac Newton, perhaps the “smartest person who ever lived,” who accomplished all he did “entirely on his own.” Introverts tend to do better academically and in reaching expert levels in their fields, whether science, investment banking, programming, sports or music. Introverts commit fewer crimes and less adultery, lose less money, and get in fewer accidents. Most people land somewhere between introversion and extraversion. Either way, unless you’re Isaac Newton, you must build networks and collaborate.

Listen, Don’t Talk

Make friends, and build your network by helping other people, by listening rather than talking, by asking their opinions and advice, and by asking them for help. Allocate time to build your network. Connect or reconnect on social networks, but meet people in person or, at least, on the phone. Join interest groups, book clubs or professional groups with members who resemble the person you aspire to be. If you want to improve your health, for example, join a group of fit, active, healthy people. Don’t avoid people at work; those with the biggest social groups learn about opportunities sooner and earn promotions faster.

Be Confident with Caution

Successful people have more confidence. The more success you achieve, the more confidence you gain. The more confidence you have, the more you earn. Even if you have no basis for your confidence, having it helps. Even faking confidence pays dividends. Leaders especially should put on an air of confidence even if they don’t feel it. Smile to make yourself happy, stay optimistic to increase your chances of success and strike power poses to gain confidence. But know that the benefits of “faking it” don’t last long. You are deceiving yourself as well as others. Overconfidence can get you hurt. Narcissistic CEOs regularly wreck companies. Powerful leaders often lose people’s empathy, commit more infidelities and tell more lies.

“Don’t be afraid to do some experiments and quit the ones that don’t work…you need to try stuff knowing you might quit some of it to open yourself up to the luck and opportunities that can make you successful.” ”

A little uncertainty and self-doubt helps you listen more, share credit, avoid acting belligerently, and remain open and curious. Humility helps people avoid mistakes, even if you force it on them by requiring them to follow rules or procedures. You need confidence, but with caution. Optimism helps, but some pessimism keeps you from doing silly things. Seek a balance. Instead of trying to show confidence or doubt, you may do better by improving your ability to forgive yourself. Self-compassion makes you feel good about yourself without arrogance. The benefits of confidence and humility include becoming stronger, more positive, healthier, happier and even wiser.

Should You Work Insanely Hard or Settle for “Good Enough”?

If you’ve decided you want to lead your field, prepare for monstrous dedication and work. You’ll need the 10,000 hours it takes to achieve expertise and a multiple of that number to achieve eminence. Super smarts won’t help you; only hours and hours of hard work will cut it. This means learning and improving on your own time. Happily, hours of focused work don’t feel as taxing when you’ve chosen a field that deeply interests you and leverages your strengths. That passion and the importance of having “meaningful work” make your choice of career and organization supremely important, especially if you live to work.

“YouTube started out as a dating site…eBay was originally focused on selling PEZ dispensers. Google began as a project to organize library book searches.”

If you choose wisely and make the commitment, you might become the best at what you do. But high achievement comes at a high cost. A strong passion for a career often leads to strained and broken relationships with friends, spouses and children. Achievers must make these choices; few can have it both ways. When highly productive scientists and artists of all sorts marry, their output and contributions plummet. Expect this, even if you love your work. If you hate your job, overwork may lead to burnout.

“Good enough is almost always good enough.” (Swarthmore College professor Barry Schwartz) ”

Unless you aspire to greatness on the scale of Einstein or Mozart, reasonable work hours will make you happier; you may get more done and have more ideas. Get your sleep. Otherwise, you’ll walk around like a drunk, functioning at a level far below most well rested people, even those who aren’t as naturally smart as you are.

“Gratitude is the tactical nuke of happiness and the cornerstone of long-lasting relationships.”

Find a career that suits you, and don’t obsess about it. Overcome the rat race by setting your own goals and defining what you see as personal success. If you compare yourself to others, you set yourself up for stress and disappointment.

The “Big Four”

To lead a balanced life, devote your time and energy to “four metrics that matter most”:

  • “Happiness” – Strive to find “pleasure and contentment” in your life.
  • “Achievement” – Work toward reaching challenging meaningful goals.
  • “Significance” – Ensure that your actions have a “positive impact.”
  • “Legacy” – Live your life in ways that benefit others.

Take Control

To have a sense of control over your life, manage your time. Track where you waste time, and work to use your time more productively by devoting it to your big four. Free up time for things other than work by talking to your boss about your priorities.

“Success does not lead to happiness as often as happiness leads to success.”

Instead of making a to-do list, schedule your day to get things done. Build in “protected time” to focus on “deep work,” as opposed to the “shallow work” of emails, phone calls and meetings. Find a quiet place for concentrated work. Plan when you want to leave the office for the day, and make sure you do it. Close the day by reviewing what you want to get done tomorrow.


When it comes to success, remember the importance of alignment. Success isn’t about following a set of uniformly prescribed rules. Instead, success requires that you align your skills and values with your goals.

Success also happens when you’re able to know yourself, and match your personality with the appropriate context. Choose the goals that fit you best. Help your peers, but not if it becomes detrimental to your own ambitions. Create authentic connections in your field. Make the choices that suit your goals and values. True success occurs only when it is tailor-made to who you are.

About Eric Barker

Eric Barker is the mastermind behind the blog Barking Up the Wrong Tree, which presents scientifically grounded solutions for self-improvement and success. His writing has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, TIME magazine, and The Atlantic Monthly.



In “Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success is (Mostly) Wrong,” Eric Barker challenges the conventional wisdom surrounding success and offers a fresh perspective on what it takes to achieve it. Barker, a sought-after speaker and writer, delves into the science behind success, debunking common myths and offering practical advice for readers. This review will provide an in-depth analysis of the book’s content, style, and overall impact.


Barker’s central argument is that many widely-held beliefs about success are misguided or flat-out wrong. He begins by tackling the notion that success is largely determined by innate talent and intelligence. Using research in psychology, neuroscience, and sociology, Barker demonstrates that factors such as deliberate practice, grit, and luck play a much greater role in achieving success than talent or IQ.

The book’s first section focuses on debunking common success myths, including the idea that success requires a high IQ, that passion is essential, and that success is the result of a single, defining moment. Barker also challenges the notion that success is a straight line, arguing instead that it often follows a “messy” path marked by setbacks and failures.

The second section of the book shifts to a more prescriptive approach, offering practical advice for achieving success. Barker emphasizes the importance of developing “GRIT” (Guts, Resilience, Initiative, and Focus), as well as cultivating a “Growth Mindset” and building a supportive network. He also stresses the need to embrace failure and learn from mistakes, rather than fearing them.

One of the book’s strengths is its accessibility. Barker uses relatable anecdotes and engaging storytelling to illustrate complex scientific concepts, making the material accessible to a broad audience. He draws on examples from various fields, including business, sports, and entertainment, to drive home his points.


Barker’s conversational writing style makes the book feel like a lively discussion with a knowledgeable friend. His use of humor, anecdotes, and relatable examples helps to engage the reader and break down complex concepts. The book’s layout is well-organized, with each chapter building logically upon the previous one. Barker also includes summaries and key takeaways at the end of each chapter, providing a helpful recap for readers.


“Barking Up the Wrong Tree” has the potential to significantly impact readers’ understanding of success and how to achieve it. By challenging common myths and offering practical advice, Barker empowers readers to reassess their approach to success and pursue it in a more informed, effective manner. The book’s emphasis on the importance of grit, resilience, and learning from failure is particularly valuable, as it encourages readers to adopt a growth mindset and view challenges as opportunities for growth.


While the book is well-researched and engagingly written, some readers may take issue with Barker’s emphasis on individual agency. Some may argue that success is not always within an individual’s control, and that structural factors, such as socioeconomic status or systemic inequality, can play a significant role in determining success. Additionally, the book’s focus on success in various fields may not resonate with readers who do not aspire to traditional measures of success, such as wealth or professional achievement.


In “Barking Up the Wrong Tree,” Eric Barker provides a refreshing, evidence-based perspective on success. By challenging common myths and offering practical advice, he empowers readers to rethink their approach to success and pursue it in a more informed, effective manner. While some readers may quibble with certain aspects of the book, its impact on the broader conversation about success and achievement is undeniable.

Rating: 4.5/5 stars


“Barking Up the Wrong Tree” is an excellent choice for anyone looking to reassess their understanding of success and how to achieve it. The book is particularly relevant for individuals who are looking to

Alex Lim is a certified book reviewer and editor with over 10 years of experience in the publishing industry. He has reviewed hundreds of books for reputable magazines and websites, such as The New York Times, The Guardian, and Goodreads. Alex has a master’s degree in comparative literature from Harvard University and a PhD in literary criticism from Oxford University. He is also the author of several acclaimed books on literary theory and analysis, such as The Art of Reading and How to Write a Book Review. Alex lives in London, England with his wife and two children. You can contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Website | Twitter | Facebook

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