Author and blogger Eric Barker shares some of the best research available on what really makes people successful and how you can achieve your full potential
The editorial content below is based solely on the objective assessment of our writers and is not driven by advertising dollars. However, we may receive compensation when you click on links to products from our partners. Learn more about our advertising policy.
The content on this page is accurate as of the posting date; however, some of the offers mentioned may have expired. Please see the bank’s website for the most current version of card offers; and please review our list of best credit cards, or use our CardMatch™ tool to find cards matched to your needs.
Eric Barker, author of the blog Barking up the Wrong Tree and book, “Barking up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success is (Mostly) Wrong” (released May 16, 2017), shares his insights into what makes people successful.Tackling maxims we all live by – nice guys finish last, it’s not what you know but who you know, among others – Barker shares real-life stories of success and academic research to help us decipher the truth behind what we’ve always been told and gain the real tools we need to build the lives we want.
Let’s get Charged Up! about learning the unexpected tools for success!
Hoff: Eric, thank you so much for joining me today.
Barker: Oh it’s great to talk to you.
Hoff: So, let’s first talk about your research, you had a widely popular blog with the same name as your new book, “Barking up the Wrong Tree” where you highlight examples that are sometimes kind of intuitive of what we think when it comes to success and work and life. How did you get started with this in the first place?
Barker: I’ve had a very unconventional career myself. My undergrad was in Philosophy which you know doesn’t have a clear career track and I was a screen writer in Hollywood for 10 years and wrote for Disney and Fox and then I worked for video games and so, I quickly realized that a lot of the advice we get about success that you know, maxims they didn’t always apply. At least I saw a lot of exception to those rules, like “Nice guys finish last,” “It’s not what you know but who you know,” and it just made me ask questions. I thought the best place to go was online; we have tons of information on the internet but the quality of that information isn’t really great, so I started looking at the academic research and started talking to experts because I wanted to have answers as much as anybody. I figured the best thing to do is was to start sharing it on my blog and would address the maxims of success and the myths of success more directly in my book.
Hoff: Yeah and I love that in the book you really do take a philosophical approach to each one of these maxims where you look at examples from both sides, where it did prove out to be true and where also didn’t work out for people and so we’re going to go through that a little bit. I really love a lot of examples that you used because they are the kind of people who live in the fringes of society in some ways, yet they are accomplishing success in whatever they’re choosing to do sometimes by not following by the rules.
So, I wanted to first talk about how can we learn the tools some of these individuals use, even those we don’t feel like we have anything in common with.
Barker: Yeah, I think one of those critical distinctions is you know, when we’re growing up were told to play by the rules and yet we look around and you see plenty of rule breakers, not necessarily bad people – not necessarily doing anything unethical or illegal but certainly people who don’t take the standard routes to success. It’s a big question because I think very often we confuse – we’re growing up, learning from schools, parents – and we’re confused separating wanting success with wanting safety. Those are two different things because you can play to win or you can play not to lose. And those are two very different strategies but what you basically see is if you want to do pretty well, you can reduce downside risk and you can play safe and that could be fine. But if you really want to reach the height to success, what you consistently see is, of course, that you’re opening up yourself to more risk of failure.
So you know, risk tolerance is a really big issue here but you know, some people have a real appetite for risk and they want to be as successful as possible and you know, other people really want to play it safe so it’s a big issue I talked about in the first chapter is figuring out where you are and what you want in a way, because I think we have that blurry definition of success that makes us the-risk-taking-wild-trying-to-reach-the-height-to-success with the idea of you know, safety, comfort, reducing risk, that’s where it gets confusing, that’s where it gets blurry because those are two different types – often two different types of people.
Hoff: And that was one of the big points you make in your book which is you’ve got to find your pond, you’ve got to find who you are and your pond so that you can then be successful where your comfortable being successful.
So, I want to go topic-by-topic a little bit in your book. Starting with the assumption that you need to play it safe like we were just talking about, if you want to succeed. In other words, follow the rules, get your work done on time and done well and you’ll be rewarded with success. What did you find when it comes to this? Many of the people you write about clearly didn’t follow the rules and it worked in their favor.
Baker: What you see is that issue of you know, playing by the rules reduces downside risks so you’re not going to fail or you’re far less likely to fail. And then on the flip side, it basically cuts off, if you were to look like a statistical distribution, it cuts off both of the extreme tails. Far less likely to fail, you’re also far less likely to be in an enormous success. Because what you see is when they listed I believe the Forbes 400 list of billionaires, what you saw was that the people who dropped out of college on that list their net worth far exceeded the average net worth of the entire list. In fact, the dropouts’ net worths was far higher than the subset of billionaires who graduated from Ivy League colleges. If you’re reaching for the height of success, you know, we all know the stories: Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates all dropped out of college. Now, I am not encouraging people to go dropping out of higher education, but you do see that often to reach the height of success requires behaviors that do break the rules and are different from what mom told you to do. If everything was easy and on the straightforward path, then everybody would be a billionaire. So, sometimes you have to get in to the negatives, the dangerous things in order to reach not only the extremes of potentially failure but also the extremes of success.
Hoff: Yeah and you talk about how statistically speaking on average people who graduated top of their class, they all did well, right? So if you just want to make sure someone is going to do well and have a nice job and has a stable income and can afford the nice little luxuries of life, that’s a great path to go on but obviously its people who are extremely focused on one thing, that are usually the ones who become very, very successful, multimillionaires and a lot of it depends on how they are treated in their own household. Even how they are raised by their parents and if that focus is accepted rather than forcing them to learn a little bit about a lot of things. Can you kind of go into that?
Barker: Yeah, I mean there was research by Karen Arnold at Boston University on tracking valedictorians – high school valedictorians and what she found was that they consistently did very well but they didn’t do amazing and that’s because our school system is really focused on consistency, compliance, conscientiousness, play by the rules, do what you’re told. And the rules are very clear when you’re going to school, you know, show up, here’s the test, here’s what you need to study, very straightforward.
But, with life there’s all kinds of gray areas and you have all kinds of other options. You could choose to be an entrepreneur and do your own thing. There’s no entrepreneurial version of high school so, because of that, school basically rewards people to follow the rules and once those people graduate, they generally continue to do that which is follow the rules. So they do pretty well but, they don’t change the system. They fall into the system. They’re not the people who generally invent the future, they’re the people who continue with the practice of what has already worked so what you see is that valedictorians consistently do very well, but they rarely become millionaires and billionaires.
Hoff: So how can we apply this to our everyday lives OK, let’s say, you’re listening to this right now and your kids in school and you like why don’t want my kid to drop out of school but how can I also ensure that they are developing the qualities and the skills needed for true success, to really reach their full potential. How can we kind of find our right pond as you said, and know ourselves so that we can reach our full potential?
Barker: What it really comes down to is success, because in the book I am not just talking about financial success which is you know, make the number in the bank account go up and up and up. You know, you can be successful, the best parent you can be and that doesn’t involve money so, what it really comes down to is knowing yourself. If you look at the research on happiness and in career like knowing what your signature strengths are, knowing the things that you are uniquely good at that you enjoy and then finding a context and that means a workplace, an organization that respects and values those strengths, that’s really a prescription for both success and happiness and I think that you know, most people fail to do both or sometimes either of those two of just really understanding of what they’re good at or developing skills that they would like to be good at. And then aligning those with context organization that appreciates that and again the issue for schools is that schools basically forces you to be a jack of all trades whereas the work of environment wants you to be an expert at one thing.
If you’re really good at computer science and you are an engineer at Google, Google doesn’t care if you’re also really good at history but in high school, once you get that A in computers, you also need to go get an A in history as well. But the work world rewards the expertise in a singular arena whereas school says you have to be you have to get As in all of these subjects to be considered good at what you do.
So obviously you know, kids in school needs to balance what they’re doing but parents should encourage kids to develop passions to not see school as kind of you know just this thing they have to do. What you see is that you know people go on to be experts in their field, go on to be very successful in their field are passionate about a particular subject and devoted a disproportion amount of time to do that. And that’s the thing the parents want to think about if they want their kids to go on to really be able to reach the height of success.
Hoff: And as you said, find satisfaction to really feel passion and feel like an expert in a certain field and I like the point you make in the book that our system kind of trains us to memorize the information, to get the A and then not really learn it at the end of the day.
Let’s talk about another topic in the book which is the maxim \u2018Nice guys finish last’ and let’s talk about the people you describe and you put people in the categories such as Givers, Matchers and Takers. So what was your research as far as finding long term success in these categories?
Baker: That’s based on work by Adam Grant who is, you know, a very generous, altruistic individual himself and was very curious about how well nice guys fare in the working world. The initial results of his research were kind of depressing because he found a disproportionate number of Givers, people who try to help others without expecting anything in return ended up the bottom of success metric and this was pretty depressing for Adam. But when he went through all of the data, he found something really interesting and that was that the results were actually bi-modal. Givers were disproportionately represented at the bottom and at the top. So what that basically meant was some people who were very generous and think about others do get walked on, they do get exploited but on the flip side, he also found a people who were very generous, very giving and everyone feels indebted to them and they get a lot of support, they get a lot of help, they have a lot of friends and they do very well. So you don’t see that nice guys finish last, you see that nice guys sometimes finish last and sometimes finish first. And it’s the Matchers – those people who are trying and balance their level of give and take 0- and Takers- people who are taking the most they can and give the least – they cluster in the center, they generally don’t reach the highest of highs or the lows.
Hoff: And let’s talk a little bit about ethical behavior, cooperation and trustworthiness because I think there’s kind of these two mindsets. One is it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there. You need to be looking out for yourself, no one else is going to be looking out for you. If you want to rise to the top, you need to be making sure that you get there and not expect others to help you along.
And then there’s the other idea which is if I work well with others and I treat everybody with respect, I’ll get ahead and of course people can succeed in both of these ways. But you really found I think in the outcome how important trustworthiness is and you give Maldova as kind of an extreme example as a society where people don’t have a lot of trust for other people. You see a lot of unhappiness and not a lot of success. Can you talk about the importance of trustworthiness when it comes to ultimate success?
Baker: Yeah, if you look at the work of Nicholas Christakis at Yale, you see that basically all kinds of things ripple through social networks. Statically speaking, when a friend of a friend of yours becomes happier, that actually has an effect on your happiness. All of these things, you know happiness, sadness, success, ethical values all ripple through social networks. And you know, a lot of the research by Dan Ariely at Duke University shows that this dramatically affects organizations when you’ve got just one bad apple in the bunch, cause other people start bending the rules. There’s the old saying you know, there’s what’s right, there’s what’s wrong and then there’s what everybody does, so you have those things where on principle was right, principle is wrong and once we see everybody starts breaking the rules and trying to beat the system, we feel cheated, we feel exploited if we don’t break the rules. So there’s a tipping point where organizations start to get negative and once we see other people breaking the rules, we start breaking the rules and it can be a downhill slide from there.
And I even take some time in the book to look at criminal organizations because here’s a group of untrustworthy people by definition, who need to cooperate when you look at the mafia or prison gangs, they require you know, trust as well. There’s no way that an organization can operate if people you know, don’t trust one another. It’s really critical to look at an organization, to look at a job before you take it.
Bob Sutton at Stanford University, when I spoke to him he tells all of his students who’s in the A-class to look at an organization when you’re interviewing there, and their people. Because you’re going to become like them, they’re not going to become like you. We generally talk about peer pressure when it comes to kids but the truth is, peer pressure affects us our entire lives and the most insidious part of it is that we generally don’t realize it. We don’t realize how much our contact, how much people around us affect our decisions. We like to always think that we’re logical and objective and I make my own choices now, you’re suddenly influenced by everything around you, so if you put yourself in an environment with untrustworthy people who are always breaking the rules, it’s going to affect you – it’s like being the good kid hanging out with the bad kids in high school.
So we need to think about these things.
Hoff: That really home for me that point in your book when you said when you go for a job and you look at the people who work there and you do realize you will become like them and they won’t become like you and that’s a very important thing to keep in mind. No matter what it is if you really want to be a driven person and super ambitious and people at work aren’t like that or if it’s the opposite and you like to take things slow and have a good work life balance and they’re super ambitious, it’s going to be one of those things where you’ll not have found your right pond.
Baker: You’re either going to be very unhappy and it’s just going to be a grinding experience or you know, you’re going to concede, you’re going to slowly start changing your behavior to be more like them. And the influence is subtle. It will subtly influence your context and the best that we can do is to recognize it and realize that this is you know pretty much human nature and then make our choices much more deliberately and wisely in terms of what environments we should be in, what people we want to surround ourselves with.
Hoff: Absolutely. All right, let’s talk about achieving our goals whether it’s to get a better position at work, grow a business, be a more involved parent, finding the love of our life. What did you find when it comes to focus and failure and how do we know when to give up stuff in life to focus and when to try as many things as possible?
Baker: Yeah right now I mean \u2018grit’ is really a buzz word you know and certainly a lot of people do experience difficulty with being consistent over time, being resilient in the face of failure but it’s also really important that we think about quitting things because if you don’t quit things you’d be doing things same stuff instead of doing what you want. We need to quit things in order to make room to spend more time and energy on the things we want to have grit for. So it was really interesting there was a pretty good formula for this, Gabriele Oettingen at NYU developed a funny little acronym called WOOP, W-O-O-P. That was basically the quick psychological method for figuring out how to achieve your goals but not only that, to also realize which of your goals are realistic and whether you should quit or apply grit. So W-O-O-P, the first is Wish, that’s the fun part, we all do that, we might think that by you know I might wish for career success. Problem with that it’s a little bit general things they say at the wish stage that’s actually kind of bad because our brains are not created to distinguish reality from fiction that’s why movies are exciting. So if we stay in the wish stage, we actually don’t build motivation because we feel like we’ve already achieved our goals. So you need to move to the next stage which is you need to look at Outcome. What is the outcome you want? Specific outcome, I might say, “Oh I want to be the vice president at Google.” OK, that’s great I got my wish career success, the outcome I want, I want to be vice president at Google.
Then the next step is Obstacle. What is standing in the way? And you’re like “I don’t know anybody in HR at Google. I don’t know how to get my resume there.” So now you’re facing an actual challenge.
And the fourth this is to have a Plan. “Well, I can go on LinkedIn, I can see who’s connected to someone at Google and I can get my resume in there.” So that takes you from a generalized wish of success to actually building a plan. The really interesting thing that she found in the research was not only did these people help build a plan for getting to their goals, but also how people felt after doing that exercise was like a litmus test for whether this was a realistic goal or not. If people went through the WOOP process, if they then felt you know, really energized, then this was something that they should be doing they should apply grit. If people went through that process and they didn’t feel energized, they felt kind of confused then this was likely something that was unrealistic and they should go through the exercise again and perhaps, be a little bit more realistic.
Hoff: So WOOP – Wish, Outcome, Obstacles, Plans. So, it’s before you make a decision, before you do start deciding where you’re going to focus your energy and what next step to take, really almost in any way – whether it’s to pay down debt or get a new job, I think going through this process gives you a much clearer idea of what you’re actually looking for and how you can achieve that.
You also talk in your book about marriage which I kind of want to touch on because it was a fun topic wherein you talked about soulmates and kind of this idea of love marriages and then the research that shows the difference between love marriages versus planned marriages. Can you go into that a little bit about and how it shows to really just focus and input work into something?
Baker: Yeah, it’s really interesting there’s this some research which are on love-marriages, which is standard in United States and arranged marriages. What you see is that the results show that initially, the love marriages produce a much happier union than the arranged marriages do. However, when you track the couples over the period of years, the love marriages generally decline in satisfaction and the arranged marriages go up. Now, obviously there a number of factors here that might be you know religious, social-cultural, etcetera but one important point that we can take away from this is that the love marriages often have this element of romanticism, or if you’re more cynical, you could take delusion whereas the arranged marriages, from day one, you know these people realize \u2018I’m basically handcuffed to a stranger’, \u2018I don’t know this person’, \u2018In my culture and religion, I am expected to continue this so I have to make this work.’ so people deliberately apply effort as opposed to looking to the stars in the heavens and saying this was meant to be and then when things don’t work out they want to blame the heavens and the stars and frankly, a lot of good solutions don’t come from there so the idea with arranged marriages is people saying is this is going to be a challenge, it could be great, it could be fantastic but it’s a challenge and it’s on me to put some effort here over time and make this work that ends up producing you know higher satisfaction over the long haul and I think that’s a generalizable principle. I think we can apply that to a lot of things when we take you know, romantic notions and great stories which are really powerful, they’re wonderful. However, when we use them as an excuse to not apply effort, to not to try and solve problems, then we get in to difficulty because you know, there are obvious challenges that need to be faced not denied so understanding, “Hey, I’m going to have to make this work whether its career, whether it’s home, whether it’s family” it’s just a good principle to keep in mind.
Hoff: Let’s now talk about the next maxim which is ‘It’s not what you know, but who you know’ and you challenge that in the book and in both ways again you always look at it from both sides and you look at the success and failures, can you talk about what your research ultimately found when it came to relationships and networking and then I’m going to follow up with if networking is very important ultimately to success in life, how do people who are not comfortable doing that start to achieve those skills so they don’t lose out on the possible benefits?
Baker: What you see is that networking is extraordinarily powerful when it comes to getting a job, getting the next job, keeping a job, it’s really hard to underestimate the value of a large network to people who are naturally more extroverted have a huge leg up in terms of connecting with others and being able to utilize those connections to move their career and their success forward. However, at least one of the studies I saw, I forget the specific wording but it was something to the effect of ‘extroversion is negatively correlated with individual proficiency.’ It was some kind of jargon-y acronym of wording like that. Basically what that means in English is the more extroverted you are the worse you are at job. And I’m sure there are exceptions to that like sales, etcetera but the key point being that the super power of extroverts is networking and the super power of introverts is without all that socializing, ambitious introverts are usually experts. They’re usually very, very good at their job because they have the time to dedicate to getting better and better at things because they’re not spending time socializing with people. Introverts have higher grades than extroverts do, are far more likely to get PhDs, far more likely to become experts. Even top athletes are more likely to be introverts than extroverts because it results to individual proficiency in their arena.
You know, so there is that kind of trade-off where it’s like having a big network or really being an expert at what you do because you have the hours to put into it. But the truth is, that most people are not extreme extroverts or extreme introverts, those people are what are called \u2018Ambiverts’ which is in the middle somewhere, you know so they can draw from both sides. When people cringe at networking or they’re shy about it, that’s totally understandable because there is research from Francesca Gino at Harvard Business School that confirms what we’ve all suspected which is that networking makes us feel icky. It’s very transactional, feels kind of phony.
And so a really good first step to kind of bridge that gap is to start by reconnecting with old friends, start by talking to old friends because it’s not phony, you’re already friends with them, those people you already feel a connection to – just to rekindle those connections can be really powerful because some of the classic research on networks shows that you’re not likely to hear about new opportunities from the people that you spend the most time with because they know a lot of what you know. You are far more likely to hear about new jobs and new opportunities when you go one degree out. When you go from close friends to acquaintances because those acquaintances you don’t talk to as often they’re in different circles, they hear about a lot more things that you don’t. So by reaching out to acquaintances, one degree out, people you already know but not quite as well, you’re far more likely to hear about and opportunity and that’s a very simple, very non-icky way to start yourself down to path to a bigger network.
Hoff: And I really want to also touch on Alignment because I do like the research shows that talent as you said in your book, doesn’t necessarily play as much of a role in success as just Alignment and we kind of touch on this a little a bit about finding your right pond and stuff, but can you talk a little bit more how can we find that Alignment. How can we really find where we can be extraordinary?
Barker: That’s really a matter of what are your signature strengths, what are you really good at and then finding a context that supports this because if you are brilliant in finance and you decide to work in the finance division of a shoe company, I really doubt your incredible finance skills are really going to be tested, really put to the extreme, you’re really going to feel valued, no, but if you went to Wall Street and you probably be a multimillionaire.
So, thinking about where are my signature strengths you know best utilized and then when you start thinking about networking. Once I know where I want to go, how can my friends, my connections help me get there? Usually people would think about one thing or the other and that’s where it gets problematic. People say “My skills, here’s my skills” but they are not thinking about where those skills would be best utilized. If you’re an accountant working for Apple computer might be really sexy, there’s an accounting division at Apple computer but Apple is not very focused accounting, you’re not going to feel like you are the most important there. Your skills are really great or you might say, “Hey there’s a company that I want to work for” oh and you need to be realistic and ask yourself you know, it’s like “Will they want me?” or “My skills really valuable to them?” “Am I going to feel valued when I go there?”
So we really need to think about both sides of the equation because if you’re thinking about what you’re really good at what you enjoy, anything that place the values that then you can find a surprising amount of success just by the synergy between those two things as a opposed to focusing on just skills or just the place you want to work and not thinking about the other, that’s where people feel uncomfortable and not sure why they’re not getting where they want to go.
Hoff: And based on your whole research that you’ve done and all the situations that you looked at and then it might be hard to break it down to just three tips but I always like to give my listeners three solid takeaways which we can implement right now, as we might all be barking up the wrong tree. If we want to start barking up the right tree to success what would you say are the three things that we can start doing right now?
Barker: The first thing I would say is what we talked about: Think about what are your signature strengths, what are you really good at? And if you’re having trouble identifying what those are then you also might want to think about developing you know, a skill set that’s really valuable. And then finding an organization, a place that appreciates that. That alignment between skills and contact is the first thing I’d sit down and really think through that in terms of success.
The second thing I would say in terms of networking is just go on your search for networks, go on Facebook, LinkedIn and who were the friends that you haven’t spoken to, haven’t emailed with in a long time? Drop those people an email, give them a call, reconnect with a lot of people. There might be fantastic opportunities out there just like you can’t keep everybody you know in your head all at the same time, they can’t either. So there might be fantastic opportunities that they’re hearing about but they’re not making an association because you guys haven’t talked in six months.
The third thing I would say is in terms of work-life balance, is what’s really critical is work by Nash and Stevenson at Harvard showed that to find work-life balance you need to think about four metrics and you can’t just say, “Oh I want to make a lot of money” because that helps people neglect their health, neglect their relationships, neglect their happiness.
So four critical things that people need to be thinking about are:
No. 1, Happiness. Are you enjoying what you’re doing?
No. 2, Achievement. Do you feel like you’re getting ahead?
No. 3, Significance. Do you feel like what you’re doing is benefitting the ones you love?
And No. 4 is Legacy. Do you feel to some degree, even to a small degree what you’re doing is making the world a better place?
And when people consistently look at their hours over the course of a week, or a month and they’re depositing a little bit in each one of those buckets: happiness, achievement, significance, legacy – those are when people feel they have work-life balance and that they’re not completely unbalanced in their lives.
Hoff: Those aregreat tips. I really recommend your book. It was such a fun book to read to with so many great examples and it’s one of those books that every time you read a page you want to go and tell somebody a story that you just read.
Finally, what gets you charged up about discovering unconventional paths to success?
Barker: I hate when I go to do something and I just realized I could’ve done it better. Oh, I should’ve asked for this or even after a negotiation you realized, “Oh my God! I could’ve gotten you know, an extra thousand dollars if I just got that.” I have a tendency to beat myself up when I don’t handle things as awesomely as I could.
So once I realized that in academic research, there were a lot of answers to questions that we ask ourselves that we think are mysteries. They’re not mysteries. Some of the answers are out there so I just get really charged up and excited when I find simple answers to seemingly difficult problems and it also excites me to share them with other people. I mean what I do on my blog, it’s what I’m doing with the book and just having people write to me and say, “Oh my God, that tip you said it was, you know here’s how I used it, here’s how it benefit my life.” It just feels great to know that I love to learn, I love to get better and I also help a lot of people to get better.
So, that’s what really excites me.
Hoff: Eric, thank you so much this was a great conversation and you wrote a fantastic book. Thank you so much!
Barker: Thank you!