Book Review & Summary: Barking Up the Wrong Tree

Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why ...

What you’ll find: A survey of recent pop psychology literature on success, time management, and other tips for the ambitious.
My takeaway: Much better use of your time than reading all the books he rounds-up. Delivers it all in a well organized and readable package. However, his writing style was grating at times–a symptom of reading too many pop-psych books no doubt.
Rating: 2.5 (scale guide)

Read Section I for the subjective review, or skip straight to Section II for the book summary/notes.

I. The Review

You’ve seen the books in every airport across America: The Power of Habit, Good to Great, Give and Take. They all promise to unlock an overlooked key to success (“Backed by research!”). I have a general rule of thumb that one should not buy a book that is found in airports with subtitles dreamed up by what seems like the same team of marketers (“How orchestra musicians, lion tamers, hedge fund managers, and Green Berets discovered morning routines for unstoppable productivity.“). So why am I reviewing a book that fails on both of these tests? Because by reading this book, you don’t have to read those others.

Eric Barker is a famous blogger known for his difficult-to-pronounce site bakadesuyo.com. It’s an onslaught of medium-brow listicles and dumbed-down research reports on topics like success, productivity, happiness, and all those things you feel you should be better at and buy books to help cope. The article titles rarely deliver on their promise, yet give just enough dopamine to feel like you’ve grown. Compare to: TED talks.

So naturally he wrote a book that’s more of the same.

The bad: you might think you’d escape the nauseating writing style of the omnipresent business books, but unfortunately you don’t. He has a terrible habit of starting his anecdotal stories in media res in a cheap attempt to hook you that left me eye-rolling. A quick sampling (these are all complete paragraphs in the text, by the way):

  • “Two men have died trying to do this.”
  • “Ashlyn Blocker does not feel pain.”
  • “Glenn Gould was such a hypochondriac that if you sneezed while on a phone call with him, he’d immediately hang up.” [1]
  • “Steve Jobs was worried.”
  • “In 1984, Neil Young was sued for not being himself.”

And that’s just the first chapter! He further tries to lighten things up by quipping to the reader in parenthesis. Example: “Let’s talk about orchids, dandelions, and hopeful monsters. (I know, I know, you talk about these things all the time and this is nothing new to you. Please indulge me.)” No, please spare me instead.

It sounds like I’m critical of this book, but really I did discover some good nuggets in it. I often found it motivating, and it did help unblock some of my thinking. (In particular, I found Chapter 3 the most useful for me right now). And despite the aforementioned hackneyed writing techniques, it was very readable.

He writes good overviews of some of the most well-known researchers on risk-taking, agreeableness, grit, networking, confidence, and work/life balance. All topics that definitely contribute to a good grand strategy for success.

He does this by taking all of those pop-psychology books from college professors du jour of recent years and delivers a high level picture of all the key takeaways. In fact, he uses the word “study” or “research” (as in “a study found”) 391 times!

I love studies and research, but I also know enough to be cautious of them; remember the replication crisis? My main concern is that with most primary sources deriving from books driven by marketers, and not researchers, single studies which may be prone to all kinds of error are given an outsized voice and little critical eye. (To be fair, he does cite many journal articles. But still, this book is not meant to be a literature review and as such is vulnerable to the cherry-picking fallacy.)

What does that mean for you? Just don’t take it as gospel. It’s good advice, but figure out what works for you and remember to always think critically.

If you’re especially interested in what makes somebody successful and like to soak up tips for how you can improve, this will be a good thought-provoking read. For others, just use the summary below.

II. Summary

Note: these are notes that I felt useful in my own life at this time. What I’ve included has been necessarily filtered through that lens.

  • Chapter 1: Risk-Taking
    • The most successful usually are non-conforming and original thinkers.
    • “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.”
    • “Filtered” vs. “Unfiltered” leaders. “Filtered” leaders rise through the ranks and accepted channels. “Unfiltered” leaders enter through the side door and have typically “bad” characteristics (Chamberlain vs Churchill).
      • Unfiltered leaders are usually the ones who create monumental lasting changes. However, not always for the best.
      • Their bad characteristics become “intensifiers.”
    • “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.”
    • How to utilize this: know your strengths. Pick the right environment for those strengths. (“Which companies, institutions, and situations value what I do?”)
      • “If you follow rules well, find and organization aligned with your signature strengths and go full steam ahead. Society clearly rewards those who comply, and these people keep the world in an orderly place. If you’re more of an unfiltered type, be ready to blaze your own path. Leverage the intensifiers that make you unique. You’re more likely to reach the heights of success–and happiness–if you embrace your ‘flaws.'”

  • Chapter 2: Being “nice”
    • Managing appearance and likability often works better than hard work in corporate environments.
    • Disagreeable people also do well because they assert what they want and self-promote.
      • However, a culture of disagreeability is infections and makes everyone worse off. We deal with people over and over — a kind of iterated prisoner’s dilemma.
      • A good strategy comes from game theory: Tit-For-Tat. Assume good intentions, and if violated, violate back. If good again, be good again.
    • Rule 1: Work with good people
    • Rule 2: Don’t wait for the other person: cooperate first
    • Rule 3: Don’t be a selfless martyr — you’ll get taken advantage of by “takers”
    • Rule 4: Work hard, but also make sure you get noticed without sounding like a braggart. (Send a “here’s what I did this week” email to your boss, for example)
    • Rule 5: Think long-term. Infinite game over finite game.
    • Rule 6: Forgive eventually
  • Chapter 3: Grit
    • Grit (sticking to something, working hard, and not giving up) “is a key reason why we see such differing levels of achievement between people of the same intelligence and talent levels.”
    • A way to tap into grit is through positive self-talk. It comes down to the stories you tell yourself. Tell yourself “you can do it.”
    • Optimists tell themselves better stories and are more gritty. Their stories differ in three ways: permanence, pervasiveness, and personalization. They say setbacks are temporary, specific, and not their own fault.
    • People with a purpose have more grit. In Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning: “He who knows the ‘why’ for his existence, will be able to bear almost any ‘how.'”
    • Consciously and deliberately construct a good story of who you are and where you are going.
    • To think about what’s important, meditate on death. “Momento mori.”
    • Story editing: go from “I can’t do this” to “I just need to learn the ropes first.” Then play the part, because beliefs follow actions.
    • Make your pursuit a game: Break it into small, challenging, yet achievable chunks. Good games are winnable, have novel goals, and provide feedback.
      • Think of a good, measurable, way to “score” your game. For example, set the goal “I want to achieve 2 hours of deep work tomorrow” and see how you do.
    • Focus on ONE thing and liberally say no to others.
    • Maximize luck by maximizing opportunities. In other words, just try stuff. Experiment. Prototype and test.
      • Embrace failure at this stage: “Learn by doing. Fail quickly to learn fast.”
      • Try things, quit what fails, then apply grit.
    • When you have a focus, still devote 5-10 percent of your time to little experiments.
    • Daydreaming tricks your brain into feeling like you’ve already accomplished something. After the dream, think what’s getting in the way of my fantasy? And what will I do to overcome that? Dreaming up a plan instead gives energy to the pursuit.
    • Planning tips:
      • Think if/then: “If X happens, then I’ll do Y.”
      • “Premeditatio malorum:” think “what’s the worst that could happen?”
    • Apply WOOP to your goals: wish, outcome, obstacle, plan. This will also help filter unrealistic goals if they fail this process.
      • Vague wish: “I want a good job”. Concrete outcome: “VP at Google.” Obstacle: “I don’t know how to get an interview.” Plan: “I’ll look at LinkedIn for connections.”
    • The process:
      • Step 1: Figure out what you need to be gritty at.
        • Do little bets until you have it
        • When a bet looks promising or exciting, apply WOOP to it and begin executing
      • Step 2: Remain optimistic
        • Pessimism is useful to keep us honest, but optimism is best for low risks and/or high payoff pursuits.
      • Step 3: Have meaning
        • Think about your values (use “momento mori” to help).
        • Your story should be that you’re working on something bigger than yourself, and you believe that “this is worth it.” And try writing it down.
      • Step 4: Gamify it
        • Break it down, determine the scoring system, and challenge yourself.
      • Step 5: Eliminate less-worthy activities
      • Step 6: Continuously run little experiments
  • Chapter 4: Networking
    • “Extroverts make more money, get more promotions, are more likely to become leaders, find new jobs faster, and are both luckier and happier.”
    • However, “the superpower of introverts is that they are far more likely to become experts in their field.”
    • As leaders, extroverts help with passive workers; they are more natural at motivating and building group cohesion. Introverts are better with active workers because they listen, help, and get out of the way.
    • Networking tips:
      • The most important skill of networking: be a friend. Show a genuine interest in something you and the other person have in common.
      • Be socially optimistic: assume other people will like you and they probably will.
      • Pay sincere compliments. People like them more than sex or money.
      • Offer help: if people say they are having trouble with something, find a way you can help.
      • Start with friends you already have and reconnect there.
      • Allocate time and money in advance for networking. Money spent on others brings more happiness than spent on oneself.
      • Join groups.
      • Check in with people every now and then.
      • Engage in the social dynamics of your company (work-related gossip can be very helpful)
    • Mentors:
      • “Virtually without exception, each [internationally successful athlete, scientist, and artist studied] had been trained by a master teacher, who had trained earlier students to reach an international level.” — K. Anders Ericsson
      • To get a good mentor, be a good pupil. Mentors want to have a hand in those who are rising fast. If you’re working hard to advance your career and doing enough outreach, you should get noticed.
      • Before seeking a mentor’s help, show that you’ve explored every conceivable avenue and can go no further.
      • Similarly, ask great questions that you can’t find by researching. Don’t waste their time.
      • It’s on you to keep the relationship alive. Find ways to stay relevant and drop emails and questions frequently, but not too frequently to be bothersome.
      • Show you’ve taken their advice, and give them recognition for their help. Say “I [did what you said] and figured my [next step] would be [blank], but I’d love your insight. Do you think [well-thought-out strategy one] or [well-thought-out strategy two] is better?”
      • In the end, make your mentor look good.
    • Negotiations:
      • Number one rule (of salary negotiations): they have to like you.
      • Don’t judge what people say. Listen and acknowledge, paraphrasing back what they’ve said to show you understand.
    • Express gratitude to others.
  • Chapter 5: Confidence
    • Overconfidence gives the impression of competence and higher status.
    • Faking it seems, to a degree, to just be part of good people management.” “The secret of leadership was the ability to play a role, to pretend, to be skilled in the theatrical arts … to come across effectively, we need to master how to convey power.”
      • However, fakers start to lose others’ trust and lose their grip on reality. Instead, focus on presenting the best version of yourself.
    • Optimism vs pessimism: optimists are more likely to keep going and convince others, but are usually less realistic. Pessimists saw the world more accurately. Pessimist entrepreneurs and lawyers are more successful, whereas optimistic gamblers lose more money. Both are necessary.
    • However, over/under confidence and optimism/pessimism may be the wrong scales. Instead, practice self-compassion.
      • “Compassion for yourself when you fail means you don’t need to be a delusional jerk to succeed and you don’t have to feel incompetent to improve. You get off the yo-yo experience of absurd expectations and beating yourself up when you don’t meet them. You stop lying to yourself that you’re so awesome. Instead, focus on forgiving yourself when you’re not.”
    • By detaching from outcomes, by having self-compassion no matter what happens, you will feel more motivated to act.
    • How to practice self-compassion? Talk to yourself kindly, “like grandma would.”
    • Believing in yourself is nice. Forgiving yourself is better.
  • Chapter 6: Hard Work
    • Does extreme hard work produce extreme success? Yes.
    • Focus on output: “voluminous productivity is the rule and not the exception among the individuals who have made some noteworthy contributions.” (Frank Barron). And, “those individuals with the highest total output will, on average, produce the most acclaimed contributions as well.” (Dean Keith Simonton).
    • Burnout occurs when people aren’t engaged in meaningful work and have a pessimistic attitude towards their job.
      • “The WSJ reports: ‘Those who stayed very involved in meaningful careers and worked the hardest, lived the longest.’ Meaningful work means doing something that’s (a) important to you and (b) something you’re good at.”
    • The trade-off, of course, is extremely successful people destroy relationships, display high levels of neuroticism and self-deception, and are generally less happy. How to tow this line?
    • Compare your success only to your own yardstick:
      • “You need a personal definition of success. Looking around you to see if you’re succeeding is no longer a realistic option. Trying to be a relative success compared to others is dangerous. […] You need to ask ‘What do I want?’ […] ‘having it all’ isn’t possible when others determine the limits in each category.”
    • Most people are productive an hour after waking up.
    • The optimal time to focus on relationships is when they don’t seem to need it, not when they need repair.
    • Four metrics that matter most in life
      1. Happiness: having feelings of pleasure or contentment in and about your life. Enjoying.
      2. Achievement: achieving accomplishments that compare favorably against similar goals others have strived for. Winning.
      3. Significance: having a positive impact on people you care about. Counting to others.
      4. Legacy: establishing your values or accomplishments in ways that help others find future success. Extending.
    • Set the personal bar for each category. Your aim should be to reach “good enough” in each.
    • Tip: track each hour of the day to see which categories are getting the most focus. Do you need to readjust?
    • Don’t “pick” from options for your life, “choose.” In other words, don’t be reactive. Be active. Have a plan, and focus on the long term.
      • Understand: the plan won’t be perfect. You’ll screw up. But have self-compassion, reorient, and decide what to do next.
  • Chapter 7: Conclusion
    • The most important principle is alignment between who you are and where you choose to be.
    • The takeaway from the Harvard Grant Study: “The only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.”
    • “The most powerful motivators aren’t money, but the opportunity to grow in responsibilities, contribute to others, and be recognized for achievements”Clayton M. Christensen

[1] Glenn Gould is one of the most famous piano players in history. He is best known for his performances of Bach’s pieces. If you at all have any interest in classical music, this video is an education in and of itself: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9ZX_XCYokQo

Just let me read one more thing and I’ll be ready

I.

I have this tendency, and maybe you do too. I think it’s born from a feeling of never quite being ready or skilled enough to accomplish something — say a job interview, or a diet, or a new hobby, or a blog, or a business. It’s caused by the fear of uncertainty that lies ahead in whatever pursuit might be worthwhile.

I believe the biggest achievers in life (and don’t lie, you want to be one of them too), have a singular, obsessive focus. A grand vision. A master plan. And they pursue it doggedly until it is realized.

So I try to bootstrap myself to a vision. And unfortunately this is incredibly easy for my uber-forward-looking brain to do. I get drunk on that vision. I succumb to daydreams and sleepless hours of bedtime fantasizing. I create movies of conversations I’ll have with mentors, or future employees.

I encumber my browser tabs with articles promising to answer the question “how do I do this?” Or I fill my Amazon cart with books from an online reading list promising everything you need to know about this. “Once I read through all of these,” I think to myself, “I’ll have developed enough expertise to begin.”

I get this rush in my chest like I’m finally about to open the lost scrolls and be given The Secret. So I settle into a chair, open the book, and be prepare to be graced with enlightenment…

But it never, ever, comes.

And then I find reality of the work is nothing like these fantasies. I’m crushed. And I walk away, rejected and defeated. Please, fate, tell me I’m not the only one.

Sure I get closer. I gain a little knowledge or wisdom. I become a better person, or better thinker. But no, I still don’t have it figured out. I’m still not an expert. And I’m still navigating with uncertainty.

I flounder. I experience the dip. I realize how hard it really is to become an expert, or to change a personality trait, or to fix a diet. And I quit. Books go unread. Tabs get closed.

You think I’d be immune to this pattern by now. I’m not.


II.

If it can’t be destroyed, can it be managed? I believe it can. And a blog is one way to do that. By writing freely and openly about my current pursuits or interests, waking from the daydream and releasing my expectations for what each pursuit might bring, I will build a path, brick-by-brick, with destination unknown. You can only connect the dots looking backward.

Michel de Montaigne, a favorite lay philosopher of mine, took this flaneur-like approach to his own interests. He’d write an essay on whichever topic happened to excite his intellect. It seems like a more fulfilling and care-free way to live.

A great struggle in my life is to overcome building up a vision so clearly only to have reality slap me in the face. I know that by reading, instead of doing, I can prolong that slap. But it will hit sooner or later, and it will turn me away all the same.

How can we set ourselves up to expect, and then push through, the slap? Is it better to live aimlessly? No, I contend. But neither is it good to live with such a targeted and specific aim that you cannot accomplish it.

I believe, like most things in life, the optimum is somewhere in the middle. How can we feel out that middle path?

First, by setting an abstract vision for yourself — the kind of life you want to lead and the kind of achievement you strive for — you can give yourself flexibility to reorient and determine a concrete path to the next step. If it’s too concrete, the cold slap of reality will destroy it swiftly.

Second, determine the next concrete step to achieving that goal and set a deadline. Try to do it without too much research first; another failure trap. But what if research and asking for advice are part of the next step? It’s fine, but make sure you self-reflect enough to know it’s not a procrastination technique.

Third, keep a constant perspective on long-term thinking. Short-term thinking is really easy to abandon. A goal like “lose 5 pounds in a month” is incredibly short-term. The consequences of failure are small, and the ability to push out the deadline too easy. Instead, if your next concrete step is short-term, remind yourself that this short-term goal is the best thing to get me closer to my long-term vision.

Fourth, bias yourself towards action. If you don’t know if you should consume or produce, always pick produce. The most successful people in life have been those that could Get Things Done.


III.

I am not a master at this process, nor am I entirely sure it’s perfect. I’ll write posts here as I discover more about it and how my mind works. It’s an on-going conversation. Maybe you have a different perspective, which I encourage hearing.

I can say, though, that from what I’ve gotten from studying successful people, they all do something like the four steps above. Take everybody’s default successful person example: Steve Jobs. Was his grand 25-year old vision in 1982 to invent the iPhone? Impossible. But his unflinching vision did guide him into determine that the iPhone was the next best concrete step in the mid 2000s.

What is that vision to you?