Book review Productivity Recommended Read

Book Review | Barking Up the Wrong Tree

Rating: 3.5 out of 4.

Entertaining, Arresting, and Challenging throughout

Eric Barker’s book “Barking up the Wrong Tree” is about success, its different nuances and what people often make of it. He lifts off the shroud around the factors that we (mistakenly) believe result in success.

He tantalizes readers with intriguing questions such as, “Why are the number ones in high school so rarely the number ones in real life?” and then provides myth-busting yet satisfying answers, “Because schools reward conformity and consistency.”

Some of what Eric unearths in “Barking up the Wrong Tree” is well known by now, but no other author has pursued the subject of success so exhaustively. 

The first few pages reminded me of Steven Levitt’s Freakonomics. Barker follows the same approach.

He tells stories of phenomenal success, cites scientific research, and then demystifies the secrets of success. Every chapter in the book follows this pattern.

This book teems with revelations, one after another. As a reader, you can’t stop but indulge in this insightful exercise.

Below are some of the salient learnings from “Barking up the Wrong Tree”:

#1. Know yourself. Self-awareness is paramount

We often miss the mark when it comes to pinpointing exactly what qualities make a person successful. Many books have tried to address this issue. Leonard Mlodinow’s “The Drunkard’s Walk” comes to my mind.

Eric says that super grades in the class often do not translate into pathbreaking work in the life ahead. As a matter of fact, valedictorians often fail to leave an indelible mark on the world. Because, says Eric Barker, they are good students.

They complete their assignments on time, they attend all the lectures, they study daily. Once they leave the campus, they quickly settle into the corporate world where they toe the company line and earn their stripes. Such individuals are filtered leaders.

They are not the ones who shake up the system.

Book review Barking up the wrong tree

The unfiltered leaders like Steve Jobs and Abraham Lincoln, on the other hand, earn their badge by creating ripples.

They turn the system inside out. They do things as per their gut even if that means stepping on the toes of their entrenched colleagues.

 “Good is average, to be great you have to be different.” – Eric Barker

 Author’s mantra : Know yourself (self-awareness). This is non-negotiable. Once you know your bailiwick, pick an opportunity that aligns with your strengths. This is the best way to get on the upward spiral.

#2. Pick the right pond

Nice guys finish last or do they?

Eric Barker remarks that smart alecs may outsmart nice guys in the short run but when push comes to shove, nice guys often have the last laugh.

Jerks often get away in the short-term because others fail to see past their overwhelming assertions and exuberance.

Gradually, their dishonesty infects others around them, too, eventually leading to a scenario where everyone is trying to get the better of each other. But thankfully, the scenario rarely materializes.

Eric says trustworthiness ultimately triumphs because nobody wants a workplace filled with distrust and dishonesty.

At the workplace, he suggests you be nice but at the same time, don’t be a total saint either. When people start taking you for granted, you push back. Being a saint is not an effective career strategy.

Work hard but ensure those who matter notice it. Be visible to your bosses. That is if you want to stay in a corporate jungle.

 Author’s Mantra : When you take a new job, take a long hard look at people you are going to be working with. You won’t change them. On the contrary, a few months in and you will become like them. Pick the right pond. Stay nice and humble. Do no harm but take no shit.

#3. Inject some grit and gamification in your life

Candidates must survive the infamous BUD/S training in order to become Navy SEALs.

Eric Barker reveals that the people who pass BUD/s are nothing but gritty. These potential SEALS tell themselves positive stories. The only voice they hear inside their head is of themselves telling them they can do it.

When you show grit in a hostile situation, it could see you through. However, Eric has an even better suggestion for getting through daily life struggles. He suggests injecting a bit of gamification in your life.

A good game consists of new stages, bigger enemies and bigger accomplishments. Winning a game even if it’s a mobile game fires up your Amygdala – the part of the brain concerned with rewards. It also makes you feel more productive.

Barker advises readers to break up hairy tasks into games, define goalposts through the achievement of small goals like “What one thing can I check off my list today?

Positive things (telling stories) does not work by itself, many times. After you dream, think, what’s stopping me from achieving my goals.

 Author’s Mantra : A bit of gamification can always help matters. If you inject the element of games in your daily tasks, the most tedious of jobs could become fun, too.

#4. Don’t network. Make friends. 

Over the years, networking has become an overused term. You hear it everywhere, you see it everywhere.

Book review Barking up the wrong tree

Eric wants you to stop using this term – networking. He wants you to build relationships and long-lasting friendships. And to do that, you need to learn to give.

Like Gary Vaynerchuk says, you have to give, give, give before you ask.

Those who do something for you, don’t forget to shower heaps of gratitude on them. Show them how much you love them for what they have done for you.

He says, “Gratitude is the tactical nuke of happiness and relationship building.” 

 Author’s Mantra : Don’t just network. Make friends.

#5. Be a little unsure even when you are an expert

There are so many stories of people who feigned confidence and triumphed in a difficult situation. We all have come across people who are full of bluster and yet are successful. They ooze with confidence and leave an impression on others.

Eric accepts that confidence – even when you are faking it – can play a pivotal role in catapulting you over your competition.

He supports the theory that when you fake confidence, others do not see through it. And conventional thinking has always told us to appear confident no matter what the situation is.

Eric Barker busts the myth of confidence. He says people who fake confidence are always on a thin ice. They may sneak through once, but sooner than later, their lies give them away.

On a similar note, those who are overconfident, they tend to develop hubris and dehumanize others.

Eric’s solution to all this is self-compassion. Basically, stay humble. Even when you are the most sought-after expert, always be a little unsure of your super-abilities.

 Author’s Mantra : Know that you are not infallible. And, when you do make a mistake, don’t beat yourself up about it. Often in life, it’s better to be a little unsure.

#6. Work toward your success but don’t give up on fun

Eric Barker talks about work-life balance and the sinister effect that Extreme Success can have on one’s life.

He cites the success stories of individuals such as Ted Williams, the great baseball player and Albert Einstein, the physicist with the greatest reputation for the originality of thought.

“Sometimes more is not the answer, sometimes we need to relax and have fun and maybe act a little crazy.” – Eric Barker

Their enormous success had a cost. Williams was so obsessed with perfecting his craft that his family didn’t matter to him. Einstein even went so far as to make his wife sign an agreement which embargoed her from any personal relations with her husband.

In other words, their personal lives were a wreck. The one big positive though was that at least they were obsessed with something they loved.

What about the ordinary mortals stuck in jobs they don’t love? Eric affirms that people need fun and rest for their creativity to grow.

If your boss wants you hanging around in office even when the working hours are over, then says the author, “You may not have a job. You may have a symbiote.”

 Author’s Mantra : Eric says plans are important in life. Make them. Decide your course in life or others will decide it for you.


“Barking up the Wrong Tree” is an excellent book. It covers a vast range of subject matter, all bolted together with Eric Barker’s pertinent grasp of relevant facts and information.

He leans on the research of social scientists like Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel laureate and the author of “Thinking fast and slow” and Dan Ariely, the author of “Predictably Irrational” and “The Upside of Irrationality“.

It’s not a breezy read, but I guarantee you’d look forward to reading it once you have started.

If you try everything in this book, I assure you won’t be far from success. However, we’ve all been to that motivational seminar where you come out all pumped up and once the adrenalin runs out, so does your motivation. We regress to our old lazy selves. Hope Eric Barker changes something of that.

Book review Barking up the wrong tree

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