Review – Barking Up the Wrong Tree

August 17, 2017


Many books on success out there summarize as “Look at these successful people! Study their habits and learn their ways, so you will be successful, too!”. Actually, I have reviewed a prime example here. Barking up the Wrong Tree presents a nice counterpoint and states that imitating the successful does not necessarily make successful. Instead we get a thorough analysis of perceived and real success factors, somewhat hidden beneath anecdotal evidence and academic namedropping.

Did you know that good and bad traits come with the same package? The exact same factors that make people highly creative also deteriorate their moral compass and mental health. In fact, creativity is strongly associated with dishonesty and mental instability.  The same factors that allow you to adapt and excel at school stop you from standing out at work. People with  top grades from prestigious universities typically don’t change the world. At the top ranks of disruptive businesses you find people with kinked CVs, and a history of mediocre test results. Most schools reward conformity over genius, allowing people with top grades to easily rise to middle management, but rarely above.

Barker speaks of “filtered” and “unfiltered” leaders, that either comfortably adapt into a company’s hierarchy or run their own high risk, high reward business to make it big or fail utterly. Every trait, good or bad, can is an  “intensifier”, as they open a way to leverage your vices for success. You’re a very lazy person? That probably makes you pragmatic and diplomatic. Choleric? Channel your anger to fight for a worthy cause. You get the picture.

The next myth Barker debunks is that only jerks have success. Astonishingly, studies have shown that obnoxious backstabbers usually end up somewhere in the lower middle of the salary range, with super nice people below them, but reasonably nice people above them. The explanation is that jerks are able to take advantage of nice guys (the ones at the bottom end), but what really creates success is repeated and long-term cooperation. Jerks cannot cooperate with anyone, while nice guys that insist on mutually favorable transactions build a strong network to support them. Barker also tops this chapter off with some non-sleazy networking tips (suitable for introverts).

In comparison to all those books that claim to show a singular way to success, Barking up the Wrong Tree offers a healthy dose of relativism. Every success factor is presented alongside invalidating concessions: Be gritty and relentless, unless you don’t know what you want. Try different things, unless you already know what your passion to focus on. Be nice, unless someone screws you over first. So which non-negotiable success drivers are left? Quite some, and Barker has then all: be optimistic (although it makes your predictions less accurate, everything has two sides, remember?), get a mentor, make plans, learn to forgive yourself. All of those get their own chapter in the book.

Barking up the Wrong Tree also takes into account that there is more to success than just financial gain. A major part of the book deals with the pursuit of happiness, balancing work and non-work and, most importantly, aligning who you are with where you are. Like similar books, Barking up the Wrong Tree is not shy of making lists, but at least they are good lists. We get the four ways to game the system, the four stages of achieving a goal and the most important list of them all, the four key metrics of all-around success at life.

Although a bit biased in the way of list item count, Barking up the Wrong Tree offers a pretty comprehensive guide to being the best you can be. However, for a book that is initially about unfiltered non-conformist rule breakers that follow their passion, Barking up the Wrong Tree offers a lot of rules on its own, and many of those advocate the middle ground of two extremes.

In conclusion, the book presents a potpourri of disconnected topics in a way that is very tolerable. The author contrasts common success myths, the science debunking the and unlikely example for actual success factors to great effect.

Key points:

  • Use your “intensifiers” (your very own genetic and social predispositions, that enbale good and bad traits at the same time) for the best.
  • Find out who you are and where you actually want to be, instead of mimicking other successful people.
  • Most things you hear about success are not backed by actual science.
  • Success is more than making money.

Author affiliations:

Eric Barker is an author for Wired and other magazines and runs his own blog on the myths and science of success.


Review copy:

copy bought
HarperOne (May 16, 2017)
ISBN-10: 0062416049
ISBN-13: 978-0062416049

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Barking Up the Wrong Tree Book Cover Barking Up the Wrong Tree
Eric Barker
May 16, 2017


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