“Barking Up the Wrong Tree,” by Erick Barker, is a strategic map for how to be successful. Written with so many references to research and other books, it is a kind of meta-review of the best of current behavioral research, illustrated with compelling stories.
“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. A story that connects you with the world in a way that keeps you going. A network that helps you and a job that leverages your natural introversion or extroversion. A level of confidence that keeps you going while learning and forgiving yourself for the inevitable failures. A balance between the big four [Happiness, Achieving, Significance, Legacy] that creates a well-rounded life with no regrets.” (263)
Barker admonishes the reader to not focus on trying to be effective or efficient, but instead doing things you are proud of and make an impact. Interestingly, an increase in pay does not equate to an increase in job satisfaction. People want to progress doing meaningful work more than money or promotions. So, what is meaningful work? Barker defines it as doing something that 1) is important to you and 2) you’re good at.
However, we often don’t do what makes us happiest—we do what is easy. Whether that is not going out with friends because it is easier to stay home, or choosing the job path of least resistance.
Why aren’t we doing what will ultimately make us happiest and feel successful? Barker identifies that we:
- aren’t sure what it is we want to do,
- are reluctant to quit what isn’t working, and we
- avoid taking risks for fear of failure.
Identify What You Want To Do
Many of us are not sure of either what is important to us or what we are good at. Barker encourages us to try many different things to find what we like. We can also pay attention to what we are dreaming about, what we wish we were doing instead of what we are doing.
Daydreaming about success frequently backfires because your brain produces the neurochemical buzz of success just from fantasizing about it. Instead, try WOOP– Wish, Outcomes, Obstacle, Plan—developed by Gabriele Oettingen. For this process to work for a career, relationship or any goal, you must first articulate what you Wish for, then really distill what Outcome you desire. Next, identify what Obstacles stand in your way and finally, develop a Plan. “Without a plan, we do what is passive and easy, not what is really fulfilling.” (248)
After trying many different things, you can start to identify what you want to do and what you are good at. Once you have figured out (or for those who already know) what you want, Barker encourages you still spend 5% to 10% of your time trying new things. Think of it like investing in yourself, like a venture capitalist; investing up to 10% of your time exploring new things might result in flops but might also yield a tremendous return—be it in knowledge, skills or expanded connections.
Quit What Isn’t Working
Somehow, we think there is not enough money but plenty of time. You can make more money, but you can’t make more time. We forget or discount the opportunity cost of what we do—when we do this, we can’t do that. Being clear about your goals narrows how to best use your time. Then, remove everything that isn’t helping you achieve your goals.
Tracking what you do and what contributes to your sense of success will help identify where your time is being wasted and where you want to focus your time. Try categorizing, using the four metrics that Barker says matter most: Happiness (doing something you enjoy); Achieving something; doing things of Significance; and leaving or creating a Legacy. If your time goes in the “none of the above” category, what can you change?
Identify and reduce hot spots of time wasters. Understand what creates drags on your time, and reduce or eliminate them. Rearrange or design your space and time to make it easier to do what is useful and eliminates distractions. This may include rearranging what is on your desk, so that you’re not distracted by your phone, or moving furniture, so that you’re not looking at the kitchen; or it may mean turning off notifications of incoming email.
Free up your time by removing the distractions. Schedule everything you need to do, with the top priority getting your best time slot. We tend to schedule the interruptions, not the work—so, it’s no wonder that we find it hard to get work done.
Embrace Risk and Celebrate Failure
Failure is important. Success requires trying something new or risky and raises the potential for failure. Yet, we don’t want to fail, so we reduce our opportunities to succeed. We resist trying something that might fail because failure is unacceptable in our work or home culture.
When authority figures are present and giving a lot of feedback, we tend to be less creative. People want to succeed when they are being watched, which means doing less things that are not already proven to work. We end up sticking to the tried and true and mediocre.
Zero failure means no fun. Games are fun, work isn’t. How can work be more like a game? Games are winnable, have an element of novelty, have clear goals and provide pretty immediate feedback. When playing a game, you fail, regroup and try again because it’s fun. Restructuring work, so that it has all four elements and feels more like a game, leads to more satisfaction and more success.
Self-compassion, not self-esteem, is how we recover from failure. Self-esteem is based on delusion (I’m fantastic!) or conditions (I’m good only if my project works out)—neither of which lead to positive long-term outcomes. Being willing to accept your humanity, that you can and will fail, and that you don’t have to be perfect (in fact, you can’t be—no one can), will help you face problems without turning them into disasters.
Barker outlines a realistic-yet-achievable road map and encourages us to be honest about human behavior and tendencies that typically stand in our way.
Barker believes we can achieve clarity in terms of what we want to do. We can eliminate what isn’t moving us toward our goals. We can and should take risks. We can do work that has a positive impact on things we care about and create change. And, we can be successful and feel good about it.
For more inspiration, pick up a copy of “Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success is (Mostly) Wrong.”