BOOK REVIEW: Why playing by the rules may not make you successful

Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong, by Eric Barker

IF YOU want career success, should you play by the rules, and do what you are told?

Author Eric Barker cites research into high school valedictorians from graduation onward, to see what becomes of those outstanding students. These were the teenagers who studied hard and followed the rules.

How many of the 81 top students in the study went on to change the world, run the world, or impress the world?  Exactly – none. And this was despite being self-disciplined, conscientious, and complying with the rules.

A study of 700 American millionaires showed their average college GPA was 2.9, which is below the average and would limit one’s chances of doing further academic work.

Consider how you would feel if your paediatrician told you that your little son’s upper body would be too long, his legs too short, his hands and feet too big, and his arms gangly. Hardly cause for joy. If a knowledgeable swimming coach hears this, he sees nothing but Olympic Gold, and the next Michael Phelps - a mutant with superpowers.

“In the right environment, bad can be good and odd can be beautiful,” Barker notes.

Barker’s advice: identify your strengths and pick the right place to apply them. The conventional view is flawed.

When it comes to corporate success, Stanford Graduate School of Business professor Jeffrey Pfeffer argues that managing your manager’s impression of you is far more important than actual hard work. If you upset her, your performance won’t save you. No, the world is not fair.

Eighty percent of our evaluations of other people relate to their warmth or competence. If they are too nice, they are very often perceived to be less competent. “Being a jerk makes others see you as more powerful.”

So, should you behave like “a jerk”? They do win in the short term, but it destroys the very environment they need to succeed - the other side of bad behaviour.

According to the World Database of Happiness, Moldova is the least happy place to live. It is a place that has become a black hole of selfishness, were no one trusts anyone (really!) and everyone loses.

An inmate at Corcoran State Prison was quoted as saying, “Without order, we have anarchy, and when we have anarchy, people die here.” For any criminal organisation to be successful, it needs a level of trust and cooperation inside, even if its members are doing evil on the outside.

Pirate life was orderly and honest

The best historical example of criminal cooperation are the pirates of old, and historians put this down to how well they treated their people. They were democratic. They trusted one another. And they set up an economically sound system to make sure this would be the case. “Contrary to conventional wisdom, pirate life was orderly and honest.”

You have undoubtedly heard it said that winners don’t quit, and quitters don’t win. Well, W. C. Fields once said, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again... then give up. There’s no use being a damn fool about it.”

There are great benefits in having grit, but it is also useful to consider the upside of quitting.

The price of anything is the amount of life you are prepared to exchange for it. There rarely is a way to say, “I want to do this” without also saying “And I’m willing to give that up to do it.” This is what economics call opportunity cost.

‘Quit’ doesn’t have to be the opposite of ‘grit’: there is also ‘strategic quitting’. We all quit occasionally, but too often quitting is not an explicit, intentional decision. There are only 24 hours in a day, and every hour we use for this, we cannot use for that.

Grit can’t exist without quit.

One of the many fascinating ideas covered in this book is a finding about top executives. Two-thirds had a mentor at some point in their career, and those who did, made more money (28.8% more!) and were happier with their careers.

For women, this seems to be even more important. Every one of the successful female executives in the study, bar none, turned out to have had a mentor.

Why are mentors so valuable? It prevents you from making the inevitable mistakes, and mistakes can lead to career failure, or at least a slowdown. Having a coach or teacher who makes work something exciting and fun to be involved in, often leads to putting in the effort necessary to become an expert at it.

And of course, when you relate to someone you look up to, you get motivated.

Barker offers some advice on how to get an amazing mentor who is right for you. There is a saying: “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.” You will need to do everything you can to advance your career, and that includes studying your mentor, and being intimately familiar with his work.

This will allow you to ask great questions – a perfect way to build a relationship. Never ask a mentor a question Google can easily answer for you! And don’t waste your mentor’s time; if they are very good, they are undoubtedly very busy, too.

You have probably been told (incorrectly according to Barker,) to always believe in yourself. “Fake it ‘till you make it!” Faking it can be a very bad strategy, because when you fool others, you can end up fooling yourself.

If you want to know which CEOs will run their company into the ground, count how many times they use the word “I” in their annual letter to shareholders. Financial analyst Laura Rittenhouse found a direct correlation between the number of times ‘I’ was used and business failure.  

Entrepreneurs who are more pessimistic have been shown to be more successful. Optimistic gamblers lose more money, and the best lawyers are pessimists.

If you are normally fairly confident, enjoy the benefits, but keep an eye out for delusion, and stay empathetic. If you lack confidence, it is no problem. You will naturally learn faster than the know-it-alls, and you’ll make more friends.

Confidence is a result of success, not a cause.

There are so many insights in this book, that I recommend it as a great year-end gift to thoughtful colleagues. They will definitely enjoy it more than a bottle of wine or chocolates!

Readability:    Light --+-- Serious
Insights:         High +---- Low
Practical:        High ---+- Low
  • Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on leadership and strategy and is the author of Executive Update. Views expressed are his own.

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