Barking Up the Wrong Tree: Book Overview

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Barking Up the Wrong Tree" by Eric Barker. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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When it comes to success in life, are you barking up the wrong tree? Do you stick with the right things and quit when you should? How’s your work-life balance?

In the book Barking Up the Wrong Tree, Eric Barker discusses why context is king—why the rules for success depend on who you are. He examines interpersonal relationships, reviewing the importance of kindness, networks, and your attitude towards success. He also shares his views on persistence and hard work, namely why you need to stick to some things and quit others and how you can achieve the ideal balance of work and play.

Take a look at our overview of Barking Up the Wrong Tree, and see what you can apply to your own life and career.

Barking Up the Wrong Tree

What’s the key to success? It’s hard to know—especially when so much success advice is contradictory: Should you be kind, or is being nice for losers? Should you spend every waking hour at work or focus on work-life balance? In the book Barking Up the Wrong Tree, peak performance expert Eric Barker examines the research on every option—and shares what he believes are the secrets to success.

Know Yourself—and Act Accordingly

Why are there so many different rules regarding success? Barker suggests this is because often, the key is not whether the path is right but whether it’s right for you. Therefore, an essential key to success is to know yourself and act accordingly.

Barker explains that, since different types of people succeed in different ways, you must first understand yourself. To do so, you must figure out two main things about yourself—whether you’re a rule-follower or an individualist, and what you’re good at. When you know how you generally work and what you’re naturally suited for, you can focus on picking the jobs that will work with your strengths and that you’re thus more likely to succeed at.

Be Kind, But Be Smart

Another area in which conventional advice regarding success contradicts itself is its recommendations surrounding kindness. Some people argue that being nice is for chumps, while others argue that being nice will get you far. So who’s right? According to Barker, they all are. You can be both kind and successful—but you have to be smart about it.

Why does being kind pay off? Barker explains that when you’re kind to someone without expecting anything in return, people grow to like you—and people who like you want to help you.

While being kind is important, Barker argues that it only leads to success if you’re smart about it—and he presents three ways of doing so. To be smart, Barker first recommends that you surround yourself with ethical people at work. A second way to be both smart and kind is to highlight your achievements. Third, Barker recommends that you fight back when people try to abuse your kindness. However, Barker doesn’t recommend fighting back every time people are unkind. Rather, his fourth and final recommendation for being both kind and smart is to occasionally forgive people when they’re unkind to you.

Nurture Your Network

You’ve now learned that it’s smart to be nice, but what if socializing doesn’t come naturally to you? Is success really about who—not what—you know? Not necessarily, according to Barker—but your relationships are essential, so you must nurture your network. Good relationships are often essential to progress, Barker contends.

So, if your network does matter, how can you nurture it? The first step, according to Barker, is to reframe the term “networking” and focus on building friendships. A simple way to do this is to look for things you have in common. The second step to nurturing your network is to mentor and be mentored. Finally, Barker recommends regularly thanking the people in your life.

Become Self-Compassionate

You’ve learned why being kind to others can help you succeed, but how should you act towards yourself? Conventional wisdom dictates that being confident is key to success—and that if you aren’t confident, you should act as if you were. However, Barker argues that confidence is overrated.

Barker contends that we focus too much on the benefits of confidence and not enough on its negative consequences: the reality that just because we’re confident (or pretend to be confident) in our ability to do something doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re able to do that thing. As a result, being confident can lead us to believe that we can do things we can’t and thus make poor decisions.

So, how can you avoid the negative consequences of confidence? According to Barker, the best way is to ignore confidence entirely. Instead, try to become more self-compassionate—in other words, be kinder to yourself when you fail. Self-compassion improves your performance and boosts your mood—just as self-confidence does. However, self-compassion has one major advantage over self-confidence: When you’re self-compassionate, you don’t overestimate your abilities. Rather, research indicates that being self-compassionate encourages appropriate judgments so you see your true self—flaws included.

Work Hard at the Right Things

Barker contends that, if you want to succeed, you have to work hard at the right things—which means you have to stick to some things but quit others.

So, you now know that you have to stick to the endeavors that matter—but how do you discover what those are? What are the long-term goals that you want to fight for? If you have no idea, Barker recommends performing small experiments: Test out things you’re interested in to see if you want to pursue them in the long term. For example, if you dream of opening a café, get a part-time job at one to see if it’s right for you.

Once something piques your interest, try the WOOP method: Define your wish, envision the ideal outcome, review what obstacles you might encounter, and plan how you’ll overcome them.

How to Overcome Setbacks

Once you’ve decided what to work on, how can you ensure that you persevere through setbacks? Barker argues that one key is to tell yourself a good story. Specifically, Barker recommends that you tell yourself two stories. First, write your own eulogy: Creating a story about how you want people to remember you when you’re dead will motivate you to strive towards that legacy when you’re alive. Second, Barker recommends turning your journey into a game—which is a type of story because it involves reframing reality. Gamifying your journey makes it more enjoyable and thus motivates you to push through setbacks and stick to your plan even when you get bored.

Barker contends that you must include four features to stay motivated and stick to your goals:

  • Make sure it’s possible to win your game.
  • Regularly increase the difficulty.
  • Clarify your lower-level goals.
  • Incorporate regular feedback.

Work Smart and Hard

Barker agrees that working hard is essential, but he also approves of balance. In other words, you should work hard—but work smart. Barker explains that, if you want to succeed, you have to spend several hours on your goals—ideally, at least 10,000 hours to become an expert.

Despite this, Barker argues that work-life balance is also essential because spending all your time working comes with trade-offs. Notably, people who spend all their time working often struggle to maintain good relationships. Moreover, working too much often leads to exhaustion.

How to Build a Balanced Schedule

Barker argues that the most important thing is to decide what your successful life looks like. Research suggests that a successful life should have four main elements: pursuing joy, reaching your goals, connecting with others, and making an impact. Then, Barker recommends ensuring that you’re spending time on all four of those elements.

Barking Up the Wrong Tree: Book Overview

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Eric Barker's "Barking Up the Wrong Tree" at Shortform .

Here's what you'll find in our full Barking Up the Wrong Tree summary :

  • How you can achieve the ideal balance of work and play
  • The importance of kindness, networks, and your attitude towards success
  • Why you should gamify your life journey

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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