How to Find Your Path in Life & at Work

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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Why are there so many different rules regarding success? Is there only one way to succeed?

In Barking Up the Wrong Tree, peak performance expert Eric Barker explains that the key is often not whether the path to success is right but whether it’s right for you. Therefore, an essential key to success is to know yourself and act accordingly. Different things work for different people, so he outlines a way to figure out what type of person you are (your working style) and what you’re good at (your strengths).

Keep reading for Barker’s advice on how to find your path in life and at work.

Finding Your Path

Barker explains that, most of the time, things aren’t inherently good or bad: They just work differently for different people. Such is the case with rules for success: Some people can succeed by following a prescribed path, while others succeed by doing the exact opposite. Specifically, people can be divided into two types: the rule-followers who succeed in predictable ways—like by steadily climbing the career ladder—and the individualists, who follow unorthodox paths and have qualities that might be problematic but work in the right context. For example, Winston Churchill’s paranoia was dangerous in peacetime but led him to rightly view Adolf Hitler as a threat—and thus successfully lead Britain through World War II.

How Accepting Your Tendencies—No Matter What They Are—Can Help 

Other experts point out that you may be neither a rule-follower nor an individualist but a rule-bender—someone who follows rules in most instances but occasionally deviates from them without breaking them entirely. Moreover, they suggest that your behavior may differ depending on the situation. For example, you might steadily climb the career ladder but then make drastic organizational changes once you reach the top. 

But, whether you’re a rule-follower, bender, or breaker, history does suggest that accepting your tendencies—including potential weaknesses—and taking advantage of them can help lead to greatness. For example, modern experts believe that Churchill had bipolar disorder. Paranoia is a symptom of bipolar disorder, as are bouts of mania. But rather than try to change this part of himself, Churchill made good use of these intense floods of energy, publishing 43 books while serving as prime minister.

Barker explains that, since different types of people succeed in different ways, you must first understand yourself. This is a key element in learning how to find your path. 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.

(Shortform note: Barker doesn’t specify how to tell whether you’re a rule-follower or an individualist. Instead, he suggests that you should already know based on your life experience. But what if you don’t? Consider taking the DiSC personality test, which suggests that people with a high C personality type are likely to follow the rules, while low C types are individualists.)

Not sure what your strengths are? Start by analyzing your projects: Before you start one, write down your expectations. Then, once you’ve finished, see how reality compares to those expectations. Over time, you’ll start to see patterns in your behavior that will reveal your strengths. For example, if you consistently exceed expectations when managing technical projects, managing technical projects may be your strength.  

(Shortform note: One expert warns that basing your career on your strengths can backfire if you define a strength as something you’re already good at. This is because by doing so, you ignore the things you could be good at but in which you’d need to improve your skills over time. Therefore, when determining a career based on your strengths, consider not just your current skills but also skills in which you might have exceptional potential—and could thus improve significantly with practice.)

Once you know your working style and strengths, Barker suggests that you select an environment that lets them flourish instead of one in which they’ll wither. For example, an individualist would be miserable at a hierarchical corporation, just as a rule-follower might hate a start-up with few clear guidelines and an anything-goes attitude. Instead of actively sabotaging yourself by selecting companies and positions you’re unsuited for, play to your strengths. Doing so will give you the greatest chance of success.

(Shortform note: How do you select a position and company suited to both your strengths and your work style? Experts recommend that you read job postings carefully and ask detailed questions during your interviews to determine what kind of position you’re signing up for. For example, if you work best alone, consider avoiding job postings that emphasize collaboration. And if you hate playing by the rules? Ask about manager-employee relationships. An answer that emphasizes communication and flexibility will likely suit your work style.)

How to Find Your Path in Life & at Work

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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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