back to books

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


Personal Thoughts

By looking at what separates the extremely successful from the rest of us, we learn what we can do to be more like them - and find out, in some cases, why it's good that we aren't. Barking up the Wrong Tree draws on startling statistics and surprising anecdotes to help you understand what works and what doesn't, so you can stop guessing at success and start living the life you want.

Summary Notes

  • Ironically, Arnold found those intellectual students who enjoy learning struggle in high school. They have passions they want to focus on, are more interested in achieving mastery, and find the structure of school stifling. Meanwhile, the valedictorians are intensely pragmatic. They follow the rules and prize A’s over skills and deep understanding.
  • Gautam Mukunda speculated that the reason for the inconsistency in the research was there are actually two fundamentally different types of leaders. The first kind rises up through formal channels, getting promoted, playing by the rules, and meeting expectations. These leaders, like Neville Chamberlain, are “filtered.” The second kind doesn’t rise up through the ranks; they come in through the window: entrepreneurs who don’t wait for someone to promote them; U.S. vice presidents who are unexpectedly handed the presidency; leaders who benefit from a perfect storm of unlikely events, like the kind that got Abraham Lincoln elected. This group is “unfiltered.”
  • What did Gould have to say about his extreme habits and crazy lifestyle? “I don’t think I’m all that eccentric.” Biographer Kevin Bazzana says, “That is a hallmark of a true eccentric—not thinking you’re all that eccentric, even when your every thought, word, and deed seems to set you apart from the rest of the world.”
  • The same traits that make people a nightmare to deal with can also make them the people who change the world.
  • Research shows that very creative people are more arrogant, dishonest, and disorganized. They also get lower grades in school. Despite what teachers may say, they dislike creative students because those children often don’t do what they’re told. Does this sound like a great employee to you? Hardly. So it’s no surprise that creativity is inversely correlated with employee performance reviews. Creative people are less likely to be promoted to CEO.
  • Marc Andreesen spoke at Stanford, saying: . . . the venture capital business is 100 percent a game of outliers, it is extreme outliers . . . We have this concept, invest in strength versus lack of weakness. And at first that is obvious, but it’s actually fairly subtle. Which is sort of the default way to do venture capital, is to check boxes. So “really good founder, really good idea, really good products, really good initial customers. Check, check, check, check. Okay, this is reasonable, I’ll put money in it.” What you find with those sort of checkbox deals, and they get done all the time, but what you find is that they often don’t have something that really makes them really remarkable and special. They don’t have an extreme strength that makes them an outlier. On the other side of that, the companies that have the really extreme strengths often have serious flaws. So one of the cautionary lessons of venture capital is, if you don’t invest on the basis of serious flaws, you don’t invest in most of the big winners. And we can go through example after example after example of that. But that would have ruled out almost all the big winners over time. So what we aspire to do is to invest in the start-ups that have a really extreme strength. Along with an important dimension, that we would be willing to tolerate certain weaknesses.
  • What do the following people all have in common?  Abraham Lincoln Gandhi Michelangelo Mark Twain, They all lost a parent before age sixteen. The list of orphans who became spectacular successes—or at least notoriously influential—is much longer and includes no fewer than fifteen British prime ministers. There’s no doubt that for many losing a parent at a young age is devastating, with profound negative effects. But for some, as Dan Coyle points out in The Talent Code, researchers theorize that such a tragedy instills in a child the feeling that the world is not safe and that an immense amount of energy and effort will be needed to survive. Due to their unique personality and circumstances, these orphans overcompensate and turn tragedy into fuel for greatness. So under the right circumstances, there can be big upsides to “negative” qualities. Your “bad” traits might be intensifiers. But how can you turn them into superpowers?
  • Many people struggle with this. They aren’t sure what their strengths are. Drucker offers a helpful definition: “What are you good at that consistently produces desired results?” To find out what those things are, he recommends a system he calls “feedback analysis.” Quite simply, when you undertake a project, write down what you expect to happen, then later note the result. Over time you’ll see what you do well and what you don’t. By figuring out whether you fall into the filtered or unfiltered camp and by knowing where your strengths are, you’re miles ahead of the average person in terms of achieving both success and happiness. Modern positive psychology research has shown again and again that one of the keys to happiness is emphasizing what are called “signature strengths.” Research by Gallup shows that the more hours per day you spend doing what you’re good at, the less stressed you feel and the more you laugh, smile, and feel you’re being treated with respect.
  • Once you know what type of person you are and your signature strengths, how do you thrive? This leads to Mukunda’s second piece of advice: pick the right pond. You’ve got to pick the environments that work for you . . . context is so important. The unfiltered leader who is an amazing success in one situation will be a catastrophic failure in the other, in almost all cases. It’s way too easy to think, “I’ve always succeeded, I am a success, I am successful because I am a success, because it’s about me, and therefore I will succeed in this new environment.” Wrong. You were successful because you happened to be in an environment where your biases and predispositions and talents and abilities all happened to align neatly with those things that would produce success in that environment.
  • When you choose your pond wisely, you can best leverage your type, your signature strengths, and your context to create tremendous value. This is what makes for a great career, but such self-knowledge can create value wherever you choose to apply
  • The lesson from cases of people both keeping and losing their jobs is that as long as you keep your boss or bosses happy, performance really does not matter that much and, by contrast, if you upset them, performance won’t save you.
  • Why do jerks succeed? Sure, some of it’s duplicity and evil, but there’s something we can learn from them in good conscience: they’re assertive about what they want, and they’re not afraid to let others know about what they’ve achieved.

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

Back to notes

Did You Enjoy This?

Then consider signing up for my Monday Medley newsletter. It's a collection of fascinating finds from my week, usually about psychology, technology, health, philosophy, and whatever else catches my interest. I also include new articles, book notes, and podcast episodes.

Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.