Barking Up the Wrong Tree

What is Success?

Anytime someone asks me what my definition of success is, I often quote to them my all-time favorite line from Paulo Coelho, who said

“What is success?  It is being able to go to bed each night with your soul at peace.”

This concept, of being able to sleep with your soul at peace, was a revolutionary concept for me as it spoke to me on many levels. Society defines success as getting a job, a car, a house, a family and so on. It is measured in monetary terms. The more money you have, the more successful you are. However, the reality is something different, where I have encountered people with lots of money yet leading unhappy lives, and people living on a meager salary yet leading fulfilling lives. So, the concept of success becomes very relative.

Eric Barker, in his book Barking Up the Wrong Trees, aims to undo our concept and seeks to refresh our minds with what success really is. “What defines success for you is, well, up to you. It’s about what you personally need to be happy at work and at home.” (page 3).


The Break Down

Part 1 looks whether it pays to play it safe and doing what we are told to do really produces success. An interesting study Barker conducts shows how the valedictorians at high schools don’t really go on to lead successful lives, but rather it is the students who don’t go down the prescribed path who go on to lead successful lives. The idea behind is simple: students who follow the rules laid down by the school, don’t adapt well into real life where nothing goes by the rules. In contrast, the students who’ve dealt with uncertainty in school are better equipped to handle real life.

“To be great we must be different. And that doesn’t come from trying to follow society’s vision of what is best, because society doesn’t always know what it needs.” (page 21).

Barker goes on to talk about leaders and the qualities they possess. They know how to turn their weaknesses into strengths, and there are ample examples of various personalities, from Steve Jobs to Gandhi who has displayed exemplary leadership skills, and ultimately redefined what success is.

Part 2 looks why nice guys don’t always lose and can come first. Interestingly, Barker uses examples from gang members (they know a lot more about trust and cooperation), pirates and serial killers to show how we learn to trust, cooperation, and kindness. It may seem absurd at times to share these examples, but trust me, it all makes sense. “Research shows some negative traits can actually make you more likely to become a leader.” (page 35). He also asks ‘why do jerks succeed? “They’re assertive about what they want and they’re not afraid to let others know about what they’ve achieved.” (page 36).

Another interesting information Barker shares is proving a connection between charitable giving and income: “for every dollar donated, income for that person went up by $3.75.” (page 45). Studies have shown that spending money on others makes us happier.

There are some golden rules:

  1. Pick the Right Pond
  2. Cooperate First
  3. Being selfless isn’t saintly, it’s silly
  4. Work Hard- but make sure it gets noticed
  5. Think long term and make others think long term
  6. Forgive

Part 3 explores the concept of grit and resilience, courtesy some lessons from Navy SEALS, Arranged Marriages and Batman. Grit, as Barker defines it, is sticking to something, working hard and not quitting and that is the secret to success.

NAVY Seals do a lot of positive self-talk to stay in the game. Barker suggests we all find our stories because that will help us define our life’s purpose. How do we find our story? Think of your death. (Page 79).

  • Consistent small wins is something gritty survivors all have in common
  • Everything we do in life has a tradeoff- choose your priority
  • Lucky people don’t dwell on failure: they see the good side of the bad and often learn from it
  • Try things. Quit what fails. Then apply Grit.

Part 4 explores why it’s not who we know, but what we know, that really matters. Here, Barker uses examples from Hostage Negotiators, Top Comedians and Smartest Men who lived.

He talks about how extroverts are happier than introverts, and while it may seem like a simple concept, Barker goes into great details the difference between the two and how it can help us. Being an extrovert can help us to make friends, which in turn will help us network. He shares many tips and suggestions on how to network in the best ways possible.

Mentorship is one thing Barker suggest we all should indulge in to reap in success. We all need guidance and motivation, and in turn we can help others by being their mentors. There are great tips on how to look for the right kind of mentors and how to stick with them. (pages 153-157).

  • Know who you are
  • In the end, it’s all about friendship
  • The most successful people are always getting and giving
  • Your network influences you, like it or not, make sure it’s a good one

Part 5 looks at attitude. In this chapter, Barker uses examples from people who can’t feel fear, tightrope walkers and chess masters. My favorite part of this chapter is when he talks about how faking confidence can actually help you master difficult situations. A study has shown “displaying overconfidence makes others feel you’re both competent and higher in status.” (page 183). Of course, he also addresses the downsides of overconfidence, which is why he explains in details how best to be confident.

He suggests we should develop self-compassion, and we can do that by talking to ourselves. This way, we can recognize our failures and frustrations without either denying them or seeing them as end of the world. (page 198).

  • Believing in yourself is nice. Forgiving yourself is better.
  • -Adjust for your natural level of self-esteem.
  • -Absolutely have to have more confidence? Earn it.
  • -Don’t be a faker.

Part 6 asks the reader to take a step back and look at the big picture and how a success in career aligns with success at home.  Here, he addresses the idea of work-life balance, how it’s ever so important to maintain a healthy balance between life at work and home. One shouldn’t overpower the other. We all need rest. We all need a hobby. In general, overworking is bad for you, but things change when you find your job meaningful.

Barker explains in details ways we can achieve healthy balance: find a job you love, have some hobbies, sleep well, be playful, utilize your morning productively and so on.


The author does ask his reader to define their own vision of success, and not what society’s vision for you is. In short, he says there are four things that should matter the most:

  1. Happiness: feelings of pleasure or contentment in life
  2. Achievement: achieving accomplishments that are meaningful to you
  3. Significance: having a positive impact on people you care about
  4. Legacy: establishing your values or accomplishments so others can find future success


What’s the most important thing to remember when it comes to success?

One word: Alignment.

Success is not the result of any single quality: it’s about alignment between who you are and where you choose to be

This book is a must read and I wish I had this book to read in high school, as I personally had been led to believe that success is all about money, a good job, a house, and a car. The subtitle of the book is: The surprising science behind why everything you know about is (mostly) wrong. And in life, there is much to success than just these things. It’s inner happiness, it’s making an impact on other people’s lives, it’s about following your passion and dreams and ultimately accomplishing things that have a meaning in your life. It’s about time we all redefine success on our own terms and live our lives out to our own dreams and passions. Screw the society.

One Comment Add yours

  1. nicholasnjanga says:

    Great post with sense


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