Barking Up The Wrong Tree: Book Summary, Notes, Review

The Book In A Single Sentence

There’re a lot of counterintuitive things that determine whether we succeed in our work and lives, and what we know is probably wrong. 

Personal Thoughts

Eric Barker has been penning his thoughts at Bakadesuyo for years now. This is the culmination of his work. 

If this is your first foray into pop psychology, I can think of few better places to begin than here. There’s no grand thesis that guides this book but Eric sprinkles in a ton of stories that makes you rethink how to approach the world. He has dived into the academic studies, reconciled conflicting conclusions, added his own opinion, and presented the information in an entertaining and memorable fashion. I only wish that there were more academics who wrote in this manner. 

Get Barking Up The Wrong Tree on Amazon. 

Book Notes

This contains some of the key lessons I’ve taken away, as well as interesting excerpts and quotes from the book. If you enjoy any of these, I’m sure you’ll find value from reading the book in its entirety. 

 Strengths and Weaknesses

  • “It’s only natural to wonder what made Robič so dominant and successful in such a grueling event. Was he genetically gifted? No. When tested, he seemed physically typical for a top ultra-endurance athlete. Did he have the best trainer? Nope. His friend Uroč Velepec described Robič as “Completely uncoachable.” In a piece for the New York Times, Dan Coyle revealed the edge Robič had over his competition that rendered him the greatest rider ever in the Race Across America: His insanity. That’s not an exaggerated way of saying he was extreme. It’s a literal way of saying when Robič rode, he utterly lost his mind.”
  • “But how many of these number-one high school performers go on to change the world, run the world, or impress the world? The answer seems to be clear: zero. The reason? Valedictorians typically settle into the system instead of shaking it up.
  • Schools reward being a generalist. There is little recognition of student passion or expertise. The real world does the reverse. Arnold, talking about the valedictorians, said, “They’re extremely well rounded and successful, personally and professionally, but they’ve never been devoted to a single area in which they put all their passion. That is not usually a recipe for eminence.”
  • Following the rules doesn’t create success; it just eliminates extremes—both good and bad. While this is usually good and all but eliminates downside risk, it also frequently eliminates earthshaking accomplishments.

  • 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.”

  • Unfiltered leaders are a lot more impactful than filtered ones because they have unique qualities. Not the flattering descriptors you might expect, like “incredibly smart” or “politically astute.” These qualities were often negative at the mean—qualities you and I would consider “bad”—but due to the specific context, they became positives. Like Churchill’s paranoid defense of the British state, these qualities were a poison that under just the right circumstances could be a performance-enhancing drug. Mukunda calls these “intensifiers.” And they hold the secret to how your biggest weakness might just be your greatest strength.

  • The 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.

  • Too often we label things “good” or “bad” when the right designation might merely be “different.” The Israeli military needed people who could analyze satellite images for threats. They needed soldiers who had amazing visual skills, wouldn’t get bored looking at the same place all day long, and could notice subtle changes. Not an easy task. But the IDF’s Visual Intelligence Division found the perfect recruits in the most unlikely of places. They began recruiting people with autism. While autistics may struggle with personal interaction, many excel at visual tasks, like puzzles. And they’ve proven themselves a great asset in their nation’s defense.

  • Intensifiers masquerade as positives because we give successful people the benefit of the doubt. It’s the old joke that poor people are crazy and rich people are “eccentric.” Traits like obsessiveness are framed as positives for those already in the successful camp and negatives for others. We all know some who benefit from perfectionism and others who are just “crazy.”

Agreeableness vs Disagreeableness

  • Is flattering the boss effective? Research has shown flattery is so powerful that it works even when the boss knows it’s insincere. Jennifer Chatman, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, did a study to see at what point flattery backfired. She couldn’t find one.

  • “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.”

  • It’s important to choose carefully what social norms you create. It’s like the old joke about ethics. There are three categories: “right”, “wrong”, and “everybody does it”. Once we see others getting away with something, we assume it’s okay. Nobody wants to be the sucker who plays by the rules when no one else does.  

  • Tit-for-tat, something so basic and intuitive, was the best performing strategy at the Prisoner’s Dilemma game. Reciprocity is something that is so universal you can always rely on it as a strategy. A related concept – mimesis.

  • In zero-sum games like chess you want your intentions to be unclear, but in the iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma, it’s the exact opposite. You want the other player to see what you’re doing so they can join you. Life is the latter.

  • Research shows that salespeople can be hired based on optimism alone. Insurance salesmen face constant rejection, so much so that the main determinant of their annual sales performance is not their people skills or salesmanship, but the ability to keep going after being turned away.
  • People with Cotard’s syndrome believe they are dead. They will sit in front of you, look you in the eye, and say they are deceased.Their responses are something psychologists call “confabulation.” They’re not trying to trick you, and they’re not even aware they’re incorrect. And sometimes their responses are utterly ridiculous. They completely reconstruct reality to fill in the gaps. Their minds just make stuff up in order to create logic retroactively.
  • When lectured on cognitive biases, the most common response is “Yeah, I know lots of people who do that – but I don’t”. It’s ironic because cognitive biases prevent us from understanding cognitive biases.

The Power of Stories

  • Nearly all religious leaders give sermons. Stories, stories, stories. They remind us how to behave and help us persist. Even if we’re not religious, popular culture fills the gap. UCLA film school professor Howard Suber describes movies as “sacred dramas for a secular society.” Just like with religious parables, we act like the heroes of the stories we tell.

  • Roy Baumeister, a professor at Florida State University, found that people who committed suicide often weren’t in the worst circumstances, but they had fallen short of the expectations they had of themselves. Their lives were not matching the stories in their heads. Just as Frankl saw in Auschwitz, the stories determined who would keep going and who would make a run for the wire.

  • Optimists told themselves a story that may not have been true, but it kept them going, often allowing them to beat the odds. Psychologist Shelley Taylor says that “a healthy mind tells itself flattering lies.”

  • The pessimists were more accurate and realistic, and they ended up depressed. The truth can hurt. This is why lawyers are 3.6 times more likely to be depressed than people in other professions. To protect their clients, attorneys must consider every possible thing that can go wrong. They can’t tell themselves happy, less accurate stories about how a deal will unfold. Pessimists outperform optimists in law school. And this same quality makes them very unhappy. Law is the highest paid profession in the United States and yet, when surveyed, 52 percent of lawyers described themselves as dissatisfied with their jobs.

  • In Kurt Vonnegut’s classic novel Mother Night, Howard W. Campbell Jr. is an American spy who poses as a Nazi propagandist during World War II. He becomes the “voice” of Nazi Germany on radio programs, ostensibly singing the praises of the Reich while in fact transmitting coded messages back to the United States. While his intentions are good, he comes to realize that his “fake” Nazi inspirational messages have more effect on motivating the enemy than his secret intelligence efforts do in assisting the allies. Vonnegut’s moral is that “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”

  • By engaging in cognitive reappraisal, and telling ourselves a different story about what is happening, we can subvert the entire willpower paradigm. Some research has shown that willpower is like a muscle, and it gets tired with overuse. But it only gets depleted if there’s a struggle. Games change the struggle to something else. They make the process fun, and as Mischel showed in his research, we are able to persist far longer and without the same level of teeth-gritting willpower depletion.

  • Jane McGonigal, a researcher and game designer, argues that by its very nature, efficiency entails removing game mechanics from the design of labor. In other words, we’re taking the fun out of it.

  • Pillsbury started making instant cake mix in the 1940s, but it didn’t sell very well, which didn’t make any sense. The mix made things easier. The company then realized that making a cake is not mere drudgery. Cakes hold meaning; they show love. So when Pillsbury made the cake mix less simple—you had to add the eggs yourself—sales soared.

  • Making work a game is quite simple; you don’t have to change what you’re doing all that much, you just have to change your perspective. But therein lies the reason many of us don’t do it: it feels kinda silly. Games may seem childish and trivial, but when you take the time to look at how many games are already secretly hidden in the things you do so passionately, the power of this perspective seems far less immature.

  • We’re consistently conservative about predicting how much extra cash we’ll have in our wallets, but when it comes to time, we always think there will be more tomorrow. Or next week. Or next year.

Knowing People and Trying New Things

  • Mihály Csikszentmihályi was putting together a study of some of the most creative successful people around: 275 Nobel Prize winners, National Book Award winners, and other people clearly at the top of their fields. It was incredibly flattering just to be invited. So what happened? Over a third said no. Many more didn’t even reply. They had their own work to do. Peter Drucker sent back this response: “I hope you will not think me presumptuous or rude if I say that one of the secrets of productivity is to have a very big waste paper basket to take care of all invitations such as yours.”

  • Studying over a thousand subjects, Wiseman found that lucky people maximize opportunities. The study showed they are more open to new experiences, more extroverted, and less neurotic. They listen to their hunches. Most of all, Wiseman says, lucky people just try stuff. It makes intuitive sense: if you lock yourself in your house, how many exciting, new, cool things are going to happen to you? Not many.

  • If you don’t know what to be gritty at yet, you need to try lots of things—knowing you’ll quit most of them—to find the answer. Once you discover your focus, devote 5 to 10 percent of your time to little experiments to make sure you keep learning and growing.

  • Even the bad habits of extroverts reveal the secrets of their financial success. If you’re the type who likes to drink and smoke, do you earn more cash? Drinkers make more money. Smokers don’t. Drinkers make 10 percent more than abstainers. And males that hit a bar at least once a month make another 7 percent on top of that. Why does liquor make you richer? Unlike smoking, drinking is primarily a social activity.

  • Mark Granovetter’s groundbreaking work on the importance of “weak ties” showed that you don’t usually find out about that next great opportunity from close friends. You tend to hear about the same things they do. People who have more peripheral acquaintances are more plugged in and learn about emerging possibilities. Having a big network also pays off when you get that job. One study found, “Multilevel analyses showed that networking is related to concurrent salary and that it is related to the growth rate of salary over time.”

  • Research from Francesca Gino shows that when we try to meet someone just to get something from them, it makes us feel immoral. The people who feel least sleazy about networking are powerful people. But those who need to network the most—the least powerful—are the most likely to feel bad about it. We like networking better when it’s serendipitous, when it feels like an accident, not deliberate and Machiavellian.

  • Iceland. It’s one of the happiest places in the world, and part of this is due to the fact that it’s tightly knit. The population is so connected that they run into friends wherever they go. This is so common in Iceland that saying “I ran into friends” is an acceptable excuse for being late to work.

  • Neuroscientist Diana Tamir found that your brain gets more pleasure from you talking about yourself than it does from food or money. This is why you should stop doing it and let others do it as much as possible around you. Arthur Aron’s research has demonstrated that asking people questions about themselves can create a bond as strong as a lifelong friendship in a surprisingly short amount of time.

  • We like compliments more than sex or money. What is key here, according to influence expert Robert Cialdini, is the sincere part. You don’t want to feel slimy and they don’t want you to be slimy. Just say whatever positive thing honestly comes to mind. Studies show that even obvious, insincere flattery has incredible effects—but we’re not selling insurance, so keep it real.

  • Stanford Graduate School of Business professor Jeffrey Pfeffer says that the number-one mistake people make when trying to get ahead at the office is opting out of the social dynamics of the company. Saying “Yeah, I know relationships help you get ahead but I refuse to play that game.” Clinical psychologist and workplace consultant Al Bernstein says, “You can’t not play politics; you can only play them badly. The only place where relationships don’t matter is on a desert island far away from the rest of the world.”

Facts vs Feelings

  • Things go sideways and often our first response is to fight. Not physical violence, but yelling and arguing vs. discussing and negotiating. Why is this? Philosopher Daniel Dennett says it’s because a “war metaphor” is wired into our brains when it comes to disagreement. When there’s a war, someone is conquered. It’s not a discussion of facts and logic; it’s a fight to the death. No matter who is really right, if you win, I lose.

  • Al Bernstein, a clinical psychologist calls it the “Godzilla vs. Rodan” effect. When the other person starts yelling and you start yelling and you both follow the war metaphor, buildings gets knocked down, Tokyo gets leveled, but very little gets accomplished. You might think, “I’m just trying to explain . . .” But Bernstein says this is a trap. Explaining is almost always veiled dominance. You’re not trying to educate; you’re still trying to win. The subtext is, “Here’s why I am right and you are wrong.” And that is exactly what the other side will hear no matter what you say.

  • When people are riled up about something and you show them evidence that conflicts with what they believe, what does an MRI scan show? The areas of their brain associated with logic literally shut down. The regions associated with aggression light up. As far as their brain is concerned, it’s not a rational discussion—it’s war. The brain can’t process what you’re saying; it’s just trying to win. Your head works the same way unless you make an effort to control it.

  • Being in a bad mood can make you a totally different person. Like when you get “hangry,” then you eat something and boom—all is right in the world again and you’re much more pleasant to deal with. One study showed food is an effective persuasion tool: “The consumption of proffered food induces a momentary mood of compliance toward the donor that is strongest at the time the food is being consumed and that decreases in strength rapidly after the food has been consumed.” We have a cheeseburger, we feel better, and we’re more likely to be in the right mood to close a deal.

  • How do you control your anger? Pretend you are talking to a child. You wouldn’t try to rationalize with a screaming child, and you wouldn’t get angry with them for yelling. You’d just dismiss the hysterics and deal with the underlying problem.

  • Remember, you want to focus on feelings. Respond to their emotions by saying “Sounds like you’re angry” or “Sounds like this really upsets you.” Hostage negotiators use this to show understanding and to cool hot emotions. And neuroscience research shows that giving a name to feelings helps reduce their intensity.

  • We want to calm the rage monster in their head by bringing the thinking part of their brain back online. Again, use questions, not statements. Al Bernstein likes to ask “What would you like me to do?” This forces them to consider options and think instead of just vent.

Want to make sure you haven’t missed out on anything? Get Barking Up The Wrong Tree on Amazon.