We all know those collective maxims on success: nice guys finish last; it’s not what you know, it’s who you know; winners never quit.
We’ve heard them so often that we accept them as articles of faith.
But are they really true?
My guest today says, yes…and no.
His name is Eric Barker and he’s the author of one of the few blogs I regularly read: Barking Up the Wrong Tree. There, he takes a look at what actual research says about these tried-and-true maxims of success and provides a nuanced, often counterintuitive look at them. He’s recently taken some of his best writing from 8 years at the blog, expanded on it, and turned it into a book by the same name.
Today on the show, Eric and I discuss why most of the ideas we have about success are wrong and what we can do to be better advice sleuths. Eric shares research that shows why high school valedictorians are less likely to become millionaires or influential leaders, and what that teaches us on the importance of knowing ourselves. He then breaks down the idea that nice guys always finish last, and how it’s both true and false at the same time. We then discuss why grit can sometimes be overrated and why winners in fact always quit. We end our conversation discussing why being a glad-handing extrovert can both garner success and sew the seeds of failure, and how the idea of work/life balance is making people more miserable than ever, as well as what you can do about it.
Lots of fascinating tidbits in this show that you can implement right away to improve your life. Plenty of great cocktail party fodder as well.
- The uneven distribution of information regarding questions about success and happiness
- Why is so much information on the internet wrong? And why do people keep consuming it?
- Why blanket, generalized advice is so misleading
- The power of doubling down on your strengths vs trying to improve your weaknesses
- Why valedictorians are less likely to become high-powered leaders
- Why the world still needs people who follow the rules and aren’t “cool”
- Do nice guys really finish last?
- The two things we ask ourselves when meeting new people, and how that impacts our interactions
- Is grit overrated?
- Strategic quitting — how to know when to give something up
- WOOP — Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan
- The real importance of networking
- How extraversion can hurt your career
- Work-life balance — the unhealthy sacrifices of the uber-successful
- Why 30-somethings are more miserable today than they were a generation ago
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- RSS feeds
- Art of Manliness RSS Feed
- Barking Up the Wrong Tree RSS Feed
- Martin Seligman
- StrengthsFinder 2.0
- The First Key to Mastery: Finding Your Life’s Task
- My podcast with Robert Greene about mastery
- Be a T-Shaped Man
- My podcast with Bill Deresiewicz about being “excellent sheep”
- How to REALLY Be Alpha Like the Wolf
- Adam Grant
- Nice Guys Don’t Have to Finish Last
- My podcast with Angela Duckworth about grit
- My podcast with John Corcoran about networking
- Francesca Gino
- How to Build Relationships That Don’t Scale
- Barry Schwartz and the paradox of choice
Barking Up the Wrong Tree is one of the most fun and useful books I’ve read all year. I appreciate nuance, and Eric does a bang-up job taking a nuanced look on how to be successful in all aspects of your life. Also be sure to follow his blog, Barking Up the Wrong Tree. (On RSS!)
Connect With Eric
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
The Pocket Guide to Action: 116 Meditations on the Art of Doing. If you spend a lot of time thinking about things, making plans, and examining possibilities, but rarely pull the trigger on any of them, this is the book for you. Carry it around with you and turn to any page at any time to get a kick in the rear when you need it.
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. We all know those collective maxims on success: nice guys finish last; it’s not what you know, it’s who you know; winners never quit. You’ve heard them so often that we often accept them as articles of faith, but are they really true? My guest today says yes and no. His name is Eric Barker and he’s author of one of the few blogs I regularly read, Barking up the Wrong Tree. There he takes a look at what actual research says about these tried and true maxims of success and provides a nuanced, often counterintuitive look at them. He’s recently taken some of his best writing from eight years at the blog, expanded on it, and turned it into a book by the same name.
Today on the show, Eric and I discuss why most of the ideas we have about success are wrong and what we can do to be better advice sleuths. Eric shares, for example, research that shows why high school valedictorians are less likely to become millionaires or influential leaders and what that teaches us about the importance of knowing ourselves. He then breaks down the idea that nice guys always finish last and how it’s both true and false at the same time. He then discusses why grit can be overrated sometimes and why winners always quit. And we end our conversation discussing why being a glad-handing extrovert can both garner success and sow the seeds of failure and how the idea of work/life balance is making people more miserable than ever and what you can do about it.
Lots of fascinating tidbits in the show that you can implement right away to improve your life and there’s plenty of great cocktail party fodder in this show as well. After the show is over, make sure you check out the show notes at AOM.is/barker where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
All right, Eric Barker, welcome to the show.
Eric Barker: Thanks, Brett. It’s great to be here.
Brett McKay: I’ve been a big fan of your blog Barking Up the Wrong Tree. We were talking about this before we got on, before we started the show that you’re one of the few blogs I still have in my RSS feed reader. I use Feedly. We were talking about how we need to make RSS feeds great again. They’re due a come back, I think.
Eric Barker: Seriously, that’s the way I get the majority of my news. I don’t know. RSS is still king.
Brett McKay: It is. We were talking about Facebook has an algorithm so you don’t get to see all the stuff that you’re following. You were saying Twitter’s too noisy. I think the same. I don’t enjoy Twitter.
So if you’re listening to this and have never used an RSS feed before, you are missing out. Go to Feedly.com, sign up for an account, and subscribe to Barking Up the Wrong Tree and The Art of Manliness.
Eric Barker: I wholeheartedly agree.
Brett McKay: All right, we both have full feeds so you can actually read all of our content right there in the feed. You don’t have to go to our site. It’s all right there.
Eric Barker: Absolutely.
Brett McKay: Anyways. That’s our plug for RSS feeds. All right. So anyways.
You turned your book or your blog Barking Up the Wrong Tree into a book called Barking Up the Wrong Tree, kind of condensed some of the best stuff and added some new things as well. Your blog is unique. The reason why I like it is because you offer success, advice on how to be successful in different domains of your life, but the advice you give is nuanced and it’s counterintuitive oftentimes. I’m curious, why did you start the blog? What was your goal? What were you trying to capture with your writing on Barking Up the Wrong Tree?
Eric Barker: I mean, the thing for me was I was kind of at a crossroads in my life where I was between careers and wasn’t sure what I was doing and we get so much advice we don’t know what’s real, what’s not. Before the internet information, was hard to come by. Now post-internet, good information is hard to come by. It’s like you hear tons of answers, but you don’t know what’s legit so I kind of went down the rabbit hole looking at research, looking at what experts had to say, and there’s this great quote from William Gibson that I love where he said that the future’s already here, it’s just not evenly distributed. And I believe that. We have answers to a lot of the questions we want to know about happiness, success, productivity, relationships, but the information’s not evenly distributed. Sometimes it’s locked up in dusty journals or ivory towers in academia and I just wanted to get these answers that are already out there.
It’s been a journey for me, but basically I was looking for answers myself and I’m glad a lot of people have joined me for the ride.
Brett McKay: We’ll get into some specifics here in a bit, but let’s talk generally, like high-level here. Why do you think a lot of the advice out there on the web, particularly the web, because there’s like just this whole genres of blogs dedicated to being successful, finding happiness, it’s at best incomplete or at worst just plain wrong. Why do you think some of these ideas just keep continuing to get repeated over and over and over again even though people know it’s wrong?
Eric Barker: I think there’s a number of reasons. Number one is we have the cognitive biases that we all have in our brains. There are some things. Sometimes we don’t want to hear the truth. Sometimes we want our beliefs reinforced. We don’t actually want to hear something different. Share counts, like counts are all responding to what people often feel, not necessarily what is accurate and what is right. But beyond that, a lot of websites have agendas. They’re not necessarily trying to deliver factual information. They’re trying to tell people what they want to hear, sell things, and those kind of competing interests can cause problems as well.
The issue right now, it’s very easy. Everybody’s got a printing press. It’s very easy to get stuff out there and so there’s just a deluge of information and it’s hard to figure out what’s legit and what’s not and frankly, most people don’t want to read academic studies. Sometimes I don’t want to read academic studies. There’s a lot of filters that are blocking people from getting stuff that’s, not necessarily perfect, but more legit than some of the mainstream information.
Brett McKay: Even if something isn’t wrong completely, oftentimes I’ve found that it might not work for me. Right? Because a lot of the advice out there they use sort of blanket advice. “This works for everybody,” but that’s, as we’ll talk about here in a little bit, that’s not necessarily true.
Eric Barker: Oh, I totally agree, especially when you’re talking about stuff that relates to psychology. There are issues of personality. One of the things I talk about in the book is understanding who you are. To some degree, most personality traits, many fundamental personality traits are ridiculously stable over time. When you look at people when they’re a child and when they’re old, many qualities stay the same. Often it’s an issue of accepting who you are and aligning yourself with environments that will allow you to thrive and succeed, not so much changing. When you look at a lot of the research, everything from management gurus like Peter Drucker to a lot of the work on signature strengths by Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania, what you see is them saying don’t spend an enormous amount of time trying to bring up your weaknesses. You’re really going to be swimming upstream trying to do that. Your time is much better spent improving your strengths. That’s where your resources are best spent.
Honestly, it’s like accepting who you are and moving towards that. It’s a much better way than trying to… This general advice isn’t always going to work. When you know who you are you can start to say, “This will work for me.”
Brett McKay: I’m curious with your years of writing for Barking Up the Wrong Tree and the work you did on the book, do you have any heuristics or mental models you use to judge whether a piece of advice is useful. I think you mentioned just one. Know yourself is an important one, but any others ones that you use to sort of filter things out?
Eric Barker: For me, it’s like first and foremost it’s like okay, you have the basics where it’s like, okay, is this from a legitimate university or was this a corporate sponsored study? Sometimes those come up. Are there any issues there in terms of agendas? Those are obvious ones.
I’d say the biggest one I use is, luckily I’ve been reading this stuff and posting stuff on the blog for eight years and I used to post five study abstracts a day, six days a week. Luckily, I’ve developed a gut of sorts. I’d have to say my biggest one is just that kind of Spidey sense where when I see a study that says, “Hey, gratitude improves happiness,” well, I’ve seen a dozen other studies that show the same thing. That’s really not going to raise my hackles, but when I start to see something that completely contradicts what I’ve seen before and there’s not an element that makes me go, “Oh.” There’s not something it’s hinging on that makes me start to reconsider things, then I’ll start to scratch my head and those eight, nine times out ten, those aren’t great studies. But on the other side, one in ten sometimes things get overturned. Sometimes studies get retracted. Sometimes little things that seem little, small factors end up making a real critical element. Gratitude in this situation might not be so good.
For me, I’m usually looking at where’s the research coming from, what does it have around it, who’s the researcher who did it, but a big part of for me is saying, “Does this line up with what we’ve seen before or is this some crazy outlier and if so, why? Is there a legitimate reason or not?”
Brett McKay: I love that.
Let’s get into specifics here because there’s a lot of great insights and there is a ton in here we can’t get into in this podcast, so that’s why I encourage people to go out and get the book. But let’s take some of these, I don’t know, I don’t want to call them tropes. I don’t want to call them myths either because what I’ve found with-
Eric Barker: Maxims.
Brett McKay: Maxims. Yeah. There you go. We take for something that is true, but sometimes they’re not true. Let’s take a look. I thought this was interesting, this very counterintuitive research you uncovered about valedictorians, like high school valedictorians, are less likely to become millionaires or even high-powered or influential leaders. What’s going on there? When you’re in school it’s like you’re just hammer, “You gotta do really well in school if you want to be a success in life. You gotta be really well in school if you want to be a leader.” What’s going on? Why are there so few valedictorians that end up becoming millionaires or leaders?
Eric Barker: Basically, what we’re conflating there is that success in school necessarily makes perfectly only success in life and that’s not true. I think we all know that to some degree and the research is proving that out. Where school has very clear rules,”Check the boxes, do what you’re told, give the right answer, get an A, do well”, life is much more messy than that. The rules aren’t always clear. The rules can be broken sometimes. Sometimes you can go be an entrepreneur, make your own rules. That’s what we’re seeing.
Basically, Karen Arnold did the research, of Boston College, and she tracked valedictorians. What she found is they do well. They go on to get advanced degrees, they end up doing well in their chosen fields, but what happens is valedictorians settle into the system. They do not generally end up leading the system or revolutionizing the system and that is because the fundamental thing that school does is reward compliance.
Grades only loosely correlate with IQ scores. Actually, standardized tests like the SAT correlate much better with intelligence scores, so you’re not necessarily choosing the students who have the raw horsepower or raw brain power, you’re rewarding students who are really good at complying with rules. School’s very good with that, but once they get outside of it, life’s messy. They tend to work in structured environments, play by the rules, and we all know that that doesn’t always lead to top leadership positions and it certainly doesn’t often lead to revolutionizing the system if what you’re focused on is compliance.
The other issue that’s really critical here is the issue of mastery. That is that in school you need to be a generalist. You have to get As in history, you have to get As in English, you have to get As in math if you’re going to get that 4.0 and do very well, whereas the real world generally rewards mastery in one arena. If you go to work as an engineer at Google, yeah, your math skills and computer science skills better be top-notch, but whether you’re really kicking ass in terms of english and history, they don’t really care. So school is actually teaching you to be a generalist, whereas life rewards being an expert in one field.
If you say, “I absolutely love math and I want to really dive down in math,” if you want to be valedictorian you need to stop studying math and go study english. Kids who, and Arnold found this in the research, kids who are really focused on something and really passionate about a subject are actually punished by the school system and they’re not encouraged to dive down into the areas of expertise that would later reward them.
Brett McKay: So, yeah, we had William Deresiewicz on the show a while back talking about this in his book Excellent Sheep where he just kind of makes the same argument without going into the research, basically showing that schools reward compliance and it’s really good at producing, he calls them sheep, but excellent sheep. Right? People who know how to follow the rules.
As I read this chapter, though, it seemed like you’re making the case that, well okay, with this idea in mind, this doesn’t necessarily mean you need to tell your kid to just do terrible at school and pull them out of school. It depends on what they’re personality’s like, right, in a lot of ways?
Eric Barker: Absolutely. I think it’s a very polarizing subject because I think people that did very well at school are naturally going to want to lean towards the valedictorians and people who didn’t do well in school or who dropped out might be far more inclined to say, “Yeah!” I think what it’s actually more and issue of is what you’re saying where it’s personality type, where if you are somebody who is naturally very compliant at rules, good at checking the boxes, hey, the world needs people like that. And if you’re somebody who naturally breaks the rules, likes to try new things, you’re very creative, then the world needs people like that too.
It’s not that one is good and one is bad and we should necessarily shove all of the kids in one direction or the other. That’s the problem. The problem is that the system is only set up to reward compliance. So, yes, kind of like we were talking about earlier, it’s much more about understanding ourself and then aligning your environment with that because if you are somebody who checks all the boxes, complies with all the rules, and you find yourself in a very chaotic, creative, unstable environment, it’s going to be very hard for you thrive. And by the same token, if you’re a really creative, dynamic person who questions the rules and wants to try new things and you find yourself in a place like a government institution or an accounting firm where everything needs to be done exactly according to these specifications, you’re going to struggle, you’re not going to be happy, and you’re probably not going to do well.
It’s less of an issue of this is always good, this is always bad than it is an issue of alignment.
Brett McKay: Right. I think this is where it’s really important to know yourself because I feel like there’s two conflicting narratives out there. On the one hand you have school that rewards compliance, but then on the other hand you have, you know, you’re on the internet, people venerate the rule breakers, the entrepreneurs. Those are the people who are famous and are rewarded handsomely. I think people want that, but I think there’s a lot of people who that’s not them and they feel bad because, “Oh, I’m not cool. I’m not internet cool because I’m not a rule breaker. I’m not an entrepreneur.” So knowing yourself, “Okay, yeah. I’m a compliance guy. I’m a good manager. Those are important.” That, I think, becomes really key because you feel you can have a lot of cognitive dissonance going on.
Eric Barker: I think we all struggle with that. There’s a little bit of grass is greener on the other side of the fence. Being a rule breaker is very cool as long as you’re successful. It’s the rule breakers who end up unemployed or in jail, we’re not so quick to reward them. On the other hand, the people who play by the rules, it’s like, yeah, sometimes they’re seen as, “Oh, you’re just doing what you’re told. You’re sheep.” Or on the flip side, frankly, these are the people that keep the world stable. They are the people that keep everything running and these people generally live good, stable, happy lives.
I think there’s good and bad on both sides, but I think it’s natural to want to try and emotionally polarize it. But like you said, it’s more of an issue of self-understanding and alignment than it is in terms of objective right and wrong.
Brett McKay: Let’s move on to the next maxim of success, which is, this is a good one because this is the Art of Manliness, it’s the idea that nice guys finish last. The idea is if you’re not aggressive, you’re not a beast, you don’t take the bull by the horns you’re going to lose in your career and love. Is that true?
Eric Barker: What’s really interesting is that it’s not an easy answer, but it’s an answer that makes sense. If you look at the work of Adam Grant, he did a lot of research on givers, people who altruistically give to others, matchers, people who try to keep an even balance of give and take, and then takers, people who try to get as much as possible and not give back. When he initially did the research, what he found was it seemed to be nice guys finish last. He found that givers were disproportionately represented at the bottom of success metrics across a number of different fields, but then when he did a thorough review what he found were the results were actually bimodal, that givers were disproportionately represented at the bottom and at the top and that kind of jives. That makes sense to us, where we all know some martyr who tries too much to help others, gets exploited by takers, doesn’t get their own work done, and we also all know somebody who everybody loves, who is really cool, really supportive, and everyone goes out of their way to help this person because they’re such a mensch. They’re so awesome.
We kind of get that that nice guys often finish at the very top or the very bottom. Another factor that I think is really critical here is short-term/long-term. That is across a number of personality characteristics and elements, in the shorter term bad often wins. In the longer term, good often wins. When you see a narcissists across the board generally score higher in job interviews, they score higher on first dates, yet when you look over time after a few weeks in a job, narcissists are generally regarded as untrustworthy and, after a few months, relationship satisfaction with narcissists tanks.
When Robert Axelrod did… He set a bunch of algorithms trying to figure out what system would work best in the prisoner’s dilemma and what he found is that the bad guys took the high ground very quickly, but over time programs that were good won out. It makes sense because we all know that people who rush out to try to get as much for themselves as possible, who self-promote, who lie very often can do well initially, but over time we usually deal with the same people over a period of time and we develop a reputation. Once you develop a reputation, unless you can constantly outpace that reputation, people are going to figure it out and people are not going to want to deal you.
It makes sense, but I think it’s critical to realize that nice guys need to make sure that they’re in the top of the success metrics, not the bottom of success metrics by not letting themselves get abused. The second thing to realize is that in the short-term, hey, bad behavior can pay off, but over the long-term very often it rarely does.
Brett McKay: I mean, are you recommending in the beginning, say you’re trying to do a career move, I don’t know, trying to go up the corporate hierarchy, kind of be more assertive or should you just play nice the entire time because you know in the end it’ll help you in the long term?
Eric Barker: Oh, no, no. I’m not recommending that people do negative in the beginning and then later play good. What I’m saying is that people who are intent on, you know, narcissists, people who are much more selfish and self-focused early on will do well and then will do poorly later. The thing is that what we can learn from the takers, what we can learn from that negative, is that they’re generally much more assertive about knowing what they want and they’re also very good at self-promoting.
Those are two things that don’t necessarily have to be bad. Being assertive, again, not deceptive, not lying, not cheating, not stealing, but being assertive about what you want is a good quality, and letting your boss and people around you, not to the point of being a braggart, but letting people know the good work you’re doing is important to getting ahead. Now, the lying, cheating, and stealing, not so much. But we need to make sure we’re doing those things. Those are things we can take away from the negative side, but overall what you see is people are often… I think it was David DeSteno at Northeastern University who does some research into human character, what he found is that very often upon meeting people we’re looking at two qualities. We’re looking at two issues. Number one, can this person be trusted and number two, how long am I going to be dealing with this person?
If there are more steps built into the contract, you’re probably going to behave better because you know the other side is going to have a chance to retaliate. If you’re introduced to someone by a friend, you’re probably more likely to treat that person better because you know it can come back to haunt you, as opposed to somebody you meet randomly on the street.
That duration, that length of time that you’re going to be dealing with someone encourages good behavior. When you think about royal families in the Middle Ages marrying off their kids to one another to basically say, “Hey, we have family in common now. We’re not going to go to war. Things are going to be more stable.” It’s that kind of thing. They call it lengthening the shadow of the future. That tends to promote good behavior because there’s not as much of an incentive to grab the money and run.
Brett McKay: Bottom line, be a nice guy, but don’t be a doormat and you’re playing a long game, and don’t be afraid to be a little assertive, not a little, be assertive, and promote yourself.
Eric Barker: Those are some great tips. Another thing that is really critical, Robert Axelrod’s research found this and Adam Grant found this as well, is to very much think about the environments you’re putting yourself in. When Adam Grant looked at environments, if you’re a giver surrounded by takers you’re going to be in really bad shape. You’re going to be exploited and it’s very likely that you might defensively become a taker yourself. When givers are surrounded by givers the positive effects are exponential and when givers are least are surrounded by a number of matchers, matchers’ fundamental belief in justice and equality means that matchers often protect givers.
For those nice guys, absolutely everything you said. The other thing that’s really critical is to just look at the environment you’re putting yourself in. Are these good people? When I spoke to Bob Sutton who’s a professor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, he said, “Whenever you walk into a company for a job interview,” he said, “Look around at the people there because you’re going to become like them. They’re not going to become like you.” We always think of peer pressure when it comes to teenagers and kids, but the truth is peer pressure affects all of us all the time and we’re usually not aware of it. So putting yourself in environments that really aren’t you is not only dangerous in terms of you being exploited, but it’s dangerous in terms of your character over the long term
Brett McKay: So, if you’re a giver don’t go to Moldova.
Eric Barker: Do not, do not go to Moldova. That would not be a good idea.
Brett McKay: You can read the book to find out why. But yeah, Moldova, not a great place. Let’s move on to another idea that’s really hot right now, I feel like for the past few years, is this idea of grit. We’ve had Angela Duckworth on the podcast to discuss her book and her research about grit. Is there really a benefit to grit or is kind of overrated or, in some cases, is it one of those things where in some instances you need to be gritty and in some instances grit is not helpful?
Eric Barker: I think definitely the latter. I think you can’t be gritty about everything. We only have 24 hours in a day. If you never gave up on anything, simply put, you’d run out of hours in the day. If I never gave up on anything I’d still be playing T-ball. We need to give up on some things. In fact, one of the things I talk about in the book is the issue of strategic quitting where it’s really thinking about how many things are you doing that aren’t really providing value, aren’t really providing good benefit, and by quitting those things you’re freeing up more time, energy, and resources for the things you need to be gritty on. It’s that issue of realizing what’s really important to you, what’s that number one.
Again, aligning with the work of Drucker and Seligman where doubling down on your strengths, doubling down on what’s important to you. There’s only 24 hours in a day. Period. The only way you get more hours is by quitting something else. Quitting something else frees up more time to double down on what’s important.
So grit is critical, but this idea of a universal never give up is completely unrealistic. Actually to Angela’s credit in one of her research studies she said that quitting things early on in life is really important because you need to try stuff. You need to get out there and make little bets, as Peter Sims calls them, to try things to figure out what to be gritty at, to figure out what your passing is, what you’re interested in, what is worth devoting those K. Anders Ericsson 10,000 hours to.
Grit is absolutely a fantastic thing, but we treat it like it’s the end all be all and should be applied to every situation and that’s fundamentally impossible.
Brett McKay: So winners sometimes quit is what you’re saying?
Eric Barker: I mean, winners have to quit.
Brett McKay: Well, how do you decide that? How do you decide it’s time to quit something because maybe you are passionate about being in a rock band or maybe you’re passionate about your art and you’ve been at it for years and years and nothing’s going on? How do you decide, like, I gotta hang up the proverbial cleats on this so I can go work on something else?
Eric Barker: It’s a fantastic question because once you raise the issue of quit and grit, both being legitimate options, vital options, then it’s “How do I decide?” Gabrielle Oettingen did research at NYU and she came up with fantastic little acronym called WOOP, W-O-O-P. It’s actually a quick little process people can go through to try and figure out what is worth sticking to and what isn’t. Basically what it stands for is wish, outcome, obstacle, plan. The interesting this is a lot of wish for stuff and it’s kind of fun to dream, but what the research shows is that spending time dreaming doesn’t move you towards your goals, in fact, it saps your energy because our brains aren’t very good at telling what is real, what is not real. That’s why movies are thrilling.
So when we wish, people actually subsequently do less. What they need to do is first you wish, you dream about what you want, but then you need to make it concrete. You need to say, “What outcome do I want from this?” And make it concrete. Then all of a sudden, you know it’s something that is actually achievable.
The third thing, and here’s where it gets tricky, is the obstacle. What’s standing in the way? Why can’t you have what you want? What is the problem that’s blocking you?
And then fourth is a plan. How am I going to overcome this obstacle?
What’s interesting about that is it’s a useful little tool for helping you start to make a plan and to figure out what you want and how to get there, but there’s a secondary effect that’s really powerful in terms of the grit or quit issue. That is that when you go through the wish, outcome, obstacle, plan, the little WOOP exercise, if you find that with your plan you feel energized, you feel ready to take over the world, that means that what you’re thinking about is probably legitimate. It’s probably something you should be doing. In her research she saw that when people felt energized, that means this plan was realistic. When people went through it and they felt kind of down or they just didn’t feel up to it, they didn’t feel energized, often it was because their plan wasn’t realistic. “I want to be emperor of Australia by Thursday.” That’s not a very realistic goal and you shouldn’t think that that’s going to work.
Taking the time to walk through wish, outcome, obstacle, plan often gives people that inkling of is this something I should double down on or is this something I should let go and turn my attention to other issues.
Brett McKay: All right. So don’t do vision boards. Don’t do The Secret. Okay. All right. I’ll keep my vision board then. I don’t have a vision board. I think I did it one time, but I don’t. It’s been a long, long time. I’ll admit I had a vision board once.
Here’s another piece of advice that we often hear. It’s not what you know, it’s who you know. People often say that cynically. It’s like, “Well, he’s not really smart. He just has connections.” Is that really true?
Eric Barker: The issue there is, the one I start out talking about is the issue of extroversion versus introversion. The truth is both are important. It depends on the environment. It depends on the issue. I guess the quick answer is it depends, but the response is really more nuanced than that.
Extroverts often do much better in terms of success metrics. There are also a lot of downsides in terms of wasting time and in terms of how they spend their time. Introverts often lack in terms of building that great network. Across the board in terms of getting a job and get promoting at a job, getting salary increases in a job, having a big network is key, but introverts across the board are much more likely to become experts in their field.
You can generally, on average you can tell whether somebody’s grades are good, are better or worse just by knowing introversion extroversion. Introverts on average have higher grades. They’re far more likely to get PhDs They’re far more likely to get Phi Beta Kappa keys. Introverts have all that extra time and, if should they choose to spend it in an arena, they’re far more likely to be experts in their field, whereas there’s one study that showed… What was the wording? Extroversion is inversely correlated with individual proficiency, which is a fancy way of saying the more of an extrovert you are, the worse you are at your job.
There’s the issue of networks, which can really be powerful. Having a big network, I even looked at the research on drug dealers and drug dealers who have bigger networks make more money and are far less likely to be incarcerated. Across the board big networks are helpful. On the other hand, hey, if you’re a computer programmer that’s a very solitary job. If you’re a writer that’s a very solitary job. So you’re proficiency is going to be oftentimes more important than your network.
So which job you pick can become critical, which arena you’re in, but the truth is very often most people are not at the extremes. Most people are not extreme extroverts or extreme introverts. They’re ambiverts. They’re somewhere in the middle. What we need to decide to do, most individuals who fall into the middle of the bell curve in terms of introversion/extroversion need to think about which side of themselves do they need to turn on. “Is this a situation where I need to be more extroverted, I need to make an effort to socialize, or is this a time where I need to turn off notifications, shut the door, buckle down, and work hard as an individual contributor?”
Networks are extremely powerful and introverts need to spend some time there, but depending upon which career you’re in, you need to strike that balance between developing a good network and becoming an expert in your field to the degree you can.
Brett McKay: Yeah, you mentioned the research that most high-level Olympic athletes are introverts. They just focus on their practice.
Eric Barker: I mean, absolutely. It’s funny. I was surprised to see that, but when you think about it, even team athletes, how much time are they spending doing free throw after free throw? How many times are they spending more time sprinting on the track or time in the batting cage? Those individual skills that need to be developed, it requires a lot of time just head down doing the work. So, yeah, it was very surprising to me to see the percentage of top athletes that say that they are introverts.
Brett McKay: Networking is important. If you’re not naturally an extrovert, and so networking seems sort of icky to you, what kind of research have you come across on how to network without making it seem gross? Do you know what I’m talking about? It’s like, “Hey.” It’s pressing your flesh here. “Here’s my card.”
Eric Barker: Absolutely. It’s funny. There’s actually research that supports that. Francesca Gino at Harvard did research showing that, yes, it’s like most people see transactional networking as icky. The people who don’t see it as icky are often powerful people. They are the people who need it least. So the people who need it most find it the most repulsive, which is a sad irony.
But there are a number of things people can do to build their network without feeling gross. Rather than going into it with a model of networking, which is kind of a formal clinical word to begin with, taking the perspective of friendship, of making friends. The best first step that I’ve seen in the research in terms of networking, frankly, is reactivating dormant friendships. Is going on LinkedIn, going on Facebook, looking through the contacts in your smartphone. Who are people who are already your friends who you haven’t been in touch with, you haven’t talked to in six months or a year? That doesn’t feel icky. You already know them. You already have a connection. It’s not going to be difficult. All you have to do is reach out, say “Hi”, and then continue to follow up. Make that person more a part of your life. That’s a very simple way.
The second step I would say is there’s research by Brian Uzzi and Sharon Dunlap on what’s called superconnectors. What that is is if you look at the contact list on your smartphone, you’re going to find a disproportionate number of your friends who were introduced to you by a handful of people. Those are your superconnectors. Those are the people who are big extroverts or they’re the hub of networks deliberately. You want to spend disproportionate amount of time reaching out and talking to those people because they are superconnectors. They have big networks and when you’re looking for that next job, you’re looking for that next opportunity, those are the people who are most going to be able to assist you.
There’s a number of easy things you can do and then past that, be a friend. Talk to people. Try and find things you have in common. Don’t immediately be asking people for things. Try and find ways to help others. Be a giver in Adam Grant’s terminology. It doesn’t have to be an icky affair if you handle it the right way.
Brett McKay: All right. Let’s talk about work/life balance. So, there’s this idea that, you know, women are always talking about having it all. Want a career and a good family life, but you highlight research that… And the assumption is that men can have it all. They can have a great career and a great family because there’s a wife at home taking care of their family that allows them to have the career, but you highlight these stories of men who didn’t have it all. They had fantastic careers, but their family life was just garbage. Can you talk about some of those examples of men who sacrificed family for, I don’t know, career excellence?
Eric Barker: Yeah, I mean, you see this across the board. Howard Gardner at Harvard did research on a number of top performers and what he found was that they almost made like a Faustian bargain where they basically gave up everything in order to be at the top of their field. That’s the problem we face is that if you want work/life balance then the issue is balance. It’s not extreme and that means it’s not extreme in terms of results.
When you look at so much of the research by Dean Keith Simonton and other people who focus on top performers and expertise, what you see is more hours equals more results. There might be diminishing marginal returns, but overall more effort, more hours equals more results. At some point you have to draw a line and when you look at some of the people I detail in the book, Albert Einstein, Ted Williams, you see that these are people who sacrificed their relationships and that’s usually what suffers is relationships because relationships required consistent time and energy over time. It’s not like an annual doctor’s visit. You need to spend time with your friends and family regularly for them to be a part of your life.
Albert Einstein just kind of retreated into his head trying to find that next big discovery and he had a contract with his wife about on what terms she could interrupt him. It kind of makes your stomach turn. He had another son who was institutionalized and I don’t think Einstein saw him for the last 10 or 20 years of his life. His other son said, “The only project my father gave up on was me.” He basically just sacrificed… We think of Einstein as this guy who did some amazing things and he most certainly did, but it was a Faustian bargain.
Ted Williams, he just played… The joke I make in the book is that he didn’t play baseball because he wasn’t playing. He was taking it very seriously and it’s all he did. He was great at it, but the problem is if you want a well-rounded life, you have to draw a line. You have to say at some point, “This is good enough.” You have to settle at some point and that’s up to you and if you’re a very driven, very achievement focused person, it can be very hard to draw that line and step back from the table.
Brett McKay: So, I mean, I guess there’s a lot of insights or advice we can take from this. If you achievement oriented you might consider forgoing family or before you get into family make sure your wife or significant other knows what they’re getting into, right, before they jump in with you?
Eric Barker: Oh. One of Ted Williams’ wives, he had three, threatened to write a biography that was titled My Turn At Bat Was No Ball. When they divorced, before the judge finalized the decision, he turned to the wife and he said, “Is there any way you two can work this out?” His wife Deloris said, “Are you kidding?” He was just that extreme a person. That extremity helped Ted Williams in terms of getting ahead.
So yeah, I think it’s very good if your partner understands what you’re like, but more important than that, I would say it’s still important for any achievement oriented person to draw some line because the results aren’t, this doesn’t lead to happiness. It leads to achievement. It certainly leads to achievement, but it may not even lead to being number one. There may be somebody bigger, stronger, faster than you are and it doesn’t lead to a well-rounded life. It doesn’t lead to happiness. It’s a danger.
So everyone needs to have a personal definition of success. Everyone needs to have a line where they say, “This is good enough for me.” That can be an extreme line. That can still mean working 16 hour days perhaps, but when you get to hour 17 you need to stop because it just does not seem to lead to good things for anyone.
Brett McKay: I think you talk about research about this idea of work/life balance has actually made today’s twenty- and thirtysomethings more miserable than, say, our parents or grandparents when they were our age. Right?
Eric Barker: The thing there is that basically the issue didn’t really exist before and that’s something that immediately made me scratch my head was that decades ago people weren’t talking about work/life balance. That’s because there has been a fundamental shift. Part of that is driven by technology, part of it’s driven by changes in the world, but the key issue here is that the door’s used to close at 5:00 PM. It’s like when you watch an episode of Mad Men and the office stops. Now, the office doesn’t stop. You’ve always got your cellphone with you. You can always check email. You can always be texting. That, “Oh, I’ll have to get that document from the office tomorrow.” No, the documents are in the cloud. You can get them right now.
You have the option to work 24/7. When I spoke to Swarthmore professor Barry Schwartz, wrote an excellent book called The Paradox of Choice, he talked about there where the issue is you have the option to work 24/7 so it’s always an option. That weighs on us. Before, the doors at the office closed at 5:00 PM, it was decided for you, so you could just go, throw your hands up, “Hey, I’m gonna go home and be with my family. Play with my kids.” Now, you know, that phone buzzes. You know that that project’s incomplete and at 9:00 PM you have the option to go work on it so it’s always a temptation of sorts. That becomes a really difficult push-pull because you’re always having to choose and it’s easier when someone chooses for you.
The work/life balance conundrum is that we need to make a choice. We need to draw a line and everybody needs to draw it for themselves because the world’s not going to draw it anymore. You need to say, “Hey. I’m stopping here. I’m going to spend time with my family and if that means I don’t get the promotion, well, that’s okay with me.” But that’s a very difficult line to draw and a very difficult decision to make and most of us don’t want to make it, but sadly, now the onus is on us.
Brett McKay: Right. I think a lot of that’s managing expectations too because I think that research about thirtysomethings being more miserable than thirtysomethings a decade ago was that, I guess teenagers now are happier because they have these high expectations because they’re told they can be anything and do anything they want. That didn’t happen 30 years ago. It was like you went to the guidance counselor and said, “All right. You’re going to go be a mechanic.” And like, “Okay. That’s what I’m going to do.” Or you’re going to work in the factory and then when they became an adult they realized, “Okay, things are actually better than I thought they would be.” Now, young people have these high expectations, they get into adulthood, and they realize their high expectations aren’t being met and they’re just miserable.
I guess 30 years ago people had very low expectations for adulthood and they ended up happier because their reality exceeded their expectations. Young people today have super high unrealistic expectations and they just are miserable because reality doesn’t match those expectations.
Eric Barker: I think Barry Schwartz told me the same thing is that accepting say a certain level as good enough and managing expectations is really key. Now, what’s really hard is with the internet and television, we’re getting to see the top .0001% of successful people, whether they’re the most beautiful, whether they’re the richest, the most accomplished, the best athletes, the best singers, expectations are off the charts. It’s impossible. When you combine these completely unrealistic expectations with the ability to go to work 24/7 then ambitious people are in really bad shape because they’re going to be inclined to overwork. They have these crazy standards and the ability to run on that hamster wheel until they kill themselves. That’s a really difficult combination so it makes sense why people are struggling with it.
Brett McKay: Have you seen Twilight Zone? Do you ever watch old episodes?
Eric Barker: Oh, yeah.
Brett McKay: Like, the Willoughby episode? Remember that one?
Eric Barker: No. Which one was that?
Brett McKay: It’s the guy where he’s on a train. He has a dream that… He’s like this overworked corporate drone and he has this dream that he gets off on this train in this idyllic 19th century town where everyone’s just wonderful and it’s called Willoughby. He ends up in Willoughby. He finally gets there, but it’s Willoughby’s Funeral Home. He dies because he got so overworked.
Eric Barker: Oh, God.
Brett McKay: It’s a great episode with a lot of existential meaning. I love Twilight Zone. Well, Eric, this has been a great conversation. There’s so much more we could talk about. Where can people go to learn more about your work?
Eric Barker: The URL for my blog’s a little difficult for people to pronounce, so if they just Google Barking Up the Wrong Tree blog or if they Google my name, Eric Barker, they can check out my blog and the latest I’ve been posting. The best way to keep up with what I’m doing is to join my email newsletter and my book is available on Amazon.com. It’s called Barking Up the Wrong Tree. You can search for that or my name Eric Barker.
Brett McKay: Awesome. Don’t forget the RSS feed.
Eric Barker: Oh, dude. RSS is, I mean, sometimes the older tools, rollin’ old school works in terms of RSS, man. There’s no doubt.
Brett McKay: That’s right. All right. Well, Eric, thanks so much for you time. It’s been a pleasure.
Eric Barker: It’s been great. Thanks for having me on, man.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Eric Barker. He’s the author of the book Barking Up the Wrong Tree. It’s available at Amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. Also, check out his blog. It’s literally one of the few blogs I read regularly, Barking Up the Wrong Tree.
While you’re at it, sign up for Feedly or some other RSS feed reader and subscribe to his blog on your RSS feed reader. Just get all your news in one place. There’s no Facebook algorithm telling you that you’re not going to be interested in that because your Aunt Trudy didn’t like it or whatever. There’s not all that crap that Twitter has in the feed as well. While you’re at it, sign up for the Art of Manliness RSS feed. You’ll love it.
Also, check out our show notes at AOM.is/barker where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at artofmanliness.com. If you enjoy this show, have gotten something out of it over the years, I’d appreciate it if you give a review on iTunes or Stitcher.
Thank you all who have take the time to give a review. There’s been some great ones in there. Also, some great constructive feedback. We take that into account to help improve the show. As always, thank you for your continued support.
Until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.