[00:00:06.4] ANNOUNCER: Welcome to The Science of Success with your host, Matt Bodnar.
[0:00:12.6] MB: Welcome to The Science of Success. I’m your host, Matt Bodnar. I’m an entrepreneur and investor in Nashville, Tennessee and I’m obsessed with the mindset of success and the psychology of performance. I’ve read hundreds of books, conducted countless hours of research and study and I am going to take you on a journey into the human mind and what makes peak performers tick with a focus on always having our discussion rooted in psychological research and scientific fact, not opinion.
In this episode we ask what really produces success by looking at what separates truly successful people from the rest. We examined many common and conflicting success maxims and look at what the data actually says about what really works. We dig deep into the vital importance of knowing yourself and your own strengths. We look at the power of aligning your work with your environment and discuss the dangers of constantly overcommitting your time, with Eric Barker.
The Science of Success continues to grow with now more than a million downloads, listeners in over a hundred countries, hitting number one New and Noteworthy and more. I get listener comments and emails all the time asking me, “Matt, how do you organize and remember all these incredible information?”
A lot of her listeners are curious about how I keep track of all the incredible knowledge I get from reading hundreds of books, interviewing amazing experts, listening to awesome podcasts, and more. Because of that, we’ve created an epic resource just for you, a detailed guide called How to Organize and Remember Everything, and you can get it completely for free by texting the word “smarter” to the number 44222. Again, it's a guide we created called How to Organize and Remember Everything. All you have to do to get it is to text the word “smarter” to the number 44222 or go to successpodcast.com and join our email list, that’s successpodcast.com and join our email list.
In a previous episode we discussed why people struggle to reach outside of their comfort zones and why it’s so critically important that you do. We explored the five core psychological roadblocks stopping people from stepping outside of their comfort zones. We went deep on how you can become tougher, more resilient and embrace discomfort and how you can master the art of small talk, what you need to cultivate the skill of global dexterity and much more, with Dr. Andy Molisnky. If you want to finally make progress on something that's been holding you back, listen to that episode.
Also, don't forget. If you want to get all the incredible information we talked about in this show, links, transcripts and much more, and believe me, there's a ton of short notes for this episode. Be sure to check out or show notes that success podcast.com. Just hit the show notes button at the top.
Lastly, you know how much I talk about the concept of mental models and how vital it is to build a toolkit of mental models in order to be successful and achieve your goals. That's why this week I am super excited to tell you that one of our sponsors, brilliant.org. Brilliant is a math and science enrichment learning tool that makes mastering the fundamentals of math and science easy and fun. They’re offering a special promotion for Science of Success listeners, and can get it at brilliant.org/scienceofsuccess. Mastering the fundamentals of math and science is such an important component of building to toolkit of mental models, and Brilliant is a great way to get started on the path.
[0:03:16.6] MB: Another sponsor for this episode is the Success Live Summit, which as we hinted at, is not actually the Science of Success, but Success Magazine puts on an awesome live summit and they’ve been kind enough to sponsor this episode as well as hook us up with some sweet guest speakers, which will be coming on the show in the next couple of weeks. But this event is actually pretty awesome and I'm kind of bummed out that I'm not going to get to go to it. I have an immovable schedule conflict, but my producer, Austin, who’s here in the studio with me will be able to attend it and he’s going to be there.
[0:03:45.7] A: Yeah, we’re super excited. If anybody who’s listening to this right now wants to meet up, shoot me an email, firstname.lastname@example.org. We’d love to chat, shake hands, take pictures. It’d be awesome. I think it’s really important for people that are striving to become more successful, to become more fulfilled, looking into the science of success to be around other people with those same goals.
This time around the event, it’s two days. It’s in September 8th and 9th in Long Beach, California. There’s ticket packages available and they’ve got some amazing speakers, Matt.
[0:04:10.7] MB: They really do. There’s people like some of my favorite authors, Keith Ferrazzi, Never Eat Alone, which is literally sitting on my desk right here. I constantly keep it in front of me because it’s probably the greatest book ever written about networking. They’ve got Peter Diamandis, incredible thinker and leader. People like Brendon Buchard, Mel Robbins. Really phenomenal lineup.
[0:04:28.7] A: Yeah, it’s going to be greatest, and they’re speaking on a ton of things, from success, how to become a better leader, find balance in your life. If you’re a CEO of a company, you really got to find time to recharge, time to hit the gas. Just finding balance and mental strategies to making yourself bigger and better and your business bigger and better. Really hitting on all cylinders here. It’s going to be a great, great event.
[0:04:47.7] MB: You can learn more and get tickets at successliveevent.com. That’s successliveevent.com. Definitely check it out. If you're in Long Beach, I would highly recommend checking it out, if you're looking for a really cool event, September 8th and 9th, Long Beach, California, successliveevent.com, you can find all the information you need.
[0:05:06.6] A: Success Live: Learn, Develop, Achieve. Go to successliveevent.com today to get your ticket.
[0:05:11.9] MB: Now, for the episode. Today, we have another amazing guest on the show, Eric Barker. Eric is the creator of the blog Barking Up The Wrong Tree with over 290,000 subscribers. His work is syndicated by Time Magazine, Business Insider and he's been featured in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and much more. Recently, his new book, Barking Up The Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success is Mostly Wrong was named a Wall Street Journal bestseller.
Eric, welcome to the Science of Success.
[0:05:42.2] EB: Thanks so much. It’s great to be here.
[0:05:44.0] MB: We’re super excited to have you on. As I was telling you kind of before we got started, I’ve been a long time reader of your blog and a big fan. I got to ask you at the beginning, how do you pronounce the name of it and what's the story behind the actual kind of — I'm going to botch it terribly, like bakadesuyo or badakaseyo. I don’t know how to say it. Tell me the story behind what that is and why you initially named the blog that.
[0:06:06.7] EB: I started the blog on a lark. I didn’t even really know what I was doing with it at first. Basically, I took Japanese as my language in undergrad and I found out the first day of class that my last name means moron in Japanese, so I’ve been to Tokyo three times. I’ve never had a Japanese person forget my name.
Basically, in the Japanese language you usually use last names, what [inaudible 0:06:33.0] means I am Barker. What [inaudible 0:06:36.4] that’s also means I’m an idiot. They’re the same exact sentence. Basically, from a URL, that is either me emphatically saying my name or me emphatically saying I’m a moron. However anybody chooses to interpret it. Perhaps not the best marketing choice on my part for a URL, but definitely has a fun back story.
[0:06:56.6] MB: That’s awesome. I didn’t know that story, so that’s really funny. Tell me a little bit about how did you initially kind of get involved in this path and what drew you to really wanting to understand the science behind what makes people successful. Obviously, that’s the name of this podcast, and so I think there’s a ton of synergies between what you write about and what we love to dig into on the show.
[0:07:18.7] EB: Yeah. I’ve been doing a blog now for about eight years and basically I started just coming through the RSS feeds of academic journals and kind of broadened it out. I was just looking for, initially, interesting stuff, and then eventually stuff that we could use to kind of improve our lives, because there’s a great William Gibson quote I love where he said that, “The future is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed.” I think that’s true. A lot of questions we ask ourselves about success, about life, we think they’re mysteries. The truth is a lot of these things have been solved by scientific studies, most of those are not terribly fun or pleasant to read.
I started doing that for a number of years and then I was lucky, blog kind of took off and people encourage me to write a book. I’ve had a very unconventional career of myself. I was a screenwriter at Hollywood. I worked in the video game industry, then I was a blogger, and I just saw that a lot of the ideas we have about success, these pithy little maxims we hear, like nice guys finish last, and it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. I saw that in a lot of situations these just didn’t apply to my career. I didn’t think they necessarily applied to other people or at least they were incomplete.
Given that my blog was focused on personal development and success in many areas of life, everything from happiness, to productivity, to relationships and negotiation, I kind of wanted to tackle those head on and give them the Mythbusters treat and basically kind of look and see were they true, were they not true, and trying to get both sides of the story almost like a court case and hopefully make it fun and tell some engaging stories that people can relate to while trying to break down these myths. That was kind of the path I was on.
[0:08:56.3] MB: I think that’s a great approach, and I love the structure of the book, which is as you said, to kind of take all of these maxims that we hear and people kind of casually toss out and say, “Hold on a second, is that even true?” In many cases, these maxims are directly contradictory. What does the data actually say? What is the research say about these strategies? That’s a genius approach to kind of cracking that walnut.
[0:09:20.9] EB: It was really interesting for me, because in some — Maybe in a prior era, these things were more true, but now life is so complicated. We have so many options, so many possibilities that it’s hard to believe one pithy sentence, like nice guys finish last, is really going to sum up — is going to just include the sum total of anything. There’s definitely some insight in a lot of these, but I wanted to really look at what the experts and the academics had to say. It was educational for me as well and my intention here was to write the book I wish I had 15 years ago and to kind of have fun with it, because with everything I write on the blog, my attitude with everything is just try and — It’s like it better inform me or it better entertain me and preferably it’d better be both.
[0:10:10.4] MB: You opened the book with a question of what separates the truly successful from everybody else. What did you see when you actually looked at the research and the data and figured out what are those key things. What are the differentiators that separate someone who’s really successful from someone who doesn’t achieve that?
[0:10:30.4] EB: What I found was really interesting. Some insights that came from — The 10,000 foot overview were some insights that came from Gautam Mukunda and Boris Groysberg, two professors at Harvard Business School. The kind of the basic formula being, first, to know thyself. It’s really understanding your signature strengths, and that’s a funky academic term for knowing what your unique skills are, what you can really bring to the table that makes you standout. Knowing your interest, knowing your passions, knowing your signature strengths. Then aligning that with an environment that rewards those, those incentivizes those, because you can be really good at something, but if you’re not at a place that respects and values that, you’re probably not going to be very successful.
On the flipside, you might work for a great company or a fantastic organization, but if you don’t really bring something to the table that’s unique and stands out, again, you’re probably not going to do so well there either. Once we look at those signature strengths and we find a place that rewards them, believes in those, you can really use something.
What’s interesting there, and I discussed this in both the introduction and the first chapter, is what Harvard professor Gautam Mukunda calls intensifiers, and those are basically qualities that in general are negatives, but in the right environment can actually be positives. They can actually be the incredible competitive advantages. The example I used in the book is I want to talk about the story of Jure Robič who was the dominant participant in the Race Across America, which is this bicycle race that literally goes from Atlantic City to San Diego. They crossed the entire United States. Unlike the Tour de France, which has breaks, the Race Across America does not stop. The minute the clock starts, it does not stop, meaning if you stop to go to the bathroom, if you stop to sleep, if you stop — Anything, your competitors can pass you. People usually complete the race in 9 to 12 days. Two people have died trying to do this. It is just a relentless monster of an event. Outsize Magazine just declared it the most grueling ultra-endurance event there is.
Jure Robič was the most dominant athlete in this sport, and the reason that he was so dominant is he would literally lose his mind. He would actually go crazy. He would hallucinate. He would become paranoid. He just start crying. He would hop off his bike and get in fist fights with mailboxes. He would lose his mind, but that disassociation allowed him to cope with just the unimaginable pain and discomfort of riding a bike for 9 days straight and he was so dominant he would actually — The difference between him and first place and the guy in second place was 11 hours. Literally, he would pass the finish line and you’d have to wait half a day to see number two cross the finish line.
I think when I was a kid, my high school guidance counselor didn’t tell me that losing my mind and getting in fist fights with mailboxes was a path to success if anything. That’s where we get into the complexities of it where it’s just not so simple as played by the rules, get good grades, eat your Wheaties and everything is going to work out for you. We need to look at those times where when our negative is positive, and that’s why, like I said, when I talk about knowing yourself and finding the right environment, that doesn’t necessarily mean the typically prescribed things, like good grades and be sweet and nice. It’s that alignment between who you are and where you are that really produces success, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be those things that we were all told in elementary school. Sometimes the most biggest of negatives, like losing your mind, can actually be a positive, and that’s where I think we need to broaden how we think about what results in success, because when we talk about qualities like stubbornness, and stubbornness is a negative.
If you’re an entrepreneur trying to do something really difficult, stubbornness is called grit and all of a sudden we think it’s fantastic. Grit and stubbornness can be the same exact thing, but that quality in you when you align it with the right environment, it’s a fantastic positive. For entrepreneurs, it’s probably essential. When you put it in a wrong environment, like a typical corporation where a group think is really a big thing, being stubborn and difficult can be problematic. It’s more about alignment in the big picture than it is about the positives or negatives of any particular quality in the abstract.
[0:15:03.9] MB: I love that nuance and that story really highlights the example that context is vitally important. Another story that you’ve talked about is the story of Pixar, which I thought was really powerful.
[0:15:16.3] EB: Yeah, basically it was right after Finding Nemo and Steve Jobs was concerned that they were going to lose their edge. That they had broken new ground. They had stepped aside from the typical animation, animation way of doing things, like Disney and the others, and they’ve been phenomenal, and they brought in Brad Bird to direct the next movie and he wanted to do things differently and try and make sure that they stayed innovative and they stayed edgy, and he didn’t do that by bringing in new people. He didn’t do that by only taking the top tier talent. He did that by telling the heads of Pixar, Steve Jobs and Ed Catmull. He said, “Give me all the black sheep.” He said, “Give me all the people who want to do things differently. Give me all the people who are probably headed out the door or going to get fired.”
With those guys, Brad Bird, they managed to do things the studio had never done before they managed to accomplish things more cheaply. They did it quicker. In the end, they ended up making the film The Incredibles which not only grossed, I think, over $600 million, but also won The Oscar for best animated feature. Again, they did this by embracing the different attitudes that some of these people had rather than looking at them through the typical corporate lens of, “Oh, those guys are difficult.” No. Those guys might have a very different but good way of looking at things. Now, that doesn’t mean that different is always good. Different can definitely be bad, but we need to be very careful about just labeling anything that is outside the norm or doesn’t align with the current values of upper management as bad, because I think that’s something we’re seeing now more than ever is just corporations love to talk about, “Oh, we want to innovate.” “Oh, we went outside the box.” Yeah, but we also don’t want to change. That doesn’t really work. Being able to look at what the qualities are, sometimes qualities that on the surface seem like negatives in the right environment can be positives.
[0:17:16.9] MB: I think the point about context too really reveals why many of these traditional success maxims are so limited, because as you pointed out, in a specific context that skillset or that ability might be really powerful, but in many other contexts it could dangerous, it could be disastrous or it could be problematic. It could be inhibiting you from achieving what you’re trying to achieve.
[0:17:41.3] EB: No, absolutely. I think that’s a lot of — One thing I was very cognizant of when I was writing a book was I just didn’t want it to be this — We’ve seen a lot of business books that just hold up one concept and they say, “This is the and all be all answer. This quality is always good in every situation everywhere for the rest of time. It has no downsides. No negatives. No side effects, so all we need to do is have this one thing and everything is going to be great and live happily ever after.” Life doesn’t work like that. Plain and simple, life doesn’t work like that.
For instance, when talking about the research in terms of nice guys finish last. A huge distinction is short term versus long term. In the short term, being a jerk can really payoff, and anybody who has seen a jerk get promoted or a jerk become CEO knows this at least in their heart of hearts. In the short term, you see this and so many experiments that have been done in terms of theoretical constructs, like the prisoner’s dilemma, a lot of Robert Axelrod’s research, you see that in the short term being bad can be very, very good. You see things like Jeffrey Pfeffer’s research at Stanford Graduate School of Business where kissing your boss’s ass, the research shows is far more effective than actual hard work. Again, that’s in the short term. Over the long term, we gain a reputation. Over the long term, that reputation is going to affect you. It depends on that context, again, where used car salesman doesn’t expect to see you again, and that’s why they have the reputation they do and why they use the methods they do. Your mom hopefully is going to be with you the rest of your life, and that’s why moms have the reputation they do. They’re really looking out for you.
It’s critical to understand, when we try to make everything one-size-fits-all, one simple answer, that’s usually not the case, but to understand, “Well, gees! I’ve seen good guys get ahead and I’ve seen bad guys get ahead. Is it just random?” No. It’s not random. In that particular case, it’s usually often an issue of short term versus long term.
I think to understand nuance, to understand the importance of context really allows us to really start to get our brain around how success really works in the real world.
[0:20:02.0] MB: I think the other characteristic that you identified about what makes the successful standout and the vital importance of knowing yourself, that’s something we delve into a lot on the show and one of the most recurrent themes received from across the board, even looking at people like Buddhist teachers, meditation teachers, etc., it's so critical to understand yourself.
[0:20:25.7] EB: Yeah. I think that it's something we pay a lot of lip service to, but I don’t think it’s something that a lot of people really to sit down and think about. Hey, our brands are filled with cognitive biases and many of us can be overconfident or not so self-aware, but to sit down and actually think about that, you look at the research in terms of self-awareness has some really powerful advantages to it. There are ways to go about it. Management guru, Peter Drucker, talked about feedback analysis where taking the time to make predictions and then see how they work out in terms of, “Am I going to do this well? Am I going to do that well?”
Overtime you’ll see patterns, you’ll see trends, or if you’re a little bit more brave and are a little bit more thick skin to do an informal survey of your friends, of those closest to you, to get an idea. Of course, with friends who you believe will be honest with you, to get an idea of what they see your strengths and weaknesses are, because if you ask, say, 10 friends, yeah, there’s going to be some randomness, some noise in there. My guess is in terms of strengths and weaknesses, you’re going to hear a handful of things over and over again. Those are the things that you should really kind of hone in on because it not only does it make us obviously more successful to do things we’re good at. That’s pretty intuitive.
On the flipside, when you look at the research at University of Pennsylvania on signature strengths and surveys done by Gallup, both of them show that the more time you spend on things that you are good at, the happier people are, the more respected feel. There’s just overall in terms of subjective well-being increases dramatically. Past that, if you look at some of the work by Cal Newport at Georgetown, you see that our passions — Many people have the typical passions. They want to be a professional athlete. They want to be a singing success. There’s not a lot of spots for those things. Pursuing your passions doesn’t always lead to happiness.
However, there’s a good body of research that shows that when you pursue the things you’re good at, that you become happy, that passions don’t necessarily lead to success, but when you do things that you are successful, you become passionate about that. You become happy that you’re doing and you enjoy them more.
Those are definitely some tips we can use there in terms of the power of self-awareness.
[0:23:00.4] MT: How do you think about balancing the kind of advice to focus primarily on improving your strengths versus improving your weaknesses and repairing your weaknesses.
[0:23:11.7] EB: The research is pretty consistent on that one. Again, Peter Drucker wrote a fantastic piece to the Harvard Business Review a number of years ago that you’re going to do much better by trying to improve on your strengths and trying to bring up your weaknesses. Your first goal, it’s going to be easier. You’re probably more passionate about it and you’re going to spend time on it. It’s going to be much — You’re going to see bigger gains, larger marginal returns. Beyond that, also bringing up your weaknesses is going to be very difficult.
If you look at Drucker’s book, the Effective Executive, which is a fantastic book in general, he says that it’s much better to focus on the things you’re good at and then find a way to compensate for the things you’re bad at. In other words, if you are extremely creative and dynamic and innovative and you’re always coming up with really powerful new ideas, but you are a complete disorganized mess, it’s far better for you to double down on being creative and coming up with interesting ideas and to hire an assistance to keep you organized than it is for you to sit down and study a bunch of productivity books and trying to do something that is just completely kind of going against the grain.
To point to specific examples, Bob Sutton, a professor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, when I interviewed him he talked about the fact that this is exactly what many successful chief executive officers have done including Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg is they didn’t say, “Oh, I’m going to bring up my weaknesses and try and be this incredibly well-rounded renaissance man.”
What they did was they said, “I’m going to focus on what I’m good at, and when I round out the rest of my senior management team, I’m going to make sure that they fill in those gaps that I’m not so good at so that those things are being addressed, but I’m not the one who has to address them.”
[0:24:56.9] MB: I think the great word there is compensate, right? People might get confused when they think about focusing on the strengths versus focusing on weaknesses. If you find a way to compensate for your weaknesses, then that enables you to focus deeply on your strengths.
[0:25:11.1] EB: Absolutely. Any system or tool that you can leverage to do that is fine. Where if you see people who, because of their time at an organization or with a particular boss or mentor or maybe their time in the military, they develop certain good habits and they might not be the most organized person, but because they were at an institution or in the military that thought them a number of habits, then they can pick those thing sup. Training yourself in terms of habits can be a personal way to compensate for your weaknesses. They use certain technology, tools, or aps that help you compensate.
Again, if you’re an entrepreneur or if you’re an organization where you have direct reports, you can be cognizant of this and hire to attempt to deliberately compensate for your weaknesses, because you’re going to see in general much greater returns from focusing on your assurance.
[0:26:09.4] MB: That’s circles back to the importance of knowing yourself. Again, if you really have a clear understanding of where you’re strong and where you’re weak, it’s that much easier to say, “Hey, I suck at being organized, or I suck at this particular piece of the business. This is what I need to find somebody. Their skillset is exactly this.”
[0:26:28.1] EB: Yeah. It’s funny you say that, because that’s exactly what Drucker says in Effective Executive where he says, “WE all know those people who they just — They’re few and far between, but we all know someone who is able to take on a project and pretty much they may not know what they’re doing, but they know how to approach it. They go ahead and it seems they’re always a phenomenal success and we’re envious of these people.
Drucker says one of the reasons that people can do that is because once you are really aware of your strengths and weaknesses, you’re very quickly able to diagnose a situation and say, “Oh! This naturally aligns with my strengths, so I’m just going to sit down and do what I usually do,” or “This is not so aligned with my strengths, but knowing that my strengths are, then I can find the right kind of solution to this. I can get help from the right people because maybe I’m a better communicator than I am researcher. Okay, well then. I’m going to get on the phone and I’m going to talk to some experts who really — Or maybe I’m a bookwork, but I’m not a great communicator. Okay, well then. I’m going to real all the great books on this and I’m going to focus on putting something like this down on paper as supposed to merely talking to people.”
Just understanding your strengths allow you to plan the right way, to go about achieving a goal, because there’s many different strategies you can take. Once you kind of know the meta goal, what’s the overall big plan, there’s often many different ways to get there. When you know your strength, you’re able to better plan. When you don’t know your strengths, you’re kind of rolling a dice. If you’re diluting yourself, then you actually might be in a worst situation of all, which is maybe you actually working against your best interests.
[0:28:13.4] MB: I’m super excited today to tell you about our sponsor for this episode, brilliant.org. Brilliant.org is absolutely awesome website that’s focused on math and science learning and making it super easy and approachable. You know how big of a fan I am of mental models and building a toolkit of mental models. In many ways, one of the core word things driving this show is helping you build a toolkit of mental model so that you can better understand the world so that you can master the art of decision-making. That's why brilliant.org is so awesome, because you can integrate a lot of these mental models around probability, math and science into your day by using something like brilliant.org. I've got my producer, Austin, here to join us and talk a little bit about brilliant.
[0:28:58.4] A: Yeah. I’ve been taking some of the courses and I’ve been diving in. It’s absolutely great. You say math and sciences and a lot of people, you have an idea on your head about this course and you’re going to be like, “They’re fun. They’re interactive and they keep you going. They have streaks.” Probability is one of the course that really caught my mind. They sort of approached it from what’s one of the foundations of probability, which is games of chance. Things like poker, rolling the dice, casino blackjack, things like that.
The way they framed all of these math and science, framed it in a way that you can kind of understand it and apply it in real life. It’s not just memorizing equations and numbers, but still very impactful.
[0:29:32.2] MB: I'm a big poker player, which you’ve heard me talk about sometimes on the show. I’ve been on a few poker podcast and that kind of thing. Austin sometimes comes to my poker game that I host, and I can tell you he definitely needs to brush up on some of these probability courses.
[0:29:47.4] A: That’s why I’m going with brilliant.org to learn more how I can come here and take your money. We have one tonight even.
[0:29:52.0] MB: We do. I don’t know if you’re coming to the game or not.
[0:29:53.5] A: We’ll see.
[0:29:55.7] MB: Yeah, it’s amazing. Again, I think it's so important and so few people really understand math and science, and America is falling behind in those categories. I don't want you to be left behind, and that's why I think something like brilliant.org is such a great sponsor for this show. We’re super excited to have them, and it's an incredible place where you can go and brush up and build these science and math skills.
The cool thing is they’re actually offering 20% off of their premium plan to anybody who’s a Science of Success listener. You can get that at brilliant.org/scienceofsuccess. That's brilliant.org/scienceofsuccess. I highly recommend checking it out. You know how important math and science skills are, and if you want to build a toolkit of mental models, understanding things like chemistry, physics and probability are some of the cornerstones of that and I'm definitely going to be spending a lot of time on Brilliant brushing up on some of these fields that I already have a pretty good understanding of, but you can always use a refresher.
[0:30:53.4] A: Yeah. There’re already four million students, professionals and enthusiasts, just like you all out on Brilliant learning, brushing up on these skills and taking advantage of the software. 20% on their premium plan when you go to brilliant.org/scienceofsuccess.
[0:31:06.5] MB: Alright, back to the episode.
Let’s segue into some of the other lessons from the book. One of the ones that we hear about all the time is the idea of persevering, should we stay with it? Do quitters never win, or is grit the important factor, or should we cut our loses, move on quickly and find things that are successful?
[0:31:30.4] EB: Yeah, I think it’s really interesting, because grit is kind of having a moment now. It’s kind of its time in the sun, and there’s a good reason for that. Obviously, a lot of people do have trouble persisting with their goals over the long term, so that is critical. I think we do a disservice by acting like grit is the answer to everything, because if that was the case then I would still be in tee-ball and playing with action figures, because that’s what I was doing when I was seven and I decided to stick with that.
No. We all change. We all grow. We all evolve, and increasingly the modern work world, people are having multiple roles in completely different careers, in completely different industries, so adaption is critical.
Grit is really powerful, and we can see the research from Martin Seligman and others that shows that optimism promotes grit. That taking things and perceiving them, using a frame, a game-type frame where it’s a game of sorts can help promote grit. On the flipside, we need to look at the advantages of quitting. We need to see. If you look at the economic principle of opportunity cost, we all only have 24 hours in a day and if you just keep being gritty with things and you keep adding new skills, well eventually you’re just not going to have time for them all.
The truth is that strategically quitting is not the opposite of grit. It is complementary to grit, because the more things you quit, the more time, energy, money resources that you have to devote to the things that you want to be gritty with, that you want to focus on, because there’s research, one of the studies in the book where when you ask people, people are consistently conservative with estimating money. People don’t think that they’re going to be a millionaire tomorrow. They’ll be conservative in terms of committing themselves to spending lots of money.
However — And this is the opposite of the time equals money perspective. However, we don’t look at time like that. People will consistently overcommit in terms of how much time they have. If something seems further away, if I ask you to do something three months from now, well you just seemed sure and positive that in three months you’re going to have more time where it’s probably much more realistic, unless it’s an exception. It’s probably more realistic for you to look at your last week. Think about how busy you were, and it’s probably how busy you’re going to be three months from now. Yet, we consistently make the error that in the future we’ll have more time. In the future, sadly, the days are still going to have 24 hours. In a week, there’s still going to have 7 days. We really need to be cognizant of those timing issues and use that to our advantage when we’re planning, we’re trying to figure out how to be successful.
[0:34:12.6] MB: So true. Literally, just thinking about it now, I feel like I will have more time in three months, and it’s very hard to kind of dislodge that bias from my mind, but logically I know that that’s probably very unlikely.
[0:34:27.5] EB: No. It’s critical to think about that, because time used is really big in terms of grit. You’re not going to have more than 24 hours in a day. Being able to quit, being able to think. So what it comes down to really, what I recommend in the book, is finding a balance where it’s looking at what’s producing results. What’s not producing results? The things that producing results are getting you where you want to go, that’s where you want to show grit. The things that aren’t producing results, and sometimes those are hard to face. You want to try and like go up, but you always want to be devoting five to 10% of your time to what Peters Sims calls little bets, and that is little low-cost investments to kind of see what can work out. See what might be able to come of that and be trying new things, because the world is changing fast, so we need to be changing with it, and to find that new opportunity, that new hobby, relationship, whatever, we always need to be trying new things.
Another thing that people can use that’s really powerful, a research by Gabriele Oettingen at NYU, she talks about a great little acronym called WOOP, and what that is is wish, outcome, obstacle, plan, and that is whenever we’re dreaming about something we want, some goal we have in the future, to walk through those four steps. To first, think about what you’re wishing for. The second is to think of the concrete outcome, what you would actually like to happen specifically. The third, and this is critical, is to think about the obstacles. What’s in the way, so that you’re not merely wishing and dreaming. You’re not daydreaming. You’re thinking about the obstacles. What’s in the way? Fourth is to make a plan based on that. That really helps people be much more realistic about their goals and create a plan to get to them.
What is fantastic, really interesting, is that a secondary effect that she found with this research was that it actually became a litmus test for whether to apply grit or quit. When people went through the WOOP plan, when people went through wish, outcome, obstacle, plan, if they felt more energized afterwards, if they’re walking through it, if they felt like, “Wow! This is great. I can certainly do this.” Then that was probably something that they should apply grit too over the long term.
However, if people went through it and they felt a little down. They felt de-energized, then the plan probably wasn’t realistic and it’s probably either a goal that they needed to discard or a goal that they needed to kind of reframe, that they needed to think about what the meta goal was and find a different way to go about achieving it.
[0:36:53.2] MB: I love the idea of little bets. You know, it’s funny. I was thinking about I know this podcast basically came out of a little bit. I had a buddy suggest to really put a few episodes out on the internet and kind of slowly took hold. As you said at the start of the interview, your blog started out the same way. These are two very concrete examples of how you should always be out there trying new little things and dedicating a little bit of time to sort of low-risk opportunities and activities that may take off and they may not. That’s why I always kind of had an issue with the idea that you should never quit, because I think you should be testing lots of little things and seeing what’s getting some traction and what’s not and then double down your bets and the things that are actually working.
[0:37:39.9] EB: That’s critical. When people talk about luck, what’s interesting is there’s research on luck. Now, I don’t mean luck in terms of magic, but luck in terms of seemingly random good things, positive things happening to you. Richard Wiseman, a professor in the UK did some research and he found a few things that you can actually do to improve luck.
One of them was the idea of being open to new experiences, trying new things, because it’s intuitive. We don’t usually think about it, but it’s only rational intuitive. If you lock the door to your house, don’t answer the phone, don’t go on the internet, how many random good things are going to happen to you? Not too many. Versus if you’re out there exposing yourself to possibilities, yeah, negatives can happen, but playing positives can happen as well. That’s the kind of thing we need to be thinking about is trying new things, exposing ourselves to new experiences, because you can’t guarantee that great things are going to happen to you, but there are certainly things you can do to increase or decrease a possibility of those little serendipitous moments occurring.
One of the best ones is little bets, little low-cost, low resource, low time investment, things that could produce great results. I dare to say that in the modern era, that is sort of essential, because the world is changing. We’re going to have to change, and that’s something that we need to keep doing a certain percentage of our time just to make sure that we’re keeping up with the natural changes in the world.
[0:39:12.2] MB: Tell me about what are the other topics that you wrote about that I thought was really interesting was how do we, as you put it, walk the tight rope between confidence and delusion, and how often should we really focus on believing in ourselves?
[0:39:26.9] EB: It’s really interesting, because confidence is — There’s no doubt that confidence, first of all, makes us feel good. Second of all, confidence has an enormous impact on how others perceive us. Confidence was a really interesting thing to explore, because I’ve never heard anybody say, “I’m trying to decrease my confidence.”
We don’t see a lot of books about how to reduce your self-esteem in five easy steps. That’s probably because the book wouldn’t sell, but you just don’t hear anybody talking about the downsides of confidence. Part of that is because we have a separate word we use. We’ll talk about narcissism, or hubris, or we’ll call it over confident, but nobody kind of gives less confidence what its due and we — Again, because we have another word for it often, which we often label like humility, which is a positive quality because when we are less confident, we’re open to learning. We’re more open to new ideas. We don’t alienate other people by being know-it-alls.
When you look at it, what you’ll often find is that confidence as a whole is a problematic paradigm, because when you look at the research, confidence usually follows success. It doesn’t lead to success. When California launched a state initiative to try and increase the self-esteem of students because they thought it would increase grades, decrease drug use, all these other things, what they found is that it had almost no effect at all. In fact the only effect it probably had was increasing narcissism, because confidence usually follows success. It doesn’t always lead to it.
What we can find is that often that’s because confidence is very often either delusional or contingent. Delusional in the sense that people are overconfident and that usually leads to failure eventually, because eventually reality gives us a kind of market correction in the form of a metaphorical punch in the nose, or confidence is often contingent. Self-esteem is contingent, where basically you have this vision of yourself and in order to realistically maintain it, you feel you need to wake up and slay a dragon everyday so that you can continue to feel good about yourself, and this just keeps you on a treadmill of you keep having to achieving just in order to feel good about yourself. That’s exhausting, but not only is that exhausting, you’re going to have an off day. One day you’re not going to slay that dragon and your self-esteem crashes, and that’s how we end up on this rollercoaster of emotions having to work so hard to feel good about ourselves and then not feeling good about ourselves, and it’s a double down.
What we see is when you look — Going back well over a thousand years, is the Buddhist concept of self-compassion, which Kristin Neff at the University of Texas at Austin has done a bunch of academic research showing that this isn’t just a philosophical concept. It’s actually a really good kind of alternative to self-confidence is self-compassion. Basically what that is, is rather than with self-confidence or self-esteem, trying to build yourself up to be something greater than you’re not. Self-compassion is seeing the world more realistically and being far more open to forgiving yourself when you’re not Superman, when you don’t achieve. Taking a realistic perspective and then understanding, sometimes you’re going to fail. That’s human, and forgiving yourself and moving on. That keeps us out of that contingent treadmill cycle and keeps us out of delusion. What her research has shown is that self-compassion provides all the benefits of self-confidence without any of the negatives and it’s a very powerful tool that we can all use to get us out of the self-confidence track.
[0:43:02.2] MB: That’s amazing, and self-compassion is something that we talk a ton about on the show. Again and again it comes up as such a vital skill to cultivate. How do you — From what you saw, what are some of the best ways to cultivate self-compassion?
[0:43:18.6] EB: The first real step is we all have that voice in our head that’s so critical and we’re quick to beat ourselves up when we make mistakes and it’s really changing that voice. Changing the way you talk to yourself, where instead of being so negative and critical, is to just have more of a grandmotherly sort of forgiving attitude where instead of, “Oh! I get this thing in late, and I’ll — I’m so stupid. How do I do this every time?” As supposed to, “You know what? I made a mistake. It happens. I’ll do my best to correct it, but this happens and it’s okay. It’s not the end of the world,” to take that perspective.
What’s interesting is you look at the research in terms of something we all suffer from, kind of a plague, is procrastination. We’re also inclined to beat ourselves up for procrastination, but what the studies show is that forgiving yourself for procrastination is actually a much better — It leads to people getting things done and on doing stuff. We feel like we need to punish ourselves, but that kind of keeps us in that loop here we’re punishing ourselves and we see ourselves as procrastinators and we’re still tied up as supposed to letting it go, letting the fear go, letting the concern go and just getting something done. So much of procrastination comes from fear, from this kind of negative anticipation and just taking that voice in your head. When you hear that critical voice, just trying to soften it. Just trying to say, it’s like, “Yes. Hey, I make mistakes. That’s human. That’s natural,” and forgiving yourself again, as supposed to when we take that self-confidence vision of, “I’ve got to be Superman. I’m this awesome super thing.” That can only lead to two places; having that insane, over the top, I’m 150% attitude, that can only lead to you being utterly diluted and completely cutoff from reality, because it’s not who you are. It’s impossible, or to you just crushing your self-esteem because seeing unrealistic standards, and then when you see the results are not 150%, then you feel terrible about yourself. I don’t think anyone of us wants to, A; feel terrible about ourselves, or B; be utterly diluted and cutoff from reality. It’s much better to develop that sort of softer, quitter, forgiving voice in our head and to just catch ourselves whenever we’re too critical, whenever we’re beating ourselves up. That’s a really good first step to self-compassion.
[0:45:48.0] MB: That makes me think about something that I think about a ton, which is the balance between almost this Buddhist sense of non-attachment with ambition and achievement. How do you strike a balance between those two things? I know you don’t necessarily directly address that in the book, but I’m curious what your thoughts are about how those two things kind of balance each other and how self-compassion plays into that.
[0:46:12.0] EB: One of the things I do talk about in the 6th chapter of the book is just that hard work really does pay off. Hard work really does payoff in terms of skills and stuff like that. It’s not necessarily rewarded in an organization, but when you look at the greats in terms of any area of skill-based individual achievement, yeah, the more you work, if you’re actually doing deliberate practice, it pays off. What does that mean? That means that somebody who works nine hours a day is going to do better than someone who works eight hours a day. Somebody who works 16 hours a day is going to be — It can almost become a prescription for workaholism and that can be dangerous.
In the subtitle to the introduction, I talk about the decoding what successful people do so that we can learn to be more like them or so that we can learn why it’s good that we aren’t, because I would say the heights of success, you’re going to find a lot of workaholics and you’re also going to find a lot of people who are extraordinarily successful but not necessarily happy.
When we look at the idea, the Buddhist ideas of kind of non-attachment, yeah, it’s like you want to reach the heights of success, the extremes. That may not be aligned with a much more modest forgiving, but would you be happy as a millionaire or do you have to be a billionaire? Those are the kinds of questions we need to ask ourselves, and that’s sort of the work-life balance question, because if you take it that there’s a more or less linear relationship between hard work and skill development, that’s going to lead you towards a workaholic attitude. If you take the attitude that, “I need to be enjoying myself. I need to have downtime. I need to have some fun.” Then that is going to take you away from the very, very heights potentially of success.
It’s a decision we all need to make for ourselves. I quote Sam Harris in the book talking about, “If you want to reach the extremes of success,” he says, “is that align with those kind of Buddhist kind of more mild, not necessarily.” But on the other hand, as Harris says, “But do we need to be torturing ourselves as much as we do? Do we need to be as non-self-compassionate as we are?” The answer to that is probably no. We can definitely glean something from those more moderate detached Buddhist attitudes. In the end, as I talked about in the book, you need to have a personal definition of success. The standards that are presented to us in the media these days are statistical anomalies and not replicable for most people. If we hold ourselves to those standards, it’s almost a prescription for clinical depression. We need to say, “What’s going to make me happy? What is good enough?” That I think is very well-aligned with some of the more Buddhist ideas you’re talking about.
[0:49:12.5] MB: How do you think about the idea — That I totally understand and agree with the — I’m a huge fan of deliberate practice and that these sort of direct relationship between time spent practicing and skill development. Zooming out or thinking about that kind of a different perspective, how do you think about the application, the 80-20 principle and sort of the nonlinear relationship between results produced and time spent, right? Because it’s not necessarily — If you’re looking at achievement broadly, or financial success, there’s a lot of other factors that go into that than sort of just raw time spent.
[0:49:46.4] EB: That’s one of the things I think the biggest mistake people make when they haven’t really read the literature. It’s just, “Oh, 10,000 hours.” It’s like, “Well, no. It’s not 10,000.” I’ve definitely driven a car for 10,000 hours. That doesn’t prepare me to go into Formula One or NASCAR, because that wasn’t deliberate practice. I was not actually pushing my limits and trying to get better. I may have spent 10,000 hours washing my hair in the course of my life. I’m not an expert hair washer.
First and foremost, realizing that 10,000 hours alone is just proof of nothing. It is the issue of deliberate practice. Again, there’s a lot of other factors as well. There are issues. If you’re 5 foot 4, you can spend 10,000 hours. I still don’t think you’ll be in the NBA. There are physical limitations, natural limitations, and also there’s always going to be diminishing marginal returns where the further along you go, the harder it’s going to be to improve your first year or two at anything you’re going to make. If you are using deliberate practice and spending a lot of hours, you’re going to get very good very fast. After those 10 years, it’s going to require enormous amounts of energy and effort and time just to move the needle a recognizable amount.
I think very often when we’re talking about skill development, it’s grossly over simplified and because that’s what most people want to hear, but it is more nuanced than that and we need to be realistic about some of the limitations and some of what’s involved. I don’t think it’s surprising that many of the people who do reach the heights of skill development and success in arenas, even if they have natural gifts, there is usually a fair amount of obsessiveness involved. It’s seen again and again and again that we love to use more positive-spin words, like “passionate”, but when you look at a lot of the daily routines and habits of people who are extremely successful in sports, music, writing, etc., even science and other areas, the word obsessive rings a lot more true than passionate. When Jeffrey Pfeffer looked at top success executives in business, so you don’t have to be talking about the arts. He said that here’s a number of qualities you absolutely need to be in the top of your game.
The first thing he listed was energy and stamina, because he just said you’re going to be working a lot. You’re going to be working hard and things are going to be thrown at you and if you don’t have energy and stamina, yeah, there’s a lot of great qualities you can have, but you’re just going to need to keep going. I think we have a lot of illusions about what it takes to get really good, but it’s a lot more nuanced than just a work hard.
[0:52:40.3] MB: In the conclusion of the book you asked the question, “What makes for a successful life?” I’d love for you to share that wisdom with the listeners.
[0:52:48.1] EB: In terms of a successful like, it’s like we really need to be thinking about that concept of alignment, of your signature strengths and picking the right environment. We need to really think about relationships. Relationships are really critical, because that is part of that environment, is the relationships you have. When you look at the results of the Grant study, which fall a number of men, I believe started in the 1930s and followed men throughout their entire life, in college, throughout, you saw that George Valliant who led the study for a few decades, when interviewed, he said that the most important thing in life is your relationships, full stop. That was critical.
When you saw similar results out of a German study, which was another longitudinal study that followed people throughout their entire lives, because it’s very easy to do a sample of 100 undergrads for a month or two, but to follow people from their teen years or their youth all the way throughout, relationships are really critical.
Obviously, in business, in one of the chapters I talk about networking and how important that can be. In terms of our lives, how you feel about other people. The interesting thing is those people with good relationships who felt loved, who gave love, actually were more career successful as well. That idea of aligning your signature strengths with your environment is really important, but if we’re not thinking about relationships and our connections with other people, we don’t — I don’t think any of us look forward to having deathbed regrets. What you see is when people are on their deathbed, in an informal study, that most of the things were not about work, not about career and financial success. In fact, quite the opposite. One of the top five deathbed regrets was, “I wish I had not worked as hard.” We need to be thinking about those relationships, because in the long term they seem to be much more important than the immediate finance or career successes.
[0:54:49.3] MB: For somebody who’s listened to this interview and they want to concretely implement some of the advice and the wisdom that you shared, what would be one piece of homework that you would give them as a starting point to do that?
[0:55:02.0] EB: I would say what we talked about in terms of know thyself. I would say to do an informal survey of your friends. The friends who aren’t just going to tell you what you want to hear. Who you know are — Who, in general, those friends are perhaps a little too honest. They have good news for you now. To ask 5 or 10 friends to tell you what they think your strengths and weaknesses are. Like I said, you’re going to hear some random things, but I think you’re going to hear a number of things repeated.
Once you start to identify what those are, then you can start to think about your environment, and if you’re up for a career shift, you can think about an organization or a company that might respect those things. If somebody says, “You’re really organized. You’re fantastic with logistics,” then being a painter might not be the best choice. However, working for FedEx or UPS might be a fantastic choice if you’re really organized, time efficient and good at logistics.
By the same token, to just understand wherever your strengths might lie, if you can align those. In the same way, even at home, with your partner, with family, to realize what you’re good at, what you’re not good at can really help your relationship in terms of dividing duties and tasks around the house or with kids in terms of your partner as supposed to both of you doing things which it’s inefficient for you to be handling when you have advantages elsewhere.
First and foremost, I would try and survey those friends. Try and get an idea of those strengths and then start thinking about who rewards those. What groups, organizations really reward and value those things, and then you can start to see to pick the right pond, to basically find the place where you fit in and you are valued and respected. I think that’s really critical.
[0:56:58.7] MB: For listeners who want to find you, read of what you’ve written, where they can find you, your blog and the book online?
[0:57:06.7] EB: Because my URL is a little hard to spell, I think the best thing is to probably either Google Barking Up the Wrong Tree, that’s my blog. Barking Up the Wrong Tree blog, or Google my name, Eric Barker. The best way to keep up with what I’m doing is to join my email list. You’ll get one email a week with my latest post in terms of the research and stuff I’ve been looking at. My book, Barking Up the Wrong Tree is available on Amazon and other retailers. They can find those there.
[0:57:34.7] MB: We’ll make sure to include all of those in the show notes as well as all the studies that you talked about. There’s tons and tons of notes for this episode that I know listeners are going to want to dig into.
Eric, thank you so much for coming on the show. As I’ve said, I’ve been a huge fan of your blog for years and years and it’s so great to have you come on and share all these knowledge with our listeners.
[0:57:52.7] EB: Thanks so much, Matt. It was really a pleasure.
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