Sunday, 3 September 2017

Genuinely Trying To Help

first published in The Star, 03 September 2017

"...Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong" is a pretty eyecatching subhead on the cover of this book, if its bright traffic-cone-orange isn't enough to grab your attention. But besides that, what makes this tome on the secrets of success different from the (many, many) others out there?

From what I understand, these nuggets come from the author Eric Barker's blog, Barking Up The Wrong Tree (, where he apparently has been researching and cross-referencing heaps of stuff related to the science of "how to be awesome at life" for eight years. The fruits of his labour are filed online under such categories as happiness, productivity, relationships, success, and "How To Rob Banks And Get Away With Murder" (coming soon, the blog says - I can hardly wait).

"Many of [the answers] are surprising," Barker writes. "Some seem contradictory on the surface, but all of them provide insight into what we need to do in our careers and our personal lives to get an edge."

Many books tend to focus on success stories while ignoring the downsides. These triumphs come at a cost, and that's what many still don't fully grasp. Barker helpfully lays all this out.

From stories of famous figures in history such as British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and US President Abraham Lincoln, to people many of us probably never heard of - Jure Robič, an insane guy who completed a trans-American bicycle race; Glenn Gould, the hypochondriac genius pianist; and Michael Swango, a doctor and a serial killer - Barker explains what made them good at what they do.

Barker also compares the titular alien symbiote Venom from the Marvel comic book with the Japanese karoshi (work to death) phenomenon, illustrates how pirates can school us on cooperation and meritocracy, and explains why the raccoons in the Canadian city of Toronto are role models when it comes to tenacity.

What the case studies show is that there are flip sides to behaviours that might get you ahead in the short term, but will eventually sink you. Kiss just enough ass to get noticed, but don't make it a habit. Follow up on your dreams but do it with a solid plan ("No, folks, The Secret doesn't work.")

Despite his blog's web address,, in which "bakadesuyo" means "I am an idiot" in Japanese, Barker seems anything but. To the first-time readers of his work, the way he connects the dots between two disparate things ("prison gangs" and "community spirit") seem refreshing - revelatory, even.

Much of the advice seems like familiar common sense; it's just that it is usually all over the place, rather than being in one place like this. However, the thing about such books is that something new will come along and displace it on the shelf. Those who have read a few books in this category might not care enough to pick this one up.

Most of the scenarios follow the anecdote, reveal and research-backed rationale, followed by the caveat, more reveals and research-backed rationale formula. The pace is manic, so when a reference is made to a previous story, the mind backtracks - and realises it's lost.

That the sections aren't proportionate throughout doesn't help, either. Chapters Two, Three and Four are bulkier than the rest and you will need more time to read and digest them. Quitting halfway is not advisable unless you have a bookmark (and, if you're scatterbrained, made some notes). Also, some of the text feels repetitive.

My takeaway from Barker's book is that there is no universal formula for success. One needs to pick and choose the strategies one is most comfortable with, and tweak things as one goes along. "We get hung up on the heights of success we see in the media," writes Barker, "and forget that it's our personal definition of success that matters."

That's the rub, isn't it? That "personal definition" takes too much effort to figure out, hence the allure of off-the-shelf solutions. But that's not what Baka-san is selling. You need to put in the work: "In most cases, there is nothing you cannot overcome with time and effort."

Which involves not merely changing yourself but your circumstances as well. Even before he delves into each success story, Barker points out that "What defines success for you is, well, up to you."

Even for the jaded and well-read, this book has something to teach about defining success, and there's something about the light, conversational style of writing that makes me feel he's genuine about helping you get there. Just don't race through it like that Jure Robič fellow.

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

Eric Barker
HarperOne (2017)
307 pages
ISBN: 978-0-06-241604-9


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