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Book review: Barking Up The Wrong Tree

LiveMint logoLiveMint 27-08-2017 Sonya Dutta Choudhury

Bad boys do well in life. Much better than the class toppers, says Eric Barker, in Barking Up The Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong. “Criminals are more aware of the value of trust and cooperation than you and I,” Barker says in one of the early chapters in the book.

Having grabbed your attention with these provocative theories, Barker then moves on to dispensing conventional wisdom on how to be successful. Like working hard and being obsessive. And networking. So join groups, meet diverse people and always follow up on those meetings through phone calls, email or small favours—these are some of the networking 101 principles he espouses. But he does spice things up with stories from the New York police department’s (NYPD’s) hostage negotiators, and their ability to deal with difficult people. His four principles for dealing with difficult people at work are gleaned from conversations with these NYPD hostage negotiators: Keep calm and slow it down; use active listening; label emotions; and make them think.

Another chapter suggests playing games at work. It’s now popularly accepted that playing games can help us make sense of reality and become better achievers. Barker recommends it too, with a stirring story of mountaineer Joe Simpson, who made his way out of a 100ft crevasse by thinking of it as a game.

Good games have new levels, new enemies, new achievements, and keep our brains challenged. Winning a game makes you feel more productive, even if it is a video game. To stay motivated, then, Barker advises readers to construct games at work, defining goalposts through the achievement of small goals like “What one thing can I do to make progress today?”

The book is also packed with advice from people like Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman, an Israeli-American psychologist notable for his work on the psychology of judgement and decision making; behavioural economist Dan Ariely; literary figures like David Foster Wallace; and icons like Charlie Chaplin and Albert Einstein. The advice is linked to hard work, success, work-life balance and happiness. This makes for entertaining reading, alternating theories on happiness and productivity with survival stories.

So even if most of Barker’s advice (Know yourself. Network. Join Groups. Always Follow Up) is plain common sense and has been done to death, he manages to liven up the lectures with his extraordinary cast of characters. If you like gimmicky reads, then this screenwriter-turned-blogger-turned-author’s book is up there. Plus, Barker is prolific in his parables of modern-day success. He quotes generously and is himself quotable, definitely the stuff of motivational conversations and presentations.

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