This review first ran in the July 3 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.
Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success is (Mostly) Wrong
By Eric Barker
Your son wasn’t named class valedictorian.
Your daughter didn’t get straight As on her report card.
Don’t panic. This actually bodes well for their future success and happiness.
A researcher at Boston College tracked 81 high school valedictorians and salutatorians. Nearly all went to college and graduated into high-paying professional careers.
They’ve proven to be reliable, consistent and well-adjusted.
But according to the researcher, none of these academic all-stars have gone on to change, run or impress the world.
“Research shows that what makes students likely to be impressive in the classroom is the same thing that makes them less likely to be home-run hitters outside the classroom,” says Eric Barker, author of the Barking Up the Wrong Tree blog and book.
“Schools reward students who consistently do what they are told. Grades are an excellent predictor of self-discipline, conscientiousness and the ability to comply with rules,” says Barker.
Conformists don’t change the world. They play by the rules. They pay their dues and rise up through the ranks. They don’t rock the boat.
Yet sometimes boats need rocking and organizations need steering into uncharted waters by transformational, rule-breaking leaders.
“School has clear rules. Life often doesn’t. When there’s no clear path to follow, academic high achievers break down,” says Barker.
Along with rewarding conformity, schools train our kids to be generalists. Your daughter or son may have a passion for math or the creative arts but they’re spending most of their year tackling other subjects.
The Boston College researcher found that smart students with a love of learning struggle in high school and find it stifling. Valedictorians see it as their job to get good grades and give teachers what they want.
Yet a career where you’re great at doing one thing will be more rewarding and satisfying than a job where you’re as good as everyone else at doing many things.
“This generalist approach doesn’t lead to expertise,” says Barker. “Yet eventually we almost all go on to careers in which one skill is highly rewarded and other skills aren’t that important.”
So a report card with straight As offers no clues about your kids’ signature strengths. A range of grades would help reveal where they shine and should invest more of their time.
“Consider the people we’re all envious of who can confidently pick something, say they’re going to be awesome at it, and then calmly go and actually be awesome at it. This is their secret: they’re not good at everything, but they know their strengths and choose things that are a good fit.”
Know thyself is one of the keys to success and happiness, says Barker. The other is to pick the right pond.
“Context is everything. If you follow rules well, find an organization aligned with your signature strengths and go full steam ahead. Society clearly rewards those who can comply, and these people keep the world an orderly place,” says Barker.
“If you’re more of an unfiltered type, be ready to blaze your own path. It’s risky, but that’s what you were built for.”
Along with questioning the wisdom of playing it safe and doing what we’re told, Barker dives into the research to discover if nice guys finish first or last, if quitters never win and winners never quit and if who we know matters more than what know. He also explores the thin line between self-confidence and self-delusion and how to strike the right work-life balance.
“Much of what we’ve told about the qualities that lead to achievement is logical, earnest and downright wrong. Sometimes what produces success is raw talent, sometimes it’s the nice things our moms told us to do, and other times it’s the exact opposite.”
@jayrobb serves as director of communications for Mohawk College, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.