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

Ended: Aug. 5, 2017

Full-blown mania renders people unable to function in normal society. But hypomania produces a relentless, euphoric, impulsive machine that explodes toward its goals while staying connected (even if only loosely) with reality.
There’s no doubt that for many losing a parent at a young age is devastating, with profound negative effects. But for some, as Dan Coyle points out in The Talent Code, researchers theorize that such a tragedy instills in a child the feeling that the world is not safe and that an immense amount of energy and effort will be needed to survive. Due to their unique personality and circumstances, these orphans overcompensate and turn tragedy into fuel for greatness.
In Management Challenges for the 21st Century, Peter Drucker, probably the most influential thinker on the subject of management, says that to be successful throughout your entire work life—which will likely span numerous jobs, multiple industries, and wholly different careers—it all comes down to exactly what Mukunda said: knowing yourself. And knowing yourself, in terms of achieving what you want in life, means being aware of your strengths.
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.
To find out what those things are, he recommends a system he calls “feedback analysis.” Quite simply, when you undertake a project, write down what you expect to happen, then later note the result. Over time you’ll see what you do well and what you don’t.
Once you know what type of person you are and your signature strengths, how do you thrive? This leads to Mukunda’s second piece of advice: pick the right pond. You’ve got to pick the environments that work for you . . . context is so important. The unfiltered leader who is an amazing success in one situation will be a catastrophic failure in the other, in almost all cases. It’s way too easy to think, “I’ve always succeeded, I am a success, I am successful because I am a success, because it’s about me, and therefore I will succeed in this new environment.” Wrong. You were successful because you happened to be in an environment where your biases and predispositions and talents and abilities all happened to align neatly with those things that would produce success in that environment.
Studies show that your boss has a much larger affect on your happiness and success than the company at large.
You do need to be visible. Your boss does need to like you. This is not proof of a heartless world; it’s just human nature. Hard work doesn’t pay off if your boss doesn’t know whom to reward for it. Would you expect a great product to sell with zero marketing? Probably not.
So what’s a good balance? Every Friday send your boss an email summarizing your accomplishments for the week—nothing fancy, but quickly relating the good work you’re doing. You might think they know what you’re up to, but they’re busy. They have their own problems. They’ll appreciate it and begin to associate you with the good things they’re hearing (from you, of course). And when it’s time to negotiate for that raise (or to refresh your résumé), you can just review the emails for a reminder of why exactly you’re such a good employee.
Remember, bad behavior is strong in the short term but good behavior wins over in the long term. So to the best of your ability, make things longer term. Build more steps into the contract. Entice others with ways you can help them down the line. The more things seem like a one-off, the more incentive people have to pull one over on you. The more interactions or friends you have in common with other people, and the more likely you are to encounter them again, the more it makes sense for these people to treat you well.
While you may think that the key to being a good salesperson is people skills or being extroverted, research shows that salespeople can be hired based on optimism alone. Researchers found that “agents who scored in the top 10 percent [of optimism] sold 88 percent more than the most pessimistic tenth.”
What’s shocking is that when asked to make predictions, depressed people are more accurate than optimists. It’s called “depressive realism.” The world can be a harsh place. Optimists lie to themselves. But if we all stop believing anything can change, nothing ever will. We need a bit of fantasy to keep us going.
    Optimism is associated with better health and a longer life. Levels of optimism can even predict which survivors of cardiovascular disease are likely to have a second heart attack.             Expecting a positive outcome from negotiations makes groups more likely to close a deal and to be happy with it.             Optimists are luckier. Studies show by thinking positive they persevere and end up creating more opportunities for themselves.
Those who saw their life existing for a reason greater than themselves persisted, while others smoked their cigarettes before making that final run toward the fence.
And then there’s happiness. Studies have shown that many people don’t feel good about their lives because they don’t see the good times as aligned with their vision of themselves. They want their lives to fit their stories, so when bad things happen they see that as consistent with who they are; the joyful moments are exceptions to be ignored. This is true even in the most profound and distressing examples of sadness: suicides. Roy Baumeister, a professor at Florida State University, found that people who committed suicide often weren’t in the worst circumstances, but they had fallen short of the expectations they had of themselves.
It aligns with what we saw in the optimism research. Optimists told themselves a story that may not have been true, but it kept them going, often allowing them to beat the odds. Psychologist Shelley Taylor says that “a healthy mind tells itself flattering lies.” The pessimists were more accurate and realistic, and they ended up depressed. The truth can hurt.
This is why lawyers are 3.6 times more likely to be depressed than people in other professions. To protect their clients, attorneys must consider every possible thing that can go wrong. They can’t tell themselves happy, less accurate stories about how a deal will unfold. Pessimists outperform optimists in law school. And this same quality makes them very unhappy. Law is the highest paid profession in the United States and yet, when surveyed, 52 percent of lawyers described themselves as dissatisfied with their jobs. You can guess what effects this has on grit: the legal profession has high attrition rates.
As Harvard professor Teresa Amabile discusses in her book The Progress Principle, meaningful work is the number-one thing people want from their jobs. Yup, it beats salary and getting promoted. How did Steve Jobs lure John Sculley away from his great job as CEO of Pepsi? He asked him, “Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water or do you want a chance to change the world?” Meaningful doesn’t have to be saving orphans or curing the sick. As long as your story is meaningful to you, it has power.
David Brooks makes the distinction between “résumé values” and “eulogy values.” Résumé values are the things that bring external success, like money and promotions. Eulogy values are about character: Am I kind, trustworthy, or courageous? We’re often very forward-thinking about the former. We spend four years in college to get that job, learn to use Excel or PowerPoint, read books on getting ahead. But eulogy values we tend to consider only in retrospect, rationalizing after the fact: Yes, I’m a good person. If you’re ambitious (and since you’re reading a book about success, you probably are), you don’t need to worry too much about paying attention to the résumé values. You’re always thinking about them. But to serve your longer-term career and life, you need to be forward-thinking about eulogy values too.
Vonnegut’s moral is that “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” So instead of merely focusing on intentions, make sure that in your day-to-day actions you are being the main character in your perfect story. This way rather than ending up as Vonnegut’s character did, you can go the way of a different fictional character: Don Quixote. The moral of Cervantes’s story being “If you want to be a knight, act like a knight.”
We cannot help but tell stories. But which story are you telling yourself? And is it one that will get you where you want to go?
By engaging in cognitive reappraisal, and telling ourselves a different story about what is happening, we can subvert the entire willpower paradigm. Some research has shown that willpower is like a muscle, and it gets tired with overuse. But it only gets depleted if there’s a struggle. Games change the struggle to something else. They make the process fun, and as Mischel showed in his research, we are able to persist far longer and without the same level of teeth-gritting willpower depletion.
would the same be true with a juicy steak? Especially if you were hungry? Say you are the kind of person who indulges in steak. Now what happens? Struggle. Willpower depletion. Unless you are a vegetarian. Boom—another story. You’d say no and exert zero willpower. You’d have no trouble ignoring the steak. Change the story and you change your behavior. Games are another kind of story: a fun one.
David Foster Wallace once said, “If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish.” In many ways, this is very true.
Whiny neutered goats fly. Picture it in your mind. You’ve just learned what all good games have in common: WNGF. They’re Winnable. They have Novel challenges and Goals, and provide Feedback.
But you can fix this. You may not be able to overhaul how your company does things, but like Joe Simpson, you can define a game for yourself that is winnable. Is your game to learn as much as possible at the office so you’re ready for that promotion? Do you want to get better at giving presentations or acquire another skill set? All of these are winnable. Now, what if your boss hates you? Or you’re facing discrimination in the workplace? Those games really aren’t winnable. Move on. Find a game you can win.
The workplace wants you to be good at your job, and that makes sense, but that’s like a game you’re too good at. It’s dull. Good games have that 80 percent failure rate to inspire you to keep working, but the office doesn’t like failure. Zero failure means zero fun. And there’s so much busy work that offers no challenge at all. How is that engaging?
In an office environment, there are definite goals—but are they your goals? When the company gets what it wants, do you always get what you want? Um, not so much. You can’t get what you want until you take the time to decide what you want. Goals can be intimidating. We don’t want to fail, so often we don’t set them. But if you make your game winnable, setting goals will be less scary. Failure is okay in a game. As Nicole Lazarro discovered, failure in a game just makes things more fun.
The progress you see doesn’t need to be big. As Harvard professor Teresa Amabile found, “Our research inside companies revealed that the best way to motivate people, day in and day out, is by facilitating progress—even small wins.” In fact, the data shows that consistent small wins are even better at producing happiness than occasionally bagging an elephant: “Life satisfaction is 22 percent more likely for those with a steady stream of minor accomplishments than those who express interest only in major accomplishments.”
Good games keep you going by giving frequent, immediate feedback. But what about your job? You get a review annually. As Jane McGonigal reports in her book, studies show many C-level executives play computer games at work. Why? “To feel more productive.” Oh, the irony.
So you need a better way to score your work game. Amabile recommends taking a moment at the end of every day to ask yourself, “What one thing can I do to make progress on important work tomorrow?” It gives you a goal to shoot for. Give yourself a clear idea of how to measure or achieve that, like Joe Simpson’s twenty minutes, and you’re on your way to a motivating system.
“Quit” doesn’t have to be the opposite of “grit.” This is where “strategic quitting” comes in. Once you’ve found something you’re passionate about, quitting secondary things can be an advantage, because it frees up time to do that number-one thing. Whenever you wish you had more time, more money, etc., strategic quitting is the answer. And if you’re very busy, this may be the only answer.
That’s one of the reasons we all feel so rushed, so tired, and like we’re not getting enough done or making enough progress. We all have only twenty-four hours in a day. Every day. If we use an hour for this, we’re not using it for that. But we act like there are no limits. When we choose an extra hour at work, we are, in effect, choosing one less hour with our kids. We can’t do it all and do it well. And there will not be more time later. Time does not equal money, because we can get more money.
The reason Drucker was invited to join the study was because he was a world-renowned expert on being effective and getting things done. Drucker thought that time was the most precious resource. And the first line of defense he recommended to people wasn’t better scheduling; it was getting rid of everything that wasn’t moving the needle when it came to achieving their goals.
Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, did an exhaustive study of companies that turned themselves around and went from disappointments to huge successes. What he found was that most of the big changes they made weren’t about new initiatives but about the bad things they needed to stop doing.
Richard Wiseman, a professor at the University of Hertfordshire, did a study of lucky and unlucky people to see if it was just random chance, spooky magic . . . or if there were real differences that caused such different results in life. It turns out luck isn’t just serendipity or due to the paranormal. A lot of it is about the choices people make. Studying over a thousand subjects, Wiseman found that lucky people maximize opportunities. The study showed they are more open to new experiences, more extroverted, and less neurotic. They listen to their hunches. Most of all, Wiseman says, lucky people just try stuff. It makes intuitive sense: if you lock yourself in your house, how many exciting, new, cool things are going to happen to you? Not many.
“You regret most the things you did not do.” Thomas Gilovich of Cornell University found that people are twice as likely to regret a failure to act. Why? We rationalize our failures, but we can’t rationalize away the stuff we never tried at all. As we get older we also tend to remember the good things and forget the bad. So simply doing more means greater happiness when we’re older (and cooler stories for the grandkids).
The answer is simple: If you don’t know what to be gritty at yet, you need to try lots of things—knowing you’ll quit most of them—to find the answer. Once you discover your focus, devote 5 to 10 percent of your time to little experiments to make sure you keep learning and growing. This gives you the best of both worlds. Use trying and quitting as a deliberate strategy to find out what is worth not quitting. You’re not being a total flake but someone who strategically tests the waters.
Early on, “love marriages” are happier than arranged marriages, scoring a 70 out of 91 on an academic “love scale” vs. 58 out of 91. No surprise, right? But later something happens. A decade in, arranged marriages score a 68 and the ones based on love a lowly 40.
Not only did dreaming not bring you your desires; it actually hurt your chances of getting what you want. No, folks, The Secret doesn’t work. It turns out that your brain isn’t very good at telling fantasy from reality. (This is why movies are so thrilling.) When you dream, that grey matter feels you already have what you want and so it doesn’t marshal the resources you need to motivate yourself and achieve. Instead, it relaxes. And you do less, you accomplish less, and those dreams stay mere dreams. Positive thinking, by itself, doesn’t work.
Oettingen pulled together a simple system for you to do this called WOOP. (Yeah, the formal term is “mental contrasting” but, c’mon. Who wouldn’t rather say “WOOP”?) WOOP—wish, outcome, obstacle, plan—is applicable to most any of your goals, from career to relationships to exercise and weight loss. First, you get to dream. What’s the thing you wish for? What are you fantasizing about? (I want an awesome job.) Really crystalize it in your mind and see the outcome you desire. (I want to work as a VP at Google.) Then it’s time to face reality. What obstacle is in the way? (I don’t know how to get an interview there.) Then address it. What’s your plan? (I’m going to check LinkedIn and see if I know anyone who works there and can connect me with HR.)
The real dilemma with pessimism is that it’s actually more accurate. Yes, the cynics are often right. But as we learned in the first chapter, always playing the odds can be a prescription for mediocrity—especially when the thing you’re betting on is yourself. This is why Martin Seligman developed a great balance so you don’t go full-on delusional. He calls it “flexible optimism.” Being a little pessimistic at times keeps us honest. But when the risks are very low (which is true, frankly, for most things) or when the payoffs are very high (such as a career you might want to devote your life to) optimism is the way to go. It’s a balance. A balance that with practice you can find.
Some theorize that introverts simply have more going on in their heads. Not that extroverts are vapid (some of what’s going on in introverts’ heads can be negative, like anxiety), but this means that loud, busy places quickly tip an introvert into overstimulation, whereas extroverts devoid of a stimulating environment get bored. For example, I’m quite the introvert. In grad school I had a girlfriend who loved to go to bars and parties, the louder the better. To her that was exciting. To me it was auditory waterboarding. When she and I would go on long drives, I’d play podcasts in the car and be fascinated. She’d be asleep in thirty seconds. (I’m sure you’re shocked to find out we’re not together anymore.)
Research shows that you don’t actually need to know more to be seen as a leader. Merely by speaking first and speaking often—very extroverted behavior—people come to be seen as El Jefe. Meanwhile, other studies show that those who initially act shy in groups are perceived as less intelligent. As Pfeffer pointed out, to get ahead you need to self-promote. This comes naturally to extroverts and is actually more important than competence when it comes to being seen as a leader.
When you think athlete you might envision the popular captain of the football team in high school. Or maybe the charismatic baseball player telling you to buy razors in that commercial. It’s only natural to think they’re all hard-partying extroverts. You couldn’t be more wrong. Author (and Olympic gold medalist) David Hemery reports that almost nine out of ten top athletes identify as introverts. “A remarkably distinguishing feature is that a large proportion, 89 percent of these sports achievers, classed themselves as introverts . . . Only 6 percent of the sports achievers felt that they were extroverts and the remaining 5 percent felt that they were ‘middle of the road.’”
When Adam Grant (whom we met in chapter 2) looked at leadership, he found something really interesting. Whether an introvert or an extrovert is the better leader depends on whom they are leading. When employees are passive, the social, energetic extroverts really shine. However, when you’re dealing with very motivated workers, introverts do better because they know how to listen, help, and get out of the way.
There’s no need to be afraid of networking. The truth is, we often underestimate by as much as 50 percent how much others are willing to help us when asked. As we talked about in chapter 2, being mistrustful or assuming others are selfish can be self-fulfilling prophecies. Remember, the rule of thumb is simple when making friends: be socially optimistic. Assume other people will like you and they probably will.
Neuroscientist Diana Tamir found that your brain gets more pleasure from you talking about yourself than it does from food or money. This is why you should stop doing it and let others do it as much as possible around you. Arthur Aron’s research has demonstrated that asking people questions about themselves can create a bond as strong as a lifelong friendship in a surprisingly short amount of time.
FBI behavioral expert Robin Dreeke said the most important thing to do is to “seek someone else’s thoughts and opinions without judging them.” Stop thinking about what you’re going to say next and focus on what they’re saying right now.
Found something you both have in common? Great. Don’t be afraid to pay the person a sincere compliment. Research shows we like compliments more than sex or money. What is key here, according to influence expert Robert Cialdini, is the sincere part. You don’t want to feel slimy and they don’t want you to be slimy. Just say whatever positive thing honestly comes to mind. Studies show that even obvious, insincere flattery has incredible effects—but we’re not selling insurance, so keep it real.
Go through your Facebook friends list, your LinkedIn connections, or your address book, and send a few emails every week, asking “What’s up?” Research shows that those dormant friendships can actually be bigger boosters to your career than any new connections you make.
there’s a lot of debate over whether or not money can really buy happiness, but research is conclusive in one area: money definitely brings happiness when we spend it on the people we love. So text a friend and buy them coffee.
Research also shows that being a part of a number of social groups versus just one increases your resilience and helps you overcome stress. If you don’t know of any awesome groups like these, the easy solution is to start one and be the hub of the network. All those other friends of yours looking for a regular time to hang out and network in a non-slimy way will thank you.
Clinical psychologist and workplace consultant Al Bernstein says, “You can’t not play politics; you can only play them badly . . . the only place where relationships don’t matter is on a desert island far away from the rest of the world.” Harvard researcher Shawn Achor found that the workers least likely to develop workplace friendships were also the least likely to get promoted.
There is an old saying: “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.” If you’re doing everything you can to advance your career, getting a mentor won’t be too hard. Why? Because if you’re doing awesome work, people more successful than you will notice and want to help you. Talented, resourceful self-starters are rare. If people don’t notice, you’re doing something wrong. You’re either not working hard enough or not doing enough outreach.
Asking great questions is a perfect way to build a relationship. But the key word here is “great” questions. Never ask a mentor a question Google can easily answer for you. Carve this in stone. Scrawl it in blood above your desk. Get a tattoo of it. You can learn the basics of any subject on Khan Academy. And you should have already done all that work. Asking your mentor a question is like a power up in a video game. Don’t waste them. Use them when they’ll really count.
You need to consistently hit them with a conversation defibrillator to keep the relationship alive but without being a nuisance. Do what they said, get results, and let them know they made a difference. This is what mentors want. If they engage, you can follow up with “I [did my homework] and figured [really impressive next steps] would be [fill in the blank], but I’d love your insight. Do you think [well-thought-out strategy one] or [well-thought-out strategy two] is better?”
Maybe you find a mentor who really helps you improve your skills, but they’re clueless when it comes to navigating office politics. This is very common—and not a problem. The solution? Get a second mentor. You see, mentors are like potato chips: you can’t have just one. In Roche’s studies of executives, the average number of mentors was two and among females it was three.
Mentoring a young person is four times more predictive of happiness than your health or how much money you make. So if you’ve got the skills, don’t just think about who can help you. Think about whom you can help.
You and I do the same thing in our personal relationships. Things go sideways and often our first response is to fight. Not physical violence, but yelling and arguing vs. discussing and negotiating. Why is this? Philosopher Daniel Dennett says it’s because a “war metaphor” is wired into our brains when it comes to disagreement. When there’s a war, someone is conquered. It’s not a discussion of facts and logic; it’s a fight to the death. No matter who is really right, if you win, I lose. In almost every conversation, status is on the line. Nobody wants to look stupid. So, as Dennett explains, we set up a situation where learning is equivalent to losing.
Research from neuroscience confirms this. When people are riled up about something and you show them evidence that conflicts with what they believe, what does an MRI scan show? The areas of their brain associated with logic literally shut down. The regions associated with aggression light up. As far as their brain is concerned, it’s not a rational discussion—it’s war. The brain can’t process what you’re saying; it’s just trying to win. Your head works the same way unless you make an effort to control it.
Instead of trying to get a bigger slice of a set pie, we can expand the pie for everyone. Research shows that many elements of friendship are conducive to good negotiations: happy people are better negotiators. When people feel positive about the deal-making process they’re more likely to close a deal and both parties are happier with the results. And when we joke around like friends do, it builds trust.
Slow it down. The other person’s anger will subside with time if you don’t aggravate them by yelling back. Rushing things leads to pressure, and that only intensifies emotional decision-making, as opposed to rational decision-making.
We can hear and understand seven hundred words a minute, but people only speak about one hundred words a minute. This lag can cause your mind to wander.
What did relationship expert John Gottman say the number-one thing for improving a romantic relationship was? Learn to be a good listener. And the number-one reason people leave their jobs? They didn’t feel their boss listened to them.
Fighting only works when you’re by far the biggest and the strongest and will be certain to stay that way. (Which is much more rare than we tend to think.) When fighting looks like the only solution, it’s usually better to just walk away. The war model doesn’t work best for people in the “war” business, like law enforcement, and it won’t work for you. The best results come from being a friend, listening, and asking questions.
What’s the most important thing that makes people want to stay friends with you over the long haul? A little thing called gratitude.
“Counting your blessings” is not just good advice your grandmother gave you; it’s also one of the most scientifically proven ways to increase your happiness. Just writing down good things that happened to you before going to bed has repeatedly been shown to increase happiness.
Gratitude doesn’t just help friendships. It also improves work relationships. One study showed that while we say “thanks” regularly to family, only 15 percent show gratitude at work. And 35 percent of those surveyed said their boss never says it.
On the flip side, a study titled “Self-Esteem and Earnings” showed that your level of confidence is at least as important as how smart you are when it comes to how much money you end up making.
Studies show overconfidence increases productivity and causes you to choose more challenging tasks, which make you shine in the workplace. Overconfident people are more likely to be promoted than those who have actually accomplished more. As we talked about earlier, just speaking first and often—very confident behavior—makes others perceive you as a leader.
Low self-confidence may turn you into a pessimist, but when pessimism teams-up with ambition it often produces outstanding performance. To be the very best at anything, you will need to be your harshest critic, and that is almost impossible when your starting point is high self-confidence.
Research shows increasing self-compassion has all the benefits of self-esteem—but without the downsides. You can feel good and perform well while not turning into a jerk or being unable to improve. Unlike self-confidence, self-compassion doesn’t lead to delusion. In fact, one study, “Self-Compassion and Reactions to Unpleasant Self-Relevant Events: The Implications of Treating Oneself Kindly,” showed that people high in the trait had increased clarity. They saw themselves and the world more accurately but didn’t judge themselves as harshly when they failed. Meanwhile, people focused on self-esteem often feel the need to delude themselves or to dismiss negative—but useful—feedback in order to still feel good about themselves. They cling to their self-validating theories instead of seeing the real world. This leads to hubris and narcissism.
Williams wasn’t playing. To him, hitting a baseball wasn’t a game. He always took it very, very seriously. In a 1988 interview he said as a child he literally wished on a falling star that he would become the greatest hitter to ever live. But he didn’t sit around and wait for the dream to come true. His obsessive, perfectionist work ethic would bring him more success than any descending celestial body would. Williams said, “I . . . insist that regardless of physical assets, I would never have gained a headline for hitting if I [had not] kept everlastingly at it and thought of nothing else the year round . . . I only lived for my next time at bat.”
The Price Law is a great illustration of just how important feverish work is. Take the number of top people in a field. To make the math easy, we’ll just say it’s one hundred. Then take the square root of that number, which in our example is ten. The Price Law says those ten people will be responsible for 50 percent of the notable achievements in that field. Ten people out of one hundred will produce half the stuff worth paying attention to. And Simonton notes that the Price Law “holds for every major domain in the arts and sciences.”
people, the majority are smarter than average. Without an IQ of 120, very few people end up producing anything that will be groundbreaking and remembered in the history books. But the twist is that as long as you’re past the 120 mark, many studies show more IQ points have little effect. What makes the difference? Not luck. It’s all those hours. A Manhattan Project physicist IQ of 180 might be nice, but those 60 points don’t make the difference that more hours will.
Hours alone also aren’t enough. Those hours need to be hard. You need to be pushing yourself to be better, like Ted Williams. You’ve spent a lot of hours in your life driving, right? Are you ready to compete in NASCAR or Formula 1? Probably not. Trying to improve isn’t something we are doing in the vast majority of activities we engage in every day—including work. With results that may make you scared to go to the hospital, studies have shown that doctors and nurses don’t get much better at their jobs over time. Without a “rage to master,” like you behind the wheel, they just do their thing, hour after hour, rather than push to become experts.
In Benjamin Bloom’s classic study of top athletes, scientists, and artists, he found that one of the critical elements of a great mentor wasn’t just secret knowledge and emotional support; it was pushing you harder. A great mentor’s “expectations and demands were constantly raised until they were at a point where the student was expected to do virtually all that was humanly possible.”
Research shows ambition alone is predictive of success, and motivation predicts career success better than intelligence, ability, or salary.
“Those who stayed very involved in meaningful careers and worked the hardest, lived the longest.” Meaningful work means doing something that’s (a) important to you and (b) something you’re good at. Plenty of research shows that if you do those things you’re uniquely good at (psychologists call them “signature strengths”), they’re some of the biggest happiness-boosting activities of all. A Gallup study reported, “The more hours per day Americans get to use their strengths to do what they do best, the less likely they are to report experiencing worry, stress, anger, sadness, or physical pain.”
If a meaningful career boosts longevity, what kills you sooner? Unemployment. Eran Shor, a professor at McGill University, found that being jobless increases premature mortality by a whopping 63 percent. And preexisting health issues made no difference, implying that it’s not a correlation, it’s very likely causation.
When they get home their brains are pooped. There’s no gas left in the tank to be an attentive partner. One study found people high in perfectionism were 33 percent less likely to have satisfying relationships.
“The people who survive stress the best are the ones who actually increase their social investments in the middle of stress, which is the opposite of what most of us do. Turns out that social connection is the greatest predictor of happiness we have when I run them in my studies.” What was number four in that list of biggest regrets of the dying? “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.”
Every hour at work is an hour you’re not with friends and family. Is this really necessary to be successful at a global scale? Sadly, it may be. The paper “Why Productivity Fades with Age: The Crime–Genius Connection” shows that, at least with men, marriage has a noticeably negative effect on output among scientists, authors, jazz musicians, painters, and even criminals. The author of the study, Satoshi Kanazawa writes, “Scientists rather quickly desist after their marriage, while unmarried scientists continue to make great scientific contributions later in their lives.”
The relevant question for me is how neurotic and unhappy and self-deceived do we have to be while living productive lives. I think the general answer is, far less than most of us are.
A study from the Journal of Leadership and Organizational Studies found that “workplace fun was a stronger predictor of applicant attraction than compensation and opportunities for advancement.” Yeah, that means exactly what you think: money and promotions weren’t nearly as important to people as working somewhere fun.
Thirty-nine percent of Americans work fifty or more hours a week and eighteen percent work sixty or more, according to a 2014 Gallup poll. What’s the added benefit of all those extra hours? Research from Stanford says close to nothing. Productivity declines so steeply after fifty-five hours that “someone who puts in seventy hours produces nothing more with those extra fifteen hours.” All they are creating is stress.
Take an A student used to scoring in the top 10 percent of virtually anything she does. One study showed that if she gets just under seven hours of sleep on weekdays, and about forty minutes more on weekends, she will begin to score in the bottom 9 percent of non-sleep-deprived individuals. And you don’t fully recover that brainpower as fast as you might think. A 2008 study in Stockholm showed that even after a week of normal sleep people still weren’t 100 percent after just a few five-hour nights.
That’s the really sneaky thing about sleep deprivation: you’re not necessarily aware of it. Just because you don’t feel tired doesn’t mean you’re well rested and performing optimally. Your sleepy gauge just isn’t that well calibrated, my friend. The New York Times reported on the work of University of Pennsylvania sleep researcher David Dinges: After 2 weeks of 4 hours of sleep a night, test subjects said they were tired but okay. Then the researchers gave them a battery of tests and it turned out their brains were Jell-O. Dinges also found that after 2 weeks of 6 hours a night they were effectively drunk.
“It turns out that most people are productive in the first two hours of the morning. Not immediately after waking, but if you get up at 7 you’ll be most productive from around from 8 to 10:30.”
Why is it that companies that wouldn’t think twice about firing you for being drunk on the job don’t mind creating conditions that effectively make you drunk on the job?
You need rest. But you’ll be punished for sleeping on the job. Meanwhile, sleeping on the job turns out to be a really good idea. The evidence for naps improving performance is pretty overwhelming.
You need a personal definition of success. Looking around you to see if you’re succeeding is no longer a realistic option. Trying to be a relative success compared to others is dangerous. This means your level of effort and investment is determined by theirs, which keeps you running full speed all the time to keep up. Vaguely saying you want to “be number one” isn’t remotely practical in a global competition where others are willing to go 24/7. We wanted options and flexibility. We got them. Now there are no boundaries. You can no longer look outside yourself to determine when to stop. The world will always tell you to just keep going.
The study came up with four metrics that matter most:         1. HAPPINESS: having feelings of pleasure or contentment in and about your life         2. ACHIEVEMENT: achieving accomplishments that compare favorably against similar goals others have strived for         3. SIGNIFICANCE: having a positive impact on people you care about         4. LEGACY: establishing your values or accomplishments in ways that help others find future success
Khan knew there were things he didn’t know, or things he didn’t have time to learn, so he was always recruiting. Among conquered peoples, anyone who was useful was allowed to join them.
Genghis Khan did not blindly react to problems. He thought about what he wanted. He made plans. And then he imposed his will on the world.
That’s what you need: a plan. Most of us don’t take the time. We’re reactive, like the tribes of the steppes. And the problem with work–life balance is that the old limits are no longer in place for us. We can’t rely on the world to tell us when to power down or shift gears. It’s on you now. That means you need a plan, or you’re always going to feel like you’re not doing enough. You won’t be facing Chinese armies or Eastern European enemies. Your war is first and last with yourself. But that’s a battle you can definitely win with the right plan.
Research shows we often don’t choose to do what really makes us happy; we choose what’s easy.
Write down where each hour goes as it happens. Don’t rely on your fallible memory. Do this for a week. Where are your activities taking you? Is it where you want to go? Note: this will be depressing. I assure you, you’re wasting more time than you think.
look for hot spots in your schedule. When do you waste the most time? When do you overdo one of the big four at the expense of another? You’ll get more bang for your buck changing your routines around these hot spots than by a vague notion of “working less” or “trying to spend more time with the family.” By the same token, look for trends that are working. When do you get disproportionate results? Early morning or late evening? At home or at the office? Try to make those moments more consistent.
Ever wonder why you never seem to get to the bottom of that list? You can easily list twenty-eight hours worth of activities for a twenty-four-hour day. You need to be realistic about what you can get done in the time you have. The only way to do that is to schedule things on a calendar instead of making an endless list. Decide when you want to leave work and you’ll know how many hours you have. Slot in what you need to get done by priority. Cal calls this “fixed schedule productivity.” You need boundaries if you want work–life balance.
Most of us use our calendars all wrong: we don’t schedule work; we schedule interruptions. Meetings get scheduled. Phone calls get scheduled. Doctor appointments get scheduled. You know what often doesn’t get scheduled? Real work.
Also, at least an hour a day, preferably in the morning, needs to be “protected time.” This is an hour every day when you get real work done without interruption. Approach this concept as if it were a religious ritual. This hour is inviolate.
For extra credit, you may want to start planning out your free time too. Before you recoil in horror at the thought, I’ve got some data for you. A study of 403 people in the Journal of Happiness Studies showed that managing your free time is associated with higher quality of life. What was fascinating was that increasing people’s free time had no effect on their happiness, but scheduling that time in advance made all the difference. As we discussed earlier, we often don’t use our time off wisely—we do what is easy instead of what makes us happy. By taking some time to plan, you can make it much more likely you’ll really have fun instead of being a couch potato.
There’s one more scheduling item you need to keep in mind to make sure you don’t undo all the good you’ve accomplished so far: learn to say no. If you get rid of unnecessary activities, schedule everything, use protected time, and batch busy work but you can’t stop people from piling unimportant tasks on your desk, you’ll forever be mired in the shallows.
To quote Warren Buffett, “The difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say no to almost everything.”
Shawn Achor recommends the “twenty second rule.” Make the things you should do twenty seconds easier to start and make the things you shouldn’t be doing twenty seconds harder. Sounds tiny but it makes a big difference. By rearranging your workspace so temptations aren’t visible, you can trick yourself into making better choices. Ariely told me of a simple study done at Google’s New York office. Instead of putting M&M’s out in the open, they put them in containers. No big deal. What was the result? People ate three million fewer of them in a single month. So close that web browser. Charge your phone on the other side of the room.
Cal Newport recommends a “shutdown ritual” in which you take the time to close out the day’s business and prepare for tomorrow. Research shows that writing down the things you need to take care of tomorrow can settle your brain and help you relax. As neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin explains, when you’re concerned about something and your grey matter is afraid you may forget, it engages a cluster of brain regions referred to as the “rehearsal loop.” And you keep worrying and worrying. Writing your thoughts down and making a plan for tomorrow switches this off.
Steven Jay Ross, who helped build the TimeWarner corporation, put it best: There are three categories of people—the person who goes into the office, puts his feet up on his desk, and dreams for twelve hours; the person who arrives at five A.M. and works sixteen hours, never once stopping to dream; and the person who puts his feet up, dreams for one hour, then does something about those dreams.
Success is not the result of any single quality; it’s about alignment between who you are and where you choose to be. The right skill in the right role. A good person surrounded by other good people. A story that connects you with the world in a way that keeps you going. A network that helps you, and a job that leverages your natural introversion or extroversion. A level of confidence that keeps you going while learning and forgiving yourself for the inevitable failures. A balance between the big four that creates a well-rounded life with no regrets.