Barking Up The Wrong Tree: An Interview With Eric Barker

You might not be familiar with the name Eric Barker, but you’ve definitely seen Eric’s writing. His incredibly viral pieces—on how to think, on how manage fear, on how to love—have been read millions of times and featured by some of the biggest news sites in the world. You probably didn’t know that his blog is inspired and rooted in a certain quote from Seneca: “As long as you live, keep learning how to live.” Last week, Eric’s book Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong hit #2 on the Wall Street Journal Bestseller list and peaked at number #40 on Amazon. We set up this interview get some of his insights into Stoic philosophy, strategies used by both NAVY Seals and disaster survivors, and how to avoid bullshit and anxiety.

Can you tell our readers how your blog originally started? Your reach has massively grown over the years and now the blog and email newsletter have close to 300,000 subscribers and you have your own TIME column. What is the backstory?

I was kind of at a crossroads in my life. I’d been reading a lot of academic research online. Most people would probably consider that the most boring hobby imaginable but I’m seriously allergic to bullshit and it was nice to be getting answers that at least had some kind of effort behind them to back up their claims. I started finding some really interesting, profound stuff and figured I might as well share it because I knew other people were not going to spend hours combing the RSS feeds of academic journals but they would probably be interested in the answers I’d come across.

You have covered the Stoics several times. What are your favorite exercises and ideas from them?

I’m always reminding myself that “events don’t upset me, beliefs do.” Realizing that there is no sense getting bothered about things out of my control — and that most things are out of my control—is another huge one. I also frequently use a version of the “premeditation.” When I get worried or concerned I’ll ask myself, “Do I have to have this in order to live a happy life?” The answer is always no.

Do you have a favorite Stoic quote? Maybe one that you think about on a constant basis?

“As long as you live, keep learning how to live.” – Seneca

It’s sums up what I try to do with my blog and how I try to live my life.

You now also have a new book out and I’d love to ask you about the subtitle: “The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong.” How did you arrive at that conclusion and can you expand a bit on that?

We grow up with these maxims like “nice guys finish last” and “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” They always struck me as overly simplistic and I think we’ve all seen plenty of exceptions. I’ve had a very unconventional career and often found these “rules” did not apply. Since I’d spent years looking at the research on similar topics, I decided to give these old sayings the “Mythbusters” treatment. While they could be true in certain circumstances, they rarely held up to scrutiny. I wanted to share with people what the research and experts had to say about the real deal behind success.

What is the most counterintuitive finding from the book that you find people resist the most when you talk to them about it? And what is an idea or exercise that you wish more people implemented and tried out?

Nobody ever questions the value of confidence. Nobody has ever said to me “I wish I was less confident.” You never see a book telling people how to reduce their confidence level—probably because it wouldn’t sell. But confidence is problematic. It can lead to narcissism and hubris. It stops us from questioning and learning. Confidence can be deeply troublesome because it’s usually either delusional or contingent. Delusional because we’re often overconfident, which leads to failure. And self-esteem is often contingent, which means we feel we need to slay a dragon every day to feel good about ourselves. And eventually we fail to achieve something and this causes our self-worth to crash. So we’re constantly on this treadmill of proving ourselves and experiencing this roller coaster of emotions as we succeed or fail.

Instead, people need to give the Buddhist concept of self-compassion a try. Instead of trying to convince ourselves we’re so awesome, it’s a matter of being more realistic and forgiving ourselves when we’re not. Recent research by Kristin Neff at the University of Texas at Austin has shown it has all the benefits of confidence without the downsides.

And one last question, which I can’t resist asking. You mention on the book cover “a secret ingredient to “grit” that Navy SEALs and disaster survivors leverage to keep going.” Can you expand a bit more on that?

It’s optimism. It makes sense too. If you feel it’s all going to work out, you keep trying. If you feel it’s not going to work out, you quit. And research by Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania has confirmed just that. Optimism is so predictive of grit, studies show you can confidently hire salespeople based on optimism alone. Scoring how optimistic MLB players sound in interviews is predictive of how well their teams perform that season.