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Success. It’s a word used frequently in the American workplace with vastly different meanings. What is success? Is it rising up the ranks in your field? Accumulating a lot of money? Raising wonderful children? All of the above?

Everyone seems to have their own definition of success, but when it comes to corporate success, our society, in particular, seems to have preconceived notions of how to become successful in the workplace that have become dogma.

I recently read a book that flipped all those preconceived notions on their heads. It’s a new book published earlier this year by Eric Barker called Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong. The title alone intrigued me.

This book is broken down to answer 6 questions that have already been answered by the “success dogma.” Let’s see how that dogma of corporate success relates to reality:

    1. Should we play it safe and do what we’re told if we want to succeed? The dogma would say we should be what we’re told. As an example, if you’re a valedictorian in high school, you’re sure to be a top earner in your career, right? You know how to work hard and apply yourself so that should translate. That is not actually the case. In their research, valedictorians actually earned a lot less than people that did not perform well in school. If you want success, you can’t just follow the rules. You have to make your own path.
    1. Do nice guys finish last? Dogma would say yes. There are countless films that discuss how a protagonist must relinquish being a good person to be successful or make money. That belief is reflected in our society, but it’s not based on fact. An organization (even a criminal one, which the book explores) cannot run well without trust and loyalty. To build that trust and loyalty, people must be treated well. Fear only goes so far. An interesting example the book presents pertains to pirates. I had no idea that pirate ships acted like a democracy: everyone got an equal vote (even non-whites, which was unheard of at the time). Also, the captain wasn’t really in charge and did not receive special treatment or quarters. Pirates were treated well and, at the time, piracy flourished.
    1. Do quitters never win, and winners never quit? Another reversal of dogma: winners need to know when to quit and quitters can definitely win. If someone never decided that a project was a lost cause, they could be stuck doing one thing their entire lives. You have to know when to quit and there is no shame in that.
    1. It’s not what you know; it’s who you know: Unless it’s really what you know. Overall, who you know and how you treat them seems to be most important to a successful career. Over time, people realize you are just using them if you don’t treat them with respect. Both aspects are required to prosper. It is more important than what you know (outside a specialized field).
    1. Believe in yourself…sometimes. Over-confidence seems to be touted in our society as a positive attribute when, in reality, it can lead to serious problems. It’s often said that if you’re confident you can achieve anything, but this research suggests that confidence actually comes from success, not the other way around.
    1. Work work work…or work-life balance? Another given in our society is that you have to work all the time and, if you’re not working, you better pretend to be the busiest person around. It turns out that (as you may have guessed) working all the time is not the key recipe of corporate success, but neither is a complete work-life balance. Instead, the most efficient way of working seems to be scheduling your work (instead of just distractions like meetings, appointments etc.), end-of-work rituals, and uninterrupted time to just think.


    According to Barker, corporate success is not the result of any single quality, but alignment between who you are and where you choose to be. It’s having the right skill in the right role and being a good person surrounded by good people. If you’re interested in learning more about how our perceptions of successful people are often wrong, check out the book. It really opened my eyes and helped me understand how I could better myself.

Also See: You’re a professional, not a cog

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