Book Review: Barking Up the Wrong Tree

Barking Up the Wrong Tree is the best book I’ve read this year and hit on so many great topics on the surprising science behind success.

Three of my favorite excerpts below.

On hiring “black sheep”:

“”Steve Jobs was worried.  

In 2000, he and the other senior leaders of Pixar were all asking the same question:  Was Pixar losing its edge?  They’d had huge hits in Toy Story, Toy Story 2, and A Bug’s Life, but they feared that with success the studio synonymous with creativity would grow, slow down, and become complacent.

To try to invigorate the team, they hired Brad Bird, director of the acclaimed animated film Iron Giant, to helm Pixar’s next big project.  Jobs, John Lasseter, and Ed Catmull felt he had the mind to keep the company vibrant. 

Did he address the creativity crisis by leaning on Pixar’s established top performers? No. Did he recruit top outside talent and bring in new blood? Nope. This wasn’t the time to play it safe and look for “filtered talent.  It made them successful, but it had also gotten them to this sticking point.

As he assembled his first project at Pixar, Bird revealed his plan to address the creativity crisis: “Give us the black sheep. I want artists who are frustrated. I want the ones who have another way of doing things that nobody’s listening to. Give us all the guys who are probably headed out the door.” Translation: Give me your “unfiltered” artists. I know they’re crazy. That’s exactly what I need.

Bird’s new “Dirty Dozen” of animation didn’t just make a film differently. They changed the way the entire studio worked:

We gave the black sheep a chance to prove their theories, and we changed the way a number of things are done here. For less money per minute than was spent on the previous film, Finding Nemo, we did a movie that had three times the number of sets and had everything that was hard to do. All this because the heads of Pixar gave us leave to try crazy ideas.

That project was The Incredibles.  It grossed over $600 million and won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature.””

On pirate economics:

“Pirate ships were very democratic places.  All rules needed to be agreed to unanimously.  Captains could be deposed for any reason, and this turned them from tyrants into something closer to servants. The only time a captain had total authority was in the midst of battle, when quick decision-making was a matter of life and death.

Pirates ended up forming a “company” you might be very happy to work for. Since the boss could be fired at any time, he was quite focused on taking good care of his employees. Captain’s wages weren’t significantly larger than anyone else’s. As Leeson explains, “The difference between the highest and lowest paid person in this crew was thus only a single share.” And he didn’t get ridiculous perks. Pirate captains didn’t get a bigger bunk on the ship or more food.

Pirates Inc. also had great benefits. Fighting bravely or being first to notice targets was handsomely rewarded with bonuses. Got injured? Just file a claim. Pirates effectively had a disability plan, covering battle-related injuries. And these fantastic HR initiatives worked. The historical record shows pirates had no trouble getting people to join their ranks, while the Royal Navy resorted to compelling men to sign up.

Pirates Inc. even had a diversity program hundreds of years before it was popular and mandated by law. Why? They weren’t morally enlightened; racism simply wasn’t good business whereas treating people right was. It gave them an advantage in recruiting and retaining talent. It’s estimated that the average pirate ship was approximately 25 percent black. Each crewmember, regardless of race, had the right to vote on ship issues and was paid an equal share.  This was in the early 1700s.  The United States didn’t abolish slavery until more than a hundred fifty years later.””

On lessons you can take from jerks without becoming a jerk:

“A common trend through the research was that jerks aren’t afraid to push a little. They self-promote. They negotiate. They make themselves visible. This can be done without being a jerk. Maybe you won’t gain everything the jerks get, but you can benefit from putting yourself out there – and without losing your soul.

You do not 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 say 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 good things they’re hearing (from you, of course). And when it’s time to negotiate for that raise (or to refresh your resume), you can just review the emails for a reminder of why exactly you’re such a good employee.”

     The book is filled with real-world examples like the one’s above and includes chapters such as “Should We Play It Safe and Do What We’re Told If We Want to Succeed?”, “Do Nice Guys Finish Last?”, and “Do Quitters Never Win and Winners Never Quit?”.  At the end of each chapter, the author, Eric Barker, gives the reader actionable steps to take to build on the lessons mentioned in the chapter.  I highlighted and re-read dozens and dozens of passages in the book and found something new and interesting on each page.

If you are still hesitant to get the book, you can check out his blog here.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: Barking Up the Wrong Tree

  1. like the excerpts, going to add this to the list. I get this guy’s email updates but I rarely read them. 10/10 i’ve got high hopes

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