The Science of Success

I’ve always been fascinated with contradictions and dichotomies such as “live in the moment” vs. “play the long game”. The answer however, is always vague and abstract.

I’ve been searching for answers, one dichotomy at the time. But last year I came across a book, Barking Up the Wrong Tree, that has research-backed answers to six of these contradictions, maxims or expressions.

The overarching message, is how can we learn from the message behind these expressions and apply them to achieve success.

Each chapter is dedicated to a different contradiction:

  • Should we play it safe and do what we’re told if we want to succeed?
  • Do nice guys finish last?
  • Do quitters never win and winners never quit?
  • It’s not what you know but who you know
  • Believe in yourself, sometimes
  • Work, work, work or work-life balance

The Key Takeaway

The central message behind all these maxims, and the take home lesson for success is “alignment”. Alignment between us and our environment. “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 and the right role. A good person surrounded by other good people. A story that connects you with the world 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.”

Should we play it safe and do what we’re told if we want to succeed?

TL;DR: Identify your strengths and pick the right place to apply them.

Research shows “what makes students likely be impressive in a class room is the same thing that makes them less likely to be home runners outside the classroom.” In other words, “schools reward conformity”.

  • Dandelions – most people, “they’ll come out OK under almost any circumstances.”
  • Orchids – Sensitive to everything. Bad environment and parenting: “can become depressed, drug addicts or end up in jail”. Good environment and parenting: can become “society’s most creative, successful and happy people.” Also called “Hopeful Monsters”.

Hopeful Monsters

“An individual that deviates radically from the norm in a population because of a genetic mutation that confers a potentially adaptive advantage. (Professors Wendy Johnson and Thomas J. Bouchard, Jr.).” Think Michael Phelps, he has long arms, a long torso, and short legs, he also has big hands and feet; attributes that make him unique to being a good swimmer.

“We spend too much time trying to be good, when good is often merely average. To be great you must be different, and that doesn’t come from following society’s vision of what is best, because society doesn’t always know what it needs. More often being the best means being the best version of you. In the right environment, bad can be good and odd can be beautiful.”

Gautam Mukunda who has come up with the “Leadership Filtration Theory”, divides people into two camps: “filtered” and “unfiltered”. Filtered people are those who are good at following rules and doing well in a job. Leaders also fall into these two groups.

The Two Types of Leaders

  • Those who move up the ranks, by getting promoted and following the rules. They are vetted by the system.
  • Come out of nowhere; e.g. entrepreneurs. “This group have the potential to change the world for better or worse, they do unexpected things and are unpredictable”. They have qualities that are considered “bad” but due to their context, they are good. For example, Winston Churchill was a particularly paranoid person, usually a negative trait. However, in war this was positive. Such skills are called “intensifiers” – when your weakness could be your biggest strength.

So how can we use leadership filtration theory to be more successful in life? Gautam Mukunda says: “Know thyself – if you’re good at playing by the rules (filtered leader), make sure to double down on that. People high in conscientiousness do great at school and in many areas of life where there are clear answers and a clear path.

But, If you are more of an outsider, an artist (unfiltered leader), you’ll be climbing uphill if you try to succeed by complying with a rigid formal structure. By dampening your intensifiers you’ll be not only at odds with who you are but also denying your key advantages.”

Feedback Analysis

Peter Drucker father of management suggests asking the following question to find your strengths: “What are you good at that consistently produces desired results?” He recommends using a system called “Feedback Analysis”. “When you undertake a project, write down what you expect to happen, then later note down the results. Overtime you’ll see what you do well and what you don’t.”

Pick the Right Pond

“Context is everything. If you have been successful, it’s because you happened to be in an environment where your biases, predispositions, talents and abilities all happened to align neatly with those things that would produce success in that environment. Ask yourself which companies, institutions and situations value what I do. Context affects everyone.”

In Summary

“When you choose your pond wisely, you can best leverage your type, your signature strengths, and your context to create tremendous value.”

Do Nice Guys Finish Last?

TL;DR: “Bad behaviour is strong in the short term but good behaviour wins in the long term.”

“Being a jerk works in the short term. But, it muddies the water and makes others behave the same or good people will leave. The environment in which being a jerk resulted in success will change and this will no longer be the case.

People generally fit into 3 reciprocity types, givers, takers and matchers, which follows a bell curve distribution. “Being a giver takes you either to the top or the bottom, whereas being a taker or matcher takes you to the middle.”

Givers, Takers and Matchers Scale Source:

The best way to get the best of both worlds is to “reciprocate both cooperation and defection i.e. don’t be a martyr if someone does you wrong, retaliate, but also don’t be the first to take or do harm.”

How to Succeed While Being a “Nice Guy”

  • Pick the right pond: Bob Sutton from Stanford Graduate School of Business says “when you take a job, take a long look at the people you’re going to be working with, because the odds are, you’re gonna become like them, they’re not gonna become like you. You can’t change them, if it doesn’t fit who you are, it’s not gonna work.” “The people who surround us often determine who we become, and bosses have a much larger effect on our happiness and success than the company at large.”
  • Cooperate first
  • Being selfless isn’t saintly, it’s silly
  • Work hard but make sure it gets noticed: “jerks are not afraid to self promote. You don’t have to be a jerk to get the benefits though. And ultimately, hard work doesn’t pay off if your boss doesn’t know whom to reward for it”.
  • Think long term and make others think long term: “to the best of your ability make things longer term. 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 in common you have 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.”
  • Forgive

Do Quitters Never Win and Winners Never Quit?


  • It’s all about the stories we tell ourselves. They “remind us how to behave and help us persist.”
  • Turn work into a game, to become grittier
  • “Use trying and quitting as a deliberate strategy to find out what is worth not quitting.”


“Grit is one of the key reasons why we see such differing levels of achievement between people of the same intelligence and talent levels”. However, what we think we know about grit is mostly wrong. “Sometimes quitting is the smartest choice, and giving up when done right can make you a huge success.”


“Grit actually comes from stories. Each person says between 300-1000 words a minute in their head. So it all comes down to what we tell ourselves.” Some of us say “I’m not cut out for this”, “I’ve never been good at this”, while others say “I just need to keep working on it”.

“It’s individual which of these is your default and how often and when you vary from your preferred explanation. When you believe things can’t get better, it’s irrational to keep trying. However, in difficult but not impossible situations, when persistence is called for, pessimism kills grit.”

Optimism & Pessimism

Studies show, “optimists are luckier”. “By thinking positively, they persevere and end up creating more opportunities for themselves.” Don’t worry if you feel you are wired to be a pessimist though, “Professor Martin Seligman’s research at the University of Pennsylvania has shown that pessimism or optimism isn’t genetic, it all comes from the stories you tell yourself about the world, and that’s something you can change.”

Optimists and pessimists shape their stories of the world very differently, Seligman calls to this explanatory style:

  • Permanence
  • Pervasiveness
  • Personalisation

Pessimists’ reaction to bad events:

  • Permanence: I’ll never get this
  • Pervasiveness: I can’t trust any of these people
  • Personalisation: I’m terrible at this

Optimists’ reaction to bad events (the inverse):

  • Permanence: that happens occasionally but it’s not a big deal. (Temporary)
  • Pervasiveness: when the weather is better, that won’t be a problem. (Not universal)
  • Personalisation: I’m good at this but today was not my lucky day. (Not their fault)

“When you switch your explanatory style to optimistic you feel better and become grittier. Stories are the invisible undercurrent that promotes success in a shocking number of the most important areas of life. For example, Research by John Gottman, showed that just hearing a couple tell the tail of their relationship together predicted with 94% accuracy whether or not they’d get divorced.” Another example which sheds light on the significance of stories is demonstrated by research at Emory University; “the biggest predictor of a child’s emotional well-being is whether the kid knows their family history.”

How to Find Your Story

“Think about your death. It reminds us about what is truly valuable in life.” David Brooks, the author of The Road to Character, makes the distinction between two types of virtues:

  • Resume values: money and promotions
  • Eulogy values: kind, trustworthy, courageous

“Picture your funeral. The people who loved you are gonna praise the values that made you so special and that they will miss the most. What do you want your loved ones to say? This will let you know your eulogy values.” This is known as the “Scrooge effect” – “thinking about death makes you more kind and generous to others. You put aside short term goals for a moment and contemplate who you want to be.”

How Do We Become Grittier When Things are Tough

Research shows that “will-power is like a muscle, it gets tired with overuse, but it only gets depleted if there’s struggle.” That’s where games come in, “they are similar to work but they change the struggle to something else. We are able to persist far longer and without the same level of will-power depletion.”

“We can apply game mechanics to turn dull moments to fun ones.” What games have in common: “WNGF”.

  • Winnable: has clear goals, we have good reason to be optimistic, this optimism makes difficult things fun
  • Novel challenges: “novelty engages flow. We crave ease but stimulation is what makes us happy”
  • Goals: Set goals for the challenges you create
  • Feedback: “regularly ask what can I do to do better”

“Unless you find yourself in a toxic environment, making work a game can be simple, you don’t have to change what you’re doing much, you just have to change your perspective.”

The Upside of Quitting

“By not quitting unproductive things as soon as possible, we are missing the opportunity to do more of the things that matter.” Time does not equal money, “because you can always get more money but you can’t get your time back.”

“Grit can be a liability, research shows when we choose to quit pursuing unattainable goals, we’re happier, less stressed and get sick less often.” So instead we need to find our number one priority, knowing this will tell us where to apply grit and where to quit.

But If I Just Keep Quitting Things, Wouldn’t I Just Turn Into a Flake?

“Being a flake is a powerful secret to success. For example, research shows job hopping, especially early on in your career can be a path to more money, your true calling and a coveted CEO title.” “If you don’t know what to be gritty at yet, you need to try lots of things knowing you’ll quit most of it, to find the answer. Once you discover your focus, devote 5-10% of your time to little experiments to make sure you keep learning and growing. Use trying and quitting as a deliberate strategy to find out what is worth not quitting.”


“Do you know what you need to be gritty at? If not, try WOOP against your hunches. The one that energises you the most, needs to be considered seriously.”

  • Wish: dream, eg. I want a job
  • Outcome: imagine the outcome
  • Obstacle: don’t know anyone at that work
  • Plan: going to contact people on LinkedIn

In Summary

  • Try WOOP if you don’t know what to be gritty at
  • Are you optimistic? If not, look at your explanatory style. When things seem high risk and low reward, be pessimistic; when they seem high risk and high reward, be optimistic
  • “Do you have a meaningful story? If not, think about that eulogy. Write down your story.”
  • “Have you made it a game? If not, use WNGF”
  • “If you are a grit machine, remove 5-10% of the useless activities and use them to try little experiments”
  • “Have you added some little bets? Try, fail and learn”

It’s Not What You Know But Who You Know

TL;DR: grow your network by making friends. Show gratitude to existing ones.

Extroverts vs. Introverts

Research shows extroverts make more money. “60% of top executives are highly extroverted, unlike 16% of the general public being extroverted.” “You don’t need to know more to be a leader. You just need to speak often and speak early. Research shows, extroverts are luckier, happier, get more promotions, get jobs more quickly, and are more likely to become leaders.”

“Introverts on the other hand, are much more likely to become experts.” They also have better listening skills. If you’re an introvert, you might find it hard to network. But “instead of networking, just make friends.” “Don’t be transactional, it’s better to give than receive.” Research shows, “asking others questions about themselves creates a bond as strong as a life-long friendship in a surprisingly short amount of time.” “Offer to help people, be a giver. Making time is the most fundamental way to show someone is important to you and you care.”

In addition to having a strong social network, it’s vital to have a mentor. “Entrepreneurs with mentors raise 7x more money and their companies see 3.5x more growth.”

How to Find a Mentor

  • “Be a worthy pupil, talented resourceful starters are rare”.
  • Study them. You need to know if they’re right for you, and that they are not a jerk. “You want someone who scares you a bit so they motivate you.”
  • Follow up – “Don’t mention the M word, stay in the picture, stay relevant and fresh”
  • Make them proud – there are 2 goals underneath this; to make you awesome and to make them look good

Don’t forget to be a mentor yourself.

Do a Gratitude Visit

“Gratitude is the quality that makes people want to spend more time with you”. But according to research “only 15% show gratitude at work.”

A gratitude visit is “one of the most powerful ways to feel happier and to make someone else happier in the process.”

  • “Write a letter of gratitude. Make it concrete, say what they did for you and how it affected your life.”
  • Then arrange to meet but don’t tell them why
  • When you meet, read them the letter

Both of you will be happier as a result. If you really can’t meet in person, then send them an email or message.

In Summary

  • Don’t network, make friends
  • Offer to help people, be a giver
  • Reconnect with old friends
  • Find a mentor. Have more than one for different areas of your life
  • Use “acceptance, caring and patience” when dealing with family and coworkers
  • “Ask for help from those above you and share your Twinkies with those below you”
  • “The groups you associate with determine the person you become”
  • Express gratitude

Believe in Yourself, Sometimes

TL;DR: Self-compassion over self-esteem.

The Benefits of Confidence

Research shows that confident individuals earn more, are more productive and score better at job interviews. “A study titled ‘self-esteem and earnings’ shows, your self-esteem is at least as important as how smart you are when it comes to how much money you end up making.” “Attractive women take home 4% more money, and attractive men 3%. This is attributed to the confidence gain.” Overconfident employees are more productive because “they choose more challenging tasks which makes them shine in the workplace.” Then there is the way confident people view themselves, they view their success “as a function of their own motivation and ability, not luck, random chance or fate.”

If You’re Not Confident, Should You Fake it Till You Make it?

It turns out this is a short term strategy. “A display of overconfidence makes others feel you’re both competent and higher in status.” “However, no-one can fake it for a long time. After a while people lose trust in you.” And we all know that trust is hard to gain but easy to lose. Not to mention, “when people deceive others they end up deceiving themselves.”

The Downsides of Confidence

“Overconfidence can lead to delusion and hubris. Incompetence is frustrating but the people guilty of it usually can’t screw things that bad because they don’t have much power, people guilty of overconfidence however, can do a lot of damage because they are likely to be experts with a lot of power and authority. Power dehumanises people, it reduces empathy and makes us hypocritical.”

The Benefits of Low Confidence

“People with low self confidence are more likely to admit to mistakes and rarely take credit for others’ accomplishments. Confidence makes it very hard for us to learn and improve because we feel we know all the answers. When we are less sure, we are more open to new ideas and we are actively and passively scanning the world for new ones.” When we are humble, we are driven to improve ourselves, “because we can see the gap between where we are and where we want to be”. “Being more competent than people think we are is better than not living up to our swagger.”

So What is the Solution

“The alternative to self confidence is self-compassion. Compassion for yourself when you fail means you don’t have to be a delusional jerk to succeed and you don’t have to feel incompetent to improve. You stop lying to yourself you’re so awesome and instead focus on forgiving yourself when you’re not.”

“Research shows increasing self-compassion has all the benefits of self-esteem but without the downsides. People high in the trait had increased clarity, they saw themselves in the world more accurately but didn’t judge themselves as harshly when they failed. Meanwhile people who focus on self-esteem feel the need to delude themselves or dismiss negative but useful feedback in order to still feel good about themselves – leading to hubris and narcissism.”

A pleasant side effect of developing self-compassion is that “it leads you to develop compassion for others.” What’s more, people with self-compassion have less fear of failure, because they don’t beat themselves up, “which translates to less procrastination and more grit.”

“Recognise your failures and frustration without either denying them or seeing them as the end of the world – believing in yourself is nice, forgiving yourself is better.”

If you already have good self-esteem then:

  • Stay empathetic
  • Seek situations that challenge you to keep yourself humble
  • Be nice
  • Strive to keep an open mind instead of assuming you already know the answer

If you lack confidence, then:

  • You will learn faster than those who know it all. And you’ll make more friends
  • Focus your efforts in quantifiable areas where competence can be accurately measured so that you don’t have to sweat issues of perception

“And if you really need confidence then earn it. Becoming really good at what you do will make you more confident.”

In Summary

  • Confidence can make you more successful but can lead to delusion, hubris and poor listening skills
  • “Don’t be a faker. Faking is too hard and the price of failure is too high”
  • Low confidence means you are more likely to admit to mistakes and be willing to learn
  • “Bosses who show vulnerability and underrate themselves are more popular”
  • Self-compassion beats both low confidence and overconfidence
  • Self-compassion can lead to wisdom

Work, Work, Work or Work-Life Balance

TL;DR: “While obsessive work may be necessary for heights of success, it doesn’t lead to a fulfilling, balanced life.” Know what you want and execute it by having a plan.

The Case for Working Long Hours

“Assuming equal talent and efficiency, the person who spends more time wins”. According to Frank Barron, professor at UC Santa Cruz “voluminous productively is the rule, and not the exception among individuals who have made some noteworthy contributions.”

The Threshold Hypothesis

When you look at eminent people, the majority are smarter than average. But “as long as you pass the 120 IQ mark, many studies show more IQ points have little effect”, what makes the difference is all the extra hours, not luck.

“One of the 5 regrets of people on their deathbed is I wish I didn’t work so hard. But things change when you find work meaningful.”

Meaningful work means:

  • Something important to you
  • Something you are good at

When people do meaningful work it feels more like play.

The Case Against Working Long Hours

“In general over-work is bad for you. It’s correlated with reduced exercise, fewer visits to the doctor and more smoking.” What’s more “those of us who aren’t in our dream jobs, have far more to lose and less to gain from long hours.”

“Creativity comes from being relaxed, not being stressed and overworked. To really be creative you need to step out of that hyper-focused state of tension and let your mind wander.” “Focus less on hours and more on doing what it takes to make sure you’re at your best.” As author Tony Schwartz points out “energy, not time is the fundamental currency of high performance.”

So What Can We Do

First, “you need a personal definition of success. Trying to be a relative success compared to others is dangerous, because this means your level of effort and investment is determined by theirs.”

Second, “you need to ask, what do I want? Otherwise you’re only going to get what they want.” Psychologist Barry Schwartz says “we have to become choosers instead of pickers. A picker selects from the options available, leading us to false dichotomies created by the options we see in front of us, but a chooser is thoughtful enough to conclude that perhaps none of the available alternatives are satisfactory, that they might have to create it.”

People handle having lots of choices in two ways:

  • Maximising – exploring all the options, weighing them and trying to get the best (in the modern world it is impossible and unfulfilling)
  • Satisficing – determining what you need and picking the first thing that fulfils those needs – it is living by “good enough” “In the modern world maximising is impossible and unfulfilling”, satisficing is actually the method that maximises. It comes down to the question, “what do I want? If you don’t decide, the world will decide for you.”

“Good enough is almost always good enough” - Barry Schwartz

How Can We Feel Enough in a World of Overwhelming Abundance of Choice?

“We need multiple yardsticks, researchers have found four metrics that matter most, knowns as The Big 4”:

  • Happiness
  • Achieving Accomplishments
  • Significance – having a positive impact on people you care about
  • Legacy – establishing your values and accomplishments in ways that others find future success

Third “you need a plan or you’re always going to feel like you’re not doing enough.” “Robert Epstein surveyed 30 thousand people in 30 countries and found that the most effective method for reducing stress was having a plan.” And what’s more, research shows “without a plan, we do what’s passive and easy, not what is really fulfilling.”

How to Have a Plan

  • Track your time – write where each hour goes as it happens, do it for a week. When do you waste the most time, when do you overdo one of the big 4 at the expense of the others?
  • Instead of To-Do lists, schedule everything – “To-Do lists don’t give any consideration to time”. Decide when you want to leave work and you’ll know how many hours you will have, then schedule things based on priority. To have work-life balance you need boundaries, so if you say you will leave at 6:00, do
  • Set one uninterrupted hour a day for deep work – you can plan out your free time too, schedule it in advance to avoid laziness. Batch shallow work such as checking email and slack (eg: 3 batches a day)
  • Learn to say no – “the difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say no to almost everything – Warren Buffett”
  • Control your context – “it influences your decisions even when you don’t realise it”. “Your environment matters. The most productive computer programmers have one thing in common, it’s not experience, salary, or hours spent on a project, they had employers who gave them environments free from distraction.”

In Summary

  • “While obsessive work may be necessary for heights of success, it doesn’t lead to a fulfilling, balanced life.”
  • “A plan will move you a lot closer to all-around life success”
  • “Good enough is good enough if you keep the big 4 in mind”


As mentioned at the start of this post, the takeaway message is alignment. “When you align your values with the employment of your signature skills in a context that reinforces these same strengths, you create a powerful and emotional engaging force for achievement, significance, happiness and legacy. When your internal choice of success goals, aligns with the group in which you operate, rewards are even higher.”

“How do you find alignment? Know thyself.” (Read my post on self-awareness if interested.)

  • What are your intensifiers?
  • Are you a taker, giver or matcher?
  • Are you introverted or extroverted?
  • Underconfident or overconfident?
  • Which of the big 4 do you naturally fulfil and which do you consistently neglect? Align those qualities with the world around you.
  • Pick the right pond.
  • Find a job that leverages your intensifiers.
  • Create a story that keeps you going.
  • Make little bets that expand your horizons.
  • Use WOOP to turn your dreams into realities.

And “the most important type of alignment? Being connected to a group of friends and loved ones who help you become the person you want to be. The only thing that really matters in life, are your relationships to other people.”

If you enjoyed this post let me know on Twitter. Which of these tips did you found useful? I would love your feedback!