In this episode of our series, The World’s Most Interesting People, I sat down with Eric Barker. Eric is the creator of the incredible blog, “Barking Up The Wrong Tree” and bestselling author of a book of the same title, Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong.
Eric sat down with me to discuss his amazing work and how to write compelling content for yourself and your audience.
Meet Eric Barker
Eric Barker gives science-based answers and expert insights on how to be awesome at life. He’s been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly and The Financial Times, just to name a few.
You have this science-based blog helping people to be more awesome. What gave you the idea to start “Barking Up The Wrong Tree”?
Eric started his blog when he was at a crossroads in his life. At the time, he’d been working in Hollywood for more than a decade and wasn’t sure what he wanted to do next. And as many people do at a crossroads, he went to the internet for help.
He began reading articles and found that he didn’t like the answers he was stumbling upon for most topics. So, he decided to start doing the research himself.
This was the beginning of his deep dive and career pivot into the world of scientific research.
Did you have any idea the blog would be as popular as it is?
Eric explained he had absolutely no idea the blog would take off and a huge readership wasn’t even his primary goal. He enjoyed researching, he loved reading, and so he thought he might as well take what he had learned to a public space to share it.
He explained this approach like the exhaust coming out of a car. Exhaust is the visible proof that the car is running. His blog articles were the proof or byproduct of his research.
And while Eric may not have cared about starting a movement, “Barking Up The Wrong Tree” gained immense support, a huge fan base, and a book deal.
The Research Behind the Researcher
I asked Eric, “You read tons of academic studies. Has there ever been a study that completely blew your mind?”
Eric told me he’s fascinated by two kinds of research specifically: One is the kind that completely validates a way of living and the other is the kind that completely contradicts it. This type of research allows Eric to both expand on supported beliefs with new tips as well as to share common misconceptions about the way we live.
Eric shared about the work of Paul Bloom, author of Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion. In this book, Bloom favors compassion over empathy. While empathy is feeling what someone else feels, compassion is an emotional desire to help someone. Bloom argues (and Eric agrees) that compassion is often more helpful and actionable than empathy.
Eric champions this kind of research–the kind with subtle distinctions and the kind that challenges common beliefs. In this example, it’s a new way of thinking, away from “I have to feel exactly as you do” to “I’m so sorry, what can I do to help?”
Action Step: Turn empathy on its head. If you’re with someone who needs you, focus on compassion over empathy.
Was there ever a study you came across where you thought, “I can’t publish this”?
Yes, Eric has seen his fair share of bizarre studies. But he revealed the bigger issue isn’t whether a study is worthy of his blog, it’s that readers often can’t handle the truth.
He explained this idea of cognitive bias. A cognitive bias is when someone doesn’t believe they are susceptible to a behavior. For example, they may say, “Oh, I definitely know someone like that, but that’s not me.” Or, “My uncle is guilty of that, but not me.”
This “blame game” is the root of cognitive bias and limits people being able to change because they don’t believe they need help. I see this all the time in applications to our course, People School. An applicant will say “Well, I don’t need people skills–I’m taking this course for all the other people in my life who need help.”
Eric reminded us a cognitive bias is actually a natural reaction. We like to believe we have our stuff together when, in reality, we’re likely struggling just as much as our colleague or friend. Eric writes content to bridge the gap between a big idea and the individual.
He uses research — such as from Dan Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational — to help his readers overcome cognitive bias. In Ariely’s research, he showed participants a series of optical or visual illusions. After the participants had been duped, they were much more open to the idea of exploring and moving past their cognitive biases. If they could be fooled by a simple illusion, isn’t it possible there were other things in their life fooling them? Or maybe they were fooling themselves? This is Eric’s sweet spot for content creation.
Action Step: If you have someone in your personal or professional life who thinks it’s everyone else’s problem, or they’re the “perfect” one, put their knowledge to the test. If they claim to be a body language expert, send them our Body Language Quiz. If they claim to be a people expert, send them our People Skills Quiz. One of the best antidotes to extreme cognitive bias is a graded quiz. If they fail it, they can’t really argue against the results and, sometimes, this leads them to be more open-minded to behavioral change.
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What You Know versus Who You Know
I love your book, “Barking Up The Wrong Tree.” Chapter 4 is called ‘It’s Not What You Know, It’s Who You Know, Unless It Really Is What You Know.’ Can you dive into this idea more?
Eric explained this idea is a closer look at skills versus networking. Skills are important and networking is important, but depending on the context, one will prevail.
This idea centers around clear metrics. We see metrics all around us, such as the top box office movie, or the top Billboard artist, or even how much money an NBA or Major League Baseball player makes. When there’s transparency in metrics, there’s typically an accompanying expectation of skill associated. For example, we expect the top Billboard artist to be a stellar performer, or we expect LeBron James to be an incredible basketball player. All because a metric has informed our expectation for greatness.
But transparency doesn’t exist everywhere, Eric cautioned. In most workplaces, you don’t know your colleague’s salary or your boss’s salary. In these cases, skills (or what you know) play second fiddle to networking (or who you know).
Let’s look at an example. If you know someone is the #1 Programmer at Google, you expect them to have some of the best programming skills in the world. Because this person is ranked so highly, there’s a higher expectation put on their skills than on their network. Conversely, if you know some guy in marketing, you’re more likely to put a higher expectation on his network, such as if he has an “in” with the CEO, rather than his skills.
Bottom line: The clearer and more transparent the metrics, the focus is on skills. The blurrier the metrics, the focus is on the network.
Eric recommended that as professionals it’s important we evaluate ourselves in these camps. Ask yourself,
- “Am I better at networking or hitting targets?”
- “Who am I within this organization? What do I bring to the table?”
- “What are my skills? What are my weaknesses?”
- “Who do I know within this community?”
Then, scan your professional environment to see if your goals align with the organization and the people around you. Of course, networking is valuable, but if you’re in an arena where everyone knows you’re top dog, WHO you know is less important than WHAT you know. And if you aren’t ranked in your organization, your skills may not shine as brightly as your connections within your industry.
“If people are evaluated clearly, networking tends to matter less. And if there aren’t clear metrics, then networking tends to matter more.” –Eric Barker
Action Step: Where can you rank yourself? Can you join a Toastmasters group that ranks you number one? Is there a competition you can try to win, such as Startup Weekend? How about a prestigious list, such as Forbes 30 Under 30? When you add a metric or rank to what you do, this can help alleviate the pressure of networking, as your work will speak for itself.
You write about people. You study people. A line from your book is “My mom told me to be a people person. Full disclosure: I’m not. Come on, I’m here alone writing this book.” What drives you to study people?
“People make no sense to me whatsoever.” –Eric Barker
Eric explained he is flying the introvert flag. People skills didn’t come naturally to him, so he’s spent a lot of his life trying to figure out the exact things that confuse him about people. Unlike math or learning to play an instrument like guitar, there’s not a formal system or clearly bounded rules to interacting with people.
This unknown is exactly what interests him about people.
If you were to get a tattoo of “Introvert” where would you get it?
Eric joked he’d get it tattooed on his forehead since no one would see it anyway, as he prefers his solitude.
Joking aside, he said he’d get it on his inner forearm, facing him, so he could read it.
How to Write Content You and Your Audience Loves
How do you do your research?
Eric likes to do things “old school.” Each day, he reads articles from his RSS feeds. He also reads lots of books, which often leads him to explore more about a specific topic.
What’s most interesting is that Eric has developed a gut instinct while researching. Because he’s consumed so much content from so many different channels, he’s easily able to discern if something he’s reading is sound or totally misleading. When he reads an article that completely contradicts everything he’s ever read or seen on a topic, that is a red flag. Or in some (unlikely) cases, it may be the new normal.
As an introvert, this addiction to reading and researching and writing honors his personality and helps him to learn about people without having to be around them all the time.
Action Step: Be an avid consumer! If you want to get good at something or learn about something, think about your personal brand as a funnel. The more information you add to the top, the more you’ll be able to sift this information down into something meaningful. Gather metadata by exploring subjects you’re interested in, both directly and indirectly. Read a book on your subject and also read another book by the same author on a totally different subject. This consumption will create a web, where you’ll start connecting the dots and honing your research “gut instinct.”
If you had to give a TED Talk on one big idea, what would it be?
Eric has a few possible ideas. One of his top three centers around self-compassion. Many of us have a critical voice inside of us–one that is perfectionist or demeaning or disappointed. Eric wants to encourage people to accept and understand themselves for more self-support.
Self-compassion has an origin story in Buddhism and Eric also loves the work by Dr. Kristin Neff, co-author of The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook.
Action Step: What’s your TED Talk? How can you champion and share your idea?
Your blog subscribers have grown to over 330,000. As you’ve watched your business and your blog grow, was there a tipping point, like a certain syndicated article or a tweet that went viral? Or was it all organic growth?
Surprisingly, Eric didn’t have one big moment in his business that changed everything. His stride has been steady, and his main commitment to his brand since Day One has been content, content, content.
With all the bite-sized content floating around and “One Way to Get Happy” type of articles, Eric decided to go in the complete opposite direction. He chose to create long-form blog content that is heavily researched and includes data findings, statistics, and researchers’ names, along with corresponding studies.
Eric has worked diligently to make sure his content is easy for people to share. He thinks of each piece of content like a resource. A place where a reader can thoroughly learn about a topic and share it with people they care about. His goal is to give his readers content that serves as a walk-through and includes many details that support the big idea.
“It’s still accessible, readable and fun.” –Eric Barker
Additionally, Eric has found the intersection of what’s he interested in and what his readers are interested in. For writers and content creators, this is where the magic happens. If you’re only writing about what you want, it’s possible only one or two people will read your article. And if you’re only writing about what your readers want, you’re not being authentic to your mission. What’s happening between those two extremes? Where’s the overlap?
Eric reminded us that, as writers and creators, we have to wear a tough skin at times. Not everyone is going to like what you put out there, and that’s okay. Because many other people will. Eric constantly is sifting through his readers’ opinions. Some complain his blog articles are too long, while others say they aren’t long enough. It’s impossible to please everyone, but it’s possible to stay focused on your mission and your core audience with the right content.
“You have to be comfortable drawing a line of ‘That’s not what I do.’” — Eric Barker
Action Step: Know who you are and know what you want. Find your core community by focusing on content that brings together what you’re interested in and what they’re interested in. You always should be proud of the content you’re creating and putting out into the world. Whether or not someone agrees with it, they can objectively see you put a lot of time and effort into it.
If you met someone at the very beginning of their career, or at a pivotal point in their career, and you had to give them advice about people, what would you tell them?
Eric’s biggest piece of advice is to learn active listening skills.
“Most people are terrible, terrible listeners.” –Eric Barker
Active listening doesn’t come naturally to most of us. It’s a skill that can be learned and must be flexed with continued practice. Eric recommended the following:
- Ask open-ended questions.
- Provide a summary of what the person just said.
- Go into each conversation with the goal of showing the other person they are being listened to and understood.
This point hit home for me since I sometimes find myself in the trap of asking our killer conversation starters without the same attention to listening. I love asking interesting questions, but if I miss the amazing answer, my intent for the conversation was more self-serving as opposed to genuinely wanting to get to know someone better.
Action Step: Ask good questions, use active listening, and sum up their points to show you understand them.
Follow along with Eric’s journey:
About Vanessa Van Edwards
Lead Investigator, Science of People
I’ve always wanted to know how people work, and that’s what Science of People is about. What drives our behavior? Why do people act the way they do? And most importantly, can you predict and change behavior to be more successful? I think the answer is yes. More about Vanessa.
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