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The Four Ways to Measure Real Success

The Four Ways to Measure Real Success


  • The average GPA of American millionaires (it’s lower than you think)
  • Why there is no such thing as a “pretty good” alligator wrestler
  • Why you might be a dandelion… or an orchid

Eric Barker is the writer behind “Barking Up the Wrong Tree,” a practical, humorous blog that presents science-based answers and expert insights on how to be awesome at life. He is also the author of a book by the same name. Award-winning podcaster David Burkus recently hosted him on Radio Free Leader to discuss what true success is all about, and how we can achieve it.

David: In each chapter [of Barking Up the Wrong Tree] you look at a different aspect of what success is.

Eric: We hear these maxims growing up—“Nice guys finish last.” “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” “Winners never quit, quitters never win.” That advice never served me well. What I wanted to do was look at those maxims and give them a Mythbusters approach. Each chapter takes one of those maxims and goes down the research rabbit hole, talking to experts and saying, “Does this really hold up? Is this just a cute thing to say, or is it legit?” I figure out the real answers to those questions.

David: Let’s dive in on an example of this. If you went to an American high school, you undoubtedly had valedictorians and salutatorians. There’s usually also a yearbook, where someone is voted the Most Likely to Succeed. I’ve always noticed that those people don’t usually [achieve] dent-in-the-universe level success.

What’s going on here with these people that are supposed to be the best, the brightest, the smartest in school, and yet they often don’t become leaders moving forward?

Eric: Karen Arnold did research at Boston College, and she tracked a bunch of valedictorians, and what they went on to do. The thing is, a lot of school is complying with rules. And if you’re good at complying with rules, you do very well in school because everything is very straightforward. Sadly, life is not as straightforward, the rules aren’t clear, and they change without notice. What you see with valedictorians is they do very well, but they usually slot into positions in the world that are already established. They don’t end up shaking up the system. They don’t end up leading the charge, and changing the world.

The average GPA of American millionaires is 2.9. The quality that they’re best known for is not conscientiousness or compliance. It’s grit. Resilience. Valedictorians are steady, consistent, reliable, but they’re not usually the ones who dynamically change the system, and help reinvent the world as we know it.

David: As a B+ student, that makes me feel fantastic. It’s weird, I’m probably one of the worst business school professors in terms of giving people advice, because they’ll ask me things like, “I did my undergrad degree, and I focused on marketing. Should I do a concentration in finance in an MBA, so I’m well-rounded?”

I’m always like, “No, well-rounded people never make history! You should double down on that, if that’s what you’re passionate about.” Until you get to the second half of an undergraduate college [degree], school trains you to be well-rounded, which is the exact opposite skill you need to make a dent in the universe.

“You’re going to get much better returns by doubling down on your strengths than by trying to bring up your weaknesses.”

Eric: That’s totally the case. I mean, look at experts like Pete Drucker, one of the greatest management minds of the 20th century. He flat-out says, “Double down on your strengths.” You’re going to get much better returns by doubling down on your strengths than by trying to bring up your weaknesses, things you’re not naturally good at.

The people who do the best are usually experts in their field. They’re absolutely great at one thing. A well-rounded skill set is valuable, but when we’re talking about 10,000 hours of deliberate practice… Look at top athletes. They usually only do one sport. But school says, “Even if you love history and you think you want to go into history, you’ve got to stop and study geometry, and study for your other classes as well.” You’re kind of forced.

Granted, when you’re young, it is good to sample a bunch of different things. But through undergrad, people are forced to distribute their time, their energy, their thought among a bunch of different things, while it’s very clear in general that the world rewards somebody who has devoted the bulk of their time to one subject. Again, that doesn’t speak well for school as a model of life success, because in the end, if you were to spend 99% of your time on computer science and fail all your other classes, you would do horrible at school, but you would likely get hired by Facebook or Google.

David: It may also be that you don’t fit in, [and being] a bit of a misfit inspires you to start the next Facebook or Google.

Eric: There was an analysis of the richest people on the Forbes list, and the funny thing was that for the subset that had dropped out of college, or had not attended college at all, their average net worth was nearly four times the average of the group as a whole. Those 58 who dropped out did dramatically better, and their net worth was far higher than those who had completed Ivy League degrees.

David: Malcolm Gladwell talks about the idea that there’s the Ivy League people who get in and they do fine, but then there’s people who can get in and don’t go. They go to a state school, and they do just as well. Now that makes me wonder, are [those dropouts, etc.] people who could have gotten in, but didn’t even go to college, let alone to an Ivy League college?

Answering that takes my mind to a section of the book where you talk about dandelions and orchids. The idea that the line between who becomes a phenomenal success, and who becomes crazy, is often the environment.

Eric: This little metaphor of dandelions and orchids is actually a discussion about cutting-edge genetics, where some people are dandelions, and dandelions are quite resilient. Nobody plants dandelions. They just pop up by the side of the road. They don’t need to be cultivated, and they’re pretty resilient. Then you have the orchid which, if it doesn’t have the right temperature, the right food, the right amount of water, will die. But if properly cultivated, they become the most beautiful flowers.


That is quite a good metaphor for what’s being talked about in genetics, because for the longest time, we see all these articles on the internet talking about, “This gene or that gene is a bad gene. If you have it, you’re going to be an alcoholic, or you’re going to be violent.”

That was referred to as the diathesis-stress model, that some of these genes are just bad. Now, what more and more geneticists are finding is what they call the differential susceptibility hypothesis. Rather than some genes that are just bad, the same genes that cause problems when kids are raised in stressful and difficult environments can actually confer benefits when those kids are raised in good environments. These people are more sensitive to everything. When they’re in a bad environment, they do end up alcoholics, violent, and drug-addicted, but when they’re in good environments, these kids are more moral. They become more successful.

[So] it’s a matter of figuring out who you are, and then making sure that your environment is aligned with the type you are. If you are the compliant kid, then you’re going to do well in school and a very regimented environment. But if you are more the orchid type, if you are not as good with rules and want to vigorously pursue one passion, you might not do so well in school. But after school, if you pick the right pond and find an environment that’s aligned with your natural skill set and desires, you can be fantastically successful.

David: Another thing that makes success more difficult to attain is this assumption that whatever you do, you’re supposed to never quit. The truth is it takes knowing when to quit, in addition to having grit.

Eric: If you never quit anything, you’d still be playing tee-ball and watching cartoons. The more stuff you quit, the more time and energy you have to double down on the things that are important.

“The more stuff you quit, the more time and energy you have to double down on the things that are important.”

One of the stories I tell in the book is about Spencer Glendon, director of research at one of the largest wealth management funds in Massachusetts. Incredibly successful guy—Ph.D. in economics from Harvard, helped do charity work for families in the South Side of Chicago. He’s accomplished so much, and what a lot of people don’t realize is that when he was doing these things, Spencer was almost always very seriously ill.

He suffered from chronic ulcerative colitis, and he only has so much time every day where he feels well and has energy. He knew that was limited, and what that made him do was face head-on the issue of opportunity cost, where “If I’m spending an hour here, I’m not spending it there.” He knew that his time was limited, and that gave him focus. He would have to say, “I can’t do these other four things today, I only have time to do this one thing.”

That incredible level of focus, quitting a lot of stuff, became very powerful, because when you know you have strict limitations, you have to focus on the things that are important. There’s no, “Oh, I’ll get it done tomorrow.” Strategic quitting is actually the best friend of grit, because the more stuff you get rid of, the more time and energy you have to devote to that one important thing that you want to stick with.

David: To some extent, this goes back to that myth of being well-rounded, right? If you’re going to keep up being well-rounded, that’s going to suck up a lot of your time. But if you figure out what those one or two things are, and then you make the hard choices of saying no to everything else, you end up with that time.

Eric: One of the things I say in the book is that there’s no such thing as a “pretty good” alligator wrestler. There’s no room for that. Nobody with a brain tumor wants to go to a “pretty good” neurosurgeon. You want somebody who is amazing at their job, who is great at what they do. That only comes from strong dedication. We hear a lot about grit, but we need to look at the flip side.


One of the other elements of quitting I talk about is [in] Peter Sims’ excellent book, Little Bets—taking 5 to 10% of your time, and letting yourself try a bunch of different stuff. To devote so much of your time to that one thing is fantastic, and should be the primary focus. But you need [some] time to make sure you’re still learning and growing. Take chances, try something new, and expand what you’re doing, so that you keep up with this fast-changing world.

David: Generally when we define success, we have a very work-centric definition of it. When we look at the lives of uber-successful people, it seems like that often comes with shortchanging their home life. You have this great chapter on work-life balance and how important it is to get that right.

Eric: It’s tricky because with the whole 10,000 hours perspective, you see that working more does pay off. Research shows that quantity has a pretty reliable correlation with quality, where if you’re pretty good at what you do, the more you produce, nine of those things might suck, but the 10th is going to be great. Well, if you’re out-producing everyone else by a factor of 10, you’re going to have 10 awesome things, and they’re only going to have one.

More does produce results, but the challenge that this creates is, when do you stop? Albert Einstein and Ted Williams, who devoted enormous amounts of their personal time towards their work, accomplished amazing things. But it was a Faustian bargain of sorts, where they destroyed their relationships, and their personal lives, achieving success in their career.

How do we ride that line so that we can achieve as much success as possible, while still living a happy life? One of the mistakes a lot of people make is what’s called a collapsing strategy, where they have a single metric for success in life. If you say, “I just want to make as much money as possible. I don’t care about happiness, I don’t care about my relationships, I don’t care about my health. I want to look at the money in my bank account, and I want to make that number go up.”

“The most successful people actually use four metrics—happiness, achievement, significance, and legacy.”

When they use that collapsing strategy, those people put all the hours in and usually do very well. But then they find themselves divorced, their kids don’t know them, they’re in terrible health, and they’re miserable.

Then you find people using other ineffective systems, [like] a sequencing strategy: “First I’m going to work hard for 10 years, and then I’m going to focus on my relationships, and then I’m going to give back.” That never works out very well either, because they’re miserable when they’re working so hard, and then when they’re done working hard, if they ever get there, they don’t know their kids.

You can’t sequence. What Stevenson and Nash at Harvard Business School realized was that the most successful people actually use four metrics—happiness, achievement, significance, and legacy. Happiness is simply, “Are you enjoying yourself?” Achievement is getting ahead in your chosen field. Significance is, “Is what you do valuable to the people around you, who you love and who love you?” Finally, the issue of legacy is, “Does this benefit the world?”

It’s a little tricky to balance four metrics, but if you look at your calendar, if you look at where your hours are being spent, and you’re depositing a little bit in each of those four on a regular basis, then you can feel like, “I’m moving forward on all of the metrics that matter. I am enjoying myself. I am getting ahead. I am doing good for my family and friends, and I am contributing to the world.”

David: What do you believe that most people don’t?

Eric: I believe that glomming on to society’s vision of success is dangerous, and in the long term, unfulfilling. If you tailor your vision of success, and you know your strengths, and align them with the right environment, then anyone can have a successful life.


This conversation has been edited and condensed.

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