Dec. 6, 2022

Best of 2022: Eric Barker | The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Relationships is (Mostly) Wrong

Best of 2022: Eric Barker | The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Relationships is (Mostly) Wrong

Eric Barker combines humor, wit and science in this fascinating yet hard-hitting discussion about human connection. We attempt to poke holes in a few age-old assumptions and assess the science dismantling everything we thought we knew about relationships.

Eric Barker combines humor, wit and science in this fascinating yet hard-hitting discussion about human connection. We attempt to poke holes in a few age-old assumptions and assess the science dismantling everything we thought we knew about relationships.

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Srini: Eric, welcome to the unmistakable Creative. Thanks so much for taking the time to join us.

Eric Barker: I think it comes from the fact that my parents didn't have a choice. Just the environments they grew up in were their backgrounds, they didn't have the option. And what was great was they gave me the option, but they thought that I, my values would have immediately been their values and that I wouldn't be seen as pursuing traditionally traditional status jobs like doctor, lawyer, something like that. And given that freedom to explore, given that freedom my intellectual interests, my specific interests I pursued them.

And so having that freedom and that flexibility, I immediately figured out in high school. I knew since I was 15, I wanted to be a writer and I was very focused on it. And because of the freedom that it gave me, I felt like it was. And I, and my guess is that for a lot of people, blue-collar situations, whether it's the financial or social circle, they don't feel like it's a possibility or, at the very least, even if they really want it, they don't know how to bridge that gap.

Like how do I get from here to there? Because I think we've all been in a situation where we say to ourselves, "I'd love to

Srini: Two questions come from that. In some cases, it legitimately probably isn't possible, right? Because I think that this is one of the things that I have been very hypercritical of in the past probably year or so, as I mentioned when I was talking about my book, is that we have this sort of, anybody can do anything they want to do if they put their mind to it, mythical narrative, that ignores context and a lot of prescriptive advice where... and this is something I've talked about on the show before like I realized that when my parents would give me advice about pursuing careers, they always encouraged us to choose things that were secure and stable. And in the early years of doing this, I always felt that advice was narrow-minded and misguided until I understood the context from which they were giving that advice. When you grew up in a country like India, particularly when they did, your life choices were binary, it was poverty or security. And I don't think that's not really for people even today.

Eric Barker: No, there's always the issue of context. There's always an issue of personal ability. It's like some people have off-the-charts math skills, and other people don't. That person's probably not going to win a Nobel Prize in mathematics. It's having that openness for me at least allowed me to say, "Where do my skills line up?" My ability to plan and build them. But I think, yeah, for context, it is a huge issue. And I think as I talk about in my book, the issue of our personal networks is huge, they can be an even bigger factor than underlying personality. It's like underlying personality, like, the Big Five traits make a big difference, but the truth is, that's not everything. Context is huge. The more accurate thing isn't to say, "Oh, I'm an introvert," or, "Oh, I'm agreeable," so, therefore, it's always the same. And what trips people up in this situation is some people are more introverted with friends and perhaps they're more extroverted at a party, or the reverse.

So I think that issue of context is really underrated, and a lot of people need to think more

Srini: Yeah, I also think that it forces you to face harsh and uncomfortable truths because I very distinctly remember when I graduated from business school in 2009, I ended up moving back to my parent's house and my dad and I were driving to Costco for his daily, like Costco run. And he loves Costco. The man is like the unofficial brand ambassador for Costco. He's probably made them hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years. But he tells me, "Not everybody can be the next Steve Jobs." And I got pissed off because it's like, "You wouldn't tell my sister that she can't be any kind of doctor she wants."

And it's funny because I just remember looking through my articles. I'm like, "Wait a minute. I wrote an article titled 'You're Probably Not Going to Be the Next Steve Jobs.'" Oprah says the very thing that pissed me off, and I just found myself agreeing with it because I realized he was right and yeah, I suck at computer science. And I'm not Steve Jobs-level brilliant. Like I had finally had to come to terms with that. It's yeah, there are certain people that are gonna achieve at that level. And I remember we had Justine

Eric Barker: No, I think this is it's, a huge issue. Especially on this self-improvement reading that she said, it's somebody who wants to talk about that. And even on my blog, I think David had. Book the sports game is probably the only time I really addressed the issue of genetics because it's something we can do something about. I don't want to deny its importance and its importance is huge.

And I get into that in my first book, but it's definitely a factor. But to me, the point of the process of becoming part of the process is realizing their strengths and doubling down on them. Instead of just saying anybody can do anything, that's ridiculous. It's like we don't, we all know at the tail end of the distribution in any area that there's going to be outliers; people who can run rings around me. I'm not going to be beating Magnus Carlsen in chess.

It's not going to happen because, again, you're talking about people who are global phenoms. But I think to give people hope honestly, the issue of, oh, you're not gonna be the next Steve Jobs. It's yeah, but is the next Steve Jobs

Srini: Yeah, I think what's funny is how often these success stories use outliers as our role models for possibility. And you read about that. Even Paul Graham in his essay on wealth specifically says using outliers as role models is not a good idea. Bill Gates is an exception and not only that, people seem to forget he was the beneficiary of one of the most spectacular blunders in business history. As you said, he would have been successful, no question, but not nearly as rich as he is today.

Eric Barker: When people look at vote gates, it's the intersection of a lot of different things. Absolutely tiny, it's like the fact that he was alive right then was a big factor. Number two, his family was already extremely wealthy – not obviously not delegates wealthy, but they had a lot of resources going in. He was smart. I've read a biography. It was like the first time he took the SAT, he didn't score a perfect score. So he took it a second time and then did. There are three things I'm sure there are many others, but these three things are incredibly rare occurrences to have them all happen.

We can do things to try and engineer that were in the right circumstances, given our ability to, given our background and our possibilities, but I don't think we're often encouraged enough to do the proactive work, to think about that and to try and A/B test in our lives to find those right circumstances. It's treated much more like a conveyor belt, but the conveyor belt doesn't actually go anywhere. So you have to decide on your own in the end, but there's no still prescriptive path. Yeah.

Srini: Let's talk briefly about one part of your previous book, and then we'll get a little bit into your Hollywood career and then talk about the new book.

But I think that that makes a perfect segue to asking you about this essay that you wrote, which I think I've probably seen over and over again. I think it probably got picked up hundreds of times which were about why valedictorians don't become CEOs. Because I think that's a perfect way to talk about education.

You have this very unusual perspective and you seem to have done a lot of research because I have always felt that the education system is a one-size-fits-all solution, that mismatches talent with the environment. So you end up getting average performance for the most part. And that's coming from me, the guy who's been fired from every job I've ever had, where I realized people consistently mismatched my skills and my talent with my environment.

And as a result, I was written off.

Eric Barker: I think that your reps are indirect because the issue is we do have a one size fits all approach to high school. And we see that at that point, basically when you look at SAT scores and standardized tests, those are effectively accurate. It's what the research shows. Meanwhile, grades in high school are actually a much better test of conscientiousness, your ability to follow the rules. And looking at those two, you can say, yeah, some people don't have very high IQs, but they're very high scores in terms of conscientiousness and do great on standardized tests.

And for a lot of people, there's a bit more of a gap there. School grades are generally testing people's ability to follow rules, which in general, is a great way to do pretty well. So that's what the research showed in terms of the valedictorian study, that those individuals went on to do very well, but what they didn't do is to disrupt.

Because they were following the rules. And again, that's kind of a "fighting the last war" issue. We have to break the rules. We have to just see what are the other possibilities. We always hear about disruption. People who are val

Srini: Yeah. There's something earlier you said about college about not knowing that what you wanted to do was on the menu of options and something I have said over and over again is a college course catalog is like a fast food menu where the options in front of you blind you to the possibilities that surround you. Because if you go to a school like Berkeley or Stanford or places that most of the people I know went to school, you have this predetermined career path where it's...

Eric Barker: Like

Srini: Hey, here are the majors that you can choose from. The only difference between this and high school is there are quite a few more, but what's interesting is that you basically have 100 majors that lead to four potential career paths that lead to three potential jobs. And it's okay, you pick one of these and you either go to law school, med school, get an MBA, or go to graduate school.

And that's pretty much it. Why do you think so many people miss it in college? Like they don't have that moment that you did. Cause I sure as hell didn't. I spent years trying to conform to a system in which I was never going to thrive. Like I literally remember to this day, walking to a career fair during the first week of school at Berkeley, which is ridiculous. No freshmen.

Eric Barker: We should be going to a career fair soon.

Srini: Fair for any of you who are freshmen listening to this, you've got your whole life in front of you and you've hardly lived any of it. And this guy tells me, "We don't hire any English majors." And I didn't ever take

Eric Barker: I have a class after that, that I didn't

Srini: I think it would help me get a job in the IT industry, of course. The irony is, I never interviewed for a job at Accenture.

Eric Barker: And they probably would never hire me. For me, I'm not going to necessarily talk it up to any flattering characteristics on my part. I think part of it was basically being very low on the personnel personally; I was afraid of agreeableness. I'm very quick to kind of dispute things or challenge things. So I wasn't immediately onboard and compliant. But the other thing was I, think I was naive and I can tie it, say now, "Hey, that seemed to work out for me, but I wouldn't recommend it." Like I treated college like education was an assembly line toward getting a job.

I don't feel like I looked at it as, "Oh, cool. I'm gonna learn stuff." I entered in, "Fall off. There's no, like what are you doing? Graduate?" And find the mountaintop and contemplate joblessness, like there and result like anybody majors in philosophy, either you become a philosophy professor or you go to law school. But I wasn't thinking about that. I was just like, "Great. I'm here to learn." And I had one of my freshman years, I remember one of my professors asked me, "Why are you major

Srini: It's funny because I feel like in a lot of ways elite schools like Ivy League schools, even places like Berkeley are paradoxically breeding grounds. So we're conforming, even though you have like the smartest people in the world there.

Eric Barker: The world is absolutely filled with a lot of those people, if you were to straight up measure their IQ, you'd get slightly different results, but it's like, all of those people did well in high school, and high school is basically a test for showing up on time and doing what you're told, and that is a big part of it.

No, I absolutely agree. That is why some people crack down and do something very different, or some people are successful quickly enough that they can get past kind of a safe career and then move on to something bigger. But now I think...

Srini: Yeah. So how did you get from an Ivy League school to working in Hollywood to writing books? Tell me about your time in Hollywood. What did you do there and how in the world did it lead you down to this path?

Eric Barker: Blogger, author, and writer? I, just literally I'm, once I what's my thing, David was working in Hollywood, so between my junior and senior year, he was like, "Hey, why don't you come out? You can do an internship." And I was like, "Sure." So I like went up there for the summer and basically touched on this and did like two or three at the same time. And then I was like, "Yes, this is what I want to do." So I finished up my final year and one semester and immediately moved out.

I didn't think about that. I got lucky pretty fast. Basically, within a year I was out there. I got an agent after two years, I sold a script and after three years I had two movies made, but this was all like small indie stuff. And I managed to make a living, but I was in this really weird, very small demographic that nobody ever talks about where like in Hollywood 98, 99% of people experience no success and 1% of people are part of the people in movies and TV. And I was in a very narrow band where I consistently worked, I could pay the bills

Srini: Yeah. Now you see why I told you I would need two hours to talk to you. Talk to me briefly about your writing process, because you were telling me that, even going through this book, it was excruciating. And I promise we'll get to the book right after this. But the thing that I think really struck me the times that I've come across your blog, and I noticed a handful of writers seem to have this tendency down to an art form. I would probably say you and James Clear really have this really amazing ability to write in a way that is clear and resonant, but also incredibly useful to the point where I remember looking at a, and what is this guy doing that he's getting like thousands and thousands of shares on these blog posts because I come across your blog many times over the years just searching for random things. And I was like, who the hell is this guy? So what goes into this, that allows for that, and why is it that you have people who just linger in obscurity for years? 'Cause I know there are writers who are far more talented probably than you and I will ever be who are lingering in obscurity.

Eric Barker: I don't think I have any magic power. I think that the thing that I focused on initially is just like finding the research because everything I'm writing is self-improvement from peer-reviewed science or occasionally like unquestionable experts. And I really took this on, what's that coming from? We know what's the insight. And then it's just clarity because, for me, everything I write is I write with a voice that's very conversational, very accessible. I try to make everything a balance of clarity and entertainment, make it fun, make it readable because that's the crazy thing is when I first started looking at a lot of the social science stuff, cause I was going through this like difficult transition in terms of having gone from a philosophy degree to an MBA from being a writer to working in marketing.

And I was asking myself some big questions. The guy who got the philosophy degree was now all of a sudden head-on dealing with this, what am I doing with my life? What do I want to be doing? It's ended what I felt would happen. And, when I started looking at social science, I started looking for answers. That was really what this was for me. And I was

Srini: Let's get into the book. I think the subtitle really struck me - the surprising science behind why everything you know about relationships is mostly wrong. Considering how many people I've had here to talk about relationships. The ongoing joke with some of our listeners is that every guest that Srini has is a reflection of some problem that he's trying to solve in his life. And it's not research - it's my search. Yeah. And it's funny, 'cause there was like this steady stream of dating experts. And don't you know, when I said that on a Facebook update, somebody replied back saying, "Who's this week's relationship and dating expert?" But what do you know, and what made this sort of natural follow-up to "Barking Up the Wrong Tree"? Why this book, why now?

Eric Barker: I'm with you, man. I think if you were to look at my blog in terms of like tree rings, I think you'd see the same thing you just described to me, your podcasts, where it's oh, you know, Eric's talking about different like big questions then dating. And then all of a sudden there's all this stuff on management.

I guess that's what I was working on in marketing. And you can literally see that for me, I, I was like, barking up the wrong tree, I knew there was a bunch of contradictory stuff around success. I was coming out of business school. I'm looking at all this advice people are getting, and I know that some of this stuff isn't true, all these maxims we grew up with, like nice guys finish last.

It's not what you know but it's who you know or work-life balance. These are big questions. And the pat answers we get, no, that either they're not true or they're not always true. And I'm like, what did this research inside the stress test it? And in doing this, I remember there was a Freud quote where he basically said everything comes

Srini: Speaking of which, let's start with judging a book by its cover. One of the things that you say in the book when it comes to first impressions is the maxim might be, "Don't judge a book by its cover", and right or wrong, there's a good reason such advice is given because we do judge a book by its cover immediately and instinctively. We can't help it. And that cover is usually someone's face.

We make up our minds about someone's assertiveness, beauty, competence, likability, and trustworthiness in less than a second. And more often than not, we don't notice that we change our opinions; it just increases our confidence. You also talk about a number of different biases, like egocentric bias and how readable people are.

So two questions come from this: how?

Eric Barker: We

Srini: Make a better impression for ourselves. And then more importantly, how do we judge our first impressions accurately? Because I remember reading that and it reminded me of a friend that I traveled with in Europe it's funny because he was anal and could be annoying.

And I remember he asked another one of our friends, "Does Leah hate me?" And he said, "No, she just thinks you're an anal jerk." And the funny thing is, he's actually a very good friend to this day. At first, I thought this guy was annoying as hell, but to this day he's still a good friend.

And my first impression was wildly inaccurate. And then on the flip side of that, particularly in a dating context, I've met women where my first impression was that this person is amazing and it turns out I was completely wrong.

Eric Barker: First impressions are really interesting, because that is something that the old maxim is true: the better the person's perception, the better it is. And the thing is that we're pretty good at them. That's in terms of reading people's minds and thoughts. So, you can work closely with family members, but spouses were terrible at reading their thoughts and feelings. In terms of just getting a read on someone holistically, a stranger's first impressions are generally like, roughly 70% accurate.

And there's been a lot of research on this. If you show somebody a video of a teacher in a classroom, just a couple of minutes, people's ability to say this person is competent at their job is, like I said, roughly 70% accurate. Now, again, that's way above chance, but also 70% is still low.

So it's certainly, there's a lot of room to improve. And that is the tricky thing is that first impressions are a double-edged sword. We're generally more accurate than we are wrong. However, whatever impression we get, sticks. And as you quoted from the book, we are immediately sizing people up. That just happens. There is no way of not

Srini: The thing you talk about is body language and why it's not as accurate as we think, because

Eric Barker: I'm sure you've heard the quote, "95% of communication is nonverbal."

Srini: It's not just non-verbal, but you do allude to that where you say pay attention to their tone of voice more than their body language.

Eric Barker: The issue with body language is definitely, we're always reading. The issue with conscious reading versus subconsciously certainly we're going to pick up on things that somebody is doing, but when we sit there and try and pretend that we're Sherlock Holmes, or there's some Rosetta stone for body language, the research does not show that at all because the issue is first and foremost, you never know, are they sharing because they're cold or are they sharing because they're nervous? You don't know. And especially with strangers, you don't have a baseline with, your friends—oh, he's not drawing on his fingers because he's bored. That's his little habit. He's always doing that. Like when we don't have that information, we can't read stuff. So deliberately trying to leverage body language really generally doesn't work.

But like you said, one thing we can use is to focus more on the voice because when we can hear someone, but can't see them, empathic accuracy only drops off about 4%. But when we can see someone, we can't hear them, empathic accuracy dropped off by 54%. We get a lot more information from someone's voice than we do from seeing somebody.

Srini: Let's talk about friendship. I really think this was another section that really struck me. There are a couple of things that you say about friendship that really stood out to me. You said, "Being friends means ignoring the strict accounting of favors. In fact, reciprocity is actually a profound, negative in friendship."

Being in a hurry to repay a debt is often seen as an insult to buddies. We act like costs and benefits don't matter, or at least not as much. And then you say the weakness of friendship is also the source of its unmeasurable strength. Why do true friendships make us happier than spouses or children?

Because they're always a deliberate choice. Never an obligation. Friendship is more real because either person can walk away at any time. Its fragility proves its purity. So I wonder to bring back a clip from a previous episode with Lydia Denworth, who wrote a book about the psychology of friendship.

Eric Barker: Friendship.

Srini: Yeah, I figured as much. I wanted to bring this back because it was a very interesting moment where we were talking about what happens when people move away and how friendships change in adult life.

Eric Barker: It's just much harder to maintain a relationship when people move further apart, but it's not impossible. So it really depends on motivation, again, and how much it matters. And how I think what does happen is people get busy, and then they get caught up with the new people in their life or their work. And the longer things go when they haven't seen someone, the less connected they feel, the less up on the day-to-day of their life that person is. And so it's natural that it can fade away sometimes. And it's not actually the end of the world. This is one of the things I think is important. So when you said that it didn't feel reciprocated in the same way, that's the critical juncture where you consider yourself. Maybe this friend isn't sustaining me in the same way, and I'm going to let it go, or I'm going to shuffle it. The analogy I like to use is that if you think of your friends as you've seen in the book of concentric circles, the people closest to you, and then a little further out, a little further out, when you have a friend like that, it doesn't mean that you have to not be friends

Srini: Yeah. So I think I wanted to bring back closeness in particular because I think that I have seen friendships not disintegrate, but we definitely have drifted as people have moved away. And the effort to stay in touch isn't reciprocal. It's not like when we do see each other it's not as though it's terrible, it's just like old times, but I'm curious just based on what you have said about reciprocity, like how you interpret it.

Eric Barker: That. Yeah. The reciprocity issue is just that we aren't focused on that. We assume the relationship's going to be wanting, going with the stranger. You don't know if they're going to stay there, you're going to see them again. So you don't know if they're going to pay back. It's an expression of trust that we don't immediately think about the counting of favors. The issue with friendship is that distance does make it really hard.

Men are especially bad because women's friendships usually involve more talking, and more opening up. Men's friendships tend to be more focused on activities. The research shows they, I think, often talk about like, women's friendships being face-to-face and men's friendships being shoulder-to-shoulder.

And so it turns out that it ends up really bad 'cause men can't do things together when they're not proximate when they're not nearby each other, you can't do stuff and do stuff often falls apart. So it's, that's the tricky thing about adulthood. Yeah. It's like when friendships are approximate, we didn't get this.

It was harder to keep

Srini: Let's talk about marriage because I think that I had a sigh of relief when reading this book because I remember reading somewhere that if you don't get married by a certain age, you're probably going to die sooner. And I don't remember where I read that, and I'm thinking I'm 44 and still single, I'm screwed. I'll be dead within a few years. And then I read your book and one of the things that you say is that if you're unhappily married, your health is likely to be notably worse than if you had never gotten hitched at all. A bad marriage makes you 35% more likely to fall ill and lops four years off your life. I thought, oh, sweet. You know that that, that isn't gonna make my mom feel any better as an Indian mom. But yeah. So let's talk about like, where do we have all these sorts of misunderstandings of relationships? Because there were so many things in this section that was completely counterintuitive to all of the things that I had thought. Oh.

Eric Barker: Yeah. That's why I put a warning at the beginning of the section, because a lot of people are going to be surprised or, at least at first, are not going to be happy there they're there. And I just try and set people up where I'm like, "Hey, not gonna everything in here first, but I promise we're going to get you back to the Shire, just getting some time here. And we gotta wade through some of this stuff because we've been sold the bill and guts in, in a lot of ways, we've been telling people what they want to hear, there's these attitudes and things have changed."

Things have changed and we need to update a lot of those beliefs. But specifically to what you're saying about you always seeing the research, that's saying, "Oh, married people are happier. American people are healthier." But the majority of that research commits survivor bias, basically, they were just taking the list of measuring and how happy and healthy they have, and then taking a list of single people. "Oh, Hey look, see marriage makes people happier," but that's not the correct way to run that study. What needs to be done?

Srini: Speaking of which, there are some really funny things you say about the phases through which a relationship develops, I've heard you say, running around like a jilted endlessly professing your love, acting like a maniac, and throwing caution to the wind. As you ignore work, forget to pay the bills, and text your obsession 300 times a day. That's pretty clear in a costly signal. What do people often being would say, "Show me you're crazy about me." Bingo, romantic love, not only overrides rationality but also signals the overriding of rationality.

And then you say the most vital and the most wonderful form of crazy that love brings is an idealization. As we all know, people in love, idealize their partners. It's one of the most recognized hallmarks of love. But you also talk about the fact that idealization eventually starts to fade.

Eric Barker: Yeah, basically what I'm talking about love is that initially, it's passive. It just happens to us. We don't flip a lot of switches. We don't decide to fall in love with somebody. It just happens, and the danger there is that because it's passive, we feel like maybe we can be passive about it. And what we don't realize is that entropy exists. Basically those feelings for many, not all, will die down, and it's going to be incumbent upon us if we want to make a long-term relationship or marriage to be more deliberate about it. And I point to other research that shows having a fairytale vision actually predicts negative things. Because again, if we think it's just all gonna work out, it's all fine. We're soulmates. We are meant to be with one another, that kind of tells you that you can rest on your laurels. That's not what the research shows. In general, we need to be more proactive. And one of the things I talk about is basically trying to use what in psychology is called emotional contagion. The idea that environments, you and I've talked a lot about context, is that environment, whatever feeling we

Srini: It's funny because, hey, quote that I remember, I put that on Instagram saying, "You want a guaranteed way not to get laid? Take a girl to dinner."

I like, I try to avoid dinner dates like the plague because of exactly what you said. And I didn't realize I had, now I have research to back it up. So if any gal tries to challenge me on this and says, "Let's do something low-key," I'll just send her this quote from your book.

Eric Barker: I don't think I put it there. No, you didn't.

Srini: Didn't you remember? I rewrote it that said, "If you want to get laid, go out to dinner with somebody; if you don't want to, get a translation."

Eric Barker: And the other issue here is what we were talking about earlier. Where again, on dinner dates, you're just sitting there. It's static. You're not learning as much about the other person. So for both supporting our relationship in terms of having vibrant, energetic, and fun, you want to do that. But when you're both vetting each other in the first few days, you want to be getting more accurate signals. So to your point, it's you always want to be doing more fun, more exciting stuff. Otherwise, it's almost like you're playing in hard mode. Like you're not going to be able to read people as well. You're not going to be able to leverage the emotions in the environment. You are just playing in hard mode. The other person better is in a great mood and on amphetamines and energy, they better be on their A-game because otherwise there's just no margin for getting each other for those vibrant. You want to be able to really give it a shot. And the thing is we get lazy, we do what's easy. We don't do what's really effective. And I think that's, it's a big problem. It's a really big problem, especially now coming

Srini: It's funny because my default go-to these days is bowling. It's relatively inexpensive and fun.

Eric Barker: Playing a game is a great thing to do because again, you get a lot of information about the person, you see how they make decisions and handle things. It's also fun and there's some lively competition. That's a cool, fun thing to do and we all appreciate that. It's also good if you are not completely reliant on the other person to be entertaining but to actually do something that is inherently fun and enjoyable. Hey, at least you get a consolation prize if the date doesn't go well and you don't like each other - this can still manage that.

Srini: I remember I was trying to convince a girl to go ice skating and she was like, "Let's do something low-key, nothing." And that was it. And we met up for dinner and it just--there was nothing there. I was like, "All right," and that was the end of it. I was like, "You're not..." And she was really sweet. And I told her, "I was like, honestly, just based on our interaction, it doesn't seem like you're that into me. I don't want to waste my time with this."

Eric Barker: I think it's tricky. Some people are going to have it or have a clearer idea about what they expect. I didn't think often the first-day people want something like low investment and easy to get out of. But I think we all have to balance it where it's yeah, I understand the need for ease. I know those people, you don't want to be too difficult. On the other hand, you also want to give it a fighting chance. So that's something that I think we need to think about, but yeah. It's as if the other person just totally got into it this way. Then yeah. It makes it a lot harder. Yeah.

Srini: All right. I think the other parts that really struck me were the things about fighting in a relationship. That funny fact, you mentioned marriage counseling was created by the Nazis. You gotta say...

Eric Barker: More about that. It was part of the Nazi eugenics program on eugenics. Maybe it makes people feel any better, but it doesn't work. Marriage counseling in California is not very tight. And that's not to say that the idea of marriage counseling and getting some help is a bad thing.

The real issue with marriage counseling is that society is terrible at it. Most people wait too long to go. People act like they are already in mission-critical mode, but the issue has already reached stage four by the time we're even seeing a therapist. And, by then, it's often too late.

Yeah. I agree.

Srini: Remember my first roommate out of college was one of the earliest guys to get married. And I remember he was going to marriage counseling at the church before the marriage. I was just like, "What?" And now after all these years, I was like, "Oh, that makes all the sense in the world," because he said, "There are inevitably going to be things that you don't talk about unless you have an objective."

Eric Barker: Third party who forces you to talk about them. That can be really helpful if you don't know, if you don't know what to do, and you're both stuck in bad habits it can be really powerful. It's just, again, most people, I think, wait an average of six years to go to marriage counseling. And then, what I talk about in the book is this research by John Gottman. It's basically idealization, the hallmark of romantic love. That is what he refers to as positive sentiment override. Basically, you are positively biased in favor of your partner; if they do something great, it's because they are absolutely wonderful and if they're feeling bad, they must have made a mistake.

The issue is that over the course of a marriage if there are hiccups and problems and we don't talk about them, we don't get it out in the open. What can happen is negative sentiment overriding, where you start to demonize your partner. You start to see them as out to get you or out to sabotage your happiness, that they don't care. They're there, they're tired of meaning. And that is large because people aren't.

Srini: Yeah, I think that was the one that really struck me the most because my roommate, my old roommate, I worked for housing for somebody here. He was telling me about the situation with the girl that he broke up with. And he said that they would get into shouting matches and he realized from that relationship, the very thing you're talking about here because we both had fathers who taught us to de-escalate.

That is what we were taught. My mother's temperamental, so Dad would like to de-escalate, like just ignore it. And he told me, he said, what he didn't realize until she made him really aware of this is that by not fighting, it was actually much more terrifying because she's like, "Who the heck knows? If you're going to just erupt and let it all explode, or you're going to kill me, I don't know what you're thinking when you don't fight back." And that had never occurred to me. 'Cause I always tended to move towards de-escalation in any way in a situation.

Eric Barker: No, this is actually a really promising back. Domino's a funny line, like both in the book where he says that if you're in a long-term relationship and you've never had a fight, please do. It's because people don't talk; they don't bring it up and, as Gottman specifies, what he calls the four horsemen, the four things that lead to divorce ninety percent of the time.

And two of them are criticism and stonewalling. And that issue of somebody raises an issue; somebody has something about the relationship, they have a problem, and any of you shut down, and unsurprisingly, stonewalling is something men are much more likely to do. And he showed that this actually operates on a physiological level, that women's stress hormones die down quicker, and men's stay higher, longer. And a lot of men in power get flooded and they just shut down and don't respond.

But the problem is when you shut down, the other person doesn't feel like you're listening; they don't get heard. And it can be misinterpreted again. Communication is being misinterpreted as you don't care, you're not... And so there can

Srini: So let's talk about this final section of the book, which is really about community and loneliness. One of the things that you say is that the world is more connected than ever yet we're more individualistic than we've ever been. It makes you wonder how much we actually need others and in what ways. Then you go on to say that the health and happiness of the United States right now are not

Eric Barker: We did, once upon a time.

Srini: Now we really don't want to send becoming a collective action. The key word there is collective, and we have an increasingly individualistic society living in this increasingly. So part of why I think

Eric Barker: The labor movement in the United States right now is weaker than it's been since early in the 19th century, because of the degree to which we've individualized our social contract.

And the only way to do things like reduce the cost of college for graduates is through, you got it, collective action.

Srini: So what do you make of that? Based on the research that you've done?

Eric Barker: Done for your book, then, our cultural practice and we don't have it's clear, I didn't know. America has always drawn a lot of strength from the idea of being a nation of immigrants being this group of disparate that creates a lot of creativity and dynamism. We don't stick to our rules as much, just because they've always been the way. So it's been a much more vigorous and dynamic culture. On the other hand, in terms of accomplishing things, can be difficult. And again, more personally, as I get into the book, it can be lonely because we don't have those bonds.

And what I found fascinating, I didn't believe it at first. I've been researching Valle Verde, a teaching university, or she's a historian. She said before the 19th century, loneliness as an experience almost didn't exist, which, as I said, sounded crazy to me. But the point is that before that time, we were all embedded in a culture of religion and nation, tribe, and family. You had those bonds and that is actually much more critical to be in Chicago. This is John Pacheco, who's done most of

Srini: Yeah. So in doing the research for this book and writing this book and learning all these things about human behavior and relationships, how has that impacted your personal, professional, and romantic relationships?

Eric Barker: It's funny because, as I said, I've never been we've been great in this arena and it was very weird, like writing this during the pandemic I often joke to people that when I was writing Barking Up The Wrong Tree, my first book was all about work-life balance. And I was probably sleeping five hours a night while writing about work-life balance. And here I am writing about relationships during the pandemic. So I don't know. I'm definitely not going to write my next book, but there's some tremendous irony there. Literally, the deal for my book closed two weeks before the California lockdown for the pandemic.

So, all of a sudden, I had already decided to write the book, but all of a sudden it took on a new meaning, oh my God, we're all gonna need this. I better do a good job, but I have certainly changed the time issue in terms of friendships. Deliberately making time while I was writing the book was crazy because I had to keep telling myself, it's okay don't talk to people just write.

And now of course, that flips to stop worrying and just talk to people

Srini: Last question for you. You wrote a book previously about how everything we know about success is wrong and in that time you've become quite successful yourself.

Eric Barker: You did that book?

Srini: I did extremely well. You got this wildly popular blog. How has your personal definition of success changed and evolved throughout this journey?

Eric Barker: I still think at the fundamental level it's aligned with what I wrote about in the sense that you need to have a personal definition of success, because these days the doors to the office don't close at 5:00 PM; work doesn't shut down and you don't work on every task that your boss will never tell you, "Oh hey, you've done enough." It's there will always be more. And that's a dangerous path that didn't exist before; before work didn't happen on the weekends you've got an external signal that you're done. Now you've worked enough. So just doing more, won't look great. You need to have a personal definition of success. You need to define for yourself when is enough.

And that is something, honestly, I wrote about, but I've also struggled with it because especially living a life online you can always do more. And I'm doing, I do a lot on the web. I'm not writing a blog about my personal thoughts and feelings and what I ate for lunch. And I could always be working harder and drawing those lines is really difficult for me.

But so for me, if anything, I've doubled down on that

I still think at the fundamental level it's aligned with what I wrote about in the sense that you need to have a personal definition of success because these days the doors to the office don't close at 5:00 PM; work doesn't shut down and work on every weekend, that your boss will never tell you, "Oh, hey, you've done enough." There will always be more. And that's a dangerous path that didn't exist before; before work didn't happen on the weekends. You've got an external signal that you're done. Now you've worked enough. So just doing more, it doesn't look great. You need to have a personal definition of success. You need to define for yourself when is enough.

And that is something, honestly, I wrote about, but I've also struggled with it because, especially living a life online, you can always do more. And I'm doing a lot of searches. I'm not writing a blog about my personal thoughts and feelings and what I ate for lunch. And I could always be working harder and drawing those lines is really difficult for me. But, so for me, if anything, I've doubled down on that, where I need to draw the lines

Srini: I can relate. I have one last question for you, which is how do we finish all of our interviews at Unmistakable Creative? What do you think it is that makes somebody or something unmistakable?

Eric Barker: I'm gonna let you in on a secret: instead of being a genius, it's just learning how to be yourself. And I think this is a throughline that has been running through our discussion. What are we talking about in terms of valedictorians? Defines persistence, doing the hard work, and figuring out what your strengths are, what you're good at, how you fit in, and how to achieve personal success.

I can think of this one. There's really only one way to be unmistakable. And that really is to dive down and be yourself. That may sound cliche or pat or some Instagram carousel, but we are all different from a lot of people. But we have to dig deep. What makes you special? What are your unique strengths?

There's so much research on signature strengths. People who do the things that they are uniquely good at are dramatically happier. It's a great way to be more successful. I think being unmistakable is when you don't try to deliberately conform to the standard default, but you say, "How can I do this in my own way?"

It will be, I'm not going to fight the laws of physics. I'm not

Srini: Amazing. I can't thank you enough for taking the time to join us, to share your story, your wisdom, and your insights with us. As I said earlier, now you can see why I needed two hours to have this conversation with you. Where can people find out more about you?

Eric Barker: You, your work, the book, and everything that you're up to?

The first book's launch for entry, the new book plays well with others, available at Noble and bookstores. And in terms of me, the best way to follow up on the stuff I've been posting is to join my newsletter. My URL is a little difficult for most people to remember. It's a Japanese inside joke. But if people go to, that's, they will be redirected to my hard-to-spell and hard-to-pronounce blog. Joining my newsletter is the best way to keep abreast of the work I'm doing and the amazing things I'm up to.

Srini: And for everyone listening, we will wrap the show with that.