The Two Questions You Should Ask Yourself to Be Successful in Life

A best-selling author has a two-point plan that can be applied to everyone

As a child Michael Phelps was diagnosed with ADHD and, as he reached puberty, it became clear he had a highly unusual body shape. But despite these challenges he discovered swimming, which proved the perfect outlet for his energy and the ideal way to utilize his physical attributes. He went on to become the greatest Olympian of all time.

Phelps is just one example cited by Eric Barker in his best selling book Barking Up the Wrong Tree, subtitled The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong.

In it, Barker argues there are two steps any person must take to becoming successful in any field, a theory he outlined in a recent talk at Harvard Business School.

They are:

1| Know yourself. You can ask yourself: What are my "signature strengths?" Those are the skills you're particularly good at.

2| Pick the right pond. Barker recommends asking yourself: "Which companies, institutions, and situations value what I do?"

The idea is that, like Phelps, you have to first identify your unique strengths and then find the ideal environment in which to use them.

Expanding on the idea in an interview on the Work and Life podcast, Barker talked about the way apparently negatives qualities can become positive attributes if they're applied to the right role, for example stubbornness.

"In your standard hierarchical corporation, stubbornness would not be a positive," he said.

"But when we talk about entrepreneurs, we always talk about 'gritty, stick to it, don't give into failure.' And what is that? Well, in many cases, that's stubbornness.


"There's many characteristics which can be negative on average, but given the right circumstances, they can become positive."

The Phelps example is easy to understand: his height and shape made him unsuitable for lots of other sports, but perfect for swimming.

Applying the theory to yourself is perhaps more difficult, but being honest about your attributes–even the seemingly negative ones–and figuring out where you're most likely to thrive seems like a good way to begin thinking about where you should focus your efforts at work.

If you're really struggling, maybe start with your shoe size.

This story originally appeared on

* Minor edits have been made by the editors.

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