What could a cartoonist possibly have to teach you about living your life? That’s the question I had before starting Dilbert creator Scott Adams’ book How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big. By the end of the book, I was an Adams disciple. It turns out there’s so much more to Mr. Adams than Dilbert.
I first learned about Scott Adams while listing to Naval Ravikant’s podcast. @Naval from Twitter and Silicone Valley fame is a serial entrepreneur, unicorn investor, and business philosopher. Naval quoted someone named Scott Adams a number of times, so I Google’d him.
The more I learned about Adams the more I liked him. In addition to being one of the most successful cartoonists of all time, he’s written several best selling books, founded a number of companies, and today he is a popular political commentator through his social media channels. His recent political popularity came from his 2015 prediction that Donald Trump would go on to win the presidency (Adams claims he was one of the first public figures to make this prediction). Adams has formal training in persuasion and hypnosis which was the filter for his prediction. Adams calls Trump a “Master Persuader”, they highest level of mastery of the persuasion skill, which he details in his latest book Win Bigly.
How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big is a great self help book. Below are my 3 favorite concepts:
1. Goals are for losers. Systems are for winners.
I am a goal-oriented person. I always have short and long term goals set for myself. So this concept took a while for me to warm up to.
If you think about it, “goals” do have some problems. Think about the goal “I would like to lose 10 pounds.” Every day that the goal is not achieved is a losing day, a day where the person feels bad about themselves. And when the goal finally is achieve, the positive feelings (reward) are fleeting.
Compare the “lose 10 pounds goal” with the following system: “I will eat right and exercise every day”. With this system every day that you eat right and exercise is a win. You can get the reward of positive feelings every day, forever. And you know that if you stick to your system long enough, you will achieve your ideal weight.
Here are a few more examples of goals vs. systems:
- A goal might be to someday run a marathon, but the system is to run every day.
- A goal might be to win a championship, but the system is to practice with intensity and purpose every day.
- A goal might be to get promoted at work, but the system might be working on the most important projects first every day.
The more I think about this framework the more I love it. What are the systems that you will execute every day that will allow success to eventually find out?
2. Talent stacks: Each new skill you learn doubles your chances for success.
Adams story is about “failing forward” through a number of experiments all the way to being one of the greatest cartoonists of all time. The interesting part of his becoming the greatest cartoonist of all time is not that achievement itself, but the fact that Adams did this without being the greatest in the world at any particular skill. Here are the skills that Adams has along with his level of proficiency:
- Drawing: Adams says he is a slightly above average drawing artist.
- Writing: Adams, who never took a professional writing class, describes himself as a good writer, but certainly not the best in the world.
- Humor: Adams knows he’s funny, but he says he’s not even the funniest person in his social circle, let alone in the world.
- Business Experience: Adams worked for 16 years in Corporate America and he has an MBA, so he considers himself an above average business person. But he says he never accomplished anything particularly exceptional in business.
- Misc.: The other skills Adams is above-average-but-not-world-class in are work ethic, risk tolerance, and a low sensitivity to being embarrassed.
Adams wasn’t proficient enough at any one of these skills to be world class in any one of those areas. The magic happened when his talent stack, or the value of the skills stacked them together, met a demand in the marketplace.
Adams takes this concept one step further with his math equation: each new skill you acquire doubles your chances that success will find you. Some skills are more valuable to acquire than others. Adams talks at some length about each valuable skill in following list: public speaking, business writing, psychology, persuasion, technology, social skills, voice technique, good grammar, learning how to make small talk, and learning how not to be a [jerk].
3. Managing personal energy.
I think most people are somewhat surprised when they find diet and fitness advice in a success-in-business book. And taking diet and exercise advice from a cartoonist comes with its own risks (Adams quips that the number of people who have died from taking advice from cartoonists is not zero).
My own experience tells me Adams is spot on in his guidance. You need energy to achieve anything in life. And there are good systems we can develop to create that energy.
- Diet: Adams talks about the diet that has worked for him, which sounds to me like a pescatarian diet that limits high glycemic index carbohydrates. Adams talks about simple carbs like bread and sugar as causing big drops in personal energy, while fruits, veggies, and clean protein sources provide sustainable fuel. Adams is also a big coffee advocate, a practice he’s made somewhat famous by starting each Periscope/YouTube episode with the “simultaneous sip”.
- Exercise: “Be active everyday” is the brilliant simplification of Adams’ exercise philosophy. Adams has a number of useful hacks for making exercise easier to stick to, like joining a team sport, not overdoing it, and lowering the bar for what “active” means.
- Affirmations: Adams was a fan of Normal Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking. Adams was careful to cover all of the different mechanisms that probably do NOT make affirmations work, but that doesn’t change his personal experience of affirmations somehow working for him. Adams details how he used affirmations to overcome a medical condition. Also, we know how this one worked out: “I, Scott, will become a famous cartoonist.”
- Patterns: Everyone has their own pattern for how their energy ebbs and flows throughout the day. Adams talks about matching your work to your energy pattern to maximize effectiveness. For me, I’m most productive and creative for the first few hours of the day, so that’s when I work on the most important projects that require the most brainpower. I know I usually hit a lull in the afternoon (2:00-4:00) and in the evening (6:00-8:00), so I use that time for easier tasks like emails or spreadsheets. I like to exercise right after work and before dinner when possible, because this helps me burn off any stress from the day and puts me in a better mood for the family. What’s your energy pattern like? How can you better match your daily systems to that pattern?
How to Fail is a great self help book. Adams’ smarts shine through in his clever and novel takes on traditional success concepts. The writing is laugh-out-loud funny. Adams life story is filled with interesting experiments that eventually led him to a mega-successful career. And that system of experimenting and failing forward could help you on your journey.