How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big – by Scott Adams
How strongly I recommend it: 8/10
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If you ask a billionaire the secret of his success, he might say it is passion, because that sounds like a sexy answer that is suitably humble. But after a few drinks I think he’d say his success was a combination of desire, luck, hard work, determination, brains, and appetite for risk. So forget about passion when you’re planning your path to success.
You already know that when your energy is right you perform better at everything you do, including school, work, sports, and even your personal life. Energy is good. Passion is bullshit.
Good ideas have no value because the world already has too many of them. The market rewards execution, not ideas. From that point on, I concentrated on ideas I could execute.
My failure taught me to seek opportunities in which I had an advantage.
Timing is often the biggest component of success. And since timing is often hard to get right unless you are psychic, it makes sense to try different things until you get the timing right by luck.
The system-versus-goals model can be applied to most human endeavors. In the world of dieting, losing twenty pounds is a goal, but eating right is a system. In the exercise realm, running a marathon in under four hours is a goal, but exercising daily is a system. In business, making a million dollars is a goal, but being a serial entrepreneur is a system. For our purposes, let’s say a goal is a specific objective that you either achieve or don’t sometime in the future. A system is something you do on a regular basis that increases your odds of happiness in the long run. If you do something every day, it’s a system. If you’re waiting to achieve it someday in the future, it’s a goal.
if you study people who succeed, you will see that most of them follow systems, not goals. When goal-oriented people succeed in big ways, it makes news, and it makes an interesting story. That gives you a distorted view of how often goal-driven people succeed.
Consider Olympic athletes. When one Olympian wins a gold medal, or multiple gold medals, it’s a headline story. But for every medalist there are thousands who had the goal of being on that podium and failed. Those people had goals and not systems.
If you want success, figure out the price, then pay it.
Wishing starts in the mind and generally stays there. When you decide to be successful in a big way, it means you acknowledge the price and you’re willing to pay it. That price might be sacrificing your personal life to get good grades in school, pursuing a college major that is deadly boring but lucrative, putting off having kids, missing time with your family, or taking business risks that put you in jeopardy for embarrassment, divorce, or bankruptcy. Successful people don’t wish for success; they decide to pursue it. And to pursue it effectively, they need a system. Success always has a price, but the reality is that the price is negotiable. If you pick the right system, the price will be a lot nearer what you’re willing to pay. I can’t change the fact that success requires a lot of work. But if you learn to appreciate the power of systems over goals, it might lower the price of success just enough to make it worth a go.
For starters, when it comes to the topic of generosity, there are three kinds of people in the world:
- Burden on others.
That’s the entire list. Your best option is to be selfish, because being stupid or a burden on society won’t help anyone. Society hopes you will handle your selfishness with some grace and compassion. If you do selfishness right, you automatically become a net benefit to society.
The most important form of selfishness involves spending time on your fitness, eating right, pursuing your career, and still spending quality time with your family and friends. If you neglect your health or your career, you slip into the second category—stupid—which is a short slide to becoming a burden on society.
The main reason I blog is because it energizes me. I could rationalize my blogging by telling you it increases traffic on Dilbert.com by 10 percent or that it keeps my mind sharp or that I think the world is a better place when there are more ideas in it. But the main truth is that blogging charges me up. It gets me going. I don’t need another reason.
Managing your personal energy is like managing budgets in a company. In business, every financial decision in one department is connected to others.
Similarly, when you manage your personal energy, it’s not enough to maximize it in the short run or in one defined area. Ideally, you want to manage your personal energy for the long term and the big picture.
Matching Mental State to Activity
One of the most important tricks for maximizing your productivity involves matching your mental state to the task. For example, when I first wake up, my brain is relaxed and creative. The thought of writing a comic is fun, and it’s relatively easy because my brain is in exactly the right mode for that task. I know from experience that trying to be creative in the midafternoon is a waste of time. By 2:00 P.M. all I can do is regurgitate the ideas I’ve seen elsewhere. At 6:00 A.M. I’m a creator, and by 2:00 P.M. I’m a copier. Everyone is different, but you’ll discover that most writers work either early in the morning or past midnight. That’s when the creative writing juices flow most easily.
Most people aren’t lucky enough to have a flexible schedule. I didn’t have one either for the first sixteen years of my corporate life. So I did the next best thing by going to bed early and getting up at 4:00 A.M. to do my creative side projects. One of those projects became the sketches for Dilbert. You might not think you’re an early-morning person. I didn’t think I was either. But once you get used to it, you might never want to go back. You can accomplish more by the time other people wake up than most people accomplish all day.
Optimizing is often the strategy of people who have specific goals and feel the need to do everything in their power to achieve them. Simplifying is generally the strategy of people who view the world in terms of systems. The best systems are simple, and for good reason. Complicated systems have more opportunities for failure. Human nature is such that we’re good at following simple systems and not so good at following complicated systems. Simple systems are probably the best way to achieve success. Once you have success, optimizing begins to have more value. Successful people and successful businesses have the luxury of being able to optimize toward perfection over time. Start-ups often do better by slapping together something that is 80 percent good and seeing how the public responds. There’s time to improve things later if the market cares about the product. Another big advantage of simplification is that it frees up time, and time is one of your most valuable resources in the world. If you give an ant infinite time, it can move a mountain all by itself.
When you start asking questions, you often discover that there’s a simple solution, a Web site that handles it, or a professional who takes care of it for a reasonable fee. Keep in mind that every time you wonder how to do something, a few hundred million people have probably wondered the same thing. And that usually means the information has already been packaged and simplified, and in some cases sold. But it’s usually free for the asking. I’m a big fan of flash research, the type you do in less than a minute using Google.
You can control your attitude by manipulating your thoughts, your body, and your environment.
Exercise, food, and sleep should be your first buttons to push if you’re trying to elevate your attitude and raise your energy.
If your life doesn’t provide you with plenty of happy thoughts to draw upon, try daydreaming of wonderful things in your future.
Being tired makes you want to lie down, but lying down when you are rested can put you in the mood for a nap. Feeling hungry can make you want to eat simple carbs, but eating simple carbs can make you feel hungry. Understanding this two-way causation is highly useful for boosting your personal energy.
The next time you’re in a gloomy mood, try smiling at a stranger you pass on the street. You’ll be surprised how many people reflexively return the smile, and if you smile often enough, eventually that cue will boot up the happiness subroutine in your brain and release the feel-good chemicals you desire. As a bonus, smiling makes you more attractive to others. When you’re more attractive, people respond to you with more respect and consideration, more smiles, and sometimes even lust. That’s exactly the sort of thing that can cheer you up. If you’re not comfortable faking a smile, try hanging around friends who are naturally funny. Equally important, avoid friends who are full-time downers. You want friends with whom you can share both the good and the bad, but you aren’t a therapist. Walk away from the soul suckers. You have a right to pursue happiness and an equal right to run as fast as you can from the people who would deny it.
A great strategy for success in life is to become good at something, anything, and let that feeling propel you to new and better victories. Success can be habit-forming.
We’ve all had the experience of meeting someone for the first time and having a wildly inaccurate first impression, which in turn drives the way we act. Later, once you know more about the person, you start behaving differently. The external reality doesn’t change, but your point of view does. In many cases, it’s your point of view that influences your behavior, not the universe. And you can control your point of view even when you can’t change the underlying reality.
Pick the way that works, even if you don’t know why.
In my corporate career I often marveled at how people changed as soon as they got promoted from worker bees to management. I saw one of my coworkers transform from a hesitant and unimpressive personality to confidence and power within two months of his promotion. Obviously there was some acting involved, but we are designed to become in reality however we act. We fake it until it becomes real. Our core personality doesn’t change, but we quickly adopt the mannerisms and skills associated with our new status and position. So congratulations on being a person who studies the mechanics of success. It’s a bigger deal than you might realize.
One helpful rule of thumb for knowing where you might have a little extra talent is to consider what you were obsessively doing before you were ten years old. There’s a strong connection between what interests you and what you’re good at. People are naturally drawn to the things they feel comfortable doing, and comfort is a marker for talent.
Childhood compulsions aren’t a guarantee of future talent. But my unscientific observation is that people are born wired for certain preferences. Those preferences drive behavior, and that’s what can make a person willing to practice a skill.
When you hear stories about famous actors as kids, one of the patterns you notice is that before they were stars they were staging plays in their living rooms and backyards. That’s gutsy for a kid. A child who eagerly accepts the risk of embarrassment in front of a crowd—even a friendly crowd—probably has some talent for entertaining. Consider the biographies of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. As young men, both took legal risks in the field of technology. Bill Gates famously found ways to hone his technical skills by stealing time on a mainframe. Jobs and Wozniak’s first product involved technology that allowed people to steal long-distance phone calls. Where there is a tolerance for risk, there is often talent.
Things that will someday work out well start out well. Things that will never work start out bad and stay that way. What you rarely see is a stillborn failure that transmogrifies into a stellar success. Small successes can grow into big ones, but failures rarely grow into successes.
One of the best ways to detect the x factor is to watch what customers do about your idea or product, not what they say. People tend to say what they think you want to hear or what they think will cause the least pain. What people do is far more honest.
You might be tempted to think that sometimes an idea with no x factor and no enthusiastic fans can gain those qualities over time. I’m sure it’s happened, but I can’t think of an example in my life. It’s generally true that if no one is excited about your art/product/idea in the beginning, they never will be. If the first commercial version of your work excites no one to action, it’s time to move on to something different. Don’t be fooled by the opinions of friends and family. They’re all liars. If your work inspires some excitement and some action from customers, get ready to chew through some walls. You might have something worth fighting for.
Books about success can be somewhat useful. But for marketing reasons, a typical book is focused on a single topic to make it easier to sell and packed with filler to get the page count up. No one has time to sort through that much filler. When I speak to young people on the topic of success, as I often do, I tell them there’s a formula for it. You can manipulate your odds of success by how you choose to fill out the variables in the formula. The formula, roughly speaking, is that every skill you acquire doubles your odds of success.
The Success Formula: Every Skill You Acquire Doubles Your Odds of Success
Notice I didn’t say anything about the level of proficiency you need to achieve for each skill. I didn’t mention anything about excellence or being world-class. The idea is that you can raise your market value by being merely good—not extraordinary—at more than one skill. In California, for example, having one common occupational skill plus fluency in Spanish puts you at the head of the line for many types of jobs. If you’re also a skilled public speaker (good but not great) and you know your way around a PowerPoint presentation, you have a good chance of running your organization. To put the success formula into its simplest form: Good + Good > Excellent Successwise, you’re better off being good at two complementary skills than being excellent at one.
Everything you learn becomes a shortcut for understanding something else.
The Knowledge Formula: The More You Know, the More You Can Know
Skills in which I think every adult should gain a working knowledge. (…) Luck has a good chance of finding you if you become merely good in most of these areas.
- Public speaking
- Business writing
- Design (the basics)
- Overcoming shyness
- Second language
- Proper grammar
- Technology (hobby level)
- Proper voice technique
When you understand the power of honest praise (as opposed to bullshitting, flattery, and sucking up), you realize that withholding it borders on immoral. If you see something that impresses you, a decent respect to humanity insists you voice your praise.
It’s a good idea to make psychology your lifelong study. Most of what you need to know as a regular citizen can be gleaned from the Internet.
You’ve heard the old saying that knowledge is power. But knowledge of psychology is the purest form of that power. No matter what you’re doing or how well you’re doing it, you can benefit from a deeper understanding of how the mind interprets its world using only the clues that somehow find a way into your brain through the holes in your skull.
As it turns out, business writing is all about getting to the point and leaving out all of the noise. You think you already do that in your writing, but you probably don’t. Consider the previous sentence. I intentionally embedded some noise. Did you catch it? The sentence that starts with “You think you already do that” includes the unnecessary word “already.” Remove it and you get exactly the same meaning: “You think you do that.” The “already” part is assumed and unnecessary. That sort of realization is the foundation of business writing.
Business writing also teaches that brains are wired to better understand concepts that are presented in a certain order. For example, your brain processes “The boy hit the ball” more easily than “The ball was hit by the boy.” In editors’ jargon, the first sentence is direct writing and the second is passive. It’s a tiny difference, but over the course of an entire document, passive writing adds up and causes reader fatigue. Eventually I learned that the so-called persuasive writers were doing little more than using ordinary business-writing methods. Clean writing makes a writer seem smarter and it makes the writer’s arguments more persuasive.
Business writing is also the foundation for humor writing. Unnecessary words and passive writing kill the timing of humor the same way they kill the persuasiveness of your point. If you want people to see you as smart, persuasive, and funny, consider taking a two-day class in business writing. There aren’t many skills you can learn in two days that will serve you this well.
I found accounting nearly impossible to learn because of the bubbling moat of boredom that surrounds the entire field. But a basic understanding of accounting is necessary to be a fully effective adult in a modern society, even if you never do any actual accounting on your own. Accounting is part of the vocabulary of business, and if you don’t understand it on a concept level, the world will be a confusing place. In particular it’s helpful to be able to create your own cash-flow projection on a spreadsheet and feel some confidence that you understand the tax impacts and the so-called time value of money.
You can pay others to do your accounting and cash-flow projections, but that only works if you can check their work in a meaningful way. The smarter play is to learn enough about accounting and spreadsheets that you understand the basics.
Few people are skilled conversationalists. Most people are just talking, which is not the same thing. The difference is that skilled conversationalists have learned techniques that are surprisingly nonobvious to a lot of people.
It [referring how to start a conversation] goes something like this:
What’s your name?
Where do you live?
Do you have a family?
What do you do for a living?
Do you have any hobbies/sports?
Do you have any travel plans?
The secret to making the list of six questions work without seeming awkward is in understanding that the person you meet will feel every bit as awkward as you. That person wants to talk about something interesting and to sound knowledgeable. Your job is to make that easy. Nothing is easier than talking about one’s self.
Your job as a conversationalist is to keep asking questions and keep looking for something you have in common with the stranger, or something that interests you enough to wade into the topic. Here’s a summary of good conversation technique.
Don’t complain (much).
Don’t talk about boring experiences (TV show, meal, dream, etc.).
Don’t dominate the conversation.
Let others talk.
Don’t get stuck on a topic.
Planning is useful but it isn’t conversation.
Keep the sad stories short, especially medical stories.
The point of conversation is to make the other person feel good. If you do that one simple thing correctly, the other benefits come along with the deal.
So how do you get a stranger to like you? It’s simple, actually. It starts by smiling and keeping your body language open. After that, just ask questions and listen as if you cared, all the while looking for common interests.
Try to get in the habit of asking yourself how you can turn your interesting experiences into story form. I find it helps to imagine telling the story to someone in particular—a spouse, friend, or relative. Try a few versions in your head, telling the story and feeling how it goes. Was it brief? Did you save the surprise for just the right moment? Did you have a way to end the story with a punch line or interesting observation? It’s a good idea to always have a backlog of stories you can pull out at a moment’s notice. And you’ll want to continually update your internal story database with new material. For example, if I know I’ll be seeing friends in a few days, I make a special note to myself to turn my recent experiences into story form because I know I’ll have a reason to bust one out.
The most popular type of stories is … funny stories. I think everyone should learn how to tell a funny story. I don’t think people realize that storytelling is a learnable skill and not a genetic gift. Once you know the parts that compose any good story, you have all you need to sculpt your own out of your everyday experiences.
The most important key to good storytelling is preparation. You don’t want to figure out your story as you tell it. If something story-worthy happens to you, spend some time developing the story structure in your head and practice telling the story in your head until you have it down.
The basic parts of a good party story are:
- Setup. There’s only one important rule for a story setup: Keep it brief. And I mean really brief, as in “So, I took my car in for a brake job …” That’s it. Don’t tell us the problem with the brakes. Don’t tell us what made you think you had a brake problem, unless for some reason it is relevant. Try to keep your setup to one sentence, two at most.
- Pattern. Establish a pattern that your story will violate. For example, you could say, “Whenever I take my car for any kind of service, I’m always amazed how expensive it is.” That establishes the pattern. Now we know that what follows will be a violation of the pattern. And we call that hint of things to come …
- Foreshadowing. Foreshadowing means you leave some clues about where the story is going. The foreshadowing can happen as early as the setup, as in “My in-laws in Arkansas have something they call the ‘fraidy hole’ that everyone climbs into in case of tornadoes. It’s meant to hold no more than four people.” That’s the setup with the foreshadowing built in.
- The Characters. Every story involves characters, and you might be one of them. For people who know all of your foibles, defects, and preferences, no elaboration is required. But if you are talking to strangers or talking about unfamiliar others, fill in the story with some character traits that will be relevant. For example, “Our friend Bob has been borrowing our power tools for years because he’s too cheap to buy his own.” That sort of brief character profile is essential to any story that involves people. All good stories are about personalities.
- Relatability. There is one topic that people care more about than any other: themselves. Pick story topics that your listeners will relate to. If your story is about dealing with a stubborn bureaucrat, most adults can relate to it no matter the bureaucracy involved. But if your story is about the inner workings of competitive quilting, you’d better make it short and extra witty. People drift off when you stop talking about stuff that isn’t, well, them.
- The Twist. Your story isn’t a story unless something unexpected or unusual happens. That’s the plot twist. If you don’t have a twist, it’s not a story. It’s just a regurgitation of your day. That’s fine for catching up with a spouse, but it won’t make you the life of a party.
- Topics to Avoid. It’s important to tell stories about interesting events. It’s even more important to avoid telling stories about deadly boring or downer situations. (Here are a few topics you should avoid: food, television show plots, dreams, medical stories.)
Just keep your stories light, funny if possible, and short. Most important, recognize that it’s your responsibility to change the subject as soon as you can.
Smile, ask questions, avoid complaining and sad topics, and have some entertaining stories ready to go. It’s all you need to be in the top 10 percent of all conversationalists.
I credit one of my college friends with teaching me the secret of overcoming shyness by imagining you are acting instead of interacting. And by that I mean literally acting. It turns out that a shy person can act like someone else more easily than he can act like himself. That makes some sense because shyness is caused by an internal feeling that you are not worthy to be in the conversation. Acting like someone else gets you out of that way of thinking.
I also like to keep a few things in mind when I feel shyness coming on. First, I remember that most people feel awkward in social situations at least some of the time. Chances are that the person you are talking to is feeling just as shy. It helps me to know I’m probably on a level playing field. The other person is only pretending to be socially talented, just as I am.
The single best tip for avoiding shyness involves harnessing the power of acting interested in other people. You don’t want to cross into nosiness, but everyone appreciates it when you show interest.
You should also try to figure out which people are thing people and which ones are people people. Thing people enjoy hearing about new technology and other clever tools and possessions. They also enjoy discussions of processes and systems, including politics. People people enjoy only conversations that involve humans doing interesting things. They get bored in a second when the conversation turns to things.
Once you know whether you are dealing with a thing person or a people person, you can craft your conversation to his or her sweet spot. It makes a big difference in how people react to you, and that in turn will make you more confident and less shy.
Observe outgoing people and steal their little tricks if you can.
Try putting yourself in situations that will surely embarrass you if things go wrong, or maybe even if they don’t. Like any other skill, suppressing shyness takes practice. The more you put yourself in potentially embarrassing situations, the easier they all become.
Persuasive Words and Phrases
Would you mind … ?
I’m not interested.
I don’t do that.
I have a rule …
I just wanted to clarify …
Is there anything you can do for me?
This is just between you and me.
In most groups the craziest person is in control. It starts because no one wants the problems that come from pissing off a crazy person. It’s just smarter and easier sometimes to let the crazy person have his or her way. Crazy people also take more risks and act more confidently than the facts would warrant. That’s a potent combination. Crazy + confident probably kills more people than any other combination of personality traits, but when it works just right, it’s a recipe for extraordinary persuasion. Cults are a good example of insanity being viewed as leadership.
Studies show a commanding voice is highly correlated with success. Other studies suggest that both men and women with attractive voices find partners more quickly than those with less attractive voices. While most of us will never be able to speak like Morgan Freeman no matter how diligently we train our voices, we’re all capable of improving how we speak, and that’s probably worth the effort.
Despite my obvious lack of ability, nearly every boss I had—and there were many—identified me as a future corporate executive. Keep in mind that I was poorly dressed, five feet eight inches tall, and prematurely balding in my twenties. I certainly didn’t look like CEO material, and while I’d like to think my interior brilliance sometimes shined through, I doubt that was the case. I think my fake professional voice and body language were at least half of the reason I was seen as having management potential.