How To Fail At Almost Everything And Still Win Big
Updated: Jan 29, 2018
I first came across Scott Adam’s book How to Fail At Almost Everything and Still Win Big on a Farnam Street blog post, a blog that I subscribe to and read pretty consistently. Here is a great quote from the blog post on Farnam Street and the book:
"If your view of the world is that people use reason for their important decisions, you are setting yourself up for a life of frustration and confusion. You’ll find yourself continually debating people and never winning except in your own mind. Few things are as destructive and limiting as a worldview that assumes people are mostly rational."
I decided to read Scott's book since I agreed with the initial assessment I read of his view on succeeding in life, business, and the corporate world on this blog post. His model of the world has a lot to do with not relying on luck, but putting yourself in the best position possible for luck to find you. This means increasing your skill sets and marketing them in a way that will put your chances at a higher probability to succeed.
Another thing I really enjoyed was his view of failure. His view is that even when he fails, he still wins because he understands that inside every failure is a lesson to be learned that can be used in another aspect of his life.
Scott also delves into different parts of his life that consist of his college years, his early years in his 9 to 5 corporate job, his years when he became successful as a cartoonist, and his years beyond. He talks about his experiences, his emotions, and most importantly, the lessons he learned.
This fits into the category of books that I have been very interested in lately. Books by successful people (mostly business) that discuss their experiences in their lives and how their life unfolded to become who they are. I’ve found their paths are never an easy journey. There is always some conflict or adversity along the way.
One form of adversity that Scott endured was the trouble he had drawing at one point because of an issue related to the neurons in his brain. This issue, you learn later on in the book, is related to a voice dysphonia he got later on in his life. He discusses the luck involved, how he didn’t quit, and his devotion to solve this.
In this book, you will find a lot of examples where Scott didn’t quit. He tried his best to understand a problem as best as possible, analyze that problem, and put into action a strategy to solve it.
When he couldn’t draw, Scott bought a drawing pad that was electronic. This allowed him to continue his lucrative career as a cartoonist, but Scott isn’t blind to the luck involved in his life. He understood that he got lucky that there was an invention of an electronic drawing pad that allowed him to continue his career. Had he been born in an earlier period then he would have not been able to become the successful cartoonist that he is today.
I found his chapter titled The Math of Success to be the most helpful because of the wisdom he discusses from his life as an entrepreneur, a cubicle worker, and a cartoonist. It is also very helpful because it discusses the skills that have helped Scott in his career and which he recommends everyone learn. Some of the skills he recommended everyone learn were: a basic understanding of accounting and psychology, conversation, business writing, public speaking, and overcoming shyness.
One more thing he recommends is to never have goals. Instead, he recommends having systems.
Below are my highlights from the book. Unless otherwise mentioned, the words are from Scott Adams, not me.
Was my eventual success primarily a result of talent, luck, hard work, or an accidental just-right balance of each? All I know for sure is that I pursued a conscious strategy of managing my opportunities in a way that would make it easier for luck to find me.
Realistically, most people have poor filters for sorting truth from fiction, and there’s no objective way to know if you’re particularly good at it or not.
Consistency is the bedrock of the scientific method. Scientists creep up on the truth by performing controlled experiments and attempting to observe consistent results. In your everyday, nonscientist life you do the same thing, but it’s not as impressive, nor as reliable. For example, if every time you eat popcorn, one hour later you fart so hard that it inflates your socks, you can reasonably assume popcorn makes you gassy. It’s not science, but it’s still an entirely useful pattern. Consistency is the best marker of truth that we have, imperfect though it may be.
The best example of the power of simplicity is capitalism. The central genius of capitalism is that all of its complexities, all of the differences across companies, all of the challenges, decisions, successes, and failures can be boiled down into one number: profits. That simplification allows capitalism to work.
[During a public speech that Scott Adams gave] – I waited for the applause to stop. And when it did, I waited a little longer, as I had learned. When you stand in front of an audience, your sensation of time is distorted. That’s why inexperienced presenters speak too rapidly. I mentally adjusted my internal clock to match the audience’s sense of timing. I also wanted them to wait in silence for a beat or two, to engage their curiosity.
Over the years I have cultivated a unique relationship with failure. I invite it. I survive it. I appreciate it. And then I mug the shit out of it. Failure always brings something valuable with it. I don’t let it leave until I extract that value. I have a long history of profiting from failure. My cartooning career, for example, is a direct result of failing to succeed in the corporate environment.
Passion is Bullshit: [Scott doesn’t recommend passion like most, he recommends energy)
I’ve been involved in several dozen business ventures over the course of my life, and each one made me excited at the start. The ones that didn’t work out – and that would be most of them – slowly drained my passion as they failed. The few that worked became more exciting as they succeeded.
Success caused passion, passion didn’t cause success.
Dilbert started out as just one of many get-rich quick schemes I was willing to try.
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.
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 the timing right by luck.
Here is some career advice on job hopping from the CEO of a company that makes screws from the words of Scott Adams: “Every time he got a new job, he immediately started looking for a better one. For him, job seeking was not something one did when necessary. It was an ongoing process. This makes perfect sense if you do the math. Chances are the best job for you won’t become available at precisely the time you declare yourself ready. Your best bet was to always be looking for the better deal. The better deal has its own schedule. I believe the way he explained it is that your job is not your job; your job is to find a better job.”
Never use goals, always use systems
The Selfishness Illusion:
One of the more interesting surprises for me when I started making money than I would ever spend is that it automatically changed my priorities. I could afford any car I wanted, but suddenly I didn’t care so much about my possessions beyond the utility they provided. Once all of my personal needs were met, my thoughts automatically turned to how I could make the world a better place. I didn’t plan the transformation. It wasn’t something I thought about and decided to do. It just happened on its own. Apparently, humans are wired to take care of their own needs first, then family, tribe, country, and the world, roughly in that order.
Recognizing your talents and knowing when to quit:
Overcoming obstacles is normally an unavoidable part of the process. But you also need to know when to quit. Persistence is useful, but there’s no point in being an idiot about it. My guideline for deciding when to quit is informed by a lifetime of trying dozens of business ideas, most of them failures. I’ve also carefully observed others struggling with the stay-or-quit decision. There have been times I stuck with bad ideas for far too long out of a misguided sense that persistence is a virtue. The pattern I noticed was this: Things that will someday work out well start out well. Things that will never work start out bad and stay that way.
The Math of Success: (My favorite chapter)
We all think we know the odds in life, there’s a good chance you have some blind spots. Finding those blind spots is a big deal.
Quality is not an independent force in the universe; it depends on what you choose as your frame of reference.
Scott’s second restaurant doesn’t do well because he made it look more upscale and customers compared it to all the other restaurants in the area. They thought it would be less upscale like the first restaurant and so when they arrived and noticed they were under dressed, they left. [My wording]
Apple owes much of its success to Steve Job’s understanding that the way a product makes users feel trumps most other considerations, including price. If Steve Jobs had seen people as rational beings, he might have followed a path similar to Dell, selling highly capable machines at the lowest possible price.
No one with accounting skill would get involved with a business model that can’t work on paper.
6 simple questions to start a conversation:
1. What is your name? 2. Where do you live? 3. Do you have a family? 4. What do you do for a living? 5. Do you have any hobbies/sports? 6. Do you have any travel plans?
The 7 habits from Stephen Covey’s book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People:
1. Be proactive 2. Begin with the end in mind 3. Put first things first (Set priorities) 4. Think win-win (Don’t be greedy) 5. Seek first to understand then be understood 6. Synergize (Use teamwork) 7. Sharpen the saw (Keep learning)
Scott’s own list of important patterns for success (excluding ones given to you by genes)
1. Lack of fear or embarrassment 2. Education (The right kind) 3. Exercise
I believe exercise makes people smarter, psychologically braver, more creative, more energetic, and more influential.
There is one more pattern I see in successful people: They treat success as a learnable skill. That means they figure out what they need and they go and get it
Timing is Luck Too:
The biggest component of luck is timing. When the universe and I have been on a compatible schedule – entirely by chance – things have worked out swimmingly. When my timing has been off, no amount of hard work or talent has mattered.
I find it helpful to see the world as a slot machine that doesn’t ask you to put money in. All it asks is your time, focus, and energy to pull the handle over and over. A normal slot machine that requires money will bankrupt any player in the long run. But the machine that has rare yet certain payoffs, and asks for no money up front, is a guaranteed winner if you have what it takes to keep yanking until you get lucky.
Humans are social animals. There are probably dozens of ways we absorb energy, inspiration, skills, and character traits from those around us. Sometimes we learn by example. Sometimes success appears more approachable and ordinary because we see normal people achieve it, and perhaps that encourages us to pursue schemes with higher payoffs. Sometimes the people around us give us information we need, or encouragement, or contacts, or even useful criticism. We can’t always know the mechanism by which others change our future actions, but it’s pretty clear it happens, and it’s important.
To change yourself, part of the solution might involve spending more time with the people who represent the change you seek.
The only reasonable goal in life is maximizing your total lifetime experience of something called happiness. That might sound selfish, but it’s not.
My definition of happiness is that it’s a feeling you get when your body chemistry is producing pleasant sensations in your mind.
The big part – the 80 percent of happiness – is nothing but a chemistry experiment. And it’s hugely helpful to think of it that way. You can’t always quickly fix whatever is wrong in your environment, and you can’t prevent negative thoughts from drifting into your head. But you can easily control your body chemistry through lifestyle, and that in turn will cause your thoughts to turn positive, while making the bumps in your path feel less important.
For starters, the biggest trick for manipulating your happiness chemistry is being able to do what you want, when you want.
You need to control the order and timing of things to be happy. It’s important to look at happiness in terms of timing because timing is easier to control than resources. It’s hard to become rich enough to buy your own private island but, relatively speaking, it’s easier to find a job with flexible hours. A person with a flexible schedule and average resources will be happier than a rich person who has everything except a flexible schedule. Step one in your search for happiness is to continually work toward having control of your schedule.
It’s no wonder that parents who seem to have everything – nice house, great kids, and god friends – still find themselves in misery during the years their kids are young. Those parents might have all the “stuff” they could ask for but no flexibility to enjoy what they want when they want.
In your personal life and your career, consider schedule flexibility when making any big decision. Realistically, sometimes you need to suck it up and work long hours, watch the kids, and do your duty. Just remember to keep your eye out for ways to maximize your schedule freedom in the long term.
Happiness has more to do with where you’re heading than where you are. A person who is worth two billion dollars will feel sad if he suddenly loses one billion because he’s moving in the wrong direction, even if the change has no impact on his ability to buy what he wants. But a street person will celebrate discovering a new dumpster behind an upscale restaurant because it means good eating ahead. We tend to feel happy when things are moving in the right direction and unhappy when things are trending bad.
The feeling of progress stimulates your body to create the chemicals that make you feel happy. When you choose a career, consider whether it will lead to a lifetime of ever improved performance, a plateau, or a steady decline in your skills.
The next element of happiness you need to master is imagination…If you can imagine the future being brighter, it lifts your energy and gooses the chemistry in your body that produces a sensation of happiness. If you can’t even imagine an improved future, you won’t be happy no matter how well your life is going right now.
Happiness isn’t a mystery of the mind and it’s not magic. Happiness is the natural state for most people whenever they feel healthy, have flexible schedules, and expect the future to be good.
The primary culprit of your bad moods is a deficit in one of the big five: flexible schedule, imagination, sleep, diet, and exercise.
I’ll cap this discussion by telling you the story of how I felt when my cartooning career reached its high point. It was the late nineties and I had just deposited the biggest check of my life, thanks largely to a multi book publishing deal. I had the precise job I had wanted since childhood. I was officially rich. I was as famous as I wanted to be. And I was suddenly and profoundly sad. What the hell was going on? After some self-reflection I realized that I was feeling adrift. I no longer had a primary purpose in life because I’d already achieved it. It was an eerie feeling, unreal and unsettling. I had no kids at the time, so I had no reason to achieve anything more. I’d dipped well below my baseline happiness and I wasn’t rebounding. The way I climbed out of my funk was by realizing that my newly acquired resources could help me change the world in some small but positive ways. That was the motivation for creating the Dilberito, which I hoped would make nutrition convenient and perhaps contribute to a trend.
Barry Schwartz, author of the Paradox of Choice, tells us that people become unhappy if they have too many options in life. The problem with options is that choosing any path can leave you plagued with self-doubt. You quite rationally think that one of the paths not chosen might have worked out better. That can eat you.
Recapping the happiness formula:
1. Eat right 2. Exercise 3. Get enough sleep 4. Imagine an incredible future (even if you don’t believe it) 5. Work toward a flexible schedule 6. Do things you can steadily improve at 7. Help others (if you’ve already helped yourself) 8. Reduce daily decisions to routine
If you look at your life from some distance, you can see that today is a lot like yesterday, and tomorrow won’t be that different either. Our lives stay roughly the same, while our moods can swing wildly. My proposition, which I invite you to be skeptical about, is that one of the primary factors in determining your energy level, and therefore your mood, is what you’ve eaten recently.
The healthy eating summary:
1. Pay attention to your energy level after eating certain foods. Find your pattern 2. Remove unhealthy, energy-draining food from your ho. 3. Stock up on convenient healthy foods (e.g., apples, nuts, banannas) and let laziness be your copilot in eating right. 4. Stop eating foods that create feelings of addiction: white rice, white potatoes, desserts, white bread, fried foods 5. Eat as much healthy food as you want, whenever you want 6. Gen enough sleep, because tiredness creates the illusion of hunger 7. If your hunger is caused by tiredness, try healthy foods with fat, such as nuts, avocados, protein bars, and cheese, to suppress the hunger feeling. 8. If you’re eating for social reasons only, choose the healthiest options with low calories 9. Learn how to season your healthy-yet bland foods
And always remember that failure is your friend. It is the raw material of success. Invite it in. Learn from it. And don’t let it leave until you pick its pocket. That’s a system.