Of all the books I’ve read this year to date, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life by Scott Adams has been the most surprising. Adams writes about productivity tips, failing, trying, and failing again (as well as professional and personal struggles). Simply put, it was great.
If I had to guess about who Scott Adams was before reading the book I would have said something like, “He was probably from an upper middle class family with access to a good private or very good public school and he got a state scholarship toward a school one tier below an Ivy. He graduated, worked on a handful of successful advertising campaigns, and then started Dilbert, which was popular from day one.”
No, nope, and not at all.
As the title says, Adams failed over and over again before finally breaking through. His overnight journey was a lifetime process. How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big offers a ton of lessons throughout, and here are seven things I learned from reading the book:
1. Have a system rather than goals
Systems will never fail so long as you stay in the system. With goals you are in a constant state of failure until you succeed – and then you have nothing left to pursue. This was the most obvious point in the book, leaving me wondering why I hadn’t thought of that in hte past.
“Goal-oriented people exist in a state of continuous pre-success failure at best, and permanent failure at worst if things never work out. Systems people succeed every time they apply their systems, in the sense that they did what they intended to do. The goals people are fighting the feeling of discouragement at each turn. The systems people are feeling good every time they apply their system. That’s a big difference in terms of maintaining your personal energy in the right direction.”
2. Affirmations work
Or do they?
A lot of ideas about life having energy and the world conspiring to help you have crossed my path lately – and I’m a believer – but only in the partial sense. Affirmations are like a mental or spiritual alarm clock; they help you switch from a sleep state to a focused one. If you’re going to be a famous cartoonist, you need to be thinking about the things you need to do to be a famous cartoonist. So what was Adams’s affirmation?
“I bought some art supplies, practiced drawing every morning before work, and wrote my affirmation fifteen times a day: ‘I, Scott Adams, will be a famous cartoonist.’”
3. Be selfish
When my children were little I tried to be unselfish in every possible way, and in doing so I put a strain on my relationships. Like a bridge that needed a break from the load, I should have been unloading my stress. Adams’s theory is that if you get yourself right, then you can do a lot of right things for the world.
“If you do selfishness right, you automatically become a net benefit to society. Successful people generally don’t burden the world.”
4. We can program our own changes
Throughout the book Adams calls humans, “moist robots” – capable of running programs and being reprogrammed. Adams shares a lot of his self-experimentation in the book and one of the things he tried was adjusting his diet.
“Imagine you’re an engineer who is trying to find the user interface for your moist robot body so you can make some useful adjustments. It’s as if you had one menu choice labeled ‘Make Sleepy’ and another labeled ‘Energize.’ You can choose ‘Make Sleepy’ simply by eating simple carbs.”
5. There are six filters for truth
Adams had a lot of middle and middling experience in the business world and credits himself with an advance bullshit detector. “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,” writes Adams. How then do we do it? Adams has six filters for truth. The more filters something can pass through, the more true it probably is.
The Six Filters for Truth are as follows:
- Personal experience (Human perceptions are iffy.)
- Experience of people you know (Even more unreliable.)
- Experts (They work for money, not truth.)
- Scientific studies (Correlation is not causation.)
- Common sense (A good way to be mistaken with complete confidence.)
- Pattern recognition (Patterns, coincidence, and personal bias look alike.)
Adams admits that each on their own has limited filtering ability, but combining more than one gets better refinement.
6. Being good at many things is great
His formula is “Good + Good = Excellent.” Adams admits he’s not the best drawer. He admist he’s not the funniest or most insightful cartoonist. But when you combine those things, he’s near the top.
“I’m a perfect example of the power of leveraging multiple mediocre skills. I’m a rich and famous cartoonist who doesn’t draw well . At social gatherings I’m usually not the funniest person in the room. My writing skills are good, not great. But what I have that most artists and cartoonists do not have is years of corporate business experience plus an MBA from Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.”
7. You gotta be in it to win it
The amount of persistence, patience, and time it took for Dilbert to succeed was staggering. I remember seeing Dilbert cartoons on our refrigerator as a kid, but my father is an engineer and loves that sort of thing. What happened behind the scenes took much longer. One break was that a representative for the syndication agency was married to an engineer who found the jokes hilarious and pushed her to push the comic more. Another break was a salesman for a major region who didn’t like the strip. He abruptly died and his replacement was immediately getting it into papers.
“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. In that environment, you can fail 99 percent of the time, while knowing success is guaranteed. All you need to do is stay in the game long enough.”
How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big is definitely one of the better books I’ve read this year. Full of solid stories, moving moments, and articulate advice, it’s not a book just for business people or creatives (or fans of Dilbert). It’s a book about the race of life and the hurdles you need to jump.
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