How To Fail At Almost Everything and Still Win Big

By Scott Adams

Rating: 10/10

Best line #1: Goals are for losers.

Best line #2: My optimism is like an old cat that likes to disappear for days, but I always expect it to return.

Here is one of the most important lines I’ve ever read in nonfiction: goals are for losers. It’s a beautiful four-word sentence that immediately switched my thinking while also affirming everything my experience had been telling me. Goals are for losers. What could that possibly mean?

For one thing, goals lead to a strange sense of letdown once they’re achieved. Wednesday’s post talked about “post achievement depression.” The best description of this effect is found in Scott Adams’ book:

If you achieve your goal, you celebrate and feel terrific, but only until you realize you just lost the thing that gave you purpose and direction.

Goals are like matches. They can start a fire. And that’s great but the fire burns out eventually and you have to find another match.  It’s akin to the standard motivational cycle. You hype yourself up to do something, get it done, and then have to hype yourself up again. And what about those times that you don’t achieve your goals? I’ve had this happen to me quite often, practically every day, and it always led to anger and frustration before reading this book.

There must be some other way.

Adams argues for a systems approach.

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.

When I first read this, I had already become a creature of strange habit. I had a system of sorts. And I had already stumbled on the idea of emergence so I understood that my habits were what drove a lot of my ability. But the habits were a little clunky and I was still enamored with the chase (I must achieve this thing) rather than the daily practice and the idea of multiple pursuits.

So Adams’ idea seemed like a great connection between the findings of Cal Newport’s book “Deep Work” and Ericsson’s “Peak”. This was especially true with the view towards energy.

Energy

Adams argues that energy is the most vital resource for anyone’s success. I think we’ve all experienced this. When your energy is high, every possibility opens up. The trick is to understand that this energy isn’t the result of your emotions; it’s the other way around. And energy, like all such resources, can be cultivated.

Here’s where we get to the boring, obvious stuff; the stuff you already know and maybe want to ignore. Adams writes below:

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.

When I read this the first time, I felt a little guilt and some mild irritation. I paid fifteen bucks to read this? But the next line hit me pretty hard.

I’m giving you permission to take care of yourself first, so you can do a better job of being generous in the long run.

The argument here is that the lack of self-care will only create a lack of energy and thus a real problem for your mental and physical state. Seems obvious but it’s the phrase at the beginning that gets me: “I’m giving you permission ….” That’s powerful because we career-minded ambitious types never do this for ourselves; I think we actually wait for someone to tell us to do this and Adams knows it. Furthermore, he knows that self-care helps us care for others in the long run. Hence the word “generous” in his quote. 

Some people would say this is where one needs a hobby. Trouble is, I don’t really have hobbies. I don’t think I understand hobbies. Hence the lack of self-care.

What Adams basically argues is that hobby or not, there are things you can do that will create and sustain the right amount of energy which then leads to better states of mind and body. So you aren’t a weekend fisherman? Don’t belong to a quilting circle? Big deal. The real advice stands regardless: exercise, eat right, pursue career, spend time with friends and family.

These things need to be done every day. These are the foundations of the system. By doing them every day, you eliminate the strain of choice. These things steadily become force of habit. And as Jerry Seinfeld would say, doing them every day helps you make sure you don’t break the chain

The idea of doing these things every day fixed a real problem. Prior to this point, I had suffered serious inconsistency issues with fitness. I would tell myself, “Work out three days a week. Start with that modest goal. Then go to four days.”

Sounds good but that day in-between is a killer. You take one day off and then, somehow, you take two days off. Then three. 

Now you’re straying from the goal and feeling frustrated. Frustration saps energy. Not working out drains energy. Next thing you know, you’re so tired you don’t work out at all.

A lot of research has demonstrated that exercise actually creates energy. So what’s the takeaway?

Do it every day. If you planned on working out three times a week, thirty minutes each time, it is far better to stretch those 90 minutes over seven days a week. Better to work out 13 minutes every day than 30 minutes 3 days a week. This is the systems approach.

Consider this, too: there is no goal here. Most times, people work out because they want to lose weight or run a 5k. And again, forgive the repetition, but what happens once the 5k is complete? The weight is lost? We sense what is known as the regression to the mean.1 Whatever happens to be your average day, your “mean” set of routines, is what you return to. The 5k was just a short-lived intervention; a brief affair.

By the way, this doesn’t really have anything to do with fitness. Exercise is simply a metaphor. Apply this to the workplace and the logic stands. For example, we often want to be responsive with customer service. But we don’t just go in spurts of super-responsiveness (e.g., I’ll answer every call on the first ring this week). Instead, we make a standard, such as responding to all voicemails within 24 hours, and we hold to it every day.

So the system is Adams’ way of saying we must elevate our average day with a mindful, regular practice. We must make it better than the stuff of the Beatles lyric:

Woke up, fell out of bed

Dragged a comb across my head

Found my way downstairs and drank a cup

And looking up I noticed I was late

Found my coat and grabbed my hat

Made the bus in seconds flat

Made my way upstairs and had a smoke

And everybody spoke and I went into a dream

Compare this with Adams’ description of his mornings when working a full-time job:

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.

A fellow member of the 4:00 A.M. club. No wonder I love this book.

Simplicity vs Optimization

So systems. Right. Got it. But I ran into trouble with this idea right away. At work and at home. In both places, I started implementing routines and structures in the best fashion of LEAN practice, developing KPIs and feedback loops like some finely-tuned machine. I had a whole framework going and I had never been more miserable! It was terrible!

Terrible because Adams touches on something I knew but wanted to ignore: complexity makes things more difficult. It gets to a great dichotomy that he sets up later in the book, the difference between simplifiers and optimizers.  

Some people are what I call simplifiers and some are optimizers. A simplifier will prefer the easy way to accomplish a task, while knowing that some amount of extra effort might have produced a better outcome. An optimizer looks for the very best solution even if the extra complexity increases the odds of unexpected problems.

To my great shame and humiliation, I am a consummate optimizer despite the fact I want to be a simplifier. But when you mix this knowledge with what we’ve seen from Gary Klein’s book, Sources of Power, it starts to make sense. We are optimizers in every realm where we lack expertise. We build elaborate plans and systems in these places. An eager beginner to weight-lifting comes with an exercise log, pre-made sequence of lifts, quarterly benchmarks, and a post-workout protein shake. A long-time lifter just shows up at the gym.

So to split a hair in Adams’ framework, the reality is that we all have a bit of simplifier and a bit of optimizer within us. Since I was new to building a daily system, my first few iterations (from two years ago) were much too elaborate. Here’s an example below:

  1. 2 hours writing a day
  2. 1 hour reading
  3. 30 minutes exercise a day
  4. 10 minutes meditation
  5. 10 minutes stretching
  6. 30 grams of sugar or less per day
  7. Complete food journal every day

Exhausting, right? Over time, I redefined a number of these, combined a few, and eliminated #6 and #7 altogether. They weren’t needed once my tastes changed. (There’s a great amount of content in this book about how to mentally realign your food cravings and the techniques certainly worked for me.)

Today, the system is much more simple, lightweight, and strategic. True to the Pareto Principle, my daily practice underscores an 80/20 balance of what matters most. Roughly 20% of my day is committed to fulfilling the daily habits that, in turn, dictate the quality of the remaining 80% of the day.

I really dislike making this about me but it’s the best way to explain the concept.

That said, I’ve been doing this in the workplace for a while now. I’m still tinkering with the approach but it’s true to the tenets we find in the book review for Essentialism. Future posts and book reviews will show how this is carried out. For those who are familiar, a lot of it translates to practices found in Agile and Scrum techniques. 

Compounding Interests

Monday’s post was about the ratchet, the self-propelling virtuous/vicious cycles that take on a momentum of their own. The systems approach is all about creating ratchets with skill development. As Adams explains below:

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.

Not only can it be habit-forming, it can also be opportunity-forming. Another great line from the book: Where there is a tolerance for risk, there is often talent.

Talent leads to initial skill development. This creates the initial ratchet and, over time, it creates a higher comfort level with risk. Or better yet, I think it leads to a deeper understanding of risk. 

But that’s not to say that you aren’t talented unless you step out and do something stupid. The risk, I think, is more of the dance with failure that occupies the Tuesday and Thursday posts about right-sizing our “shot attempts” and achieving “net positive failure”. Failure, if you remember, can be managed. Risk can be managed, too. 

But what really helps solidify the connection between talent and risk is to see “talent” as the basis for skill development. New skills create better risk profiles. Adams writes it this way: “Every skill you acquire doubles your odds of success.”

This is absolutely true. To put a finer point on it, Adams offers this: Good + Good > Excellent.

In my case, I have some skill in graphic design. I have skill in writing. I have skill in data analysis. I have skill in presentation. None of these skills are “excellent” but, in combination, they create something unique and anything unique is inherently more valuable.

But this isn’t about me. You have a combination of good skills, too. The more you mix those skills together (and acquire new skills on top of them), the more you can do something that others can’t. It’s not that you and I are “jacks of all trades, masters of none”. That’s a dumb construct. The truth is that we can be “jacks of all trades” and thus be a master of delivering something useful from that mix. Mastery isn’t solely defined by the pre-constructed subjects you encounter in school. It can be defined in far more eloquent, reliable ways. But we’ll save that for another book review when we get to Robert Greene.

Conclusion: Seek Emergent Success

I’ll close with two final quotes from the book and encourage you to please grab a copy. There is far more to learn than what I can  share here. The first quote is an offshoot of the old line from Seneca about how “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”

From Adams, it reads like this: Success isn’t magic; it’s generally the product of picking a good system and following it until luck finds you.

Second is a line that goes to the concept introduced in Thursday’s post about directional correctness:  

Happiness has more to do with where you’re heading than where you are.

Whatever the context, work or personal, home or office, if you define and rely on a proper system that maintains a high level of energy, that energy will help you generate more skill, more knowledge, more ability. These skills, knowledge, and abilities will help you see risk differently. This will give you more opportunities. Altogether, those new opportunities will be pursuits built on top of a foundation (i.e., system) that always ensures you are moving in the right direction.

Heading in the right direction creates a feeling of rightness and progress and this, in turn, ensures net positive traction. It’s the ratchet.

And while it might seem like an act of faith, the reality is that tending to such things will undoubtedly lead to some sort of success. So ignore the goal-oriented stuff. Avoid the post achievement depression. A single track for a single goal is not resilient. Building a system, an infrastructure, that can support multiple goals, multiple initiatives, at the same time, is far better.

Designing your system isn’t easy. I’ve been doing it for two years now. There have been multiple drafts, believe me. But once it starts moving, you can’t stop it. And they can’t stop you.

So much more to learn. Buy the book on Amazon.

Mental Models

  • Goals are for losers
  • 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.
  • Consistency is the bedrock of the scientific method.
  • Success causes passion more than passion causes success.
  • Failure is a resource that can be managed.
  • If you want success, figure out the price, then pay it.
  • If the cost of failure is high, simple tasks are the best because they are easier to manage and control.
  • For the truly bad moods, exercise, nutrition, sleep, and time are the smart buttons to push.
  • Where there is a tolerance for risk, there is often talent.
  • Every Skill You Acquire Doubles Your Odds of Success
  • Good + Good > Excellent
  • Everything you learn becomes a shortcut for understanding something else.
  • A thank-you is like a treat for a human.
  • If you learn to control your ego, you can pick strategies that scare off the people who fear embarrassment, thus allowing you to compete against a smaller field.