In my first post, I mentioned that one of my favorite books is How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big by Scott Adams. I went on to write about how I was following Adams’s recommendation for using systems, rather than goals, in order to bring about a more productive and prosperous 2019. One of the systems I’ve implemented is a regular reading habit, which led me to recently revisit How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big.
With a title like How to Fail at Everything and Still Win Big, it’s not surprising that Adams spends some time recounting a number of times he’s failed over the years. It is easy to get overwhelmed with thoughts like, “I could never do something like that,” when looking at the long list of accomplishments of someone whose success you wish to emulate. (I recently had this thought when listening to Walter Isaacson’s biography of Benjamin Franklin on audiobook.) It’s always refreshing to realize that even hugely successful people are still human at the end of the day. Adams is no different; he details approximately twenty failed business ventures in a hilarious, self-deprecating style.
Adams then goes on to list his “absolute favorite spectacular failure.” During his senior year of college, he drove two hours from campus for a job interview in Syracuse, New York. It was a winter day, with “a typical upstate New York half blizzard with ass-freezing temperatures.” Adams decided he didn’t need a jacket because he would be spending the majority of his time in his car or inside buildings. He wore typical college student attire, rather than a suit and tie, because his resume said he was a college student, “so why not dress like a college student?” After being kicked out of the building without even getting an interview, Adams began the trip back to campus.
On the way home, his car broke down. It was dark, and the temperature was well below freezing. He decided that his best bet was to start running down the highway in hopes of finding a nearby home. “As I struggled to stay upright and keep moving, I made myself a promise: If I lived, I would trade my piece-of-shit car for a one-way plane ticket to California and never see another f@$#!#& snowflake for the rest of my life.” Moments later, a car appeared, and the driver took Adams back to campus. He moved to California a few months later, adding, “It was the smartest decision I ever made.”
Goals Versus Systems
Adams next dives into goals versus systems, the concept I detailed in my first post. He then goes on to describe his own system regarding his entrepreneurial plan.
The idea was to create something that had value and–this next part is the key–I wanted the produce to be something that was easy to reproduce in unlimited quantities. I didn’t want to sell my time, at least no directly, because that model has an upward limit. And I didn’t want to build my own automobile factory, for example, because cars are not easy to reproduce. I didn’t want to do any sort of custom work, such as building homes, because each one requires the same amount of work. I wanted to create, invent, write, or otherwise concoct something widely desired that would be easy to reproduce.
The idea of creating something that is infinitely replicable and easy to sell (e.g., digital information) as a path to wealth has recently been popularized by books like The Millionaire Fastlane, but the fact that Adams arrived at that idea–apparently independently–as a young twenty-something in the late 1970s, highlights his genius.
After moving to California, Adams got a job as a bank teller in San Francisco. By his own admission, Adams was unfit for the job. “I figured I had two ways to leave my job. I could get fired or–and here’s the optimist emerging–I could get promoted.” Adams wrote a letter to a senior vice president, making several suggestions to improve the bank, and ended up getting promoted to the management training program. This pattern continued, with Adams stating that “I got hired for almost every job I pursued in the bank, and each was a promotion and a raise. It was starting to seem as If I might be able to interview my way to some sort of senior executive position in which no one would notice I was totally skill free.” Unfortunately (or fortunately, in hindsight), Adams’s banking career was cut short when the bank decided to stop promoting white males.
From there, Adams went to work for Pacific Bell and picked up an MBA from Berkeley, but he again hit a ceiling when Pacific Bell decided it, too, had a diversity problem and stopped promoting white males. “On the plus side, I no longer felt the need to give my employer my best efforts, or even to occasionally work long hours for no extra pay. It was an unwanted freedom, but freedom nonetheless. I took some time to work on my tennis game and I started thinking seriously about a new direction, ideally one that didn’t require me to have a boss.”
Adams took a shot at cartooning, something he had been interested in since he was a kid. In addition to honing his skills every morning before work, he began writing the following affirmation fifteen times a day: “I, Scott Adams, will be a famous cartoonist.” (More on this later.)
Energy and Success
In the chapters that follow, Adams lists several useful concepts for anyone who wants to be successful. These include:
- The importance of deciding versus wanting (“When you decide to be successful in a big way, it means you acknowledge the price and you’re willing to pay it.”)
- How being “selfish” can actually be a good thing (“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.” This reminds me a lot of the notion that, if your plane is going down, you put on your own oxygen mask first, before moving on to help others.)
- Why you need to have something in your life that makes you excited to wake up. (“For years, the prospect of starting ‘my own thing’ and leaving my cubic behind gave me an enormous amount of energy.”
- The importance of a tidy workspace (“Every second you look at a messy room and think about how fixing it is a distraction from your more important thoughts.”)
- Managing your attitude (“You can control your attitude by manipulating your thoughts, your body, and your environment.” I found Adams’s discussion about manipulating one’s thoughts, and how to do so, very interesting. I was not surprised to learn that he has spent a lot of time meditating, and “found a lot of benefits in it.”)
- The power of smiling (Adams says, “Smiling makes you feel better even if your smile is fake,” advises readers to hang out with friends who are naturally funny, and “avoid friends who are full-time downers.” The latter quote reminds me of one of Robert Greene’s 48 Laws of Power: Avoid the Unhappy and the Unlucky.)
- Success Spillover (“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.”)
- The power of optimism (After being diagnosed with an “incurable” disease, Adams decided he would be the first person in the world to be cured of the disease, rather than sulking in defeat.)
- Recognizing your talents and knowing when to quit (Adams encourages readers to “consider what you were obsessively doing before you were ten years old,” noting that “[t]hings that will someday work out well start out well.” However, don’t be discouraged if success takes a while: it took Dilbert some four years after its launch to finally take off.)
One of the most interesting parts of the book is Adams’s discussion of what he calls “talent stacks.” He sums up this idea as “Good + Good > Excellent.” Using himself as an example, he notes that he is only an OK artist, he is funny, but usually not the funniest person at social gatherings, and his writing skills “are good, not great.” He notes that his “combined medicore skills are worth far more than the sum of the parts,” and have allowed him to become a world-famous cartoonist.
Adams suggests that every skill you acquire “doubles” your odds of success. Obviously, there is no way to quantify it, but Adams writes, “When you accept without necessarily believing that each new skill doubles your odds of success, you effectively hack (trick) your brain to be more proactive in your pursuit of success.” The best way to increase one’s odds of success, writes Adams, “is to systematically become good, but not amazing, at the types of skills that work well together and are highly useful for just about any job.” Adams then goes into a lengthy explanation of some of the many skills he thinks fit in this category, and why.
Far and away my favorite part of the book is the one on affirmations. Adams describes affirmations as “simply the practice of repeating to yourself what you want to achieve while imagining the outcome you want.” An example he gives is, “I, Scott Adams, will become an astronaut.”
Adams takes great care to assure readers that he doesn’t believe in magic, but that using affirmations seemingly worked for him a number of times in his life, for reasons unknown. “You can make your own judgment about whether my story that follows is a case of coincidence, selective memory, simple luck, hard work, greater focus, tuning my mind, hidden talent, or whatever you like.”
First, he affirmed that he would be rich. This was followed by “two ridiculously lucky stock picks” that came to him out of nowhere, despite the fact that he had essentially no investing experience and did zero research. Next, he used affirmations to score a date with a girl he considered out of his league. Then, he used them to dramatically raise his GMAT score (and even got the exact score he had affirmed he would). His next affirmation was a bit loftier: “I, Scott Adams, will be a famous cartoonist.” Of course, we all know how that turned out.
How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big covers a number of additional topics that are outside the scope of this review, but I’ve hit the high points. Adams lays out a practical and entertaining roadmap for success. He never promises that it will come easy (Adams himself spent sixteen years in the corporate world before working on Dilbert full-time). However, if you aren’t afraid to fail early and often, all in the pursuit of learning new skills and rising to new challenges, you too can still win big.
You can buy the book here.