How to fail at everything and still win big?


Do you sometimes regret that you didn’t take your parents’ advice and become a doctor or a lawyer or a banker? Are you tired of moving from job to job and never finding the right fit? Or maybe you’re filled with great ideas, but none of them have really come to anything?

Well, then you’ve got a thing or two to learn from Scott Adams, famous cartoonist and chronic failure. Before creating Dilbert, his hugely successful comic strip, Adams failed way more often than he succeeded: he got fired countless times, started a business that quickly went under and created a bunch of unsuccessful patents.

But he used all this unsuccess as material for his comics and, in the end, came out on top. If you take a page from his book “How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life”, you may find that your failures are merely the cobblestones on the path to success.

Walk into a bookstore, find the self-help section and flip open a book. Nine times out of ten, you’ll encounter page upon page of upbeat prose extolling the life-changing benefits of setting clear goals. But this praise is slightly misplaced, because goals, no matter how clear, have two problems: they’re future-oriented, and they’re overly specific.

Let’s start with the temporal trouble. All goals are situated in the future, but in order to achieve them, you must do work in the present. And when you begin working toward a goal, you usually won’t see immediate results. This can be frustrating and discouraging.

That’s why the author prefers systems, which are firmly grounded in the present. Unlike goals, systems are focused on the here and now and can be worked into your daily life, meaning that you can get daily pleasure from successfully operating them.

Adams learned about systems by chance. On a flight, he was once seated next to a man who explained how systems had transformed him from an employee to a CEO. His system was simple: keep moving from job to job, always looking for something better. Even though he didn’t have a clear end-goal in mind, this system allowed him to accumulate so much know-how that he ended up in the CEO’s chair.

The specificity of goals often creates an illusion of failure. People tend to feel that, if they don’t accomplish exactly what they set out to do, they haven’t accomplished anything. It’d be wiser to set up a system – say, to commit to exercising every day, whether for five minutes or half an hour. This way, you’ll establish a habit and have an easier time staying motivated.

This is what the author did as a young man. Whether writing or drawing or whatever it might have been, he’d create a system to produce and replicate material that people were receptive to, without a clear end-goal in mind.

And this was a clever move. Considering the number of jobs and projects he abandoned before creating his hit comic strip Dilbert, he probably would have felt like a total failure had he set his sights on one particular goal.

In the business world of the past, specialization was crucial. Today, however, possessing general knowledge about a variety of fields is often better than knowing everything about one.

Adams is a generalist if ever there was one. When he started Dilbert, he couldn’t write, draw or conduct business at a truly top-notch level. Rather, he was relatively good at each skill, a general competence that, he believes, led to his comic’s success.

Possessing a broad range of skills will help you adapt to the world’s constant changes, and it also comes with the added benefit of making you stand out from the competition.

Of course, some skills will be more useful than others, so it’s wise to take your location into account. But there are some skills that’ll come in handy no matter where you are, such as grammar, vocal techniques, technological fluency and the ability to maintain a lively conversation.

And here’s another great thing about trying to gain a range of skills: you’ll experience failure. Failing is often the last thing people want to do, but each failure offers an opportunity to learn. Let’s say you’re an aspiring author, and you’ve just published your debut novel. You’re eagerly awaiting notice from the critics, but when the reviews start to appear, they’re all horrible. Well, rather than despairing, keep the criticism in mind when writing your next novel. Let the failure help you.

The author failed countless times before creating Dilbert: he got fired from Pacific Bell phone company; his ideas for computer games and patents came to nothing; he created a burrito chain called Dilberito, and it tanked. But he didn’t sink into a slump of dejection. He took this experience – and the knowledge it provided him about business and marketing – and used it to shape his hit comic.

Most of us have experienced parental pressure to pursue a certain career. You should be a doctor! Or a lawyer! Or one of those super successful Silicon Valley tech people!

But here’s the thing: you’re the only one who should decide what you want to do. And if that seems like a tall order, you should engage in a little old-fashioned introspection and identify your special skills.

How will you know what these are? Well, what are you interested in? The things we like to do are usually the things we’re good at. For instance, if you’re comfortable around kids and like spending time with them, then your special skill might be working with children.

Or were you obsessed with a certain subject or hobby as a child? Such childhood infatuations often end up being one’s special skill. If you’re still uncertain, then consider the areas in life where you’ve always been comfortable taking risks. Maybe you’ve never had a problem speaking or performing in front of crowds; this might indicate that your special skill is entertainment.

As a child, Scott Adams loved to draw comics. He was obsessed with it and was always taking risks – for instance, drawing humorous comics in class which, if discovered by a teacher, would have gotten him in trouble.

But even if your special skill is as apparent as the author’s, you may not have an easy time selecting a career. Finding the right job requires sampling – that is, trying out different things until you find work that is both enjoyable and makes use of your special skills.

And who knows – for you, that might mean starting a business of your own and shunning the nine-to-five life. If that’s the case, and you do try to monetize your own product or idea, you should try to find its x-factor. This quality is hard to define exactly but it’s the part of your idea or product that generates consumer excitement, causing them to share it on social media or by word of mouth – and it’s the thing you should concentrate most on developing. For instance, despite being bulky and a bit confusing, the first iPhone clearly hit upon an x-factor: people couldn’t stop talking about it!

Have you ever tried to go for a run even though you felt drained and unmotivated? Or forced yourself to eat some food even though you weren’t hungry? If you’ve done something like this, it’s probably because, instead of following your personal bodily rhythms, you were adhering to a schedule established by someone else.

And this is never a good idea; it’s always best to heed your natural rhythms and energy levels. When do you feel most creative? When do you feel most energetic? Whether it’s at 8 a.m. or 8 p.m., figure out when you feel most able to engage in specific activities, be they mental, physical or utterly mundane. This will keep you energized and help you make the best of your time.

It’s also a good idea to pay attention to location. For instance, if you like to relax on the couch, you might want to avoid working there. Same goes for your bed, which should be reserved for sleeping. Don’t make peaceful locations into places of work.

Another good way to optimize your energy is to identify which tasks drain you and which you find energizing. The author likes to think of himself as a “soft robot,” with particular programming, as opposed to a spontaneous, mysterious being. If you think this way, you can take advantage of your own special programming, and hack the energy levels that are “softwired” into you.

Location and energy are crucial – but without good health, you’ll have trouble focusing, no matter what you do or where you do it. And that’s what we’ll discuss next.

Moods are infectious. Maybe you’ve had your day thrown off by the grumpiness of a coworker. Or perhaps the opposite has happened, and you’ve found yourself grinning after being smiled at by a stranger. This infectiousness is known as associate energy, so named because it refers to the energy you get – or are drained of – by associating with others.

Well, it’s really quite straightforward: you should associate with the people you want to be like. Prior to his writing Dilbert, he worked with three aspiring writers, and he now wonders whether he was influenced by the associate energy and if that’s why he got inspired to write his comic.

Maybe he’s being delusional, but that hardly matters, since delusions can be extremely useful.

If they’re not doing any harm, there’s no reason not to entertain certain delusions. Plenty of performers and athletes engage in harmless delusional behavior: they keep lucky coins in their pockets, for instance, or wear special socks.

Even the author indulges a delusion: he uses affirmations. It’s of little importance that there’s no scientific evidence to support the effectiveness of affirmations; they work for the author and keep him concentrated on his priorities.

Don’t believe it? Before he created Dilbert, he used to recite a specific affirmation every day: “I, Scott Adams, will be a famous cartoonist.”

The path to success isn’t necessarily straight and narrow. Instead of setting goals, you should use systems, take chances and explore many different options. This will give you the opportunity to learn from your failures and develop a broad range of skills. Once you figure out what your special skills are, manage your energy levels with a healthy diet and exercise, and surround yourself with creative, supportive people who inspire you.

Check out my related post: What’s the Da Vinci Curse all about? – Business Book Summary 1

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  1. Thanks for talking about Scott Adams. He is a genius (mostly :)) I rarely (actually don’t remember reading even one) read self-help books, I prefer to do my own thinking and find the idea of self-help books like “one medicine cures all”. But I do agree, experience has taught me that time-boxing of activities is quite helpful.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. It sounds like a good idea, to use systems instead of long term goals. But I think that you need at least short term goals in order to make the systems work. I will look for his book. By the way: are there any cartoons or illustrations in the book? Best regards, Dario 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. James Clear writes about habits and process alot, and this idea of a system is similar. I liked your post but it was a pretty long read. I tend to go on a bit too, and maybe a longer post is fine for those with the time. I just wanted to say thanks for all the kudos and sorry I’m not better at them myself. I hope you get something out of my blog though I can never tell if someone’s actually reading it or just liking it. Anyway, thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

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