Scott Adams, How to Fail at Almost Anything and still win Big

I enjoyed Scott Adams’ life advice titbits. The author of Dilbert is a serial entrepreneur and a character with unconventional ways of thinking. I started to follow him after his debate with Sam Harris over Donald Trump’s 2016 election bid where he displayed a peculiar but engaging approach.

Adams approaches life through a systems lens, focusing on repeatedly implementing a system, reducing the importance of specific goals and outcomes. I think this idea can be taken too far. Goals can be a useful way to benchmark progress and success in a task, providing direction and focus. Without goals we can be lost in vague and vacuous drifting about, never executing on anything. But I certainly take his insights on board. I also think its NB to note that this is more of an approach to life, than an approach to each specific task or project.

Goals and outcomes can be deceiving because it’s difficult to know whether they are 100% correct in the first place. Even if we are successful, after a brief celebration we’re easily disappointed after crossing the finish line because suddenly we’ve lost the thing that gave us purpose and direction. Tunnel vision when targeting a goal can lead us to miss numerous other opportunities along the path. Worse still, it could send us journey to the North Pole when we thought we were going to Europe because we never looked up. Lastly, failure to achieve a goal doesn’t imply that the process was a failure. We could’ve gleaned numerous skills, relationships and memories from the experience.

This doesn’t mean that we should put goals in place, but systems and processes may be a better way to judge broader life success. A good system may allow us to maintain positivity, enthusiasm and happiness, which are more important than we give them credit.

Adams’ tries to optimise energy levels and prioritises activities that promote this outcome, even if they appear to distract from important short-term goals. Therefore, healthy eating, exercise and creative projects, like blog posts, are regularly prioritised. These projects keep us healthy, make us happy and give us energy when tackling the other important tasks. They also promote creativity, lateral thinking and unearth asymmetric returning opportunities. If we approach the important tasks with blinkers on, we often miss these externalities.

This really resonated with me as I’ve seen a similar relationship in my own work. Sometimes I need to get up and spend the morning writing a blog post. Initially I might feel guilty that I’m not prioritising my day job, but often the blog post energises me in such a way that I’m more productive in the afternoon and evening when executing the work tasks. The resulting expansive headspace enhances rest of my work. By contrast, if I slog through my day job and wait until the evening to conduct the blog post, I’m often unproductive during the day and too tired to execute at night.

While Adam’s prioritises energy levels, he argues that ideas and passion are over-rated. Good ideas have no value because the world already has too many of them. The market rewards execution, not ideas. This point really rings like a bell in my head! I’m already on board with the systems approach and learning from failures, but I need to execute more, rather than hope that good ideas and interest will achieve good outcomes by themselves. It’s not like I’m taking a major risk, but Adam’s clear emphasis on execution tipped me over the edge to start a monthly newsletter. I hope to continue executing, receive feedback, pivot towards new activities and execute more. I’m not entrepreneurial by nature, but surely this is the way to cultivate that skill, which is super NB, particularly in the increasingly uncertain world that we live in.

Pivoting is an important component of a good system. Quoting Adams, “If the first commercial version of your work excites no one to action, it’s time to move on to something different. Don’t be fooled by the opinions of friends and family. They’re all liars.” Execute, learn from failures, pivot and execute again!

If you look at most major success stories in business, sport, investing, politics, etc, a large component of the success was based on luck; a lucky break, a connection, a meeting, bring in the right place at the right time, etc. This doesn’t imply the individuals were unworthy, just that luck is an undeniable contributor towards success. We cannot control out luck, but we can follow strategies that increase our odds. Learning new skills is another powerful way in which to improve our optionality, allowing us to capitalise on opportunities when they present themselves.

Summary: useful processes focus on energy levels, healthy eating, sleep, creativity, positivity, execution, learning from failure and acquiring new skills. As I said, the concept could easily be overdone. There is certainly a place for aiming for the stars, pushing oneself towards lofty goals and leveraging off determination to get there. But a good system, a sound process and some degree of consistent application thereof could be incredibly valuable as we contend with the increasing volatile 2020’s.

This line stuck with me, “If you want success, figure out the price, then pay it. It sounds trivial and obvious, but if you unpack the idea it has extraordinary power.” I’m still unpacking that one…

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