How to fail at almost everything and still win big

For some reason, 3 days after my post about dumb people and my inability to know who is actually dumb in a conversation because I could actually be dumb too and not know it, Scott Adams touched on the same topic in Dilbert.

credit: Dilbert

Instead of a 900+ words boring long post going in circles with poorly drawn stick figures, he just went with under 40 words of speech bubbles with well-known poorly drawn characters. And he probably got his point across at least as well as I did. We’re not on the same level, that’s for sure.

Anyway, that’s not today’s topic. It’s still about Scott though. I’m gonna talk about his book.

How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life

Today, I’m young. Very young. According to Google Analytics, I’m younger than 86% of my readers, and about the same age as most of that remaining 14%. If Scott’s advice is efficient, still works in the world 40+ years after he used it, and I listen to it and successfully follow it, then, statistically, I might eventually “win big”.I have plenty of time to put the plan into action, it’s not too late for me. Still, that sounds pretty unlikely. I’m pretty sure most people that read the book are older than me, so it’s even less likely for them to work, since a big factor is time, as you have to wait for luck to find you and in the meantime make sure you’re ready when it shows up. So what’s the big deal?

Scott is selling his product (the book) by selling another thing. Hope. Not so long ago, with the American Dream mentality, everyone figured out that they could become someone important by working hard enough. A lot of people still believe that today, but it’s not as simple. If you create a company into an existing market, most people feel like they will fail. Nobody expects to beat McDonalds or Burger King at selling fast-food, no matter how hard they work. Nobody thinks they can make an Operating System more popular than what Microsoft and Apple did. Nobody expects to beat Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc at social media. While all of those can be beaten, and probably will someday, every person’s chances of doing it is so close to zero that most won’t bother. As for creating something completely new, and be the first in that market, most people probably don’t have a good idea, or at least don’t think their idea is good enough.

In Scott’s book, he not only tells us that him, someone without any particular talent, managed to make it, but he also explains how. Most people, maybe in secret, resent, probably because of jealousy, rich people. If you succeed where I failed, you got lucky and you don’t deserve it. Everyone can be passionate, and everyone thinks they’re smart. The thing that not everyone expects to have is luck. Scott sells, because he tells us we can control luck. That’s like a second wind for every soul out there that had given up big money and success.

Now, does it work? Is the advice actually good? Nobody can know this before they try. Scott seems to think it is, but again, he tells us himself that it could just be selective memory and cognitive dissonance. He also has a huge conflict of interest, as he needs to sell the book.

The Amazon reviews mostly tell us that it works, but I noticed a pattern. They mostly say that the book is funny, interesting, and contains great advice. Basically, the buyers say that the advice sounds good, but they don’t back it up with results. Obviously, the book came out fairly recently, it wasn’t long enough for anyone to actually get results.

I volunteer to be a test subject on that matter. I would not say no to better success in life, and I happen to also think the advice sounded good. Since reading the book, I’ve been reading about a couple cognitive biases every day in order to fully understand them, I’ve made my own diet and fitness system that doesn’t require willpower, I’m looking for luck, and I’m trying to get a couple decent (but not incredible) skills in addition to what I actually need to do my job. Actually, this blog is part of the system, as I’m trying to get better at two things. First is writing. I’m not a native english speaker, but as a programmer, I will have to deal with English my whole life, so I might as well try to get better at understanding it and using it. Please never hesitate to tell me if my sentences are poorly written or full of mistakes. Second, I’m trying to learn to be interesting. Right now, I’m getting a small but steady stream of new readers on the blog, according to Google Analytics. I also have a HUGE bounce rate of 70%. It means that 70% of the new people who come to my site leave without visiting a second page. Right now, I’m not being interesting. there are a couple of users that seem to actually follow the blog, and comment pretty often, but I have no way to know if they like the content, or just the ideas because they can discuss them in the comments. Learning to be interesting is definitely a useful life skill.

I’m just gonna be a single data point on what is probably one of the slowest social experiments ever. This means that either way, I could be just a fluke. As the experiment will last decades, even if it somehow works and we get many more data points, and everything points to the advice being great, it’ll probably be too late for anyone reading this today to start. So I would strongly suggest anyone reading this also try to become one of those data points. The worst possible outcome is that your life turns out as expected. That doesn’t sound like a bad trade. You don’t even need to buy the book, since the advice can be easily summarized. Without reading the context, it might be harder to understand the advice, it’s definitely less entertaining, and it’s also way less convincing, and I would suggest not taking definite life advice from young inexperienced bloggers and cartoonists, but hey, that’s your call.

Here’s the big part of the advice:

  • Your job is not your job. Your job is to always be looking for a better job.
  • Willpower has a limit, don’t waste it on things like diet and exercise. Find a system that needs none, even if it’s 10x slower than the normal way.
  • Goals are for losers. Make a system that won’t make your life miserable, and stick to it as long as you don’t find a better system.
  • Be passionate, but don’t rely on your passion to make things work. Passion should be a consequence of success or a side-effect of the possibility of success, as it won’t be the cause of it either way.
  • Learn about cognitive biases and psychology. You can’t get rid of your biases, so you might as well acknowledge them and try to use them to your advantage.
  • Acknowledge the fact that you are not special yet. Nobody owes you anything until you actually do something to deserve it.
  • Acknowledge the fact that your brain, just like everything else in our universe, relies on physics to operate, and just like a computer, if you give the right inputs, you’ll get the right outputs. Learn to manipulate yourself into doing what you need or want.
  • Look for patterns. Pattern-recognition is literally the only thing humans still beat computers at, so make sure you’re good at it. Also, you can predict outcomes a lot easier when you’re aware of patterns. That includes figuring what certain types of food usually make you feel (bloated, sleepy, energized, etc) and using this to your advantage.
  • Manage your energy. Figure out when, during the average day, you have the most energy, maybe manipulate it a little (coffee?), and use it to your advantage. Don’t waste your high-efficiency periods doing nothing.
  • Hang out with people who are better than you in as many ways as possible, then don’t get depressed.
  • Don’t fight battles you can’t win, and don’t lose battles you can’t avoid.
  • Acknowledge that people are irrational idiots, and then acknowledge that you are part of them and probably not better.
  • Acknowledge that a successful life is not equal to being rich, but that having money usually beats having no money.
  • If you can change something, use it to your advantage. If you can’t change something, change yourself so that it still gives you something.
  • Learn when to give up on a failed project, but also never leave before robbing the failure of everything you can, to make the next one more likely to succeed. Never start a long-term project that you can’t learn anything from if it fails.

Some of those tips do not come word for word from the book, but I figured they were implied as I was reading the book. Basically, the list is what I learned from the book. I strongly encourage anyone who read it to add in the comments what they learned from the book that wasn’t on my list. If we’re gonna take advice from a cartoonist, we might as well take advice from random people on the internet. Also, I’ll be happy to explain in more details any tip that is unclear, or what a tip has to do with the book if it doesn’t feel obvious to you.

  • theFIREstarter

    This book is on my to read list, but thanks for the summary I found it very useful!
    Good to know I don’t need to read it that urgently as it sounds like a lot of the advice I’m already following. I think it sounds like good advice or at least it resonates with my personality and sounds logical to me.

    Adams may have got lucky with Dilbert and so time allowed him to work all this other stuff out, but there is no reason why you can’t follow the principles whilst working the 9-5 IMO

    Your English is excellent by the way, keep up the good work!

  • Sorry to nitpick, but re: “Nobody thinks they can make an Operating System more popular than what Microsoft and Apple did”, that may be true due to market saturation and vendor lock in, but it didn’t stop Linus Torvalds (for rather different reasons) writing Linux, and that’s done – and is still doing – pretty well!

    Also: “acknowledge”:-)

    As to Scott’s book, I’m afraid it was the first ever Scott Adams books that I didn’t really enjoy. His previous books have been funny and have had lots of Dilbert cartoons reprinted in them (generally to illustrate a serious point in a comic fashion). I guess I’m just a shallow Dilbert loving type. This book had almost no humour, almost no Dilbert cartoons, and a load of fluffy self-help garbage instead, all described within the “sample of one” that is Scott Adams and his particular circumstances. I’ve never read a self-help book, and frankly didn’t realise when I bought this one that it **was** a self-help book. However, there were some good points – systems rather than goals, for example – that did make sense to me. The idea of accumulating skills over time, and learning from whatever projects you take on, also makes sense.

    But: I wish you the best of luck with your “slow experiment”. Hope you learn a lot from it.

    • Kaito Kid

      As for linux, there are so many forks and different versions made by different people, and still the total usage doesn’t beat windows and Mac…
      Obviously, you can still do pretty well without beating the leading brands though, so I guess I could have worded that better.

      Sorry for acknowledge, I actually posted this by mistake before the post was ready. There are no pictures, I didn’t spell-check it and didn’t make the final edits. Oh well, I guess the point stays the same.

      • re: Linux, yes I agree there are many different distributions, but actually most of them build on different version of the mainline Linux kernel. Some of them add a few kernel patches but that’s a froth on a cup of coffee – it’s still 99% the same underneath. Granted that the total usage of Linux is small compared to Windows and Mac – especially on desktops. But note Linux also runs on loads of servers, routers, phones and tablets (via Android), and tiny computers like the Raspberry Pi. None of that entrepreneurial activity would have been possible without one guy going “it can’t be that hard, can it?”. As George Bernard Shaw said “all progress depends on the unreasonable man”.

        Did you say that English isn’t your native language? if so then don’t worry about the acknowledge typo, your English is impressively good.

        On the substance of your argument, good luck with your personal slow experiment. I do think my “sample of one” point is important though: Scott tells us (naturally) about his unique life, his opportunities, his skills, his achievements, and the techniques that he used. But how certain is it that those techniques are general beyond him? Another reading of his life might be: he bummed around for years in a succession of dead end jobs, then accidentally became a cartoonist and accidentally struck it big with Dilbert. With his continuing financial success with Dilbert, not requiring him to work a conventional 9-5 job, everything he’s done since then is caused by the combination of financial security and free time.

        • Kaito Kid

          I was born and Raised in the French part of Canada, so English is only my second language.
          I can’t find it right now, but I once saw a speech (by Scott, again), that said something along those lines:
          Imagine that life is riding a fast horse in a very dense forest at night (no moon) while the rain and wind are very strong and the ground has bumps and holes everywhere. You have a bow and one single arrow. There is a target somewhere in the foods, and you have to shoot it before your horse gets out of the forest. Everyone gets only one try. If you miss, you might still live a nice life, but if you actually hit the center of the target, you become rich and famous. Everyone will have their own “great” strategy to hit it, that they thought about for maybe minutes, maybe years. Everyone will try their own strategy. Those who fail will blame the bad conditions and bad luck, while those who succeed will think it’s definitely all thanks to their perfect strategy. Then, those who succeeded will go write a book about how their strategy was perfect and would work for everyone if they just follow the advice.

          That seems like exactly your point, but it also tells me that Scott knows perfectly well that being a sample of one, there’s no way to know if it’s due to pure luck or if his methods actually work. That’s also why I’m trying it before riding the horse into the woods, since waiting after is pointless. I figured there’s nothing to lose by reading about the strategies first.

          • Wow, impressive English language skills, Kid. As to Scott’s “life in the forest” speech, I don’t remember that particularly, but trusting that you remember the salient points, I agree with you that he’s a smart and self-aware guy generally, and more specifically – yes, it sounds like he knew about the “sample of one” problem. I’m not sure why he added the “one shot” point – except possibly to emphasize the luck factor, That sounds like classic “it’s worse than that” (whether or not “he’s dead, Jim”:-)). I’d certainly argue – and Scott does in the “Win Big” book we’re discussing – that life’s a series of opportunities, chances, good luck, bad luck etc, not a one shot deal.

            Actually, it sounds like he’s then following his own advice from the last sentence of your semi-quote: having succeeded (by accident, in his terms), he’s gone off and written a book about how his strategy was perfect and would work for everyone:-) is it Masterful Persuasion and 3D cleverness if inside his book he contradicts his earlier self, perhaps deliberately?

            I quite agree that you’ve nothing to loose by reading Scott’s book, and anything else you want to, before “riding the horse through the woods”. Just remember to shoot if a werewolf attacks you:-) [guess what type of film I watched last night:-)]