How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big

date Jun 25, 2017
authors Scott Adams
reading time 16 mins

The Six Filters for Truth:

  1. Personal experience (Human perceptions are iffy.)
  2. Experience of people you know (Even more unreliable.)
  3. Experts (They work for money, not truth.)
  4. Scientific studies (Correlation is not causation.)
  5. Common sense (A good way to be mistaken with complete confidence.)
  6. Pattern recognition (Patterns, coincidence, and personal bias look alike.)


My main job for the past few decades has been creating Dilbert. Making comics is a process by which you strip out the unnecessary noise from a situation until all that is left is the absurd-yet-true core.

Simplicity of a single metrics

The central genius of capitalism is that all of its complexities, all of the differences across companies, all of the challenges, decisions, successes, and failures can be boiled down into one number: profits. That simplification allows capitalism to work.

Passion and success

Success caused more passion

In hindsight, it looks as if the projects I was most passionate about were also the ones that worked. But objectively, my passion level moved with my success. Success caused passion more than passion caused success.

Fail, but get out the good stuff

It’s a good place to be because failure is where success likes to hide in plain sight. Everything you want out of life is in that huge, bubbling vat of failure. The trick is to get the good stuff out.

Success keeps out lazy people

If success were easy, everyone would do it. It takes effort. That fact works to your advantage because it keeps lazy people out of the game. And don’t worry if you’re lazy too. Much of this book involves tricks for ramping up your energy without much effort.

Overcoming time

This was about the time I started to understand that timing is often the biggest component of success. And since timing is often hard to get right unless you are psychic, it makes sense to try different things until you get the timing right by luck.

Job seeking is a system

He said that every time he got a new job, he immediately started looking for a better one. For him, job seeking was not something one did when necessary. It was an ongoing process. This makes perfect sense if you do the math. Chances are the best job for you won’t become available at precisely the time you declare yourself ready.

Goals vs System

Tiny success with systems approach

All I’m suggesting is that thinking of goals and systems as very different concepts has power. Goal-oriented people exist in a state of continuous pre-success failure at best, and permanent failure at worst if things never work out. Systems people succeed every time they apply their systems, in the sense that they did what they intended to do.

Opt for feeling success

The goals people are fighting the feeling of discouragement at each turn. The systems people are feeling good every time they apply their system. That’s a big difference in terms of maintaining your personal energy in the right direction.

What is Goal? What is System?

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.

Try one after another until something hits!

I figured my competitive edge was creativity. I would try one thing after another until something creative struck a chord with the public. Then I would reproduce it like crazy. In the near term it would mean one failure after another. In the long term I was creating a situation that would allow luck to find me.

Picking a system for success

Successful people don’t wish for success; they decide to pursue it. And to pursue it effectively, they need a system. Success always has a price, but the reality is that the price is negotiable. If you pick the right system, the price will be a lot nearer what you’re willing to pay.

Selfish vs unselfish

Being selfish

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. If you neglect your health or your career, you slip into the second category—stupid—which is a short slide to becoming a burden on society.

Being unselfish makes you a burden

We’re programmed for unselfish behavior by society, our parents, and even our genes to some extent. The problem is that our obsession with generosity causes people to think in the short term. We skip exercise to spend an extra hour helping at home. We buy fast food to save time to help a coworker with a problem. At every turn, we cheat our own future to appear generous today.

Selfish first, then turning outwards

If you pursue your selfish objectives, and you do it well, someday your focus will turn outward. It’s an extraordinary feeling. I hope you can experience it.

Personal energy

How to maximize energy

Maximizing my personal energy means eating right, exercising, avoiding unnecessary stress, getting enough sleep, and all of the obvious steps. But it also means having something in my life that makes me excited to wake up.

Day dreaming

For years, the prospect of starting “my own thing” and leaving my cubicle behind gave me an enormous amount of energy.

For long term and bigger goals

Similarly, when you manage your personal energy, it’s not enough to maximize it in the short run or in one defined area. Ideally, you want to manage your personal energy for the long term and the big picture.

Matching mental state to task

One of the most important tricks for maximizing your productivity involves matching your mental state to the task. For example, when I first wake up, my brain is relaxed and creative.

Morning creative time

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.

Accomplishing a lot more

You might not think you’re an early-morning person. I didn’t think I was either. But once you get used to it, you might never want to go back. You can accomplish more by the time other people wake up than most people accomplish all day.

Bet on consistency more than one-off success

Consistency might be more important than the specific position you choose. If you train yourself to do deep concentration when sitting on the couch with your laptop, that might become a good place for you to work. Just don’t make the mistake of using the same sitting position for work that you use for relaxation.

Habit fields

it’s a good idea to dedicate certain sitting positions and certain work spaces to work and other spaces to relaxation or play. That makes your physical environment a sort of user interface for your brain, and it becomes a way to manipulate your energy levels and concentration. To change how you feel, and how you think, you can simply change where you are sitting.

Keeping tidy!

Tidiness is a personal preference, but it also has an impact on your energy. Every second you look at a messy room and think about fixing it is a distraction from your more important thoughts.

Improving Skills

Standing on the shoulders of giants before

Keep in mind that every time you wonder how to do something, a few hundred million people have probably wondered the same thing. And that usually means the information has already been packaged and simplified, and in some cases sold. But it’s usually free for the asking.

Quick research

I’m a big fan of flash research, the type you do in less than a minute using Google. You might think a topic is too complicated to master for your use, but you might learn otherwise in less than a minute if you bother to check.


In the center is your highest priority: you. If you ruin yourself, you won’t be able to work on any other priorities. So taking care of your own health is job one. The next ring—and your second-biggest priority—is economics. That includes your job, your investments, and even your house. You might wince at the fact that I put economics ahead of your family, your friends, and the rest of the world, but there’s a reason. If you don’t get your personal financial engine working right, you place a burden on everyone from your family to the country.

Health + Money

Once you are both healthy and financially sound, it’s time for the third ring: family, friends, and lovers. Good health and sufficient money are necessary for a base level of happiness, but you need to be right with your family, friends, and romantic partners to truly enjoy life.

Controlling your attitude

If you could control your attitude directly, as opposed to letting the environment dictate how you feel on any given day, it would be like a minor superpower. It turns out you have that superpower. You can control your attitude by manipulating your thoughts, your body, and your environment.

Don’t watch TV and news all day

This is the same reasoning for why you should avoid exposure to too much news of the depressing type and why it’s a good idea to avoid music, books, and movies that are downers.

Success has a spillover effect

I’ve come to believe that success at anything has a spillover effect on other things. You can take advantage of that effect by becoming good at things that require nothing but practice.

Success is a habit

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.

Childhood dream

One helpful rule of thumb for knowing where you might have a little extra talent is to consider what you were obsessively doing before you were ten years old. There’s a strong connection between what interests you and what you’re good at. People are naturally drawn to the things they feel comfortable doing, and comfort is a marker for talent.

Begin well!

The pattern I noticed was this: Things that will someday work out well start out well. Things that will never work start out bad and stay that way. What you rarely see is a stillborn failure that transmogrifies into a stellar success. Small successes can grow into big ones, but failures rarely grow into successes.

Find the X factor

Compared with today’s episodes, the first season of The Simpsons was an awful product. Again, the quality didn’t predict success. The better predictor is that The Simpsons was an immediate hit despite its surface quality. It had the x factor.

Average don’t mean anything

The executive explained that for television shows, the best predictor is not the average response. Averages don’t mean much for entertainment products. What you’re looking for is an unusually strong reaction from a subset of the public, even if the majority hates it.

Watch what people do, instead of what they say

detect the x factor is to watch what customers do about your idea or product, not what they say. People tend to say what they think you want to hear or what they think will cause the least pain. What people do is far more honest.

Be good at 2 complementary skills

To put the success formula into its simplest form: Good + Good > Excellent Success wise, you’re better off being good at two complementary skills than being excellent at one.


I’m a rich and famous cartoonist who doesn’t draw well. At social gatherings I’m usually not the funniest person in the room. My writing skills are good, not great. But what I have that most artists and cartoonists do not have is years of corporate business experience plus an MBA from Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.

Luck meets the prepared mind

Luck has a good chance of finding you if you become merely good in most of these areas. I’ll make a case for each one, but here’s the preview list.

  • Public speaking
  • Psychology
  • Business writing
  • Accounting
  • Design (the basics)
  • Conversation
  • Overcoming shyness
  • Second language
  • Golf
  • Proper grammar
  • Persuasion
  • Technology (hobby level)
  • Proper voice technique

Prepare / Reframe the audience

A building contractor knows that when customers see the house during the framing phase the rooms will look too small. Later, when the rooms are finished and furnished, they look larger. A smart builder warns the customers in advance that everything will look smaller in the framing phase. That way the customer doesn’t flip out. That’s psychology.

People don’t use reason

If your view of the world is that people use reason for their important decisions, you are setting yourself up for a life of frustration and confusion. You’ll find yourself continually debating people and never winning except in your own mind. Few things are as destructive and limiting as a worldview that assumes people are mostly rational.

Saying No

I’ve found that the most effective way to stop people from trying to persuade me is to say, “I’m not interested.” You should try it. Don’t offer a reason why you aren’t interested. No one can say why a thing holds interest for some and not for others. There’s no argument against a lack of interest. Repeat your claim of disinterest as often as it takes to end the conversation.


Affirmations are simply the practice of repeating to yourself what you want to achieve while imagining the outcome you want. You can write it, speak it, or just think it in sentence form. The typical form of an affirmation would be “I, Scott Adams, will become an astronaut.” The details of affirmations probably don’t matter much because the process is about improving your focus, not summoning magic.

Why something works need not to answered in order to use it

My point then and now is that you don’t need to know why something works to take advantage of it. A caveman could successfully use a phone, assuming someone taught him how, while continuing to believe its inner workings were based on magic. His faulty perceptions would have no impact on the usefulness of the phone, at least until it broke and he started praying to it.

Prepare strategy yourself

The success of Dilbert is mostly a story of luck. But I did make it easier for luck to find me, and I was thoroughly prepared when it did. Luck won’t give you a strategy or a system—you have to do that part yourself.

You are the average of 5 people you mix most with

There was no defined mechanism to explain how proximity to rich people would make him successful. The best he could offer was his observation that life had patterns and this was one of them: You become like the people around you.

Success happens in clusters

What are the odds that three people in one little corner of Pacific Bell could all become published authors? I understand that coincidences are normally just that, but they seem special because we don’t get to see all of the things that don’t happen.

Guard your schedule religiously

Step one in your search for happiness is to continually work toward having control of your schedule.

Bad moods?

I’m here to tell you that the primary culprit in your bad moods is a deficit in one of the big five: flexible schedule, imagination, sleep, diet, and exercise.

Routine gives freedom

I can’t recall the last time I woke up and looked at my options for what to do first. It’s always the same, at least for the first few hours of my day.

Happiness formula

Recapping the happiness formula: Eat right. Exercise. Get enough sleep. Imagine an incredible future (even if you don’t believe it). Work toward a flexible schedule. Do things you can steadily improve at. Help others (if you’ve already helped yourself). Reduce daily decisions to routine.

Willpower is like a muscle

Science has demonstrated that humans have a limited supply of willpower. If you use up your supply resisting one temptation, it limits your ability to resist others. Struggling to do anything has a steep price because you don’t want to use up your willpower and energy on something as unimportant as staying away from the candy drawer.