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Scott Adams’ How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big 

Scott Adams’ spry prose in How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big is delightful and communicates an unflagging optimism.  As Adams says, it’s not easy to be funny in writing.  That shows that he respects the craft of writing, in addition to his oratory skills–despite some considerable vocal issues, which we’ll discuss later. 

Career Advice and Career Travails 

What role should passion play in one’s career ventures?  According to Adams, “Passion is Bullshit.”   He describes a sports enthusiast who wants to open a sports store.  As a commercial loan officer, after consulting with his manager, Adams learns: 

“That guy is a bad bet, passion and all.  He’s in business for the wrong reason” (13).  

Better to have a practical business plan, one that you’ve worked out on a spreadsheet and think can make a profit.  Furthermore, it’s misleading when successful people attribute their success to their passion.  Their success instead could be due to their talent (or luck).  Yet it would hardly be modest to attribute one’s success to one’s own skill, so instead, people tend to chalk it up to their “passion” because it just sounds better.  

Adams lists all his failed ventures to make a point: failure is the breeding ground for success.  He invented several video games in the eighties that never quite took off due to the rapidity of technological advances: by the time he was finished designing the game, the industry had evolved again. But the experience made him a veritable tech expert for that time.  There were two restaurants, which while initially successful, were then crowded out by chain restaurants opening near by.  While he had many failed ventures, all his endeavors show a supple mind with ingenious business ideas and inventions.  This mindset made Adams’ eventual success inevitable.  

There were two points in Adams’ corporate career in which he was explicitly denied a promotion for being a white male: 

“My boss’s boss’s boss called me into his office and explained that the order had come down to stop promoting white males.  Pacific Bell had a diversity problem, and it might take years to fix it, if it was ever fixed.  My bid for upper management at Pacific Bell was officially a failure.” (44)

Adams has recounted this several times on his YouTube show–that he was explicitly denied multiple promotions because he’s a White male.  He concludes that this just spurred him on to do other things, to become an entrepreneur.  For those in a similar situation, he likewise suggests going into business for yourself, before you hit what he calls “the diversity ceiling.”  

In the chapter “Deciding Versus Wanting,” Adams advises: 

“If you want success, figure out the price, then pay it.” (46)

That might mean waking up earlier, spending less time with your family, working more hours, or pursuing a college major which is “boring but lucrative.”  He further connects “deciding” to be successful in terms of his philosophy of having systems instead of goals.  A system is a process, a series of habits, that eventually lead to the accomplishment of goals.  Goals, on the other hand, leave one yearning in their pursuit, and empty once they are reached. 

Adams points out that while persistence has its place, it is misleading to think it is just that which leads to success.  Rather, your venture should generate some initial interest among at least some group of people.  This indicates potential: 

“Overcoming obstacles is normally an unavoidable part of the process.  But you also need to know when to quit.  Persistence is useful, but there’s no point in being an idiot about it” (88). 

When you’re trying to do something creative or entrepreneurial, it’s easy to believe your own hype or that affirmation of friends and family.  Instead, you have to listen to the market.  Even if your initial effort/ product/ work is flawed, if there is potential, at least some group of people will be excited about it.  Such was the case with the I-phone. Although it was maybe overpriced and flawed in its initial iteration, people were enthused, and that foreshadowed its ultimate success.

Adams also discusses what he calls a “talent stack” (a term he uses in his podcasts, though not in the book).   If you’re a good public speaker and good with technology, that is a combination that could spell success.  Notice that you don’t have to be great at either one, but merely to combine different skills that may have a real-world application. 

Harnessing Your Personal Energy 

“Personal energy” is a vital concept in Adams’ conception of success:  

“When I get my personal energy right, the quality of my work is better, and I can complete it faster” (51).  

Energy is affected by all manner of lifestyle choices, from how one chooses to sit, to the activities one chooses to do.  Adams explains that sitting with good posture, in a place that you associate with doing work, will give you more personal energy to get work done.  If lying on the couch signals to you relaxation, you’re probably not going to get your best work done on the couch.  Likewise, Adams expresses a preference for simplifying his “systems,” which frees up a lot of mental energy for other tasks.  Tidying up one’s workplace helps to establish a sense of clarity.  These are all effective strategies to become more productive and boost personal energy.   

One’s attitude is infinitely malleable, as is one’s happiness.  One trick is to avoid sad movies and music.  (Here I part with Adams because sadness is a valid form of artistic expression.)  Another is to daydream about something positive, a far off goal or fantasy.  Also, a big project with world-changing implications does wonders to improve one’s attitude.  If it doesn’t work out, that doesn’t matter really.  Then you can just move on to the next project. 

Adams views the body as something to be hacked, like a user interface.  His rational self needs to communicate with his emotional self to get the desired results; namely, more happiness and energy.  He recommends fake smiling, which in fact makes you more happy.  Putting on gym clothes will make you feel like working out.  Personally, I find that dressing professionally even when I’m not at work helps me get better intellectual work done.  

One’s view of reality is limited. Yes, there probably is an objective reality, Adams concedes.  Yet given our limited perception, why not imagine a reality that serves us, our positive attitude, and our personal energy?  

“I can’t see the future, so I have the option of imagining it in whatever way gives me the greatest utility” (72).  

Speech Problems  

Adams recalls his harrowing experience with what he terms “social laryngitis.”  In social situations, his speech was rendered incoherent, randomly dropping syllables.  But he could still talk when he was alone and to his dog.  His doctors deemed him “crazy” (that’s how Adams interpreted their diagnoses). The situation reaches a climax when Adams is supposed to speak before a crowd of 1,000 people: Will his speech fail him in this high pressure situation?  How Adams logically and systematically approaches the problem of the loss of his speech is symbolic of his entire approach to life; he is calm and objective in diagnosing and addressing the issue. 

Adams has bad luck with quirky neurological tics.  Besides his speaking problem, he suffered from dystonia, quirky and painful pinky spasms which nearly stopped him from cartooning.   With his career on the brink, he basically put mind over matter to think of a “hack” to fix it.  Clearly Adams’ mind is playing tricks on him, something not unheard of with intelligent, creative people.  The voice problem, he learns, is called “dysphonia,” and it is somewhat related to his pinky muscle spasms.  The treatment involved a brutal shot of botox into his vocal cords, which Adams ultimately chose to forgo, in order to seek a more permanent solution.  The dramatic surgery to fix the problem is described in the epilogue.  

Miscellaneous Life Hacks 

Business writing: keep it clear and concise.   Accounting: learn how to do it.  Design: certain templates help us understand how to design even if we are not particularly artistic.  Grammar: “fewer” not “lesser” when countable, “supposedly” not “supposebly.”  

Adams also has recommendations for overcoming shyness: act.  Act like a confident person, as though it were literally a role you’re playing. Before you know it, the shyness has gone.  Voice: affect an authoritative voice when appropriate.  Adams recounts modulating his voice into a deeper register when he was in the role of managing other people, and that others simply deferred to his presumption of authority once he played that role.  Life is infinitely hackable with a series of intentional interventions. 

It is no surprise that the professional comic strip writer values humor.  He warns against too many puns, which he feels tend to bother people who themselves do not enjoy puns.  If one is not disposed to being funny themselves, at least introduce humor and maybe play the straight man, letting someone else take the lead.  Adams explains: 

“Humor makes you more creative” (151). 

By connecting with a sense of randomness and leaving behind linear, rational modes of thinking, humor taps us into our creativity.  Adams has a finely tuned sense of humor and a fairly precise idea about what makes something funny.  

Adams credits affirmations for some of his success. He used the following: 

“I, Scott, will become rich.”

“I, Scott Adams, will be a famous cartoonist.” 

(p. 155- 157)

Later in his career, Adams added:  “I, Scott Adams, will be a number one best-selling author.”  This the veritable renaissance man also achieved.  Later, he applied affirmations to his mysterious vocal problem, which left him socially isolated, unable to communicate, and depressed.  

He hastens to add, though, that he is not suggesting a metaphysical mechanism in affirmations: 

“So let me be clear by stating that I don’t believe in magic” (154).  

With his confidence and systematic approach to life, Adams strikes one as a guru-type figure.  Yet his sense of humor brings him down to earth.  He is both highly skilled and gifted, but also humble and self-deprecating.  Many of his prescriptions are qualified with, “Don’t take my word for it..”  On his YouTube show, he often exhorts his audience, “Fact check me on that, can someone fact check me on that?”  

Adams’ comments on his love of routine resonated with me.  When we have too many options, we become unhappy because we cannot help but ponder upon passed over alternate opportunities.  Adams concludes:  

“That’s why I find great comfort in routine.” (178)

By streamlining one’s routine, no energy is wasted on deciding what to do.  It’s already laid out.  

How to Fail at Almost Everything even had me considering my diet, and laying off the carbs.  Adams’ diet journey included quitting diet coke in favor of the pleasures and healthfulness of coffee (hence his show, “Real Coffee with Scott Adams”).  Adams approaches life like a scientist, reviewing everything he eats and drinks and thinking how various inputs affect his “moist machine,” which is to say his body.  Exercising is a matter of creating a system, a convenient system with rewards and not punishments.  

Read this Book

Even as I reread this excellent book, I continued watching Adams’ daily YouTube show (and Rumble).  Far from overdosing on Scott Adams, in fact, it was enriching. Adams’ enthusiasm for life and success are infectious. His 2013 bestseller shows Adams to be an incisive and witty writer. It’s all part of his talent stack. 

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