A Theory on Success - How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big

How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life is the title of an excellent book about success (or lack thereof!) by Scott Adams, Dilbert creator and frequent writer on his personal blog. I’ve been an avid reader of his for years, and have read his non-Dilbert fiction books (God’s Debris and The Religion War) as well. What I enjoy most about Scott’s writing style is the concise manner he puts his points across. It’s an important skill to have when trying to make readers laugh in 3 comic panels, and he puts it to good use in his writing. The following is a brief overview of the key points I took away from his book.

Scott put together an excellent SlideShare presentation – “Passion is Overrated, and Goals are for Losers” which I would encourage you to check out before reading my thoughts below. Keep in mind that the slides are only an excerpt of a much larger variety of topics in the book.


I was often told that following my passion is the path to success. I have always acknowledged the joys of doing something you’re passionate about – but it also made me uneasy. For example, I loved video games but I was sure I couldn’t make a steady living out of it. Scott helped illuminate the passion fallacy. It is success that breeds passion, and not the other way round.

He instead proposes that personal energy is the fuel that leads to success. It makes simple sense when I think about it. There are times when I am super passionate about my work, but there are days when I would rather stay in bed. Instead of focusing on my lack of passion during tough times, I choose to focus on ways to increase my personal energy. This might involve taking a short weekend trip, or plan office social events, or the simplest – catch up on sleep. I find that simple actions can increase my own energy, which helps me perform better at work that leads to increased passion when I successfully complete it.

If personal energy is the fuel, what is the vehicle to success?


Scott asserts that goals are only useful for narrow purposes, whereas the world today is increasingly complex and fast-paced. This really resonated with my own experience. Back in university I would create goals every semester based on the SMART guideline, and the top one was always to score the best possible grade. Lo and behold – it worked and I scored A’s for all courses, bar one.

I was fully convinced about the power of goal statements, but I have not been able to replicate goal-setting in my working life. Goals worked in school because courses were known ahead of time and there were fixed evaluation standards. Real life is just a tad messier, I’m afraid! How does one create a Specific (the S in SMART) goal when the goalposts keep shifting?

Instead of goals, Scott recommends the use of systems, which are basically patterns of behaviours that inevitably lead to positive outcomes. Wait a minute – patterns of behaviours? That sounds like culture! Some examples of systems vs goals that Scott uses are:

  • Goal: Wanting to lose 10 pounds.
  • System: Learning how to eat right.

A goal makes the person feel like a failure until it is attained, after which the cycle restarts. It also requires willpower, which humans have a limited amount of. A system, on the other hand, empowers that person to make good food choices without needing willpower.

I interpret it as modifying our personal culture to create habits that will improve the odds of success. This is still a work in progress, but some of the things I have been doing are studying towards a Graduate Diploma in Strategic Management, and writing for this blog. I wouldn’t be able to tell you what my goals are for them. In other words, I have not given myself a success/failure dichotomy. Instead, they are part of my system to improve my own skills in critical thinking, business-domain knowledge, and writing. These little skills all help, I believe, to move me towards ‘success’. Even if I don’t know what success looks like yet!

A quote on success

I will end this post with a quote that Scott shared in the book. I agree with him that this simple sentence contains many pearls of wisdom:

If you want success, figure out the price, then pay it.

Go check the book out – the paperback is the cost of a lunch. A lunch will sustain you for 6 hours, but this book may sustain you for life.

787 Words

2016-04-17 04:52 +1200