SSS #44: How To Fail at Almost Everything & Still Win Big


I've written about my thoughts on systems vs. goals before.

I'd like to share my notes from the book that convinced me "losers set goals while winners create systems."

The notes are a little long, but I think there's value in reading it all.

If you want the TL;DR, scroll all the way to the bottom. There's a "Summary" section that wraps up most of it.

Losers Set Goals. Winners Create Systems.

When it comes to any big or complicated question, humility is the only sensible point of view.

Still, we mortals need to navigate our world as if we understood it. The alternative— acting randomly— would be absurd.

To minimize the feeling of absurdity in your life, I recommend using a specific system for sorting truth from fiction.

The system will be useful for reading this book, and it could be even more important in your life.

The system recognizes that there are at least six common ways to sort truth from fiction, and interestingly, each one is a complete train wreck.

The Six Filters for Truth:

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

In our messy, flawed lives, the nearest we can get to truth is consistency.

Consistency is the bedrock of the scientific method. Scientists creep up on the truth by performing controlled experiments and attempting to observe consistent results.

For example, if every time you eat popcorn, one hour later you fart so hard that it inflates your socks, you can reasonably assume popcorn makes you gassy.

It’s not science, but it’s still an entirely useful pattern. Consistency is the best marker of truth that we have, imperfect though it may be.

Think about how you begin the process of tackling any new and complicated problem. There’s one step you will always do first if it’s available to you: You’ll ask a smart friend how he or she tackled the same problem. A smart friend can save you loads of time and effort.

Passion moves with success. Success causes passion more than passion causes success

You already know that when your energy is right you perform better at everything you do, including school, work, sports, and even your personal life. Energy is good. Passion is bullshit.

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.

If success were easy, everyone would do it. It takes effort. It works to your advantage because it keeps lazy people out of the game.

Good ideas have no value because the world already has too many of them. The market rewards execution, not ideas.

My failures taught me to seek opportunities in which I had an advantage. Timing is often the biggest component of success.

Always be looking for a better deal. The better deal has its own schedule.

Your job is not your job; your job is to find a better job. This was my first exposure to the idea that one should have a system instead of a goal. The system was to continually look for better options.

Throughout my career I’ve had my antennae up, looking for examples of people who use systems as opposed to goals. In most cases, as far as I can tell, the people who use systems do better. The systems-driven people have found a way to look at the familiar in new and more useful ways.

To put it bluntly, goals are for losers. That’s literally true most of the time. For example, if your goal is to lose ten pounds, you will spend every moment until you reach the goal—if you reach it at all—feeling as if you were short of your goal.

In other words, goal-oriented people exist in a state of nearly continuous failure that they hope will be temporary. That feeling wears on you. In time, it becomes heavy and uncomfortable. It might even drive you out of the game.

The system-versus-goals model can be applied to most human endeavors.

  • In the world of dieting, losing twenty pounds is a goal, but eating right is a system.
  • In the exercise realm, running a marathon in under four hours is a goal, but exercising daily is a system.
  • In business, making a million dollars is a goal, but being a serial entrepreneur is a 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.

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever heard goes something like this: 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.

There are three kinds of people in the world:

  1. Selfish
  2. Stupid
  3. Burden on others.

That’s the entire list.

Your best option is to be selfish, because being stupid or a burden on society won’t help anyone.

Society hopes you will handle your selfishness with some grace and compassion. If you do selfishness right, you automatically become a net benefit to society.

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.

One of the more interesting surprises for me, when I started making more money than I would ever spend, is that it automatically changed my priorities.

I could afford any car I wanted, but suddenly I didn’t care so much about my possessions beyond the utility they provided.

Once all of my personal needs were met, my thoughts automatically turned to how I could make the world a better place.

I didn’t plan the transformation. It wasn’t something I thought about and decided to do. It just happened on its own.

Apparently, humans are wired to take care of their own needs first, then family, tribe, country, and the world, roughly in that order.

The way I approach the problem of multiple priorities is by focusing on just one main metric: my energy.

I make choices that maximize my personal energy because that makes it easier to manage all of the other priorities.

Maximizing my personal energy means eating right, exercising, avoiding unnecessary stress, getting enough sleep, and all of the obvious steps.

It also means having something in my life that makes me excited to wake up.

Matching Mental State To Activity

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. After lunch, I'm more willing to do administrative tasks like email or managing my calendar.

Simplifiers vs. Optimizers

Some people are what I call simplifiers and some are optimizers.

A simplifier will prefer the easy way to accomplish a task, while knowing that some amount of extra effort might have produced a better outcome.

An optimizer looks for the very best solution even if the extra complexity increases the odds of unexpected problems.

Sitting Position

Your brain takes some of its cues from what your body is doing.

My experience is that when I sit in a position I associate with relaxation, such as slumping on the couch, my brain will start the lazy relaxation subroutine.

But if I sit with good posture, both feet on the floor, it seems that my body signals to my brain that it’s time to concentrate on work.


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.

Don’t Be an Asshole

One of the best ways to pollute the energy in a group situation is by being a total asshole.

Asshole behaviors:

  • Changing the subject to him/ herself
  • Dominating conversation
  • Bragging
  • Cheating, lying
  • Disagreeing with any suggestion, no matter how trivial
  • Using honesty as a justification for cruelty
  • Withholding simple favors out of some warped sense of social justice
  • Abandoning the rules of civil behavior, such as saying hello or making eye contact


I put personal 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.

Manage Your Attitude

Smiling makes you feel better even if your smile is fake. This is the clearest example of how your brain has a user interface.

When you’re in a bad mood, the physical act of forcing a smile may trigger the feel-good chemistry in your brain that is associated with happiness.

Success Premium. 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.

Seekers Find More Stuff Than The People Who Sit & Wait

The smartest system for discerning your best path to success involves trying lots of different things—sampling, if you will.

For entrepreneurial ventures it might mean quickly bailing out if things don’t come together quickly.

That approach might conflict with the advice you’ve heard all your life—that sticking with something, no matter the obstacles, is important to success.

Indeed, most successful people had to chew through a wall at some point. 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.

What you rarely see is a stillborn failure that transforms into a stellar success. Small successes can grow into big ones, but failures rarely grow into successes.

The Success Formula

The first filter in deciding where to spend your time is an honest assessment of your ability to practice.

If you’re not a natural “practicer,” don’t waste time pursuing a strategy that requires it.

You know you won’t be a concert pianist or a point guard in the NBA.

Every Skill You Acquire Doubles Your Odds of Success.

Notice I didn’t say anything about the level of proficiency you need to achieve for each skill. I didn’t mention anything about excellence or being world-class.

The idea is that you can raise your market value by being merely good—not extraordinary—at more than one skill. Good + Good > Excellent

The Knowledge Formula

The more you know, the more you can know. If your experience of reading the news is that it’s always boring, you’re doing it wrong.

The simple entry point for developing a news-reading habit is that you read only the topics that interest you, no matter how trivial they might be.

The Math of Success

A list of the skills in which every adult should gain a working knowledge:

  • Public speaking - Take a Dale Carnegie Course
  • Psychology - Familiarize yourself with Cognitive Biases
  • Business writing - Get to the point, leave out the noise. Use Active, not Passive voice.
  • Accounting - Understand the basics (Assets - Liabilities = Owner’s Equity & Revenue - Expense = Net Income)
  • Design (the basics) - L Design, Negative Space, Other Basic Concepts
  • Conversation - Ask questions, don’t complain, talk too much, or get stuck on a topic.
  • Overcoming shyness - Imagine you are acting instead of interacting.
  • Second language
  • Golf
  • Proper grammar
  • Persuasion - Read books on persuasion until ideas start to seem recycled
  • Technology (hobby level) - Internet, Cloud, iPhone,
  • Proper voice technique - Difference in Voice between fun, serious, confident, etc.

Pattern Recognition for Successful People

Important patterns for success:

  1. Lack of fear of embarrassment - allows you to be proactive
  2. Education - Engineers have a near 0% unemployment rate
  3. Exercise - Good health is a baseline requirement for success.

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.

Association Programming

Given our human impulse to pick up the habits and energy of others, you can use that knowledge to literally program your brain the way you want.

Simply find the people who most represent what you would like to become and spend as much time with them as you can without trespassing, kidnapping, or stalking.

Their good habits and good energy will rub off on you.


Step one in your search for happiness is to continually work toward having control of your schedule. In other words, being able to do what you want, when you want.

Step two is heading in the right direction: up.

Step three is imagining a spectacular future.

Finally, remember happiness is not a mystery of the mind.

Happiness is the natural state for most people whenever they feel healthy, have flexible schedules, and expect the future to be good.

When you feel unhappy, you blame your mood on whatever your environment is serving up to you. It’s easy to blame your environment because you know you can interpret almost anything as bad news or potential bad news.

Just add pessimism and cynicism to any observation and you can manufacture bad news out of thin air.

I’m here to tell you that the primary culprit in your bad moods is a deficit in one of the big five:

  1. Flexible schedule
  2. Imagination
  3. Sleep
  4. Diet
  5. Exercise.

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.


Eat as much as you want, of anything you want. The trick is to change what you want.

Food-is-mood. The person who eats right won’t be bothered as much by the little bumps in life’s road.

Most people look at food in terms of good vs. bad or carbs vs. protein or low fat vs. high calorie.

Instead, you need to notice which foods make you sleepy, cranky, groggy, gain weight, bloat, etc.

Then notice which foods make you focused, energized. Do more of what works and eliminate what doesn’t. Assess each food one by one.

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.

Use attractive alternatives to break bad habits. For example, breaking the simple-carb addiction. Trying to resist a piece of bread is difficult.

When you use “eat as much of anything else” as the alternative, it becomes much easier.

Healthy Eating

The Simple, No-Willpower Diet System

  1. Pay attention to your energy level after eating certain foods. Find your pattern.
  2. Remove unhealthy, energy-draining food from your home.
  3. Stock up on convenient healthy food (e.g., apples, nuts, bananas) and let laziness be your copilot in eating right.
  4. Stop eating foods that create feelings of addiction: white rice, white potatoes, desserts, white bread, fried foods.
  5. Eat as much healthy food as you want, whenever you want.
  6. Get enough sleep, because tiredness creates the illusion of hunger.
  7. If your hunger is caused by tiredness, try healthy foods with fat, such as nuts, avocados, protein bars, and cheese, to suppress the hungry feeling.
  8. If you’re eating for social reasons only, choose the healthiest options with low calories.
  9. Learn how to season your healthy-yet-bland foods.


  1. Be Active Every Day - as time goes on, your exercise will naturally get longer or more intense.
  2. Find Motivation To Exercise - Never exercise so much in one day you can’t the next.
  3. Reward - Healthy snacks, down-time,


The model for success I described here looks roughly like this

Focus on your diet first and get that right so you have enough energy to want to exercise.

Exercise will further improve your energy, and that in turn will make you more productive, more creative, more positive, more socially desirable, and more able to handle life’s little bumps.

Once you optimize your personal energy, all you need for success is luck. You can’t directly control luck, but you can move from strategies with bad odds to strategies with good odds.

For example, learning multiple skills makes your odds of success dramatically higher than learning one skill.

If you learn to control your ego, you can pick strategies that scare off the people who fear embarrassment, thus allowing you to compete against a smaller field.

And if you stay in the game long enough, luck has a better chance of finding you.

Avoid career traps such as pursuing jobs that require you to sell your limited supply of time while preparing you for nothing better.

Happiness is the only useful goal in life.

Some skills are more important than others.

You should acquire as many of those key skills as possible, including public speaking, business writing, a working understanding of the psychology of persuasion, an understanding of basic technology concepts, social skills, proper voice technique, good grammar, and basic accounting.

Develop a habit of simplifying. Learn how to make small talk with strangers, and learn how to avoid being an asshole.

Most important, understand that goals are for losers and systems are for winners. People who seem to have good luck are often the people who have a system that allows luck to find them.

Always remember that failure is your friend. It is the raw material of success. Invite it in. Learn from it. And don’t let it leave until you pick its pocket.

To support Scott Adams, you can buy How To Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big by clicking here.


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