Monday, January 26, 2015

How to Fail at Almost Everything& Still Win Big: Kind of My Life Story by Scott Adams

Good advice delivered with humor
I have a weakness for self-help books. The sad truth is that I’ve known for a long time that my self needs help—of all kinds. I also like to learn and try out new ideas and ways of living. This reading history—this quest—for an improved self hasn’t cured my many flaws, but on the whole, I think I’d be the worse off for not having tried some of the ideas that I’ve encountered. Of course, the quality of the advice that you get from what we call self-help books varies immensely. I think it appropriate, albeit unusual, to consider Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca—even Socrates—as a part of the self-help literature. The Greeks thought of philosophy as a way of life, with concepts, reasoning, and knowledge as tools for leading a good life. And this is the ultimate aim of the self-help literature, isn’t it? Religious practices (as distinct from limiting religion to a set of beliefs) all more or less seek to regulate and thereby improve the self (or soul). (Buddhists also might object to the use of “the self”, as they belief it an illusion, but I think most would agree its a handy one and something—if not someone—benefits from the Noble Eightfold Path). More recently, one can cite Ben Franklin, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and William James as self-help gurus in the their literate and cultured ways. Just this morning I read excerpts and commentary upon Bertrand Russell’s The Conquest of Happiness, wherein the great mathematician and philosopher dispenses advice. 

Of course, a great deal of hokum and P.T. Barnum-like salesmanship pervades the field as well. From Norman Vincent Peale to Dale Carnegie to Napoleon Hill to Stephen Covey, we find a middle-brow sources of advice, often over-sold or simplistic, but good for nuggets of wisdom and for exercising the crap-detector. Some writers have helpful suggestions for improving morning rituals, getting more work done, and becoming a better conversation partner. Nassim Nicolas Taleb provides a good contemporary example of an intellectual who dispenses advice and opinions, not under the guise of self-help, but through thoughtful and entertaining essays that provide can provide benefits. One has to shop carefully, or you end up with a bunch of sale junk in your reading basket, but if you’re discerning, you can provide yourself (it’s who your giving a gift to, right?) some helpful mind-stuff. 

Scott Adams, author, cartoonist, advice-giver
This brings me to Scott Adams. Farnum Street (one my must-read blog list) posted an excerpt and commentary based on Adams’s combination autobiography and self-help book. In fact, the unique blend of personal story and insight into how to conduct a better life makes this a fun read. I’ve never read Dilbert cartoons regularly—Adams’s significant claim to fame—so I wouldn’t have read the book unless Farnum Street had included a blurb about how Adams denigrates “goals” and promotes “systems”. My inner Taoist had rebelled against goals in a way that I had never been able to quite understand. I’ve accomplished things in life, helped raise a family, succeeded in my profession, married well, and so on, without having been a goal-driven person. In fact, I had this inkling that goals were a rather abstract and perhaps in some way faulty way of going about things, and Adams clarified the issue for me. Adams writes:

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. If you achieve your goal, you celebrate and feel terrific, but only until you realize you just lost the thing that gave you purpose and direction. Your options are to feel empty and useless, perhaps enjoying the spoils of your success until they bore you, or set new goals and reenter the cycle of permanent presuccess failure.

Adams, Scott (2013-10-22). How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life (p. 32). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.
If you have your crap-detector on, you will think that any system as a system must have a goal or purpose, and that any goal must have a means or system for reaching the goal. Adams agrees. He recognizes the inherent relation of goals and systems, but he goes on the identify the fundamental differences in perspective between the two attitudes:

[T]hinking of goals and systems as very different concepts has power. Goal-oriented people exist in a state of continuous presuccess 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. 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. . . . 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.

Adams, Scott (2013-10-22). How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life (pp. 32-33). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.
This is the gem that convinced me to read the book. I think that Adams is on to something. If my goal is to lose 20 pounds, I can do it and then what? If I’m like most people, I’ll put it right back on. But if my system is to eat smartly and keep myself healthy and fit, then that’s a daily set of tasks that allow to act (with success) each day. However, lest you think he goes to far, much later in the book Adams writes:

Humans will always think in terms of goals. Our brains are wired that way. But goals make sense only if you also have a system that moves you in the right direction.

Adams, Scott (2013-10-22). How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life (p. 228). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.
Adams throughout the book proves himself a balanced and nuanced thinker, as well as displaying a fun sense of humor. 

As befits a cartoonist—who must get a message across in a small set of boxes with a few drawings and words—Adams praises the benefits of simplification, even at the expense of optimization. For him, the best way of doing things is usually the simplest because it is the most robust. (Although he doesn’t cite Nassim Taleb here, his reasoning tracks a key argument of Taleb about robustness and antifragility.) Adams goes on to list a number of different practices, acquisitions, and hacks to put yourself in the best way in this world. His list includes: 

  • Goals are for losers.
  • Your mind isn’t magic.
  • It’s a moist computer you can program.
  • The most important metric to track is your personal energy.
  • Every skill you acquire doubles your odds of success.
  • Happiness is health plus freedom.
  • Luck can be managed, sort of.
  • Conquer shyness by being a huge phony (in a good way).
  • Fitness is the lever that moves the world.
  • Simplicity transforms ordinary into amazing.
Adams, Scott (2013-10-22). How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life (p. 3). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

Adams details these fundamentals in the course of the book. As with the biggest points, his tips and practices usually make a lot of sense. On diet, I don’t agree completely—although he’s all over the simple carb problem. However, I’m not sure that any two people on planet Earth agree about diet (where personal bias and taste account for a great deal!). Also, if you follow through to the end the book you find that Adams believes in experimentation and observation: he’s in the pragmatic camp for dealing with the world. This attitude allowed him to locate a unique and crucial cure to a severe voice impairment that he developed. It also led him to recommend affirmations as a way of realizing goals (did he just use that word or was that me?). In other words, he’s dealt with some vexing and troubling issue,s as well as the day-to-day hassles and challenges of life that we’ve all encountered, and he’s enjoyed some success. He’s allowed observation and experience to overcome skepticism, as in his use of affirmations. I appreciate someone who is that open-minded. Sometimes things work in ways we just don’t understand or that don’t make sense to us. But working knowledge can—and should—come before theory. 

If you read one contemporary self-help book this year (sorry, he can’t go ahead of the Greeks, the Romans, or the earlier Americans) and you want some chuckles to go along with many helpful suggestions and insights, then I recommend this book. And, as one final gem, I’ll leave you with Adams’s own recap of his 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.
Adams, Scott (2013-10-22). How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life (pp. 178-179). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.