How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big

How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big
Author: Scott Adams
Published: 12/30/2014
Scott Adams has likely failed at more things than anyone you’ve ever met or anyone you’ve even heard of. So how did he go from hapless office worker and serial failure to the creator of Dilbert, one of the world’s most famous syndicated comic strips, in just a few years?

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

Failure is a scary concept, and many people will do just about anything to avoid it. This is a bummer because many people don’t realize is that failure is an important part of success. Failing can teach us where we need to focus our efforts, what doesn’t work, and can show us where we need to change. If you’ve failed big, you’re in good company. Many, many people have also failed on their path to become insanely successful. In fact, the writer of How to Fail at Almost Anything and Still Win Big failed in multiple ways: he started a business that went under, got fired from a job, and failed to create a patent. Though he failed repeatedly, he refused to give up, and eventually experienced incredible success with his creation of the comic Dilbert. You can also move past failures and find meaningful success. Read on to learn how to avoid the pitfalls of failure, why humans are really just “soft robots”, and how to decide on a career path that really suits you.

Don’t set goals

Often when we want to achieve something, or the first step is to set a goal. What if you approached achievement differently? On a flight, the author began talking to a man he was seated next to. The man told him he had created a system where he just kept moving up in jobs: getting whatever new job became available and forgetting the old one. He didn’t have a goal. He had a system. And pretty soon, he was a CEO.

Setting goals is simple enough. The process of achieving them can be dismal. Especially if you don’t reach your goal. Let's say you want to run a mile in 6 minutes by the end of January, you go for a run at the end of January and you get just a little past 6 minutes. You’ll feel like a failure, and (worst of all) you won’t get to celebrate all of your hard work. Instead, you can create a system where you run every day. The reward will be constant, and there’s no goal to make you feel as though you failed. The best part? Your system can lead to the same results, with none of the bad feelings.

Goals can also be problematic because you don’t get to hit your target immediately, which means that there will be a lot of days of work with no results - making motivation difficult to maintain. Having a system means you’ll get to reap the reward every day that you do the behavior that’s required. The system will also create a habit: and once a habit is formed, it can be hard to break. Good habits can lead to great changes. Setting your sights on only one particular goal can also be limiting. If the author had only had one goal, he would have felt like such a failure if his goal had been to get a patent or keep a job. Feeling like a failure can prevent someone from continuing to try. The author easily could have quit if he viewed his setbacks as failures, then it's possible he would never meet his potential due to fear or dejection from failing. Scary, huh?

Have a variety of skills - not just one

Having a single, well-developed skill can be an asset in certain fields. However, if that skill or asset is no longer useful, or you have to adapt to company changes, you could be in trouble. That’s why having a variety of skills can be important for success. If you can perform slightly above average at a variety of things, you’ll stand out from the competition and have more of a chance of adapting to a changing workplace. As far as which skills are handy, consider the area where you are living. Speaking French would probably be more helpful in Canada than in California, for instance. It's also good to be aware of the general skill set that makes someone successful: talking to people, grammar, or technological skills are pretty important.

Oh, and while you’re developing your skillset you will likely experience some failure - which is great! Failure means that you have new chances to learn and to analyze what you did wrong to avoid making the same mistakes again. For instance, if you send in a patent and it gets rejected, you have an opportunity to rework your design and a better comprehension of what doesn’t work. When the author failed at developing computer games, got fired from Pacific Bell Company, and developed a burrito chain that also tanked, he used his failures to learn, and eventually, to shape his comic.

Figure out (on your own) what you should do

Many people have pressure put on them to find a certain job or to explore a specific type of career. Having that pressure can be hard! Deciding what you want to do is a process that ultimately needs to center around you. How do you do this? Think about your skill sets, and what work would put them to their best possible use.

The first thing to consider is your interests. What are you interested in? What do you read about, love learning about, and spend effort engaging with? Consider what you were interested in as a child: if you had a specific interest or hobby. If neither of these questions provides any clarity, think about the arena where you’ve been most comfortable taking risks. For instance, the author was always passionate about drawing comics, even though drawing comics had the potential to get him in trouble with his teachers.

Often, even if our interest or hobby is clear, it is important to realize that it still might take a while to find a job which fits our passion…. Or you might find that it's time to create a job that fits your passion. While deciding what to develop (whether it's your career or a product) focus on the “x-factor”, something that generates consumer buzz or excitement. Think of the first iPhone and how it generated a lot of buzzes. You’ll want to do the same.

Think of yourself as a soft robot

The author likes to think of himself as a “soft robot”, meaning that his inner workings aren’t a mystery, and he is inherently programmed to be a certain way. His strength is in working with this programming, instead of against it. This means he knows his natural rhythms and goes with them. If you’ve tried to eat when you’re full or tried to force yourself to concentrate when you’re exhausted, you understand how hard it can be to go against your natural rhythms. Figure out what your rhythms are: when are you most productive? When are you most creative? And use this awareness to generate a schedule that fits YOU. Think about location and energy. Where gives you energy? What activities give you energy? Once you have this figured out, adapt your schedule to fit your “soft programming”, so you can maximize your energy and accomplish more.

Don’t forget to maintain your health

Though it seems like success tends to come from the mind, there is a mind-body connection that should not be ignored. The author talks about his food-is-mood, meaning that the food you eat contributes significantly to the mood you are in. Think about how you feel after eating processed carbs: many people report eating them causes tiredness. However, getting rid of processed foods can be a huge bummer, which is why the author has a few suggestions for making it tolerable. One suggestion is additions! When cooking otherwise bland vegetables, you can add honey, lemon, dressings, soy sauce, cheese, and salt to improve the flavor.

Exercising can also be a drag, especially when it comes to scheduling time to work out. The author suggests joining an exercise group that meets weekly. If it happens every week, it will become a habit you’ll be less likely to give up. The author works out at 12:40 on Tuesdays, and keeps it was a consistent weekly habit. His wife joined a tennis team that meets weekly. You can do it too! Oh, and the author is all about rewarding yourself for achievements. So if you make that weekly workout, reward yourself a little.

Delusions aren’t such a bad thing

Before the author created Dilbert, he did a daily affirmation where he said to himself, “I, Scott Adams, will be a famous cartoonist”. Seems sort of delusional, right? The author knows there isn’t any scientific evidence to support that it works, but he does it anyway. Practices like this are ok to indulge in, as long as they aren’t doing any harm. Many performers keep “lucky” tokens or have certain lucky numbers. This delusional behavior can be useful, and if it's not hurting anyone, why not?

Another behavior that isn’t heavily rooted in science (but can be useful) is choosing who your friends are based on where you want to be. The author had a friend who wanted to be affluent, so his natural first step was moving to a neighborhood where people were affluent. Research has shown that people with overweight friends are more likely to gain weight, so why wouldn’t that be true about other qualities? The author talks about when he associated with a friend group who were all writers, and highlights the possibility that they influenced him into becoming a comic maker. This energy you get from others is called “associate energy”, and can be lethal or useful, depending on who you spend your time with.

If you view the world in terms of success and failure, you’re going to have a rough time. Failing isn’t an end-all, it's an opportunity for growth. Part of discovering where you want to be is failing and trying things out. Do not let fear of failure rob you from having these experiences, and have patience while you discover who you want to be. After all, it took the author 39 years to have the life experiences that allowed him to create Dilbert. The same can happen for you, if you work with systems instead of goals, surround yourself with people who have what you want, and follow the other suggestions from this book.


Failure is an important part of success. Failing can teach us where we need to focus our efforts, what doesn’t work, and can show us where we need to change. In fact, the writer of How to Fail at Almost Anything and Still Win Big failed in multiple ways, until he made it big with his comic, Dilbert. Tired of failing to meet your own goals? Read on to learn why setting goals is actually a waste of time, and how you can better get the results you want. Learn why it's important to make your career about you, and not about meeting other people’s expectations. Are delusions so bad? Read on to learn why the author doesn’t think so, and about how they can be an element of success.


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