10 Things I Learned from Scott Adams

Mike Fishbein
Mar 11, 2016 · 7 min read

“Eat right, exercise, think positively, learn as much as possible, and stay out of jail, and good things can happen.”


Scott Adams wrote that Donald Trump is a “Clown Genius” and will become our next president. He’s better known for being the creator of the Dilbert cartoons. He also wrote one of the best books I’ve ever read. It’s called “How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big.

He shares some extremely counterintuitive advice on how to manage your time, plan your career, and achieve success and happiness. Here are 10 things I learned from it:

1. Goals < Systems

If you’ve read just about any personal development book or blog post, you’ve read about the importance of goal setting. Scott doesn’t believe in setting goals, he believes in establishing systems.

According to Scott, “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.”

Publishing one great blog post per week that gets at least 10k views is a goal. But writing every day is a system.

If I write every day, then I will publish high quality blog posts over the long-term.

Goals have binary outcomes, but systems help you grow stronger over time.

2. Systems based on priorities

“Priorities are the things you need to get right so the things you love can thrive.”

Systems are made up of inputs, or priorities. Inputs into his system include maximizing personal energy, learning, and giving yourself chances to succeed.

Those inputs break down further into objectives like running experiments, thinking positively, eating well, exercising, and gaining small victories. The rest of this post dives into each of these.

3. Passion < Success

To Scott, passion is not a priority. It makes a lot of sense when you break it down…

While successful people tend to be passionate, they’re not necessarily successful because they were passionate. In fact, they are probably passionate because they were successful.

Correlation does not equal causation when it comes to success. Success causes passion, according to Scott.

It’s sexy to say passion is what leads to success. It sounds easier to have to find passion than it does to grind at your desk for 90 hours a week for years at a time. And in fact, most successful people do probably have passion for what they do. But Scott believes that passion precedes success.

Therefore, Scott advises learning new skills, trying new ventures, and gaining small victories along the way.

4. Success < Energy

“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.”

Becoming good at something gives you realistic understanding of how hard it is to get good and achieve success at something. This keeps you from quitting early.

In addition, you experience what winning feels like, so you are more motivated to achieve it again.

But Scott does more than learn new things and achieve small wins to increase his energy levels. As this post will cover, Scott maintains a healthy diet, exercises, and matches his activities to his mental states.

5. Time Management < Energy Management

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

People are obsessed with managing their time. Do a quick search on Amazon and you’ll find tons of books on the topic. People think if they can somehow manage their time better that they’ll be able to do everything they want in life.

Scott’s approach focuses on increasing his personal energy levels (an input), so that he can achieve a greater outcome (an output).

In essence: instead of dividing a piece of pie, make the pie larger.

While going to the gym everyday for 45 minutes is 45 minutes less time to work, I know that exercising increases my daily energy levels, and makes the rest of my days more productive, ultimately helping me achieve more over time.

6. Matching mental state to activity

A critical aspect of managing personal energy, according to Scott, is matching tasks to energy levels.

I’m most productive in the morning from about 7 to 11am. I do most of my writing in the morning before 9am.

I’m least focused from about 1:30pm to 3pm. I schedule most of my meetings during this window, or go to the gym. Then I get a second wind.

Scott also stresses the importance of flexibility. Create a lifestyle that enables you to maximize the benefits of your high energy states and minimize the harm of your low energy states. In other words, work your schedule so that you’re able to take advantages of the times when you get into a flow state. If you have flexibility with regards to when you work, you can schedule your work according to the ups and downs of your energy levels, as opposed to the clock.

I’m writing this post at 7:30pm — far outside of my most commonly productive writing hours. Fortunately I’ve created a lifestyle for myself that’s enabled me to take advantage.

7. Success < Learning

“I tried a lot of different ventures, stayed optimistic, put in the energy, prepared myself by learning as much as I could, and stayed in the game long enough for luck to find me.”

Using the analogy of a slot machine that doesn’t require you to put money is, but is guaranteed to pay off over time, Scott optimistically believes success in life requires “pulling the handle” many times.

By creating a system that enables him to try lots of ventures and learn and prove from each experience, he is able to increase his chances of getting lucky.

Last week I wrote an article about politics, something I’ve never publicly written about. I did this primarily because I felt compelled to share my thoughts because I think it’s a critical time for our country. But I also did it in small part because later in life I’d like to write more about political philosophy and I wanted to learn about the market for it.

8. Increase your experiences to increase your successes

“People who seem to have good luck are often people who have a system that allows luck to find them.”

Instead of having a goal of building startup idea x, Scott would say to create a system that enables you to try lots of startup ideas. In his book, he recounts his numerous (and in some cases spectacular) failures before creating Dilbert.

One of my themes for this year is focus on delivering the best work I’m capable of day in and day out. I know that if I do this, success will follow (eventually).

9. Optimizing < Simplifying

In theory, improvements are great.

However, Scott points out that improvements also introduce new opportunities for things to go wrong.

While I maintain a pretty healthy diet, I do eat a few things that are not great for me (i.e. cheese) because it prevents me from having cheat meals. My small indulgences enable me to reduce much larger indulgences, and ultimately stick to my diet for years instead of constantly falling off the wagon. While optimizing my diet by removing these delicious snacks would surely improve my health, it would also open the door for colossal failure.

Even though in the short-term it would be better not to have the cheese, over the long run, the cheese adds up to less harm than more frequent cheat meals would (which is inevitable when your diet contains zero indulgences).

A 90% chance of good is better than a 2% chance of great and a 98% chance of bad.

Optimizing is stress inducing. Simplifying boosts your personal energy.

Simplification frees up energy and time so that everything else is that much easier over the long-term. I try to think of outcomes over the course of my entire life, not just the month or the day.

10. Reduce daily decision making

“The only way to succeed in the long run is by using a system that bypasses your need for willpower.”

Relying entirely on willpower is not a sustainable system. There are too many variables at play. Instead, Scott suggests setting up conditions for yourself that make it easier for you to succeed.

Instead of optimizing my willpower, I simplify the amount that I need to use it. For example, I don’t keep crappy food in my apartment. This keeps my willpower from even being tested, and makes it much simpler for me to eat good food.

Zero Infinity

by Mike Fishbein

Mike Fishbein

Written by

Writer, marketer, deadlifter. More at www.mfishbein.com.

Zero Infinity

by Mike Fishbein

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