Scott Adams is the creator of the comic strip Dilbert and also the author of the book, How to fail at almost everything and still win big.
Welcome, Scott Adams!
Thanks for having me.
The first topic we want to talk about is the idea of goals versus systems. Could you briefly tell us why you feel that systems are superior to goals?
Goals are fine for simple situations. If you have a clear goal and it’s not going to change, such as entering a contest, then it’s fine. But in the real world, if you’re looking at something like, let’s say your career arc for the next 25 years, and you’re trying to make plans for that – arguably the most important planning you’ll ever do – that situation is completely unpredictable.
The industry is changing. Technology is changing. You’re changing. The economy is changing. Everything is changing. So picking a specific goal in that environment – unless your goal is something that’s going to happen in 24 hours – you’re really just kind of guessing whether that’s even a goal that you still want, by the time that your future arrives. So you’ve got that problem.
You also have the problem that goals are designed to make you focus. That’s great if your goal is the one and only goal that will ever be good or ever will satisfy you. But in the real world – and especially in the world of startups – you often start down one road, and then notice something, because your filters are wide and you’re looking out for opportunities. Then you say, I think I’ll take this other path. I wasn’t planning on this, but this is way better now, and now that I’m smarter, and now that the atmosphere is changed.
If you have a goal, you put the blinders on, and just say, I’m staying on this path. I’ve got a goal. So you close yourself from noticing things. You close yourself off from chance. You close yourself off from iterating to a new and better product. So you have to be careful about what’s a situation that makes sense to the goal.
Usually that’s just simple and near-term. And what makes more sense for a system, which is generally the process where you’re improving your value in a general way. You’re becoming smarter. You’re networking better. Perhaps you’re learning to take rejection better. Whatever it is. The system should be moving you toward a place of lower odds of success to higher odds of success, without over-specifying the specific way you should become successful.
You mention in your book that people should schedule their lives around your energy levels. Can you expand on that?
You really want to pick out – “what’s my key thing, what’s the important thing I need to focus on”. My observation was that if you focus on your personal energy that will usually get you to the right place, even if it’s not obvious why that would be so.
I’ll give you some examples. Usually in success books they’ll tell you that you have to do something in the business world, or you know, kind of a more task oriented approach. I backed up a little bit in my approach and said, before you do anything, you should be healthy so that your energy level is high. So if you’re working on stuff like your health and your fitness, your diet – those things are going to have broad implications for everything that you consider important for success. Whether its getting a better job – because we know that attractive people get more job offers, they get higher pay.
What can make you attractive more reliably, than simply being healthy? It turns out that’s probably the best marker for attractiveness we have. So if you’re doing the things that will increase your personal energy, you’re probably not in the worst job in the world that’s stressing you out and making you feel horrible every night. You’re probably not eating junk food. You’re probably not losing sleep. So if you know all of the things that keep your personal energy high, you’re just in a better place in terms of the odds of getting a good result.
That’s so true. I think that an extension of this idea is this concept that you raised about how to get lucky. I thought that the idea of creating your own luck was very interesting idea. Do you think you can run through some of these examples of people, yourself included, who have created their own luck, in this sense?
So when I talk about creating luck, I don’t mean that luck can be directly managed, of course, because chance is just chance in the universe, no matter the way you play with that. But if you compare a person who tries 10 things that are all within the realm of something that that individual should be successful at, the chances of him randomly having something that works, is better than somebody who tried one thing that wasn’t working, and they kept knocking their head against a wall on that one thing that wasn’t working.
So the first thing is, you know, are you in a place, are you in a situation, in which luck could find you or are you hiding so well that it could never find you, even if it tried?
For example, I grew up in a very small town in upstate New York. Had I stayed there after college, my odds would be much lower simply because there are less opportunities swirling around. So the first thing I did was move to the Bay area, which turned out to be a good move. So that’s one way that you can improve your odds. Obviously going to school improves your odds.
But one of my favorite ways and probably the most underrated ways to do it – and the most accessible too it’s a thing that everybody can do – is layering average skills together. And what I mean by that, and I use myself as an example, is if you looked at my job as the Dilbert cartoonist – no one would ever accuse me of being a good artist, yet that seems to be half of my job.
So the level of my talent didn’t even hold me back, because I layered several average skills together. So I never really studied writing in school, but I write for a living. And I’m pretty good. I can get a point across. I can be succinct. And I can draw well enough that I can be a cartoonist, but I think I was widely considered the worst artist of all cartoonists.
Combining my average art talents, my average writing, my fairly average sense of humor, and my average business skills, what you get is a very unique product. There are very few people who have THAT combination. So while all of my talents are quite average, what I managed to do is find a place where my odds of success were quite high. Because, as it turns out, my competition in the cartooning world- let me give you just some numbers for example – I think a typical cartoon syndicate, the people who give you your big break and then sell you to newspapers if you make it that far – those people are looking at perhaps, 2,000 submissions a year. And they might pick two or three to work with.
So those look like your odds. But those really are not your odds, because, if you were to look into those 2,000 people, you would find that 1,500 of them are simply artists who can’t write. Another 500 of them are writers who can’t draw even as well as I can, which is pretty bad. And probably of that group there is another third that well, whatever is left, there’s a lot of people who don’t really have a sense of what their topic is, or how to sell something with a little bit of a marketing sense or a business sense.
So I’m not really competing against people who have anything like my mix of average talents. And that allows me to be exceptional in the field, because the field is relatively weak and probably doesn’t know it, because there are people who will say, I draw really well, why aren’t I a famous cartoonist? And the reason is that they don’t have enough average skills.
You’ve previously said that every skill you acquire doubles your odds of success. What are some of the specific skill sets that you think are worth acquiring that would act as these sorts of multipliers for the odds of potential success?
My best example of this, is if you add the ability to do public speaking on top of whatever else you already know how to do, chances are you’re the first person somebody is going to think of when they need a boss for your department. Because the ability to speak in front of people is so valuable that that just makes you automatically seem like a leader.
Now it turns out that people imagine that they could not be good public speakers. But I took the Dale Carnegie course, that’s just one of a lot of different courses you could take. I found it was the best, because they just work on your confidence. And I saw them turn about 25 people in my class who were all incredibly bad speakers at the beginning, and every one of them was way above average at the end. And it’s just because the process works that well.
Now if you don’t know you can learn to be a public speaker, that’s a problem. But I just told you, right? Now you think you’re bad. You think you can’t do it. Turns out it is actually quite easy. As skills go, I would put it at the very top of the easiest things you could possibly learn with the most potential. So, in my case I also, you know, make a lot of money as a public speaker. And I can only do that because I took that course.
So other skills that are good to combine are – I’m really big on graphic design, these days. But you don’t have to go to school to be a graphic designer. It turns out, that there are about 12 things that you can learn about design that would make you a pretty good designer. In fact, it would make you better than all the people you know, who don’t know those 12 things. It couldn’t make you a professional designer. But remember, we’re trying to layer on average skills to make you unique. Everything you do from designing a website, to sending out some form of communication, is some kind of design – there’s almost always a visual element to the stuff now.
Likewise, technology – you should understand what the basics of putting together a website, and what’s the cloud, and how do you do A/B testing, and- I would put it this way. If you’re in any kind of a business world that has any kind of a web presence, and you heard the phrase A/B testing, and you said, what’s that? You’re in real trouble. Because that’s sort of like a baseline, minimum knowledge that you should have to operate in the world now. So you should at least know kind of what that is. But it doesn’t mean you have to be able to program and code your own website. But you should know the concepts.
Oh likewise, learning another language – you know, if you’re in California for example, knowing Spanish would be a gigantic advantage. You would go right to the head of the class in any department that deals with the public.
And psychology is another big one. I’ve been kind of an “armchair student” of psychology for most of my life. And I’m always amazed when I find some new way that somebody is effectively influencing me without my knowledge. Or sometimes I find a way to influence others that I didn’t know was so simple.
I realized that if you don’t know kind of the basic parts of psychology that tell you how to influence people, and how they’re influencing you, which sometimes can be more important – it’s kind of like being in a stick fight and you don’t have a stick, because every interaction in life, whether it’s your social life or your business life, you’re really a psychology experiment. And if you’re going into that, and the other person knows more than you do, or the worst case scenario, both of you don’t know anything about psychology – you’re really in trouble, because you just don’t know why things are happening the way they are, or how to fix them.
So that’s my short list of things that just everybody should know, you know, speaking, second language, psychology, technology, a little bit about design. If I were to go increase my adult education, those are the ways that just have almost certain payoffs, I would say.
In regards to psychology, one point you kept raising in the book that really struck me is that you kept describing humans as “moist robots”. And I think that your point was essentially that our brains are really just programming that we can change with consistent effort. You also brought up hypnosis, which I thought was really interesting. Do you want to get into that for a little bit?
Yeah. I learned to become a hypnotist in my 20’s, because that, too, was one of those skills that I thought I could layer on top of anything to make me more valuable. And sure enough, I’m an average-skilled hypnotist, but wow! If there’s one skill that I would want everybody to do, it would be that one. I didn’t mention it in my list of things to layer on, because it takes a lot more explanation.
But the short explanation is, if you looked at the field of psychology, it’s this giant thing that would take you a long time to master, and understand why people do what they do. In hypnosis, the approach, if I could oversimplify, is to simply say we don’t know why people do this stuff, but we have noticed that when you do “X” you often get result “Y”. The why of it – the magic that’s happening in somebody’s brain, we’re not terribly concerned with. We just say if you put this button, for most people, you get this result. So if you push these buttons, you’re going to get this end result.
So that’s when I started thinking about humans as moist robots, because I realized that there is an interface. There’s a user set of controls. You can push those buttons, either on other people or on yourself. And they do give a fairly predictable result. Everybody’s a little different. And your buttons are a little different. But there are a lot of things in common. And that’s what made me think of humans that way.
So the brain is like a little computer, and I found it helpful to dispense with the magical thinking of things “like I have free will, and a soul, and there’s some kind of magic that’s causing me to choose what I choose.”
The truth is you choose what looks attractive at the moment. That’s all you do. So if you wanted somebody to choose something differently, you would give them the better, more attractive choice.
You wouldn’t deal with the magical ideas of free will. That’s kind of where that came from. And I find that’s useful for describing success, because for example, and this is something you can try, I recommend people just try it. Lots of times you feel like you’re in a bad mood, or you’re depressed, or you’ve lost hope, or you’re not as energetic as you’d like to be. And you imagine that there’s something about just the way you think, you know, the magic of your mind, that’s causing you to be that way.
But in fact, you’re just a moist robot. And what you really need is to get more sleep, have something to eat, maybe relax for a little bit, go for a run. That’s what you needed. You needed to reprogram your chemistry. You needed to tweak it. And then you know exactly how to do that. I mean there’s no mystery to the fact that if you’re in a bad mood, getting some exercise, and eating some healthy food, maybe getting a little sleep – probably going to help. You know? So, and then suddenly your mood will be good.
Now I saw this when I became a new step-dad. And I had very young kids. And my ex, at the time, was telling me that, oh the kids are acting up because they’re hungry. And my first reaction was, there’s no way that this terrible behavior I’m seeing is for the lack of a hot dog. There’s no way this gets fixed with a hot dog. And then you hand them a hot dog. And they eat the hot dog and they’re fine. Like all the bad behavior just goes away? And you say to yourself, okay it was the hot dog. So sometimes it is that simple.
That’s moist robotics in action.
If people in the Gen Y demographic are approaching their careers with the perspective – that “passion is bullshit” – what kinds of systems or actions do you think they can put in place to identify what they would excel in, as opposed to what they’d be passionate about?
Passionate people go where they go and sometimes they’re successful. And then you say that passion made a difference. But if you look around you, you’re seeing a whole bunch of things that weren’t built with any passion at all, that made a whole lot of people successful. And they’re way more things like that, then there are the guy who built the better bicycle, and he is passionate about it. So that’s the first thing.
Second thing I want to say is I had this conversation kind of through a third party, actually with Warren Buffett yesterday. Now I won’t tell you exactly what he said because it was sort of a semi-personal conversation through email. But he was arguing that passion is important because says that a lot. And he used the following example, he said, you look at the NBA and an NBA player. Obviously to get to the top of the NBA, there’s no way you could do that without passion. And I didn’t get a chance to respond to that, but I just shook my head when I thought of it, because you know, here’s one of the smartest people in the world – best investor – nobody’s probably better with numbers and common sense than Warren Buffet right?
But look at his example he gave me. He gives me an example where, every year, there are probably something like a million young boys who are passionate about being basketball, NBA, players. And don’t make it, because they’re not tall. They’re not talented. They’re not something. And the few that make it, you know, they’re the freaks of nature, in some sense, because they have weird hand-eye coordination. They’re super tall, or super fast, or something.
The very example disproves the point. That, there are a million passionate people who didn’t make it. That passion didn’t make any difference to any of those people. What made a difference was – were they tall? Were they fast? Or if you read some of Malcolm Gladwell’s work, I think he talks about how a lot of athletes are just people who are born in a month that makes them a little bit older for the grade that they’re in. So they look like super athletes, and get developed faster, and stuff like that. But where was passion? Passion didn’t make me get born in November. But that’s what made me a professional hockey player.
Back to your question now – if you’re entering this world and you’re trying to decide what to do? It turns out that there’s a pretty good intersection between things you’re good at, and things you’re interested in, i.e. things that can become passion in the right situation. I think we know what these things are.
When I was young I looked at the field of, say, computer programming. I thought to myself, “wow, I think I can do this”. I’m really interested in it because I think I can do it. Thus, I could imagine this whole string of events in which I ended up wealthy from my computer game that I created with all my programming skills.
Now it turns out, I actually tried that path. And I was very excited. I probably had never loved anything more than that, in terms of a job, even more than I like cartooning – hard to believe, but I did. But I wasn’t good at it. I didn’t have the type of memory you’d need to learn things, and retain them. Then they’re in your toolbox the next time you quickly need them. I just couldn’t do that kind of work. Thus, you can be fooled by your passion. I would say, however, if you try a number of things, (and you’re going to) and if you’re young and enter the marketplace, chances are you’ll have lots of different jobs, and you’ll be living in lots of different places.
So you’re going to have an opportunity to cycle through a lot of things. That’s the first good news – that diversification working in your favor – that some things are probably going to work. And in that mix of things you may win.
Can you run us through a couple of your favorite failed startups, like the Dilberito for example?
Sure. The Dilberito was a burrito, a frozen food that was an attempt to make a food that had all the vitamins and nutrition you need. I realized that is was tough for busy people to eat well. I formed a company and we got moving. We built that venture. It did have all the vitamins and minerals the government recommends. It did not succeed for a number of reasons. Some of them are just normal business things – such as being up against big companies that buried us on the shelves. You know they take their product and put it in front of you, and if they had more boots on the ground than you do, there’s not much you can do. That killed us in some of our bigger stores.
That was one failure. I had two restaurants that failed. I had inventions that failed. I’ll tell you my first, funniest, worst failure. In college I had an idea to invent a thing to keep tennis player’s hands dry while they’re playing. The idea was, sometimes they use these little rosin bags – a million years ago. So during the changeover, they’d dry their hand on the rosin bag, kind of like a bowler does. But they had to keep the little rosin bag on the bench on the side.
I thought – here’s my great invention – I’ll make a rosin bag that has a Velcro on it. And then the Velcro will also attach to your shorts. So you just attach it to your shorts when you play. It’s always there. So I take that to my lawyer, with this brilliant idea. And he kind of stares at me across from his desk, after I explain it and then he says – in a very slow voice, because I think he thought I needed that – he said, just because you’ve combined two existing products with Velcro, that doesn’t mean you invented something.
I use that as my example of a failure that moved me forward, because in that process of failing – and really nothing good came of that. I mean there was no product that got built, no patent that was issued. But I learned a whole bunch about what makes a patent, what kind of ideas would you send to a company or not send to a company. Would they look at them? There’s this whole body of information, which I’ve used over and over again, in my professional life.
And I have gone on to get patents. So far none of them have made any money, but my knowledge, and my value and my world of protecting ideas, is much higher. And that’s all had a great value.
Right. That’s just fantastic. Can you talk a little bit about CalendarTree? How is that coming so far? What can you tell us?
CalendarTree is my current startup. I’m co-founder of it. It’s up and running and doing what we built it for. And it’s designed to solve one primary problem, which is, if somebody sends you a long list of scheduled events, let’s say it’s all the games you’re going to play if you’re on the team, or the practices, or in business it could be any meetings that are upcoming. If they send you one event, you can just automatically add it to your calendar. But if they send you a list, and it’s usually an email, or an attached Excel file, or something, you’ve got to retype all that stuff.
So what CalendarTree does is let you create a list of events that can be sent out as a link. And then anybody can click the link, choose what kind of calendar type they have, and then all the information is added to it –
Is that CalendarTree.com?
Yes. That’s it. And the added advantage to that is that once you’ve connected to the schedule, any changes to the schedule will change your calendar automatically, with a note to you telling you the change is made. So that was a problem that we set out to solve. And we did solve it. It’s the only solution that does that. And thousands of people are using it.
We’re going to re-brand and re-launch with a whole bunch of new features around the topic of time and scheduling. And the new stuff will be spectacular. I can’t talk about it yet. But I’m really excited. We’re about a few weeks away from making some noise about that. But you’ll see some – I predict that there’s one feature that the new thing will have, that you haven’t seen before, and that I think 100 million people will be using it by this time next year. Because it so useful that you’ll actually laugh when you hear it. You’ll go, okay I’ll use that. But I’ll tell you more about that in a few weeks, I guess.