How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big

Scott Adams’ book is quite densely packed. Some of the best tricks the book can teach are unspoken–what the book does rather than what it says.

First, some of the book’s explicit tips (briefly and from memory):
1. Remove surplus words. Care about removing surplus words with the level of fanaticism you could summon if you had to pay someone $100 for each surplus word you write.
2. Use systems, not goals. There are many good reasons for this.
3. Be optimistic and visualize success. Daydream if necessary.
4. If you have only one metric for evaluating a choice, make it the metric of asking “how will this affect my energy level?”
5. Develop specific skills such as public speaking and accounting.

These are all, I strongly suspect, completely unoriginal. I think Adams probably should be credited with having stated these more briefly than I’ve seen them elsewhere, not with thinking any of them up.*

Second, some things Scott Adams does that are nowhere recommended explicitly, but are really unusual and quite effective, if you want my opinion:

1. Disown authority and disclaim any need for a special trust; urge the reader to form their own opinion. Then wear them down, flatter them, promise them great prizes, etc.–appeal to their less reasoning instincts.
2. Use jokes to shield readers from harsh statements they may not agree with. Here’s an example (similar to the jokes in the book, but I made this one up; it’s not in the book) is using hyperbole to joke about how much attractiveness matters as follows: “You may not like hearing this, but if you’re not a 9 or a 10, you should just rule out about 50% of professions because only 9s and 10s can succeed in those professions. Play to your strengths… like radio.” That is obvious hyperbole. Here’s why it’s devious: when people downgrade from the obvious hyperbole to what they assume the sentence was intended to mean, they are in the position of generalizing from one example; the only information they really have on what you probably meant by the joke is what they would mean if they told the joke. Just like that, if they don’t know this trick, they hear you speaking inside their head with exactly the opinion they already had… talk about a great way to build a rapport with your reader, right?
3. Present yourself as a winner, but a modest one. An example of how Scott Adams does this is by disclaiming his having bragged about owning a tennis court by positing that he’d thought about it, but saw no way to share the anecdote he wanted to share without letting on that he owned a tennis court. Even a cursory willingness to evaluate whether that was really true reveals that it isn’t–if he’d simply said that he spends “a lot of time” on a particular tennis court, that would have set the scene he needed for his anecdote, except that it wouldn’t have signaled what Adams wants his readers to know: he’s rich, and too modest to brag about it.
4. Play to your strengths.
5. Overcome obstacles. TVTropes has a bunch of memes on this, the most obvious being “Save the Cat” and “Obstacles to Overcome” but the point is, Adams highlights how far he’s come and how unlikely his success was in order to put himself in a hero narrative and make a hero narrative available to anyone who follows the advice in his book.

* Aside: I ran across a fun history of the variations on the phrase, “The secret to success in life is to conceal thy sources.” The best version seems to me to be this: “Whereas in Europe the height of originality is genius, in America the height of originality is skill in concealing origins. In no country is personality valued as it is in America, and in no country is it so rare.” It’s by C.E.M. Joad, per this citation-heavy link:

Edited 24 Jan 2017 to add the aside, check for and correct typos etc.

1 thought on “How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big

  1. Pingback: One suggestion for using Beeminder well | briefliteraryabandon

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