Some Tips for Failing Forward from Scott Adams


Scott Adams, creator of the much-loved Dilbert comics — which satirise business life in a way that can get pretty painfully close to home — has failed at a huge number of things, but still made it big. At least, that’s the central message of his part-autobiography, part-success-guide, “How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life.”


The book contains many insights which can be useful for anyone trying to progress through life in an ultimately fruitful and successful manner, but especially for anyone involved in business — whether they work for a dynamic company like Symfact, or are running a startup out of their garage.


As the title of the book might have given away; its insights are directly connected to the concept of “failing forward”, rather than hoping for a smooth and ever-victorious professional life.


Here are some key insights for the book that may make all the difference to your professional life.


Focus on systems, not goals


Scott Adams is not a fan of goals, whether they be S.M.A.R.T. goals, B.H.A.G.’s, or otherwise.


This may be setting off alarm bells for you right now, as it’s generally held that having a good set of goals is absolutely key to succeeding in any career endeavour, and in life more broadly.


Not so, according to Adams, who argues that the true path to long-term success is one which focuses on “systems” rather than goals. There is some nuance to this idea, and it requires a bit of careful unpacking.


To begin with, one of Adams’ major critiques of goals, is that they keep you in a constant state of panic and insufficiency. You are always reaching for something you don’t have, and then if you achieve your goal, you are left bereft, without a guiding principle to inspire you. So you create another goal, and repeat the unfulfilled process.


Another of his major critiques of goals, is that you are never fully in charge of whether you meet a goal or not. For that reason, your locus of control and wellbeing is always placed outside of you.


“Systems” are his proposed antidote to this, and he defines these as routines that you carry out automatically, every day, for their own sake — which dramatically improve your chance of success and positive progress in a given area of your life.


In this formulation, “I will lose 20lb” is a goal, whereas “I will cook all my meals at home Monday to Friday, and run on the treadmill for 30 minutes a day” is a system.


Keep several irons in the fire at once


Reading the story of Scott Adams’ life, you quickly learn that he has always been the kind of person who has a side-hustle, or hobby, going, at any given time — ranging from computer game design, to forays into the restaurant business.


This isn’t just a practice he keeps to himself, either; Adams actively encourages everyone to keep up a hobby or side-hustle at any given moment.


The reasons for this are numerous: for one, investing some of your time and energy into a side-venture you enjoy, fuels a greater sense of hope and motivation during your day job. For another, it teaches you valuable skills which you can one day leverage in your favour, in other areas of your life. Finally, it might actually start to pay off financially — even if you shouldn’t necessarily count on this happening.


Pay attention to the power of affirmations and positive visualisation


One of the more esoteric veins running through Adams’ book, is the way he explains his success and experience with affirmations and positive visualisation.


Not to put too fine a point on the matter, although Adams points out that he has no metaphysical beliefs, the exercise of practising daily affirmations has, nonetheless, correlated with many seemingly miraculous successes in his life.


These successes include, but are not limited to: the overcoming of an extremely rare voice condition, and his eventual success as a cartoonist — an industry so competitive as to be a virtual statistical write-off for any aspiring comic.


Whatever the mechanisms behind the successful use of affirmations and positive visualisations, Adams is one among many celebrities and success stories who have endorsed the practice, and it seems unlikely that you’ll have any cause to regret a bit of extra positive thinking.


The system of affirmations which Adams reports having worked for him, involved writing out his stated desire fifteen times per day, and taking some time to visualise it coming to pass.


(Yes, Adams admits that this is a bit of a compromise on his “no goals” policy).