Goals Are for Losers and Passion Is Bullshit
Four refreshing ideas from ‘How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big’
Goals are for losers, and passion is bullshit.
Scott Adams, creator of the popular cartoon Dilbert, says it like it is in his book How To Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big.
It’s been a while since I’ve read a book that I enjoyed this much. It’s funny and incredibly direct, as you can imagine from a cartoonist famous for his satirical humour. Scott shares his life story, along with the lessons he learned about keeping himself motivated, healthy, and happy while racking up all the failures that ultimately led to his success.
He opens the book by asking: was his eventual success primarily a result of talent, luck, hard work, or an accidental just-right balance of each? It’s impossible to know, and he goes on to say that, “All I know for sure is that I pursued a conscious strategy of managing my opportunities in a way that would make it easier for luck to find me.”
You can’t directly control luck, but you can move from strategies with bad odds to strategies with good odds.
Here are four strategies to consider for making it easier for luck to find you in 2022.
Goals Are for Losers, Systems Are for Winners
People who seem to have good luck are often the people who have a system that allows luck to find them.
Scott spends a lot of time arguing for systems over goals. They’re closely related, but there is power in seeing them as two separate concepts and developing a systems-first mindset.
A goal is an objective you’ve set for yourself. It’s a specific, measurable and reach-it-and-be-done situation. You either achieve it, or you don’t.
A system does not have a specific end goal. Instead, it’s something you do regularly that increases your odds of happiness and success in the long run. Think of it like your routines and habits.
Now, why is one better than the other?
When we are focused on the goals, we live in a state of nearly continuous failure that we hope will be temporary. It’s tiring, unmotivating and might even make us quit if we feel like we are not achieving our goal quickly enough.
Then, assuming we achieve our goal, we feel terrific for a moment but only until we realize that we have now lost the thing that gave us direction and purpose. Now what?
On the other hand, when we set systems, we win every time we apply the system. Each small win counts as a success, making us feel good about ourselves, creating a sense of accomplishment, giving us the confidence to keep going. Focusing on systems gives us a long term focus and determination.
Here’s a concrete example. My goal could be to reach 5k followers on Medium by the end of next year. I’d get obsessed with the stats and feel like I’m failing if I’m not making progress fast enough. It’s more productive and motivating to focus on a system of writing and publishing every day. That is entirely under my control, and as long as I do that, I’m winning. Plus, if I consistently apply my system, the followers will come.
James Clear has popularized this concept in his bestselling book Atomic Habits, writing that goals are for setting direction, but systems are best for making progress.
This reminded me of this great Lifehacks article I read a couple of years ago and often think about, talking in great detail about the closely related concept of prioritizing process (system) over outcome (goal).
Passion Is Bullshit
I’ve always struggled with this “follow your passion” idea.
It would make me nervous, because what do you do if you don’t have a natural passion or talent? Whenever I’d lose focus or motivation, I’d blame it on myself because I’d think that ‘successful’ people have some bottomless reserve of passion that I simply don’t have.
Scott’s point is we have it all wrong — it’s bullshit.
Of course, there are outliers, but for most of us, success creates passion more than passion creates success.
Dilbert didn’t start out as a passion project. To Scott, it was just another thing he was trying, another get-rich-quick scheme. But as it became successful, he developed a passion for it.
You are likely to be more in love with things you do very well. You develop talent when you focus all your energy in one direction for an uncommonly long period.
Therefore, you must try new things (and fail) until you discover something you can do well.
As Kevin Kelly says in his wonderful 68 Bits of Unsolicited Advice, “Master something, anything. Through mastery of one thing, you can drift towards extensions of that mastery that bring you more joy and eventually discover where your bliss is.”
This aligns with the research described in Cal Newport’s bestselling book So Good They Can’t Ignore You. A postdoctoral associate at MIT, he researched what makes people love their work. Interestingly, he discovered that the best way to find or create work you love is not to follow your passion, as many career counsellors, books and well-meaning mentors advise. In fact, the best way to love what you do is to become highly skilled — so good no one can ignore you. Then, you offer your skills in exchange for work that allows you autonomy and the opportunity to change the world, two of the most significant contributors to workplace satisfaction. The book in 5 words? Don’t concern yourself with passion.
Develop a Habit of Simplifying
Scott describes two kinds of people:
- Simplifiers do the easy way to accomplish a task while knowing that some amount of extra effort might have produced a better outcome.
- Optimizers look for the best solution even if the extra complexity increases the odds of unexpected problems and giving up.
“Optimizing is often the strategy of people who have specific goals and feel the need to do everything in their power to achieve them. Simplifying is generally the strategy of people who view the world in terms of systems. The best systems are simple, and for good reason. Complicated systems have more opportunities for failure. Human nature is such that we’re good at following simple systems and not so good at following complicated systems.”
I am 100% an optimizer, to my detriment.
Perfect example: I recently created an exercise tracker. Just a way for me to keep track of how often I go to the gym and which classes I’ve been taking. I got over-excited, so I started adding in more things to track because, in my silly Optimizer mind, it would make the tracker more valuable, and what gets measured gets improved, right?! Unsurprisingly, I didn’t stick with it for very long. I probably spend more time creating the tracker than using it.
We rarely have the willpower or the time to follow complicated plans. So I am constantly reminding myself that it is better to have something I can keep doing versus something more elaborate and perhaps slightly better, but impossible to keep up.
If that sounds overly obvious, you’re a Simplifier, and I envy you.
Goal seekers optimize, system thinkers simplify.
We generally believe that things need to be complicated, but in essence, there is great value in getting the simple things right and then sticking with them, and that takes discipline and long term focus.
As the saying goes, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”
Get Over Yourself
The word failure gets thrown around a lot, and I have always found it a bit abstract. Yes, I understand the best way to learn is through failure, but how do you really do that?
“Failure is where success likes to hide in plain sight. Everything you want out of life is in that huge, bubbling vat of failure. The trick is to get the good stuff out.”
I love Scott’s casual approach to failure. He says the critical mindset shift to make is to develop a lack of fear of embarrassment. Basically, to get over yourself.
This is what will allow you to be proactive. It’s what makes you take on challenges others write off as too risky. It’s what makes you take the first step before knowing what the second step is. If you can’t handle the risk of embarrassment, rejection, and failure, you need to learn how.
Scott describes his failures in great detail, and there were many. He tried the weirdest and most random stuff: a meditation guide, multiple computer games, a velcro rosin bag (?), a psychic practice program, several restaurants, a gifts guide website, a scheduling app and a grocery delivery service. Most of it bombed and cost him tons of time and money.
Ray Dalio’s book talks about something similar in his book Principles. He says success and failure are about learning to control your ego. If you want to do something incredible, something that makes you stand out above the rest, you have to become comfortable being different from the rest.
That has always been a difficult one for me. I find it hard to go all-in for things out of my control. Things I might spend lots of time and energy on, possibly without anything to show for it at the end. Things people might question or not understand.
I will make next year my year of getting over my fear of embarrassment. Write faster and publish quicker. Not worry as much about what the reactions will be. Perhaps try out some other things online, like creating a digital product? Finally starting that newsletter I’ve been thinking about? If I try something new every month, I’ll have 12 failures by the end of the year.
Get used to failing. Get used to being wrong. Worrying about looking stupid inhibits your thinking. It can kill unusual ideas — many of which will be bad, but some of which might be great.