Review: How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life

I have not read many self-help books. Something I pondered as I was writing this review and decided that’s because they are probably read by people who are more dissatisfied with their life than I have been—I am, by and large, content. So my motivation to read How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life by Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert was more to find entertainment than inspiration to drive self-improvement. Right away, I’ll say the book is an entertaining and interesting read on, at least, two levels. How To Fail… is not a biography, but there are ample illustrations and examples drawn from the author’s own life and career from which we learn a lot about Scott.

In several episodes through the book, Scott describes traumatic periods when he lost the ability to talk to other people—spasmodic dysphonia—and his battle with focal dystonia that threatened his career as a cartoonist.

Spasmodic dysphonia (or laryngeal dystonia) is a voice disorder characterized by involuntary movements or spasms of one or more muscles of the larynx (vocal folds or voice box) during speech. Wikipedia

Focal dystonia is a neurological condition that affects a muscle or group of muscles in a specific part of the body causing involuntary muscular contractions and abnormal postures. Wikipedia

He tells stories about failures in which he’s been involved. My favourite was the Dilberito: a burrito enriched with vitamins and minerals that “made you fart so hard your intestines formed a tail”. However, the failures are not regretted:

The short answer is that over the years I have cultivated a unique relationship with failure. I invite it. I survive it. I appreciate it. And then I mug the shit out of it. Failure always brings something valuable with it. I don’t let it leave until I extract that value.

This leads us to the ideas presented in the book, which might easily be called Scott Adams’ Life Learnings. They are offered as possibilities for readers to consider in their own search for happiness and success. Scott offers this summary in the introduction:

Book Tease
1. Goals are for losers.
2. Your mind isn’t magic. It’s a moist computer you can program.
3. The most important metric to track is your personal energy.
4. Every skill you acquire doubles your odds of success.
5. Happiness is health plus freedom.
6. Luck can be managed, sort of.
7. Conquer shyness by being a huge phony (in a good way).
8. Fitness is the lever that moves the world.
9. Simplicity transforms ordinary into amazing.

These ideas are then developed throughout the 37 chapters of the book in Scott’s usual provocative, but entertaining style. “Goals are for losers” is explained thus:

Goal-oriented people exist in a state of continuous presuccess failure at best, and permanent failure at worst if things never work out. Systems people succeed every time they apply their systems, in the sense that they did what they intended to do. The goals people are fighting the feeling of discouragement at each turn. The systems people are feeling good every time they apply their system… … goal-oriented people exist in a state of nearly continuous failure that they hope will be temporary.

I think that’s one of the reasons why, ultimately, diets are so often a waste of time. I found a particular connection with Scott’s systems-not-goals approach:

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.

His argument is: have a system, make it simple. If it’s simple it will be easier to stick to, and increase your chances of success. Much of what is offered is nothing new—for example, exercise and eat right—but tempered with the simple systems theme. Try to find an exercise regime that is not boring. If you don’t like raw carrots, eat them with salt to be more palatable. Have low calorie, “healthier” foods ready-prepared in the fridge, so if you fancy a snack, it’s easy to grab something better to eat than cookies or junk food.

Tease Item 3 is a key one. Scott argues that you should, by and large, make decisions that increase your personal energy, or minimise the negative impact because you will be better able to deal with the other challenges that you will face.

Build a routine so you don’t waste energy making decisions. If you start every day the same, then you haven’t used any of your finite willpower before the real work starts.

Every skill you learn makes you marketable and more valuable. Scott offers a list:

I’ll make a case for each one, but here’s the preview list. Public speaking; Psychology; Business writing; Accounting; Design (the basics); Conversation; Overcoming shyness; Second language; Golf; Proper grammar; Persuasion; Technology (hobby level); Proper voice technique.

There’s an extensive list of references that Scott uses to support many of his arguments, though he is at pains to point out (probably because his laywers told him to) that “It’s never a good idea to take advice from cartoonists”.

One area where Scott diverges from, shall we say, the mainstream is in his discussion of affirmations. Scott tells several stories where he has used affirmations. He clearly believes they helped him achieve a successful outcome. He cannot explain why and accepts there are other reasons that might explain their apparent success.

I tried affirmations out of curiosity, and because they were free. I didn’t need a better reason.

My interpretation is that any success was more the result of Scott’s optimism, perseverance, and determination not to be beaten. Affirmations, perhaps, reinforced his natural tendencies. It is quite clear from reading this book that Scott Adams is stubborn, determined, single-minded and, despite his protestations of averageness, quite a bright chap. He must have been a strange little boy—though I base that last remark more on one of his recent blog posts than the contents of How To Fail….

I recommend this book. I do think that, had I read it when I was 22 and not (mumble,mumble) it would have helped me in my career. You may find it will help you.


  1. […] Is Bad Advice. I was reminded of Scott Adams’ book, How To Fail, etc. that I recently reviewed. Scott rather more bluntly (and with greater entertainment value, hence, my chosen title) writes […]

  2. […] post touches upon a topic that I have written  about before here and here. Newport discusses the work of Saras Sarasvathy into entrepreneurship. The quick […]

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