"How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big" by Scott Adams

Book Summary:

“How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life” by Scott Adams is part self-help and part memoir. The book recounts the humorous ups and downs of Adams’ career, revealing the outsized role of luck in life and how best to play the system.

The book also covers Scott Adams’ life journey in which he has likely failed at more things than anyone you’ve ever met, but yet he was able to succeed in life. You’ll also learn how he went from a corporate business worker with an MBA to a world-known famous cartoonist.

Here are a few lessons the book teaches:

  • Goals are for losers. Systems are for winners.

  • “Passion” is bull. What you need is personal energy.

  • A combination of mediocre skills can make you surprisingly valuable.

  • You can manage your odds in a way that makes you look lucky to others.

...and much more.

Author Scott Adams with his famous Dilbert character in the background..

Author Scott Adams with his famous Dilbert character in the background..

Author Bio:

Scott Adams is the creator of Dilbert, one of the most popular comic strips of the past quarter century. He has been a full-time cartoonist since 1995, after 16 years as a technology worker for companies like Crocker National Bank and Pacific Bell. His many bestsellers include The Dilbert Principle and Dogbert’s Top Secret Management Handbook. He lives outside of San Francisco.

Book Lessons:

1) You can fail often and still win in life

Everything you want out of life is in that huge, bubbling vat of failure. The trick is to get the good stuff out. If success were easy, everyone would do it. It takes effort.
— Page 17

Adams starts the book by talking about the many professional–and sometimes personal–failures he experienced throughout his life. However, he doesn’t necessarily view failure in a negative light.

For starters, failing and getting back up will make you stronger and the stronger you become, the better chance you have of reaching success. Failure can also be managed and learned from.

Adams uses the example of someone finding a cow turd. This may seem like a failure, but Adams says that he would shovel that turd onto his garden and hope that the cow returned every week so that he’d never have to buy any fertilizer again (And yes, this example is in the book).

Adams then goes on to list over 20 examples of failure in his life and what he learned from them. Here are a few of those failures:

  • After college, Adams and a friend wrote a beginner’s guide to meditation. The guide only sold three copies, but Adams learned about the benefits of meditation and how to develop a product.

  • Adams spent a year writing a computer program to make file transfers easier (this was before emails could send large files). And although he didn’t get far with it, he did gain a clear understanding of just how hard it is to build something new.

  • Adams did however, build a website where users could submit crackpot ideas. The site ultimately failed, however, Adams did learn a lot about website design, which would serve him well on several projects down the road.

Before Scott Adams was a famous cartoonist, he was a man who failed over and over again.

His first cartoons were rejected by The New Yorker and Playboy.

And even after becoming a successful cartoonist, Adams failed at several new projects including two restaurants and the Dilberito–a Dilbert branded burrito with 100% of your daily required vitamins and minerals.

Adams got the Dilberito into 7-Eleven, Costco and even Walmart. But, the product didn’t sell well because it was placed on the bottom shelf in stores and the veggies in the burritos gave customers tremendous gas. Eventually, Adams lost several millions of dollars and sold the business.

The only way not to fail in life is to not try.

Instead, “remember that failure is your friend. It is the raw material of success. Invite it in. Learn from it. And don’t let it leave until you pick its pocket” (pg 231).

2) Be good at multiple skills Rather Than Excellent At One

When I combined my meager business skills with my bad art skills and my fairly ordinary writing talent, the mixture was powerful. With each new skill, my odds of success increased substantially.
— Page 98

Instead of being great at one thing, Adams says it’s better to be good at two times.

Good + Good > Excellent

Although there are exceptions for outliers, Adams says that most people are better off increasing their market value by being good at different skills.

Scott Adams uses himself as an example. He says that he can’t draw a masterpiece, but he knows how to draw. He usually isn’t the funniest person in the room, but he does have a good sense of humor. His writing skills aren’t great, but they are good enough. And unlike other cartoonists, he has an MBA and business experience, which helped him take Dilbert from a cult hit to a household name.

He points out that he was a mediocre student in graduate school and was not a star employee at work, but he was good enough.

Adam goes on to say, “Recapping my skill set: I have poor art skills, mediocre business skills, good but not great writing talent, and an early knowledge of the Internet. And I have a good but not great sense of humor. I’m like one big mediocre soup” (pg 99).

He points out that none of his skills are world-class, but when combined together, they become a powerful market force.

3) Daily Exercise Correlates with success in life

I believe exercise makes people smarter, psychologically braver, more creative, more energetic, and more influential. In an online article about twenty habits of successful people, the second item on the list is exercise five to seven days a week. Other studies back this notion–physical fitness and daily exercise are correlated with success in business and in life.
— Page 148

Scott Adams is a big believer in fitness. As a kid, he used to play three to five different sports a day. However, as Adams became an adult, more and more responsibilities piled up and he went from exercising every day to exercising once a week.

After several years, Adams eventually managed to make exercise a habit and now he does it every day. Here’s how he did it.

To start, Adams recommends being active every day.

How does he find the motivation to do so?

Simple, his rule is to “never exercise so much in one day that you won’t feel like being active the next day. To put that another way, the right amount of exercise today is whatever amount makes me look forward to being active tomorrow” (pg 210).

Adams writes that if you exercise and are sore the next day, you’re overdoing it. Soreness is a penalty for exercise, and if everything you workout you get punished, you’ll find something else to do in no time.

Instead of doing heavy workouts, you should do light exercise says, Adams. Light exercise reduces your stress and boosts your energy. “Over time, as you become fitter, you will naturally increase your exercise level, but by then your body will be equipped to handle it.”

Adams recommends rewarding yourself after your workout with something pleasurable, such as a tasty but also healthy snack, or a nice cup of coffee [personally, I drink for a tasty protein shake but you get the idea].

And if you don’t feel like exercising, he’s a great tip Adam uses.

Even if you feel like staying home on the couch and eating ice cream, at least put on your workout shoes and clothes. Then take a trip down to the gym. Adams says that 95% of the time, just entering the gym will boost his energy and motivate him to work out since he’s already there. But sometimes, he gets to the gym, looks around and leaves.

However, this doesn’t mean he failed.

At least he got out of his house and got to the gym which is more than most people do. Also, the vast majority of the time when he gets to the gym he’ll work out. No one is perfect, but if out of 365 days you workout 95% of those days that’s darn close to perfect.

And when it comes to the length of a workout or the type of exercise, Adams says to not worry about that.

All that matters is making exercise into a daily habit. “Studies indicate that moderate levels of exercise are actually the best for longevity. Over time you’ll naturally gravitate toward adding the variety and challenge that your body can handle” (pg 212).

Bonus: How To Eat Healthy

  1. Pay attention to your energy level after eating certain foods. Find your pattern.

  2. Remove unhealthy, energy-draining food from your home.

  3. Stock up on convenient healthy foods (e.g., apples, nuts, bananas) and let laziness be your copilot in eating right.

  4. Stop eating foods that create feelings of addiction: white rice, white potatoes, desserts, white bread and fried foods.

  5. Eat as much healthy food as you want, whenever you want.

  6. Get enough sleep, because tiredness creates the illusion of hungry.

  7. If your hunger is caused by tiredness, try healthy foods with fat, such as nuts, avocados, protein bars, and cheese, to suppress the hungry feeling.

  8. If you’re eating for social reasons only, choose the healthiest options with low calories.

  9. Learn how to season your healthy-yet bland foods.

Also, if you don’t know if you’re actually hungry or just bored, follow Scott’s Apple rule: If you’re not hungry enough to eat an apple, you are not hungry.

Book Review:

For a cartoonist, I was surprised by how much great life advice Scott Adams has to offer.

It was interesting to learn how Adams worked in the corporate world and even got an MBA before he became famous for his Dilbert comics.

The book, part self-help and part memoir, is about 200 pages and is quite easy to read. Adams drops nuggets of wisdom throughout the book including his formula for exercising daily, how to eat healthy, and why people should create systems instead of goals (a topic James Clear expands on in his book).

I’d recommend reading this book if you’re looking for a little bit of advice on everything instead of a specific field. The book is also sprinkled with jokes, so if you’re tried of dry self-help books, give this one a read.


Rating: 4.5/5 Stars 

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If you already read this book, here are some similar books I’d recommend reading:

For literally a few dollars and a few hours, a book will give you an enormous amount of valuable information that can help you in life. It’s practically highway-robbery. So take advantage of this and read as much as you can.

If you want to check out my list of recommended books, you can find that here.

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