How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big

An interesting book from the author of Dilbert. It’s made of small nonelated essays, almost as if it was a blog, ranging from skill acquisition and skill development, to happiness. All in all, it’s an enjoyable and practical book.

Author: Scott Adams.

Date Finished: 28/03/2014

Here’s a link to the Amazon page.

The Six Filters for Truth

Before you decide whether anything I say in this book is useful, you need a system for sorting truth from rubbish.

The system recognizes that there are at least six common ways to sort truth from fiction, and interestingly, each one is a complete train wreck.

  1. Personal experience (Human perceptions are iffy.)
  2. Experience of people you know (Even more unreliable.)
  3. Experts (They work for money, not truth.)
  4. Scientific studies (Correlation is not causation.)
  5. Common sense (A good way to be mistaken with complete confidence.)
  6. Pattern recognition (Patterns, coincidence, and personal bias look alike.)

In our messy, flawed lives, the nearest we can get to truth is consistency. Consistency is the bedrock of the scientific method. Scientists creep up on the truth by performing controlled experiments and attempting to observe consistent results.

Consistency is the best marker of truth that we have, imperfect though it may be.

When seeking truth, your best bet is to look for confirmation on at least two of the dimensions I listed.

The Difference between Crazy People and Artists

Sometimes the only real difference between crazy people and artists is that artists write down what they imagine seeing.

Passion is Useless

Is passion a useful tool for success, or is it just something that makes you irrational?

My hypothesis is that passionate people are more likely to take big risks in the pursuit of unlikely goals, and so you would expect to see more failures and more huge successes among the passionate. Passionate people who fail don’t get a chance to offer their advice to the rest of us. But successful passionate people are writing books and answering interview questions about their secrets for success every day.

Passion sounds more accessible. If you’re dumb, there’s not much you can do about it, but passion is something we think anyone can generate in the right circumstances. Passion feels very democratic. It is the people’s talent, available to all.

It’s easy to be passionate about things that are working out, and that distorts our impression of the importance of passion.

In hindsight, it looks as if the projects I was most passionate about were also the ones that worked. But objectively, my passion level moved with my success. Success caused passion more than passion caused success.

Passion can also be a simple marker for talent. We humans tend to enjoy doing things we are good at, while not enjoying things we suck at. Sometimes passion is simply a by-product of knowing you will be good at something.

I hate selling, but I know that’s because I’m bad at it. If I were a sensational salesperson or had potential to be one, I’d probably feel passionate about sales. And people who observed my success would assume my passion was causing my success as opposed to being a mere indicator of talent.

So forget about passion when you’re planning your path to success. Energy is good. Passion is bullshit.

Goals versus Systems

Throughout my career I’ve had my antennae up, looking for examples of people who use systems as opposed to goals. In most cases, as far as I can tell, the people who use systems do better. The systems-driven people have found a way to look at the familiar in new and more useful ways.

To put it bluntly, goals are for losers. That’s literally true most of the time. For example, if your goal is to lose ten pounds, you will spend every moment until you reach the goal—if you reach it at all—feeling as if you were short of your goal. In other words, goal-oriented people exist in a state of nearly continuous failure that they hope will be temporary. That feeling wears on you. In time, it becomes heavy and uncomfortable. It might even drive you out of the game.

If you achieve your goal, you celebrate and feel terrific, but only until you realize you just lost the thing that gave you purpose and direction. Your options are to feel empty and useless, perhaps enjoying the spoils of your success until they bore you, or set new goals and reenter the cycle of permanent presuccess failure.

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. That’s a big difference in terms of maintaining your personal energy in the right direction.

The system-versus-goals model can be applied to most human endeavors. In the world of dieting, losing twenty pounds is a goal, but eating right is a system. In the exercise realm, running a marathon in under four hours is a goal, but exercising daily is a system. In business, making a million dollars is a goal, but being a serial entrepreneur is a system.

For our purposes, let’s say a goal is a specific objective that you either achieve or don’t sometime in the future. A system is something you do on a regular basis that increases your odds of happiness in the long run. If you do something every day, it’s a system. If you’re waiting to achieve it someday in the future, it’s a goal.

Systems have no deadlines, and on any given day you probably can’t tell if they’re moving you in the right direction.

My proposition is that if you study people who succeed, you will see that most of them follow systems, not goals.

Focus

It helps a great deal to have at least a general strategy and some degree of focus. The world offers so many alternatives that you need a quick filter to eliminate some options and pay attention to others. Whatever your plan, focus is always important.

Deciding versus Wanting

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever heard goes something like this: If you want success, figure out the price, then pay it. It sounds trivial and obvious, but if you unpack the idea it has extraordinary power.

I know a lot of people who wish they were rich or famous or otherwise fabulous. They wish they had yachts and servants and castles and they wish they could travel the world in their own private jets. But these are mere wishes. Few of these wishful people have decided to have any of the things they wish for. It’s a key difference, for once you decide, you take action. Wishing starts in the mind and generally stays there.

When you decide to be successful in a big way, it means you acknowledge the price and you’re willing to pay it.

Successful people don’t wish for success; they decide to pursue it. And to pursue it effectively, they need a system. Success always has a price, but the reality is that the price is negotiable. If you pick the right system, the price will be a lot nearer what you’re willing to pay.

I can’t change the fact that success requires a lot of work. But if you learn to appreciate the power of systems over goals, it might lower the price of success just enough to make it worth a go.

The Selfishness Illusion

During your journey to success you will find yourself continually trying to balance your own needs with the needs of others. You will always wonder if you are being too selfish or not selfish enough.

For starters, when it comes to the topic of generosity, there are three kinds of people in the world:

  1. Selfish
  2. Stupid
  3. Burden on others

That’s the entire list. Your best option is to be selfish, because being stupid or a burden on society won’t help anyone. Society hopes you will handle your selfishness with some grace and compassion. If you do selfishness right, you automatically become a net benefit to society. Most successful people give more than they personally consume, in the form of taxes, charity work, job creation, and so on. My best estimate is that I will personally consume about 10 percent of the total wealth I create over my career. The rest goes to taxes, future generations, start-up investments, charity, and stimulating the economy.

The most important form of selfishness involves spending time on your fitness, eating right, pursuing your career, and still spending quality time with your family and friends. If you neglect your health or your career, you slip into the second category—stupid—which is a short slide to becoming a burden on society.

The problem is that our obsession with generosity causes people to think in the short term. We skip exercise to spend an extra hour helping at home. We buy fast food to save time to help a coworker with a problem. At every turn, we cheat our own future to appear generous today.

So how can you make the right long-term choices for yourself, thus being a benefit to others in the long run, without looking like a selfish turd in your daily choices? There’s no instant cure, but a step in the right direction involves the power of permission. I’m giving you permission to take care of yourself first, so you can do a better job of being generous in the long run.

The healthiest way to look at selfishness is that it’s a necessary strategy when you’re struggling.

The Energy Metric

We humans want many things: good health, financial freedom, accomplishment, a great social life, love, sex, recreation, travel, family, career, and more. The problem with all of this wanting is that the time you spend chasing one of those desires is time you can’t spend chasing any of the others. So how do you organize your limited supply of time to get the best result?

The way I approach the problem of multiple priorities is by focusing on just one main metric: my energy. I make choices that maximize my personal energy because that makes it easier to manage all of the other priorities.

Maximizing my personal energy means eating right, exercising, avoiding unnecessary stress, getting enough sleep, and all of the obvious steps. But it also means having something in my life that makes me excited to wake up. When I get my personal energy right, the quality of my work is better, and I can complete it faster. That keeps my career on track. And when all of that is working, and I feel relaxed and energetic, my personal life is better too.

I’m suggesting that by becoming a person with good energy, you lift the people around you. That positive change will improve your social life, your love life, your family life, and your career.

“Energy” is a simple word that captures a mind-boggling array of complicated happenings. For our purposes I’ll define your personal energy as anything that gives you a positive lift, either mentally or physically. Like art, you know it when you see it.

My proposition is that organizing your life to optimize your personal energy will add up to something incredible that is more good than bad.

Matching Mental State to Activity

One of the most important tricks for maximizing your productivity involves matching your mental state to the task.

Everyone is different, but you’ll discover that most writers work either early in the morning or past midnight. That’s when the creative writing juices flow most easily.

Simplifiers Versus Optimizers

Some people are what I call simplifiers and some are optimizers. A simplifier will prefer the easy way to accomplish a task, while knowing that some amount of extra effort might have produced a better outcome. An optimizer looks for the very best solution even if the extra complexity increases the odds of unexpected problems.

If the situation involves communication with others, simplification is almost always the right answer. If the task is something you can do all by yourself, or with a partner who is on your wavelength, optimizing might be a better path if you can control most variables in the situation. And realistically, sometimes you simply have to get three hours of tasks completed in two hours, so we don’t always have the luxury of being able to choose simple paths.

If the cost of failure is high, simple tasks are the best because they are easier to manage and control.

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.

Simple systems are probably the best way to achieve success. Once you have success, optimizing begins to have more value.

When you are trying to decide between optimizing and simplifying, think of your entire day, not the handful of tasks in question. In other words, maximize your personal energy, not the number of tasks.

Tidiness

Tidiness is a personal preference, but it also has an impact on your energy. Every second you look at a messy room and think about fixing it is a distraction from your more important thoughts.

Knowledge and the Lack Thereof

One of the biggest obstacles to success—and a real energy killer—is the fear that you don’t know how to do the stuff that your ideal career plans would require. Build a Web site, how to outsource work to China, and so on. When you don’t know anything about a particular topic, it’s easy to assume it would be too hard to learn it quickly.

When you start asking questions, you often discover that there’s a simple solution, a Web site that handles it, or a professional who takes care of it for a reasonable fee. Keep in mind that every time you wonder how to do something, a few hundred million people have probably wondered the same thing. And that usually means the information has already been packaged and simplified, and in some cases sold. But it’s usually free for the asking.

Whenever you can muster it.

Priorities

It’s useful to think of your priorities in terms of concentric circles, like an archery target. In the center is your highest priority: you. If you ruin yourself, you won’t be able to work on any other priorities. So taking care of your own health is job one.

The next ring—and your second-biggest priority—is economics. That includes your job, your investments, and even your house. You might wince at the fact that I put economics ahead of your family, your friends, and the rest of the world, but there’s a reason. If you don’t get your personal financial engine working right, you place a burden on everyone from your family to the country.

Once you are both healthy and financially sound, it’s time for the third ring: family, friends, and lovers.

The next rings are your local community, your country, and the world, in that order. Don’t bother trying to fix the world until you get the inner circles of your priorities under control.

All of your priorities overlap and conflict. What you need is a simple rule for keeping your priorities on track while handling all of the inevitable exceptions. One simple way to keep your priorities straight is by judging how each of your options will influence your personal energy.

Managing Your Attitude

Your brain is wired to continuously analyze your environment, your thoughts, and your health and to use that information to generate a sensation you call your attitude.

Your attitude affects everything you do in your quest for success and happiness. A positive attitude is an important tool. It’s important to get it right. The best way to manage your attitude is by understanding your basic nature as a moist robot that can be programmed for happiness if you understand the user interface. Exercise, food, and sleep should be your first buttons to push if you’re trying to elevate your attitude and raise your energy. But what if you’re doing everything right on the physical-health front and you’re still not enjoying life as much as you think you should?

A simple trick you might try involves increasing your ratio of happy thoughts to disturbing thoughts. If your life doesn’t provide you with plenty of happy thoughts to draw upon, try daydreaming of wonderful things in your future. Don’t worry that your daydreams are unlikely to come true.

You can literally imagine yourself to higher levels of energy.

The easiest way to manage your attitude is to consume as much feel-good entertainment as you can.

A powerful variation on the daydreaming method involves working on projects that have a real chance of changing the world, helping humanity, and/or making a billion dollars. I try to have one or more change-the-world projects going at all times.

Another benefit of having a big, world-changing project is that you almost always end up learning something valuable in the process of failing. And fail you will, most of the time, so long as you are dreaming big. But remember, goals are for losers anyway. It’s smarter to see your big-idea projects as part of a system to improve your energy, contacts, and skills. From that viewpoint, if you have a big, interesting project in the works, you’re a winner every time you wake up.

Success Premium

A great strategy for success in life is to become good at something, anything, and let that feeling propel you to new and better victories. Success can be habit-forming.

Pick the Delusion That Works

Our brains have a limited capacity to know the true nature of reality. Most times our misconceptions about reality are benign and sometimes, even helpful. Other times, not so much.

Free yourself from the shackles of an oppressive reality. What’s real to you is what you imagine and what you feel. If you manage your illusions wisely, you might get what you want, but you won’t necessarily understand why it worked.

Recognizing Your Talents and Knowing When to Quit

One helpful rule of thumb for knowing where you might have a little extra talent is to consider what you were obsessively doing before you were ten years old. There’s a strong connection between what interests you and what you’re good at. People are naturally drawn to the things they feel comfortable doing, and comfort is a marker for talent.

Where there is a tolerance for risk, there is often talent.

Childhood obsessions and tolerance for risk are only rough guides to talent at best. As you grow and acquire more talents, your potential paths to success multiply quickly. That makes it extra hard to know which possibility among many would put you in a position of competitive advantage.

The smartest system for discerning your best path to success involves trying lots of different things—sampling, if you will. For entrepreneurial ventures it might mean quickly bailing out if things don’t come together quickly.

My guideline for deciding when to quit is informed by a lifetime of trying dozens of business ideas, most of them failures. The pattern I noticed was this: Things that will someday work out well start out well. Things that will never work start out bad and stay that way. What you rarely see is a stillborn failure that transmogrifies into a stellar success. Small successes can grow into big ones, but failures rarely grow into successes.

The enthusiasm model, if I may call it that, is a bit like the x factor. It’s the elusive and hard-to-predict quality of a thing that makes some percentage of the public nuts about it. When the x factor is present, the public—or some subset of the public—picks up on it right away. For the excited few, the normal notions of what constitutes quality don’t apply. In time, the products that inspire excitement typically evolve to have quality too. Quality is one of the luxuries you can afford when the marketplace is spraying money in your direction and you have time to tinker.

One of the best ways to detect the x factor is to watch what customers do about your idea or product, not what they say. People tend to say what they think you want to hear or what they think will cause the least pain. What people do is far more honest.

If the first commercial version of your work excites no one to action, it’s time to move on to something different. Don’t be fooled by the opinions of friends and family. They’re all liars.

If your work inspires some excitement and some action from customers, get ready to chew through some walls. You might have something worth fighting for.

The Importance of Practicing

My observation is that some people are born with a natural impulse to practice things and some people find mindless repetition without immediate reward to be a form of torture. Whichever camp you’re in, it probably won’t change. It’s naive to expect the average person to embrace endless practice in pursuit of long-term success. It makes more sense to craft a life plan for yourself that embraces your natural inclinations, assuming you’re not a cannibal. Most natural inclinations have some sort of economic value if you channel them right.

The first filter in deciding where to spend your time is an honest assessment of your ability to practice. If you’re not a natural “practicer,” don’t waste time pursuing a strategy that requires it. You simply need to pick a life strategy that rewards novelty seeking more than mindless repetition. For example, you might want to be an architect, designer, home builder, computer programmer, entrepreneur, Web site designer, or even doctor.

All of those professions require disciplined study, but every class will be different, and later on all of your projects will be different. Your skills will increase with experience, which is the more fun cousin of practice. Practice involves putting your consciousness in suspended animation. Practicing is not living. But when you build your skills through an ever-changing sequence of experiences, you’re alive.

Managing Your Odds for Success

Success isn’t magic; it’s generally the product of picking a good system and following it until luck finds you.

When I speak to young people on the topic of success, as I often do, I tell them there’s a formula for it. You can manipulate your odds of success by how you choose to fill out the variables in the formula. The formula, roughly speaking, is that every skill you acquire doubles your odds of success.

Notice I didn’t say anything about the level of proficiency you need to achieve for each skill. I didn’t mention anything about excellence or being world-class. The idea is that you can raise your market value by being merely good—not extraordinary—at more than one skill.

To put the success formula into its simplest form:

Good + Good > Excellent

Successwise, you’re better off being good at two complementary skills than being excellent at one.

If you think extraordinary talent and a maniacal pursuit of excellence are necessary for success, I say that’s just one approach, and probably the hardest. When it comes to skills, quantity often beats quality.

The Math for Success

If you find yourself in a state of continual failure in your personal or business life, you might be blaming it on fate or karma or animal spirits or some other form of magic when the answer is simple math. There’s usually a pattern, but it might be subtle. Don’t stop looking just because you don’t see the pattern in the first seven years.

The future is thoroughly unpredictable when it comes to your profession and your personal life ten years out. The best way to increase your odds of success—in a way that might look like luck to others—is to systematically become good, but not amazing, at the types of skills that work well together and are highly useful for just about any job. This is another example in which viewing the world as math (adding skills together) and not magic allows you to move from a strategy with low odds of success to something better.

I made a list of the skills in which I think every adult should gain a working knowledge. I wouldn’t expect you to become a master of any, but mastery isn’t necessary. Luck has a good chance of finding you if you become merely good in most of these areas. 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

Positivity is far more than a mental preference. It changes your brain, literally, and it changes the people around you. It’s the nearest thing we have to magic.

I went to Wikipedia to get a quick list of the psychological and cognitive traps that humans often fall into. Psychology is an immense field and well beyond the scope of this book. My point is to impress upon you how many useful nuggets of information are at your disposal, and most of them are free. Every psychological trap on this list can be used to manipulate you. If there’s something on this list that you’re not familiar with, you’re vulnerable to deception. In some cases, you’re missing opportunities to make your product and yourself more attractive to others.

It’s a good idea to make psychology your lifelong study. Most of what you need to know as a regular citizen can be gleaned from the Internet.

It is tremendously useful to know when people are using reason and when they are rationalizing the irrational. You’re wasting your time if you try to make someone see reason when reason is not influencing the decision. If you’ve ever had a frustrating political debate with your friend who refuses to see the logic in your argument, you know what I mean. But keep in mind that the friend sees you exactly the same way.

If your view of the world is that people use reason for their important decisions, you are setting yourself up for a life of frustration and confusion. You’ll find yourself continually debating people and never winning except in your own mind. Few things are as destructive and limiting as a worldview that assumes people are mostly rational.

Rational behavior is especially useless in any situation that is too complex for a human to grasp.

Business Writing

One day during my corporate career I signed up for a company-sponsored class in business writing.

As it turns out, business writing is all about getting to the point and leaving out all of the noise. You think you already do that in your writing, but you probably don’t.

Consider the previous sentence. I intentionally embedded some noise. Did you catch it? The sentence that starts with “You think you already do that” includes the unnecessary word “already.” Remove it and you get exactly the same meaning: “You think you do that.” The “already” part is assumed and unnecessary. That sort of realization is the foundation of business writing.

Business writing also teaches that brains are wired to better understand concepts that are presented in a certain order.

Eventually I learned that the so-called persuasive writers were doing little more than using ordinary business-writing methods. Clean writing makes a writer seem smarter and it makes the writer’s arguments more persuasive.

Business writing is also the foundation for humor writing. Unnecessary words and passive writing kill the timing of humor the same way they kill the persuasiveness of your point. If you want people to see you as smart, persuasive, and funny, consider taking a two-day class in business writing. There aren’t many skills you can learn in two days that will serve you this well.

Accounting

Accounting is part of the vocabulary of business, and if you don’t understand it on a concept level, the world will be a confusing place. In particular it’s helpful to be able to create your own cash-flow projection on a spreadsheet and feel some confidence that you understand the tax impacts and the so-called time value of money.* Accounting overlaps with the fields of economics and business, and in each of those fields you need an understanding of accounting practices.

Conversation

Few people are skilled conversationalists. Most people are just talking, which is not the same thing. The difference is that skilled conversationalists have learned techniques that are surprisingly nonobvious to a lot of people.

You might start a conversation to:

  • Exchange information
  • Plan
  • Complain
  • Entertain
  • Feel connected
  • Befriend
  • Seduce
  • Persuade
  • Be polite
  • Avoid awkward silence
  • Brag

A bad conversationalist will focus on the impoverished part of the list, doing a lot of bragging, complaining, and exchanging of information.

My first inkling that conversation was a learnable skill, and that the benefits of conversation were larger than I imagined, happened while I was taking the Dale Carnegie course I mentioned earlier. The focus of the class was on public speaking, but we also learned techniques for making conversation with strangers, such as one might in a party or business situation. The technique is laughably simple and 100 percent effective. All you do is introduce yourself and ask questions until you find a point of mutual interest.

I’ll paraphrase the Dale Carnegie question stack as best I remember it. It goes something like this:

  1. What’s your name?
  2. Where do you live?
  3. Do you have a family?
  4. What do you do for a living?
  5. Do you have any hobbies/sports?
  6. Do you have any travel plans?

The secret to making the list of six questions work without seeming awkward is in understanding that the person you meet will feel every bit as awkward as you. That person wants to talk about something interesting and to sound knowledgeable. Your job is to make that easy. Nothing is easier than talking about one’s self. I would go so far as to say that 99 percent of the general public love talking about themselves. When you ask a stranger a personal question, you make that person happy. Your question relieves the stress of awkward silence and gets the conversation moving. Best of all, it signals that you have interest in the stranger, which most people interpret as friendliness and social confidence, even if you’re faking it. And faking social confidence leads to the real thing over time.

Your job as a conversationalist is to keep asking questions and keep looking for something you have in common with the stranger, or something that interests you enough to wade into the topic. Here’s a summary of good conversation technique.

  1. Ask questions.
  2. Don’t complain (much).
  3. Don’t talk about boring experiences (TV show, meal, dream, etc.).
  4. Don’t dominate the conversation. Let others talk.
  5. Don’t get stuck on a topic. Keep moving.
  6. Planning is useful but it isn’t conversation.
  7. Keep the sad stories short, especially medical stories.

The point of conversation is to make the other person feel good. If you do that one simple thing correctly, the other benefits come along with the deal.

So how do you get a stranger to like you? It’s simple, actually. It starts by smiling and keeping your body language open. After that, just ask questions and listen as if you cared, all the while looking for common interests. Everyone likes to talk about his or her own life, and everyone appreciates a sympathetic listener. Eventually, if you discover some common interests, you’ll feel a connection without any effort.

As a writer, I reflexively translate whatever I observe into a story form with a setup, a twist if there is one, and some sort of punch line or thought that ties it in a bow. You can do the same thing. Try to get in the habit of asking yourself how you can turn your interesting experiences into story form.

It’s a good idea to always have a backlog of stories you can pull out at a moment’s notice. And you’ll want to continually update your internal story database with new material.

The basic parts of a good party story are:

Setup

There’s only one important rule for a story setup: Keep it brief. And I mean really brief, as in “So, I took my car in for a brake job …” That’s it. Don’t tell us the problem with the brakes. Don’t tell us what made you think you had a brake problem, unless for some reason it is relevant. Try to keep your setup to one sentence, two at most.

Pattern

Establish a pattern that your story will violate. For example, you could say, “Whenever I take my car for any kind of service, I’m always amazed how expensive it is.” That establishes the pattern. Now we know that what follows will be a violation of the pattern. And we call that hint of things to come …

Foreshadowing

Foreshadowing means you leave some clues about where the story is going. The foreshadowing can happen as early as the setup, as in “My in-laws in Arkansas have something they call the ‘fraidy hole’ that everyone climbs into in case of tornadoes. It’s meant to hold no more than four people.” That’s the setup with the foreshadowing built in.

The Characters

Every story involves characters, and you might be one of them. For people who know all of your foibles, defects, and preferences, no elaboration is required. But if you are talking to strangers or talking about unfamiliar others, fill in the story with some character traits that will be relevant. For example, “Our friend Bob has been borrowing our power tools for years because he’s too cheap to buy his own.” That sort of brief character profile is essential to any story that involves people. All good stories are about personalities.

Relatability

There is one topic that people care more about than any other: themselves. Pick story topics that your listeners will relate to.

The Twist

Your story isn’t a story unless something unexpected or unusual happens. That’s the plot twist. If you don’t have a twist, it’s not a story. It’s just a regurgitation of your day. That’s fine for catching up with a spouse, but it won’t make you the life of a party.

Topics to Avoid

It’s important to tell stories about interesting events. It’s even more important to avoid telling stories about deadly boring or downer situations.

Overcoming Shyness

It turns out that a shy person can act like someone else more easily than he can act like himself. That makes some sense because shyness is caused by an internal feeling that you are not worthy to be in the conversation. Acting like someone else gets you out of that way of thinking.

The single best tip for avoiding shyness involves harnessing the power of acting interested in other people.

You should also try to figure out which people are thing people and which ones are people people. Thing people enjoy hearing about new technology and other clever tools and possessions. They also enjoy discussions of processes and systems, including politics.

People people enjoy only conversations that involve humans doing interesting things. They get bored in a second when the conversation turns to things. Once you know whether you are dealing with a thing person or a people person, you can craft your conversation to his or her sweet spot. It makes a big difference in how people react to you, and that in turn will make you more confident and less shy.

I also find it helpful to remind myself that every human is a mess on the inside. It’s easy to assume the good-looking and well-spoken person in front of you has it all together and is therefore your superior. The reality is that everyone is a basket case on the inside. Some people just hide it better. Find me a normal person and I’ll show you someone you don’t know that well. It helps to remind yourself that your own flaws aren’t that bad compared with everyone else’s.

I also recommend exercising your ego the way you’d exercise any other muscle. Try putting yourself in situations that will surely embarrass you if things go wrong, or maybe even if they don’t. Like any other skill, suppressing shyness takes practice. The more you put yourself in potentially embarrassing situations, the easier they all become.

Success builds confidence and confidence suppresses shyness. If you can’t control your shyness directly through the tricks I outlined, wait until you’re rich and famous; the shyness might leave on its own.

Persuasion

No matter your calling in life, you’ll spend a great deal of time trying to persuade people to do one thing or another.

For starters, some words and phrases are simply more persuasive than others, and that has been demonstrated in controlled studies. I’ve included a few of my own favorite persuasion words, based on my own experiences.

Persuasive Words and Phrases

  • Because
  • Would you mind … ?
  • I’m not interested.
  • I don’t do that.
  • I have a rule …
  • I just wanted to clarify …
  • Is there anything you can do for me?
  • Thank you
  • This is just between you and me.

I’m Not Interested

Sometimes you need to persuade someone to stop trying to persuade you.

I’ve found that the most effective way to stop people from trying to persuade me is to say, “I’m not interested.” You should try it. Don’t offer a reason why you aren’t interested. No one can say why a thing holds interest for some and not for others. There’s no argument against a lack of interest.

I Don’t Do That

Another good persuasion sentence is “I don’t do that.” It’s not a reason and barely tries to be. But it sounds like a hard-and-fast rule.

I Have a Rule …

In a similar vein, another good antipersuasion technique is to say you have a rule. For example, let’s say you have a lunch scheduled with a potential client and your obnoxious coworker asks if he can join you. Honesty won’t work because you have to coexist with your coworker. Instead, say something along the lines of “I have a rule of only doing one-on-one lunches with clients.” It will sound convincing and somewhat polite, while offering no reason whatsoever.

This Is Just Between You and Me

Research shows that people will automatically label you a friend if you share a secret. Sharing a confidence is a fast-track way to cause people to like and trust you.

The right approach to sharing a secret is to start small. Make sure the small secrets stay secret before you try anything riskier. One way to judge your risk is to be alert for other people’s secrets that are being relayed to you.

Proper Voice Technique

It’s helpful to have different vocal strategies for different situations. Your fun voice might be higher pitched and more rapid paced, whereas your serious voice might be deeper and more measured.

When you’re trying to convey a fake sense of confidence—which is often handy—you need to tell yourself you’re acting. Simply speak the way you imagine a confident person would speak and you’ll nail it on the first try.

You want to get rid of the hemming and hawing, the “ums” and “uhs,” and anything that disrupts your flow. That takes practice. The quickest fix is simply to substitute silence where you once had “ums” and “uhs.” It will feel uncomfortable at first, but you’ll get used to it.

Pattern Recognition

Here’s my own list of the important patterns for success that I’ve noticed over the years. This is purely anecdotal. I exclude the ones that are 100 percent genetic.

  1. Lack of fear of embarrassment
  2. Education (the right kind)
  3. Exercise

A lack of fear of embarrassment is what allows one to be proactive. It’s what makes a person take on challenges that others write off as too risky. It’s what makes you take the first step before you know what the second step is. I’m not a fan of physical risks, but if you can’t handle the risk of embarrassment, rejection, and failure, you need to learn how, and studies suggest that is indeed a learnable skill.

Education and psychological bravery are somewhat interchangeable. If you don’t have much of one, you can compensate with a lot of the other. When you see a successful person who lacks a college education, you’re usually looking at someone with an unusual lack of fear.

The next pattern I’ve noticed is exercise. Good health is a baseline requirement for success. But I’m not talking about the obvious fact that sick people can’t get much done. I’m talking about the extra energy and vitality that good health brings.

There’s one more pattern I see in successful people: They treat success as a learnable skill. That means they figure out what they need and they go and get it.

Experts

Dealing with experts is always tricky. Are they honest? Are they competent? How often are they right? My observation and best guess is that experts are right about 98 percent of the time on the easy stuff but only right 50 percent of the time on anything that is unusually complicated, mysterious, or even new.

If your gut feeling (intuition) disagrees with the experts, take that seriously. You might be experiencing some pattern recognition that you can’t yet verbalize.

Association Programming

Humans are social animals. There are probably dozens of ways we absorb energy, inspiration, skills, and character traits from those around us. Sometimes we learn by example. Sometimes success appears more approachable and ordinary because we see normal people achieve it, and perhaps that encourages us to pursue schemes with higher payoffs. Sometimes the people around us give us information we need, or encouragement, or contacts, or even useful criticism. We can’t always know the mechanism by which others change our future actions, but it’s pretty clear it happens, and it’s important.

If you live near optimistic winners, those qualities are sure to rub off to some extent. And I advise you to consider this fact a primary tool for programming your moistobot self. The programming interface is your location. To change yourself, part of the solution might involve spending more time with the people who represent the change you seek.

Given our human impulse to pick up the habits and energy of others, you can use that knowledge to literally program your brain the way you want. Simply find the people who most represent what you would like to become and spend as much time with them as you can without trespassing, kidnapping, or stalking. Their good habits and good energy will rub off on you.

Happiness

Pursuing happiness without understanding the mechanisms behind it is like planting a garden without knowing the basics of fertilization, pest control, watering, and frost.

My definition of happiness is that it’s a feeling you get when your body chemistry is producing pleasant sensations in your mind. That definition is compatible with the science of happiness.

It’s tempting to imagine happiness as a state of mind caused by whatever is happening in your life. By that way of thinking, we’re largely victims of the cold, cold world that sometimes rewards our good work and sometimes punishes us for no reason.

Science has done a good job in recent years of demonstrating that happiness isn’t as dependent on your circumstances as you might think. For example, amputees often return to whatever level of happiness they enjoyed before losing a limb. And you know from your own experience that some people seem to be happy no matter what is going on in their lives, while others can’t find happiness no matter how many things are going right. We’re all born with a limited range of happiness, and the circumstances of life can only jiggle us around within the range.

The good news is that anyone who has experienced happiness probably has the capacity to spend more time at the top of his or her personal range and less time near the bottom. The big part—the 80 percent of happiness—is nothing but a chemistry experiment. And it’s hugely helpful to think of it that way. You can’t always quickly fix whatever is wrong in your environment, and you can’t prevent negative thoughts from drifting into your head. But you can easily control your body chemistry through lifestyle, and that in turn will cause your thoughts to turn positive, while making the bumps in your path feel less important.

For starters, the single biggest trick for manipulating your happiness chemistry is being able to do what you want, when you want.

You need to control the order and timing of things to be happy. It’s important to look at happiness in terms of timing because timing is easier to control than resources. It’s hard to become rich enough to buy your own private island but, relatively speaking, it’s easier to find a job with flexible hours. A person with a flexible schedule and average resources will be happier than a rich person who has everything except a flexible schedule. Step one in your search for happiness is to continually work toward having control of your schedule.

In your personal life and your career, consider schedule flexibility when making any big decision.

That brings me to the next important mechanism for happiness. Happiness has more to do with where you’re heading than where you are. We tend to feel happy when things are moving in the right direction and unhappy when things are trending bad.

The directional nature of happiness is one reason it’s a good idea to have a sport or hobby that leaves you plenty of room to improve every year.

When you choose a career, consider whether it will lead to a lifetime of ever-improved performance, a plateau, or a steady decline in your skills. If you are lucky enough to have career options, and only one of them affords a path of continual improvement, choose that one, all else being equal.

The next element of happiness you need to master is imagination. Pessimism is often a failure of imagination. If you can imagine the future being brighter, it lifts your energy and gooses the chemistry in your body that produces a sensation of happiness. If you can’t even imagine an improved future, you won’t be happy no matter how well your life is going right now.

I find it useful to daydream that the future will be better than today, by far. I like to imagine a future that is spectacular and breathtaking. The daydreams need not be accurate in terms of predicting the future. Simply imagining a better future hacks your brain chemistry and provides you with the sensation of happiness today. Being happy raises your energy level and makes it easier to pursue the steps toward real-world happiness. This is another case in which your imagination can influence the real world. Don’t let reality control your imagination. Let your imagination be the user interface to steer your reality.

The next important thing to remember about happiness is that it’s not a mystery of the mind and it’s not magic. Happiness is the natural state for most people whenever they feel healthy, have flexible schedules, and expect the future to be good.

Unhappiness that is caused by too much success is a high-class problem. That’s the sort of unhappiness people work all of their lives to get. If you find yourself there, and I hope you do, you’ll find your attention naturally turning outward. You’ll seek happiness through service to others. I promise it will feel wonderful.

Routine

Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice, tells us that people become unhappy if they have too many options in life. The problem with options is that choosing any path can leave you plagued with self-doubt. You quite rationally think that one of the paths not chosen might have worked out better. That can eat at you.

Choosing among attractive alternatives can also be exhausting. You want to feel as if you researched and considered all of your options. That’s why I find great comfort in routine.

Recapping the happiness formula:

  • Eat right.
  • Exercise.
  • Get enough sleep.
  • Imagine an incredible future (even if you don’t believe it).
  • Work toward a flexible schedule.
  • Do things you can steadily improve at.
  • Help others (if you’ve already helped yourself).
  • Reduce daily decisions to routine.

If you do those eight things, the rest of what you need to stimulate the chemistry of happiness in your brain will be a lot easier to find. In fact, the other components of happiness that you seek—such as career opportunities, love, and friends—might find their way to you if you make yourself an attractive target.

Luck

My worldview is that every element of your personality, from your perseverance to your risk tolerance to your ambition to your intelligence, is a product of pure chance. You needed the genes you were born with and the exact experiences of your life to create the person you are with the opportunities you have. Every decision you make is a simple math product of those variables.

The Book’s Summary

The model for success I described here looks roughly like this: Focus on your diet first and get that right so you have enough energy to want to exercise. Exercise will further improve your energy, and that in turn will make you more productive, more creative, more positive, more socially desirable, and more able to handle life’s little bumps.

Once you optimize your personal energy, all you need for success is luck. You can’t directly control luck, but you can move from strategies with bad odds to strategies with good odds. For example, learning multiple skills makes your odds of success dramatically higher than learning one skill. If you learn to control your ego, you can pick strategies that scare off the people who fear embarrassment, thus allowing you to compete against a smaller field. And if you stay in the game long enough, luck has a better chance of finding you. Avoid career traps such as pursuing jobs that require you to sell your limited supply of time while preparing you for nothing better.

Happiness is the only useful goal in life. Unless you are a sociopath, your own happiness will depend on being good to others. And happiness tends to happen naturally whenever you have good health, resources, and a flexible schedule. Get your health right first, acquire resources and new skills through hard work, and look for an opportunity that gives you a flexible schedule someday.

Some skills are more important than others, and you should acquire as many of those key skills as possible, including public speaking, business writing, a working understanding of the psychology of persuasion, an understanding of basic technology concepts, social skills, proper voice technique, good grammar, and basic accounting. Develop a habit of simplifying. Learn how to make small talk with strangers, and learn how to avoid being an asshole. If you get that stuff right—and almost anyone can—you will be hard to stop.

It might help some of you to think of yourself as moist robots and not skin bags full of magic and mystery. If you control the inputs, you can determine the outcomes, give or take some luck. Eat right, exercise, think positively, learn as much as possible, and stay out of jail, and good things can happen.

Look for patterns in every part of life, from diet to exercise to any component of success. Try to find scientific backing for your observed patterns, and use yourself as a laboratory to see if the patterns hold for you.

Most important, understand that goals are for losers and 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.

And always 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. That’s a system.