The Case for Scott Adams’s Irrational Optimism
One of the things I respect in Scott Adams is his dedication in applying the scientific method to real-life. His latest book reinforces that impression. He is willing to be relentlessly evidence-based, even when it means associating himself with low-status beliefs (e.g. affirmations). I think of him as a funny, less informed Seth Roberts.
Adams’s newest book How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life is about success. As a not-wildly-successful, Scott Adams fan, I thought it worth consideration.
If you do read his book, the best point you will get out of it is that systems beat goals. Goals are for losers, says Adams. Or as I would put it, having a goal implicitly frames yourself as a loser because a goal is something you want but don’t have yet. A goal to lose weight is an acknowledgement that you are overweight (at least in your own eyes). A goal to get a job is an acknowledgment that you are underemployed.
A system, in contrast, is a strategy that you are reasonably confident will get you where you want to be if you faithfully execute it over time. An example of a strategy Adams provides is putting on his workout clothes every day and driving to the gym. He says five days a year he gets back in his car and goes back home without having worked out. He says he’s still happy about what he did on those days because he never had the goal of working out at the gym. Instead, he is simply following a strategy that he is reasonably confident will keep him fit over his lifetime. I’m reminded of the (possibly fake) Thomas Edison quote: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.” Edison is in some ways playing games with the definition of the word “failure”, but he at least did not think himself tolerant of failure. Rather, his view of success was process-based rather than outcome-based.
In his book, Adams is a bit sloppy distinguishing goals and strategies, but what he provides is sufficient to get the idea across.
I don’t think the above point is sufficient, however, to make the book good. I think I appreciated the point before Adams wrote about it. And if his book is about success, I should be able to read it and feel I understand why he is successful and I am not (comparatively). I think that’s a fair metric to judge the book by.
In this regard, I think he succeeds about as well as a cartoonist writing about his own life could. I escape with the following hypotheses in order of least to most surprising.
- He prioritizes sleep and exercise, something I did not for most of my life.
- He sought to routinize his day and diet to reduce his cognitive load for deciding what to do at any given moment.
- He sought to manage his energy levels through the day and discovered how through self-experimentation.
- He works on projects that are unlikely to succeed.
I think the first two items are self-explanatory even if not widely adopted. Routines are good, especially healthy ones. The third is about collecting data about yourself rather than just accepting whatever the NY Times health blog says you should do this week. For more on this, read this by Seth Roberts. (Yes, it’s a long academic paper, but if you have never read one before, it’d be a good one to start with. It’s written as if the author intended for you to understand it.)
The fourth item is one that even now I find difficult to embrace even realizing that it is responsible for Adam’s success and that I think many would probably benefit from it.
Adams is thankfully open with sharing his many business failures. Many of these ideas are not embarrassing because they failed. They are embarrassing because he actually attempted them.
Among the first ideas Adams invested his time and money in was a rosin bag used by tennis players to keep their hands dry. He designed the bat to attach with velcro. That’s a totally reasonable solution to that problem, but personally I would have spent two minutes thinking about it and decided that it would be unlikely to sell the volume required to get shelf space even at specialty stores. It’s the sort of thing that only people who play often would want, and those people would buy it once and never again for ten years. And I don’t imagine you could charge more than five bucks for it. $5/customer every ten years that the person remains an active tennis player is not the makings of a good product from a business perspective even if it is really useful for customers.
Adams opened not one, but two restaurants, which you could tell was a bad idea because it was spelled R-E-S-T-A-U-R-A-N-T. His latest venture is calendartree.com, which seems like a nice and well-intentioned way to be able to coordinate schedules with people using different calendar applications, but I am doubtful that many people will be willing to pay $19.95/year to solve such a narrow problem when they won’t pay more than a dollar for a really well-designed mobile phone application.
Most of the ideas Adams documents are ones I would not have thought about a second day had they occurred to me.
Yet Adams is successful. How?
There are multiple possibilities here. One is that Adams is actually a gullible idiot, and I, applying my keen intellect, can easily identify these various money pits on examination. Adams simply got lucky with Dilbert and has rationalized his success after the fact.
It’s worth noting though, that Adams seems to admit as much with respect to Dilbert. He shares some of the coincidences that let Dilbert claw its way into newspapers around the country. Among them, morbidly, was that one of the traveling cartoon salespeople who didn’t like Dilbert died and was replaced with someone who pushed Dilbert.
Still, I think it’s a mistake to discount his success. Dilbert, after all, is much more than a cartoon strip. Adams got an animated TV show made, which not all cartoonists can do. He’s published a number of books with words in them. Yes, they leverage Dilbert, but not all cartoonists do the same. Other cartoonists aren’t highly-compensated speakers as Adams is. They don’t all get invited to write for the Wall Street Journal. I got my PhD from the business school, and my only relationship with the Wall Street Journal is with the subscriptions department.
Perhaps these successes are only half-successes since they result from the unique place that Dilbert occupies in business discourse. Jim Davis of Garfield could hardly be expected to write for the Wall Street Journal. Still, it was far from inevitable that Adams would be asked to. Whatever success he got out of Dilbert beyond selling comic books and stuffed dolls is not simply a continuation of the same luck that might have been responsible for Dilbert.
A better explanation for the success of Scott Adams is that he is remarkably blind to the stupidity of his ideas. So, he actually tries acting on his ideas. Most of them fail because that’s is the fate of terrible ideas. Still, he tries enough of them and learns enough along the way to have been able to be successful a handful of times over.
Adams is not the blind squirrel finding the nut. He is the blind, taste-handicapped squirrel who thinks he can see and keeps biting into things randomly, each time convinced he has found his nut. And sometimes it really is a nut. Success! In contrast, I am the blind squirrel who knows he is blind, which is why in my lifetime I have tried to start zero businesses because I have standards higher than putting velcro on a bag.
Adams has an irrational optimism that nevertheless makes him better off. If there were a pill for such irrationality, would you take it? Most of us tend to weight the probability of success in something we try more than the consequences. Yes, a strict rationalist might start ten companies each with only a 20% probability of success but promising a 10x return on investment. But most of us can’t put our hearts into something day after day if we think it only has a 20% chance of success. Even criminals seem to behave according to how likely they think it is that they will get caught rather than how severe the consequences would be to getting caught. [pdf]
If this is the case, maybe irrational optimism is the only way to success. Maybe you have to rely on your brain twisting that 20% into a 70% so that you can get to work in the morning and give it your full effort. How else can you put your heart into a velcro bag that might someday be something bigger?