Fail Forward

How do you fail constantly and still end up successful?

Though I don’t agree with Scott Adams (creator of Dilbert) on everything, I do think that he has some interesting ideas.

Adams defines the difference between a Goal and a System in his book How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big (and also in his blog, here). A goal is kind of like taking a class that’s pass/fail that you don’t care about, but is required for your degree. You only have one way to pass the class, and that’s it. A system has more than one way of winning built into it. You you can either win in the obvious way, you can learn something, or you gain something just by participating in the process. A system has a bit more nuance to it, and almost has a “heads I win, tails you lose” kind of structure to it.

Adams uses the idea of losing 10 lbs vs. having a system of regular diet and exercise. Losing 10 lbs is binary: either you have done it or you haven’t. You are in a constant state of failure and distress while you haven’t lost the 10 lbs, and temporary fleeting success once you have succeeded. So to me, one of the differences between a goal and a system is setting up a lot of different ways to ‘win’. Setting up a way to ‘win’ when you select a better breakfast on day one, when you elect to work out instead of sit on the couch, when you lose the first pound, the second pound, and so on — this is a much better way to stay motivated. So in a way, having a system means that you can win every day instead of in that binary – pass/fail kind of way.

One of my challenges as I do my ‘best practices’ is to try to set as many of them as possible up as systems rather than goals. In part, that’s why I’m sharing the process in a blog, podcast, or video. I’ve always admired people who do things over an extended period, and then they consistently apply themselves and put out a huge volume of work (thing a week, Jennifer Dewalt and so on). In Tools of Titans the vloggers that Tim Ferriss interviews typically have a transformation in their popularity once they go to daily vlogs. There are two parts to this: quantity and quality. In the book Art and Fear  the author shares this anecdote: a pottery teacher once divided his class into two and graded half of them on quantity (e.g 50 lbs was an A, 40 lbs a B, and so on), half on quality. What he found was weird. The best quality pieces were all produced by the “quantity” group.

Why? I think it’s because of more practice, and taking the pressure off of ‘success’. You learn from experience, which requires repetition. That to me is a system – go for quantity (repetition) and you get to quality. A goal is going directly for the quality (and typically failing). Also, since the first part of my project is to set up my own personal “best practices” I know that I’m automatically gaining something, even if no one ever reads my blog, listens to a podcast, or watches one of my vlogs–I’m doing things that I know work for me, and I’m doing them everyday. Even if none of the rest of the stuff works, I’ll know that I’ve gained something by engaging in my own personal best practices.

My question to you is: where can you apply this in your own life? Where could you stand to set up some easier wins so that you don’t have to beat yourself up all the time for not being exactly the weight you want to be, at exactly the skill level you want, with exactly the right amount of money and the right amount of the right friends and the right amount of … whatever? Where can you start to celebrate progress and ease up some so you can start throwing some pots and just seeing where the process goes instead of trying to be perfect?

Where can you crash around, break stuff, and try new things in your life? How can you celebrate small successes and build on those? How can you learn from failure? How can you start building in more repetitions of the important stuff in your life?


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