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Learning from Failure, Via Scott Adams

Scott Adams, creator of the mega hit comic strip Dilbert, has written a new book, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life (Portfolio, 2013). He describes the book this way: “It's not an advice book, but you might find it useful to learn about one person's unusual strategy for success and how it all turned out.”

Adams stopped by AMA’s New York City office recently to discuss the book for an Edgewise podcast. The following is an edited version of that interview.

AMA: In the book, you talk a great deal about being healthy, both physically and emotionally. Why is health so important to the way you approach your work and your life?
Scott Adams:
Well, there’s almost nothing you can think of that wouldn't work better if your energy isn’t better, if your concentration isn’t better, if you’re not taking sick days. So there’s a lever that affects literally every part of your life from your romantic life to your career. People who look healthier get better jobs. The science is pretty clear on that. When I wrote How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, I included chapters on diet and fitness not because I’m an expert, but because I’m a simplifier. I thought, how can I simplify those topics to the most important single thing you can do in each case? So that’s what I try to do.

AMA: You also discuss how to overcome shyness, mainly by being what you call a “big phony.” How is this possible?
I’m genetically shy. I’ve got the easy blush thing going on. But I found that just through practice, if you put yourself out there you can get used to anything. I also took the Dale Carnegie course which teaches you actual techniques for not only giving a speech, but for having a conversation with a stranger. Their technique is so simple that you almost don't think it will work until you try. It’s really just asking questions of the other person—you know, where do you work; what’s your name; where do you live—that sort of thing. At first, it will feel artificial. You will feel like a huge phony when you’re doing it because you’re just going down the list: “Hi. What’s your name? Where do you live?” But when you do it, you find that people are completely engaged while talking about themselves. It turns out that there is simply a technique to it. If you look at the people who are good socially, they follow this simple little script. They ask about you, and they let you do the talking, because everyone’s comfortable talking about themselves.

AMA: Talk a bit about the power of simplicity.
I’ve found that the simplest solution is almost always going to be the one that works best. There are optimizers who are looking for, “Let me get every little advantage in this situation,” and there are people who just say, “What’s the bottom line?” Let me give you an example. In the case of fitness, there are hundreds of things you should know to do it right—everything from, “When do I eat my protein?” to “How much water should I have?” “How much should I do every day?” But if you boil it down to, “What’s the one most important thing?,” it is simply to be active every day. Because what happens if you do it every day is it turns from a burden—“Oh, I’ve got to exercise again” to something that feels good, if you don't overdo it. It becomes a habit. So the starting point is doing something every day. The rest is the easy part.

AMA: What can we learn from failure?
SA: Well, if you pick your challenges right, even if they don't work out, you’ve learned a new skill set that is additive to what you all ready have. You might meet some people, make some new contacts. For example, I wrote my new book because of a previous book that didn’t do too well, but I have those contacts, and that allowed me to more easily do this book. Research shows that if somebody tries to do an entrepreneurial startup, their odds of making it work the first time are low, maybe one in ten. But the second time they try, they’ve built up so much talent, resources, and knowledge that their odds of success are maybe one in three, or whatever the number is, but it’s much better. So there’s lots of science that tells is to just keeping trying and building our skill sets.

AMA offers a wide array of seminars that will help you communicate more compellingly. Here are two:
Effective Executive Speaking 

Developing Effective Business Conversation Skills 

About the Author(s)

Shari Lifland is Editorial Communications Manager for American Management Association.  She is editor of the eNewsletters "Moving Ahead," "Management Update," and "Administrative Excellence," and manages content for the Members-only section of AMA's Website.