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Dilbert Creator Calls Entrepreneurs 'Selfish' (in the Nicest Way Possible)

Scott Adams offers insights on success, the power of systems and why he thinks entrepreneurs are the bee's knees.
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There is no single way to achieve success. But there is usually something you can do every day that will at least increase your odds of reaching it.

That's the idea behind Scott Adams' latest book. In October, Adams--who is best known as the creator of the long-running Dilbert comic strip--released the book, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, which offers a somewhat contrarian helping of business advice. Instead of straightforward tips, Adams offers a template based on his own life, as well as a framework for how to systematically achieve goals--ideas he affirms help him progress every day.

Adams sat down with Inc.com to posit why he thinks systems work, how to stay determined through failure and how to be the best kind of selfish. Below is an edited version of the conversation:

What's the difference between a goal and system?

I'm not anti-goal so much as I am pointing out that it's a limiting factor. So if you have a goal of getting your boss' job, that's great if it works, but chances are there are other jobs that will make you even happier. And if you're focusing in one direction, you might miss those other opportunities. So a goal would be get your boss' job, and a system would be to continually improve your exposure to other opportunities and increase your skillset.

How can you teach yourself systems and implement them?

The thing about a system is that it's something you're doing on a regular basis. It might be something you do multiple times a day, or at least quite often, until it becomes a routine and a habit. So going to the gym every day, or just being active every day is a system. And it's easy to implement because I just described the entire system: Be active every day. You're increasing the likelihood that you're going to enjoy physical activity and you're increasing the payoff because you're not overdoing it.

What is an example of this in the workplace? 

I tell the anecdote in the book about running into a businessman on the airplane. His system was one that even if he just got a new job, he would always be open to looking for the next better job. So his system was continually searching for the next better job. He would relocate as much as he needed and would become the CEO by the time I talked to him again.

What's the difference between wishing and deciding?

I find that whenever I talk to someone who is envious of my success, or anybody else's success, they tend to think in terms of wishes instead of decisions. That is to say, 'I wish I had a boat.' Or 'I wish my job was paying me much more.' But they're not doing anything. They are not acting on it. It's important to know when you're just wishing for something and when you decide it. So in my case, I didn't wish to get rich. I decided to get rich. And I was going to find out what it costs and pay it. In my case, the cost was I worked ten years without a vacation day.

How have you stayed determined through your failures?

There is a part of this that is purely genetic and I think it does people a disservice if you tell them: 'Hey, you can have the same positive attitude that I do.' But beyond that, having a system is also a big part of keeping my spirits up because if you say 'I want to achieve X,' what you're doing on any given day might not seem like you're getting closer to X, but if you think in terms of systems, and you're not focused on this one particular X goal, you're going to feel like you're doing something good every day.

How about an example from your own life?

When I was getting my MBA at Berkeley, I didn't have a specific goal. I just knew that with that degree, my odds would be better. So whenever I felt myself moving from a place of lower odds to higher odds, it felt like success. When you have the sensation of progress, it's a lot easier to keep your hopes up.

How can entrepreneurs, as you say in the book, be the best kind of selfish?

Entrepreneurs are already pretty much there. Because by the time you say 'I'm going to be an entrepreneur, I'm going to work all these hours, I'm doing this thing I really want to do,' you're probably already pretty far into the selfish category. And I mean that in a positive way. You're taking care of business. You're working hard. You're making the world a better place. Even if it doesn’t work, the economic activity in itself can stimulate the economy. It gives people jobs in the short run. So an entrepreneur is pretty much the definition of an enlightened selfish person.  

Last updated: Dec 18, 2013

CAROLYN CUTRONE | Staff Reporter

Carolyn Cutrone is the assistant managing editor forInc. She has previously worked at Business Insider and GQ. @carolyncutrone




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