He's best known as the creator of the popular Dilbert comic strip, but Scott Adams is an accomplished business writer and commentator. His nine years at Pacific Bell helped inspire the characters for his comic strip, which he originally created on nights and weekends while still working his day job. Today, he has penned numerous books, including The Dilbert Principle and Dogbert's Top Secret Management Handbook, both New York Times number-one bestsellers.

I recently had the privilege of interviewing Adams, who is preparing for the softcover release of his book How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, which is currently available in hardcover. The book highlights insight he gained in his years in the corporate world, including his time at Pacific Bell and his work at Crocker National Bank from 1979 to 1986. Acting on one of his "strange skills" to "simplify complicated things," Adams discussed his belief in using what he calls "systems" instead of goals.

The Problem With Goals

Many professionals believe that the key to success is goal setting, but Adams takes a different approach. The problem with goals, Adams says, is that they lock you into a mental model that can potentially set you up for failure.

"If your goal is to lose 10 pounds, you may wake up each day with failure in mind because the goal is hard to reach, and you are progressing only by small amounts," Adams says. "It takes up all your willpower. I recommend that instead of a goal, you have a system."

In the weight loss example, Adams says a person could instead spend time educating himself about choices, which gradually leads to selecting the right foods. Instead of striving for a goal, a person would then be arming himself with knowledge instead of relying on sheer willpower.

"Willpower is a finite resource," Adams says. "Don't pick a model that has failure built into it and requires that you constantly drain a finite resource."

Avoiding Magical Thinking

Adams also takes issue with the notion that passion is extremely important to success. He points out that in a huge portion of the products that have turned entrepreneurs into billionaires, passion came later, after they had already achieved success.

"You give anybody a billion dollars and of course they are passionate," Adams says. "Passion is one of those things like willpower in that there's 'magical thinking' about it. You've got to be careful about 'magical thinking.'"

Instead of passion or willpower, Adams recommends finding out where your odds of success are highest. While luck is important, it's important to first put yourself in the right position, allowing luck to find you. As Adams puts it, if you want to be hit by lightning, it won't happen inside. You have to go outside, connect lightning rods, go to the top of the mountain, and only then will it hit you. This is the type of system Adams is talking about.

This can be applied to entrepreneurship. "The idea of the 'pivot' is systems in action. It refers to a startup that formed for a certain purpose, but somewhere along the way, the entrepreneurs stopped using their willpower by hammering away selling the original idea. They found something that the product may have been better suited for. They were pursuing solutions, and they knew that if they kept trying things, they would find something that could be very popular. The system allowed them to make a change."

My Own Experience

Most of life is math, according to Adams. You should go where the math is good. A professional should acquire the skills and experience necessary and layer them together to find the desired success. In my own career, I've found that to be true. I took one of my skills, writing, and combined it with social media marketing and SEO knowledge. When added to my desire to meet new people and engage in public speaking opportunities, a unique combination was created that has helped me find success.

Adams is putting his own advice to good use with his next venture, a scheduling startup called CalendarTree. Through this app, organizers can create a schedule that sends all events as one link. When recipients click on the link, their calendar apps are automatically populated with all of the events at once. Through his work as a comic strip creator, writer, speaker, and entrepreneur, Adams is proof that attention to systems instead of goals can help a person succeed.

Published on: Nov 17, 2014
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.