Scott Adams on the Math of Success


Torricelli's GabrielHorn

“A smarter approach is to think of learning as a system in which you continually expose yourself to new topics, primarily the ones you find interesting.”

[Scott Adams]

More dots to connect from disparate bodies of knowledge create advantage. Even small improvements help us with product innovation, for example, and in making personal behavioral changes that stick.

This is why learning to learn the most valuable skill. Learning helps us think better, thus make better decisions, and we are re-discovering why learning actively leads to wellbeing. Ancient philosophers knew that and if we look at the lives of famous scientists — astronomers, physicists, mathematicians, etc. — to find that they were also fairly good artists. Many of them were polymaths, people who knew a lot and also did something with it.

While we ponder who are the new polymaths? We should take courage from the fact that many of us don’t need to become one to manage our odds for success. This is one of the many takeaways in How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big by Dilbert creator, entrepreneur, and author Scott Adams. 

Here’s my review of the book.

Adams has been actively blogging about the art of persuasion. He’s using the news, and particularly the political news coverage and first hand observations of candidates debates, “as a source of energy” to help us develop a sense of the tells to appreciate the work of persuasion masters.

It’s a bit like looking at those illustrations with two images in them — at first you can see only one, but once you see the second you cannot unsee it.

I was curious to learn whether drawing attention to his system for thinking had an effect on people discovering Scott Adams’ book, which was published in 2013. Mostly I buy on Amazon for convenience, but Barnes & Noble is within reasonable distance so I went to see if they stocked How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big.

How long has it been since you visited a bookstore? Rows of titles next to each other by category, some of them counter intuitive to me. IN other words, they did not make sense. When we buy online, as I often do, we also buy in 3D — our past preferences, current context, and other data points populate the algorithm.

Where did they hide it? The lady who looked it up said I was the second person that day to ask (at store opening.) She said they restocked copies from the storage closet. This is good news for Scott Adams and for us — because it a a must-read.

What follows is partly why.

The Math of Success

The math of success has at its root a simple equation. Says Adams, “every skill you acquire doubles your odds of success.” There are things we can do to acknowledge the role of luck in our lives and techniques we can use to get lucky, but the truth is we can’t control luck. Says Adams:

but you can move form a game with low odds to a game with better odds.


The hard part is figuring out the odds of any given game, and that’s harder than it looks.


Some of the most powerful patterns in life are subtle.


The point is that while we all think we know the odds in life, there’s a good chance you have some blind spots. Finding those blind spots is a big deal.

In organizations we call this knowing what we don’t know and it costs us dearly. Adams says that:

The best way to increase your odds of success — in a way that might look like luck to others — is to systematically become good, but not amazing, at the types of skills that work well together and are highly useful for just about any job.

This is another example in which viewing the world as math (adding skills together) and not magic allows you to move from a strategy with low odds of success to something better.

Steve Jobs talked about technology and liberal arts. Elon Musk says he views knowledge as a semantic tree, where we need to understand the fundamental principles first. Winston Churchill worked tirelessly at understanding the power of words and marched them into battle. J.K. Rawling says what we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.

Scott Adams’ list of the skills where we should gain a working knowledge includes a deeper dive into each:

  • accounting — I got lucky here, this was the subject matter I built a system around so my mother could learn it (some background)
  • overcoming shyness — Robin Dreeke’s manual is helpful for this point as well
  • golf — especially if you work in insurance, risk management, and financial services. I suggest scrubbing floors for decompressing, learned it from my mom, but it has less social value
  • proper grammar — where do we start? Saw a job description for a senior content marketing strategist with eye for detail as a must start with “principle” as in basic truth when it likely meant “principal” as in key driver
  • persuasion — while you wait for your copy of the book, you should catch up on Scott Adams’ Master Wizard series at his blog; plus make sure you are high energy and take the higher ground
  • technology (hobby level) — this goes beyond learning to code, though there are plenty of free resources to do that (this is from two years ago)

My personal philosophy on learning is that it is a lifelong pursuit, that learning by example is a highly developed form of influence, and that becoming extreme learners creates enormous advantages for success.

For a deeper dive on the math of success and much more, I recommend How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big by Scott Adams.


[image of (Evangelista)Torricelli’s trumpet (also – perhaps more often – known as Gabriel’s Horn) via Rocker HRO]

Conversation Agent – Valeria Maltoni