Everybody wants to be awesomer. That’s a part of the appeal of books by authors like Malcolm Gladwell: they offer research and fun stories that can also teach us tricks on how to be more awesome. Those things can translate into more money, sociability, and positive outlooks. Their focus, though, remains on the story, whether it’s personal experience or a massive idea. Books in the “Self-Help” category, on the other hand, try to offer you direct advice and paradigms you should believe, like a how-to manual. Self-Help Books tend to be poorly-written, over-simplistic, and lacking nuance.
I first read Scott Adams when I was a kid. Dilbert was my favorite comic, and led me to Adams’s “thought-experiment” book, God’s Debris, which was fascinating and exciting: most of the ideas in it are bullshit (like an alternate hypothesis of gravity), but they’re interesting bullshit that makes you think, and some of it turned out to be right (like an evolutionary idea of the internet). I also read books like The Dilbert Principle, most of which were boring for a kid but proved that Adams was a smart and funny man. When his new book, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life, came out last week I picked it up. I’ve had good dry-humor chuckles with him before, and I expected a fun personal narrative with a point.
That is not the kind of book this is. Adams is clear about this from the outset, so he cannot be blamed. The way you’re supposed to think of the book, he says, is a collection of success-building ideas from a “smart friend,” and he deliberately kept humor and the personal to a minimum so he could compete more firmly in the “Self-Help” category. I have to mourn the book this could have been. Scott Adams is still a smart and funny man, and the combination of wry knowingness, storytelling, and laughs could have made How to Fail at Almost Everything the coming of a more cerebral, more internet-y Dave Barry. Alas, it was not to be.
The book is a collection of mindsets and steps for how to suck less, at life. Its usefulness depends entirely on how much you already suck at life. Scott Adams gives you a lot of really great ideas, most of which I agree with fervently and have seen work first-hand. Adams speaks of the importance of knowing basic psychology to figure out how people work and avoid common pitfalls, the importance of setting up successful systems that improve your odds of success, the value of managing sleep and nutrition, the power of positive thinking, and the crucial importance of taking risks and putting yourself out there confidently. The value depends completely on how much of this stuff you already know.
The major ideas are major. The importance of psychology in our everyday lives cannot be overstated. Adams also focuses in on the separation between our phsyical, subconscious selves and our rational thinking and how this can trip you up. For example, being hungry can keep you from being creative, and trying to force yourself to exercise rather than having a positive-reinforcement cycle will make you quit. He calls it learning to program or hack the “soggy computer” of your brain. I’ve had this mindset for a long time: thinking of my inner self as “a willful child that you have to outsmart,” as a friend once characterized it. These ideas can really make you more successful.
If these are things you haven’t been applying in your life already: run, don’t walk, to the bookstore, because the world will be better off once you get these things in your head. But if you already internalized these things, there isn’t much for you here. Like me you’ll start to get annoyed, feeling you’re in a remedial class of material you already learned. You will either love it or hate it, depending on how awesome you already are by its standards. In living my own life of successes and failures over the past 27 years, I figured out for myself all of the self-helping Scott Adams wants to give me.
During the sections where Scott Adams was teaching me correct grammar, or giving me long, drawn-out diet tips, I was like, “Scott! What the hell? Why are you teaching me grammar right now? That’s not a good book. That’s not a good anything.” If you are a person who does not know very correct grammar or how to make any healthy eating decisions, you might have the opposite reaction. (Note also that while I could use his advice on how to make sentences smaller, I was annoyed at an awful writer’s mistake he kept making: teasing interesting stories that he then couldn’t or wouldn’t tell the reader!)
In a way, writing this book requires a mindset of the world as full of fat, depressed, un-self-aware, timid, socially awkward, work-slogging morons who don’t know the first thing about networking, discipline, social theory, scientific empiricism, or how to not stuff things in their mouths all day that will kill them. I have this view of the world too some days, after hanging out with particularly loser-y people, or watching Republicans take the floor on C-SPAN. But I would never write a book for that imagined audience because it wouldn’t give me pleasure: I have arrogance, but not the patience for that level of condescension.
Yet, evidence indicates, Adams may be right. Most people might really have no idea what to do with themselves. So the criticism might not be so much a problem with Adams as an issue of target audience and perspective. In fact, he and I actually have a whole startling lot in common when it comes to how we think. That could be a factor, since no one really gets a kick out of being preached to when they’ve been in the choir for years, no matter how great the ideas are. But also maybe Mr. Adams has a particularly high self-regard, which is grating even (or especially) to others with high self-regard, like me.
This book is basically an insider’s guide to the benefits of living like an intelligent person. Your mileage will vary depending on how intelligent you already are. You either need that smart friend, or you are that smart friend. Read or skip accordingly.
THE HIGH FIVE QUOTES:
|“If success were easy, everyone would do it. It takes effort. That fact works to your advantage because it keeps lazy people out of the game.”
|“In many cases, it’s your point of view that influences your behavior, not the universe. And you can control your point of view even when you can’t change the underlying reality.”
|”If you’re chubby, tired, horny, and unhappy, then your best long-terms solution probably isn’t Match.com [….] A smarter approach is to take care of yourself first and use that success as leverage to get everything else you need.”
| “Equally important, avoid friends who are full-time downers. You want friends with whom you can share both the good and the bad, but you aren’t a therapist. Walk away from the soul suckers.”
|“I’m not a fan of physical risks, but if you can’t handle the risk of embarrassment, rejection, and failure, you need to learn how.”
Note: No one ever pays me anything to review or link to any books.