"goals are for losers." -Scott Adams

I became familiar with Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams during the past year's Presidential election - familiar with him outside of his signature on Dilbert cartoons that is. One of his blog posts about the election came across my Twitter feed. Of all the people pontificating on the election, what he was saying seemed to make a lot of sense to me in explaining what we were seeing.

I started following Adams's blog posts and eventually was intrigued enough by his writing - especially regarding psychology and persuasion - that I reserved a copy of his book How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life from my local public library.

My biggest takeaway from the book was his theory of systems versus goals.


When you have a goal, you're constantly failing until you reach the goal. If you do reach the goal, the thing that has kept you going is suddenly gone and where once was a goal is now an empty space.

Constant failure and emptiness punctuated by brief moments of success is hardly the way I want to go through life.

Luckily, there's a better way.


Instead of focusing on a goal, develop a system that you can apply every day that moves your life in the direction you want. Every time you apply your system, you're succeeding. It feels much better to go through your days winning than it does coming up short of your lofty goals. The positive mental attitude this creates helps you perform a higher level and do better than had you focused on goals instead of systems.

Adams writes:

“Goal-oriented people exist in a state of continuous presuccess failure at best, and permanent failure at worst if things never work out. Systems people succeed every time they apply their systems, in the sense that they did what they intended to do. The goals people are fighting the feeling of discouragement at each turn. The systems people are feeling good every time they apply their system.”

A system in action

Until I read Adams, I hadn't realize that I'd already subconsciously started applying systems in certain areas of my life. Take swimming, for example:

I was a competitive swimmer throughout my adolescence, high school and college. We'd train six days a week sometimes twice a day, much of the year. After leaving the world of competitive swimming, I found the lack of exercise left me feeling lethargic, without much appetite.

Around 2008, I had recently moved to Guangzhou to build out a team after raising a seed round. The stress of hiring and building a product in a foreign country left me with many sleepless nights. I found that if I exercised, I could sleep well, so I made it a goal to find a swimming pool and go 3 times a week.

This goal of swimming 3 times a week was challenging. At the beginning of each week, I felt like I was already failing - I needed to swim 3 times and on day 1 I was already failing to meet the goal. It was like a bunch of homework hovering over my head. I needed to use some of my limited willpower to make sure it got done. Some weeks I'd meet the goal, which was good and other weeks, I didn't feel like going or could only make it 2 days...which felt like a failure.

Whatever I was doing, my approach to swimming outside of the structure of a competitive swim team wasn't working.

Fast forward several years, and I know apply a systems approach to swimming instead of a goal-oriented approach.

My system is this:

  1. Wake up
  2. Put on swim suit
  3. Put on clothes
  4. Walk across the street to pool
  5. Put clothes in pool locker
  6. Put on goggles
  7. Jump into pool

I execute this system every day I'm in Hong Kong except for Saturdays when I swap the pool for the ocean with a group of open water swimming friends. (they're in the picture at the top of this post!)

Once or twice a month, I'll get to the end of the pool and won't feel like getting it. That's okay. I'm still winning because I'm applying my system.

People are shocked to learn that I swim every day. And it doesn't take willpower any more than brushing my teeth. In fact, it's easier to swim and win every day than it was for me to try to swim just 3 times a week.

An Open Water Swim
An open water swim in Hong Kong.

That's the power of systems versus goals.

Since realizing that I'm already enjoying the success of systems in some areas of my life, I'm working on applying them in others.

What do you think about systems versus goals? What systems do you use?