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Failure and Systems Lead to Success, Goals and Passion Lead to Failure

Scott Adams, the creator of the “Dilbert” comic strip, recently shared his thoughts about success through an essay in the Wall Street Journal. His premise is that business leaders who share advice for the masses who want to succeed lie about their own experiences. Failure, which Scott Adams feels does not get enough credit, is a major factor in success, and the usual suspects like goals and passion are highly overrated.

But if passion and goal-setting lead to failure, and failure leads to success, is there anything worth arguing here? I have some thoughts to share about Scott Adams’ essay.

What about failure?

Perhaps I’ve been reading and listening to different “business leaders,” but I often hear advice that includes the concept of failure as a required component for success. Failure has been a big part of my life thus far. I don’t like to admit it, but I don’t hide it. Here are just a few things with my work life I considered a failure at the time.

Teaching. I accepted a great teaching job — one that fit exactly what I wanted — in the middle of the school year to replace a teacher who was leaving. The position came with promises of being rehired in the fall, and I figured I had no reason to question that. The fall came, and there was suddenly not enough money for the department to hire me, and the position went to another teacher who was already in the school system.

I still feel that I could have done something differently to show I was the right candidate. Everything worked out; if I hadn’t been refused the position, and if it wasn’t beyond my ability to find qualify for a comparable teaching job elsewhere, I wouldn’t have had time to start another path that did lead me to success.

Web sites. Since the web was born in 1994, I’ve tried to turn various types of internet work into sustainable businesses. Back when businesses were first starting to appear on the web, I tried to make a business out of designing and maintain websites for a variety of clients. I did some work for a number of professors and their departments while in college, and after college, I managed to find a few paying clients through friends and their workplaces. It was never very profitable, and I was never very focused on turning this work into a big enterprise. I let a few of the clients down and they moved on with other web site administrators.

I established several focused websites related to some of the things I’m interested in. The purpose was to combine a topic I was passionate about with my skill for building communities. None of the websites ever gained the momentum I was looking for, until one did. Many failures preceded the success of shizennougyou, but because I learned from the experiences, it’s hard to call them mistakes as I look back.

Even after the success of shizennougyou, I’ve initiated several additional projects, some related to the topics of which I might be considered an expert, but many of these have failed as well.

What about passion?

In his essay, Scott Adams expresses his frustration with the idea that a person should pursue a passion to increase the chance of success. He’s right, but he’s also wrong. Part of the problem is that Adams has a very narrow definition of success. It’s clear the author speaks only of financial success. He proposes that it’s better to work hard at any old job if it’s profitable than to use vocational time to seek personal fulfillment. That assumption is the foundation of all of Adams’ advice in the essay.

Perhaps there are too many young musicians following their dreams to become stars, despite the near guarantee of failure. But then, doesn’t this go back to the point about the necessity of failure before success? The band that’s rejected from gigs learns what works. The comedian who bombs a joke crosses it off the list and refines the set. The artist who can’t sell works figures out what people are buying and adapts (or waits for posthumous acknowledgement of genius). Those not willing to adjust their approach simply abandon their passions.

Adams does offer a good point, though not revolutionary: If you work hard and do something well, your passion for that work develops. I’ve talked about being passionate about personal finance and how that passion has helped me to write about the topic for many years, to be always willing to learn more, and to be excited about the prospect of spending eight hours researching and writing each day after eight hours working at a day job, but that passion wasn’t something I brought with me since childhood.

That passion came out of necessity. I needed to learn how to fix my financial situation, and quick. As I worked and spent more time thinking about my finances, that passion arose from practically nothing.

What about goals?

I’ve never been a fan of the type of goals the business world likes the most: so-called SMART goals. SMART goals are tightly defined as goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-based. Setting these goals do little to help someone who wants to focus on the big picture of his life, and everyone should think about the big picture first.

Adams argues that systems are better than goals. He describes his experience sitting next to a business man whose philosophy was to start looking for a new job the moment one job begins. Being open to new opportunities and flexible to accept them — often disguised as “luck” — is a factor in measuring human capital, not necessarily immediate financial net worth. The author describes this as a system.

The real problem with goals is that sometimes, when life is built around those goals, people aren’t sure what to do when they actually achieve them.

To put it bluntly, goals are for losers. That’s literally true most of the time. For example, if your goal is to lose 10 pounds, you will spend every moment until you reach the goal — if you reach it at all — feeling as if you were short of your goal. In other words, goal-oriented people exist in a state of nearly continuous failure that they hope will be temporary.

If you achieve your goal, you celebrate and feel terrific, but only until you realize that you just lost the thing that gave you purpose and direction. Your options are to feel empty and useless, perhaps enjoying the spoils of your success until they bore you, or to set new goals and re-enter the cycle of permanent presuccess failure.

If failure is a good thing, I don’t see how that’s a problem. Furthermore, having goals does not preclude anyone from also having systems. I’ve tempered my initial aversion to specific goals, and these days I’m more inclined to use short-term measurable goals as landmarks, but only with the idea that these goals have to be flexible and those who make them have to be aware how their path towards those goals can be effected by events beyond their control.

Almost every blogger I’ve mentored for the last few years has given thought towards goal-setting, but they almost always focus on the wrong goals, those that are more effected by external forces than those that they directly control.

My system of creating something the public wants and reproducing it in large quantities nearly guaranteed a string of failures. By design, all of my efforts were long shots. Had I been goal-oriented instead of system-oriented, I imagine I would have given up after the first several failures. It would have felt like banging my head against a brick wall.

Not everyone with goals gives up when the result is failure. Some just redefine their goals, some use failure as a learning experience, as Adams believes people should.

Photo: Flickr/blue_j

Published or updated October 14, 2013.

About the author

Luke Landes is the founder of shizennougyou. He has been blogging and writing for the internet since 1995 and has been building online communities since 1991. Find out more about Luke Landes and follow him on Twitter. View all articles by .

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar 1 Anonymous

I read this article over the weekend and really enjoyed it. I think it’s true that success breeds passion and that you can be really passionate about something at the beginning, but only if it is worth pursuing does the passion stay alive. Like Scott Adams, I get really excited about things (you could even call it passionate), but once I spend enough time doing it, I move on to the next thing.

I do think goals are important, but it depends on what type of goals. I see too many people set out to gain twitter followers and facebook likes, but they just have an end goal with no action items to get there. Without a system set up to get to where you want to be, goals are useless. If you believe in a system, keep at it. You just have to be sure that the system works and eventually will lead to the results you expect.

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avatar 2 Luke Landes


You have a great point about how systems can help you achieve goals. I think people often setting the wrong goals, though, and that’s why they have trouble figuring out exactly what they need to do to reach those goals. I’ve been thinking about the idea of serial entrepreneurialism lately — people who start a business, make it profitable, sell it, and start that process over again. I haven’t been a fan of that type of work because it seems like the passion is the system, not any particular business, but maybe there’s something of value to that approach.

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avatar 3 Anonymous

Very interesting concept. I am not a fan of SMART goals, I don’t know why, but they just don’t jive with me for whatever reason. Systems seem like something I could buy into more, but I have a lot of searching to do to figure out what is going to work for me :)

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avatar 4 Anonymous

Interesting perspective. I agree that SMART goals aren’t good for seeing the big picture, but they are helpful in establishing better habits and successfully completing small tasks. The big picture perspective is for those in charge. The SMART goal type perspective is for those completely the work.

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avatar 5 Anonymous

Its all about systems.
If its not systemised its nothing but a hope, dream or aspiration
Great post about a very good and thought provoking article

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avatar 6 Anonymous

You cannot really chart a smooth path to success. There are things that you have to learn before you can reach your destination. And you cannot do it with passion or goal setting. You get there by trying, failing and trying again. Every time you get up, you get better until you eventually succeed.

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avatar 7 Ceecee

Having passion for something is great, but how many people start endeavors with a passion for something that is not a want or need for the general public. You may love to handcraft a particular item, but if the public doesn’t appreciate it enough to pay for your time, you will never make it into a business. I’ve never really thought of the idea of creating a system, but I believe you may be onto something there.

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avatar 8 Donna Freedman

I once saw a framed motto: “A goal is a dream with a deadline” (apparently written by Napoleon Hill). Myself, I think that goals evolve as constantly as the people who made them.
You might start out thinking, “If I could get 10,000 Twitter followers then my blog will surely take off” and then discover that didn’t work. So you educate yourself on other routes to online success and keep trying.
Short-term goals (e.g., paying off consumer debt) *contribute* to larger goals (being financially independent). Some of us prefer to break the larger goals into short-term ones because the big picture is either too daunting or not yet formed. In 2004 my short-term goal was to complete my divorce and figure out what to do next; in 2005 that morphed into returning to school for a degree and finishing my divorce. In 2006 the divorce was completed but the goal had changed to “finish the degree and pay off the divorce lawyer.”
Starting in autumn 2007 the game plan had re-re-modified: “Finish school, write three times a week for MSN Money, pay off the last of the debt and start playing catch-up with my finances (especially retirement).” In 2009 it was “the debt has long since been paid off but now I need to write an undergraduate thesis, figure out what kind of job to get with my degree.”
Guess what? I never did get a job with my degree — I just kept writing. If I’d tried to force myself into a box (a “real” job) I probably wouldn’t be as happy as I am now. And now that MSN Money has kicked all its writers to the virtual curb, the goal has reconstituted itself: Pare expenses and write only as much as I need to cover the bills while developing a new business model.
I still believe that goals are dreams with deadlines. But dreams make some pretty unexpected leaps. It’s up to us to decide how we respond. If you’d kept teaching, Flexo, I have no doubt that you’d have been a success. Yet you’ve been a success in two other careers since (nonprofits, websites). You’ve inspired many readers (and some of us who met you at FinCon) and you’ve had experiences you would never have had if you’d stayed in academics. Not necessarily better, just different. Personally, I’m glad you’re in the online world because if you were teaching music theory I wouldn’t have had a chance to meet you.

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avatar 9 Anonymous

I’ve thought a lot about goals in my life. I even created a bucket list way before that movie came out. (I didn’t know what to call it in 1999. “All the stuff I want to do in my life list”?) And then… Errr… Crossed off every single one of them by the age of 37. What to do after that? The next year I told my sister that I was going hot air ballooning with a friend. She burst out laughing and said, “OK, now you’re just making up stuff to do.”

As for massive life goals–like being a famous singer or having a perfect marriage and picket fence or some such craziness, I agree–people shouldn’t have them. They’d be healthier without any of that stuff weighing them down. At a certain point, a huge goal (AKA “dream”) is like the proverbial albatross. The all-consuming focus can somehow blind one to all the other million better possibilities that are out there. Letting go of a dream/goal is actually an act of freedom.

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