Two useful heuristics from Scott Adams

A heuristic is defined by Wikipedia as any approach to problem solving, learning, or discovery that employs a practical method not guaranteed to be optimal or perfect, but sufficient for the immediate goals.

In other words; a mental shortcut, or “rule of thumb”.

Many heuristics are useful (for example, in photography, the “rule of thirds”). Others promote unreasonable bias and may even be dangerous (for example, the current Western hysteria which conflates Syrian refugees with terrorism).

I’m currently reading — and really enjoying — How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, by Scott Adams. I wanted to share just two of many unexpected lessons from the creator of Dilbert:

“When I speak to young people on the topic of success, as I often do, I tell them there’s a formula for it. The formula, roughly speaking, is that every skill you acquire doubles your odds of success.

Notice I didn’t say anything about the level of proficiency you need to achieve for each skill. I didn’t mention anything about excellence or being world-class. The idea is that you can raise your market value by being merely good — not extraordinary — at more than one skill.

When I say each skill you acquire will double your odds of success, that’s a useful simplification. Obviously some skills are more valuable than others, and the twelfth skill you acquire might have less value than each of the first eleven. But if you think of each skill in terms of doubling your chances of success, it will steer your actions more effectively than if you assume the benefit of learning a new skill will get lost in the rounding.

Logically, you might think it would make more sense to have either an accurate formula for success or none at all. But that’s not how our brains are wired. Sometimes an entirely inaccurate formula is a handy way to move you in the right direction if it offers the benefit of simplicity. I realize that’s not an obvious point, so allow me to give you an example.

When writing a resume, a handy trick you’ll learn from experts is to ask yourself if there are any words in your first draft that you would be willing to remove for one hundred dollars each. When you apply the formula to your resume you surprise yourself by how well the formula helps you prune your writing to its most essential form. It doesn’t matter that the hundred-dollar figure is arbitrary and that some words you remove are more valuable than others. What matters is that the formula steers your behavior in the right direction. As is often the case, simplicity trumps accuracy. The hundred dollars in this case is not only inaccurate; it’s entirely imaginary. And it still works.

Likewise, I think it’s important to think of each new skill you acquire as a doubling of your odds of success. In a literal sense, it’s no more accurate than the imaginary hundred dollars per deleted word on your resume, but it still helps guide your behavior in a productive direction. If I told you that taking a class in Web site design during your evenings might double your odds of career success, the thought would increase the odds that you would act. If instead I only offered you a vague opinion that acquiring new skills is beneficial, you wouldn’t feel particularly motivated. When you accept without necessarily believing that each new skill doubles your odds of success, you effectively hack (trick) your brain to be more proactive in your pursuit of success. Looking at the familiar in new ways can change your behavior even when the new point of view focuses on the imaginary.”

Scott Adams

  1. One reason that I am so passionate about reading is that I often acquire skills which later prove useful in unforeseen ways. For example, I read Real Love in Marriage with the goal of improving my marriage, but those lessons have bettered my professional relationships as well. Over and over again in my life, learning about one thing has created unexpected benefits which spill over into other areas of my life.
  2. When I write, I tend to use many words where fewer will suffice. This mental exercise of being paid $100 per word I remove (without sacrificing meaning) really helps me to write efficiently (and I hope, more persuasively).

How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big is also kinda my life story, except that I’m not a semi-famous multi-millionaire.

We know we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover (there’s another useful heuristic), but I wouldn’t fault you for wondering what a cartoonist could teach us about living a fulfilling life (and yet another, however this one is not useful).

I’m happy to report that Scott Adams really delivers. This is an excellent book; I’d recommend it to anyone.

Chris Aram

I'm one-half of Webster Park Digital. I'm a devoted family man, avid reader, coffee snob, fajita-eater and professional PlayStation4 dabbler.