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Regular reader Phantom raised an interesting question: How do I know I've ever written or said anything that made a positive difference in anyone's life? Did anyone ever get richer, happier, or healthier because of anything I ever wrote? How would I know?

Over the years people have thanked me on a surprisingly regular basis, usually by email, for inspiring them to one sort of success or another. Usually it's based on something I wrote in a book, newspaper article, or in this blog. Sometimes it's because of a speech I gave somewhere. But I figure everyone in the public eye gets those sorts of thank-you messages. I assume the local TV weatherman gets email every day from viewers thanking him for giving them the courage to carry on no matter the weather. So I discount my personal experience as relevant to answering the question of whether I've ever done anything useful. I'm a biased observer and I can't trust those suspiciously thankful strangers. I need better data.

So I thought I'd put the question to you. Has anything I've ever written had a positive impact on your life beyond the momentary entertainment of consuming it? I'm looking for something bigger than it "put me in a good mood" or "made me think in a different way."

I'm asking if you've ever tried something you wouldn't have otherwise tried, and it worked out well, because of something I said or wrote.

This is clearly not scientific, but if there's no trace of benefit in the group that follows this blog, I wouldn't expect a better result in the general public.

If signing up to comment here is a pain, you can email me at dilbertcartoonist@gmail.com. I'm the only person who sees that account.

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An entertaining preview of my new book's content in a slideshow is here.

 



 

 
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Goals work great for simple situations. But the world is rarely simple these days. You don't know what your career will look like in a year. You don't know what the economy will be doing, or which new technologies will hit the scene. Your personal life is just as unpredictable. The future is a big ball of complexity if you look out far enough. And that means your odds of picking the one best goal for you are slim, and the odds of achieving it are even slimmer, because everything is a moving target.

So instead of goals, try systems that improve your odds of success (however you define success) over time. Choose projects that improve your personal value no matter how the project itself does. Find systems for diet and fitness that replace willpower with simple knowledge. It's easy to do.

And while you're at it, stop worrying about whether you have enough passion for success. Passion comes from success; success doesn't come from passion. Passion is bull$#!$. You need energy, not passion. And you can increase your energy by using systems.

See this quick slideshow on why goals are for losers, systems are for winners, and passion is bull#$!%. For a more complete explanation see my book, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big.


[Note 1: This is a test to see if selected content from the book taken out of context is more compelling than the book cover and title. I am also running some Adword tests to see which keywords bring people to the free Slideshare preview of the book. Yeah, I know it isn't scientific.]

[Note 2: I know you're sick of reading about the book. But I find the process of dissecting its lack of sales performance to be immensely educational. This is an example of making myself more valuable over time (a system) despite surface-level failure. I'm taking you along for the ride. I hope some of this discussion makes you more valuable too.]

 
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I got a ton of thoughtful and interesting suggestions for improving the sales of my book, How to Fail. And I think I figured out a way to test your best ideas.

Most of your comments could be summarized this way: People would buy this book if they knew it had useful/interesting content in it. (The 5-star user reviews on Amazon confirm that it does.) But the value of the book is well-hidden by the book cover design, the title choice, and my reputation as the Dilbert guy.

I can't do standard A-B testing because it's not practical to change the actual cover and title after publication. And I can't do much to change how people view me as an author.

But here's what I can do, and let me know if this seems like a workable plan.

I have taken two of the most valuable and provocative content bits from the book and put them in a brief slideshow format. This is a free sample. The hope is that once a person sees a teaser of the content, it makes the title, cover, and my reputation less important.

The risk is that any out-of-context point from the book will seem weak compared to how it is presented in the book itself. So I could be doing the equivalent of creating a movie trailer that convinces people not to see the movie. That's actually a big risk in this case because the nature of the content defies simplification.

I picked the topics "Goals are for Losers" and "Passion is Bullshit" as my free sample teasers. But I will play with different keywords and teasers by using Google Adwords to see what gets the most clicks. The users won't see the actual book title or cover or my name until after they have made their decisions on what interests them.

I'll use a tracking URL to know who clicked on the free content and another to see who followed through to look at the book that is mentioned at the end.

I hope to have the free sample up by tomorrow. I wanted to use today to thank you for the advice and input, and to give you a chance improve on my plan if you see a hole in it.

What do you think? Would this plan answer the question of whether the book/title/author are holding back sales?

(By the way, what I am doing right now is something I call "practicing publicly." That's a system as opposed to a goal.)

 
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Most of you are familiar with A-B testing for websites. You randomly display one of two website designs and track which design gets the most clicks. People do A-B testing because it works. But where else does it work?

When I asked for opinions about why anyone would NOT buy my new book, How to Fail..., the most common opinion I got (mostly via email) is that the title and the cover are the "obvious" problem. Folks tell me that a book with "fail" in the title isn't a good gift item, and no one wants it seen on their own shelf for vanity reasons.

To me, the interesting thing about this common observation is the certainty of the folks who make it. For them, it just seems totally obvious that the title and cover are the problem. And when you add the "memoire" confusion, they say the cover is killing the book.

Does that sound right to you? This is one of those interesting cases of common sense versus experience.

Here's the problem with the theory that the title and cover are prohibiting sales: As far as I know, no one with actual experience in publishing would agree with it.

Publishers will tell you -- as they have told me on several occasions -- that no one can predict which books will do well, with the obvious exception of some big-name celebrity books. No one with publishing experience can accurately predict sales based on the book's title, cover, or even the content. Success comes from some unpredictable mix of the zeitgeist, timing, and pure luck.

That's why a jillion books are published every year and probably 99% are not successful. If publishers had the power to turn dogs into hits by tweaking the titles and the covers, wouldn't they be doing it?

Have you ever heard of books being retitled and republished with a new cover and going from ignored to huge? Me neither. Maybe it happened once, somewhere. But in general, it isn't a thing.

Would you have predicted that there would be a hugely successful series of how-to books that call their buyers dummies and idiots? And how the hell did Who Moved My Cheese sell more than three copies worldwide? None of this stuff is predictable.

Or is it?

I try to stay open-minded about this sort of thing. And I wondered if there was an easy way to do A-B testing without actually retooling the hard cover. (That would be a huge hassle for a variety of boring reasons.) I could do Google Adwords testing to see which titles drive more traffic to Amazon and Barnes & Noble. But people would still see the real title when they arrived.

I could look into issuing a new Kindle version with a friendlier title. That's probably a bigger hassle than you think, even though one imagines it shouldn't be. And for best seller tracking, it would look like two books each selling half as much as a single book might have.

So I have two questions.

1. Do you believe publishers are wrong about the importance of the title/cover

2. Is there a practical way to do A-B testing for books already published? 

If it turns out that some sort of rebranding of books does increase sales, you could start a company that does nothing but buy poorly-selling but well-written books from publishers who have given up on them. Then apply  A-B testing to create a title and cover that will perform better. It's like free money.

The absence of such a company, or such a practice within an existing publishing house, makes me think this approach is unlikely to work. But it doesn't seem impossible that it could work either.


 

 
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The other day I asked aloud in this blog if there might be some sort of anti-success trend emerging in society. I think I found it.

Some folks emailed me directly (dilbertcartoonist@gmail.com) to say they believe it is a waste of time to pursue success because it is a zero-sum game. In other words, they believe they can only be successful by making someone else less successful, on the theory that there isn't enough success in the universe for everyone to get a meaningful slice. They tell me it would be "wrong" on some level to pick the pockets of strangers for self-enrichment.

And there it is.

I doubt that sort of thinking would have existed before the massive media campaign against the "top 1%." The power of the top 1% story is in the false impression that rich people stole the money from the poor and middle class, and therefore it would only be fair to give most of it back.

Clearly some of the financial titans are doing little more than picking pockets. But those are the exceptions. Most one-percenters are growing the economy and creating jobs. That's obvious to people who were born in the "rising tide lifts all boats" era. And it's obvious to anyone with a bit of economics education.

But if you are in your twenties, with no deep understanding of economics, wouldn't you believe success is evil? That's the dominant story of their generation.

Making matters worse, success, money, and abuse of power are all conflated in our minds because that's how the news lumps that stuff.

So while the benefits of success are entrenched in the minds of my generation, the young might be learning that it's something to be avoided.

I can't back this hypothesis with data. We're in anecdotal territory. But it's something to keep an eye on.

Update 1:

Another reason success might have lost its luster is that successful people are considered narcissists, and narcissism seems to be more condemned lately than at any time I can recall. (Or maybe that's just me.) But it turns out that, according to one study, a little bit of narcissism actually helps people succeed as leaders. That's a problem because what 20-something wants to be seen as a narcissist? Narcissism is the new racism.

Update 2:

Here's more evidence that success is being demonized by the young. The University of Georgia's Student Government Association is demanding fewer success stories because it makes those who are less successful look bad.





 
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I'm going to let you inside my head more than usual today. I apologize in advance.

Many of you surmised that my prior post about the genie was really a cleverly disguised analogy to my new book, and that once I trapped you into saying you would take the genie's deal, the follow-up would be me saying, "Therefore buy my book!"

But that wasn't my scheme. There's a longer play.

I was trying to isolate (unscientifically) for how many people among us would turn down a deal that is unambiguously good. The real world is never unambiguously good, so it wouldn't make sense to generalize the genie analogy to the book.

I have been seeing a pattern in the past several years that makes me wonder if a sizeable portion of the public has become anti-success. The media has pitted the general public against the one-percenters for several years, so that might be a factor. And the bottom-feeders on the Internet (Gawker, Jezebel, etc.) have business models that involve taking celebrity quotes out of context to demonize them. So it would be no surprise if the public disliked successful people more than ever.

But I have also lately observed people who seem to reject their own best paths to success in favor of paths that are clearly bad. Let's call those choices "loser choices" because any rational and objective observer would see it that way. I wondered if I was seeing an emerging pattern or an illusion.

This line of thinking started because I was seeing the 5-star reviews pour in for my book, How to Fail at Almost Everything. It's getting the best reviews of anything I've written. And the feedback I'm getting by email is just as good. Yet the sales rank is relatively low compared to books in the genre that have worse reviews. So what's the explanation for the exceptional reviews and relatively low sales rank?

It could be any of these explanations.
  1. People aren't especially interested in pursuing "big" success.
  2. People don't believe books can improve the odds of success.
  3. People don't believe that I could write a useful book in this area.
  4. People think success requires more work than they choose to take on.
  5. People believe books can help success, but other uses of time are more effective for pursuing success than reading a book.
  6. People don't know the book exists.
  7. Something about the marketing/positioning of the book isn't working.
  8. People don't like me personally.
  9. People assume the book is more humor than helpful.
Feel free to add to the list.

My attempt in the prior post to isolate for a "loser preference" was interesting but ambiguous. I'll stick with my belief that if you offered a group of strangers a million dollars each with no strings attached, 10% would turn it down for reasons that would seem ridiculous to the other 90%. But I don't think the loser preference is enough to account for the high reviews and relatively low sales rank of my book.

Normally I would just shrug and move to the next project with a better-luck-next-time attitude. But this one is different. And here's where I'm going to let you inside my head more than normal. That's always dangerous.

As I've said in a few media interviews lately, I already have all the money I need personally for the rest of my life. Every dollar I make from now on will be spent by others. But success of the sort I have enjoyed brings with it an unexpected obligation. By virtue of my job, I have an oversized impact on what ideas the public is exposed to. And that means I have an unusually large ability to create positive change in the world. How do I ignore that and go fishing? It would feel immoral.

Now here comes the part I shouldn't say: There is a non-zero chance that my book, How to Fail, could be one of the most useful books ever written.

That claim sounds absurd and arrogant to anyone who hasn't read the book. If you have read it, you probably had the same reaction as the 5-star reviews. And by that I mean you said to yourself some version of "Every 25-year old should read this."

The value of any book would be some function of how useful the topic is and how many people read it. How to Fail addresses what might be the most useful topic of all time: personal success. If the book works as the 5-star reviews believe it does, and it has the potential to make anyone who reads it more likely to succeed, the ripple effect of that improvement could be civilization-altering. Putting that in simpler terms, what if everyone in the world were 5% more effective in pursuing success? Wouldn't that be an enormously positive development?

Realistically, I can't rule out the possibility that I wrote a book that readers believe is helpful but isn't. Such books clearly exist. But that feels unlikely to me, given the nature of the reviews and the type of content in the book. The folks who have read it understand what I mean.

There's no easy and objective way of knowing if the book is as useful as readers seem to think. So let's artificially say the odds of it being useful to a reader are only 20%. And the expense for buying that 20% chance is less than $20 and a few hours of time. Who turns down that deal?

I'm trying to isolate which factor is most important in keeping folks from buying what might be one of the most useful books in the history of civilization. If I figure out where the obstacle is, I'll lean on it a bit and see what happens.

I am well aware that many of you will read this post as nothing but arrogance and delusion. I totally get that. And keep in mind that I have no objective way to know your impression is wrong. Crazy people don't always know they are crazy. That's precisely my dilemma here: My opinion of the value of the book sounds crazy even to me.

But I've decided to open myself up for the inevitable barrage of insults that this post invites in the hope that one of you will say something revelatory on one of these two questions

1. If you read the book, am I wrong that it is useful?

2. What do you think is the biggest factor keeping OTHER people from reading it?  

 

 
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Suppose a genie offered you the following deal.

In return for $20, the genie will grant you a 73% chance of improving your life in a meaningful but non-specified way. You don't know if the potential improvement will come in the form of your career, health, personal relationships, or happiness in general. The genie promises that the benefits to you - should there be any at all - will probably far exceed the value of your $20.

To sweeten the deal, the genie says it will take 2-3 hours to transfer the benefits to you. But to make that process as pleasant as possible, the genie says you have an 88% chance of liking or even loving the transfer process itself. You can do the transfer whenever you want, on your preferred schedule. If you are one of the 12% who doesn't enjoy the process, it will be no worse than, for example, watching a movie you don't enjoy. And you can stop the transfer at any point without penalty. But you don't get your $20 back.

You still look unconvinced, so the genie further sweetens the deal. He says that after the benefits have been transferred to you, you will have the power, for no extra cost, to extend the same unspecified basket of benefits (with a 73% chance of success) to a person of your choice.

Let's say for the sake of the hypothetical situation that you somehow know with certainty there is no trick involved.

Here's the summary of the deal:
  1. You pay the genie $20
  2. There is a 73% chance your life improves in a meaningful way.
  3. The transfer of benefits takes 2-3 hours.
  4. There is an 88% chance you will enjoy the transfer itself.
  5. You can quit the transfer any time you want.
  6. If you don't enjoy the transfer, the worst case is that you are bored for 3 hours.
  7. There is no trick or hidden downside, and somehow you know that for sure.
Would you take the deal? Remember, there is no hidden downside. It is simply $20 in exchange for a high likelihood of getting meaningful benefits to your life that are worth far more than what you paid.

My hypothesis is that some people - perhaps many - will decline the genie's offer even knowing there is no trick involved.

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My new book is called How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big. It has the highest percentage of 5-star reviews of any book I've written.

 
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I'm not a member of a political party. That's intentional. Once you pick a side you lose the ability to reason and you start agreeing with whatever dumbass thing your team supports. Whenever I explain my reasons for not joining a political party, people scoff. So here's some recent science that supports my view. It turns out that people rationalize whatever their political party supports independent of the facts. And it's easy to test.

By the way, that's something I learned the first day of hypnosis school thirty years ago. If people were rational, hypnosis wouldn't work. Hypnosis depends on people being influenced by associations as opposed to reason.

Our two-party system of politics kills any hope for reasoned debate. So how could one fix that situation?

My idea is that as President of the United States I would support the majority opinion on every topic with my veto powers and my legislative initiatives while vigorously supporting the argument of the opposite side. Think of it like a defense attorney who doesn't believe his client is innocent but he makes the best defense case he can.

Under this plan, if my active support for the minority view can elevate it to a majority view, it means something was wrong with the majority view in the first place. If my efforts can't move the needle on a debate, that's probably for the best.

As President, I'd be doing less leading and more framing and informing. Once people get the idea that my personal opinions on issues are irrelevant, I'd gain credibility for objectivity and for always shining a fair light on opposition views. That seems healthy.

Obviously there would be some cases in which this plan doesn't work. If the public is 99% on one side of an issue and the only opponents are neo-Nazis, I'd probably take a pass on supporting the opposition. So let's call my plan more of a general approach than a hard rule. It needs some wiggle room to work in the real world.

As president, I wouldn't fudge any facts in the arguments I promoted. I'd be arguing with data only. And I'd acknowledge that the future is unpredictable, so no one really knows what plan will work best. My support of the minority view would often take the form of a conditional statement such as "If you think income equality is more important in the long run than short term economic growth, you should favor policy X."

So what do you think? Could you live with a president who always acted with the majority while arguing for the minority? And what would be the downside of the plan?

 
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People always ask cartoonists these three questions:
  1. How long does it take to create a comic?
  2. How many do you create per day?
  3. How do you come up with ideas?
The answer to the first question is that a 3-panel daily comic takes me about two hours from idea to final art. But it can be as fast as 30 minutes if the idea comes quickly and the art doesn't need much detail. The Sunday comics take about five hours apiece. The quickest I could do a Sunday comic would be about three hours.

My schedule is that I write two daily comics every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. I do the writing and rough art in the early mornings, starting at 5 a.m., when my creative energy is highest. And I do one Sunday comic on Wednesdays. I do the finished art whenever I have time, usually evenings and weekend mornings. I aim for nine comics over seven days, to give some cushion for days I can't work for one reason or another.

The third question, about how I come up with ideas is more interesting. The simple answer is that I'm wired that way. It happens somewhat automatically. I couldn't shut it off if I tried.

But internally, the sensation is that I am trading memory for creativity. I'll explain.

My creative process feels to me like a stream of ideas rushing through my mind, pausing only long enough for a reflexive evaluation. 95% of the ideas get flushed immediately, thus making room for the next idea in the stream. For me, the active part of creativity is the flushing - also known as forgetting - of the bad ideas so the new ones have space to enter. The faster I forget, the more creative I am.

As luck would have it, I have a notoriously poor memory for most things. So my stream of ideas doesn't have much stickiness to it. The only ideas that make it out of the stream and into my more rational mind are the ones that move me physically. And by that I mean I have some sort of body reaction that can range from a giggle to goose bumps. If I don't "feel" the idea, I flush it.

If I feel the idea with my body, I let it stick around long enough to apply my rational filter. That kills most ideas.

But sometimes I have an idea that sticks in my mind so aggressively that the only way to dislodge it is to go public. So I blog about the idea, or put it in a comic, or otherwise give it some oxygen. That's the hard way to flush it. But once it's out, I can let go. I've done my job by giving the idea its moment in the sun. If it dies in public, it was meant to be. And I move on.

So the question I have for you today is about the relationship of memory and creativity in each of you. My hypothesis is that poor memory is necessary for high-production creativity.

In the comments, let me know your memory powers from 1-10 (ten is a photographic memory) and also your creative talent (ten would be commercially creative, like a daily cartoonist). This format would be useful:

Memory:
Creativity:

Is memory the enemy of creativity?

 
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A growing number of futurists are speculating that someday human minds will be transferred to computers. Let's assume that will happen, whether in a hundred years or a thousand. Futurists say that all we'll need is fairly normal advances in technology to get there.

At the moment, the best minds in science believe that time travel is impossible, at least in the sense of sending a solid object back in time. But a number of scientists are noodling with the idea that binary information can be sent back in time using some sort of strange quantum trickery. Again for fun, assume someone in the future figures out how to send information back in time.

Combining my two assumptions, it means that someday future robots with human-originated minds will have the means to send their entire minds back in time, so long as there is some sort of detector in the present to pick up the signals.

The problem with building a detector in the present is that we can't know what method the future will invent for sending information back in time. But as the future gets nearer, we should be able to take ever-better guesses on what sort of detectors might work.

My idea is to start a long-term project of building various types of detectors and seeding the Internet with information about those detectors so our future robot humans can know what type of detectors to aim for. Every year, as we get better guesses about the type of detectors that might work, we build them and add them to the mix. In the short term, the detectors would be networked to normal data storage. Longer term, we'd build a robot with enough data storage for the incoming human mind.

Imagine some future human sitting in the detector lab next to the slumped robot that is waiting for an incoming mind from the future. The robot pops to life, looks around, and speaks its first words: "Wow! That actually worked!"

I like it as a movie plot.

 
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