I’ve realized it’s high time that I started paying tribute to the books and thinkers that have influenced The Focus Formulas, so I thought I would start by giving a long, detailed, value-added, and self-promotional review of my all-time favorite book on personal development.
And yes, that’s the Scott Adams of Dilbert fame.
It’s a short book with a long title.
It also happens to be jam-packed with mind-bending (in all the best ways) wisdom told in Adam’s friendly, conversational style. As you’ll see, he has a knack for saying simple (or, simple-sounding) things make you think, and think hard.
For a long time after you hear them.
Now, while it’s easy to read, it covers a lot of stuff, and don’t assume that what I chose to focus on here actually captures the full essence of the book – you’ll have to (and emphatically should) read the whole thing for yourself.
In this review I’ll mostly dwell on the things that particularly resonated with me and are relevant to readers interested in the topics of this blog, namely focus and productivity. I’ll largely be skipping over his detailed advice on how to capitalize on failure in favor of several points that are only somewhat related to the title of the book but are very powerful.
One of Scott’s great strengths is his ability to construct simple mental models of the world that have many layers of benefit to those who adopt them.
He was the first one to highlight to me that a mental model should not only be accurate, but should be constructed so that it provides inherent motivation to act in a more productive fashion.
There’s a lot of meaning swirling around in the previous sentence, so let’s unpack it.
For any complex phenomenon, there are many possible mental models that explain how it works and allow you to make predictions about what it’s going to do, or how interventions you could make may change what it does.
Obviously, accuracy is important.
Also, all other things being equal, the simplest explanation is usually preferred, occasional barroom brawls between philosophers on the subject notwithstanding.
However, a dimension that Adams adds to this is that there’s another factor you should consider: how much the model motivates you to behave in positive ways.
Given the choice between two models of approximately equal accuracy (as far as you can tell) and reasonable simplicity, it makes sense to choose the one that motivates you to act in a more productive fashion.
As a simple example, take exercise.
Most people would agree with the following statement:
“If I exercise regularly then I will feel better.”
It’s generally accurate, and you would think it provides motivation to actually exercise.
However, most people know/believe it on some level and most of those don’t exercise.
So, the inherent motivation part of this model is lacking.
Now, consider this statement/model:
“If I exercise in the morning I will DOUBLE my productivity, happiness, and energy.”
If you used/believed this model, you’d probably exercise in the morning a lot more regularly wouldn’t you? And the “double” is a somewhat artificial choice, it might be more, it might be less.
If it seems too high you could try “increase by 50 percent” and you’d likely still be a lot more motivated than you would be believing the first statement.
The trick is to craft your model such that you can viscerally connect a concrete, positive action to a concrete, highly desirable outcome, in a way that you can still believe.
I’ve made extensive use of this in my own life and here at The Focus Formulas.
Now, let’s look at a very specific and very powerful special case of inherently motivational mental models.
One of Adams’ signature ideas, articulated at length in the book, is that of The Success Formula, and it is just this:
“Every skill you acquire doubles your odds of success.”
Now there are some subtleties here. This is said with the understanding that the skills fit together in some complementary way. Random collections of skills like knowing baseball stats, being good at badminton, and calligraphy probably won’t combine together usefully.
Knowing baseball stats might be useful if you’re a consultant or salesman and use this knowledge to bond with a client, but won’t make much of a difference for most of us.
Knowing calligraphy could be useful to an artist or a designer, but it’s not going to help me be a better data scientist.
So, this is said with the expectation that there is a plausibly complementary relationship between the skills you acquire.
Now, he goes on to qualify this a bit. Specifically, for any given skill, it’s somewhere between really hard and impossible to become the world’s best at that skill, or even to become elite.
However, it’s much easier to become world class at a specific COMBINATION of skills, even if you’re not at the top for any given one of them.
Both in the book and elsewhere, Adams claims that success will come from being the best, or one of the best, at this UNIQUE combination of skills, provided it’s a combination of value.
I’m pretty convinced by this point.
In other material Adams refers to a complementary collection of skills as a Talent Stack – while I don’t think he uses the term in the book he uses it elsewhere extensively, and it’s closely related to The Success Formula.
Your Talent Stack is your collection of complementary skills.
Now, as to how good those skills need to be, he generally uses the criterion “better than average” as sufficient for most skills in the stack. I’ve found this to be generally sound, though for plenty of skills, having a working knowledge is good enough.
My personal stack of skills includes one or two things that I strive to be world-class in (my technical skills, focus and how to improve it), a few I’m pretty strong/much better than the average at (writing, teaching, applied psychology), and a nice, thick stratum of stuff that’s working knowledge (marketing, producing courses, all the fiddly bits required to run an online brand, etc).
Now given the title of this blogpost and the book and the intro to said blogpost, I should at least make a token effort to connect this to failure.
One nice thing about failure is that it usually forces you to try something different. Each time you try something different, you learn (or should learn) new skills. So, if you fail your way along the right trajectory, you’ll probably develop a skill stack that will enable you to be successful later.
I very much relate to this, but detailing how would take an entire post or more, so table that for now.
The Success Formula/Talent Stack insights have had several significant impacts on the development of my ideas, beyond just the realization that mental models should explain, predict, AND motivate.
One is just realizing how much I could gain from developing new skills to working knowledge level. This automatically shifted how I viewed the world and caused me to learn a lot more, about a lot more useful things.
And it doesn’t even seem like extra work, unless you count picking up $20 dollar bills up off the ground as extra work.
Another was realizing that, since better focus allows you to develop more skills faster, I should prioritize making my focus as good as it could possibly be, so I could pack as many useful skills in as possible. Remember, it’s not just that they’re useful that was the motivation, it’s that every appropriately chosen skills DOUBLES the utility of what I already know/my odds of success.
This might not be strictly true, but there is truth in it and it’s made me vastly more effective and motivated.
Focus is what I would call a meta-skill – which is a skill that amplifies other skills and makes them even more effective. So, better focus is a benevolent double-whammy – it allows you to add more skills faster, and it amplifies the ones you already have.
Run through the exponential magic of The Success Formula/The Talent Stack, this is a PHENOMENALLY powerful thing.
Note: I basically trained as a mathematician, so I get annoyed when people say “exponential” when they really mean “a bunch.” In this case, doubling the output for ever 1 you add to the input is textbook exponential, so it’s a legit use of the term in this case.
More specifically, when I realize/believe that focus is a meta-skill that acts in the described way, it means that even a small improvement in focus can yield multiply exponential results in terms of skills I’ve already got and will get.
So, I am VERY motivated to get those small gains, which means they happen almost automatically.
So, that’s my review of the part of the book I found most relevant and how it affected my own development and ideas.
Like I said, the book covers a lot of territory for its brevity, ranging from various topics in health to things like free will and religion (which happen to be the only parts of the book I don’t necessarily agree with – I have to throw in one negative so that this counts as a real review), but it’s very worth reading, over and over again.
If you want to learn the most inherently motivational mental models and the most radically effective productivity techniques I’ve ever discovered, get my course, YouX2, before it closes this Sunday, August 19th at Midnight EST.
Get focused and grab those skills like they’re Black Friday discounts.
Future you will thank you for it – profusely, and from atop a massive and imposing Talent Stack.