Edited Excerpts from an Interview
In your book, you talk of failures as a resource that can be managed and turned into success. How do you harness failure?
The trick is to pick a project that will make you more valuable even if it fails. Who knows, you might learn new and complementary skills in the process. Or you might make valuable contacts that help you later.
The statement, “Goals are for losers” is in stark contrast to the conventional norm of chasing your goals. You talk about systems that are better pursued than one’s goals or passions. Why do you feel that systems are better?
You see, goals work fine for simple situations. A hundred years ago, if a farmer wanted to plant 10 acres of corn, that was a simple and predictable goal. But in today’s world, the future is totally unpredictable. You have no way of knowing whether the goal you pick today will even make sense a year later.
A better approach is to improve the odds of success in a more general way and be ready for whatever opportunities life presents. And for that it helps to have what I call systems.
A system is something you do every day that improves your odds of success and ideally makes you more valuable. The most obvious example is college. You might not know where your education will lead you in terms of a specific job, but you know the education improves your odds of success. There isn’t one system that works for all. But it helps to have systems that improve your health and your market value every day. That way you’re ready when luck finds you.
Why do you say that success comes to those who stop wishing and start deciding? What is the important difference?
When you are simply wishing for success, you might not be doing anything to increase your odds. But once you decide to be successful, you have the right mindset to chew through obstacles. Success is expensive in terms of your energy, your mental health, and even your physical health. If you haven’t accepted that high price, you have a wish and not a decision.
Throughout the book, you stress on practicality over passion as a recipe for success. Doesn’t that take the romance out of life? Or is romance a misconception that we are sold?
Passion and romance are forms of magical thinking. Work isn’t meant to be fun all the time. It is more useful to think of passion as something you get from success as opposed to something you need to create success.
In India, conventional wisdom says that you should stick to one thing till you get it right. There are also limited career options that get parental approval. You talk about diversification to lead you to success. How does that work?
My mother tried to guide me towards a career in law. As I learned more about the job of being a lawyer, I realised it wasn’t the sort of thing I would enjoy, and I probably wouldn’t have been good at it. Instead, I imagined myself a serial entrepreneur who would try a variety of projects — learning useful skills along the way — until some combination of my skills provided opportunities that fit my personality and ambitions. I wouldn’t have predicted that I would end up as a cartoonist, author, speaker, and now founder of a start-up. It took a lot of trial and error to find what worked for me. In general, the more things you try, the more likely you’re to find a situation that matches your skills and your personality.
You talk of the importance of having a bullshit detector. But, isn’t it equally important to be able to bullshit well?
I’ve noticed that some people have poor bullshit detectors. That’s why I included a chapter in the book on how to sharpen your ability to identify truth. The main thing is to look for consistency. If the scientific studies say one thing, but your personal experience shows another, that’s a lack of consistency that should raise a flag. Or if your expert tells you one thing and studies you see on the Internet say another, that’s an inconsistency. As obvious as all of this sounds, my experience is that many people don’t look for consistency as a means of identifying truth. While it might be useful for your career to learn how to bullshit well, that’s outside the topic I write about.
Happiness is one of the things you have highlighted, but many people defer happiness to a future time when they are successful. Can you find happiness on the hard road to success, especially when passion is not in the equation?
Happiness is a directional thing, in the sense that we feel happy when things are moving in the right direction no matter how dismal today looks. When you employ systems instead of goals, you can get a feeling of progress every day. Whenever you feel you are learning new and useful things, it feels like the right direction. For most people, that’s enough to keep their spirits up.
Why is fitness important to be successful and how do you carve out time to be active every day when your time is stretched to the optimum?
Studies show — and common sense confirms — that you perform better on almost any task when you are fit and your energy is high. In a competitive world, the ability to be 10 percent brighter, or to work longer hours, is a huge advantage. We also know from studies that your appearance can have a huge impact on other people and, therefore, on your career. The best thing you can do for your appearance is to stay fit.
True, it’s hard to make time, especially in a family situation. At times, it works to join an organised sports team or to work out at the same time every day. It won’t feel personal when you choose exercise over time with your spouse if it is a regularly scheduled event.
Many say luck is in your stars, but you talk about creating luck by understanding patterns. How do you do that?
You can’t change luck directly, but you can move from a game with low odds to a game with better odds. For example, when I graduated from college, the first thing I did was move from my small town, where opportunities were limited, to California, where the economy was booming. And every year I try to pick up new and complementary skills that make me more valuable.
Consider the start-up I mentioned earlier. Studies show that the first startup you do has perhaps a 1 in 20 chance of success. But if you try a second time, your odds improve to 1 in 5 or better, because of what you learned from the first try. So no matter what happens, I’ll be better placed for luck to find me after I have gone through the experience.