Use Systems Not Goals

howtofailLast year at Dent we debuted the Dent Library: we asked attendees to recommend a book they read over the past year that really impacted the way they work or think, and we partnered with the local Sun Valley bookstore Iconoclast Books to have a copy of each of these books on hand for attendees to “check out” during the conference and read if they wanted to (or they could buy a copy)!

Since then, I’ve been slowly working my way through the catalog, and one that I read that keeps coming up in conversation over and over again is How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, by Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams.

In particular, I keep coming back to Scott’s distinction between people who pursue goals and people who use systems:

Throughout my career I’ve had my antennae up, looking for examples of people who use systems as opposed to goals. In most cases, as far as I can tell, the people who use systems do better. The systems driven people have found a way to look at the familiar in new and more useful ways.

To put it bluntly, goals are for losers. That’s literally true most of the time. For example, if your goal is to lose ten 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. That feeling wears on you. In time, it becomes heavy and uncomfortable. It might even drive you out of the game.

If you achieve your goal, you celebrate and feel terrific, but only until you realize 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 set new goals and reenter the cycle of permanent presuccess failure.

The systems-versus-goals point of view is burdened by semantics, of course. You might say every system has a goal, however vague. And that would be true to some extnet. And you could say that everyone who pursues a goal has some sort of system to get there, whether it is expressed or not. you could word-glue goals and systems together if you chose. All I’m suggesting is that thinking of goals and systems as very different concepts has power. Goal oriented people exist in a state of continuous presuccess failure at best, and permanent failure at worst if things never work out. Systems peopel succeed every time they apply their systems, in the sense that they did what they intended to do. The goals peopel are fighting the feeling of discouragement at each turn. The systems people are feeling good every time they apply their system. That’s a big difference in terms of maintaining your personal energy in the right direction.

I think this perspective makes a lot of sense, actually, and I find myself re-arranging goals in my life as systems, both for work and personally.