January 02, 2014


Small Move, Big Change: Using Microresolutions to Transform Your Life Permanently. By Caroline L. Arnold. Viking. $27.95.

How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life. By Scott Adams. Portfolio/Penguin. $27.95.

     The start of a new year is a traditional time for self-evaluation and contemplation of change, for looking in new directions and seeking new ways to deal with challenges. January, named for the Roman god Janus – whose two faces look in both directions at the same time – is an apt time to look back at what has worked and forward into the unknown and, one hopes, a brighter future. Hence the tradition of New Year’s resolutions, which most people know are “more honored in the breach than the observance,” as Shakespeare put it. Simply resolving to do better, to be better, is not enough to become better in whatever way one chooses to define “better.” So there are inevitably umpteen books available, with new ones emerging constantly, purporting to present the secret to self-improvement or, more modestly, a secret. Two that aim at much the same target but approach it very differently are Small Move, Big Change, by Goldman Sachs managing director Caroline L. Arnold, and How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, by cartoonist and serial entrepreneur Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert.

     One point on which the books agree is that big goals are counterproductive; this is why typical New Year’s resolutions fail. If, for example, you set yourself a goal to lose 20 pounds, that seems like a big thing to do and a distant accomplishment, making it hard to summon the willpower, day after day, to keep moving incrementally toward the place where you are ultimately determined to end up. Even if you eventually get to the goal, it is likely to prove unsatisfying after a very short burst of pleasant feeling relating to the accomplishment. And because it does feel unsatisfying – and requires additional willpower for maintenance – it is likely to slip away as your limited supply of willpower is used elsewhere. That willpower limitation is a significant underlying element of the arguments in both these books; however, the authors offer radically different approaches to dealing with the issue. Arnold’s is to take the well-known admonition to break down big tasks into small ones and use it as the basis for your personal life. In other words, instead of deciding to make a big change, have your goal be to make a small, easily attainable one – which then becomes the first step toward making another small change – which leads to another, another, and another, eventually resulting in goal attainment. You do not give up on goals, but you break the big ones down into small, manageable parts requiring a minimal amount of willpower – parts that soon become so automatic that you need no willpower at all to maintain them. For example, instead of resolving to clean up the clutter caused by leaving clothes everywhere – a problem that Arnold found she simply could not address – you decide to hang up your coat when you come home from work. That’s all. Just hang up your coat. This is a small thing, requiring minimal thought and focus, and quickly becomes automatic; and it opens the way toward another small decluttering move, which opens the way to another, and so on. Instead of tackling big projects that seem overwhelming, tackle small ones – this is Arnold’s approach in a nutshell.

     Another of her examples is a financial one. Wedded to convenience and able to pay for it, she had a habit of withdrawing cash at whatever ATM might be most convenient. But she realized that her spending, on a macro level, was out of control. Instead of tackling that issue – a huge one for many people, including Arnold – she decided never to withdraw cash from an ATM that charged a fee. That created some inconvenience: Arnold lives and works in New York City, so she had to walk a bit to get to a no-fee ATM, just as people elsewhere might have to drive some distance to find one. But the willpower to make this small change was not hard to come by, and Arnold soon found the trip to a no-fee ATM becoming part of her routine and no longer needing willpower for maintenance at all. Furthermore, when she realized how easy this small money-saving habit was, she was encouraged to look for other, similar, small and low-willpower moneysavers, allowing her gradually to chip away at the larger issue of her overspending in general. The advantage of Arnold’s approach is the ease with which it can be applied in multiple areas of life. Instead of the goal of using the computer less after work, create the goal of shutting it off at, say, 10:00 p.m. – as Arnold did. Instead of resolving to exercise more, decide to use the stairs instead of the elevator at the office every day – or to park in the most-distant part of the parking lot and walk to your office building instead of looking for a space closer to the entrance. Instead of trying to force yourself to get more sleep – a losing proposition for most people – tie your bedtime routine to something easy to identify and use as a marker: Arnold decided to get herself ready for sleep immediately after putting her daughter to bed, so she could go to bed herself as soon as she started to feel tired, with no further preparation. There is actually very little new in Arnold’s approach, built as it is on Lao Tzu’s famous epigram, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” and on the standard business practice of breaking down a huge project into smaller component parts. The value of Small Move, Big Change lies in Arnold’s personal examples, with which many readers will readily identify, and in her layout of a specific set of approaches to be used for developing and implementing what she calls “microresolutions”: make each one measurable and personal, be sure it delivers some sort of immediate payoff, make only two at a time, and so on. Arnold’s rules are formulaic, true, but may very well be helpful to people looking for clear guidance on creating modest goals and using them to reach larger goals that, on the face of it, seem impossible to attain.

     Or you can abandon goals altogether – which is what Adams argues for in How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big. The key word in this book’s title is “almost,” since Adams has no problem parading and enumerating his many entrepreneurial failures within the context of his one gigantic success, the Dilbert comic strip. How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big may well be a major disappointment to Dilbert fans, since its connection to the strip is marginal and it contains very few cartoon illustrations. Furthermore, unlike Adams’ previous book for Portfolio/Penguin – Stick to Drawing Comics, Monkey Brain! – this one has almost nothing in it about the comic or about creating and employing humor. There is a chapter called “Humor,” but it runs all of five pages and is presented in the context of very serious advice about how to live your life to invite luck and success to enter it. Not that Adams actually says his book will do that: he repeatedly says the opposite, that readers should not take what he says and run with it, should not unquestioningly accept lifestyle and self-help advice from a cartoonist whom they do not even know personally, should not assume that what has worked for him will work for them. More Shakespeare is worth quoting here: “The lady” – gentleman in this case – “doth protest too much, methinks,” seems appropriate, because beneath all the disclaimers and modesty lies a reality that goes something like this: “You don’t have to listen to me, follow my approach, pay attention to my ideas, but please notice that I am a rich, highly successful person who, among other things, got paid a lot of money to write this book telling you all the things that have led to my success, and you are not a rich and highly successful person or you would presumably not be reading this book.”

      Now that that’s out of the way, exactly what are the revelations Adams offers? His “happiness formula” is actually a quite simple, unexceptionable one that has little new about it: eat right; exercise; get enough sleep; “imagine an incredible future (even if you don’t believe it)”; try to have a flexible schedule; do things at which you can keep getting better; help other people if you have already taken care of yourself; and “reduce daily decisions to routine.” The last of these speaks to Adams’ attitude toward goals, even the sort of goals that Arnold favors: they are useless and for losers. Adams argues that any goal is self-limiting and that the way to live is through systems that do not merely reduce the need for any of your limited amount of willpower – they eliminate it altogether. It is by creating essentially mindless, self-perpetuating systems, Adams argues, that you can live a life in which luck will find you and you will be better able to identify good things that come your way in the natural course of time.

     Adams has a wide variety of these systems, which he uses to “program” the “moist robot” that is, he says, the human body. Whether his approach is rational or simply rationalizing is a matter for each reader to decide – the decision likely depending on how seriously you take Adams’ assertions about the way the universe works (for him), the importance of affirmations (as he uses them), and so forth. The “systems” idea is the most useful takeaway from this book, because it neatly shows the weaknesses of goal-setting in general while establishing that a continuous, non-willpower-driven process is better for improving one’s life than a discontinuous set of ever-changing (even ever-evolving) goals. For example, Adams is a committed vegetarian (although he does eat fish from time to time), and his system for sticking to a vegetarian diet and not being tempted to eat non-vegetarian foods makes sense: he stocks his home only with things he can eat, and – because he acknowledges the blandness of many such foods – he keeps a wide variety of flavorings (he provides a list of them) readily available, and also makes sure that the foods themselves are within easy reach at all times so that, when he really wants to grab a snack, he will grab a healthful one. Adams admits that vegetarian eating is much easier in California, where he lives, than it would be elsewhere – an amusing anecdote (one of the few bits of humor in the book) explains what happened when he tried to order vegetarian food from hotel room service in Kansas – but his point is to figure out what systems work for your particular circumstances, including geographical ones, and go from there.

     Adams does have strong opinions on some subjects, including some nutritional ones: “If you don’t drink coffee, you should think about two to four cups a day. It can make you more alert, happier, and more productive. …Coffee costs money, takes time, gives you coffee breath, and makes you pee too often. It can also make you jittery and nervous if you have too much. But if success is your dream and operating at peak mental performance is something you want, coffee is a good bet. I highly recommend it. In fact, I recommend it so strongly that I literally feel sorry for anyone who hasn’t developed the habit.” How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big has been endorsed by many international coffee-growers’ associations – well, not really, but it could be. Whether Adams’ analysis of coffee’s benefits works for you will depend on the programming of your own “moist robot” and on how persuasive you find his arguments to be. One element of the persuasiveness will involve how closely your everyday life parallels Adams’. As he points out, his “life requires a lot of mental energy. …The key to my doing that many things is that I eat right, exercise daily, and have lots of control over my schedule, which allows me to match my tasks with my mental state.” If your life does not give you the level of schedule and personal-time control that Adams’ does, many of his specific recommendations will fall short or be impractical. But his overall optimism – even in the face of some significant health challenges, which are among the issues he discusses in this book – is a plus for anyone, although if you do not have a naturally optimistic inclination, no book can rightfully tell you that you ought to have one or show you how to change your baseline personality.

     It is a shame that How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big is not written more humorously, because humor is Adams’ major talent – and he does explain how it relates to other elements of life, such as stripping out the nonessential in order to get to the core of matters. When Adams does leaven things a bit, comments that elsewhere in the book seem Pollyanna-ish or simply silly come across far more attractively: “I find it helpful to see the world as a slot machine that doesn’t ask you to put money in. All it asks is your time, focus, and energy to pull the handle over and over. A normal slot machine that requires money will bankrupt any player in the long run. But the machine that has rare yet certain payoffs, and asks for no money up front, is a guaranteed winner if you have what it takes to keep yanking it until you get lucky. In that environment, you can fail 99 percent of the time, while knowing success is guaranteed. All you need to do is stay in the game long enough.” This is the core of How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, and if readers may justifiably look askance at the reference to “rare yet certain payoffs” and being a “guaranteed winner,” they can at least learn from this sample of Adams’ statements how he sees the world working for him, and can decide on their own whether his attitudinal and behavioral prescriptions are likely to bring similar results for them. The answer, of course, is a resounding “maybe,” just as the success of Arnold’s small-goal approach is a “maybe” of a different sort. Neither of these books guarantees anything; neither author can reasonably claim to have a system that works for everyone (although, at bottom, that is what both do claim). What both Arnold and Adams offer is a particular way of looking at the world, with an eye toward solving the everyday problems of living in it. You pays your money and you takes your choice – and you remembers that there are lots of other self-help, self-actualization choices out there.

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