Systems versus Goals – Scott Adams, Warren Buffet and some Zen.

Should you take advice from a guy who draws cartoons for a living? Generally not. Scott Adams, who does the Dilbert comics, is the exception to this rule. His book ‘How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big’ is one of the best books about life and happiness that I’ve ever read. It has triggered this piece.

As entrepreneurs, most of us are goal achieving machines. At least those entrepreneurs who are successful. A lot of my close entrepreneurial friends are fantastic in achieving their goals. In our organizations, it  is much easier for people to work together if there is a common goal.

I am by all accounts good at achieving goals. Get a great university degree, become an entrepreneur; study abroad, buy first apartment, build a company, get funded, sell company, raise a family, to do only things that have a meaning – whatever I set out to do I’ve achieved-  with the exception of achieving some ideal weight.

If goals are so great, then what is wrong with goals?

After each goal I achieved, I fell into a hole until I would find a new goal that I could go and achieve. Worse: During all that time, few people would have called me content. In order to be good at achieving goals I probably needed to not be happy with the status quo. In my experience that you can generalize this:

Most overachievers pay a high price for their achievements – they are never happy for a long term.

Over time I did improve. In the past couple of years I changed. I started to define a great day as a day when I spend time with my wife, my kids and do some great exercise. A good day is also defined by having meaningful intellectual exchange with people I respect. So a good day really doesn’t have anything to do with achieving more, or having more.

What does this have to do with Scott Adams’ book? Adams provides many more examples and a framework of goals versus systems:

“Goal-oriented people exist in a state of continuous presuccess failure at best, and permanent failure at worst if things never work out. Systems people succeed every time they apply their systems, in a sense that they did what they intended to do. The goals people are fighting the feeling of discouragement at each turn. The systems people are feeling good at every time they apply their system.”

In personal life, going back to dieting: losing 20 pounds is a goal that is usually always doomed, while focusing to change your habits for a different diet is a system that will last.

As a serial entrepreneur, I have evolved my system of identifying a market niche which fullfils a genuine user need, using an intact reputation to get the best possible people on board, acquire capital without over promising and executing fast. But I don’t have a goal of “x million in y years”. And I am certainly more happy for it.

In investing, I trained for years to identify companies that have evolved a great system. A company an idiot can run, to paraphrase Warren Buffet. Buffet has built one of the best systems himself with building a company that automatically increases earnings over time. Regus plc has built a system to constantly increase their office space without taking on the risk involved. In Germany, Rocket Internet is a system that can churn out companies at a bigger scale than anyone else.

Speaking of Buffet: As I attended Berkshire’s annual shareholder meeting for the 5th time this year, I realised something in the way Warren Buffet spoke about a recent acquisition in Germany and potential future acquisitions.

I had foolishly assumed that there was some kind of big plan for what he does. But: There is no big plan: They made decisions to acquire companies within less than a day. Buffet just happens to have a system of capital allocation and a certain pattern for companies that fit into BRK. And he communicates which companies might fit, wanting to become the preferred buyer for certain sellers. – A system without goals.

Scott Adams:
If you do something every day, it’s a system.
If you’re waiting to achieve it someday in the future, it’s a goal.”

To close with one of my favourite Zen quotes:

“Before enlightenment: Chop wood, carry water.
After enlightenment: Chop Wood, carry water.”

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