July 31, 2015

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 read recently. It has triggered this piece. (EDIT 2017: Since I posted this, Scott Adams has correctly predicted Trump winning the elections, however, he then turned into an unabashed self-righteous Trump-supporter and continues to explain the worst US president in history. I keep this post as a document, nothing is wrong with the book recommendation)

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.”

Stephan Uhrenbacher

Coach for entrepreneurs, founder, speaker and author

Receive every update of my blog simply by email reminder.

My Latest Blog Posts

Building the perfect team

Building the perfect team

I was on a skiing holiday last week. While in the mountains, I helped a friend analyze an organization he wanted to buy. Two of my clients called me about hiring decisions. A new entrepreneur explained his needs for his organization. Let's distill some points for...

Are you ready for two-day hikes?

Are you ready for two-day hikes?

Nothing beats getting out in nature to get a new perspective. Two-day hikes are the key component of my coaching program for entrepreneurs - two days of intense one-on-one work, reframing your perspective, and accelerating growth. As of now, you can join us on just...

Not enough

Not enough

"Why am I trying to do something more than this?" This line on WhatsApp this morning sums up a struggle that most of us know too well. Things aren’t good enough as they are. Just one more business to be built. Just one more exit. A home with one more room. Satisfied...

The fear that keeps you from being happy

The fear that keeps you from being happy

All successful entrepreneurs are driven.We have our own compass. We operate at our own speed. We aim for Mars instead of the Moon.  Many of us know exactly the inner driver, which keeps us pushing on. It comes in many guises:A lack of a sense of...

My journey from founder to coach

My journey from founder to coach

For nearly a decade, I have been coaching a few other successful entrepreneurs consistently one on one. But in Summer 2022, the feedback I got for my coaching sessions changed. While earlier it was “super helpful”, now several people used the word “life-changing”. As...

How to find ‘What’s Next”?

How to find ‘What’s Next”?

As a serial entrepreneur, I went through seven “What’s Next” phases. I guided countless founders through phases of searching for their next thing. Here are some points that I learned. 1) We tend to overemphasize avoiding a painful experience. People who leave their...