Systems versus Goals

Scott AdamsThe world has an abundance of great intellectual giants in all sorts of domains, some living and some dead. Most of us can gain a lot of knowledge and wisdom from them — if we had the time, the motivation, the inclination and the ability to do so.

Unfortunately as it happens we lack one or more of those, and can’t appreciate their works and don’t directly benefit from their genius. Most likely we’ll never be able to understand the works of the likes of Nietzsche, Ramanujan, Einstein, Hayek, Turing, et al. They are supremely important for humanity as a whole but we ordinary individuals gain very little practical wisdom from them.

Instead we are more likely to gain quite a bit from much lesser people. Why? Because they are not that far removed from us in our mundane lives. I call them “persons with mundane practical wisdom.”

A great example of PMPW is Scott Adams. He is a very successful cartoonist — Dilbert comics– and the author of a bunch of good books. His books are delightfully easy to read, and what’s more, the return on investment in time is high. His advice is down to earth and useful. I recommend one book particularly: How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big. I like the sixth chapter entitled, “Goals versus Systems”, in which he suggests that one should have a system instead of a goal. 

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 system-versus-goals model can be applied to most human endeavors. In the world of dieting, losing twenty pounds is a goal, but eating right is a system. In the exercise realm, running a marathon in under four hours is a goal, but exercising daily is a system. In business, making a million dollars is a goal, but being a serial entrepreneur is a system.

Like I said, Scott is easy to understand and his advice is useful. Here’s a quick video review of the systems vs goal idea.

And here’s Scott Adams himself, on “What is Better than Passion.” I note that he is an engaging speaker. 

That is an except from this talk that he gave at the Haas Business School at UC Berkeley:

Alright, that’s enough of Scott Adams for now. I have a broader point in mind, which is that there the outcome of a complex set of actions undertaken by a large number of people over an extended period of time cannot be chosen. The outcome emerges and is contingent, and we have no control over that.

This broader idea has been discovered and expressed by some very wise people. I will discuss them next.

Author: Atanu Dey


5 thoughts on “Systems versus Goals”

  1. What are your views on covid situation in India? And do you think Modi is a complete Arrogant, Narcissist, Incompetent autocratic demeagauge who should resign? Are you in favour of his resignation?


  2. Thank you for sharing the videos. I have read his book and love the systems vs goals idea. But I heard him explaining it as a speaker the first time.


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