Highlights: How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life, by Scott Adams


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Consider the people who routinely disagree with you. See how confident they look while being dead wrong? That’s exactly how you look to them.

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When it comes to any big or complicated question, humility is the only sensible point of view. Still, we mortals need to navigate our world as if we understood it. The alternative—acting randomly—would be absurd.

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Once you have your bullshit filter working, think about how you begin the process of tackling any new and complicated problem. There’s one step you will always do first if it’s available to you: You’ll ask a smart friend how he or she tackled the same problem. A smart friend can save you loads of time and effort. Many of you have a smart friend or two already, and you are lucky to have them. But my observation is that a startling percentage of the adult population literally has no smart friends to help them in their quest for success and happiness.

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The best example of the power of simplicity is capitalism. The central genius of capitalism is that all of its complexities, all of the differences across companies, all of the challenges, decisions, successes, and failures can be boiled down into one number: profits.

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Sometimes the only real difference between crazy people and artists is that artists write down what they imagine seeing.

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I learned that loneliness isn’t fixed by listening to other people talk. You can cure your loneliness only by doing the talking yourself and—most important—being heard. For the next three and a half years I experienced a total disconnect from normal life and a profound sense of aloneness, despite the love and support of family and friends. My quality of life was dipping below the point of being worth the effort.

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The short answer is that over the years I have cultivated a unique relationship with failure. I invite it. I survive it. I appreciate it. And then I mug the shit out of it.

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Passionate people who fail don’t get a chance to offer their advice to the rest of us. But successful passionate people are writing books and answering interview questions about their secrets for success every day. Naturally those successful people want you to believe that success is a product of their awesomeness, but they also want to retain some humility. You can’t be humble and say, “I succeeded because I am far smarter than the average person.” But you can say your passion was a key to your success, because everyone can be passionate about something or other. Passion sounds more accessible.

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So forget about passion when you’re planning your path to success. In the coming chapters I’ll describe some methods for boosting personal energy that have worked for me. You already know that when your energy is right you perform better at everything you do, including school, work, sports, and even your personal life. Energy is good. Passion is bullshit.

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Good ideas have no value because the world already has too many of them. The market rewards execution, not ideas. From that point on, I concentrated on ideas I could execute. I was already failing toward success, but I didn’t yet know it.

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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.

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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.

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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 people succeed every time they apply their systems, in the 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 every time they apply their system. That’s a big difference in terms of maintaining your personal energy in the right direction.

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For our purposes, let’s say a goal is a specific objective that you either achieve or don’t sometime in the future. A system is something you do on a regular basis that increases your odds of happiness in the long run. 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.

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The minimum requirement of a system is that a reasonable person expects it to work more often than not. Buying lottery tickets is not a system no matter how regularly you

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I learned by observation that people who pursued extraordinarily unlikely goals were overly optimistic at best, delusional at worst, and just plain stupid most of the time. The smart people in my little Republican-dominated town made practical plans and stuck to them.

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I had ignored my father’s advice to work for the Postal Service. That turned out to be a good idea. I got into college without much help from my guidance counselor, and I stayed in school against my doctor’s advice. This was about the time that my opinion of experts, and authority figures in general, began a steady descent that continues to this day.

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would try one thing after another until something creative struck a chord with the public. Then I would reproduce it like crazy. In the near term it would mean one failure after another. In the long term I was creating a situation that would allow luck to find

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It helps a great deal to have at least a general strategy and some degree of focus. The world offers so many alternatives that you need a quick filter to eliminate some options and pay attention to others. Whatever your plan, focus is always important.

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I returned to work, happy in the knowledge that my cubicle was relatively smoke free, and as a bonus the smokers in senior management were closing their doors and turning their offices into extra effective carcinogenic hotboxes. It’s hard to imagine a better result.

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One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever heard goes something like this: If you want success, figure out the price, then pay it. It sounds trivial and obvious, but if you unpack the idea it has extraordinary power.

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That’s the entire list. Your best option is to be selfish, because being stupid or a burden on society won’t help anyone. Society hopes you will handle your selfishness with some grace and compassion. If you do selfishness right, you automatically become a net benefit to society. Successful people generally don’t burden the world. Corporate raiders, overpaid CEOs, and tyrannical dictators are the exceptions.

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As a future or current rich person, you might pay far more than your share of taxes because of your selfish pursuit of income. Selfish successful people don’t cause worry and stress for those who care about them. As a selfish successful person, you can be a role model for others. Selfish successful people can be fun company if they’ve squirreled away all they need and have no complaints to voice.

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The most important form of selfishness involves spending time on your fitness, eating right, pursuing your career, and still spending quality time with your family and friends. If you neglect your health or your career, you slip into the second category—stupid—which is a short slide to becoming a burden on society.

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of the more interesting surprises for me when I started making more money than I would ever spend is that it automatically changed my priorities. I could afford any car I wanted, but suddenly I didn’t care so much about my possessions beyond the utility they provided. Once all of my personal needs were met, my thoughts automatically turned to how I could make the world a better place. I didn’t plan the transformation. It wasn’t something I thought about and decided to do. It just happened on its own. Apparently humans are wired to take care of their own needs first, then family,

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One of the more interesting surprises for me when I started making more money than I would ever spend is that it automatically changed my priorities. I could afford any car I wanted, but suddenly I didn’t care so much about my possessions beyond the utility they provided. Once all of my personal needs were met, my thoughts automatically turned to how I could make the world a better place. I didn’t plan the transformation. It wasn’t something I thought about and decided to do. It just happened on its own. Apparently humans are wired to take care of their own needs first, then family, tribe, country, and the world, roughly in that order.

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Maximizing my personal energy means eating right, exercising, avoiding unnecessary stress, getting enough sleep, and all of the obvious steps. But it also means having something in my life that makes me excited to wake up. When I get my personal energy right, the quality of my work is better, and I can complete it faster. That keeps my career on track. And when all of that is working, and I feel relaxed and energetic, my personal life is better too.

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The main reason I blog is because it energizes me. I could rationalize my blogging by telling you it increases traffic on Dilbert.com by 10 percent or that it keeps my mind sharp or that I think the world is a better place when there are more ideas in it. But the main truth is that blogging charges me up. It gets me going. I don’t need another reason.

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You have the same paradox with personal energy. If you look at any individual action that boosts your personal energy, it might look like selfishness. Why are you going skiing when you should be working at the homeless shelter, you selfish bastard! My proposition is that organizing your life to optimize your personal energy will add up to something incredible that is more good than bad.

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Most people aren’t lucky enough to have a flexible schedule. I didn’t have one either for the first sixteen years of my corporate life. So I did the next best thing by going to bed early and getting up at 4:00 A.M. to do my creative side projects. One of those projects became the sketches for Dilbert.

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The cost of optimizing is that it’s exhausting and stress inducing, at least for people like me. Sometimes I think I’m literally going to have a heart attack from all of the optimizing. It also requires full concentration. I prefer simple, foolproof plans that allow my heart to beat normally and my mind to wander toward blissful thoughts of puppies and rose petals.

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I prefer simplicity whenever I’m choosing a system to use. People can follow simple systems better than complicated ones. I’ll give you some examples of that in later chapters about fitness and diet. The most optimized diet plan or fitness plan will also be the most complicated. But few people have enough willpower in reserve to follow complicated plans.

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You can chip away at the complexity of your life over time. Simplicity is a worthy long-term goal. That’s how you will free your personal energy so you can concentrate it where you need it.

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Cleaning and organizing your space is boring work, and you might never see it as a priority. One trick I’ve learned is that I automatically generate enthusiasm about tidying up if I know someone is stopping by. That’s why it’s a good idea to invite people over on a regular basis. It will inspire you to keep your space straightened up, and that might in turn cause your mind to have a bit more energy.

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a few hundred million people have probably wondered the same thing. And that usually means the information has already been packaged and simplified, and in some cases sold. But it’s usually free for the asking.

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If you think of your bad behavior as a lifestyle choice, as in “being yourself” or “just being honest,” you might be ignoring the cost to your personal energy. When you piss off the people around you, there is bound to be some blowback and wasted effort cleaning up the mess you made. It can all be quite distracting and draining.

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The next ring—and your second-biggest priority—is economics. That includes your job, your investments, and even your house. You might wince at the fact that I put economics ahead of your family, your friends, and the rest of the world, but there’s a reason. If you don’t get your personal financial engine working right, you place a burden on everyone from your family to the country.

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The next rings are your local community, your country, and the world, in that order. Don’t bother trying to fix the world until you get the inner circles of your priorities under control.

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The risk with using energy as your guide is that there are plenty of bad choices that also get you energized in the short run. But realistically, we all know, for example, that shoving cocaine up our noses isn’t a good long-term strategy. The dumb choices are generally quite obvious.

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If you could control your attitude directly, as opposed to letting the environment dictate how you feel on any given day, it would be like a minor superpower. It turns out you have that superpower. You can control your attitude by manipulating your thoughts, your body, and your environment.

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A simple trick you might try involves increasing your ratio of happy thoughts to disturbing thoughts. If your life doesn’t provide you with plenty of happy thoughts to draw upon, try daydreaming of wonderful things in your future.

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A powerful variation on the daydreaming method involves working on projects that have a real chance of changing the world, helping humanity, and/or making a billion dollars. I try to have one or more change-the-world projects going at all times.

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Also, as I write this paragraph, I’m shopping for money partners to launch an idea that has the potential to transform the entire economy of the world, assuming it works as planned. Will it succeed? Probably not. But the idea of it excites me and raises my energy today. That’s my system.

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But for the past several months my attitude and energy have been sky-high because of the potential that both projects have for making the world a better place. My imagined future acts as a cue to keep my mood elevated today.

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Another benefit of having a big, world-changing project is that you almost always end up learning something valuable in the process of failing. And fail you will, most of the time, so long as you are dreaming big. But remember, goals are for losers anyway. It’s smarter to see your big-idea projects as part of a system to improve your energy, contacts, and skills. From that viewpoint, if you have a big, interesting project in the works, you’re a winner every time you wake

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In my universe of contacts, which is fairly huge at this point in my career, I would say I met half of those folks in the process of failing at one thing or another. And if I ask myself what skills and knowledge I need for my next big idea, invariably that means drawing on knowledge I gained while circling the drain in some doomed project of yore.

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The next time you’re in a gloomy mood, try smiling at a stranger you pass on the street. You’ll be surprised how many people reflexively return the smile, and if you smile often enough, eventually that cue will boot up the happiness subroutine in your brain and release the feel-good chemicals you desire.

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Walk away from the soul suckers. You have a right to pursue happiness and an equal right to run as fast as you can from the people who would deny

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The interesting thing is that I’m not sure she understands that it’s my choice whether I go play with her or not. Her mental control of me works so reliably that I’m certain she thinks all that matters is how hard she stares at me and how vividly she imagines† herself chasing a tennis ball.

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She has a system for getting what she wants, and it seems to work, albeit for different reasons than she imagines. The deeper reality is that I’ve learned that her stares mean it’s time for some tennis-ball fun. My experience with Snickers begs a bigger question: Are humans so different from dogs in terms of having totally flawed assumptions about reality, and do our flawed assumptions work for reasons we don’t understand?

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My main point about perceptions is that you shouldn’t hesitate to modify your perceptions to whatever makes you happy, because you’re probably wrong about the underlying nature of reality anyway. If I had to bet my life, I’d say humans are more like my dog trying to use psychic powers on me to play fetch than we are like enlightened creatures that understand their environment at a deep level.

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In practical terms, the reason my dog happily plays fetch three times a day is that she chose an illusion that works. I believe she imagines she can make me play fetch just by visualizing it. You too can sometimes get what you want by adopting a practical illusion. Reality is overrated and impossible to understand with any degree of certainty. What you do know for sure is that some ways of looking at the world work better than others. Pick the way that works, even if you don’t know why.

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The way I motivate myself to take on a task this large is by imagining that I have fascinating and useful things to say that will help people. The reality might be quite different. I can’t see the future, so I have the option of imagining it in whatever way gives me the greatest utility. I choose to imagine that the book will do well because that illusion is highly motivating. It increases my energy.

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The worst-case scenario is that I will spend a lot of time writing a book that no one will find useful or entertaining. It wouldn’t be the first time. But because of my imaginary future in which the book is enjoyed by millions, I’m able to find great satisfaction in writing it. No matter what reality delivers in the future, my imagined version of the future has great usefulness today.

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Free yourself from the shackles of an oppressive reality. What’s real to you is what you imagine and what you feel. If you manage your illusions wisely, you might get what you want, but you won’t necessarily understand why it worked.

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You also get some automatic benefits by reading this book and in a sense joining a new group. Specifically, you’re on your way to being one of the people who have read this book. When you define yourself as a member of any group, you start to automatically identify with the other members and take on some of the characteristics of the group.1 The group of people who read books on how to succeed is an excellent group to be in. You’re the people most likely to succeed because you’re putting real thought and research into the mechanics of success.

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In my corporate career I often marveled at how people changed as soon as they got promoted from worker bees to management. I saw one of my coworkers transform from a hesitant and unimpressive personality to confidence and power within two months of his promotion. Obviously there was some acting involved, but we are designed to become in reality however we act. We fake it until it becomes real. Our core personality doesn’t change, but we quickly adopt the mannerisms and skills associated with our new status and position.

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And frankly, cumulatively the events in my life up to that point gave me a sensation of being exempt from the normal laws of chance, and that is probably the source of my optimism. If you need a more scientific-sounding explanation, perhaps I’m just bad at estimating the odds of things, or perhaps I have selective memory and forget the things that don’t work out. No matter how you explain the perception, it leaves room for hope, and hope has a lot of practical utility.

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You might be tempted to think that sometimes an idea with no x factor and no enthusiastic fans can gain those qualities over time. I’m sure it’s happened, but I can’t think of an example in my life. It’s generally true that if no one is excited about your art/product/idea in the beginning, they never will be. If the first commercial version of your work excites no one to action, it’s time to move on to something different. Don’t be fooled by the opinions of friends and family. They’re all liars.

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When writing a résumé, a handy trick you’ll learn from experts is to ask yourself if there are any words in your first draft that you would be willing to remove for one hundred dollars each. Here’s the simple formula:

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When you accept without necessarily believing that each new skill doubles your odds of success, you effectively hack (trick) your brain to be more proactive in your pursuit of success. Looking at the familiar in new ways can change your behavior even when the new point of view focuses on the imaginary.

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If you think extraordinary talent and a maniacal pursuit of excellence are necessary for success, I say that’s just one approach, and probably the hardest.

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If you think extraordinary talent and a maniacal pursuit of excellence are necessary for success, I say that’s just one approach, and probably the hardest. When it comes to skills, quantity often beats quality.

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The simple entry point for developing a news-reading habit is that you read only the topics that interest you, no matter how trivial they might be. That effectively trains you to enjoy the time you spend reading the news, even if the only thing you look at involves celebrity scandals and sports.

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Don’t think of the news as information. Think of it as a source of energy.

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Then an interesting thing happened. I rank it as one of the most fascinating things I have ever witnessed. The instructor went to the front and looked at the broken student. The room was dead silent. I’ll always remember his words. He said, “Wow. That was brave.” My brain spun in my head. Twenty-some students had been thinking this woman had just crashed and burned in the most dramatically humiliating way. She had clearly thought the same thing. In four words, the instructor had completely reinterpreted the situation. Every one of us knew the instructor was right. We had just witnessed an extraordinary act of personal bravery, the likes of which one rarely sees. That was the takeaway. Period.

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Today when I see a stage and a thousand people waiting to hear me speak, a little recording goes off in my head that says today is a good day. I’m the happiest person in the room. The audience only gets to listen, but I get to speak, to feel, to be fully alive. I will absorb their energy and turn it into something good. And when I’m done, there’s a 100 percent chance that people will say good things about me.

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Adults are starved for a kind word. When you understand the power of honest praise (as opposed to bullshitting, flattery, and sucking up), you realize that withholding it borders on immoral. If you see something that impresses you, a decent respect to humanity insists you voice your praise.

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Another thing I learned from my Dale Carnegie experience is that we don’t always have an accurate view of our own potential. I think most people who are frightened of public speaking can’t imagine they might feel different as a result of training. Don’t assume you know how much potential you have. Sometimes the only way to know what you can do is to test yourself.

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I’ve spent a lot of time describing just one psychological phenomenon: the tendency to make irrational comparisons. But how many psychological tips and tricks does a person really need to understand in order to be

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I no longer see reason as the driver of behavior. I see simple cause and effect, similar to the way machines operate. If you believe people use reason for the important decisions in life, you will go through life feeling confused and frustrated that others seem to have bad reasoning skills. The reality is that reason is just one of the

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I no longer see reason as the driver of behavior. I see simple cause and effect, similar to the way machines operate. If you believe people use reason for the important decisions in life, you will go through life feeling confused and frustrated that others seem to have bad reasoning skills. The reality is that reason is just one of the drivers of our decisions, and often the smallest one.

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You’ll find yourself continually debating people and never winning except in your own mind. Few things are as destructive and limiting as a worldview that assumes people are mostly rational.

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The most common is the L-shaped layout. You imagine a giant letter L on the page and fill in the dense stuff along its shape, leaving less clutter in one of the four open quadrants. Artists call the uncluttered part negative space. In the case of an oil painting, you might have a tree going up one side, some landscape on the bottom, and the open sky in the top left. You can change it up by rotating the L and leaving a different quadrant less busy than the rest, but it’s still the L concept.

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What’s your name? Where do you live? Do you have a family? What do you do for a living? Do you have any hobbies/sports? Do you have any travel plans?

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The secret to making the list of six questions work without seeming awkward is in understanding that the person you meet will feel every bit as awkward as you. That person wants to talk about something interesting and to sound knowledgeable. Your job is to make that easy. Nothing is easier than talking about one’s self. I would go so far as to say that 99 percent of the general public love talking about themselves.

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Your job as a conversationalist is to keep asking questions and keep looking for something you have in common with the stranger, or something that interests you enough to wade into the topic. In my entire life I have never met a stranger who didn’t have some fascinating life experiences that spilled out if I asked the right questions. Everyone is interesting if you make the situation feel safe. Here’s a summary of good conversation technique.

Location 1982-1984

Your job as a conversationalist is to keep asking questions and keep looking for something you have in common with the stranger, or something that interests you enough to wade into the topic. In my entire life I have never met a stranger who didn’t have some fascinating life experiences that spilled out if I asked the right questions. Everyone is interesting if you make the situation

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As a writer, I reflexively translate whatever I observe into a story form with a setup, a twist if there is one, and some sort of punch line or thought that ties it in a bow. You can do the same thing. Try to get in the habit of asking yourself how you can turn your interesting experiences into story form. I find it helps to imagine telling the story to someone in particular—a spouse, friend, or relative. Try a few versions in your head, telling the story and feeling how it goes. Was it brief? Did you save the surprise for just the right moment? Did you have a way to end the story with a punch line or interesting observation?

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The most important key to good storytelling is preparation. You don’t want to figure out your story as you tell it. If something story-worthy happens to you, spend some time developing the story structure in your head—a structure I will explain in a minute—and practice telling the story in your head until you have it down.

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Establish a pattern that your story will violate. For example, you could say, “Whenever I take my car for any kind of service, I’m always amazed how expensive it is.” That establishes the pattern. Now we know that what follows will be a violation of the pattern. And we call that hint of things to come

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There is one topic that people care more about than any other: themselves. Pick story topics that your listeners will relate to. If your story is about dealing with a stubborn bureaucrat, most adults can relate to it no matter the bureaucracy involved.

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I credit one of my college friends with teaching me the secret of overcoming shyness by imagining you are acting instead of interacting. And by that I mean literally acting.

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It turns out that golf transports your brain to another dimension for the hours you are on the course. It’s like a vacation for the mind.

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My best guess is that asking a person if he minds is signaling that you have a reasonable request that might be inconvenient. It’s hard to be a jerk and say no to any request that starts with “Would you mind.” The question comes across as honest, while also showing concern for the other person. It’s a powerful combination.

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Don’t offer a reason why you aren’t interested. No one can say why a thing holds interest for some and not for others. There’s no argument against a lack of interest.

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Instead, say something along the lines of “I have a rule of only doing one-on-one lunches with clients.” It will sound convincing and somewhat polite, while offering no reason whatsoever.

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Sometimes you hear statements that are so mind-numbingly stupid, evil, or mean that you know a direct frontal assault would only start a fight. People tend to double down when challenged, no matter how wrong they are. A more effective way to approach a dangerous social or business situation is sideways, by asking a question that starts with “I just wanted to clarify

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You know that if you get angry and demanding the person you’re dealing with might stick to the rules and try to brush you off. The most powerful way to approach a situation like this is to ask, “Is there anything you can do for me?” You will discover it to be an extraordinarily persuasive question.

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The question frames you as the helpless victim and the person you are trying to persuade as the hero and problem solver. That’s a self-image that people like to reinforce when they have the chance. All you’re doing is creating that opportunity.

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No matter how you deliver a thank-you, make sure it includes a little detail of what makes you thankful. Was it the surprise, the thoughtfulness, or how helpful the favor or gift was? Be specific.

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Make sure the small secrets stay secret before you try anything riskier. One way to judge your risk is to be alert for other people’s secrets that are being relayed to you. Someone who is bad at keeping one kind of secret is probably bad at keeping all secrets. You won’t be exempt.

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However, some people act much more decisively than others. And that can be both persuasive and useful. Decisiveness looks like leadership. Keep in mind that most normal people are at least a little bit uncertain when facing unfamiliar and complicated situations. What people crave in that sort of environment is anything that looks like certainty. If you can deliver an image of decisiveness, no matter how disingenuous, others will see it as leadership.

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Energy is contagious. People like how it feels. If you show enthusiasm, others will want to experience the same rush.

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In most groups the craziest person is in control. It starts because no one wants the problems that come from pissing off a crazy person. It’s just smarter and easier sometimes to let the crazy person have his or her way.

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Crazy + confident probably kills more people than any other combination of personality traits, but when it works just right, it’s a recipe for extraordinary persuasion. Cults are a good example of insanity being viewed as leadership.

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The way fake insanity works in a negotiation is that you assign a greater value to some element of a deal than an objective observer would consider reasonable. For example, you might demand that a deal be closed before the holidays so you can announce it to your family as a holiday present. When you bring in an emotional dimension, people know they can’t talk you out of it. Emotions don’t bend to reason. So wrap your arguments in whatever emotional blankets you can think of to influence others. A little bit of irrationality is a powerful thing.

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Sometimes you need to nudge people onto the right path even if they firmly believe it to be wrong. In some cases you have a moral obligation to be manipulative if you know it will create a good result for all involved.

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Throughout my corporate years I used a serious-sounding tone of voice whenever I was in “professional” mode. I was literally acting, but it didn’t feel disingenuous because the business world is a lot like theater. Everyone tries to get into character for the job they have.

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I lowered my tone and spoke with the sort of self-assurance that only the insane come by honestly. I’m reasonably sure that my fake voice, with its low notes and artificial confidence, made me appear more capable than I was, and that wasn’t difficult because I was largely incompetent at every corporate job I

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fake-voice era no one could hear me above crowd noises. It was hard to order a drink or make conversation in any noisy situation. I’ve since learned to penetrate background noise by using a higher-pitched voice. It’s great for communicating, but

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fake-voice era no one could hear me above crowd noises. It was hard to order a drink or make conversation in any noisy situation. I’ve since learned to penetrate background noise by using a higher-pitched voice. It’s great for communicating, but I don’t expect to get any CEO offers. It’s a real trade-off.

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When you’re trying to convey a fake sense of confidence—which is often handy—you need to tell yourself you’re acting. Simply speak the way you imagine a confident person would speak and you’ll nail it on the first try.

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When it comes to in-person humor, effort counts a lot. When people see you trying to be funny, it frees them to try it themselves. So even if your own efforts at humor fall short, you might be freeing the pent-up humor in others. People need permission to be funny in social or business settings because there’s always a risk that comes with humor. You will do people a big favor when you remove some of that risk by going first. For in-person humor, quality isn’t as important as you might think. Your attitude and effort count for a lot.

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I say quality is overrated when it comes to humor, but you do need to achieve a minimum threshold. And that usually means avoiding a handful of traps. If you avoid the traps, you’re golden. Allow me to map the traps for you. I’ll

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You have to be at least a bit self-assured to mock yourself in front of others.

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Beware of puns and other clever wordplay. The only people who appreciate puns are the people who can do them. It’s like water polo; it’s hard to appreciate the sport unless you’ve played it. If you don’t know for sure that you’re dealing with hard-core pun lovers, avoid puns completely. Otherwise you’re just begging for a courtesy snort or an eye roll.

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Humor also makes you more creative, at least in the short run.3 I think it has something to do with the fact that humor is a violation of straight-line thinking. Humor temporarily shuts down the commonsense program in your moist robot brain and boots the random idea generator. At least it feels that way to me, figuratively speaking. Perhaps all that is happening is that humor makes one feel energized and relaxed at the same time and that is bound to help creativity.

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You won’t win anyone over to your preferred brand of humor. It’s better to adapt to what others want to hear, assuming your goal is to be liked.

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At this point in the story you can see the structure developing. As the listener, you already know something bad is going to happen to Jim, and it will somehow involve his anal area. That’s the sign of a good story. Now back to it …

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In general, you want your punch line to inspire listeners to complete the story—including the bad part—in their own minds. That allows every person to imagine the ending in the way that is most amusing.

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An engineered joke is one that includes an unlikely or surprising solution to a problem, much the way an engineer discovers a novel way to fix something that is broken.

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That’s an engineering solution to a problem not normally solved by engineering. You can visualize the angry wife hearing the news of her husband’s mistress and shoveling dirt down the hole while cursing. It’s a funny image, at least for people who have a warped sense of humor. (I laughed for about a week.)

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details of affirmations probably don’t matter much because the process is about improving your focus, not summoning magic.

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But it is my preference to be open-minded when I can manage it, so I went into it with the intention of giving it a fair

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But it is my preference to be open-minded when I can manage it, so I went into it with the intention of giving it a fair try.

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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 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.

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I noticed is that the affirmations only worked when I had a 100 percent unambiguous desire for success. If I could have snapped my fingers and made the TV show, the Dilberito, and the restaurants successful, I would have done it. But I knew I wouldn’t enjoy ongoing management of any one of them. Did my mixed feelings matter? I’ll never know.

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My attitude was always the same: Escape from my cell, free the other inmates, shoot the warden, and burn down the prison.

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If your gut feeling (intuition) disagrees with the experts, take that seriously. You might be experiencing some pattern recognition that you can’t yet verbalize.

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After Dilbert launched, I continued working my day job at Pacific Bell for several years. Since then, my old boss, Mike Goodwin (who was also the guy who named Dilbert), wrote and published a book about his father’s experience in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. (Spoiler alert: It didn’t go well.) The book, Shobun, was his first attempt as a writer. It didn’t strike me as a huge coincidence that two cubicle rats from Pacific Bell both became published writers. The world is full of such ordinary coincidences.

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He went on to write several more articles that also got published. Did my association with him make it more likely I would later pursue a career in cartooning? I think it did. It made success outside my field seem accessible. It made it real.

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Humans are social animals. There are probably dozens of ways we absorb energy, inspiration, skills, and character traits from those around us. Sometimes we learn by example. Sometimes success appears more approachable and ordinary because we see normal people achieve it, and perhaps that encourages us to pursue schemes with higher payoffs. Sometimes the people around us give us information we need, or encouragement, or contacts, or even useful criticism. We can’t always know the mechanism by which others change our future actions, but it’s pretty clear it happens, and it’s important.

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To change yourself, part of the solution might involve spending more time with the people who represent the change you seek.

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Given our human impulse to pick up the habits and energy of others, you can use that knowledge to literally program your brain the way you want. Simply find the people who most represent what you would like to become and spend as much time with them as you can without trespassing, kidnapping, or stalking. Their good habits and good energy will rub off on you.

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The only reasonable goal in life is maximizing your total lifetime experience of something called happiness. That might sound selfish, but it’s not. Only a sociopath or a hermit can find happiness through extreme selfishness. A normal person needs to treat others well in order to enjoy life. For the sake of argument, let’s assume you’re normal(ish).

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For starters, the single biggest trick for manipulating your happiness chemistry is being able to do what you want, when you want. I’m contrasting that with the more common situation, in which you might be able to do all the things

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For starters, the single biggest trick for manipulating your happiness chemistry is being able to do what you want, when you want. I’m contrasting that with the more common situation, in which you might be able to do all the things you want, but you can’t often do them when you want.

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As I write this chapter, I’m sitting in a comfortable chair with my trusty dog, Snickers, while enjoying a warm cup of coffee. I just came from a good workout, so I’m feeling relaxed and in the mood to write. By any definition, what I’m doing is work, but because I can control the timing of it on this particular day, it doesn’t feel like work. I’ve transformed work into pleasure simply by having control over when I do it.

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As I write this chapter, I’m sitting in a comfortable chair with my trusty dog, Snickers, while enjoying a warm cup of coffee. I just came from a good workout, so I’m feeling relaxed and in the mood to write. By any definition, what I’m doing is work, but because I can control the timing of it on this particular day, it doesn’t feel like work. I’ve transformed work into pleasure simply by having control over when I do it.

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That brings me to the next important mechanism for happiness. Happiness has more to do with where you’re heading than where you are. A person who is worth two billion dollars will feel sad if he suddenly loses one billion because he’s moving in the wrong direction, even if the change has no impact on his ability to buy what he wants. But a street person will celebrate discovering a new Dumpster behind an upscale restaurant because it means good eating ahead. We tend to feel happy when things are moving in the right direction and unhappy when things are trending bad.

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Slow and steady improvement at anything makes you feel that you are on the right track. The feeling of progress stimulates your body to create the chemicals that make you feel happy.

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The next element of happiness you need to master is imagination. I wrote about this in the context of raising your energy, which is closely related to happiness, but it bears repeating in this chapter. Pessimism is often a failure of imagination. If you can imagine the future being brighter, it lifts your energy and gooses the chemistry in your body that produces a sensation of happiness. If you can’t even imagine an improved future, you won’t be happy no matter how well your life is going right now.

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Don’t let reality control your imagination. Let your imagination be the user interface to steer your reality.

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If you know anyone who routinely interprets good news as bad, you know how easily it can be done. I’m here to tell you that the primary culprit in your bad moods is a deficit in one of the big five: flexible schedule, imagination, sleep, diet, and exercise.

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But you probably think the majority of your crabbiness is caused by the idiots and sociopaths in your life plus your inexplicable bad luck on any given day. Based on a lifetime of observation, my best estimate is that 80 percent of your mood is based on how your body feels and only 20 percent is based on your genes and your circumstances, particularly your health.

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Unhappiness that is caused by too much success is a high-class problem. That’s the sort of unhappiness people work all of their lives to get. If you find yourself there, and I hope you do, you’ll find your attention naturally turning outward. You’ll seek happiness through service to others. I promise it will feel wonderful.

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Choosing among attractive alternatives can also be exhausting. You want to feel as if you researched and considered all of your options. That’s why I find great comfort in routine.

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The part that’s right is that Dianetics also attempts to change behavior by changing the way you look at yourself and what makes you do what you do. Interestingly, as I pointed out earlier in this book, you can get good results by doing the right thing for the wrong reasons.

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want to be able to look at a vegetable and instantly know five ways to make it delicious, at least two of which don’t require much effort. When you change what you know about adding flavor to food, it will change your behavior. You’ll no longer need much willpower to resist bad food because you will be just as attracted to the healthy stuff.

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I don’t trust the science behind the vegetarian movement because the believers have agendas beyond nutrition. Some vegetarians are in the lifestyle to protect animals, some want to address climate change, and all are partially blinded by the cognitive dissonance that comes automatically with any lifestyle choice.

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An hour ago I considered doing some writing for this book, but I didn’t have the necessary energy or focus to sit down and start working. I did, however, have enough energy to fix myself a cup of coffee. A few sips into it, I was happier to be working than I would have been doing whatever lazy thing was my alternative. Coffee literally makes me enjoy work. No willpower needed.

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In fact, I recommend it so strongly that I literally feel sorry for anyone who hasn’t developed the habit.

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That’s a system for eating right over the long term. The surest way to identify those who won’t succeed at weight loss is that they tend to say things like “My goal is to lose ten pounds.” Weight targets often work in the short run. But if you need willpower to keep the weight off, you’re doomed in the long run. The only way to succeed in the long run is by using a system that bypasses your need for willpower.

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My challenge in this chapter is to convince you that if you get one simple thing right—being active every day—all of the other elements of fitness will come together naturally without the need to use up your limited supply of willpower. That last part is the key. In my experience, any form of exercise that requires willpower is unsustainable. To stay fit in the long run you need to limit your exercise to whatever level doesn’t feel like work, just as kids

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Long-distance runners are people who are born with a certain genetic gift that allows them to feel good when running. No one needs willpower to do the things they enjoy.

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There are three practical ways to schedule exercise in a marriage or marriagelike situation: Join an organized team. Always exercise at the same time every day. Exercise

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There are three practical ways to schedule exercise in a marriage or marriagelike situation: Join an organized team. Always exercise at the same time every day. Exercise together (if you both really mean it).

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The method that never succeeds is exercising whenever you have some spare time. If you’re like most adults, you haven’t seen spare time in years.

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I also find that ibuprofen (found in Advil and other brands) is a huge help in reducing my soreness on those days I overdo it. If I take the ibuprofen on the day I’m stiff, I have a good chance of being willing to exercise the next day. Without the ibuprofen I feel like the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz and all I want is my oilcan. I can’t recommend ibuprofen for you because I’m not a doctor and it comes

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I also find that ibuprofen (found in Advil and other brands) is a huge help in reducing my soreness on those days I overdo it. If I take the ibuprofen on the day I’m stiff, I have a good chance of being willing to exercise the next day. Without the ibuprofen I feel like the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz and all I want is my oilcan. I can’t recommend ibuprofen for you because I’m not a doctor and it comes with some risks if you overdo it. Ask your doctor.

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But what I have is not a goal; it is a system. And the system allows leakage. It is designed that way. As I drive home from the gym, a seemingly wasted trip, I never feel defeated. Instead, I feel I am using a system that I know works overall. I win if I exercise, and I win (albeit less) if I use my system and decide not to. Either way, my attitude improves. And at least I get out of the house and clear my head. It’s all good.

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It can, but it doesn’t need to. This book has just become part of your experience. If I did my job right, some parts of it will repeat in your head and be reinforced by your own observations. As with any experience, you can’t help but be changed by a book, if only a trivial amount. But everyone is different. One book can have a profound effect on one person and a tiny impact on another.

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my job right, some parts of it will repeat in your head and be reinforced by your own observations. As with any experience, you can’t help but be changed by a book, if only a trivial amount. But everyone is different. One book can have a profound effect on one person and a tiny impact on another.

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That said, I can tell you that in my case affirmations appear to have more power than one might expect from positive thinking. The illusion is that the world itself is changing to satisfy the affirmations. Allow me to offer some explanations of why affirmations appear to be influencing more than just the person doing them.

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This would be useful for people who have real talent but don’t believe in it; surely there are a lot of people in that camp.