What Will You Succeed At?

I was recently given a copy of Stick to Drawing Comics, Monkey Brain! by Scott Adams, the cartoonist who behind Dilbert. In his introduction, Scott discusses why he chose to write a book which has nothing to do with business, at least not in general. He had no experience in the field, and yet he wrote the book anyhow.

As it turns out, when he started drawing Dilbert, he had no experience with cartoons either. Before he landed his first paid speaking gig (which paid him $5,000 for an hour of his time), he had no experience with public speaking beyond a couple generic courses. He recounts many of his successes, and makes the statement:

To put all of this in context, I remind you again that I fail miserably about ten times for every one success. (That’s an accurate estimate. I’ve literally kept score.) The failures always involved activities for which I was completely qualified. Ironically, I couldn’t even “keep my day job.” On the other hand, my successes have all been in areas in which I had no obviously relevant background or experience whatsoever.

This statement is incredibly interesting for a variety of reasons.

First, however, this cannot be taken to mean that if you were to try something for which you have no qualifications that it means you will succeed. In that, Scott is an exception, though I do believe his recipe for success can be duplicated. While Scott did apply himself to a variety of endeavors with no qualifications, he also did not attempt the impossible, merely the improbable.

What Scott is saying here is that success and qualification in a particular area have little to do with one another. While those two factors may not be mutually exclusive, they are also commonly not found to coincide with one another. Simply because one is qualified does not mean that success is probable, and the inverse of that is also true.

The pattern in what Scott has done is that in each case he has set himself against probability, but had a motivation to succeed despite the odds. Winning contests with some element of skill involved is not impossible, even if there are millions of other contestants. It’s unlikely, not probable, but still possible. One can succeed and win.

While I’m sure Scott has not included every endeavor of his in his introduction to his book, he has described a sufficient number to indicate that while he was not particularly qualified to excel at any one of his successes, he was not unqualified either. That is, he may not have been considered an expert in the field, but he would not have been described as incompetent in that area.

Success is not a function of what you’ve been trained to do. You can succeed at something for which you have no background, provided, that is, that you are prepared to apply yourself. The path may be difficult, but it’s not impossible. Some things you may find yourself struggling with, but in other areas, where the “professionals” would have stopped, you may persevere and succeed.

Perhaps that’s actually a limitation in an ability to succeed. The more documented a background you have in an area, the less likely you may be to push the boundaries of what can be done. By not being qualified (and recognizing that fact), you prepare yourself for the long, hard road. If you’ve found a way to motivate yourself, to convince yourself that you can succeed, then you may well endure along that path until you do reach your eventual success.