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Look to failure to see a structure for winning

Improving Systems and Habits

Scott Miker is the author of several books that describe how to use systems and habits to improve.  This free blog provides articles that to help understand the principles related to building systems.  

Look to failure to see a structure for winning

Scott Miker

Success and happiness are available for everyone. But most people don’t experience the levels of success and happiness that they desire.

Part of the reason is that it isn’t always easy to succeed. It is easy to just keep making the same decisions over and over even if those decisions are leading to failure.

I tend to talk to friends a lot about the NFL football team, the Cleveland Browns. Living in Cleveland all my life I can’t avoid the Browns. Even when they are playing terribly, they are a very common topic of conversation.

One of the themes that would come up during their years of drudgery and failure was that they were making poor decisions. It was easy to find something to criticize when they don’t win games and seem short on talent and motivation to win.

It almost became comical at one point. If you wanted to design a football team to consistently lose, you could follow the structure the Browns built. You would constantly take big risks to win immediately instead of building towards the future. You would draft the riskiest players that would either be the next great thing or a complete failure. Then they would put all of their resources around that risky player hoping they would be great. You would constantly make changes to coaches and other leadership every year or two after they fail to meet your unrealistic expectations.

When you compared that to successful teams such as the Patriots who won championship after championship during this timeframe, you saw a stark difference in approach.

From this it seemed like there was a general structure to building a winning and a losing team.

I think we can look at failure and winning at a personal level in the same way. If we wanted to fail it would be easy. I’m sure if we gave someone on the street $1,000 and said they had to spend it that day and not have any valuable assets the next day, they could do it effortlessly.

But if we gave them $1,000 and said they had to find a way to invest that money to have more money the next day in valuable assets, they would struggle.

From this mental exercise we can see that the outcome is generally related to the steps taken. Translate this to daily life and we will see that our daily habits and routines direct our life towards or away from success and happiness.

In 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, by Jordan B. Peterson, the author says, “To fail, you merely have to cultivate a few bad habits. You just have to bide your time. And once someone has spent enough time cultivating bad habits and biding their time, they are much diminished. Much of what they could have been has dissipated, and much of the less that they have become is now real. Things fall apart, of their own accord, but the sins of man speed their degeneration. And then comes the flood.”

The structure that Peterson is describing is called a reinforcing feedback loop. Decisions that are made today get magnified over time.

So the decision today to eat unhealthy, avoid exercise, avoid difficult work, avoid any sort of improvement will have consequences tomorrow. As you do this over and over it forms bad habits that become more and more automatic and more and more powerful.

Soon these bad habits start to magnify and grow. As you do them you are left in a worse position tomorrow than today. Then you make the same bad choices and follow the same bad habits, creating an even worse day tomorrow.

Over and over this adds to your level of degeneration making it more likely that you will continue to make bad decisions and follow poor habits.

This is a reinforcing feedback loop. When the output of a system is fed back into the input of that system only to go through the system again and come out even greater on the next output. Then it does it again and again and again, growing stronger at each pass.

But what if you could flip this around? What if you could use a reinforcing feedback loop to succeed?

Here is a little known secret. The reinforcing feedback loop structure doesn’t care what direction it is going!

So we can use the same structure but tweak a few things and suddenly start gaining more and more value at each pass instead.

Instead of degeneration we see growth. Instead of dissipation of value we see the accumulation of value.

The key is that we have to change the way we go through life. Instead of thinking only about how to feel better right now, we have to start putting off instant gratification and look to the pleasure we receive when we do a good job.

When I was younger I got a chance to learn this lesson. I was working at a retail store and was one of the leaders in the store. I worked hard and was always willing to help out wherever I was needed.

Doing this for years gave others the impression that I was someone that could be counted on to work hard and do the right thing.

At one point, I was frustrated by all the work I was doing. I felt it was unfair that I had to do extra work while others barely did enough to keep their job.

So I started to slack off. What I realized was that I would leave feeling worse not better. By slacking I was doing less and working less but somehow feeling terrible.

As soon as I went back to my old ways of working hard, I became content and happy again. I learned quickly that doing the right thing and working hard feels better than most people think.

Imagine you have a day off and have some tedious chore to do, like clean the house. I bet if you sit around and decide not to do that chore, you will feel worse the next morning. But if you buckle up and do the work to get it done you will feel better.

By making this decision over and over and doing the right thing over and over you start to build a habit. You do the hard work to improve and feel better as you do it. Instead of feeling worse and then looking for some quick pick-me-up you are content to just keep working and improving.

The improved you then gains confidence. This makes it easier to keep going and taking the right steps. The more you do the better your habits become. Soon the value you are creating by doing the work starts to magnify.

Instead of getting worse every day, you start to get better every day. You build a reinforcing feedback loop to take you towards happiness and success instead of away from it.

Looking to examples of success and of failure is helpful to see the underlying structure involved. At the end of the day you can choose to follow the path of those who seem happy and successful or those who constantly seem to fail. You can choose the version of you that gets things done and feels good about it instead of the one that puts off today’s work to build up tomorrow.