Nine Ways to Guarantee Success (And Failure)

This is a cross-post from James Altucher‘s blog Altucher Confidential. His previous appearances on the Freakonomics blog can be found here.

I really blew it and everyone knows it. I was even asked to speak at some conference about failure on I think June 13. I might’ve deluded myself into thinking I’m the keynote speaker. But I might just be on a panel. Hopefully I won’t fail at it. But if I do, I hope you can all come and watch it happen in slow motion. By the way, my favorite technique in public speaking is to slightly slur my words, but that’s another post.

I’m like Dr. Failure. I know exactly what you need to do if you want your wife to hate you, if you want to get thrown out of school, if you want to lose your investors $100 million. If you want to lose your home.

One-sixteenth of the time people are happy. The rest of the time they’re not. So if you start to avoid all the things that cause unhappiness then maybe there’s a small chance you can improve the ratio in your favor.

Claudia says, “Why are you writing about failure? Think positive!” What? Avoiding every possible way to fail is the most positive thing you can do to be happy and successful.

Here are the real reasons entrepreneurs fail. It’s not because of a bad programmer. Fire him and get a new one. It’s not because a client pulled out at the last minute. Get a new client, or anticipate it. It’s not because your girlfriend cheated on you. Kick her to the curb. It’s not because some guy sued you, or your employees delivered an unfinished product. We already know it’s your fault. Every failure boils down to these core reasons that come from the inside. Some might seem obvious but they really are the only reasons for failure. They are the core foundation of every failure. Pay attention please:

A) Sickness. This is obvious. If you’re sick all the time, you won’t be successful. When I was a venture capitalist I would never invest money with a guy hooked up to a ventilator. Or even if I suspected he was clinically depressed. Many people avoid second dates if they find out on the first date the girl has late-stage terminal cancer. This is sad but reality.

What does it mean for an entrepreneur? Put good things into your body. Exercise. Don’t drink. Sleep 8 hours a day. That’s it. Then you probably won’t get sick as much and you’ll have a lot of energy to do your business. If you’re sick in bed all the time, your business will fail.

Sometimes sickness might also be telling you something. When I worked for a private equity firm I once fell for no reason and could barely walk for a week or so afterwards. It wasn’t good for me to be there. I never went back. And later experiences proved me correct. Your body sometimes knows more than you do.

B) Inertia. I went out for dinner the other night with people who couldn’t stop talking, eating, and drinking. One person had business ideas. The other person wanted to write a novel. All night long: drinking, eating, talking about business ideas, talking about writing novels. Talking, eating, drinking, talking, walking, drinking again, talking more. Then you sleep. Wake up at eight. Bloated, sick, heavy.

Wake up at eight — then you’re too late. If you want to succeed you first have to get up and start. You can’t watch the shark tank, you have to be the shark. Don’t waste time. Start now. No more stuffing your face. No more parties at high-tech meetups with lots of social media experts. You know you only want to have sex with a social media expert. Stop lying about it. Start your business.

C) Doubts. You need to have a real passion behind the product you are creating. Would you use the product? Steve Jobs wanted an iPad, an iPod, an i-everything. Doubts will make you fail because you won’t be able to make critical design decisions. Decisions are the top of a pyramid. Beneath the top is the base built by your solid foundation: “This is the product I would use. This is the product I want!” Then all decisions come from that.

With I was obsessed with putting in new features. But every single new feature was something that had worked successfully to make me a better trader. I had no doubts. I had the spreadsheets showing me those strategies worked. With I only built websites that I would want to use.

D) Laziness. Everyone is lazy some of the time. If I’m bored with something I’m lazy. But with a startup, or if you are trying to move up in the corporate world, or if you are falling in love with a girl, you can’t be lazy. She wants to go tango dancing. You want to watch Jay Leno. You’re a lazy pig. She’ll find someone else to take her tango dancing. You have to be working at it all the time, except when you sleep and exercise and even then your subconscious is working at it. For jobs and startups, it’s a 12-hour day. There’s no avoiding it. Managing that time is a different story but that’s how you beat the 9-hour a day competitors.

E) Carelessness. If your programmers present you a final product, you still have to check every page, click on everything, click on everything fast and twice. Don’t forget a birthday or an anniversary. Don’t forget everything your boss told you or everything the client wanted. Be detail oriented. Persistent carelessness equals consistent failure.

F) Vacillating. Is this the right business? Or should I back up and start fresh with a new idea? Should I hire this person? I’ll hire this guy but then I’ll have doubts and won’t follow up. I’ll go out with this rich but maybe I really like that sexy girl who I met in an elevator. If you’re stuck in too many middles, you get sliced into bits. Your business implodes, your relationships have to start back at zero. You vacillated and ended up with nothing. Congratulations. (By the way, pick the sexy girl.)

G) No progress. You start your business. You launch your dating site. A few people sign up. But there’s no excitement. People stop signing up. Traffic stays a few dozen people a day. Ok, no progress. You buy some Google ads. They sort of work. No progress. By the way, failure is not a stigma. It’s OK to fail. It’s just that having “no progress” might be an indication that you need to move to another idea or business. I have a post coming about this other business I started where I was making no progress so I stopped and had to return money on the eve of raising it. I was shaking when I returned the money. I don’t like to give back $500,000 that had my name on it. I was a failure. But ultimately returning the money on the eve of failure created much goodwill and led to greater success later. This is not about the success of one business or failure. This is about the success of you.

H) Delusions. People start a business, then they think it’s the best geo-locator mobile dating discount app on the universe: “It’s called ‘6th Circle’ because it’s a play on Foursquare and the sixth circle of Dante’s Inferno. We’re going to do five deals with major sidewalk companies in China to get the word out. The market is $18 billion in profits because we get everyone in Shanghai to pay 10 cents a day.” Blah blah. Always look back and ask yourself: “Am I smoking crack?” Every day check the ashtray. Is there crack in there? Delusions will keep you from making progress. Then suddenly, no money, no friends, no  PR. It’s just you on your bed smoking your last piece of crack, hanging onto the lonely panties of the last hooker who left you alone. This is your mind on crack.

I) You Fall Backwards. You’re losing clients. Your best programmer quit. Your traffic is down. Your girlfriend isn’t returning your calls. Your boss promoted someone over you. Time to get creative. You need to think outside the box. Again, this is just an obstacle. Not a failure. Failures start off as obstacles. You want to overcome obstacles. You can’t make your girlfriend call you back. So maybe you get a new girlfriend who does call you back. Maybe you take a step back and build a new site. You start looking for a new job so you find people who value what you do. Falling backwards consistently will make you go to zero. So when you start to fall backwards, say, “OK, I have an obstacle. Now I need to think outside the box to get rid of this obstacle.” It’s not bad to have obstacles. You just have to overcome them. If you fall back too far, then you’re lying on the ground.

Consistently having any of the nine items above will make your business fail. And will make them succeed if you avoid all of them. I say “consistently.” Be vigilant. Every morning review the potential obstacles. Every afternoon. Every night. Catch yourself when you first hit the obstacle. If you can clean the obstacles out, you’ll have success. Guaranteed.


I LOVE THIS GENIUS ARTICLE. Inertia! Inertia! Are you smoking crack?! Sigh. Made me laugh, so true!


This is all true for me :(


Man, I never knew business and dating were so entangled.

Ed Kay

I was a bit surprised at your emphasis on happiness. But perhaps I should not have been. It is said that the authors of the Declaration of Independence were going to write that we're entitled to Life, Liberty and the Right to Own Property. I've read a few of your blogs that present your take on owning (at least some kinds of) property.

Beethoven had an unshakable sickness - a constant roar in his ears, as well as deafness, that caused him perpetual unhappiness. He succeeded anyway. But maybe your items apply only to entrepreneurs, and the rest of us need pay no mind at all.


"Persistent carelessness equals consistent failure." - That's an awesome line.


Niiice, very nice. Good piece of writing mate.

Alice Sprinklings

And you wonder why there are so few female CEOs.

Thanks for the advice on picking the sexy girl over the rich one, and how to dump one girlfriend after another. Good to know that's how one gets ahead.

I think I'll pass on starting a business your way.

Is there another post on how to be successful without the male privilege and heteronormative assumptions? This one's making me ill.

Enter your name...

Talk about why there are so few female CEOs, they don't want to get their hands dirty. Perhaps there is no glorious way to the top. Even there is reality in this world you don't like, work around it don't work against it. Reality is reality.

Alice Sprinklings

If getting my hands dirty = Treating females like crap, then no, I sure as heck don't.

>>Even there is reality in this world you don’t like, work around it don’t work against it.<<

I'm sure Martin Luther King and Gandhi would disagree.

I never required a "glorious" way to the top, I just requested advice without the sexism. I don't think that's a difficult request.


I might agree with your MLK/Gandi point.

But the sexism point?? Where is there sexism or "treating females like crap" anywhere in this article? It's sexist to dump a girlfriend who cheats or doesn't return calls? It's sexist to like a sexy woman?




Thank you for this. Great stuff honestly.


"When I worked for a private equity firm I once fell for no reason and could barely walk for a week or so afterwards. It wasn’t good for me to be there. I never went back. And later experiences proved me correct. Your body sometimes knows more than you do."
Wow. You took investment decisions based on how clumsy you were when going in for meetings???? You sure YOU were/are not smoking crack? :D :D


I usually don't go for the self-help crap, but I kinda liked this one. Especially the smoking crack part.


I think the underlying ideas in this are sound I guess, if a little chest-thumping (getting sick will make you a failure? That's a nice compassionate standard to hold people to) but the tone of this article was boorishly sexist. Why the creepy stuff about sexy girls in elevators and hookers and having sex with social media experts (all women, as you imply)? Gross.

Eric M. Jones

It was 1955 when Sperry Corporation merged with Remington Rand to form Sperry-Rand. Neither one of these partners knew much about business sales as both were to deep into government work. It was no surprise that despite superior technology at Sperry-Rand, IBM blew by them effortlessly. (John C. Dvorak)

What historians don’t know was that in the winter not long after the merger, the managers held a conference in sunny Southern California to talk about forming local service centers all over the US (just like IBM had) to provide improved services their local customers. These centers would share their experience and expertise with each other.

Then came Friday afternoon….

The guy running the conference offered to take the “guys” on a tour to Tijuana before they headed home.

Tuesday of the next week brought the sick load of them back. Two of the managers had to be hospitalized from drinking tequila and mescal, several of them had venereal diseases that apparently had no cure north of the border. The rest couldn't venture far from the bathroom.

Other executives in their Manhattan offices who didn’t attend the conference, and didn’t appreciate the shenanigans, scotched the deal and decided that there would be no web of service centers. That’s why Sperry-Rand, even with superior technology, didn’t take over the computer business.



I need to check my ashtray...wrapping humor in brilliance, nice work!

A. Foley

All great points.

Now imagine that at least one of your readers might be a woman, and rewrite the article.

Attend to your audience in a broader sense, or it might not just be hookers who leave you alone.