‘Dilbert’ creator Scott Adams

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The creator of one of this generation’s most successful syndicated comic strips explains his text, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big.

During his days working in what he cites as a "number of humiliating and low-paying jobs" in Northern California, Scott Adams doodled a comic strip to combat his boredom. His main character was named "Dilbert," and thus began his journey with one of the most successful syndicated comic strips in history. It appears in 2,000 newspapers in 70 countries and was the first syndicated strip to go online. Adams moonlights as a restaurateur, founder-CEO of a food company and a best-selling author. In his latest text, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, he shares the strategy he's used since he was a teen to invite failure in and embrace it.


Tavis: “Dilbert” is without question one of this generation’s most successful syndicated comic strips, appearing in some 2,000 newspapers worldwide in 70 countries and in 25 languages.

But despite his popularity, “Dilbert” creator Scott Adams says you learn more from failure than success, something that I happen to agree with. He’s written a new book about his philosophy with the wonderful title “How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big – Kind of the Story of My Life.” Scott, good to have you on this program.

Scott Adams: Thanks for having me.

Tavis: Why this book and why now?

Adams: I noticed that probably 80 percent of the world has never even met a famous or successful person. Certainly not a famous person, but a lot of people have no mentors, no role models, and even if they know somebody, they don’t watch them go to work.

So I thought well, maybe I’ll just capture my experience, not as advice, but rather I did these things and I got these results. Most of them didn’t work, and I think the failures were actually more instructive than the successes.

Tavis: Give me – and there are so many in the book, but before I go too much deeper in our conversation, give me one or two examples of what you mean by your own personal failure.

Adams: Well, there was my corporate career that stalled out, and that became the fodder for the “Dilbert” comic. So without that failure, “Dilbert” wouldn’t have existed.

Before “Dilbert” I tried to become a computer programmer. In the early days of computing I bought this big, heavy, portable computer for my house. I spent two years nights and weekends trying to write games that I thought I would sell.

Turns out I’m not that good a programmer, so that was two years that didn’t work out. But I learned so much about computing that I’ve used that first in my corporate career and even now.

So I’m working on an Internet startup on the side, and all of these things become knowledge that you end up using somehow.

Tavis: I pulled some things specifically out of the book that I want to talk about in the time that I have with you tonight, because they were beyond interesting. They are in some ways counterintuitive, and I want to give you a chance to explain what you mean by them.

You argue that passion is BS when it comes to success. (Laughter) It’s not about being passionate. Everybody says you’ve got to have passion for what you do; you’ve got to be passionate about what you engage in, about what you believe in. You say that’s crap.

Adams: When people get interviewed, they’re famous billionaires, and they say, “What was the secret of your success,” they almost always say passion, right? That’s like the thing you hear.

Tavis: Exactly.

Adams: But think what would be the other answers they could give? They’re all embarrassing. It’s like, “Well, I think I’m smarter than you. That’s why I’m rich and you’re not.” (Laughter) Or how about I got lucky? Your taxes go up when you say that, I think.

How about I was well connected, or my dad was rich, he got me started. None of those answers sound good, so you say, oh, I was passionate. If you were a little more passionate, maybe you’d be a billionaire too.

So I think what it is is that passion is often there, but it follows success. I’ve done a lot of things, and I can tell you I’m always a little excited in the beginning. It’s like oh, this looks like a good idea. If it works, I get real passionate. (Laughter) Right? If it doesn’t work –

Tavis: You get less passionate.

Adams: – which is usually the case; it drains right out of you. (Laughter) It’s like, I’m out of here. Yeah.

Tavis: Okay, but how would you – if not the word passion – I take your point, Scott. If not passion, though, but there has to be some energy, some drive, some –

Adams: Yeah, energy, energy.

Tavis: Energy, okay.

Adams: So I write about taking care of your body. Make sure you learn fitness and diet and all those things. I’m not telling you how to do it; I’m telling you you should make that a lifelong study.

The people who know the most about those things get the best results, because they just make smarter choices. So if your body’s working, your energy’s high, no matter what you’re doing, it’s going to be better.

Tavis: Speaking of your body, one of the points that you make in here, again, that might be a bit counterintuitive for some people, is that you said you don’t believe in goals. Screw goals. You believe in systems.

I didn’t quite know what you meant until I got a chance to dig into it myself. I get your point now, but for those who will hear that at first glance and say what’s Scott got against goals.

Adams: Yeah. So you can’t get rid of goals, goals are okay, but they only work if you have a system. So an example would be if your goal is to lose 10 pounds, you’re going to be failing until you get there. Then when you’re there, are you done?

They tend to be things you do and then you’re done and you walk away. A better system would be what I just mentioned – make it a lifelong study of what works, find out what works for you, test things, see if they work.

So whatever your system is – I’m not prescribing the system. I’m saying that if you’re thinking about things in terms of a system, it just works out. A better example is my system for success was for my college days, I knew I would try a lot of things.

Most of them wouldn’t work, because they were high risk, but if they worked they’d be a home run. I tried a number of things, like writing the video games, for example.

If it worked it would have been great. If it didn’t work I would just be smarter. So my system is that if it doesn’t work, make sure you’re smarter at the end. Eventually, as you layer on those skills, you become – look at me as a perfect example.

I’m an average artist at best. I never took a writing class. But I can put a sentence together. I’m not the funniest guy in the room, usually, but I’m funny enough.

What I have is three things that people generally don’t. I’ve layered on top until I’ve got a little basket that’s pretty valuable, even though individually the skills are kind of just okay.

Tavis: Beyond skills, you talk about experiences. To your point about being smarter, about how the more experiences you have, the more things that you – this is my way of saying it. I’ll let you explain it in your own way, as you do in the text.

But the more things that you can do, the more things that you can do. In other words, you talk about golf, for example, and about how that has aided and abetted you in other ways, even though you’re not a great golfer. But I’ll let you tell me more.

Adams: Yeah. So really it’s also about knowledge. So the more you know, the more you can know, because everything becomes a framework for adding things. So I make sure I’m learning something every day.

So the example I use is if somebody came from outer space and said, “Can you explain what a horse is,” it would take you a long time because they don’t have any basis for that.

But if his second question is “What’s a zebra,” you’re halfway there. Well, more than half. You just say well, it’s kind of like a horse, looks like one anyway, but the coloring is different. So you’re halfway there if you’ve got a basis.

Tavis: Take me back right quick and give me some sense of how you failed your way into “Dilbert.”

Adams: So when my cartooning, or when my corporate career stalled, first at the bank, and then I went to the phone company, I started looking around, and it was part of my lifelong process of let me try something new and see how it works.

Go into it far enough to see if it’s going to catch on. When I tried to syndicate “Dilbert,” my first impression, or the first reaction from the customers was this thing is really poorly drawn, and I don’t get it, and it doesn’t have the same joke format.

But what I found, unlike a lot of things, that there was a small core of people who were wild for it right from the start. That turns out to be a really good indicator that you’ve got something that’s worth doubling down on.

The things that people say, “That’s pretty good, I like that thing you did,” but it’s just talking, that’s usually not an indicator of anything. You want somebody to do something physically with their body. This is the best indicator I’ve seen.

So if somebody says to me, “I liked your book,” then I say, “Thank you.” But it doesn’t tell me that the book is going to be a hit. If, as recently somebody who interviewed me said, “I just finished your book and there’s three people I want to give it to,” that’s something they’re doing with their body.

They have to actually go to Amazon and order it; they’ve got to give it to somebody. That’s always a good indicator. So with “Dilbert,” people were clipping it out, putting it on the board.

There was one guy who organized them by topic and put them in a book that he’d created of his own creation. I thought, people are doing stuff with it. That’s the one I’m going to follow.

Tavis: You talk in the book about the value – my word, not yours – the value of having a lack of fear or embarrassment.

Adams: Yeah. I think it might be a little just natural for me. I don’t get embarrassed by the same things that other people do. I would say that probably the biggest thing that holds people back is if I do this, I’m going to look like an idiot if it doesn’t work out.

The answer is yeah, you will. (Laughter) But you know what? People don’t care. They care about themselves. Whatever they’re thinking about you will last a second. You’ll get over it, you’ll move on.

Tomorrow you won’t think about it. So there’s a little bit of just practice in that. I took the Dale Carnegie course, for example. I don’t know if you’ve experienced that.

Tavis: I know the course, yeah.

Adams: Part of that is making people who don’t speak well in front of crowds because they’re nervous just do it a lot, and you do it, and you get positive reinforcement only, and at the end of it, you’re like, “I’ll stand in front of 5,000 people, and if it doesn’t go well, that’d be kind of funny.”

You actually feel eh, it’s never – it never does go poorly, because people don’t say, “That was the worst speech anybody ever got.” So you never really get that feedback. So it’s something you can practice. You can actually learn to harden yourself against embarrassment.

Tavis: I’m wonder, as my time is just about up, I want to squeeze this in right quick. I wonder whether or not, Scott, your mission with “Dilbert” when you started, is it the same mission? Has it changed over the years? Whatever you were intending for us to get out of “Dilbert,” has it changed over the years?

Adams: Well, I started it as just a job. I thought to myself, wouldn’t that be great, to be a cartoonist. So the things I tried, developing software, et cetera, were things that I thought if they worked would be a great job.

So it was nothing more than that in the beginning, but when it took a business focus people started taking it seriously, and it did become kind of a, I would say a cop for business, in the sense that if you were too crazy or too absurd in your management practices, a lot of “Dilbert” comics would get left on your desk.

So it became kind of a (laughter), it became weaponized, I would say. So maybe in some small way it helped curb some of the excesses.

Tavis: Let me close right quick on this note. That is the, speaking of counterintuitive advice that you give in the book, you argue that for those who say that money can’t buy you happiness, they’re wrong.

Adams: They’re totally wrong.

Tavis: Yeah.

Adams: I think if you talk to anybody who ever went from not having much to having enough to buy what they wanted, they’re always happier. Now I get that whole $75,000 a year is some kind of magic number, but my experience is more is better, up to a point. Then there’s a point where it doesn’t make any difference.

Tavis: But your argument specifically is, though, that money can buy you happiness, because money gets you freedom, and the freedom allows you to do what you want to do when you want to do it.

Adams: Yeah. Happiness is nothing but good health and freedom, and money is the single best way you can buy your freedom. If nothing else, there are people who would like your money, and you can help them out, and that’s got to feel good too, so.

Tavis: As I said, I used that word two or three times tonight, it’s somewhat counterintuitive, and yet that’s what he promised you in the title of the book, “How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big – Kind of the Story of My Life.”

It’s the way he did it, so it’s not an advice book. It’s a book full of information, information you might want to wrestle with, written by Scott Adams, of course, the brilliant mind behind “Dilbert” that we all read. Scott, congrats on the book and good to have you on the program.

Adams: Thank you very much.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

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Last modified: March 11, 2014 at 1:24 pm