'Dilbert' Comic Creator Explains How to Fail Your Way to Success
By Aaron Guerrero
Conventional wisdom surrounding what it takes to achieve career success includes having passion, being goal-oriented and heeding the advice of senior colleagues. Scott Adams has turned the conventional wisdom on its head.
Adams is the famed author of "Dilbert," a 24-year-old comic strip that mocks the shortcomings of the white-collar work environment. In his new book, "How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life," Adams espouses a contrarian philosophy that touts the virtues of failure and mediocrity.
The cartoonist suffered a series of setbacks while carving out his own path to career success. Fresh out of college, he tried his hand at selling meditation guides. During the '80s, he dabbled in designing computer games. Later, he missed the mark as a restaurant entrepreneur. Eventually, he settled into a corporate career that would last 16 years, at companies including Crocker National Bank and Pacific Bell. But in the opening act to becoming a cartoonist, he gained knowledge about marketing, personal computers and corporate life. That knowledge has contributed to the international success of "Dilbert," which has appeared in 2,000 papers in 65 countries and 25 languages.
Adams, a 56-year-old San Francisco Bay Area resident, explained to U.S. News why repeated failures hardly spell career doom and offered other unconventional advice for people aiming to hit their professional stride. He also made the case for why emulating the behavior of Dilbert and his co-workers may not be your best bet. His responses have been edited.
Why should people find hope in reading about your career failures?
If you have a reasonable system for pursuing success, it can survive a lot of face-plants along the way. That knowledge makes success seem accessible. If you think successful people have some sort of superpower or special connections, why try?
Which of your failures most contributed to your later success as a cartoonist?
My failed corporate career became the fodder for the "Dilbert" comic. Once it became clear I would not be climbing any higher on the corporate ladder, it freed me to mock managers without worrying that it would stall my career. Most failures create some sort of unplanned freedom. I took full advantage of mine.
How can having goals actually be harmful to your career?
Goals are better than acting randomly, obviously. But goals are limiting in the sense that there might be far better outcomes you don't foresee. Your best bet is to have a system for acquiring new and complementary skills over your lifetime while always looking for better opportunities. It's analogous to diversifying your investments. Having a single goal is like putting all of your money in one stock; it might work out, but the odds aren't great.
Why do you say passion is overrated?
Billionaires like to say passion is the secret of success. But what else could they say without sounding like total jerks? They can't say they are smarter than poor people. They can't say they work harder than poor people. They can't say they simply got lucky because that would ruin their images. So they say passion is the key because it sounds like an appropriately modest answer.
In my many business ventures, I was always excited at the start, but when things turned bad, my enthusiasm ebbed. And when things went great, I got increasingly excited. So I think success causes passion more than passion causes success.
The winners of "American Idol" seem to have lots of passion, but so do the thousands of people who don't make it past the first audition. Passion might be the least useful predictor of success. And in the worst case, passion keeps you from bailing out of a doomed venture at the right time.
So forget passion. You need a system that moves you from a place with bad odds to a place with better odds. For example, you don't need to be passionate about going to college, but a college degree greatly improves your odds of career success.
Not everyone has world-class talent. Why should employees with mediocre and/or good skills still feel encouraged?
If you combine several "good enough" skills, it can make you surprisingly valuable. In my case, I'm not a world-class artist or writer. I'm a mediocre businessman, and I'm often not the funniest person in the room. But the combination of those "good enough" skills was sufficient to create "Dilbert."
On a smaller scale, learning a second language or honing your public speaking skills to "good enough" can make you the obvious choice to manage folks who have fewer skills.
In "Dilbert," many of the employees verbally unload on their terrible boss. But in the real world, how should someone deal with a rotten manager?
Find another job. I have never heard of anyone leaving a job with a bad boss and later regretting it. The other method I have seen work is bad-mouthing your boss to his boss. If you do it convincingly, and you enlist allies to do the same, it becomes someone else's problem to solve. But you have to be direct and recommend that your boss be fired. Don't simply complain and hope it helps.
Rotten bosses don't get better. Any strategy that assumes they can is doomed.
Dilbert is a pretty awkward character in social settings. How can having a strong social life benefit your career?
Many, if not most, career opportunities come to you through people you know. So the more people you know, the more opportunities you have. Improving your social network is a great example of a system for moving from lower odds to better odds without having a specific goal.
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