What started as a doodle has turned Scott Adams into a superstar of the cartoon world. Dilbert debuted on the comics page in 1989 while Adams was in the tech department at Pacific Bell.
Adams continued to work at Pacific Bell until he was voluntarily downsized in 1995. He has lived in the San Francisco Bay area since 1979.
Life’s Work: An Interview with Scott Adams
Scott Adams has drawn nearly 9,000 Dilbert cartoons since the strip began, in 1989, and his cynical take on management ideas, the effectiveness of bosses, and cubicle life has affected the worldview of millions. But he built his successful career mainly through trial and error—a whole lot of error, to be exact.
You have a new book coming out, How to Fail at Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life. Why did you write it?
I grew up in a small town in upstate New York, and when I was a kid I didn’t have a lot of role models who had been really successful. I knew people who’d been successful in their jobs, but nobody had really broken out and done something important. I always felt jealous of all those rich kids, the Harvard-bound types who could look to their family and friends for role models and get all kinds of advice.
And I thought, Wouldn’t it be nice to write a book about how at least one person did it? I’m not suggesting that anything that I do would work for anyone else, but I think it’s useful to see people’s stories and see what was their plan, what did they do, how did it turn out? So that was the genesis of it.
Before becoming a cartoonist, you earned an MBA. What did it teach you?
Dilbert was one of the few successful comics to break out in its era, and I would say that at least half of that had to do with my business training. The other half was just pure luck and being in the right place at the right time. Let me give you a specific example. When the comic strip first came out, it showed Dilbert in a variety of settings—not just the office. I didn’t really know what was working, because I had no direct contact with readers. In an MBA program, you learn that you need a direct channel to your customers for feedback.
So way back at the dawn of the internet, I started putting my e-mail address in the margin of the strip. I received hundreds of messages a day, and I found out that there was a common theme: People loved it when Dilbert was in the office, and they liked it a lot less when he was at home or just hanging around. So Dilbert became an office-based comic, and that change made it all work. Since then, as it got bigger, and managing the Dilbert empire—everything from the contract negotiations to calculating the cash flow for various business interests—became more involved, almost every bit of the education I got at Berkeley was useful.
The first five years you were doing Dilbert, you continued to work full-time in corporate IT. Why?
In my case I couldn’t quit my day job right away because the comic started very slowly. Working full-time was just a necessity. But once Dilbert became a workplace comic, it turned out that I was getting so much material from my day job that having two jobs actually made both of them much easier. My day job didn’t bother me anymore because I didn’t worry about getting fired so much—I now had a backup plan. My cartooning job was almost ridiculously easy because I was just transcribing my experiences at work. The two of them worked together very effectively.
How much harder was it to find material once you left your job at Pacific Bell?
It was a little harder. But I received tons of e-mail suggestions. And unfortunately, the cubicle existence is a little like prison—you can imagine somebody getting out after 30 years and still having vivid memories of the cell. The memories don’t die.
At one point Dilbert was published in 70 countries. Does your material translate well across cultures?
It seemed to work everywhere that there was some kind of a cubicle culture and what I’d call a Western attitude toward business. So it didn’t work as well in Japan, for example, where being insolent to management just seemed like something you wouldn’t do. But in Australia or Great Britain, where you’d expect that the employees are going to be pretty cynical, and not going to hold their tongues that much—especially the engineers, who are less frightened of getting fired because they’re highly employable—in those places it translated well.
You launched the Dilbert website in 1995. That was very early to have a digital strategy.
It’s funny to think back to those early days of the internet, when people didn’t know how things were going to play out. Originally, my website was kind of a backdoor marketing plan, because it’s really hard to sell into newspapers. They usually have to fire a cartoonist to get a new one, and they don’t like to do that because people complain. So it’s hard to sway an editor.
I thought we could get people excited on the internet, and then we could gather letters from people who said, “Hey, I like this,” and bunch them up and hand them to the salespeople to take to the editors and say, “Look, people already like this thing, so there’s no risk.” And it turns out that’s exactly what happened. We got hundreds and hundreds of positive e-mails, and the sales guys literally spread them out on the desks of the editors, who said, “OK, I get this, let’s start running Dilbert.”
As a cartoonist, your primary customers are the newspapers that pay to syndicate your strip. How early on did you recognize that the newspaper industry was in trouble, and how did you shift your model?
It’s strange, I predicted newspapers would only last five more years almost the day that I started cartooning, in 1989. But even as the number of newspapers shrank, usually a city that had two newspapers would go down to one, and Dilbert usually stayed in the remaining newspaper. So it turns out it had no impact on my revenue, and the strip just kept growing. Today Dilbert reaches the largest number of newspaper customers it ever has, even as readership in general is declining.
In your new book, one chapter lists all sorts of ventures you’ve launched that have failed: a frozen burrito business, two restaurants, various computer programs, some sort of a tennis gadget. How did these failures change the way you think of management?
In this case the failures were all part of a larger strategy, which was trying one thing after another. They were all long shots, but if one worked, it could grow forever. There was no upside cap. That was always my strategy. Right out of college, I had a diary in which I actually mapped out my life strategy, and that was to build something using my creativity that could be reproduced easily and infinitely. And Dilbert was just the thing that worked. The other things didn’t.
Employees who worked at your restaurant have said that you’re not a very good manager. As one put it, “Scott should be shielded from tough decisions the way a crawling infant needs to be protected from household hazards.” True?
They were probably too kind. You know, there’s a tough balance involved in being a manager. You can’t be too liked, and I like to be liked, so I’m completely incapable of being a day-to-day manager. So, yes, I was largely incompetent at that and many other things I did. With the restaurant in particular, I had gone into that to be an investor, not a manager. I ended up doing a little managing toward the end just to see if I could make a difference, and I didn’t.
Did your experiences as a manager inform the cynical tone in Dilbert?
My most basic belief about management is that it’s people flailing around and hoping that something lucky happens that makes them look as if they did a great job. And most of my experiences affirm that view. If you looked at my businesses that failed, objectively they weren’t worse ideas than the things that worked, and there was nothing about the execution especially that was the make-or-break. It was almost always the timing, the luck; lightning struck or it didn’t.
And so I always managed my career so I’d be doing enough things that my odds of getting lucky were pretty good. And that’s my basic view of most management. Eric Schmidt is worth how many billions of dollars because he hooked up with the Google guys and went to work every day. Maybe he’s the best manager in the world, but he was a little bit lucky to get that job.
So management simply doesn’t matter?
It’s certainly something you can do wrong, so avoiding doing it wrong is the big thing. I also think if you’re bit of a psychopath or a sociopath—I don’t know exact definitions of those terms—then you can push people to think that your being happier or your making more money as the manager or the company’s making more money is more important than the employee’s own personal life and health.
Then you’re a great manager, and you absolutely can do great things—you’ll probably be able to reproduce that wherever you go. So there’s a certain amount of evil that’s built into the system. It’s a creative evil. I’m very pro-capitalism because I don’t have a better idea, and obviously it works. But you’ve got to embrace that evil a little bit, and you’ve got to understand that it’s part of the process. That’s always been a problem for me.
Do you really believe the Dilbert Principle—that the least competent people are promoted into management, which is the place they can do the least harm? Or is it just a funny line?
When I wrote that, I was working at Pacific Bell, and it was true there. Employees who were a little bit technical but weren’t going to be inventing the next iPod—or anything else—were the people who got moved to management. Their bull—- skills were good, and that was about it. The people who were geniuses, the technology gurus, the people who were really going to make a difference—the last thing you’d want to do is ruin their productivity by moving them into management and making them order doughnuts and schedule meetings.
Did you watch The Office, and do you think it was drawing on Dilbert?
I watched both the British and American versions and loved both of them. But I thought their sensibility was 100% different. It’s kind of weird that anybody would see them as similar in the first place. They’re about incompetent bosses and bad employees, but the similarities end there. The Office shows were entirely character based and about people’s love interests. Almost none of the stories were about anything that looked like work. Dilbert is more about the strangeness of the power dynamic between managers and employees, the absurdness of the management structure, and the craziness of management fads.
Have you sensed a lull in management faddism?
Yes. If you were to plot it on a graph, you would find that the number of management books was increasing up to the time that The Dilbert Principle came out and said, “Every bit of this is bull—-.” So many people agreed that it became a little more embarrassing to produce a management-fad type of book unless you had pretty good research to back it.
So you take some credit for this?
I do in the sense that if anything is mockable—if something by its nature is easy to make fun of—human nature is such that you want to avoid it. You don’t want to be the person that gets mocked. I heard from lots of people who told me, “My boss started to say something that was ridiculous—management fad talk, buzzwords—but he stopped himself and said, ‘OK, this sounds like it came out of a Dilbert comic,’ and then started speaking in English again.
” There is a fear of being the target of humor. If bosses get too crazy, they’re going to have a Dilbert comic slipped under the door or e-mailed to them anonymously. People want to avoid that. So, yes, Dilbert has been a little bit of a control on the worst of the management fad excesses.
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