Despite being a world-famous cartoonist and best-selling author, Scott Adams maintains that he’s failed at just about everything he’s ever tried. But the trick is, only one thing has to work.
The creator of Dilbert, the first syndicated comic that focused on the workplace, details his unlikely path to success in an upcoming book “How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big.” In it, he describes his stalled corporate career, a string of failed business ventures, and his first rejections as a cartoonist. But through those failures, he discovered what it takes to eventually find success. (Hint: It is not passion.)
Adams sat down with Business Insider to discuss his new book and the best advice he ever got. The following has been edited for length and clarity.
Business Insider: You seem to think it’s possible to fail your way to success. How does that work?
Scott Adams: You can’t control luck directly, but you can move from a game with bad odds to a game with good odds. The world is like a reverse casino. In a casino, if you gamble long enough, you’re certainly going to lose. But in the real world, where the only thing you’re gambling is, say, your time or your embarrassment, then the more stuff you do, the more you give luck a chance to find you. If you do one thing and stop, you didn’t give luck a chance to find you. You only need one thing to work.
BI: One of the chapters in your book is called “Passion Is Bullshit.” In it, you say career experts are wrong and passion doesn’t lead to success. Why do you think that?
SA: When a successful person is interviewed, and you say, “What was the secret to your success?” what they can’t say, because society won’t let them, is: “I was smarter, I worked harder, I had better connections, and I got really lucky.” Instead, they go with a democratic trait: passion. Anyone can have passion in the right situation, so it makes it sound like you can do what they did.
I’ve tried lots of things. The reality is, I’m excited by everything on Day 1. And if by Day X things aren’t working the way I hoped, I lose my passion. I have not seen the correlation between my passion and my success. The deeper truth is luck and maybe they studied the right stuff in school.
BI: So what was the secret to your success then?
SA: One strategy for getting ahead is being incredibly good at a particular skill; you need to be world-class to stand out for that skill. In my case, I layered fairly average skills together until the combination became special. If you put me in a room with 20 people, I’m not going to be the funniest or the best artist, writer, or business person. Because I have all of these things in sufficient (but not world-class) quantity, it was the combination that made them successful.
So, if you studied engineering, you could probably be a good engineer. But if you studied engineering and took classes on public speaking, there’s a good chance you’ll be running the show. If you intelligently choose which skills to layer on top of each other, that’s an accessible strategy, whereas passion is complete misdirection.
BI: You also emphasise health and wellness in the book. Why is physical fitness key to career success?
SA: My view is it’s not passion you want; it’s energy. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing, you need more energy to do it better. It’s your competitive edge, and it’s available to all. That stuff will protect you against your failures, as well as give you energy to try more things. So if the goal is to try more things until luck can find you, the place to start is your fitness.
BI: What’s the best advice you ever got?
SA: The best advice I got was before I was a syndicated cartoonist. I asked advice of a professional cartoonist, Jack Cassady, who had a TV show called “Funny Business” years ago on PBS. I wrote to him and asked for some tips on getting started in the business. He gave me this advice: “It’s a competitive business, but don’t give up.”
That sounds very non-profound, but let me fast forward the story. I put some comics together and sent them to magazines — The New Yorker, Playboy — but they rejected them. So I said, “Oh well, I tried.” A year later, I get a second letter from Cassady. He’d been cleaning his office and came across my original samples. He said he was just writing to me to make sure that I hadn’t given up. And I had. So I took out my art supplies, and I decided to raise my sites from being rejected by mere magazines to try to be rejected as a world-famous syndicated cartoonist. Even in that rejection, I’d feel I had made some progress.
BI: It seems like that turned out well for you.
SA: I had to do one more thing for luck to find me. As it turns out, one of the perhaps six people on planet Earth who could have looked at my cartoon and said “yes” was a woman married to a guy who was the spitting image of, and had the same job as, Dilbert. When she looked at it, she said, “I know this guy.” No one else saw that; she had to push it down people’s throats. It required that one extra attempt, and that wouldn’t have happened without the best advice anybody ever gave me, which is “don’t give up.”
BI: What advice would you give to others to be more successful?
SA: I don’t know why schools don’t teach success as a class. It’s all general education and no strategy. A lot of people get out of school and take a job that pays by the hour and has no career path. I don’t know what they’re thinking. So we need a class on that.
BI: So if there were a class on success in school, what would be on the syllabus?
SA: You’d teach a lot about psychology (what makes people tick, why they do what they do), public speaking, a little bit about design, a background in tech — so you’re not the dumb person in the room who doesn’t know what the cloud is — and then it’s about layering skills after that.