9 Career Lessons From Dilbert Comic Strips

scott adams

Photo: Bent Corner

In 1989 a young man working for Pacific Bell collected a royalties check from United Media for $368.62 for his comic strip Dilbert.This was the beginning of Scott Adams’ career as a professional cartoonist.

Dilbert soon became an icon to white-collar workers around the world, and its success landed Adams book deals, a TV show, and public speaking engagements across the country.

Even after becoming a full-time cartoonist, Adams kept one foot in the corporate world. In 1997, he pretended to be a management consultant for Logitech (with cooperation from the company’s vice-chairman) and convinced them to change their mission statement to a wordy, unintelligible sentence.

Although he’s run into his share of controversy, Adams has clearly tapped into something huge to stay relevant for so long.

LESSON: Don't work full-time on what should be a side project

Adams did all his cartooning work at 4 AM before going to his full-time day job at Pacific Bell. In the beginning, Adams had no idea if Dilbert would take off, so he protected himself by hanging onto his day job. If you quit a job before seeing a return on your other work, you're doing it wrong.

LESSON: Be open-minded and make yourself available

Adams included his email address in the strip and implemented audience feedback. Make sure you keep your audience engaged. You can probably make it work by yourself for a while, but eventually you'll run out of steam. Collaborate and the work will get easier.

LESSON: Publicity matters

In 1995, Dilbert became the first comic strip with an Internet presence. Not all newspapers carried Dilbert, but the Internet made it possible for anyone in the world to read that day's strip. If no one knows about you, no one cares about you.

LESSON: Expand in diverse ways

In 1998, Adams published a business book called 'The Dilbert Principle.' Adams went from silly jokes about cubicles to a relatively serious (but still funny) book about management. He has since gone on to write about subjects like philosophy and religion. When the time is right, show people what else you can do.

LESSON: Be the most knowledgeable person on a specific subject

He dealt with what he knew on an unparalleled level -- ridiculous professional situations. Dilbert is only funny because Adams has had so many absurd office experiences that he had to turn into humour. Draw upon what you know or are interested in to see what opportunities are out there.

LESSON: Embrace limits

Adams suffered a rare neurological condition in which he lost the ability to speak. Having literally lost his voice, he found himself writing more, both for the strip and his increasingly popular blog. He continued to keep his audience interested and entertained. Figure out how to turn a perceived weakness into a fearsome strength.

LESSON: Be controversial

Adams recently came under fire for a blog post that denigrated women. It only became so public because he's still relevant and worth discussing. If you were cast in a controversial light, it would mean increased attention for your project. Figure out why doing something the opposite way might be better (but don't denigrate women).

LESSON: When you fail, fail big

Adams readily admitted to defending himself on an Internet board under a fake name. Nobody likes someone who tries to cover up mistakes to give off an air of success. Stay transparent and adopt the attitude that failure is productive.

LESSON: Stay light-hearted

Adams has made a living with humour for 22 years, and that's no small feat. Don't get bogged down in the day-to-day nonsense and turn into a nasty person -- that's truly counterproductive. So don't take yourself so seriously.

Real office shenanigans can be just as ridiculous

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