There are three frames to the typical Dilbert comic strip. Scott Adams, the creator of the mordant office satire, talks as though his own career has only just reached the third frame and, once completed, will have a punchline better than any he has written so far. The twist: the simply drawn everyman-engineer Dilbert will not be in it.
Mr Adams’ new book, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, has, in his words, “the potential to spawn a genre” by unlocking everyone’s ability to succeed. Separately, a plan of his to revolutionise education would be “on a par with fire and the wheel – it’s that big”. Meanwhile, a recent blogpost, written as his father lay dying, will, he believes, accelerate legalisation of assisted suicide. As for the impact of Dilbert: “I had some laughs … It doesn’t have a lasting quality about it.”
While you should always be careful about taking a satirist at his word, Mr Adams is serious. These days, he comes across less as the court jester of corporate bureaucracy than as a determined and rational man with very ambitious ideas. “Part of energising myself is that I always like to be involved in at least one thing that could change the world,” he says. His platform for global transformation just happens to be a simple cartoon of cubicle-bound workers, endlessly trapped in a futile world of nonsensical projects, fathomless jargon and incompetent but ruthless executives.
Since 1989, Mr Adams, now 56, has drawn and scripted something in the region of 9,000 comic strips and still produces one a day, working on the computerised Wacom screen he has used since 2004, when the recurrence of a spasm in his little finger forced him to give up pencil and paper. The strip’s very simplicity is one reason it has endured almost unchanged, although he says there is a “100 per cent chance” that its lead character will have to go casual, dropping the tie as all of his real-life Californian peers did ages ago.
The strip has for years lightened dire corporate presentations, or been surreptitiously emailed around the workplace to undermine the boss. Some academics have written learned papers about “the Dilbert principle” (the idea that “the most ineffective workers will be systematically moved to the place where they can do the least damage – management”). But Dilbert’s creator makes no claim to have changed the world of management. Dilbert may have limited the appeal of faddish business books in the 1990s, he says, and the fact that team members can now warn overreaching managers that they are entering “a classic Dilbert situation” may help to regulate their worst excesses. But: “I’m just saying the workers don’t like it. I’m not sure that’s that great an insight. It’s just that few, if any, have taken that perspective.”
While Dilbert and his colleagues are still stuck in their cubicles, many Silicon Valley engineers have burst out and become internet heroes. Mr Adams says Dilbert is more of a “[Steve] Wozniak type”. Like the co-founder of Apple, “he’s not chasing the money”. But, yes, Dilbert would probably be “living in a big house” by now – possibly a bit like the one where Mr Adams lives and works, on the outskirts of Pleasanton, east of San Francisco, with a tennis court and a view of the hills.
From here, Mr Adams plans to change the world. His new book describes a series of failures, including a beginner’s guide to meditation, the “Dilberito” (a healthy burrito that “made you fart so hard your intestines formed a tail”), and a couple of restaurants that foundered and are now best known for giving Mr Adams his one and only shot at managing. His point is that “failure is where success likes to hide in plain sight”. There is, however, a broader philosophy at work. Mr Adams uses a system – never a goal – to “move from a place of low odds to a place of better odds”, backed with repeated “affirmations” that help him to focus (“I, Scott Adams, will be a famous cartoonist” used to be one).
How to Fail is neither a self-help book nor a book of advice, which Mr Adams thinks is “generally worthless”. “You’ve got a million monkeys doing a million things and some of them are going to succeed. When they do they’re going to say: ‘Right before I had that big success I was scratching my ass, so let’s write a book about how everybody should scratch their ass because [it] works for me.’ ” He is similarly scathing about “passion, [which is] nice – nobody would say you shouldn’t have it – but as a lever for success it’s pretty far down the list”.
Even so, the author is determinedly passionate about both the book and about his idea for a system in which “chunks” of standard educational courses are published on the web, with the best rising to the top in an online marketplace. Now, he says, schools and universities are merely video-recording teachers lecturing – “it’s like putting a steering-wheel on a horse and calling it a car”. Instead, according to his idea, non-teachers would also take the basic material and improve it. Students would gravitate towards the presentation that suited their learning approach.
So eager is he for this idea to take off that, having run it unsuccessfully past some venture capitalists, he has posted it on Dilbert.com, the site he has used to offer his work for free and promote his views since long before it was fashionable. He points out that ideas alone are worth nothing and only execution has value. But is there not a risk companies would kill the idea with Dilbert-style bureaucracy? “I’m assuming they’ll do exactly that,” says Mr Adams, but he is optimistic enough about capitalism to believe that someone will still succeed in developing it.
Dilbert’s success has given Mr Adams the luxury of being able to share such ideas and, he believes, the time to pursue them: “I’m unusually healthy for my age and so I’m likely to live to 100 … Dilbert might end when I’m in my early 60s. So there’s a lot of time to do stuff after that.”
As a template for what he hopes will happen in the next phase of his career, he cites the business leader who has most impressed him. Not Steve Jobs (“If you said ‘That guy reminded me of Steve Jobs’, I’d think [you] were calling me an asshole”) but Bill Gates. “Starting Microsoft was the small part of his life,” says Mr Adams. “The big part’s still ahead: the things that are really going to change civilisation.” It is an improbable association: the creator of put-upon programmer Dilbert and the world’s best-known software engineer. But a strangely apt one.