Scott Adams Answers Your Dilbert Questions, and More

Scott Adams(Photo: Scott Adams)

Last week, we solicited your questions for Dilbert creator and author Scott Adams. Here are his answers. They are great, and so were your questions; thanks to Scott and thanks to you. Here’s what I found most interesting:

1. From his answers, Scott Adams would appear to be a poster boy (poster man?) for the Anders Ericsson school of thought on “talent” — i.e., that the thing we generally call “raw talent” is vastly overrated, whereas “deliberate practice” and good feedback are the foundations of becoming very good at something. I say this based on the following Adams quotes:

I learned to draw by doing it a lot. It’s about 25 percent natural talent and 75 percent practice.

and:

Originally, Dilbert was not so focused on the workplace. It wasn’t until after I published my email address in the strip, in 1993, and people wrote to tell me they liked his work exploits best, that the focus changed.

2. There will soon be a death in Dilbert land. “You are the first to know,” Adams writes.

3. Here is my favorite quote, in response to a reader who has found a lot of weird interconnectedness in the blogosphere: “It means your alleged life is nothing but a program running in a computer somewhere, and the author reused code.”

Enjoy.

Dilbert1
Dilbert Scott Adams(Courtesy of United Media)

Q: Can you tell us how you originally pitched the Dilbert concept? It’s hard now to imagine life without Dilbert, but before you came along, there was no strip devoted exclusively to the workplace. Did you have trouble convincing the movers and shakers that Dilbert would have “legs,” and that the comic potential of the strip was almost unlimited?

A: I bought a book that described how to submit comics for syndication. You simply send copies to a half-dozen addresses and wait for them to contact you. Several rejected me, and United Media offered me a contract.

Originally, Dilbert was not so focused on the workplace. It wasn’t until after I published my email address in the strip, in 1993, and people wrote to tell me they liked his work exploits best, that the focus changed. By then, I was already in the door.

Q: How is it that Dilbert ended up a software engineer? What in your background has given you the insight to understand code monkeys (such as myself) and the endless battles against the legions of the pointy-haired?

A: I worked around engineers for most of my 16 years of corporate life. Dilbert is actually designed after one person in particular. Interestingly, that person is not aware that he is the model for Dilbert. I didn’t know him well and never mentioned it to him.

Q: Having written so many comics throughout the years, how often do you find yourself writing the same jokes or lines? Do you ever write a comic thinking it’s great, only to realize you’ve done it before?

A: That happens more often than I’d like. For the first ten years of the strip, I probably remembered every comic I made. Now I don’t. Since my brain is wired a certain way, I have a tendency to attack a joke the same way, so I end up reproducing something I’ve already done.

Q: Is it true that you worked at Pac Bell for years after your strip was published? My brother-in-law who worked there claimed that you used it for inspiration, and in the glacially slow-moving culture of a phone company, it took them years to realize that your “moonlighting” was such a big deal.

A: Your brother-in-law has it about right. But I worked at a big bank before the phone company, and when I noticed that these two companies were similar in their types of dysfunctions, it became clear that there were some universal concepts to mine.

Q: I heard somewhere (probably from a disgruntled employee) that you worked at Motorola at one point. Is this true? Either way, your comics are so scarily representative of corporate America that you must have spies on the inside feeding you gems of HR policies and management “innovations,” right?

A: I never worked at Motorola, but I’ve heard that rumor. I’ve been rumored to work for lots of big companies. I have a common name, so many companies have a “Scott Adams” on the payroll. I think that’s how the rumors start.

Q: Where did you learn how to draw, and what advice would you give to someone who, like you, majored in economics but would rather pursue more creative activities?

A: I learned to draw by doing it a lot. It’s about 25 percent natural talent and 75 percent practice.

I kept my day job and tried a number of creative things that didn’t work out. My general advice is to expect 9 out of 10 things to fail. If you can’t handle those odds, don’t bother trying.

Q: You no longer work in the corporate environment, but your humor is based in this world. How do you keep in touch with the corporate world and keep your insight fresh?

A: Most of my material comes from ideas from readers, by email. They suggest the pet peeve, and I supply the humor. Recently, I started managing one of the restaurants I co-own. I had only been a silent investor until this summer. That experience is infusing me with plenty of material, too.

Q: a. Which one of the Dilbert characters would you most like to see die?

b. What are your favorite comic strips/blogs?

c. How much do you make in a year from all your enterprises?

A: a. One of my regular characters will die soon. You are the first to know. But I won’t tell you which one.

b. I like Pearls Before Swine, F-Minus, and this blog.

c. Far more than I deserve.

Q: My friends and I gained great joy from the idea that humor can be created by combining any two of five different topics. Do you find that, to this day, you are still using these same tactics to create humor?

A: It’s two of six elements, not topics, and yes. I have never seen a deviation by any humorist. All humor combines at least two of these elements:

Cute

Bizarre

Naughty

Recognizable

Clever

Hmm, I forgot the sixth one myself.

Q: What makes you laugh?

A: I laugh at the absurd, and sometimes at bad things happening to people. I’m not proud of it.

Q: As a someone who is trained in both hypnosis and economics, which would you say has been more useful?

A: Excellent question. They work so well together that it is hard to pick one. But I’d pick economics if you put a gun to my head.

Q: How do you feel about censorship from your syndication company? It seems like many of your favorite jokes are censored, often for absurd reasons. Do you think that they are going overboard, or do you appreciate the feedback?

A: It’s not censorship when a public company makes a business decision about what product to provide to its customers. I respect that.

Q: Do you think Predictify‘s wisdom-of-crowds mechanism could be useful for predicting geopolitical events, like the future of Iran or the Middle East? I know that the federal government has considered similar initiatives in the past that were nixed for political reasons.

A: It well might. Time will tell.

Q: How would you describe the relationship between your comics and your blog? Does your blog help you develop ideas for your comic, or does the blog functions as a release for all of the things you want to say in your comic, but can’t? I am fascinated by how the same dry, ironic humor can manifest in both Dilbert and a blog post about renewable energy.

A: The blog is more of a release. The downside of being a creative personality is that you need to let it out or you feel thwarted. The blog helps my mental health.

Q: Did you anticipate turning your blog into a book? I’ve been reading since day one and wondered since day one why such an obviously busy person like you would devote so much time to something like a blog. Was it for fun, an attempt to educate the kids, or did you just anticipate this would be material for a book? Why would someone with a real day job do a blog?

A: I had a variety of motivations. It’s the best creative outlet I’ve ever had because I can write whatever I want, as often as I want. No editor gets between me and the reader. As a writer, you can’t beat that. It’s highly rewarding from a creative standpoint.

But yes, I did consider from the start that I might put the material in a book if it seemed worthy. Blogging every day is great discipline. I like knowing that people are waiting for my posts. The immediate feedback makes it easier to write and enjoy it. Most authors will tell you that writing an entire book without feedback until the end is one of the hardest things in the world. Writing a blog that turns into a book is just plain fun.

Q: How come the blogs in my Google Reader intertwine so much? I subscribed to The Dilbert Blog following a recommendation from Tom Kyte, and I know about Freakonomics from a neighbor. Suddenly, these blogs are not only heavily quoting each other, but Scott Adams gets to guest blog on Freakonomics, and Kyte does the same over at Worse Than Failure.

A: It means your alleged life is nothing but a program running in a computer somewhere, and the author reused code.

Q: Does it frustrate you that so many of your blog readers (or, at least, commenters) seem to fail to understand many of your messages?

A: It’s more fascinating than frustrating. I love observing how people think and perceive, especially when they do it wrong.

Q: How do you maintain your state of happiness when people give you all kinds of harsh criticism on your blog?

A: The criticism is easy to take because I also get a lot of positive comments to balance it out. If all the comments were bad, it would bother me.

Q: I like Dilbert a lot, but not as much as your blog, which is more unpredictable (usually) and less politically correct. How much funnier could you make Dilbert if you were independent?

A: Dilbert would be funnier to me if I could be naughtier, but I doubt it would have been so widely accepted.

Q: My all-time favorite Dilbert cartoon is the one where he gives some kooky well-thought-out amount of payment for an item so he’ll get back an even dime, and says it’s for the clerk’s convenience. Do you really do that in real life?

A: I don’t do that. I prefer to use my mind for daydreaming while the cashier works out the math.

Q: I read your story about curing yourself when you lost your voice. Has that led to any new developments or treatments in this affliction? How have you progressed since you originally posted about it earlier this year?

A: I wouldn’t call it cured, but it’s greatly improved. I couldn’t speak at all when I first got the problem (called spasmodic dysphonia). I had a big breakthrough this week, when I finally learned to breathe correctly after nine months of practice and paid a visit to a controversial voice doctor, Morton Cooper. Breathing is the only human function that is both automatic and also consciously controlled. When I would try to speak, the speech and breathing parts of my wiring somehow crossed, the automatic part of breathing kicked in, and it would stop me from exhaling, which stopped me from speaking. After nine months of practicing proper breathing, now I’ve got it all working most of the time. If this improvement lasts, I’ll say a lot more about it. And I would call it a cure of a reportedly incurable problem. Time will tell.

Q: Are there other corporate humorists you admire?

A: I like The Office, on TV. I don’t follow any other corporate humor.

Q: Have you and Cathy Guisewite ever talked about doing a story that finally brings Dilbert face-to-face with Cathy? In my mental map of the universe, Cathy is working in the accounting department a few floors away, or in some other building on campus.

A: We’ve met a few times, but never discussed collaboration. On some level, the idea strikes me as too obvious. It has been suggested a hundred times.

Q: How many days before the cartoons go to print do you draw them?

A: Let me check … I’m answering you on October 29th, and the next comic I draw for the daily strip will run on January 9th. The next Sunday strip will run on January 27th. I’m ahead of deadline.

Q: Did you always dream of drawing and writing, or were you about to happily settle for a so-called normal job? Was it the misery of “humiliating and low-paying jobs,” or the joy of drawing and writing, that pushed you this way?

A: I pursued a normal job so I wouldn’t starve to death while figuring out how to have an extraordinary job. I just didn’t know how it would play out.

Q: I’m interested in your comments on evolution. If you have read PZ Myer‘s deconstruction of your opinions on evolution, I think they point out not only your misconceptions, but also those of a large number of people unfamiliar with theory.

A: Actually, PZ Myer deconstructs his misinterpretations of my arguments. If he ever addresses my actual arguments, he might realize he agrees with them. That’s what makes him so entertaining.

Q: What do you see as the actual flaws in the Darwin-esque explanations for evolution, and what possibilities can you see for alternate explanations of the phenomena and evidence?

A: Evolution passes all the tests of science to be treated as a fact. But if physicists someday demonstrate that our perception of reality has no connection to actual reality, which I consider likely, then evolution is just a point of view, albeit a useful one.

My main criticism of evolution has to do with the way it is presented to the public. And beyond that, I enjoy yanking the chain of people who think they believe things for actual reasons as opposed to taking a side.

Q: Drew Carey has made an exceptionally good living thanks in no small part to Dilbert. Has he at least offered to buy you some coffee and donuts?

A: Drew Carey developed his thing independently, but he did call me one day and asked if I wanted to be a writer on his old show. It didn’t seem like a good career move.

Q: Why does Dilbert’s tie curl upwards?

A: He’s glad to see you.

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  1. discordian says:

    For characters dying – Ted doesn’t count!

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  2. discordian says:

    For characters dying – Ted doesn’t count!

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  3. Sarah says:

    “Evolution passes all the tests of science to be treated as a fact. But if physicists someday demonstrate that our perception of reality has no connection to actual reality, which I consider likely, then evolution is just a point of view, albeit a useful one.”

    This is what post-modernists are already arguing.

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  4. Sarah says:

    “Evolution passes all the tests of science to be treated as a fact. But if physicists someday demonstrate that our perception of reality has no connection to actual reality, which I consider likely, then evolution is just a point of view, albeit a useful one.”

    This is what post-modernists are already arguing.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  5. Methodista says:

    I’m loving these Q and A’s.

    The thing that strikes me most here is Mr. Adam’s comment about pursuing “normal” jobs while he figured out how to have an “extraordinary” job. There is a lot of recommend this position. There’s financial security and structure to your day. You might only have a few hours each evening to work towards your “extraordinary” job so you have to be productive. As I understand it, Faulkner wrote “As I Lay Dying” while working as a night security guard.

    But this does runs counter to the “starving artist” view. I read an interview with comedian Patton Oswalt, who encouraged wannabe comedians to avoid day jobs and learn to live on “nothing” so their hunger would focus and propel them forward. His point was that “The minute you go, “I’ll just take a job” it f**** you.” Adams took a different route.

    As a mid-20′s guy trying his hand at various things, but with a never-ending supply of ideas for “extraordinary” jobs, I’m currently torn between taking a safe job that would leave me some time in the evening to pursue these ideas, or just going after the ideas themselves.

    What do people here think? I’m sure there are some who’ve tried both approaches.

    http://www.lawnparty.net

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  6. Methodista says:

    I’m loving these Q and A’s.

    The thing that strikes me most here is Mr. Adam’s comment about pursuing “normal” jobs while he figured out how to have an “extraordinary” job. There is a lot of recommend this position. There’s financial security and structure to your day. You might only have a few hours each evening to work towards your “extraordinary” job so you have to be productive. As I understand it, Faulkner wrote “As I Lay Dying” while working as a night security guard.

    But this does runs counter to the “starving artist” view. I read an interview with comedian Patton Oswalt, who encouraged wannabe comedians to avoid day jobs and learn to live on “nothing” so their hunger would focus and propel them forward. His point was that “The minute you go, “I’ll just take a job” it f**** you.” Adams took a different route.

    As a mid-20′s guy trying his hand at various things, but with a never-ending supply of ideas for “extraordinary” jobs, I’m currently torn between taking a safe job that would leave me some time in the evening to pursue these ideas, or just going after the ideas themselves.

    What do people here think? I’m sure there are some who’ve tried both approaches.

    http://www.lawnparty.net

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  7. Chris says:

    I haven’t read your take on evolution yet, but I feel compelled to say that all of science is a model used by us to try and understand and manipulate/survive in the natural world around us. At their best these models are a very pale imitation of the complexity of nature. That is the fundamental basis for Science.

    The way science is taught in schools and discussed in the media drives me abolutely bonkers….same with economics when it comes down to it.
    (I have a BMath…..I like models)

    The system we live in creates an ingrained illiteracy regarding the fundamentals of science.
    I could ramble and go nowhere for hours…sorry.
    I loved your post on cognitive dissonance and economists. I’m sure the idea can be extended, but I’m pretty lazy.

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  8. Chris says:

    I haven’t read your take on evolution yet, but I feel compelled to say that all of science is a model used by us to try and understand and manipulate/survive in the natural world around us. At their best these models are a very pale imitation of the complexity of nature. That is the fundamental basis for Science.

    The way science is taught in schools and discussed in the media drives me abolutely bonkers….same with economics when it comes down to it.
    (I have a BMath…..I like models)

    The system we live in creates an ingrained illiteracy regarding the fundamentals of science.
    I could ramble and go nowhere for hours…sorry.
    I loved your post on cognitive dissonance and economists. I’m sure the idea can be extended, but I’m pretty lazy.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0