How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life, by Scott Adams (Portfolio/Penguin, 229 pages)
Despite having “Dilbert” affixed to your desk and refrigerator over the past 10 years, you may know nothing about the cartoonist beyond his name — if you know even that.
Meet Scott Adams, ordinary in height (5’8’’) and modest in talent, if you believe his self-deprecatory schtick. Adams professes to have mediocre abilities in art, writing and humor, and believes extraordinary talent to be unnecessary for success. Top achievers need only focus and multiple skills, he promises in How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big.
The subtitle is “Kind of the Story of My Life,” and it is, though Adams dribbles out details stingily over the course of the book. This is more an ode to positive thinking than the autobiography of a successful man. But vignettes of personal failure combine with no-way-did-that-really-happen stories of luck to produce a compelling and eminently readable story that proves nice guys can finish rich.
Adams grew up in Windham, N.Y. — population less than 2,000. He’s not a fan. He blew out of there fresh out of college, vowing to never again live where it snows. But it wasn’t just the weather; it was the lack of ambition in the town. His father worked for the postal service and encouraged his children to do so, too. His mother, who sold real estate and then worked a minimum-wage assembly-line job to help put her kids through college, encouraged Adams to become a lawyer.
The boy, who had at age 6 told his parents he would one day become a famous cartoonist, therefore enrolled in Hartwick College and planned to become first a banker, then a CEO. Thus began a mind-numbingly white-collar life that provided Adams ample fodder for nearly 20 years of “Dilbert.”
So how did Adams climb down the corporate ladder and become a wildly successful cartoonist? He said he would. Literally.
Adams is a practitioner of “affirmations” — the repetition of a thoughtfully crafted mantra designed to excavate one’s central goals and, possibly, summon the universe’s help in achieving them. Adams has written about this in the past, to criticism that he promotes magical thinking, and sensitive to that charge, he addresses it up front.
“… I have experienced several events in my life that are indistinguishable from magic in the same way that a caveman might perceive your phone as magic. My point then and now is you don’t need to know why something works to take advantage of it. A caveman could successfully use a phone, assuming someone taught him how, while continuing to believe its inner workings were based on magic. His faulty perceptions would have no impact on the usefulness of the phone, at least until it broke and he started praying to it.”
Adams doesn’t believe, then, that magic, or presumably God, had anything to do with the fact that he scored in the 94th percentile on his GMAT, after doing affirmations and visualizations that he would score precisely that. Or that magic or God created “Dilbert” after he started writing “I, Scott Adams, will be a famous cartoonist” 15 times a day. In fact, he devotes a chapter to explaining the rational, non-magical reasons that affirmations might work. But he concludes that the results of affirmations “appear to be borderline miraculous.”
But so is the result of logic, the observation of patterns, and math. Also, exercise. Adams is into all of these, and a large part of his system for success is programming — programming the body for optimal energy, while programming the mind for zestful creation. Successful people, he says, share three traits: They do not fear embarrassment (this can be learned, he assures), they obtain appropriate education, and they exercise.
“Do you know what the unemployment rate is for engineers?” he writes. “It is nearly zero. Do you know how many engineers like their jobs? Most of them do, despite what you read in Dilbert comics. And the ones who are unhappy with work can change jobs fairly easily. Generally speaking, the people who have the right kind of education have almost no risk of unemployment.”
So why is he telling us all this, instead of batting balls on his backyard tennis court (a luxury for which he, in classic Adams-ese, apologizes)?
Adams believes few people encounter people who are truly successful. (We are reminded of the poor, ambitionless people of Windham, N.Y., here, and wonder if Adams remains on good terms with his parents.) Since most people have no smart friends to give advice, he deputizes himself to be that friend. The book is dedicated to “the seekers.”
But it comes with warnings. “Insanity is always a reasonable diagnosis when you’re dealing with writers and artists,” Adams says. And, “if you’ve ever taken advice from a cartoonist, there’s a good chance it didn’t end well.” This is the guy, after all, who invented the “Dilberito,” not coming soon to a grocer near you. Get your Mexican food elsewhere, but go to Adams for inspiration, advice and humor. This book is a satisfying roll-up of acumen, and easy to digest. A — Jennifer Graham