Escape from Plato

The guy who’s made his living mocking bosses is now a boss himself. In this interview, Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert cartoons, discusses with senior writer Rosie Lombardi how he’s managed to fail his way to success in the course of his peculiar life’s journey. Adams also expounds his views on the inherent “weaseliness” of bossing, slacker management, the evils of maple syrup, “nerdy” Calgarians, and the eternal verities.

You have a very eclectic resumé. I noticed “sap-gatherer” listed in your early years. Was that for maple syrup?

My uncle had a 400-acre farm with lots of maple trees [in the Catskills, New York]. Every [winter], he would gather up family members who were not smart enough to have an excuse to be out of town. He would drive around a tractor-drawn cart with a gigantic tank in the back. We would charge around in our galoshes and take the buckets off the trees, and carry the sap to the big container and pour it in, and do it again and again, until we all wanted to kill ourselves. It’s quite possibly the most unpleasant job ever.

You also have “certified hypnotist” listed. Why did you pursue that?

Curiosity. My mother was hypnotized to give birth to my little sister, and she didn’t have any pain medication. She was awake, and experienced no discomfort during the birth. I thought wow, that’s good stuff.

It also says you’re a vegetarian. Is that for health or moral reasons?

I’m a selfish vegetarian. I do it for myself. I don’t digest meat well, and since it’s not good for me anyway, there’s no reason to eat meat, for me.

Your undergraduate degree was in economics. What drew you to that?

I was a practical little kid. I thought I’d be a banker or some kind of corporate executive guy and so I needed some practical kind of education. That’s before I realized economics wasn’t practical education, but it certainly looked good on a resumé.

So you had visions of becoming a boss-type guy even when you were a kid?

Yes, I thought I would be a captain of industry.

Why did you go west to San Francisco in 1979, instead of say, New York City, to pursue your career in banking?

I asked my advisor, an economics professor, where I should find work with an economics degree, because I didn’t really know what to do with that. And he took a pamphlet off his desk and said, this is where you want to work. It was Crocker National Bank based in San Francisco. It was one of the first ones to have ATMs, it was at the front end for lots of stuff, so he thought that was the best place for a banker sort of person to be. I didn’t know any better, so I went to Los Angeles and stayed on my brother’s couch for a while, then went up to San Francisco. I applied for a job as a teller, figuring I could work my way up. I pretty well needed a paycheck in a couple of weeks or I wouldn’t be able to eat.

Your bio says you were robbed twice at gunpoint during your teller stint. How did that affect you?

It certainly makes you not want to be a bank teller. It hastened my drive to become a management fast-track. I figured I would like to get a few levels of underlings between the gunfire and myself.

How did you get involved in computer programming?

I got on a project where we were trying to computerize some reports, which was in the days when that was a big deal. And I didn’t know anything about computers, but I had the opportunity to get a big pay raise if I said I did, so I said, yeah, I can take care of those computers for you. So I took classes [in Basic] at night and bluffed my way through it until I could actually do the job.

You got an MBA at night a few years later. This should have put you right on track for a boss-type position at the bank. What happened?

Well, one day, my boss called me in, and said they couldn’t promote a white male because there was too much attention on the fact that there was no diversity in senior management. She told me I didn’t have a future with the bank. And so I put my resumé out and went to Pacific Bell. A couple of years later, [Pacific Bell] told me exactly the same thing. And that’s when I started looking at cartooning as an option.

You got passed over twice? Was that an unusual occurrence in those days?

It was a big deal in the Bay area. There was that little window of history when reverse discrimination was all the rage, and probably more so in liberal areas like San Francisco. I suspect it was a bigger deal where I happened to be.

So in terms of pondering your destiny, does it bother you that if you had got those promotions, you would never have wound up a cartoonist?

I probably would have ended up as an executive for Cisco, and I’d be ten times richer than I am. I think it would have worked out one way or the other. I’m an optimist, so I [generally] tend to think that something’s going to work out. It just happened to be a bizarre path.

You were placed on a series of doomed projects at Pacific Bell as punishment for mocking a boss’ memo in your cartoons. Did that actually work to your advantage by providing better grist for your cartoon mill?

Well, it certainly made me angry, which is good. There’s a correlation between anger and humour. The angrier you are, the funnier you can be. You can drive things to the next level. But as far as material goes, I didn’t need any special bad projects to give me material – there was plenty.

Today, you’re the co-owner of Stacey’s Café and the CEO of Scott Adams Foods, in addition to owning the Dilbert empire. Why did you get involved in these food-related sidelines?

I got involved in the restaurants because I thought they’d be fun, and I was right about that. It gives me access to human interaction, which is something you don’t get as a cartoonist. I really wanted to be a part of something that was a physical thing, a living, breathing, and human situation. It satisfied that need for me.

[Regarding] the food company…it was just because I realized at one point that you couldn’t get nutrition from just eating good food.

It’s a myth that if you eat the right kinds of foods and you get the right variety, that you’ll get all the requirements you need. You wouldn’t even get close, you might get in the 10 per cent range. So I wanted to come up with some alternative that would give you the perfect food. But I sold my interest [recently], so I’m out of that business directly. I still collect royalties but I’m not active in that.

What boss-type functions do you actually have nowadays? Do you have people who report to you?

I have one employee, who works for me in a Dilbert capacity, helping me do some administrative stuff. But it’s remote, so I don’t see her hanging around the office or sitting in the cubicle next to me. That’s the beauty of technology. And I don’t manage any of the restaurant employees directly because my partner is the managing partner. So I mostly show up and eat. So who looks after the Dilbert empire?

It’s kind of a virtual empire in the sense that there are pieces being run by different people in different places, and they all have the right incentive to do the right thing. I’m syndicated by United Media, and they handle the distribution and the sales of the comics in newspapers, but they also do the licensing. So I approve stuff. Stuff comes in by fax, Fedex and e-mail, and I look at it and say yes or no, change this, and so on. They do the hard work of making sure the deals are right and the money gets collected and the execution is appropriate.

How many people do you have deal with, in terms of managing your various business lines?

I guess I’d have to divide it into how often I have to deal with them. There’s probably 50-100 different people that I have to deal with on some kind of basis once in a while. There’s probably a dozen people I have to deal with all the time.

Are you a good boss?

As you can see from the way I have things set up, I try to avoid being a boss, because the thing I’ve learned about bosses – being the person who writes about bad bosses more than anybody in the world – is that when you are a bad boss, you don’t know it. And therefore, if I said, yeah, I’m a good boss, it really wouldn’t mean much because if I were a bad boss, I wouldn’t know it. If you ask me if I feel like a good boss, I’d say sure, but how would I know?

Well, you could ask your people?

Yeah, but if they’re smart, they’re going to lie. And I try to hire smart people…

Now that the shoe is on the other foot, and you’re a boss yourself, has that changed your withering views of bosses?

No! Because my situation is crafted to avoid all the normal employee-boss conflicts, I can’t say that I’ve walked in [boss-type] moccasins.

Do you avoid bossing people because getting them to do your bidding is a lot harder than you imagined when you were in your cubicle at Pacific Bell?

Well, my theory is that all leadership is a form of evil, because the whole point of managing people is getting them to do stuff they don’t want to do on their own. You don’t need a manager to tell people to eat chocolate chip cookies, because they want to do that. But you do need a manager to tell them to work extra hours for the same amount of pay, and I’m not good at that. If managing were truly a case of win-win scenarios – you give me more and you get more out – I could definitely do that. But the “best” managers are not like that, [according to real-world corporate behaviour]. The “best” ones are the ones getting you to do stuff and giving you nothing in return.

Based on feedback from your fans, what management issues irritate people the most?

Well, the number one frustration is the boss who thwarts your ability to do your job and then at the end of the year, punishes you for not doing your job. So he’s the guy who cuts your staff, gives you too much work, and then demands that you spend all your time getting status reports. He gives you bad instructions on how to do your projects, then when everything is completely screwed up, he punishes you by giving you a small raise at the end of the year for doing a bad job. And, the best part is, because he’s given you a small raise, he’s reduced his costs, so he gets a bonus. So you get punished for his bad work, and he gets rewarded for your bad work. That’s the single most frustrating thing that people complain about.

So it’s injustice that bothers people the most?

Yes, it’s perceived injustice. But there’s no amount of compensation you could give people that would make them say, you know, I think you’re over-paying me. That doesn’t happen. Everyone sees injustice everywhere.

Are your fans paranoid about IT outsourcing?

It’s the number one thing that people ask me to write about. And I have a number of cartoons where outsourcing has gone to [fictional third-world country] Albonia. I don’t like to name specific countries, especially since Dilbert runs in all those countries.

What’s wrong with IT? After decades of big projects, why can’t organizations get IT right?

The problem is, you can estimate the time a project will take by multiplying the number of idiots involved times the number of weeks. In the old days, you could do a project with a handful of people, but things are bigger and complicated today. The more people you get involved, the greater the ratio of idiots to useful people. And at some point, any project is going to crumble under the weight of the people involved. Everybody who gets anything across their desk or across their e-mail is going to say, this is important to somebody else, but it’s not my priority. Pretty soon you’ve created a web where absolutely nothing is done anywhere, because the thing that’s on everybody desk is someone else’s priority – but not theirs. And what they’re waiting for is for you to get to their priority. So there’s a priority gridlock kind of thing that happens.

After all your experiences, what have you concluded about human nature and power dynamics?

I wrote “Dilbert and the Way of the Weasel” a few years ago [on that subject]. I think it could be summed up by the fact that everyone’s a weasel if you put them in the right situation. So bosses unfortunately have power, and so their weaseliness has more impact on us than [others].

You just came out with The Ultimate Cubicle [a cubicle designed to Dilbert’s specs], which sounds like a master stroke of branding. How well is it doing?

Well, the cubicle is just a prototype; we did it just for fun and to get attention. It’s a marketing thing for Dilbert. We hope someone will pick up the idea and actually make that cubicle. We did get interest; a number of people asked where they could buy it. We also got interest from some manufacturers, but ultimately it’s not produced.

Do you have any other Dilbert-related ventures under way?

We also recently launched our Dilbert blog. I’m going to do what all managers like to do, which is tell people what I think, because I think they need to know. I guess I’m becoming a manager that way, because the thing I think is missing from your life is more communication from me.

All this customer interaction with your fans must take up a lot of your time. Is that still fun, or is it just work now?

It’s all fascinating. The blog responses today have been fascinating, because I asked people what’s the nerdiest thing they’ve done recently. I can’t really describe them, because a lot of them require leaps of technology to do ordinary things. For example, somebody had a watch that told the time in binary. I opened up the discussion with my own example, where I bought a projector that projects things on the wall from any source. I hooked it up to my laptop and watched a gigantic movie on the white wall of my office while I worked. And I thought, you know, this movie stinks, but I’m still totally happy, because it’s so big!

You give a lot of presentations at corporate events. Have you given any in Canada?

Yes, several in Calgary and Toronto. Calgary, I believe, has the highest concentration of engineers in the population due to the oil industry. So I probably get a better response from Calgary than anyplace I’ve ever been in the world.

What are your impressions of Canadians?

It’s true what they say about Canadians. You’re nice to the point of being suspicious. The first time I came to the Canada, instead of having a driver take me to the airport, which was typical, a couple of people insisted they drive me back themselves. But the [corporate event] thing started late, and we were worried that I might miss my plane. And they were insisting I stay at their house. These were people that I’d just met! And they weren’t just being polite; they really wanted me to stay at their house. It wasn’t like I hadn’t been paid an outrageous amount of money to go up there – I could have stayed at a hotel.

Well, maybe they found you charming?

Yeah, maybe it’s that. Nah, Canadians are just too nice. And the whole time I was thinking, is this a trick? Are they going to tie me up and take my wallet? So I really don’t understand the whole Canadian thing. You don’t have enough guns, you don’t lock your doors … I dunno, there’s something wrong with that place.

Why did you write God’s Debris, which is a non-humorous, non-Dilbert book?


Writing a book is the hardest thing anybody can do. Writing a humour book is ten times harder. If you walk into a book store and look around and say, hmmm, where are all the humour books, you might find maybe two. And the reason there are only two…it’s not because people won’t buy them, it’s because it’s just so hard to write one. I’d written several humour books, and I was looking for something [to write that] would delight me, instead of being hard. I wrote about the things I think about even when I’m not working, so God’s Debris is a lifetime of things I think about in the shower. One day, a whole bunch of these things that I never could have imagined were related to each other, they clicked together unexpectedly.

Effectively, what I wanted to do is see if I could write a book using the techniques of hypnosis in the structure of the book. So readers – not all of them because everyone’s different – would experience the sensation that the main character in the book is the smartest person in the world who knows everything. And they would feel like the secrets of the universe had been revealed to them. Based on feedback, a percentage did indeed have that feeling. So it was a fascinating little experiment. It was the best reaction I’ve gotten to anything I’ve ever done. Indeed, I’m sure when I die, it’s the only thing that will go on when Dilbert fades away. I believe God’s Debris will go on forever.

What’s the theme of your next book?

The best way to describe it is: I’m coming up with a way that both atheists and believers can believe in the same thing, because I believe it’s a question of definition. If you were to define God, and actually peeled away the stuff that everybody agrees doesn’t make sense, what’s left is something everybody will agree with. It seems impossible, which is what attracted me to this particular project, but it also seems like it’ll be funny, because in peeling away the unnecessary layers, there’s lots of potential for humour.

Do you have any other upcoming ventures?

I’m going to give away God’s Debris as an e-book in a few weeks. We did up a PDF that has clickable links to Amazon, where you can buy the actual [physical] book or buy the sequel to God’s Debris [The Religion War]. We’re just going to give it away. The hardest thing about this book is we couldn’t figure out any way to market it successfully, because nobody can decide if it’s fiction or non-fiction, philosophy or religion. So this is going to be an interesting experiment. We’re just going to give [the digital version] away, forever.

There’s a saying that goes: there’s no neurosis that a little power can’t cure. So are you cured?

I would say control over your own schedule has got to be the single [healthiest] thing for both your mind and your body. I feel like everyone in the world is trapped in a cage. Some people can find an open door and get out, and we get the view of the world of all the other people who are still trapped in their cages. And every day I say to myself, how did I get out? This is so lucky. Because eventually, we all die, so if you don’t get out soon, you don’t get to wait a hundred years and try it again. So I consider myself outrageously lucky.

That sounds a lot like Plato’s allegory [in The Republic], about how everyone is trapped in a cave, mistaking the shadows cast on the walls by objects that exist outside in the sunny world for reality. Is that a fair analogy, or is it too pompous?

Sort of. I don’t want to feel like I’m special, I just feel like I’m lucky.

Any last thoughts?

I don’t eat anything with maple syrup on it anymore. And I use a lot of sunblock now that I’m out of Plato’s cave.

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