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Dilbert creator Scott Adams: Goals are for losers

Take small risks, fail inexpensively, and never, ever follow your passion

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Passion won't make you rich. It's more likely to make you broke.

Scott Adams, creator of "Dilbert," one of the world's most famous syndicated comic strips, doesn't believe the common advice that if you want to be successful, you should follow your passion. In fact, he thinks that's bad advice.

That doesn't mean Adams believes you should settle for a Dilbert-like existence in an office cubicle, doing a job you don't like. Adams' life story demonstrates how you can take chances, lots of them, and find success -- without taking risks you can't afford.

Scott Adams, author,
'How To Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big'
Q&A: Goals are for losers: Scott Adams
How to fail at almost everything and still win big

"Passion is bull," says Dilbert cartoon creator and author Scott Adams. The key to success, he says, is to try a lot of different but inexpensive things, acquiring skills along the way, until you get lucky.

CreditCards.com talked to Adams about his new book, "How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life."

Q: Failing is expensive. You've had a long list of failures, from inventions and investments to two restaurants. How could you afford to keep trying and failing?

A: If you're planning to try lots of stuff, most of it's not going to work. I picked things that were not expensive, so if they didn't work, they didn't break me. Before I had any Dilbert money, I made sure I was well within my budget. I kept my day job. For years, I wrote Dilbert in the morning before I went to work.

Q: Why do you say that passion is bull?

A: Adams: Passion is just something that rich people say was the secret to their success, because anything else makes you sound like a jerk. It sounds bad at a party to say, "I was smarter than the poor folks." They can't say it was family connections, either, so they say it was passion.

Q: So you're not passionate when you start a new idea?

A: Adams: I'm always excited when I start, but I wouldn't say it's passion. When things don't work out, I lose all my excitement. In retrospect, it's the success that causes the passion, not the passion that causes the success.

Q: Can a combination of skills make you financially successful?

A: Adams: Yes. I would rely on math, diversification. Pay off your credit card. "Passion" is bull. What you need is personal energy. The more passion you bring to your personal finance, the worse you do.

All the errors of investing seem to center around your human emotions, especially that you'll miss something everyone else is getting. You misjudge your real cost. You want to be as dispassionate as possible when making your investments. Passion clouds your judgment. People fall in love with companies. One-third of the people investing in Apple are doing so for emotional reasons.

Q: What's the first thing you would recommend to someone who wants to be successful?

A: Adams: Everything you do in life is a little better if you're bringing your sharpest mind. Work on your body. Learn as much as you can about diet and fitness. Get enough sleep. Those things are going to translate into everything you do.

Q: What other personal finance advice do you have?

A: Adams: Make a lifelong system of learning as much as you can. I'd pull back from professional investment managers. I attended a party, and one the people I met was a personal finance adviser. He would recommend managed stock funds. The people are paying a management fee, they also pay a 1 percent to 2 percent fee for the personal financial management. I asked if he bought those funds, and he said no, he buys index funds.

I'm very big on living below your means. I'm just always sure I'll need more money. I'm not panicked. I just see the world as a riskier place. I'm very conservative.

Q: Were any of your failures in the personal financial area?

A: Adams: Two of my failures were investments. One was Webvan, where you would order online and they would show up in a few hours with groceries. Management came out and said one of their district centers had become cash positive. Very soon after, they went out of business. What they were telling us just wasn't true. You can analyze financial statements all you want, but you can't believe them. It was "the next Amazon" versus bankrupt. That's how big the lie can be.

My second investment failure was when I was making serious Dilbert money. I was approached by a company, and I let them manage half my money. They bought WorldCom, Enron, they bought a number of things almost synonymous with bad investments. Their pitch was that they had superior knowledge. Nobody had knowledge, because Enron was lying. I finally took my money and put it in unmanaged funds.

Q: What about debt? Have you ever had a problem with it?

A: Adams: I'm super cautious. I lived below my means in the early days, sharing an apartment. I even had a windowless room. I'm very big on living below your means.

I'm just always sure I'll need more money. I'm not panicked. I just see the world as a riskier place. I'm very conservative.

Q: Have you been lucky?

A: Adams: I've managed the odds to look lucky. For example, I lived in small town upstate New York, I left and went to San Francisco. That simple. People think they are already living in the best place. They say, "Move from here? Are you kidding?" You need to move to where the opportunity is.

Rather than trying to be the best in the world at a particular skill, I've combined fairly average skills. Nobody's going to accuse me of being a real artist. I've never taken a writing course. At a party, I'm not the funniest guy in the room. You put those three things together. It's a combination of average skills, which combined become very powerful.

People say how lucky I am to be the Dilbert cartoonist. They don't see that cartooning was one of a dozen things I tried. I tried all these high-risk things not likely to work. Most of that stuff didn't work. The person who tries one thing and then quits has very different odds than a person who tries a lot of things. You come out of every different thing you try with a pretty valuable skill.

Q: CreditCards.com: Can you give an example?

A: Adams: When I was doing my programming, writing computer games, I came out with skills that helped my day job, and some skills I'm still using. All this required a more than average knowledge of skills. It's the combination of them that makes them powerful. I went from 1 in 1,000 odds to a 1 in 5 by the time I decided to become a cartoonist.

Q: You seem to be able to think longer term than most people do. Were you always that way?

I've been planning for my retirement since I was 8 years old. My financial planning spreadsheet goes to age 105.

A: Adams: That's the genetic portion of that, some people think of the future and some people don't. Continually educating yourself is the point. I've been planning for my retirement since I was 8 years old. My financial planning spreadsheet goes to age 105. There's never been a time in my life when I couldn't see my whole life unfolding.

Q: Can planning farther ahead be learned?

A: Adams: Yes, they've shown that by creating digitally aged pictures of people. When people saw themselves as digitally aged, they saved more.

Q: Why do you say goals are for losers?

A: Adams: Goals are for losers, systems are for smart people. Losing 10 pounds is a goal. A better system is to learn about food. Figure out what works and make it a lifelong process.

In the investment category, it's a perfect analogy. It's really hard to go in ignorant and pick winners. I was pretty sure in my 20s that I could apply my great intellect and instinct and pick winners. By the time you're 40, you're just buying index funds and diversifying. That's a system.

A: See related: Q&A with 'What To Do When I Get Stupid' author Lewis Mandell, Q&A with actor Steve Guttenberg

Published: October 31, 2013



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