Dilbert Creator Scott Adams On Why Big Goals Are For Losers

The famous cartoonist has many failed businesses under his belt. Here he shares why he thinks passion is B.S., big goals are a setup for failure, and the "systems approach" is the only way to success.

Famous cartoonist Scott Adams recently launched his newest business (this is something like his 30th), but we’re unsure if he’s passionate about his scheduling application, Calendar Tree.

“When things work out, I’m passionate,” says Adams. “When they don’t work out, I’m not.”

It’s not that he doesn’t care about his business—he does. But he also knows that roughly nine out of ten of his ideas won’t become a success, so he doesn’t let setbacks get in the way of his future grand slams.

He didn’t let it stop him after two failed restaurants and a food company or when who-knows-how-many computer softwares didn’t live long enough to change the lives of techies.

“That thing you experience as stress or disappointment is usually the difference between what you're getting and what you hoped to get,” says the creator of 24-year-old comic strip Dilbert. “If you expect something to happen and it doesn't happen, you can be stressed out and sad.”

“I expect that everything I do has a low chance of working out the way I hoped. But I also expect that everything I do will improve my odds of success in the long run.”

Never lend money to anyone who’s passionate.

Adams began thinking this way during his banking career when his former boss instructed him to never lend money to anyone who’s passionate, because “passion clouds judgment and [people] will stick with things that are bad ideas because they are passionate.” Instead, Adams was told to invest in people who who had a history of working hard.

Through his string of business attempts, Adams witnessed a similar kind of thinking when talking to investors.

“What I hear is that nobody can pick a winner in terms of a business idea. So [investors can’t] hear a pitch for a startup and say, ‘That idea will probably work’ because it’s completely randomized in terms of predictability.”

In other words, “what used to be a mystical belief that you can pick a winning business idea has now transferred to this belief that you can pick a winning team or a winning person because they’ve got a track record or there’s something about their intensity or their character or their genius that will make them a winner,” he says.

And these experiences are what led Adams to think that passion is bullshit.

“By the time you’ve made your billion dollars doing whatever your thing is, you’re probably pretty excited about it because it’s transformed your life,” says Adams, who is also the author of How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big. “It’s made you who you are so of course you’re going to act pretty passionate about it.”

Unlike what most people think—that passion will lead to success—Adams says that “it’s the success that breeds the passion” so you need to try as many things as you can.

So what should people who are relentlessly following their passions do?

Adams tells Fast Company the same thing his mother once told him: “Cartoonist? Have you thought about being a lawyer?” In other words, have a back-up plan or two.

Big goals make you feel bad about yourself.

According to Adams, one of the biggest problems with goals is that they’re constantly making you feel like a failure.

“Let's say you want to lose 10 pounds so every day you weigh yourself and you're like, 'Eh, I'm failing' even if you're getting closer,” he explains. “You’re in this pre-success, kind of semi-failure, purgatory, emotional state. You're not feeling like you're a success.”

And this is exactly the reason why you shouldn’t make big goals for yourself. One, you don’t know if the goal you picked is the right goal (there could be better goals out there) and two, you have “blinders” on when you have goals because you’re prioritizing, says Adams. When you’re that focused, you also miss opportunities in related areas because you’re not noticing them.

“The world is completely unpredictable now. You can't predict where your career will be in a year. You can't predict what technologies will change the world. You can't predict whether robots will be taking your jobs. So picking a goal in this world has its downsides.”

However, Adams does say that goals do have a place in very specific, simple, short-term situations. For example, it’s acceptable to make a goal if you enter an archery contest and you want to hit the bulls eye or if you’re a farmer and you want to clear 40 acres of land before winter or if you want to go to medical school to become a doctor.

But never, ever make goals like, ‘I want to have my boss’s job in five years’ because you might be ignoring better opportunities by focusing on that one particular job.

The key to success is approaching life like a system.

Unlike goals, a system is something that you’re doing every day to improve your chances of success. Everything that you do in your systems approach is to make you a more marketable talent in the long-run.

“Dilbert was not a goal. It was one of many things I tried,” says the cartoonist. “All of them had the characteristics in that they probably wouldn't work, but if they did, they had the untapped potential to get very large.”

“If you didn't know my back story, you might say, 'Man that guy's lucky. He tried this one thing that worked,' but that was not complete luck. It was brute force. I tried lots of things and I didn't know what I would be good at until I tried them and I found out what the market responded to.”

If Dilbert—or any other business that Adams attempted—hadn’t worked out, he says that he wouldn’t take the “temporary failure as personal” because luck is a huge factor so increase your odds to get lucky because that’s the only way to success.

[Image: Flickr user Ol.v!er [H2vPk]]

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8 Comments

  • This is the best article I've read all week. I've long been of the opinion that "passion" is not required for excellence, or success - and can be very problematic. Passionate people are poor collaborators, often uncompromising and argumentative. And not everyone is lucky enough to have a job they really love - most of us mere mortals are happy enough if the work is fun & the paycheck covers the bills. Greatness is over-rated, excuse me for settling for happiness.

  • “What I hear is that nobody can pick a winner in terms of a personality development idea. So [we can't] hear a wisdom from someone and say, ‘Such a personality change will probably work’ because it’s completely randomized in terms of predictability”

  • Sonia Singh

    Angry birds was Rovio's 53rd app, and all apps before that failed...don't know the real story behind it, but not giving up after 52 failures (and many such examples in the past of famous discoveries) is what - persistence that is driven by passion. Many of successful and passionate people were driven away by people from whom they sought support, because they did not believe in their ideas and vision. A big goal can be reached by achieving smaller goals on the way - step by step.

  • This approach seems to leave too much to "outside circumstances". 90% of life is what I make happen, and 10% is what happens to me. Adams seems to have that in reverse - throw a bunch of stuff out into the world and see if any of it sticks.

    The problem isn't with making goals, but a) making the wrong ones, and b) seeing the goal-setting as a succeed/fail game.

    a) Making the wrong goal - Setting the goal of getting your bosses job is a lousy goal. The goal of becoming a leader is a great goal - how that happens is wide open, but much more in your control.

    b) Succeed/Fail, The Wrong Mindset - Stop thinking in terms of succeeding or failing, and replace it with "practicing" - getting better all the time. Adams has this figured out, but decides the application is to not make goals. Make them, so you have clear direction, then be learning the whole time, regardless of how it's working out.

    Otherwise it's the "random hope" strategy of business - good luck with that.

  • Laurent Dubois

    Interesting article and good summary of the book on the subject. I read the book a few weeks ago and Scott Adams did not fail to surprise me by both his ideas and writing style (as he always does). The idea of having a system rather than goals is logical within the context of the book. I however can see it being difficult to implement for most organisations.
    As a project manager, I would find it difficult to explain to my stakeholders that I consider a project I accepted to manage as a "maybe it will work... let's just try". This is not to say that Scott Adams is wrong. He has been a valuable source of ideas and fun for me over time. I would however be interested to see what other people think about expending this approach to success to an organisation with multiple stakeholders.

  • Because its not acceptable doesnt mean its wrong. I think it would be a nice cultural shift if project managers could tell stake holders "Projects like this fail at a high rate. We can do everything right and still fail. " but with that said, also "We will produce quailty work, we will produce a quailty product because if we do succeed, we wont be able to take advantage of that opening, without our product in place"

    I think all too often management hides risk from stakeholders (whether intentional or not). So Stakeholders think everything is a done deal and pay little attention to what is going on instead of being more cautious and fastidious. And then when timelines are missed and budgets are ballooning...its a little too late.