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.

Dilbert Creator Scott Adams On Why Big Goals Are For Losers
[Image: Flickr user Ol.v!er [H2vPk]]

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.

About the author

Vivian Giang is a business writer of gender conversations, leadership, entrepreneurship, workplace psychology, and whatever else she finds interesting related to work and play. You can find her on Twitter at @vivian_giang.