Should anyone take advice from Scott Adams and Dilbert?
I understand why the top students in America study physics, chemistry, calculus and classic literature. The kids in this brainy group are the future professors, scientists, thinkers and engineers who will propel civilization forward. But why do we make B students sit through these same classes? That’s like trying to train your cat to do your taxes—a waste of time and money. Wouldn’t it make more sense to teach B students something useful, like entrepreneurship? – How to Get a Real Education by Scott Adams
On April 9’th 2011 there was an article in the Wall Street Journal by Scott Adams. As everyone should know, Scott Adams is the cartoonist that created the Dilbert comic strip.
My gripe with Scott Adams is that I think he has done more to perpetuate corporate dysfunction than anyone else in popular media. I am not alone in this. I stumbled on a blog entry from Mark Vogt – Why I Hate Dilbert. In part…
That’s what I HATE about it, because what I’ve seen over the years (yes, literally YEARS) is that all of the avid/devoted Dilbert follows first IDENTIFY with Dilbert’s frustration over all the myriad problems/weaknesses with the modern business world, then – this is the source of my hatred – they MIMIC his INACTION.
Each time I find myself walking past a cubicle or office (even executives’ offices) with yellowed, ragged-eared Dilbert cartoons stapled meticulously along the walls in artistic, thoughtful patterns, I mentally bookmark that person, then begin observing their behavior in meetings, on projects, in emails or even in the cafeteria….
Sure enough, a most startling & troubling pattern emerges: these people – from the lowest depths to the uppermost ranks in the company – all too often display in real life the very helpless, powerless, wimpy Dilbert behavior they “identify” with in their beloved cartoon.
The bottom line is that Dilbert, even though he realizes he works for a dysfunctional company, is utterly powerless to do anything about it. Of course Dilbert has no organizational power to change anything – he is a cubicle-dweller at the bottom of the organizational hierarchy.
But the real problem is that Dilbert can’t extricate himself from his situation. Extricating himself from his situation would mean quitting his job. And of course that can’t happen or the comic strip would end. So, for obvious comic strip reasons Dilbert does not leave his job. But far beyond the seriousness of comic strips, as the quote above points out, many people mimic Dilbert’s helplessness. And thus. effectively destroy their careers.
Now Scott Adams wants to advise you on Entrepreneurship
Ok, so now what to do with B, C, D, and failing students? According to Scott Adams, if you can’t be one of those “who will propel civilization forward” you could always be an entrepreneur. What kind of entrepreneur would that be?
Just like Dilbert’s helplessness and powerlessness, failing is perfectly acceptable 90% of the time. Adams writes:
If you’re taking risks, and you probably should, you can find yourself failing 90% of the time. The trick is to get paid while you’re doing the failing and to use the experience to gain skills that will be useful later. I failed at my first career in banking. I failed at my second career with the phone company. But you’d be surprised at how many of the skills I learned in those careers can be applied to almost any field, including cartooning. Students should be taught that failure is a process, not an obstacle.
Better yet, expect to fail at someone elses expense. So, take down yourself and another business. I suppose that if you are not failing 90% of the time you are not good at failure and need to get better at failure. Perhaps if you are successful, it means you are not taking enough risks.
Lets get some more advice
Attract Luck. You can’t manage luck directly, but you can manage your career in a way that makes it easier for luck to find you. To succeed, first you must do something. And if that doesn’t work, which can be 90% of the time, do something else. Luck finds the doers. Readers of the Journal will find this point obvious. It’s not obvious to a teenager.
Being a successful entrepreneur may be some luck of right time, right place, right people, right opportunity but it’s also about discipline, market research, product or service positioning, industry knowledge and trends, financial modeling, and all the rest.
The Adams approach is “just do it”. If that doesn’t work then do something else. If you are not failing 90% of the time you are probably not trying enough things. Is entrepreneurship like throwing darts at a dart board?
Write Simply. I took a two-day class in business writing that taught me how to write direct sentences and to avoid extra words. Simplicity makes ideas powerful. Want examples? Read anything by Steve Jobs or Warren Buffett.
Two days. That’s about right.
Got any more?
Learn Persuasion. Students of entrepreneurship should learn the art of persuasion in all its forms, including psychology, sales, marketing, negotiating, statistics and even design. Usually those skills are sprinkled across several disciplines. For entrepreneurs, it makes sense to teach them as a package.
Angels, Venture Capitalists, and investors in general are far smarter than to be taken in by the likes of a P.T. Barnum. Make the business case and show them the market research, business plan, financials, and the quality of the management team and the track record of their successes. You might try this story… ” I failed at my first career in banking. I failed at my second career with the phone company. But you’d be surprised at how many of the skills I learned in those careers can be applied to almost any field, including cartooning. Students should be taught that failure is a process, not an obstacle.”
So, here is my business plan, I am trying to raise $650,000 for my new venture. Can I count you in as an investor?
Pretty simple. Scott Adams has produced a lovable character named Dilbert. But, I think Mark Vogt said is best – “Sure enough, a most startling & troubling pattern emerges: these people – from the lowest depths to the uppermost ranks in the company – all too often display in real life the very helpless, powerless, wimpy Dilbert behavior they “identify” with in their beloved cartoon.”
And now, Adams provides advice for those who will never “propel civilization forward” – why not tell these people they can be entrepreneurs? Trying to give these folks a higher education would be… “like trying to train your cat to do your taxes—a waste of time and money”.
And while these folks are trying one thing then another – as the expectation is to fail 90% of the time – whose money are these would-be entrepreneurs using? If you are failing 90% of the time then are you burning up your savings? Are you systematically cleaning out your 401(K) retirement account? How about the kids college fund? Is that in play? What investors do you have? Family first? Asking for a “loan” from your parents? Siblings? Friends and neighbors? How much will your adventure in entrepreneurship cost?
At what point – if Adams sets the expectation that to fail 90% of the time is expected – do you figure out that perhaps entrepreneurship is not for you? Failing a career as an entrepreneur ( and wiping out the savings of yourself and others in the process) perhaps you will ultimately find a home in a fabric cubicle (“a peon in a box“) at the bottom of the organizational hierarchy idolizing a career-paralyzing lovable cartoon character named Dilbert.
It seems to me that, without critical examination, all paths marshalled by Scott Adams lead to helplessness, powerlessness, failure and the perpetuation thereof.
Thank you Scott Adams.
Check out these themes in the Dilbert strips
Some tough problems of education and the underclass
Should we stop trying to teach the unteachable?
Richard A. Cloward and Frances Fox Piven on the underclass
The Weight of the Poor: A Strategy to End Poverty