Failing up: Career Lessons from Dilbert Creator Scott Adams

by Phil Stott | October 23, 2013

In the annals of "successful people doling out advice," the genre may have found something of a new classic text in Dilbert creator Scott Adams' Wall Street Journal piece on failing your way to the top. 

While most pieces that advocate failing as a life skill do so as a means of stressing the value of perseverance, Adams' advice goes one step further, listing some of his greatest failures not as evidence of a path or series of stepping stones, but rather "because successful people generally gloss over their most aromatic failures, and it leaves the impression that they have some magic you don't. When you're done […] you won't have that delusion about me, and that's the point. Success is entirely accessible, even if you happen to be a huge screw-up 95% of the time."

While the humor and the honesty alone make the piece well worth reading in its entirety, here are a few more takeaways for those who don't have the time for the full 2,000+ words.

 

Don't follow your passion

Odd as it may sound for someone who has made a career out of something that is widely considered to be a creative, artistic pursuit, Adams' advice for those seeking to climb the ladder is to "grind" at jobs, making steady progress rather than holding out for the perfect opportunity to do that one thing you happen to love. As he tells it, his own experiences of following his passions led to disappointments and failures that were difficult to get over; the reasoning presumably being that it's more dispiriting to fail at something you love than at something you're dispassionate about.

 

Always be on the lookout for a better opportunity

Hand in hand with that philosophy is Adams' belief that "your job is not your job; your job is to find a better job." Accordingly, Adams recommends treating your entire career as something akin to a series of stepping stones: places to occupy for short periods of time while you figure out your next (brief) destination. As Adams puts it: "This makes perfect sense if you do the math. Chances are that the best job for you won't become available at precisely the time you declare yourself ready. Your best bet [is] to always be looking for a better deal."

 

Develop a system, and stick to it

The final piece of Adams' advice also winds up being something of a unifying theory in terms of his outlook. While expressing a preference for those who approach career progression in a systematic fashion, he bluntly states that "goals are for losers. That's literally true most of the time. For example, if your goal is to lose 10 pounds, you will spend every moment until you reach the goal—if you reach it at all—feeling as if you were short of your goal. In other words, goal-oriented people exist in a state of nearly continuous failure that they hope will be temporary." 

Adams' solution to that problem: forget your goals, and develop a system that will produce incremental gains—an approach that meshes perfectly with his previous advice to constantly be on the lookout for the next opportunity.

While the advice Adams has to give may sound a little blunt and conniving—and therefore in keeping with the corporate world he portrays in Dilbert—the article's overriding message is one that any careerist should be able to take to heart: that success requires planning, and hard work, a willingness to keep trying new things, and an equal willingness to be prepared to fail at them. While there might not be anything new in those observations, that's hardly Adams' fault—there simply isn't anything new that can be said in the realm of career advice (at least not that's likely to be helpful, anyway). That said, Adams' everyman tone and lack of self-regard help to bring the lessons home in a way that is both straightforward and encouraging—he's living, self-confessed proof that success is something that anyone can find, provided they choose to make it their mission.

 

What's your take on Adams' advice? Let us know in the comments section.

 

Read more: 

WSJ: Scott Adams' Secret of Success: Failure

Filed Under: Job Search | Workplace Issues


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