Behind The Unlikely Making Of Dilbert
For legions of office drones, Dilbert is an icon , an unconventional hero in the topsy-turvy world of work. Creator Scott Adams, who has built a media empire on employees’ laments and grievances, begs to differ. He sees the geeky engineer as “more of a symbol than a hero.”
“He represents workers,” argues Adams. “He hasn’t done much to free them.”
Nonetheless, Dilbert gives a collective voice to 9-to-5ers – a cubicle dweller for the masses. Not only is the strip tacked to office walls across corporate America, but “Dilbert” has appeared in 2,000 newspapers in 65 countries around the globe.
“People who are reading the comic think, ‘My God, this is just like my company,’ ” Adams says of its rampant popularity. “Whether they’re working in insurance or software, it doesn’t matter.”
“I can’t tell you how many companies literally thought I worked there,” says Adams, whose common moniker can be found in the employee database of any large company, such as IBM, Chevron or Hewlett-Packard.
“People would see the comic and say, ‘Oh my God, that happened to us yesterday. This bastard must work for our company.’ They go on to the online directory and there I am, ‘Scott Adams.’ And then the rumor would spread through the company.”
A certified hypnotist, Adams lets readers jump to their own conclusions. The cartoonist deliberately keeps things vague so people read into the strip what they want. “You’ll notice that Dilbert has no last name, so that you can’t identify his ethnicity as obviously,” he points out. “He has a job at a company that has no name. They make products you don’t know. His boss has no name at all.”
A doodler from the time he was 5, Adams dreamed of becoming a cartoonist – until age 12. “You reach that point where you understand statistics and likelihood,” he notes. “And you realize that there’s only one Charles Schulz and billions of people in the world.
“You go through this whole rational period,” says the Catskills native, who majored in economics at Hartwick College in Oneonta, N.Y.
Upon graduation, he jotted down a plan in his diary. “I would try to come up with something that I could use my creativity to make,” he reasoned, “but then could be reproduced many times. So it has no cap on the upside.”
Adams toyed with software programs and patents, but nothing materialized. Instead, he moved to San Francisco and worked at Crocker National Bank for seven years at various jobs from teller to financial analyst. In 1986, he went to work for telecom giant Pacific Bell, where he was on the management fast track. But he ran into a hiring “glitch.”
“I was told I really had no hope of getting promoted,” he says wryly. “So that’s when I suddenly had a lot of free time.”
Drawing on 17 years of cubicle experience, Adams hatched an idea for a comic strip, loosely based on his co-workers. “Dilbert was a composite from a real living person physically,” he says, “and his personality was mostly me.”
Adams sent off submissions to a half-dozen syndicates. Five of the six replied, “No thanks.” “One of them suggested that I find an actual artist to do the drawing for me,” he recalls.
“But one editor at United Media called,” he says. “Her husband was an engineer at IBM and when she read Dilbert, she got it.”
“Dilbert” debuted in 1989. For the next five years, Adams kept his day job at Pacific Bell, working mornings and evenings on “Dilbert.” He even told his boss he would leave gracefully, if needed.
But when the day of downsizing arrived in June 1995, he was booted from his comfort zone. “It was strangely unsettling,” he recalls. “You end up identifying yourself with where you go to work. This concept of just sitting home in your pajamas and writing things didn’t really seem like work.”
While Adams found his newfound freedom disconcerting, he didn’t fret about finding fodder for “Dilbert.” “I knew that my memories of the office would never really wane,” he deadpans. “It’s kind of like prison, you know, you don’t forget what it’s all about just because you got out.”
In the early years, “Dilbert” struggled to find its fan base. Ironically, Adams, who pursued his MBA part-time at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, credits his business skills for its eventual success. “The only reason it worked,” he says, “is because of my management training, not my comic training.”
“Dilbert” was the first comic on the web, effectively reaching a broader audience. Adams also opened a channel to his readers with email – and listened to their gripes and suggestions. “That’s classic business training,” he says. “Cartoonists typically had no idea, or worse, they didn’t care what the readers were saying.”
Reflecting on his career, Adams compiles a list of hits and misses – recording 29 of them as failures. “I didn’t even stop because I was done,” he says. “I just stopped because I was weeping on the page. And I’m being generous with the 29. It’s actually much more than that because I called my entire banking career ‘one.’ ”
In the same vein, Adams gives himself credit for three successes: “Dilbert,” his first book and starting a restaurant. “So basically three things have worked well and 29 things have been dismal failures,” he sums up. “About one in 10.”
In 1996, Adams published The Dilbert Principle, a compilation of office truisms and insights, which hit the New York Times bestseller list. “Let me tell you, for a long time during the summer,” he says, “it sat at No. 2 to Dennis Rodman’s book, Bad as I Wanna Be.
“Being the No. 2 selling nonfiction book in the country is just great. I thought, ‘Well, one, two, it’s all the same right?’ But everything changes when you go to No. 1.
“When I got the call, I was home alone. I actually cried. It was such a big deal for me that, like, I just wept. And it’s like, nothing has ever felt that good in my life.”
Throughout his career, Adams has constantly juggled many projects. In addition to 22 “Dilbert” books, he has written two non-humor books, The Religion War and God’s Debris. “I’ve always had multiple goals cooking along,” he says, “because my experience has been that nine out of 10 things don’t work out. So you’ve got to have a lot of balls in the air because one of them is going to be lucky and land on a buried treasure.”
Adams’ wide-ranging ventures include two restaurants in the Bay area, Stacey’s Café and Stacey’s at Waterford. He recently sold his interests in Scott Adams Foods, a company that marketed the healthy “Dilberito,” a vegetarian burrito.
Adams became a vegetarian in his early 30s. “I’m what I call a selfish vegetarian,” he says. “While I love animals, that’s not why I don’t eat them. It has more to do with the fact that I don’t digest them well. I had a stomachache every day of my life until I stopped eating meat.”
That decision transformed his life – in more ways than one. “It also cleared my mind,” he says. “I was surprised at that. I felt calmer. I didn’t feel as angry or as anxious. So the little ‘Dilbert’ thing took off about the same time as the vegetarian thing. I don’t know if it’s related, but I just felt completely different mentally.”
Whatever new project he decides to tackle, Adams is sure to dive in, without heeding the pooh-poohing of naysayers.
That tactic is what guided him with “Dilbert.” “In retrospect, my lack of experience worked in my advantage,” he says. “If somebody had said ahead of time, ‘How about a comic about a guy who works in an office?’ He would have gotten the reaction, ‘Dagwood works in an office so that’s already done.’ Or, ‘Nobody’s going to want to read about boring things like ISO- 9000 or quality programs.’ I mean, it sounds like a bad idea.
“The one thing I know for sure is that nobody can really tell the difference between a good idea and a bad idea,” says Adams. “Including myself, most of the time.”