Author Interviews
10:07 pm
Sun October 20, 2013

Scott Adams Explains 'How To Fail At Almost Everything' (Except Dilbert)

Originally published on Tue October 22, 2013 10:37 am

Scott Adams has failed at a lot of things, from investments to inventions to computer programming. But he managed to turn his failure at office work into a giant success: a comic strip which follows a hapless, cubicle-bound engineer working for an unreasonable boss at a nameless company. Dilbert, which is based on Adams' own experience working in corporate America, appears online and in 2,000 newspapers.

In a new book, How To Fail At Almost Everything And Still Win Big, Adams reflects on the highs and lows — but mostly the lows — of his career. The book (which he insists is not an advice book) includes sage wisdom such as: "Goals are for losers" and "Conquer shyness." Adams talks with NPR's David Greene about how having the right mind-set helped him beat two serious health issues.


Interview Highlights

On an ailment which caused him to lose control of his fingers

Suddenly, one day my pinky finger on my drawing hand started to spasm every time I drew, and as luck would have it, one of the foremost experts worked about five miles from my home. So I got to talk to him, and he diagnosed it fairly quickly and said it was this thing called a focal dystonia. The brain is causing the pinky to spasm. It's not actually a problem with the hand. I asked what the cure is, and he said, "There is none."

But eventually I found that if I could hold my pen with my pencil down to the paper for just a second, it took a while for the spasm to kick in. And so I just did that hundreds of times a day — just touching the pen to paper, or pencil to paper, and taking it up before the spasm started. When I could keep the pen there for about five seconds or so, eventually it just went away. I found a way to essentially hack my brain to convince it that putting my pen on paper wasn't some kind of a problem that it needed to respond to.

... I never thought it was the end of the world; it was just really, really bad luck.

On a related problem he experienced with his voice

The problem I had with my pinky — it turns out that sometimes comes in pairs. Years later, I lost my voice. It would sound like a bad cellphone connection ... I could make noise, but other people wouldn't really understand me in a conversation. Doctors couldn't figure out what it was — at least, my first set of doctors — because it's kind of obscure. I ended up finding out what it was myself by having a Google alert set-up looking for various problems. ...

I googled "dystonia," because that was my pinky problem, and "voice," and up popped a YouTube video of a woman with something called a spasmodic dysphonia, which is the clenching of the vocal cords involuntarily. I listened to her video, and it was exactly the way I talked. So I took that to my doctor who used that to get me to the right specialists, who confirmed it. The problem was, there was no cure. It was treatable with botox shots through the throat, but you had to do that all the time and you couldn't really get the right dose, [it] never really worked. It took three and a half years for me to find the one doctor in the world who had developed a surgery. It was still a little experimental, in the sense that it didn't work every time, but I signed up for it because I didn't like the odds of staying voiceless for another 50 years.

On how he was able to talk to his cat just fine

I could actually talk to my cat normally. It was a little bit like a stutter, because it's a brain problem, not really a vocal cord problem. ... Like most people who have had this problem, they're almost always diagnosed with a mental problem and not a speaking problem. I was originally offered Valium, under the theory that I might be so stressed out that when I talked to another human I couldn't form words. But yet I could talk to my cat fine. It was a strange existence there for a while.

On the risky surgery that brought his voice back

It was kind of hard to wait for those few months until the nerves regrew in my neck and then I could find out if I spoke or not. When I could speak, it was a great day. I'm pretty happy I took that risk.

On what he's learned from these setbacks

The first thing that I take away is that there's nothing that's really impossible. Lots of things seem impossible, but sometimes they're not if you just keep plugging away. Secondly, I came out of it with even a far more functional voice than even before the problem, because I can speak up much more clearly — in noisy situations, for example. ... That's all stuff I learned in the process of getting my voice fixed.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The cartoons of our next guest can be found in over 2,000 newspapers and pinned to office walls around the world. We're talking about Scott Adams, the creator of "Dilbert," that oracle of cubicle life and the main character of Adams' doodles. Dilbert is an engineer, a hapless worker in a nameless conglomerate. He's based on Scott Adams' own experience working in corporate America.

Now, Adams is out with a new book and spoke to our David Greene.

DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: The book is called "How To Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big." And I began by asking Adams why that title?

SCOTT ADAMS: I failed at many things. I tried to make computer games. I wrote a few but it turns out I'm not a very good programmer. I tried to create a food company that had a nutritious vitamin-filled burrito.

GREENE: That's the Dil Burrito?

ADAMS: The Dil Burrito. Yes.

GREENE: The Dil Burrito.

ADAMS: Yeah. Unfortunately, made people very gassy.

(LAUGHTER)

ADAMS: So that didn't work at all.

GREENE: Now one surprising piece of advice in Adams' book is that setting goals is bad. It's better, he says, to develop a system. An example he gives: Don't try to lose 10 pounds. Instead, learn how your body works with food over a lifetime. Adams writes about having the right system or mindset helped him beat two serious health issues - one especially cruel to think about for an artist.

ADAMS: Suddenly, one day my pinky finger on my drawing hand started to spasm every time I drew, and as luck would have it, one of the foremost experts worked about five miles from my home. So I got to talk to him, and he diagnosed it fairly quickly and said it was this thing called a focal dystonia. So the brain is causing the pinky to spasm. It's not actually a problem with the hand. And I asked what the cure is, and he said, there is none.

But eventually, I found that if I could hold my pen down to the paper for just a second, it took a while for the spasm to kick in. And so I just did that hundreds of times a day - just touching the pen to paper, or pencil to paper, and taking it up before the spasm started. And when I could keep the pen there for, you know, about five seconds or so, eventually it just went away. So I found a way to essentially hack my brain to convince it that putting my pen on paper wasn't some kind of a problem that it needed to respond to.

GREENE: How did you find the strength to not sort of freak out and say, you know, I'm an artist with no control of a finger, this is devastating?

ADAMS: Well, some of that I think one is just born with. So I was already thinking, all right, I can learn to draw left-handed if I have to. It's just not going to be fun. I can find another job if I need to, but that's not my first choice. So I never thought it was the end of the world; it was just really, really, really bad luck.

GREENE: You still had another low point. And I wanted you to tell me about the real challenge that you faced with your voice.

ADAMS: Yeah. So the problem I had with my pinky - it turns out that that sometimes comes in pairs. And years later, I lost my voice. So it would sound like a bad cell phone connection. So if I tried to say, can I have a diet Coke, it would come out like...

(SOUNDBITE OF GULPING NOISES)

GREENE: Wow.

ADAMS: Sort of like that. So I could make noise but other people couldn't really understand me in common conversation. So I Googled dystonia because that was my pinky problem...

GREENE: Mm-hmm.

ADAMS: ...and voice and up popped a YouTube video of a woman with something called a spasmodic dysphonia. And I listened to her video, and it was exactly the way I talked. So it took three and a half years to find the one doctor in the world who had developed a surgery. And it was still a little bit experimental in the sense that it didn't work every time, but I signed up for it because I didn't like the odds of staying voiceless for another 50 years.

GREENE: And you say voiceless. Now we should be clear. The way you just spoke to me, I mean that was the way you were speaking whenever you tried to have a conversation with anybody.

ADAMS: Well, almost anybody. I could actually talk to my cat normally. So it's a little bit like a stutter, because it's a brain problem, not a - it's not really a vocal cord problem.

GREENE: When you tried to talk to a person, whatever would be triggered would happen.

ADAMS: Yeah. So like most people who've had this problem, they're almost always diagnosed with a mental problem and not a speaking problem. And I was originally offered valium, under the theory that I might be so stressed out that when I talked to another human I couldn't form words. But yet I could talk to my cat fine. So it was a strange existence there for a while.

GREENE: You go through the surgery and it was effective. I mean, a risky surgery brought your voice back.

ADAMS: Yeah. It was kind of hard to wait for those few months until the nerves re-grew in my neck and then I could find out if I spoke or not. And when I could speak, it was a great day. So I'm pretty happy I took that risk.

GREENE: Well, Scott Adams, it has been wonderful hearing your voice and talking to you. Thanks so much.

ADAMS: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Scott Adams was speaking with David Greene. His new book is called "How To Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big."

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

You have won big with another morning of MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

MONTAGNE: And I'm Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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