The Adams Principle

July 26, 1996

It wasn't until last week that Scott Adams physically felt what it was like to be famous. It was then his agent had called to let him know that his book of cartoons and essays, The Dilbert Principle (HarperBusiness, $22) would be number one in the upcoming New York Times Book Review's nonfiction bestseller list.

"Up until recently when people asked me what it felt like to be famous, I would say there is no physical sensation that's associated with it, because 99% of my life is exactly not like having fame and fortune. I don't do much that's different from my daily routine," Adams says by phone from his home outside San Francisco.

"But this last week when I found out I was going to be number one was the first time it actually was physical. I actually felt a tingling sensation from the middle of my stomach, a place you'd normally not associate with a pleasant experience--it's usually where you have a stomach ache," Adams elaborates.

Not bad considering the pointy-tied, bespectacled cartoon character he created, Dilbert, began as a lark. The strip is not an elaborately drawn cartoon. Nonetheless, it expresses the futility, aimlessness, and discontent of the workplace. It now runs in over 1100 newspapers (Dilbert appears daily in the Baltimore Sun).

"My whole life could be viewed as a whole series of trying highly unlikely things," Adams reminisces. "Most of them failed. So [Dilbert] was a one of a number of things which I have tried in my life that just happened to work."

Although an engineer by trade, Adams has always been involved in number of experimental projects. Before syndicating Dilbert, Adams tried his hand at writing computer games and even building a perpetual motion machine.

"I had my kitchen converted into a laboratory," he tells me in a deadpan voice. When I ask how long the motion machine actually did run, or if it is running still, he replies he hasn't finished it yet. "There is a component I need which I'm sure will be developed in my lifetime, but the material doesn't quite exist yet. But I'm sure the design is good."

But then Adams goes on to say, "Almost everything I did was either hairbrained, stupid, or amazingly unlikely, and becoming a syndicated cartoonist when you've never published a cartoon is just one more in that list."

It is a remarkable leap, considering that 11 years of age, Adams failed his entrance exam to the Famous Artists School, a mailorder organization promising to turn almost anyone into a famous artist (the rejection letter can be found at The Dilbert Zone). The letter explained he was just too young to understand the material the school offered.

Although Adams continued to "doodle" through college (he got a BA in Economics and, later, an MBA) and work, it wasn't until 1986 that he set for himself the goal of getting at least one cartoon published before he died. After receiving rejection notices from Playboy and The New Yorker, he assembled the first series of Dilbert strips and mailed them to cartoon syndicators. One syndicator replied with the advice that he should take a few drawing classes. Fortunately, United Media saw something in Dilbert, and in 1989, Dilbert was syndicated. The rest is history.

Certainly Dilbert's mass appeal is based on its uncannily accurate portrayal of the work office. Dilbert's world is filled of cubicles, dense management types, performance evaluations, clueless team leaders. His is a world Kafka-esque in its myriad labyrinth of regulations. It's a world where the boss doesn't know the difference between a laptop computer and an Etch-A-Sketch, where replacement office chairs can only be issued to managers, where even plastic plants are prohibited from desks.

In fact, the strip strikes home for so many people that a surprising number have been convinced that Adams works at their own company. Over the years, he's been accused of working for Hewlett Packard, IBM, AT&T, Honeywell, and many others. Actually, up until last year he was an applications engineer at Pacific Bell, but had to leave when Dilbert began to outgrow his part-time devotion.

Now Adams gets most of his inspiration from suggestions people send in by e-mail. He receives about 300 e-mail messages a day. Dilbert may be the first interactive cartoon strip.

"The aerospace industry seems to be able to relate better than most, which is a sad comment on their industry," Adams says. "They have the worst of all worlds because not only are they big companies, but they have a lot of government contracts."

"I do hear from all the big companies that you would suspect, all the name brands they weigh in pretty regularly," Adams continues. "I hear from the military, the medical profession, and academics quite a bit. They're all in their own little bureaucratic world. They all have bad bosses in one sense or another."

From all this e-mail, Adams is convinced the quality of worklife is deteriorating.

"It's kind of incremental. That's the wonderful thing about it," Adams says lightheartedly. "If it happened all at once it would have been a huge riot, but little by little the employers are chipping away at the employees' rights, because it's easier than creating new products or entering new markets."

--Joab Jackson

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