Be Average. But Do it Often.

The third in a series of columns on failing your way to success by the creator of "Dilbert"

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When “Dilbert” first appeared in newspapers, readers were savage about my lack of artistic skill. They wondered how someone so untalented could become a syndicated cartoonist. In those early days, my friends were surprised that I got published. At parties, I wasn’t the funniest person in the room. And I wasn’t anywhere near the smartest.

Then there’s my lack of writing skill. The only writing class I’ve ever taken was a two-day course in business writing. But somehow I’ve managed to write several bestselling books.

So what’s my secret?

Mediocrity. Lots of it.

(MORE: Scott Adams: “Passion” at Work is Overrated)

In my case, I am merely good – not great – at several complementary skills. I can draw better than people who haven’t spent much time practicing. I have a clear but otherwise average writing style. And I can be funnier than people who don’t try to be funny. I also have modest business skills, thanks to my economics and business degrees, and years of experience. I’ve failed at more business ventures than most people have even tried, but I learned a lot along the way.

The secret to my success with “Dilbert” involves my unique combination of skills. Can you name one other person who has average skills in writing, humor, art, and business? It’s a rare mixture. Individually, none of my skills are anywhere near world-class. But combined, they create a powerful market force.

When I entered the corporate world straight out of college, my plan was to vacuum up as much knowledge as possible, about business and the ways of the world, so that one day I would be prepared to run my own company. I took every corporate training class I could get into, and I worked on getting my MBA at night. I took the Dale Carnegie class on the company’s dime to learn how to give a speech and work a crowd. I learned computer programming at the local community college and practiced coding nights and weekends. I also took a class to become a certified hypnotist because I thought it would useful for whatever I did. (I was right about that.)

Given my strategy of continuous skills acquisition, what were my odds of having a prosperous career? Probably close to 100%, so long as I stayed healthy and out of jail.

If “Dilbert” hadn’t worked out, I probably would be running a startup in Silicon Valley, which is just down the road. It’s not hard to get venture funding when you have an MBA from Berkeley, Dale Carnegie experience in your back pocket, and you’re a hypnotist. If you remove any one of those three modest skills from my toolbox, my odds of getting funding would plummet.

If you don’t have world-class skills at anything, don’t despair. You can become a powerful market force by intelligently acquiring new skills that work well with what you already know. I have a number of friends and acquaintances who have pursued a similar strategy, learning one complementary skill after another, to make it easier for luck to find them. They all have one thing in common: They’re rich.

NEXT: Read cartoonist Scott Adams’ earlier piece in this series: How to build willpower for the weak

6 comments
Ceunei
Ceunei

Too bad the job I'm doing now that uses my 20 years of paid work skills (and I wished long and hard trudging through many a customer's yard reading gas & electric & water meters for a job that used all my hard won skills) is so underrated in the USA. My job puts me at the bottom of the social economic job scale as per perceived value to the culture...even lower than when I was a Garbage/Recycle Collector back in the day before the trucks did the lifting. In fact, before I changed the name to a non gender specific one, people's eyes would glaze over in disrespect when I proudly told them what I was doing now: Stay At Home Parent.

segesta65
segesta65

Or to paraphrase Woody Allen, 80% of success is just showing up.

MarcusCudd
MarcusCudd

This article is dead on. Your opportunities in life are a direct result of your skills. Too many people focus on a single skill, doing something they love, and hope it leads them to the path of prosperity. Like Scott, I chose opportunities to learn new things, and these combinations of skills I learned put me where I am today, running my own successful business. I can't say I that I love finance or love marketing, but I happen to be good at both once I started doing them. I listened to what people wanted and developed a business around that. I like what I do, but if given the opportunity to build a business around something I loved, this would not have been it. Past failures and an array of skills have enabled me to get here. Along the way I have learned that happiness comes from time with my family, not my career success. But career success does pay the bills, so I would suggest people develop an array of skills (without being perfect at them) they can use to make themselves multi-dimensional and more likely to succeed.

stevek77536
stevek77536

One big factor was "Dilbert" resonating with the many people who work in the office towers filled with cubicles.  I myself spent many years up there, and have always said that "Dilbert" belongs in the Non-Fiction section of the bookstore.  The current Affordable Care Act website fiasco is a shining example of "management in action", (pointy-haired boss division), with all the reports of last minute changes from corner office bureaucrats.  "We Never Have Time To do It Right, But Always Time To Do It Over".

Ahu
Ahu

What a stupid article... 


Just throw a bunch of random skills together and BANG - millionaire.

"make it easier for luck to find them", no kidding. Based on this article, you're the luckiest man alive.

chazhammond
chazhammond

@Ahu "make it easier for luck to find them", no kidding. Based on this article, you're the luckiest man alive.

You need to read his previous article to figure out how he got his foot in the door in the first place.