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.
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.