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

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.

Scott Adams Inc. / Dist. by UFS, Inc.
Dist. by UFS, Inc.

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.

Scott Adams first published <em>Dilbert </em>in 1989. Since then, the comic strip has inspired one television show and more than three dozen books.
Shelly Adams / Courtesy of Portfolio/Penguin Group USA
Courtesy of Portfolio/Penguin Group USA
Scott Adams first published Dilbert in 1989. Since then, the comic strip has inspired one television show and more than three dozen books.

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.

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