Workplace Culture

Scott Adams Interview: Dishing on ‘Dilbert’ and Disappointments

By James Tehrani

Mar. 23, 2015

If you’ve read a newspaper in the past quarter-century, you’ve likely seen Scott Adams’ work. He is the creator of “Dilbert,” which for 25 years has been the standard bearer in workforce-related comics. But, as he writes in his book “How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big,” Adams, 57, has had more than his share of failures. And he’s OK with that. Assistant Managing Editor James Tehrani spoke with Adams on failure, workforce antagonist Catbert and succession plans. An edited transcript of a portion of the interview is below.

Workforce: Your hypothesis is basically failure is the only option if you want to be successful. Can you elaborate?

Scott Adams: We live in a world in which most things don’t work. So failure’s kind of the fabric of the world, and the question is not just how do you endure it — because the famous saying ‘Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,’ I suppose that’s all good — but I take a more proactive approach. And I say you should actually choose your projects such that, when they fail, they will leave you more valuable.

WF: I get the impression that had ‘Dilbert’ not been successful, you would have been OK with that.

Adams: I actually go further than that and say that ‘Dilbert’ probably held me back.Consider my situation. When ‘Dilbert’ happened, it was when the dot-com era was taking off. I was working at a technology area of Pacific Bell, which gave me access to the Internet technology of the entire Silicon Valley. I had an MBA from Berkeley and I had an entrepreneurial mindset. Chances are I would have been working for some startup, and if the first two or three didn’t work, I probably would have found one that paid off. I think I would have made more money without ‘Dilbert,’ which is an odd thing.

WF: What is Catbert’s motivation for holding people down? Is there something inherently funny about HR people?

Adams: Originally Catbert didn’t have a name, and he was just a cat. He didn’t work in the office. It was just a cat on a sidewalk that encountered Dogbert, and there were a couple of cartoons in that vein. But I got hundreds of emails that said, ‘We love Catbert.’ … Now I had a problem because I didn’t want to introduce a cat into Dilbert’s house, but I needed to keep him around, so I said, ‘Well, what’s the perfect job for a cat? How does that personality fit into the human world?’ And HR seemed like the perfect comic fit because one imagines your HR director as being catlike in the sense that they don’t care about the employees — they’re just playing with them before downsizing them.

WF: Is there a succession plan for the ‘Dilbert’ strip?

Adams: I’m at that age where I ask myself that question fairly regularly. There’s a history of cartoons that have been taken over by people. If there was someone out there who could write another workplace-based cartoon, you probably would have seen it by now. … It would be hard to find that person. One hopes that that person exists. Maybe someday I’ll look for that person, but it’s not going to happen anytime soon.

James Tehrani is the director of content strategy at FlexJobs.

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