Wall Street Journal
Scott Adams' Secret of Success: Failure
Wall Street Journal
“Dilbert” creator Scott Adams talks to WSJ editor Gary Rosen about how to draw lessons, skills and ideas from your failures—and why following your passion is asking for trouble. Photo: Scott Adams. If you're already as successful as you want to be …
Our series continues with We Are All Weird.
I’m still sort of amazed at how deeply ingrained our antipathy to this word is. It makes audiences a little nervous when I talk about the death of normal and the rise of weird. And it makes many people uncomfortable to describe their habits as a bit weird.
The thing is, though, that the only prospects you care about, the only people you have a shot of reaching, the only people who are going to use your service or join your tribe are weird. And everyone is weird, at least sometimes.
Twenty five percent of the population is a landslide in most modern elections. You don’t need everyone to vote for you, just the weird people who care.
Thanks to Joe Mehnart for inspiring this riff.
Mr. Standard over there, precisely average height, average build, average job, average family… he’s normal, except when it comes to fantasy football. And then he’s off the charts. He subscribes to data services and scans magazines and even roots against the hometown team when his players are on some other team.
He shouldn’t be ashamed of this passion–it’s a passion, it makes his life interesting. And the marketers that seek him out shouldn’t waste one minute on people who don’t like fantasy football when there are so many people just like him.
And Ms. Normal over there, precisely fitting in on every measure, well, she’s weird about Kiva. She is entranced by their model and loves the feeling she gets when she donates or finds a loan repaid. She gives her friends Kiva gift certificates and chats about them online…
Is it weird to find so much energy and connection over an online charity? Weird in the sense of not in the mainstream, sure. But there’s no shame in finding your passion–in fact, it’s those that seek to be normal at all times that have an issue as far as I can tell.
The thesis of my book is simple: in a world of mass production and mass advertising and mass conformance, the only smart strategy was to make average stuff for average people. But in a world of the long tail, of micro-tribes, of passions amplified, there are now more weird people than ever before.
Amazingly, despite the obvious proof that the weird are your potential market, we still spend most of our time talking about reaching and keeping the masses happy.
All that pressure from middle school (don’t stand out!) combined with all that pressure from Wall Street (be like Walmart!) means that our instinct is to serve the disinterested masses by making something that’s pretty average. The problem is that the disinterested masses are ever better at ignoring your ads, and they won’t seek you out because, of course, normal people have no trouble satisfying their average needs.
The future increasingly belongs to those that care enough to make products and services for those that care.
PS here’s the original cover of the book, which can be found inside the dust jacket of the hardcover (which now costs less than $6). I ended up having to flip it around because, ironically enough, my partner refused to put this image on the cover. I met the man in the photo and spent some time with him a few years ago. Even though I celebrate the yogi as a hero inside the book, they were worried that people would think it was too weird. Sigh.
The thing is, it’s far easier than ever before to surface your ideas. Far easier to have someone notice your art or your writing or your photography. Which means that people who might have hidden their talents are now finding them noticed…
That blog you’ve built, the one with a lot of traffic… perhaps it can’t be monetized.
That non-profit you work with, the one where you are able to change lives… perhaps turning it into a career will ruin it.
That passion you have for graphic art… perhaps making your painting commercial enough to sell will squeeze the joy out of it.
When what you do is what you love, you’re able to invest more effort and care and time. That means you’re more likely to win, to gain share, to profit. On the other hand, poets don’t get paid. Even worse, poets that try to get paid end up writing jingles and failing and hating it at the same time.
Today, there are more ways than ever to share your talents and hobbies in public. And if you’re driven, talented and focused, you may discover that the market loves what you do. That people read your blog or click on your cartoons or listen to your mp3s. But, alas, that doesn’t mean you can monetize it, quit your day job and spend all day writing songs.
1. In order to monetize your work, you’ll probably corrupt it, taking out the magic in search of dollars
2. Attention doesn’t always equal significant cash flow.
I think it makes sense to make your art your art, to give yourself over to it without regard for commerce.
Doing what you love is as important as ever, but if you’re going to make a living at it, it helps to find a niche where money flows as a regular consequence of the success of your idea. Loving what you do is almost as important as doing what you love, especially if you need to make a living at it. Go find a job you can commit to, a career or a business you can fall in love with.
A friend who loved music, who wanted to spend his life doing it, got a job doing PR for a record label. He hated doing PR, realized that just because he was in the record business didn’t mean he had anything at all to do with music. Instead of finding a job he could love, he ended up being in proximity to, but nowhere involved with, something he cared about. I wish he had become a committed school teacher instead, spending every minute of his spare time making music and sharing it online for free. Instead, he’s a frazzled publicity hound working twice as many hours for less money and doing no music at all.
Maybe you can’t make money doing what you love (at least what you love right now). But I bet you can figure out how to love what you do to make money (if you choose wisely).
Do your art. But don’t wreck your art if it doesn’t lend itself to paying the bills. That would be a tragedy.
(And the twist, because there is always a twist, is that as soon as you focus on your art and leave the money behind, you may just discover that this focus turns out to be the secret of actually breaking through and making money.)
And from a recent interview:
I wonder why anyone would hesitate to be generous with their writing.
I mean, if you really want to make a living, go to Wall Street and trade oil futures … We’re writers. We’re doing something that is inherently a generous act. We’re exposing ourselves to the muse and to the things that frighten us. Why do that if you’re not willing to be generous? And paradoxically, almost ironically, it turns out that the more generous you are, the more money you make. But that’s secondary. For me, the privilege of being generous is why I get to do this.
You get what you focus on. Focus on nothing, and you won’t get much.
The successful organization can be focused on any of these constituencies (a partial list):
- The sales force
- the stock market
- potential new customers
- existing customers
- employees or
- the regulators.
Many companies are sales-force driven. When the salesforce is happy, the CEO is happy.
Others organizations are driven by the daily (or hourly) stock price. The company is run to please Wall Street.
You can choose to focus your best work on attracting new customers. This evangelical growth model is going to change your pricing and your product development efforts too.
Contrast this with the organization that puts a priority on delighting existing customers. This will refocus a non-profit on doing work that gets existing donors to up their commitment, for example. It changes the way you talk (more depth) and what you make.
Pleasing employees, of course, might help with any of these constituencies, but also changes how you make difficult decisions.
And finally, if the lawyers have enough sway, you might make your hardest decisions around what you think a regulator will say.
There are also ego choices, like focusing on the media or your neighbors or the competition. And political choices, like focusing on what makes one department head happy… but those are much harder to turn into successful enterprises.
Every organization chooses its own audience, and that choice is based on the architecture of the industry, the mindset of the boss and the history of how you got here. But don’t doubt that it changes everything you do.