Strip Mining The Corporate Life

SINCE SCOTT ADAMS appears to be as sheepishly charming, gawkily appealing and gently subversive as his downtrodden creation, people always ask him, "How much of Dilbert is really you?" (His usual answer: 37 percent.) But a much better question would be how much Scott Adams one finds in his title character's megalomaniac canine, Dogbert Just as Dogbert calmly contrives a plan for world domination, the 39-year-old Adams is carefully executing a plan to be earth's premier cartoonist. So far, everything's on schedule.

This is quite a turnaround for someone who spent much of his life buried in cubicle 4S70OR at Pacific Bell's Vader-esque headquarters in northern California. Growing up in Windham, N.Y. (near Albany), Adams always did want to be a cartoonist. But he majored in economics at Hartwick College in Oneonta, N.Y., planning to make money in the business world in the likely circumstance of a failed cartooning career. (In the single drawing course Adams took in college, he drew the lowest grade.) "I figured that if you worked hard and you were smart, you could get promoted. It wasn't until I was well into it when I realized that you also had to be tall and have good hair," says Adams, who stands at 5 foot 8, with a visibly endangered blond mane.

Adams did rise somewhat in the PacBell pecking order, eventually pulling down around $70.000 a year. However, much of his work involved the sort of meaningless corporate time-wasting he would later lampoon: "in my 17-year experience, I never once did anything that helped a customer," he says. But he did not sullenly accept his fate. Instead, he affirmed. Yes, affirmed. And now he is rich, famous, and does not need a date on Saturday night.

Affirmed? Let Scott Adams explain this, with a straight face. "The basic idea is that 15 times a day, you just write down whatever it is your goal is," Adams says. "Then you'll observe things happening that will make that objective more likely to happen. It's actually a process of forcing your environment to change."

Adams himself was initially skeptical, but tried it anyway. His first efforts concerned impressing a certain woman, and picking stocks due to rise. He got both wishes, but he wasn't sure whether it was affirming that did it. So he decided to be more specific. He was about to take the GMAT test to get into business school, and he asked for the precise score of 94. When the results arrived, they read ... 94.

Soon he was writing I WILL BECOME A SYNDICATED CARTOONIST 15 times a day. He fashioned the "Dilbert"-esque doodles he had been working on into a slick package and sent it to syndicators. Amid the rejections came one acceptance: United Media, home of his idol, Charles Schulz. Chalk one up to affirmation.

As the strip gained popularity, Adams's affirmations became bolder. Eventually he was writing I WILL BE THE BEST CARTOONIST ON THE PLANET. He decided that book sales would be the measure for this goal. But there was a problem -both Gary Larson ( the Far Side") and Bill Watterson ("Calvin and Hobbes") were rulers of best-sellerdom. "I actually consciously thought, 'I need those two guys to leave'," he says. "I started thinking very consciously, and probably every day, that I just really wanted them to retire. And they did."

To be sure, it was not merely affirming that made "Dilbert" popular. Scott Adams is a very, very funny guy who writes a brilliantly perceptive comic strip. In addition, Adams, who did get that M.B.A. from Berkeley, turns out to be quite a canny businessperson. After getting his syndication contract, Adams worked hard at "Dilbert," but a year later only 100 newspapers were carrying it. "I decided to figure out from my customers what they wanted, and change it accordingly." So, in 1993, he successfully lobbied to put his e-mail address on the strip, and almost instantly, he got the feedback he needed. "The business-oriented strips were being cut out and hung on the walls," he says. " So I switched emphasis to 80 percent business and technology, and that's when it took off."

Life is good for Adams. Recently, and voluntarily, downsized from PacBell, he now runs the booming "Dilbert" business from a small tract house in a bedroom community in northern California, which he shares with two cats and his girlfriend, a former PacBell colleague. He's already bought a new home but has been too busy to move. At his frequent speaking engagements, he is treated like a rock star. The licensing for "Dilbert" paraphernalia is just beginning to kick in -the calendars, stuffed toys, ties, coffee mugs and mouse pads will make him a multimillionaire. And he's just finished "Dogbert's Top Secret Management Handbook," sure to be a huge follow-up to "The Dilbert Principle," which has already sold 750,000 copies.

So what is Scott Adams writing on a piece of paper 15 times a day? I WILL WIN A PULITZER PRIZE. Dogbert would be proud.