Passion won't make you rich. It's more likely to make you
Scott Adams, creator of "Dilbert," one of the world's most
famous syndicated comic strips, doesn't believe the common advice
that if you want to be successful, you should follow your passion.
In fact, he thinks that's bad advice.
That doesn't mean Adams believes you should settle for a
Dilbert-like existence in an office cubicle, doing a job you don't
like. Adams' life story demonstrates how you can take chances, lots
of them, and find success -- without taking risks you can't
CreditCards.com talked to Adams about his new book, "How to Fail
at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My
Q: Failing is expensive. You've had a long list of failures,
from inventions and investments to two restaurants. How could you
afford to keep trying and failing?
A: If you're planning to try lots of stuff, most of it's not
going to work. I picked things that were not expensive, so if they
didn't work, they didn't break me. Before I had any Dilbert money,
I made sure I was well within my budget. I kept my day job. For
years, I wrote Dilbert in the morning before I went to work.
Q: Why do you say that passion is bull?
A: Adams: Passion is just something that rich people say was the
secret to their success, because anything else makes you sound like
a jerk. It sounds bad at a party to say, "I was smarter than the
poor folks." They can't say it was family connections, either, so
they say it was passion.
Q: So you're not passionate when you start a new idea?
A: Adams: I'm always excited when I start, but I wouldn't say
it's passion. When things don't work out, I lose all my excitement.
In retrospect, it's the success that causes the passion, not the
passion that causes the success.
Q: Can a combination of skills make you financially
A: Adams: Yes. I would rely on math, diversification. Pay off
your credit card. "Passion" is bull. What you need is personal
energy. The more passion you bring to your personal finance, the
worse you do.
All the errors of investing seem to center around your human
emotions, especially that you'll miss something everyone else is
getting. You misjudge your real cost. You want to be as
dispassionate as possible when making your investments. Passion
clouds your judgment. People fall in love with companies. One-third
of the people investing in Apple are doing so for emotional
Q: What's the first thing you would recommend to someone who
wants to be successful?
A: Adams: Everything you do in life is a little better if you're
bringing your sharpest mind. Work on your body. Learn as much as
you can about diet and fitness. Get enough sleep. Those things are
going to translate into everything you do.
Q: What other personal finance advice do you have?
A: Adams: Make a lifelong system of learning as much as you can.
I'd pull back from professional investment managers. I attended a
party, and one the people I met was a personal finance adviser. He
would recommend managed stock funds. The people are paying a
management fee, they also pay a 1 percent to 2 percent fee for the
personal financial management. I asked if he bought those funds,
and he said no, he buys index funds.
Q: Were any of your failures in the personal financial area?
A: Adams: Two of my failures were investments. One was Webvan,
where you would order online and they would show up in a few hours
with groceries. Management came out and said one of their district
centers had become cash positive. Very soon after, they went out of
business. What they were telling us just wasn't true. You can
analyze financial statements all you want, but you can't believe
them. It was "the next Amazon" versus bankrupt. That's how big the
lie can be.
My second investment failure was when I was making serious
Dilbert money. I was approached by a company, and I let them manage
half my money. They bought WorldCom, Enron, they bought a number of
things almost synonymous with bad investments. Their pitch was that
they had superior knowledge. Nobody had knowledge, because Enron
was lying. I finally took my money and put it in unmanaged
Q: What about debt? Have you ever had a problem with it?
A: Adams: I'm super cautious. I lived below my means in the
early days, sharing an apartment. I even had a windowless room. I'm
very big on living below your means.
I'm just always sure I'll need more money. I'm not panicked. I
just see the world as a riskier place. I'm very conservative.
Q: Have you been lucky?
A: Adams: I've managed the odds to look lucky. For example, I
lived in small town upstate New York, I left and went to San
Francisco. That simple. People think they are already living in the
best place. They say, "Move from here? Are you kidding?" You need
to move to where the opportunity is.
Rather than trying to be the best in the world at a particular
skill, I've combined fairly average skills. Nobody's going to
accuse me of being a real artist. I've never taken a writing
course. At a party, I'm not the funniest guy in the room. You put
those three things together. It's a combination of average skills,
which combined become very powerful.
People say how lucky I am to be the Dilbert cartoonist. They
don't see that cartooning was one of a dozen things I tried. I
tried all these high-risk things not likely to work. Most of that
stuff didn't work. The person who tries one thing and then quits
has very different odds than a person who tries a lot of things.
You come out of every different thing you try with a pretty
Q: CreditCards.com: Can you give an example?
A: Adams: When I was doing my programming, writing computer
games, I came out with skills that helped my day job, and some
skills I'm still using. All this required a more than average
knowledge of skills. It's the combination of them that makes them
powerful. I went from 1 in 1,000 odds to a 1 in 5 by the time I
decided to become a cartoonist.
Q: You seem to be able to think longer term than most people do.
Were you always that way?
A: Adams: That's the genetic portion of that, some people think
of the future and some people don't. Continually educating yourself
is the point. I've been planning for my retirement since I
was 8 years old. My financial planning spreadsheet goes to age
105. There's never been a time in my life when I couldn't see my
whole life unfolding.
Q: Can planning farther ahead be learned?
A: Adams: Yes, they've shown that by creating digitally aged
pictures of people. When people saw themselves as digitally aged,
they saved more.
Q: Why do you say goals are for losers?
A: Adams: Goals are for losers, systems are for smart people.
Losing 10 pounds is a goal. A better system is to learn about food.
Figure out what works and make it a lifelong process.
In the investment category, it's a perfect analogy. It's really
hard to go in ignorant and pick winners. I was pretty sure in my
20s that I could apply my great intellect and instinct and pick
winners. By the time you're 40, you're just buying index funds and
diversifying. That's a system.
A: See related:
Q&A with 'What To Do When I Get Stupid' author
Q&A with actor Steve Guttenberg