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Should You Take Advice from a Cartoonist?

pencil_character_teaching.epsScott Adams is the creator of the cartoon “Dilbert” and, although he cautions his readers not to put too much faith in the advice of a cartoonist, he has some interesting things to say in his book “How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big”. In his book he tries to convince his readers that he failed at quite a few things before he was finally successful but I wasn’t completely convinced by his examples. Most of his failures were jobs that he wasn’t particularly good at, but in all these “failure” jobs he learned what he could, and then took those new found skills on to other jobs. Ok, his Dillberito, a vegetarian microwavable burrito never took off and he wasn’t successful in the restaurant business but both of these ideas were launched after he was making a lot of money as a cartoonist.

Despite these observations, Adam’s book is a fun read and has some advice that artists of all types could find useful. These are some of the ideas I found most helpful.

  • Every skill you learn increases your chances of success. So even failures such as what may feel like dead-end jobs (or failed creative projects) can be useful if you learn new skills. Adams used his failures at his corporate jobs to inspire his “Dilbert” characters and dialogue.
  • It is okay to take creative risks but make sure your basic financial needs are taken care of. This may mean holding on to your job while you develop your ideas on the weekends and evenings. Adams worked for many years while he was writing, developing and selling his “Dilbert” cartoons. He notes how his cartooning skills needed time to mature before they really took off.
  • He encourages people to work with systems rather than goals. A system would look something like getting into the habit of doing your creative work first thing in the morning, every morning, before you start your day. Or perhaps it is writing 1000 words a day on your novel. Or maybe showing up in your studio every day from 5pm to 6pm right after work. A systems is a pattern that does not depend on being in the right mood.
  • Adams claims that goals are for losers. Goals keep you looking to the future instead of getting down to work now. When you don’t reach your goals it can be depressing and discouraging. Systems help you to do the work no matter what the outcome. It may not be as exciting as setting and reaching goals but it is more sustainable.
  • Eating well and doing regular exercise is important to keeping up your energy.

What skills have you gained in your life that might contribute to your creative practise now?

Take time to think about your creative practise and whether or not your approach is one of using systems or goals. “I have a goal of painting 6 paintings this month” may not be as valuable as saying “I am going to commit to painting every day, at this specific time for the next month.” The results may end up the same, but by putting a system in place, you are developing the habits that can keep you going and producing for many months and years to come. You may not get six paintings done but you may do one that turns out to be your best so far, one that takes you to a new level, one that may not have happened if you had been too focused on your goal.

Make sure you attend to your financial needs so that you can relax and enjoy your creative practise and be less pressured to focus on how much you produce and how “successful” the work is.

Remember to look after your physical need for nourishing food and exercise so that you have the energy to keep at your creative practise and live a healthy life.


Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep ~ Scott Adams

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