#112 Scott Adams

Scott Adams (@ScottAdamsSays) is back to talk to James about success, going viral, and why he’s never had writer’s block. Adams’s first time through he talked about his book, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big in episode #47.

The interview begins when Adams tells James that success “is a trap.” He means that even though Dilbert may get larger, it doesn’t proportionally get more fulfilling. It’s a bit like the teenager that gets their first car. They’re excited. A second car, cool, but not as much as the first. A third? Well, even a teenager doesn’t need three cars (unless they were of the same quality my first car was, then you may need some spare parts).

In her conversation with James, Gretchen Rubin (episode #97) said that this deadening of emotions can be both a good and bad thing. Rubin said that if we have habits we don’t particularly enjoy, but want to adopt, we should keep this in mind. Sure, you may not like running, but as you do it more, the dislike you feel will lessen. For Rubin this meant that driving became a less harrowing experience. The flip side is that our positive emotions will dull too.

I take my daughter’s to school each day, and it’s a small moment of relative quiet after a hectic morning. Do I appreciate that? Not really. Unlike, say a divorced or busy parent who might only get to do it once a week. That parent may seize the chance to enjoy that time.

This isn’t saying you should take your kids to school because it’s a chance to bond. Adams will be one of the first to say not to take his (or my) advice. Instead you want to experiment to find what works best for you.

Experimentation is fast becoming one of the big ideas here. Many of the podcast guests advocate personal experimentation as a means to find a better way to do things. Brad Feld (episode #91) found that traveling less for his business led to running a better business. A.J. Jacobs (episode #94) experiments so much he calls himself a “human guinea pig.” Ditto for Tim Ferriss (episode #109) who even created a show about his self-experimentation.

For Adams the tipping point came when he realized how bogus a lot of the nutrition advice was. Instead of following the diet du jour, he began to experiment with what foods made him feel better. He suggests we build up our own toolkit and bank of experiences to draw on. Two of those tools are willpower and habits.

Gretchen Rubin wrote about this in her book Better than Before, writing that one size does not fit all:

Screen Shot 2015-05-20 at 9.13.07 AM

A lot of this round of conversation between James and Adams is about what it means to go viral, and Adams has a lot of opinions (through experimentation, no doubt) about what that means.

#1 To go viral you need familiarity. Adams says that some of his content that’s gone viral has been old content. He attributes this to people knowing a little bit more about what he’s saying. Ryan Holiday (episode #18) leveraged this technique when he wrote about stoicism. Stoic ideas have been around for 2,000+ years, but Holiday took modern examples (things we are familiar with) to promote the old ideas.

#2 To go viral you need contradictions. Adams says that he see this work by combining “science” and “failure” in the title of his post, Science’s Biggest Fail. This post restated his thoughts about how often we (science) has whiffed (failed) in getting nutrition right. If you are confused about what to eat, it make sense. From Dave Asprey (episode #68) to Dan Buettner (episode #105) there is a lot of advice. Nassim Taleb gets through the noise by using the filter of time. Taleb says, if it’s been around a long time, it must be fine. This is hardly a contradiction, but Taleb doesn’t seek virality.

#3 To go viral you need to connect with small groups. Adams says that he doesn’t split test Dilbert comics because he doesn’t need them to widely popular. He doesn’t want to necessarily find the comic that is best overall, but the best within a group. He says, “when I was trying to build up Dilbert in the early days I would target specific micro areas.” One example might be a comic about being a Ham Radio operator.

Adams says that he did things like this on purpose in hopes to connect with that group. If he did, he might get them reading his comic on a regular basis.

#4 To go viral you need to understand your medium. I can only imagine that Gary Vaynerchuk (episode #2) and Nicholas Megalis (episode #104) are excited to hear that Adams is focused on the medium as well as the message. Vaynerchuk has an entire book about why the medium matters and Adams says that he’s figuring out why videos work better on some platforms than others.

In each case that something goes viral, Adams has a goal. If he can get people to laugh at one in every five comics, then he knows he has a fan. When James presses Adams about why it’s this ratio, Adams doesn’t have a great answer, so I’ll take a stab at it.

When we remember things, we actually do a pretty bad job. What we often do is remember the best or worst, most unique, and last parts of something. Then we fill in the blanks around that.

Think about the last vacation you took. You can probably recall if your flight was delayed, but otherwise not many details around the actual travel. You can probably recall the best thing you did, though not what you had for breakfast that day. You can probably recall what you did on the last part of your trip, but not day two.

My guess is that when Adams creates something that that draws in readers it’s because of they remember the highs, uniques, and ends.

Adams also tells James that he’s never had writer’s block, though this is hindsight of 26 years worth of cartooning. Early on he was afraid he might sit down to draw and come up with nothing so he keep a pipeline full of ideas. A.J. Jacobs and Ryan Holiday also say that they keep ideas squirreled away for future projects.  Adams says that he doesn’t do this much anymore because there’s often a better idea – whatever he’s feeling.

Another tip Adams has is to start moving. “If your body does it, your brain will follow” he says. A.J. Jacobs says this works for him too and not just with writing. Jacobs quotes Millard Fuller, who said, “It’s easier to act your way into a new way of thinking than to think your way into a new way of acting.”

James and Adams end their conversation with some ideas about what Adams can do to share more behind the scenes processes for Dilbert.

Thanks for reading, I’m @mikedariano. Adams’s book has been one of my favorite books of the past two years. If you want to see more about what I’ve been reading, you can sign up for my newsletter. It’s a once a month summary of books I’ve read.

I also run book clubs here. If you want to purchase the last round, a reading guide to Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You.

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