Scott Adams III

Scott Adams (@ScottAdamsSays) talked with Tim Ferriss (@TFerriss) about affirmations, inspiration, and Donald Trump. This is the third Adams post here, check out #47 and #112 with James Altucher.

Our table of contents:

  • Affirmations.
  • God Debris and creativity.
  • Goals and systems.
  • 4 pieces of work advice.


Okay. Let’s get the elephant out of the room. “It is not my belief,” says Adams, “that if you say your affirmations something magical will happen and the universe will change in some non-science way.”

Naval Ravikant told Ferriss he read a story about Adams quietly practicing affirmations in the bathroom. It wasn’t because Adams was crazy. Well, maybe crazy like a fox.

Whether it’s his diet or career, Adams tests everything. He tells Ferriss that he focuses on results. “If you can give yourself the feeling of a superpower, it’s still worth having,” Adams says about affirmations. You don’t need to know why it works. “It would be dumb, if this thing has something to it,” Adams goes on, “and to set goals that are relatively modest.”

So Adams began testing. In the first instance, he tried to use affirmations to connect with a woman at work who was out of his league. And it worked! Maybe something wasn’t right, Adams says. Maybe Adams is more attractive than he gives himself credit for.

He settles a more objective option, something with numbers. Adams says that it worked for picking Chrysler and another stock. Then his GMAT scores went up. After the last one, Adams says, “I sat in the chair and stared forward for hours.”

Okay, affirmations work, but why?

Well, Adams says, he can think of three reasons why affirmations work.

Here we should pause. Often this sort of explanation is followed by a pitch for a $99 program (that’s $79 if you call in the next ten minutes). Not in this case. “I’m positive the exact method doesn’t matter,” Adams says, “what matters is the degree of focus and the commitment to that focus.”

That Adams can’t explain why it works, and doesn’t sell the “defacto” method, makes it more believable. Nassim Taleb writes about this as a filter for bullshit: “I have used all my life a wonderfully simple heuristic: charlatans are recognizable in that they will give you positive advice, and only positive advice.” If Adams said the only way to do it is his way (and he sells a program to help you) then we could consider it bunk. But he doesn’t.

Why might it work?

1. Reticular activation. This is why you can hear your own name in a crowd, Adams explains. Your brain filters relevant information. The good news is that you get to choose what it filters. You hear your name because you’ve trained to hear it. You see the style of car you bought after you buy it. You notice that your kids’ names aren’t that unique. This structure can be used for becoming a cartoonist.

After Adams began affirmations, he was drawn to a PBS show about how to draw cartoons. Maybe that show had been on a hundred times and Adams just missed it. Maybe the opportunity was always there, but was previously lost in the noise. Affirmations created a new filter that worked.

2. Selective memory. It could be that he forgot, Adams says, “but I don’t have a memory of trying it and it never worked.”

Adams is at least aware of this as option, and that’s about all we can hope for. If we are aware of our biases, we can address them.

Tadas Viskanta has methods for dealing with confirmation bias. Mark Cuban has ideas for highsight bias. A school teacher asked Steph Curry not to visit his school because of survivorship bias.

We can’t prevent biases, but we can create small checks on them.

3. It may be a self identification thing. Adams has a philosophy that we are  “moist robots.” In How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big he writes:

“It might help some of you to think of yourself as moist robots and not skin bags full of magic and mystery. If you control the inputs, you can determine the outcomes, give or take some luck. Eat right, exercise, think positively, learn as much as possible, and stay out of jail, and good things can happen.”

It could be, Adams tells Ferriss,  that the types of people who believe in affirmations, are also people who achieve their goals.  It might not be reading books to kids that matters, Ferriss adds, but it could be the other things that book buying parents tend to do. 

The bad news, we don’t why it works. The good news, it works, and anyone can do it. 

God’s Debris and Creativity.

After being published in 2004, Adams’ book, God’s Debris has become a bestseller. Chris Sacca chided Ferriss about becoming the next Oprah.

After Sacca talked with Ferriss, the same thing happened to the trio of books of books he suggested.

Screen Shot 2015-08-13 at 8.06.18 AM

Sales aside, Adams wrote the book to be “a conversation between a delivery man and the smartest person in the world.” But how do you write about the smartest man in the world? Adams asks.  

The solution came in the shower. We should have known. When Brett Steenbarger spoke about creativity, he noted that we need to analyze and synthesize the data we take in. That means diving deep (analyze) and then removing yourself (synthesize).

Adams does almost exactly this. He tells Ferriss that in the morning he gets his coffee and reads the news. Then he mentally drops everything and begins work. Maria Popova’s differentiating of search and research fits this dicotomy too. If we look for something specific (search) we are in the analyze phase. If we look for things in general (research) were are open to moments of serendipity (synthesize).

The secret to God’s Debris.

A lot of this podcast (and Adams’ Fall 2015 blog posts) were about hypnosis. “The way I use hypnosis is too broadly for the public,” Adams explains, “I’m talking about the science of persuasion.” Okay, but what does this have to do with writing a book?

“My challenge in a book,” says Adams, “is that you will continually get bored.” To combat that, Adams uses the powers of persuasion. Much like affirmations, Adams relies on tactics that work. For example, “I would make my character say something you just thought,” Adams explains. That builds rapport. He also creates things that are relatable, but not specific. You see this in the Dilbert cartoon. Dilbert has an ambiguous first name and no last name. He works for a boss known as Boss. His company has no name and exists in no specific city. “I allow the reader to imbue the characters with as much of what they love as they possibly can,” Adams says, “without giving them a hard stop.”

To Adams, hypnosis is using words to lead, pace, and build trust that creates a connection. Take the words; pull and yank, Adams tells Ferriss. Which one is funnier?  Yank is much funnier than pull. Do they mean the same thing? Kinda.

Adams’ aims with hypnosis is to use certain words to get you to think in certain ways. Yank does that better than pull. “Language has that much control over what you think,” Adams says, “I will get rid of a more accurate word to put in a word that has more of a programming control.”

When Gretchen Rubin was interviewed by Lifehacker she said her best time-saving trick was changing the language of her email signature. “When I was emailing with someone I didn’t know, I clung to the “Dear X” and the “warmly, Gretchen” format and more formal language of letters. But I finally realized that the etiquette of email has now changed enough to permit much greater informality—and brevity. It sounds like such a small thing, but it saves me a considerable amount of effort and time.”

When Rubin changed the words she wrote, she attached a new feeling to email. Words matter. 

Goals and systems

The ideas of goals and systems were first introduced to Adams when he was twenty-one and boarded a plane for California. Adams wore “a cheap three-piece suit” his parents had given him, because he didn’t know what to wear. “I was mostly guessing how the process worked,” Adams writes, “and I didn’t want to take the chance of getting kicked off the flight for being poorly dressed.”

He sits down next to the CEO of a screw company, and they start to talk:

“He asked what my story was and I filled him in. I asked what he did for a living and he told me he was CEO of a company that made screws. Then he offered me some career advice. He said that every time he got a new job, he immediately started looking for a better one. For him, job seeking was not something one did when necessary. It was an ongoing process.”

lightbulbOnce explained this makes perfect sense. Adams goes on to write that the best job for you probably isn’t going to open up at the same time you need it. The deeper Adams looked, the deeper this idea got. It works for dating he tells Ferris, and house buying. A lot of big things in life work better if you have a system for them.

Goals are fine for simple things and one-off events. Systems are better. Adams talks about systems for who to date, what to eat, and how run a business. “Even if you are failing,” at the moment, a good systems will mean, “you’re still improving your odds and self-worth,” Adams says.

Penn Jillette had a system rather than a goal; get better at magic each day. Jillette knew that he could live in a car, and work on the street if it supported a system where he got better at his craft.

Ferriss applied the idea of systems to his own education. He thought about going to graduate school for an MBA. Then, he had another idea. He would become an angel investor. “I would invest based on the assumption that I would lose it all, but that I would try to optimize for skill acquisition,” Ferriss says.

Systems work because even if specific results are bad, the overall benefit is good.

Scott Adams’ work advice

When Adams first drew Dilbert it was an immediate nation-wide success. Wait, wait, wait. No it wasn’t. Like everyone else here, success took time. For Dilbert it even required someone to die. (One salesman never showed the strip to the papers he visited). Dilbert did get picked up by more and more papers, but Adams kept his day job. 

Okay, you want to create the next thing. Whether it’s a comic, app, or business. Is there specific advice from Adams that we can generalize?

1. Keep your day job.

“I waited until I knew I could do it financially, but I continued waiting long after that because of the skill acquisition and also because the pain of working completely goes away when you don’t need to do it,” Adams says. Ferriss adds, “Keep your current gig, do this early in the morning, and then you can decide where on the spectrum you want to be.” What you want to avoid is financial stress. Sanjay Bakshi advises his students to aim for financial independence because only then can you make truly independent decisions. If you need money, your choices will reflect that.

2. Talk to the people who pay your bills.

Adams included his email address in comic strips so that people could tell him their opinions. It’s how Catbert was named. It’s why Dilbert is an office strip. It’s also a sales tool for Adams. If people from Spokane wrote in to say they loved the comic, but their paper didn’t have it, Adams would print out those emails and present them to the paper.

In her book, The Art of Asking, Amanda Palmer writes, “I chatted constantly online, and listened to the input and feedback from the fans. If they wanted high-end lithograph posters, I made high-end lithograph posters.”

1-dylanjobsThe times are a changin’ said Taylor Pearson and Adam Davidson and Tim O’Reilly. The employment landscape is not static. Workers need to migrate. Tyler Cowen wrote a book about it.  You should figure who really pays your bills.

3. Know how you work.

Adams explains to Ferriss his morning routine. It’s a fill up and then dump out system he says. Adams will wake up, read the news, and then try to dump everything before beginning. Sometimes this means coming up with something new, and sometimes it’s continuing a thought from the previous day.

Adams is looking for a signal as he works. He knows that a “half laugh” might be a good joke. Learn signals like this. The Scott Galloway post has a number signal examples like; brown M&M’s, classic cars, and “ugh.”

4. Diversify.

“I’m not going to worry about one friend if I have hundreds. I’m not going to worry about a boss firing me if I have a hundred bosses,” Adams says. Diverse options make Adams less stressed. Nick Murray said that too much financial television (lack of diversification in news) is one of the biggest mistakes an investor can make. Jim Norton said that stand-up is a great way to diversify. He can act in movies, host radio shows, and always fall back on his act. Diversification gives you options, optionality is good. 

Closing thought.

At the end of the interview, Adams tells Ferriss this:

“Think of your life as a system, think of yourself as the most important part of the system, be useful, and make yourself more valuable as you go.”

Wow, you made it to the end of the post. A solid 2300 words. That’s like 9 pages in a book (and forever online). If you read it and liked it, you can donate $2.

16 thoughts on “Scott Adams III”

  1. […] Scott Adams wrote that he’s not the best at drawing, making people laugh, or someone with a deep knowledge of business. However, he’s probably in the top 1% of people who are good at each of those three things. Daymond John said this too, only about music and clothing. Dave McClure started his VC fund because he had engineering and marketing experience and “there weren’t that may people doing investing that had both disciplines.” […]


  2. […] Scott Adams writes that life is like a slot machine. Eventually, there’s a payout but you gotta be in it to win it. Only, Adams notes, life is even better, all it takes is time and effort to play the game. It takes hard work and perseverance then a little bit of luck. That’s Fischer’s story. […]


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