Life Lessons from a Cartoonist: A Review

If you have ever heard of Scott Adams, odds are you know him as the creator of the workplace comic strip Dilbert. You may not know (as I did not) that he has also written two philosophical novels as well as this foray into the self-help genre, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life.

I read it because I thought the idea of a cartoonist writing an advice book was novel; perhaps he would have a unique and funny spin on the genre. Maybe there would be a few cartoons thrown in as well. It turned out that the book was not as funny as I thought. Also, while it was unique, it was not unique in a way that I particularly appreciated. The presence of a few cartoons throughout did meet my expectations, however.

In chapters that vary wildly in length and subject matter (ranging from those that dispense fitness advice to those that narrate his struggle with a voice problem called spasmodic dysphonia), Adams doles out wisdom that he has picked up over the years. For example:

* Create systems, not goals.
* Get proficient in a broad range of skills, from business writing to proper voice technique.
* Get your diet right so you can have enough energy.
* Work toward having a flexible schedule so you can perform different tasks at the times when your mind is best suited for those tasks.
* Failure is your friend if you can learn from it.

A lot of the practical advice Adams gives is useful. However, I found that I disagreed with his worldview and his understanding of the nature and purpose of human life. First, he instructs his readers to see their basic nature as “moist robots” that “can be programmed for happiness if you understand the user interface” (65). This advice is helpful within limits; our diet and environment has a lot more to do with how we function than we sometimes understand. However, I think his understanding of human nature is unnecessarily reductionistic. (Also, many people are put off by the word “moist,” and so it would probably have behooved Adams to not include that word in one of the main messages of his book.) Second, he also writes, “My worldview is that every element of your personality, from your perseverance to your risk tolerance to your ambition to your intelligence, is a product of pure chance. You needed the genes you were born with and the exact experiences of your life to create the person you are with the opportunities you have. Every decision you make is a simple math product of those variables” (218). This is not only reductionistic but deterministic. Explaining why I disagree with this naturalistic determinism would go well beyond the purposes of this review. I only want to point out that if the above statement bothers you as it did me, this may not be the book for you.

Here’s my final takeaway: Adams is very clever and has useful advice to give. Sometimes this advice is presented in a way and as part of a worldview that may be off-putting to some readers. Even if you fall into that category, you can still get a lot out of this book if you read it for the practical advice and leave the rest behind.