It was 2002, and I was the youngest person at the book signing. That’s probably why, out of the large crowd gathered at the Tattered Cover that day, Scott Adams picked the eleven-year-old with his hand raised.
“What is the strangest thing you’ve ever seen in the office?” I asked.
Adams thought about it for a moment. “I didn’t see it,” he said, “but someone told me about an office where people were walking down the center of the hallway, and it was wearing out the carpet in the middle. The management circulated a memo through the office, asking the employees to ‘distribute their walking.’ “
We all laughed. It was the kind of story that has drawn us to the Tattered Cover, where Adams signed copies of his latest book, Dilbert And The Way of the Weasel.
In one of my favorite Dilbert comics, the boss tells the engineers “We used to say our employees were our most valuable asset; that is wrong. Money is our most valuable asset. Employees are ninth.” And what came in eighth, an engineer asks? “Carbon paper.”
I was reading Scott Adams’ comic strip Dilbert years before I ever commuted to an office. Dilbert was my introduction to the ways language can be used and misused. Dilbert taught me about buzzwords, words that once inspired, but whose luster had faded like an old vacation photo. I learned how two people can hold a conversation that contained no meaning whatsoever. I learned how bad or unpopular ideas could be revived on Frankenstein’s slab through the dark science of “rebranding.”
Permit an anecdote. Many years ago at CU Boulder, a president decided he needed to leave his mark on the university. His big idea? CU would be rebranded as a “TLE”, a “Total Learning Environment.” Never mind that this has been the definition of a university since the Middle Ages, no CU was a TLE, and fortunes were spent branding it onto banners, beer coasters, sweatshirts, and stationery. Meanwhile, actual learning continued unabated, and amongst the staff, TLE stood for “Total Lack of Enthusiasm.”
In 2016, Adams appeared on my radar again. He has a lot to say about the rise of Donald Trump, how his ranting showed calculation where most saw dementia. Adams is a trained hypnotist, and he noted how Trump’s repeated insults, “Crooked Hillary”, “Lyin’ Ted”, and later “Sleepy Joe’, were the work of a master crowd manipulator, embedding phrases in the popular psyche. At first, I thought Adams was well-suited to warn people of the dangers Trump poses, but I soon realized his goal was to help hold open the door for him.
Adams has claimed that men are being displaced from modern society, that the election of Joe Biden would result in Republicans being “hunted down”, and characterized the January 6th Insurrection as “more patriotic than criminal.” He claimed the TV series based on Dilbert was canceled in 2000 because he was a white man. In 2023, speaking on his podcast, he said that black Americans were a hate group, which led his publisher Andrew McMeel Syndicate to cut ties with him.
There were some fore-shadowings. Adams was always a contrarian, someone who liked to question the official story. He once described himself as a “smart-ass vegetarian”, the guy who would show up to a cookout and remind people that they didn’t throw out the cow’s rear end when making ground beef. Sometimes, a contrarian can turn that critical eye inward when receiving criticism, and use their instincts toward self-improvement. Other times, criticism is met with a snarling “Don’t tell me what to do,” and they dig in deeper toward more extreme views. Each friend lost, each business partnership ended, becomes a point of pride — further validation that they alone stand against a world gone mad.
Perhaps that’s what happened, perhaps not. Mostly I feel sad. We’re always warned to not meet our heroes. I did, a long time ago, but there aren’t any heroes, not really, only people who change. Think of who you were years ago: a completely different person would be my guess. In another twenty years, we’ll be different all over again, different, or… well, let’s leave that alone. As Geddy Lee sang, “Changes aren’t permanent, but change is.”
Over on my bookshelf, I can see my copy of “Shave the Whales” that Scott Adams signed for me over two decades ago. I think of slumber parties spent watching the Dilbert cartoon series with my similarly-oddball schoolmates. I can’t tell you why Scott Adams changed, but I know I miss the man I once met.