Why I Am Not Quite As Rich and
Famous As Scott Adams
Without a doubt, the most frequent question put to
authors is, "How long does it take to write a
book?" To someone who has written more than one
book, this question makes about as much sense as "How
long does it take to make a trip?"
Early in my career, I discovered that what most of
these people really mean by the question is, "How
long does it take to write down a book?"
That is, How long does it take to type all those words?
But typing all those words -- though most intimidating
to most people -- is not most of the work of writing
a book. Most of the work is gathering the fieldstones.
Some years ago, Scott Adams, the creator of "Dilbert,"
was one of roughly 8,000 employees working at the
San Ramon office of Pacific Bell. During many of those
years, Dani and I were consulting regularly at the
same San Ramon building, often in Scott's department.
Thus, Scott and I were exposed to the same replicated
cubicles, the same idiotic memos, the same pointy-haired
bosses -- in short, the same cultural craziness. But
from those experiences, Scott created a comic strip
that entertained millions and made him rich and famous.
I often ask myself, "Why Scott? Why not me?"
During his tenure at PacBell, Scott was gathering
fieldstones for his "Dilbert" wall, but I was gathering
fieldstones at PacBell to use in my software engineering
books. Around that same time, I actually tried to
write a cartoon strip -- "Bugsy Coder" -- based on
similar materials drawn from the same source. If success
had been a matter of who had the better source of
fieldstones, I should have been the clear winner.
I was a consultant, and PacBell was only one of many
clients, while Scott was confined
to gathering from one building. So, the difference
couldn't have been in our sources.
. . . The difference, I believe, is that Scott and
I are different people. We walk through the fields
of life noticing different stones. Out of a billion
stones that pass our way each day, Scott notices some
that are different from the ones I notice -- and these
become the fieldstones out of which his success is
built. Of course, I notice some that Scott doesn't
notice -- to create my own success. But even when
we notice the same stone, we probably assign it different
importance, different energy.
The Energy Principle
You can judge for yourself whether or not I'm envious
of Scott Adams' success, but like most authors, I'm
not indifferent to my own success. That's why I was
a trifle upset when I read a book review written by
my good friend Dan Starr. About somebody else's book,
he wrote, "This book is a gold mine." The
next time I saw him, I asked him why he never called
one of my books a gold mine.
"You know what a gold mine is like," he
replied. "There are a few gold nuggets, but you
have to sift through tons of worthless tailings to
find them." I was starting to feel better, but
then he added, "Your books are more like coal
"Oh?" was all I could muster.
"Yes. You know what a coal mine is like. Every
shovelful contains something worthwhile. Every one."
I'm satisfied to be writing coal mines. Oh, sure,
I once imagined that I could write a book in which
every sentence, every word, would be 24-karat gold,
but nobody can sustain that level for an entire
book. Even The Greatest Book Ever Written has long,
boring, repetitious passages that not even the most
ardent evangelist would ever quote. So, if even God
won't write a solid gold book, I'm content to drop
that particular fantasy.
Fieldstone writing, properly done, produces coal
mines -- and sometimes coal miners do find flecks
of gold in their shovels. I'm satisfied if my readers
find some good coal. If they find a gold nugget, that's
a bonus, but I don't take credit for putting gold
there. I don't try to write in gold. Even so, some
of my writing students have struck rich veins of gold
in their coal mines.
And how do I know if my students have struck gold,
or even coal? I know from their response. The stone
itself is not the key to effective writing. The
key to effective writing is the human emotional response
to the stone. As a writer, if I respond to a particular
stone with tears of joy or sadness, I know that others
If I don't respond, my readers probably won't either.
That's the secret of the Fieldstone Method: Always
be guided by emotional responses, or, as Fieldstone
writers say, by the energy -- the heat that
the coal provides when it burns inside of you.
I call this secret the Energy Principle, though
some of my students prefer to call it the Response
Gathering material for your writing provides the
first of many applications of the Energy Principle.
When you notice a potential stone, turn your mind
away from the stone's details. Instead, turn inward
and notice your response.
But perhaps you are skeptical of the Energy Principle.
Many people have difficulty believing that the secret
isn't in the stone, but in the response to
the stone. I suppose I had the same difficulty until
I had a transforming experience in the San Francisco
International Airport. We were seeing some friends
off for Macao, but their flight was delayed. We adjourned
to the coffee shop. We had hoped for a few moments
of quiet good-byes, but we were disturbed by the screams
of a three-year-old child at the next table.
I've always been rather sensitive to child abuse,
so I turned to see what torture was being inflicted
on this helpless toddler. To my astonishment, the
"torturer" was the child's mother trying
to force him to eat vanilla ice cream!
Like a Zen monk, I felt the flash of enlightenment.
If you can teach a three-year-old to hate ice cream,
then human beings are capable of any response
to any stimulus. I knew then that nothing
I would ever write would please all of the people
all of the time, or even some of the time. All that's
important is that some of the people respond
some of the time -- sufficiently often to keep
my publisher happy.