His Dilbert series came to national prominence through the downsizing period in 1990s America and was then distributed worldwide, as Adams went Door to Door to promote the idea. Adams worked in various roles at big businesses before he became a full-time cartoonist in 1995. He writes in a satirical, often sarcastic, way about the social and psychological landscape of white-collar workers in modern business corporations.
Scott Raymond Adams was born in 1957 in Windham, New York, the son of Paul and Virginia (née Vining) Adams. He is of half-German descent, and he also has English, Irish, Welsh, Scottish, Dutch, and "a small amount" of American Indian ancestry.
He was a fan of the Peanuts comics while growing up, and he started drawing his own comics at age six. He won a drawing competition at age 11.
Adams graduated valedictorian from Windham-Ashland-Jewett Central School in 1975 in a class of 39. He remained in the area and received a BA in economics from Hartwick College in 1979. He moved to California a few months after his graduation. Adams earned an MBA from University of California, Berkeley.
Adams worked closely with telecommunications engineers at Crocker National Bank in San Francisco between 1979 and 1986. Upon joining the organization, he entered a management training program after being held at gunpoint twice in four months as a teller. Over the years, his positions included management trainee, computer programmer, budget analyst, commercial lender, product manager, and supervisor. He earned an MBA in economics and management from the University of California, Berkeley in 1986.
Adams created Dilbert during this period; the name came from ex-boss Mike Goodwin. Dogbert, originally named Dildog, was loosely based on his family's deceased pet beagle Lucy. Submissions to various publications of both Dilbert and non-Dilbert comic panels failed to win publication. These included The New Yorker and Playboy. However, an inspirational letter from a fan persuaded Adams to keep trying. He worked at Pacific Bell between 1986 and June 1995; the personalities he encountered there became the inspiration for many of his Dilbert characters. Adams first published Dilbert with United Media in 1989, while still employed at Pacific Bell. He had to draw his cartoons at 4 a.m. in order to work a full day at the company. His first paycheck for Dilbert was a monthly royalty check of $368.62. Gradually, Dilbert became more popular, and was published by 100 newspapers in 1991 and 400 by 1994. Adams attributes his success to his idea of including his e-mail address in the panels, thus facilitating feedback from readers.
Adams's success grew, and he became a full-time cartoonist with Dilbert in 800 newspapers. In 1996, The Dilbert Principle was released, his first business book.
Logitech CEO Pierluigi Zappacosta invited Adams to impersonate a management consultant, which he did wearing a wig and false mustache. He tricked Logitech managers into adopting a mission statement that Adams described as "so impossibly complicated that it has no real content whatsoever". That year, he won the National Cartoonists Society's Reuben Award for Outstanding Cartoonist of the Year and Best Newspaper Comic Strip of 1997, the most prestigious awards in the field.
In 1998, Dilbert began as a TV series, but was canceled in 2000. By 2000, the comic was in 2,000 newspapers in 57 countries and 19 languages.
Adams was a fan of the science fiction TV series Babylon 5, and he appeared in the season 4 episode "Moments of Transition" as a character named "Mr. Adams" who hires former head of security Michael Garibaldi to locate his megalomaniacal dog and cat. He also had a cameo in "Review", a third-season episode of the TV series NewsRadio, in which Matthew Brock (played by Andy Dick) becomes an obsessed Dilbert fan. Adams is credited as "Guy in line behind Dave and Joe in first scene". Adams is the CEO of Scott Adams Foods, Inc., makers of the Dilberito and Protein Chef, and a co-owner of Stacey's Café in Pleasanton, California.
Adams is a member of the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences and a former member of Mensa.
In recent years, Adams has had two notable health problems. Since late 2004, he has suffered from a reemergence of focal dystonia, which has affected his ability to draw for lengthy periods on paper, though it causes no real problem now that he draws the comic on a graphics tablet. He also suffered from spasmodic dysphonia, a condition that causes the vocal cords to behave in an abnormal manner. He recovered from this condition temporarily, but in July 2008 underwent surgery to reroute the nerve connections to his vocal cords. The operation was successful, and Adams' voice is now completely functional.
Adams is a vegetarian and trained as a hypnotist. He credits his own success to affirmations, including Dilbert's success and achieving a ninety-fourth percentile on a difficult qualification exam for business school, among other unlikely events. He states that the affirmations give him focus. He has described a method which he has used that he says gave him success. He pictured in his mind what he wanted, and wrote it down 15 times a day on a piece of paper.
In addition to his cartoon work, he has written two books on religion, God's Debris (2001), and The Religion War (2004). God's Debris lays out a theory of Pandeism, in which God blows itself up to see what will happen, which becomes the cause of our universe. In God's Debris, Adams suggests that followers of theistic religions such as Christianity and Islam are inherently subconsciously aware that their religions are false, and that this awareness is reflected in their consistently acting like these religions, and their threats of damnation for sinners, are false. In a 2017 interview Adams said these books would be "his ultimate legacy." Adams married Shelly Miles in 2006. She has two children named Savannah and Justin Miles. In a February 2014 blog posting he revealed that he is no longer married. In an October 2018 blog post, he stated that his stepson had died of "almost certainly" an opioid overdose and called for volunteer sponsors to sign up on WhenHub to take calls from addicts in need.