October 2011
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TD Magazine

Daniel Pink

Friday, September 30, 2011

Bestselling Author

Washington, D.C.


Daniel H. Pink is the author of several provocative, bestselling books about the changing world of work.

His latest is the bestselling Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, which overturns conventional wisdom about human motivation and offers an alternate path to high performance. Pink held his last real job in the White House, where he served from 1995 to 1997 as chief speechwriter to Vice President Al Gore. He also worked as an aide to U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich and in other positions in politics and government.

Pinks articles on business and technology appear in many publications, including the Harvard Business Review, Fast Company, and Wired, where he is a contributing editor. His other books include A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, which describes six necessary abilities in an outsourced, automated age; The Adventures of Johnny Bunko: The Last Career Guide You'll Ever Need, the only comic format/graphic novel ever to become a BusinessWeek bestseller; and his first book, Free Agent Nation: The Future of Working for Yourself, that Publishers Weekly called a cornerstone of employee-management relations.

Pink was a keynote speaker at ASTD's 2010 International Conference and Exposition. He holds a BA in Linguistics from Northwestern University and a JD from Yale Law School.


Q| How did you first get interested writing about the world of work?

I've always been strangely interested in work. I don't know exactly when it began, but one of the things I do remember is in 1974, one of my parents brought home a copy of a book called Working by Studs Terkel. It was a famous book of the era where the author interviewed people about their work and they told stories about what they did for a living, how they made a living, the good parts about work, the bad parts about work.

I remember reading that book as a 10-year-old to learn about the baseball player, because I was interested in sports. And I ended up staying for the police officer, the waitress, the fire fighter, and all the other folks.

Thirty-seven years later, I still find the subject of work is endlessly fascinating. To me it offers an incredible window into how our country works, how the economy works, who people are, what their psyches are about, what their dreams are. It's one of the most endlessly rich and complex, fascinating, and layered topics that anybody can explore.

Q| How did your career start out?

I graduated from law school, didn't really like it, and had no interest at all in ever being a lawyer. I'm proud to say I was one of the three people in my law school class who graduated unemployed. I started working in political campaigns, spent some time as an economic policy aide, and then—through a random set of occurrences—fell into speech writing because I was a reasonably fast typist. I found that I liked it and that on the good days, the job could be interesting and meaningful.

Q| Can you tell us a bit about your experience working for Al Gore and former Labor Secretary Robert Reich?

I ended up working for Reich in part because I was pretty well-versed in the issues that he was working on. I really enjoyed working for him. Working for Reich was great, too, because we visited workplaces, wrote about workplace policy, how to make jobs better, and how to give people a fair shake on the job. I was there during the period when we worked like crazy to raise the minimum wage, which we managed to accomplish way back in 1995.

A few years into that, the job of chief speechwriter to the Vice President came open. The thing about speechwriters is that there aren't many of them, so I ended up on the list of candidates. I was interested in the job because I'd always liked Gore, and thought a lot of the issues that were his specialty, especially technology, offered a chance to make a contribution. For a speechwriter arrangement to work, there has to be at least a modest connection between the writer and the principal. I got on reasonably well with Gore because were both pretty nerdy guys.

Q| Your first book was Free Agent Nation. How did that come about?

Well, what happened was that I became a free agent myself. I quit working in the White House because I became disenchanted with politics and with having a job in which I didn't have full control over what I did and how I did it.

What inspired me to write Free Agent Nation, was that I saw a lot of others making similar decisions or sometimes being forced into working that way because of circumstance. That is, they were leaving large organizations to go work on their own, not necessarily to build the next giant company but to have a little bit more control over what they did, when they did it, how they did it.

And so I spent about a year traveling around the U.S. doing these very, very long qualitative interviews with people who had gone out on their own to get a sense of who these people were, what made them tick, why they made these decisions, and how it was working for them. In some ways, this book was the poor man's version of that Studs Terkel book that I'd read 20 years prior because it gave me a chance to go around and talk to people about their work.

Q| What led you to write A Whole New Mind?

Free Agent Nation was, in some ways, about how people worked. In the course of doing interviews for that book, I noticed that what people were doing was also changing. In particular, I noticed that many of the people who were flourishing had a background in the arts.

As I probed more deeply, I learned that the future of work depends on being able to do something that's hard to outsource, hard to automate and delivers on our accelerating need for novelty. And that meant that the abilities that wed always considered the most important—the logical, linear, spreadsheet abilities were still important but they weren't enough. Today, it's the more right-brain of abilities—artistry, empathy, inventiveness, big picture thinking—abilities we've often overlooked and undervalued that were really the game changers.


Q| And tell us about the inspiration behind your latest book Drive.

I'm fortunate that I get a huge amount of reader e-mail, and one of the things that happened after A Whole New Mind is I got just a ton of reader e-mail that had versions of this question: If you are right, Pink, or if you're more right than wrong, how do we create an environment where people can do this kind of right brain work?

So I started looking at the ginormous body of research on human motivation, and it said some surprising things: the motivators we've been using for several centuries in business—what I call if-then motivators, if you do this, then you get that—are pretty good for simple, routine, left-brain work, but they're just not very effective for the complicated, complex, and creative work that most people are doing. This finding was sitting right there in the social science—but seemed not to have made its way into the business world.

Drive tries to explain and to offer a bunch of tools and ideas for how to upgrade our motivational operating system. For instance, the watchword in many workplaces today is engagement. But nobody is ever managed into engagement. The only way that you engage or I engage is by getting there under our own steam. The technology for engagement is more or better management. Its self-direction.

One of the most important things that companies can do is give people more autonomy over what they do, when they do it, who they do it with, and how they actually do it. Many companies are doing some really cool and interesting things to foster this.

Q| Do any particular companies come to mind?

One of my favorites is an Australian software company called Atlassian. Once a quarter, on a Thursday afternoon, they say to the software developers, Go work on anything you want. Do it the way you want. Do it with whomever you want. Do whatever you want. The only thing they ask is that developers work on something unrelated to their day-to-day jobs and that they show what they created to the rest of the company on Friday afternoon in a fun, freewheeling meeting. They call these things FedEx Days—because you have to deliver something overnight. It turns out that this one day of intense, undiluted autonomy has led to a whole array of fixes for existing software, a whole array of ideas for new products that would otherwise have never emerged.

There are all kinds of examples of companies reducing control and getting better results. Another example is Netflix. Netflix's vacation policy is they don't have one. People can take as much vacation as they want, whenever they want it. They just have to get their work done. Another good example is the R-O-W-E or the Results Only Work Environment. These are places where people don't have to be in the office at a certain time or any time. They just have to get their work done. So again, there are some really interesting best practices out there that are just emerging, but like many emerging practices, I think they're soon to become the norm.

Q| What do you like to do for relaxation or fun?

I like to run—as often as I can. I often run with my wife and we talk about work or life and that always is a highlight of the day. However, the time I am most relaxed is when I go to a baseball game—we're Washington Nationals fans—and eat some crappy food, drink a cold beer, and hang out with my family.

About the Author

Phaedra Brotherton is a trained career development facilitator and certified professional resume writer. She is former manager of ATD’s Career Development Community of Practice, and was previously senior writer/editor for ATD.

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