Daniel H. Pink

business thinker | author

Daniel H. Pink is the author of five provocative books — including three long-running New York Times bestsellers, A Whole New Mind, Drive, and To Sell is Human. His books have been translated into 35 languages and have sold more than 2 million copies worldwide. His latest book, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing will be published in January 2018.

In 2015, London-based Thinkers 50 named him, alongside Michael Porter and Clayton Christensen, as one of the top 10 business thinkers in the world.

Pink’s TED Talk on the science of motivation is one of the 10 most-watched TED Talks of all time, with more than 19 million views. His RSA Animate video about the ideas in his book, Drive, has collected more than 14 million views.

He lives in Washington, DC, with his wife and their three children.


Drew Kugler: In today's conversation I have the pleasure to speak with with Daniel Pink. And many of you who are connected to my work at all will also be familiar with with Dan's work. I wrote down all the book titles today—we'll get to those. But the story that sticks out as a way to start here took place now twelve years ago at a place called Kramer Books in Washington D.C., where Dan was nice enough to meet me for breakfast, and was also good enough to just very instinctually respond that the concept of Constructive Candor was something that resonated with him, without frankly really understanding too deeply what it was. And that thought always stuck in my head. It follows me to this day. And it also gave me that bit of courage and insistence to try to get Dan as he was nice to join me in these podcasts. So, where did we start Dan? I have been a fan of every book.

Dan Pink: Thank you.

DK: Over on the shelf over to my right, and I'm going to come in and out of some of the books a little bit as we talk here. But more importantly, the matter I've tried to ask the people who've been nice enough to join this cast to get them to loosen up a little bit is the following question, and that is, “What did you want to be when you were a little kid?” You have a recollection of...

DP: Yes, interesting question. I think early on, like, really... even ten and before, I think I probably wanted to be a baseball player. Although I probably figured out by about age nine that is not going to happen at my skill level. So I think that's—I think that might have been the earliest one. What I do remember actually as a little bit older than that—wanting to work as like a director, screenwriter, actor, believe it or not.

DK: Oh, all three—you were a triple threat.

DP: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I thought it was time that the movie Heaven Can Wait came out, and Warren Beatty, you know, wrote the screenplay and directed it and starred in it, and I thought, that sounds pretty cool. So I think that's—I think that's what it was. That's a good question—I've haven't thought about for a while. What did you want to be when you grew up?

DK: I was very clearly with my father is, as a municipal court judge in San Diego County, appointed by the earlier Governor Brown, the pressure was on, very nicely from my parents, and also from the media—having seen the movie Compulsion—Orson Welles—to be a lawyer, a defense lawyer. And then I saw Inherit the Wind— Spencer Tracy—the Scopes trial. So I always liked courtroom drama. But I found out—I do know in your biography it said obviously you went to law school, then swore it off pretty quickly. But I really thought I was going to be a very good lawyer, but I knew that I would suck, big time, as a law student. So that changed it. But, because I got to go sit in my dad's courtroom, and sit on the bench and sit in the witness stand, and play court that's what I was going to be. But, the follow up question is, if that's a ballplayer and then you were going to be Warren Beatty...

DP: I don't want to be Warren Beatty, I just like—I wanted to be the triple threat / Hollywood force.

DK: Right, but here comes the other question; what do you want to be now?

DP: Jesus! I don't know. You know, I think that that is one of those questions that people, that is always in the process of being answered, you know, doesn't have it if it doesn't have a definitive answer. That is, we are all—it is in the process... so I feel maybe I'll go back to that actor / writer / director thing.

DK: There you go—

DP: Maybe I'll give that a whirl. But I don't know. I, you know, I think at some level—it's a very interesting line of inquiry. I think that at some level, you know, the question is, not what you want to be, but what you want to do? And, I think that that is a really intriguing question. And in my own life, the question of, not only what do I want to do, but even the question of what do you do, is more, is I think, more revealing. I do like to hear—that it's a great question to ask people—what they wanted to be when they were little kids. And you know, how much if they were given the opportunity to do that now, they would take it. I have to say, if I were given the opportunity, or if I had the opportunity, to direct, right, and star in my own right your film, I would probably do it.

DK: Now you did the TV show couple years ago...

DP: Yeah.

DK: National Geographic, Discovery, one of those...

DP: National Geographic. Yes.

DK: Thank you. Did you get—you were the actor in that and I'm sure you contributed to the...

DP: It was nonfiction, so I, you know, it was a nonfiction show, so I was the host of the show, and also a co-executor producer, so that's different from say, writing a screenplay from top to bottom and then directing the whole thing, and putting out, you know, putting out a two-hour feature film.

DK: That's true. So people are sitting there listening, thinking, what does this have to do with conversation? And as you know this—the show, is called, and as I explained in the introduction, that I'm going to tape separately, about the small, funny story about this being our second iteration of this podcast. With the show is called Tell Me What To Say. Meaning, people hopefully tune in and learn something about the connection between conversation, human conversation, human interaction, and the path that one goes on in their life. That leads me to the question for you. Your—one, two, three, four, five, and an upcoming sixth book...

DP: Yes.

DK: To me, all, of course, with my bias, all touch on the notion of of connecting with people—and how to do it. The question I had for you—so you started with something called a book called The Free Agent Nation. It went on to where we met around a book called A Whole New Mind. Somewhere in there came The Adventures of Johnny Bunko.

DP: It did.

DK: Which by the way, was the huge hit of my summer class at U.S.C., as people were reeling through their questions about a career path. And then came Drive and To Sell is Human. So my question for today...

DP: Yes sir...

DK: Of of all that research...

DP: Indeed...

DK: You did of all of that—what, if I if I really put the proverbial gun to your head, what would you pick is the Most Important Thing, MIT, that someone should take from your research and writing?

DP: I don't know.

DK: Because there's so much, I know.

DP: That's a hard one, you know? I sort of like to let—I'll be a nice guy and answer your question—but I'm going to rebut the premise here for a moment.

DK: Please do.

DP: I think that is something for—at some level—for readers to figure out. I'm not—it's not as if I have some kind of set strategy where each book will grow from the same—not even close. I just write what—I write what I'm interested in, and what I truly, I mean mostly what I'm curious about at that moment. And that drives it more—that drives the choices of what I pursue more than anything else. So there isn't, wasn't some kind of grand strategy at the beginning where I'm going to write this set of books in this sequence. That's not, that's not how I roll. I don't know if that's how anybody rolls, but certainly not how I roll. So I really leave it to readers to find connective tissues—connect the tissue among the titles, because I think different people will find different connections, because of those connections are so personal Now, that's my rebuttal of your premise.

DK: Right.

DP: Now I'll answer your question.

DK: Right.

DP: If there's one thing that I think readers should take away it would be that all these books have to do with the subject of work. Why we work. What we do. How we work. And I think that what we, what is helpful, to most of us, is to look at work with a little bit more acuity and a little bit more reverence. If you think about our lives, and this is why I find work so interesting, if you think about our lives, we spend, you know, half of our waking hours working. And that makes it a pretty good lens through which to understand, to examine, human nature. Human behavior. Human values. Human idiosyncrasies. And so, I guess of the one, the meta message might be: pay attention to work. It's going to reveal something about yourself. It's going to reveal something about the people in your world.

DK: Yup. Got it. Thank you. Thanks for both the rebuttal, because you're you were right on both fronts. That's not easy in answering the question. So if I was to start walking you through important conversations in your life. Ones that have gone well. You know all our outcomes in our life, goes my premise, are driven in the vehicle of conversation. And again, rebut the premise, that would be helpful for my future shows. But can you think of a new unusually impactful conversation along the way of your life, career, writing? Not yet to Hollywood, obviously. And then, I'm really going to push you, and can you think of one that went especially badly?

DP: I know, the first one, the one that went especially badly, is a harder one.

DK: Everybody says I've let everybody off to easy in these podcasts up to this point. Because as you know about Constructive Candor, it's about saying the hard thing. Saying the unsaid. Have you been through that with another human being— or the rest of your team? I decided to...

DP: I don't remember—I don't remember having—I think that for me, it's probably conversations that I might have avoided, that I should have had—is probably more relevant. But as for the first one, I think you know why that one of the most important conversations of this one I had with my wife over twenty years ago. And it had to do with this. So I was working, and as you mentioned I went to law school; I never practiced law. Instead I worked in politics and I became a political speech writer—in kind of a half-assed way. And I was doing that, and I was working in politics, and it was OK. I mean, some days were good, some days are bad, just like anything else. And yet my wife noticed something that was kind of interesting. From the very—I had known my wife since I was twenty-five or so, but even from the time I was in college, I would always quote unquote be writing on the side. I would write articles for magazines or newspapers. When I was in law school, I wrote more op-eds for the Hartford Current than I did actual law papers. Even when I had jobs as a speech writer in government, I was writing magazine articles and magazine columns and newspaper columns. And in many cases wasn't even getting paid for them, because of ethics rules in the federal government. And my wife and I lived in an apartment at that time in Adams Morgan section, a small apartment in the Adams Morgan section of Washington D.C. And one night I was at my computer—it must have been about midnight. And I had a job—I had to get up at six in the morning to go to a job, a pretty demanding job. And yet here I was at midnight working on some article. And I think that was the spark for my wife saying, “Hey wait a second, this thing you're doing on the side, I think you kind of like it. I think it's important to you. Maybe that's what you should be doing in the center.”

And what's interesting about that, at least to me, is that you know in, in the—my path—to—earlier in my life—I've actually never really—this goes to your earlier question, Drew—I never really said, never said, “When I grow up I want to become a writer.” I didn't say that. You know it wasn't like I said when I grow up I will never become a writer, or when I grow up I don't want to become a writer, when I grow up I can't become a writer. It just wasn't on the table. And yet here was a thing that I was doing all the time, and that's why I think that at some level, the question, the better question, then, what do you want to be, is what are you not even—what do you want to be, but what do you do? And I think that that can be revealing. I think the conversations—I don't think it was a single conversation—the conversations that I had with my wife about that led me eventually to quit my job and say, maybe I should just write—try to write full time under my own byline—and see what happens.

DK: Do you remember at all—I mean I know it was midnight, and I know you had to get up in a few hours, but do you remember at all when she said that—your reaction?

DP: I think my, my hunch is that—my reaction was probably subdued—and it's like, “Oh my God, I never thought of that.” I think she was basically telling me, telling me something that I probably had realized myself, but no one had ever said out loud.

DK: Right. Right.

DP: So didn't come it didn't come to me as like a a revelation—a midnight revelation—like some divine spirit entering our tiny little bedroom on Columbia Road; but it was more—yeah—I am not—I've not had any epiphanies in my entire life, so I'm waiting for one of my old age here.

DK: Hold it.. wait—but you say that—I mean anyone who looks at your writing, looks it any one of the books, they all stand on their own, and I don't need to blow wind up your skirt to tell you that. They must have flowed. You said it's whatever you're curious about, but knowing you a minuscule bit, you're an intensely curious guy who knows how a hell of a lot, and thinks about lots of things. Are any of these books—in these—in essence—conversations with your readers? Isn't there an epiphanous—is that the word?—epiphanous moment, where you commit to a book?

DP: No, there isn't, because, because it works more—and works much more slowly and laboriously and tediously than that. It really does. I mean if you want the ground truth of how—of how my life works, and I think that's true for most people's lives work. I mean basically what you have is—you have Stephen Johnson—the writer Stephen Johnson has a nice—a lovely turn of phrase for this, which he calls the “slow hunch”, and I think that I've had a lot of slow hunches. And rather than instant, electric epiphanies.

DK: Got it.

DP: And, I think one can have more slow hunches if one keeps one's eyes and ears open.

DK: Right. OK, so now the listener is welcome to my, maybe dozenth conversation with Dan about writing a book. How does one—somebody out there along with me is thinking what's the difference between the slow hunch that turns into a whole new mind. And just something they were intrigued about for a while?

DP: Good question; that's a really good question. And I have, and I can actually answer that one with action or practices or habits or something like that. What I do myself and it's worked for me, I mean your mileage may vary—is is that I keep pretty—I keep a lot of lists and files and folders of ideas. And you know I throw in a newspaper article into literally a paper file. I'm sitting here at my desk; to the to the left over here and to my left is down here—it's a file full of ideas and things. And I will also keep them and I've become a huge Dropbox user in the last couple of years. And I've actually started using Evernote now. And basically I just keep ideas of like stuff I'm curious about—“Hey, that's kind of interesting. Wow they're doing...somebody says artificial intelligence is going to replace management consultant.” And so that's kind of interesting; maybe there's something there. And, and what I'll do and then I'll have various ideas like you know—and every once in a while some of those slow—those little pieces will will bubble up into a slow hunch. Maybe I should write a book about X.

And you know—and what I'll do—is maybe every six months I'll go through those files and check things out. And, a lot of times the actual ideas I have for books or something like that are terrible. They're awful, when you look at them in retrospect. Like why the hell would I want—who's going to read that—and why would I want to work on that? Like in the moment, the flush, or the initial idea, I thought it was super cool; but from the safe distance of six months, it's like I'm not working on that. And so a lot of just—or they're not that novel—they're not that interesting—they're not that remarkable—they're not stuff I want to work on. And so I just go through those files every six months, or so, about every six months, and look at it, and a lot of the stuff gets scrubbed away. And what's interesting about that is that some stuff stays. And so some stuff will stay for the first six months past. It will still be there the next six months. Look at it again. Sticking around. Sticking around. And then you get—then you know that something might be there, and so that's the first step. But it's long and not epiphanous, to use your word.

And then for an actual book what I will do, is I will write a book proposal. Instead of writing, instead of going Hollywood style to a pitch meeting and saying this is the book I want to write... I will actually write a proposal. It's usually—you know—not super long, maybe thirty to forty typewritten pages. So call it you know, 8,000-9,000 words. And, I will say here's what the book is about. Here's who's going to buy it. Here's why it's different. Here's why I'm the person to write it. And in doing that, I learn a lot. So for instance, I have—for this—I just finished another new book but before that I had two other ideas that I pursued. I wrote book proposals for them and realized at the end of writing the book proposals that they were terrible ideas.

DK: You got all the way through—to me, forty pages of course, oh my God. But—but—you got all the way through that and went, “No good.”

DP: Yeah, maybe I got through like twenty-five of the forty pages—something like that. But I got through a fair amount. It wasn't like, yeah, I got through a fair amount on both of them. And what I realized is that it either wasn't hanging together, or it wasn't, in one case, it was like, hmm; not sure this really worked as a book, it could work as another project. It's an interesting idea, it's another project. Another one I got the only got through and said, “This might require more work, a different kind of work, on a different timetable, so maybe it's really instead of a “no”—it's “not now.” There was another time several years ago where I sent my family away for two weeks in December, and said, “You know what, I've got to do a book proposal. I got to get this thing done. Just like give me my head's down time. I'll live like an animal for two weeks and I'll get this thing done.” And after about ten or eleven days I called my wife and said, “Got some good and some bad news. The good news is you can come home. The bad news is that I finished the proposal, and it's a terrible book. I'm not going to write it.” But you know, here's the thing—it's like you wince a little bit, Drew, and I appreciate that empathy. But here's the thing; what's worse is going forward on it. The only thing worse than, like, writing thirty pages and saying it's not a book, is signing a contract writing three hundred pages and realizing it's a crappy book. That's a disaster!

DK: There is, there is a thing—there is a famous author who I heard directly from, who told me that they—trying to be gender non-specific—that they—part of their process—is take the first draft and share it with some of their writer buddies.

DP: OK.

DK: Have little, you know a little book club, but of their own...

DP: Yeah, so that's a good idea.

DK: This person shares the draft. The buddies read it and these other buddies are really good writers too, of some fame. And they all came back to their friend and said, “This is really bad!” And the writer had to choose to throw out fifty-thousand words.

DP: That's a lot of words.

DK: That's a lot of words. Because it just didn't work for the group, which the writer was and continues to rely on. And then the book that got created after that through again throwing the family out and living animalistically—they—it was a hit. And a bestseller. So anyway, as somebody said, it's a Bobby Jones' golf game—a game I'm not familiar with—but but fascinating to hear of the discipline and the randomness and also of the intention in which this is all done.

DP: And I think that sort of at the at a deeper structure—to your broader inquiry is true—I think that part of—one of—the secrets of life is deciding what NOT to do; especially if you come from privilege or relative privilege. And I think that anybody who is born in this country, has an opportunity for a decent education, is extraordinarily privileged, extraordinarily privileged, both in international terms and historic terms. And so, you know, so if you have that kind of privilege, deciding what not to do is one of the most important, some of the most important, decisions you'll make.

DK: Yup. Wow! So I want to ask one more, possibly two more, but one more question that maybe we should get edited back into an earlier thing you said; but I'm going to put it right here. And is the notion that you couldn't think of any bad conversations that went badly. But this concept of which follows me every day, and I follow it, this concept of avoidance. So play Lucy for twenty-five cents in the Peanuts columns for anybody who remembers that. Play a psychologist for me and tell me what you know about, you know, for yourself, for mothers. Why do people avoid the things they know they should do? Especially with the seminal value of having good work relationships. Why do we avoid?

DP: In general, we recoil from discomfort rather than lean into it. I think that's the meta-reason; I don't think that's a great insight. So I think that's part of it. And maybe we also rationalize it saying, “You know, I could do this thing, but it's not going to make any difference anyway. So why should I waste my time?” That could be an argument, it could be a rationalization; I don't know.

DK: I have identified, in my little world, that's the group of people who I meet on planes, who want my advice, and then they tell me it won't make any difference anyway. I call those folks “The Silent People.” Because when push comes to shove, as one person says, “I just want to keep my head down.” That is both a rationalization, and a very compelling argument to the extent it affects their behavior so much—in that way. Well, I'm trying to—I'm in the process through these podcasts—of compiling points of reference for people as they—as one person says, “to somehow say the unsaid.” And that's part of the quest of of this work that I'm doing; so thank you for for that. Which takes me to the last the last question around some stuff I've read from you. I know this was not your original research, but but I have often gone to page 101 of To Sell is Human. Because page 101, I believe, is where you distinguish through some research from a couple of universities about the distinction between interrogative self-talk, and declarative self-talk. Self-talk has been something that even the most demanding, clients of mine, are befuddled by, because...

DP: Interesting. Why's that?

DK: Well, they realize that, you know, it catches them at their own game. If we, and part of the work that I do, is helping people, not journal or anything about their self-talk, but certainly people can remember what they said to themselves under certain circumstances. When these high level, high ego, high financial people say to me, “Well, I don't think people can change,” we analyze that for its effect on their behavior. And they basically resign themselves to the fact that they are creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of what's going to work and what isn't. And they don't engage. They don't ask questions, etc., etc., etc. My point, though, is: you were the first one—that page and your writing, was the first to illuminate the difference to me—which I've carried aggressively forward—between do you make statements, or do we ask questions? Can you jump, expand, reinforce any of that? To me, that's the most important takeaways of what I've read from you.

DP: This comes from some pretty interesting research on this question, as you say, of a self-talk, which is what it what do we say to ourselves, and I mean that literally. So if you are about to engage in a some important encounter. Let's say you're going to pitch an idea for funding for a business or something like that. And as you're waiting out there—people do—as you're waiting outside in the lobby, people to talk to themselves; and what people typically will do—often they'll say, “You got this. You can do this.” Very positive affirmative, and what the research shows is that it's actually better than doing nothing. It does give you a little jolt of energy and buoyancy. But it might not be the best thing. The best thing, as you say, might be something called interrogative self-talk, where you say, “Can you do this? And if so, how?” You turn that statement into a question. And the reason I think is interesting—and I do think that it goes conversations as well—is that questions by their very nature elicit an active response. So if I ask a question, even if it's a rhetorical question sometimes, people have to respond. And that gets their wheels turning a little bit more. And the same thing is true when we ask questions of ourselves—our wheels have the turn a little bit more. And so if I say to myself, if I am fledgling entrepreneur raising money, I say to myself, “You know, you can do this. You got this.” It's good—it's better than doing nothing. And I said myself, “Can you do this, and if so how?” that's better.

Because what if I answer, “Yeah, I can do this. My research is airtight. Yeah, I can do this.” I've got to make sure that I don't talk quickly or that I invite questions. And that are even questions I ask myself. “Can I do this. Yeah, you know, this one guy got wind—is really down on this one aspect of my business plan, so I've got this great rebuttal for that, but I got to make sure that I use...” What am I doing there? I'm preparing. I'm rehearsing. And so this thing that—it's a little quieter—asking yourself questions—is actually more muscular than the seemingly muscular “You can do it.” You got louder. “You can do this.” And I think it has to do with our questions. Because questions are more interactive. Questions elicit an active response.

DK: That's right. And when you're using them for yourself—sat, let's put it this way—the declarative nature of statements absolutely presumes and almost freezes into place a determined future. What's going to happen.

DP: Interesting.

DK: “Oh, that'll never work.” Well then, why would you want to prove yourself wrong? We don't like being wrong, I think, so where I take this and slide it aggressively is into people who are training for, as you said, for a presentation. You know the number one thing people say, you know this, the Jerry Seinfeld joke of the number one fear is that speaking in front of a group of people. The number two fear most people fear is death, which means you'd rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy at a funeral. So, and the only planned humor of this call. But the point is, I talk to them about the difference between professing their nervousness, which is a statement, it is always a statement, “Oh I'm so nervous. I'm going to pee my pants.” When I've literally had people say that or worse, or do they have a set of questions, which can launch them into healthier preparation, right? And I have taken that very squarely from To Sell is Human.

DP: So there's also so on that particular issue, there's some directly very good research I think it from, Alison Wood Brooks at Harvard, showing that one of the best things you can do when you're nervous is to re-frame the nervousness as excited. Don't say, “I'm nervous.” Say, “I'm excited.”

DK: Right.

DP: That's another way of—it's another kind of re-framing of your thoughts in the same way the questions. Put your thoughts in a different frame. You know different—you go down a different tunnel if you start with the premise “I'm excited” or start with premise that “I'm nervous.”

DK: Yeah, excellent So this podcast, as we begin to conclude here, this podcast should air some time in September. Is that it all timely for pre-ordering of your new work?

DP: It's never too early to pre-order a new book.

DK: What should the reader be expecting / exploring this time?

DP: I've got a book coming out in January. It's called When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing. And it looks at all the “when” questions we make, we have in our lives. When should you switch careers? When to get married? When should you get serious about a project? What kind of effect do beginnings have on our behavior? Midpoints? Endings? When should you work out during the day? When and what kinds of breaks should you take? When should you in any given day do some work? And the book will be out in early January 2018, and later readers can pre-order it any time they want simply by going to your favorite online or offline bookseller you know, and asking for When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing by Daniel Pink.

DK: Well, speaking of that whenever I have imposed upon you—back to 2005, and then up to a couple of years ago—as I tell people, you have been both genuine and generous.

DP: Well, thank you.

DK: You are not one of those guys who says, “Yeah, let's keep in touch.” You actually, as busy and prolific as you are, you do keep in touch, or at least take my e-mails, and I thank you sincerely for that. And the story of this being the second time through will hopefully emphasize that even more. So, thanks for hanging out with me today Dan.

DP: My pleasure Drew. Always, always a good time.

DK: Thanks now.