Dan Pink on writing, potential, and how selling is human

Rohan: We’ve all been touched by Dan Pink’s work in some way. His insights into the changing world of work have either been mentioned in a talk we’ve listened to, a book we’ve read, or been implemented in places where we work. Dan’s interview has been a long time coming and it was great to meet him in person. As in the video, Dan is super sharp and concise. The video is packed with many interesting insights from his books and otherwise. Enjoy!

About Dan Pink

featured_danDaniel H. Pink is the author of five provocative books– including the long-running New York Times bestsellers, A Whole New Mind and DriveHis latest book, To Sell is Human, is a #1 New York Times business bestseller, a #1 Wall Street Journal business bestseller, and a #1 Washington Post nonfiction bestseller. Dan’s books have been translated into 34 languages. He lives in Washington, DC, with his wife and their three children.

In 2011, Thinkers50 ranked him one of the 50 most influential business thinkers in the world.

A free agent himself, Dan 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.

He received a BA from Northwestern University, where he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, and a JD from Yale Law School. He has also received honorary degrees from the Pratt Institute (2013), the Ringling College of Art and Design (2011), and Westfield State University (2010).

Interview transcript



Rohan:  Dan, what is your backstory?  I’ve read your books and I understand that you have been a speech-writer.  I think it would be nice to go back a little further and understand when you decided you wanted to be an author and why you ended up doing what you’re doing today.

Dan:  I went to university and then a law school.  Here in the states law school is a graduate degree.  I decided that I didn’t want to practice law, so I worked in politics for a while.  That is what I was keenly interested in.  When I became quite sick of it, I decided that I wanted to do something else.

The whole time I had been writing my own stuff on the side, and I finally decided to take what I was doing on the side and make it what I was doing in the center.  That’s the story.  It wasn’t an epiphany where I bolted upright in bed and said, “I want to write books.”  It was a much slower process.



Rohan:  You’ve written about a lot of diverse topics even though they have a work and professional life trend.  What drives the subjects of these books?  Is it a scratch your own itch kind of thing where you have a question and you set about answering it?  What is the process?

Dan:   It’s really mostly that.  I’ve found that it’s really kind of foolish to game the market and try to come up with something that you think is going to popular.  You’re always going to be wrong.  You’re much better off doing stuff you’re interested in, stuff you’re curious about, stuff that scratches your own itch, and then doing a really good job with that.  I think that a lot of folks don’t extrapolate enough from their own experience.  I always figure that if I’m interested in something, other people will be interested in it as well because I’m not that special.  That’s really what it was.

There is a little bit of connective tissue between the books in that a lot of times a book is the product of some questions that its predecessor raised.  For instance, when I wrote a book called A Whole New Mind about the move toward more right-brain, artistic kind of thinking, one question that I got from people was, “How do you motivate and manage people to do that kind of work compared to the more algorithmic work?”

That is one of the things that got me on the path to studying motivation.  I wrote about it in a book called Drive.  Then in the book Drive which talks about how certain kinds of incentives that we rely on in the workplace are good for certain kinds of tasks but not so good for other kinds of tasks, readers asked me, “Assuming that you’re more right than wrong, what about sales?”

That’s one of the things that got me to write about sales.  It really is just a combination of stuff I’m curious about, stuff I want to spend my time on, and a lot of times things that I become curious about.  My curiosity is piqued by questions I get from readers about existing stuff.




Rohan:  You say that emphasizing potential is probably more important than emphasizing experience.  We’re more likely to go for what could be the next big thing rather than the next big thing itself.  When we run into interviews and jobs and moving people, we constantly get into the experience wall.  How have you seen people get around that?

Dan:  On the first point, that’s not my opinion.  It’s really what research shows.  People tend to be more persuaded by potential than by previous experience.  How people get around that is that they essentially play on different terms.  They basically try to make the case to the interviewer that the interviewee will make the other person’s life easier, not harder.  They leave aside the means that is the actual experience, and focus on the ends and try to make the case that they can tackle the problems that the interviewer faces.

There are a couple dimensions.  The first is that a lot of times in job interviews, the interviewer is basically trying to decide if this person is going to make their life easier or harder.  If you can be the kind of person that others think will make their life easier, that’s advantageous.  I think that can actually trump a lack of experience.

The other side of this is that there’s a growing body of evidence showing that previous accomplishment and experience are not only less persuasive than we’d think, but are much weaker predictors of subsequent success than we think.  There’s a lot of research on this.  There’s a Harvard study of securities analysts.  Some of the financial press and some other organizations have ratings.  There is an all-star team of financial analysts.  Someone who was an all-star financial ended up getting hired away quite a bit.  They found it was very rare for someone to go from the all-star ranking, get hired away, and continue being an all-star.

The theory behind that is that a lot of that person’s performance was about the context of being in that particular place.  It wasn’t that his or her skills were completely distinct and completely portable that you could take somewhere else.  They were actually hinged to the context of that organization.  In general, we’re rethinking that how much experience and previous accomplishment, not only the persuasive power of them but the predictive power of them, is coming into question.



Rohan:  You always go out and interview a whole bunch of people, and then you form an opinion and make a great structure.  I’m sure you’ve interviewed sales stars all over the place.  You’ve gone in with the implicit assumption that a lot of selling can be taught, or at least with the assumption that we can all get better as salespeople.  How much of the stars that you saw had innate talent versus learned talent?  How much of it was nature and how much was nurture?

Dan:  That”s a great question. Not only did I spend time with some of those great salespeople, but I asked them that very question.  There is a view out there that some people are naturals, that a certain person can sell anything.  It’s really amazing to me.  I asked this particular question to them: “Are some people just born salespeople?”

Almost uniformly, their view was no, especially now.  The reason for that was that whether they’re business buyers or consumer buyers, what matters more on the seller part is expertise.  That’s something I heard over and over again, particularly in B to B.  You have to have expertise.  What they were saying is that you’re not born an expert in computer systems.  You’re not born an expert in luxury sedans.  You acquire that.  You build that and you actually have to have some interest in it in order to do it.

The very best salespeople out there say, “No, I don’t think that there are some people who are naturals.  I think it’s something that people learn how to do.”

The other thing that fits into that is some of the research that I read about from Adam Grant at Penn about introversion and extroversion.  We have this stereotype that the naturals are super extroverted people.  What Grant’s and others’ research have found is that that’s not it.  People who do the best are in the middle, the ambiverts.  Most of us are ambiverts.  Most of us are naturals because it’s what human beings do.



Rohan:  Have there been insights from your books, specifically To Sell is Human and Drive, that changed your life, or the way you think or work?

Dan:  Yeah, I think there have.  I’ve been very taken by the research showing the persuasive power of questions and how because questions elicit an active response and get the other’s wheels turning,  that you can actually be more persuasive and move people more adroitly by posing questions rather than by making statements.  I find myself using questions more.

There’s some great research that I read about with regard to pitching that changed my view of pitching.  My view of pitching was very much that you pitch to convert.  I pitch to you and I’m trying to get you to give me a green light.  What the research showed is that that’s not what pitching is.  Pitching is inviting people into a conversation.  That changed the way that I pitch ideas.

In Drive, I wrote a little bit about grit and I was very persuaded about that in terms of how I talk to my kids and what kind of values and things I want to encourage in my kids.  I want them to be gritty.  I was very taken by the research that came a little bit later on the importance of being a master of making progress.  I’ve done some things in my own life using some software called iDone this to help me make sure that I measure my own progress.  I write books that I would like to read.  One reason that I write books is that I want to read and learn something about this particular topic and no one else has done it yet.  I have to do it myself.




Rohan:  You’ve written a whole bunch of books and you’ve always gone in depth in terms of topic.  Do you have a certain process that you follow that you feel like you’ve gotten down to a tee when you open up a new question?  How do you know a question is going to be good enough for an entire book?  Do you try out many ideas and then one of them goes much further than the others?

Dan:   Those are two excellent questions.  Let me take the second one first.  You don’t know whether anything is going to be a great idea.  I’m a digital and paper packrat.  I keep a little notebook with me to write down ideas.  I have idea files on my laptop.  I have a paper file.  I keep a bunch of ideas and shards of things that I go through periodically.

Then it becomes kind of a funnel.  Right now I have a running list of 16-17 book ideas.  A lot of times when I revisit those ideas I’m shocked at how bad some of them are.  I believe that the only way to have good ideas is to have a lot of ideas.  I’ll look at that big list of things, and I’ll also see what stays on the list over time because I’m always pruning that list.  If something stays on that list for a decent amount of time, that gives me a hint that it might be something worth pursuing.

Typically the way that I do things for a book is that I’ll write a proposal.  I end up writing pretty long proposals partly because it’s a test for me about whether there’s a there there and whether I’m interested enough to do it.  There are some topics that interesting enough for an article but aren’t interesting enough for a book.  You don’t want to go down the path that you’re interested enough for an article and then commit to writing a book about it.  One check on that is writing a proposal.  I’ve written proposals before where I got well over half way through and thought, I’m not interested enough in this or this is not as strong an idea as I thought, and then I abandon it.  It’s a little bit of a funneling process.

I also think strategically about whether there’s a market for this book, too.  For example, let’s say I was keenly interested in collecting stamps from Estonia and I wanted to write a book about Estonian stamps.  That might be really interesting to me but there’s no market for that, so it becomes a hobby rather than something I really do.  There is a strategic layer on it as well.

In terms of the process for the books, it really depends.  In terms of writing, I’m a big believer in structure.  I work really hard to figure out the architecture of the book.   Sometimes it’s about doing a lot of interviews first.  Other times it’s about actually trying to write some stuff first and seeing where the holes are.  I don’t have a process necessarily about how to get a book off the runway.  Once it’s off the runway, then I do try to write in the morning every day and to try to get a certain word count each day so that there’s some momentum.  That’s only once it’s off the runway.



Rohan:  I see an amazing book shelf behind you.  Have you read all of those books?

Dan:  Right behind me, those are actually a lot of my books, so I have.



Rohan:  What are your favorite books, besides your own?

Dan:  I don’t know if I have a single favorite.  I read a fair amount of books and I try to read fairly eclectically.  Working by Studs Terkel has stuck with me over time.  He’s a guy who did a bunch of interviews with people in America about what their work is like, which is sort of what I’ve been doing for 17 years.  I think that Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning is an incredibly important book.  Steven Pressfield’s War of Art is a book that’s been personally helpful and meaningful to me.  In general, I like to read a lot and take pieces from all kinds of different books.



Rohan:  What are your favorite movies or TV shows that you would recommend?

Dan:  I like short documentaries such as Jiro Dreams of Sushi which is a great thing about mastery.  I just saw a movie based on actual events called No from Chile about a political campaign.  It was really good.  I’m a big fan of the series of movies by Michael Apted – 7 Up, 14 Up, 21 Up – which follows a group of people in the UK every seven years to see where their lives go.  On television, there’s an American series called The Americans that I really like, and I like Homeland.  That’s really about it.



Rohan:  You’re extremely busy as evidenced by the fact that it’s taken me about a year and a half to get to you.  What are some of your productivity hacks?  What are routines and things that you do to stay productive?

Dan:  One of the smallest and most useful things is that if there is a task that you can complete in less than two minutes, do it now.  As simple-minded as that sounds, it’s actually extremely useful to me.  I try to batch my email so that when I respond, I respond in batches rather than let it just trickle in.

My office is my garage.  When I’m writing I’ll start in the morning and commit to a certain amount of words and I won’t do anything else until I hit that amount of words.  I won’t answer email, talk on the phone, or do anything else.  Sometimes I can hit my word count by 10:30 if I start at 9:00 in the morning.  Other days I don’t hit it until 4:00.  If I don’t hit it until 4:00, I get a lot emails and phone calls piled up.  I’m a getting things done guy, a GTD David Allen guy.  I use a lot of that kind of stuff too, but not as often as I should.



Rohan:  What is an idea that inspires you that you would like to share?

Dan:  One of the things that I’m really curious about is the combination of demographics and developmental psychology.  There’s some evidence in developmental psychology that when people hit a certain age, their perspective shifts significantly.  When people get older, they start to think about what’s called generativity.  That is basically what their legacy is going to be.  What kind of world are they going to leave?  I’m not at that age yet.  When people aren’t struggling for survival, people are making their way and building a life.  Then at a certain point they realize that it’s not so much about day-to-day, but it’s about what their legacy is going to be and what kind of world they are going to leave.

That’s not a brilliant insight in developmental psychology but it’s accurate and I think what’s interesting is when you combine that with the demographics of the world where the number of people who are aging is higher than any time in human civilization.  The combination of those two things is potentially very powerful.

We loved your style of answering – everything was sharp and to the dot. It was a great pleasure having you here, thank you so much for talking to us, Dan!

Real Leaders Team