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Dan Pink: An interview by Bob Morris

Dan Pink

Dan Pink is the author of several provocative, bestselling books about the changing world of work. His latest is DRiVE: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, which uses 40 years of behavioral science to overturn the conventional wisdom about human motivation and offer a more effective path to high performance. A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future charts the rise of right-brain thinking in modern economies and describes the six abilities individuals and organizations must master in an outsourced, automated age. A Whole New Mind is a long-running New York Times and BusinessWeek bestseller that has been translated into 21 languages. Pink’s first book, Free Agent Nation: The Future of Working for Yourself, was a Washington Post bestseller that Publishers Weekly says it “has become a cornerstone of employee-management relations.”

His articles on business and technology appear in many publications, including The New York Times, Harvard Business Review, Fast Company, and Wired, where he is a contributing editor. 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, with honors, from Northwestern University, where he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, and a JD from Yale Law School. To his lasting joy, he has never practiced law

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Morris: Before focusing on your books, a few general questions. First, to what extent (if any) did your association with national leaders such as Vice President Gore and Labor Secretary Robert Reich influence your thinking about the American workplace?

Pink: In those jobs, I got an incredible chance to learn a lot. For instance, I was able to visit workplaces with both of my bosses — and that gave me a great up-close view of what was going on in America. Since speechwriting is at the juncture of policy and communications, I was able to get a handle on issues like the minimum wage and workforce training and retraining and economic policy more broadly. And at the Labor Department especially, I was fortunate enough to spend my time thinking and writing about these sorts of issues, which I found fascinating.  That said, my former bosses definitely don’t agree with everything I’ve written since I went out on my own 13 years ago.

Morris: In 1924, William L. McKnight (then CEO of 3M) suggested that, “If you put fences around people, you get sheep. Give people the room they need.” In my opinion, that observation seems more relevant to the workplace now than it did to the workplace 86 years ago. Do you agree?

Pink: Absolutely. McKnight was ahead of his time.

Morris: One evening long ago in Concord (MA), Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered a public lecture on the principles of transcendentalism. Afterward, he responded to questions. An elderly farmer in bib overalls, hat in hand, stood up. “All that’s very interesting, sir, but how do you transcend an empty stomach?” It seems to me that at least some of the core concepts in Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs remain relevant. Your own opinion?

Pink: I agree. In fact, I say several times in DRiVE that if people aren’t being paid enough, if they’re not being compensated adequately, if they can’t support their families, you’re not going to get any real motivation.  People do have to move past the struggle for survival before they can start fully reckoning with things like intrinsic motivation and transcend the day-to-day.  The amazing thing is that a stunning number of people — well more than at any point in human civilization — have reached this level.

Morris: For those who have not as yet read Free Agent Nation, you conclude each chapter with what you call “The Box” that consists of four components: four “The Crux,” “The Factoid,” “The Quote,” and “The Word.” What is the primary function of “The Box” and of each of the four components?

Pink: I wanted to make the book more accessible.  As much as it pains writers, some people don’t read every single word of every single page of a book. And some people don’t read books in order. For these folks, I tried to design a way for them to get the main ideas of each chapter. Likewise, sometimes when I read books, I’ll read a few chapters, set it aside for what turns out to be a few weeks, and then pick it up again. I always want a refresher course — like on television programs that begin, “On our previous episode . . . ” — to get me back into the book.

Morris: Here is a rather lengthy excerpt in which you focus on whatdrove the creation and development of the free agent nation ten years ago: “Four ingredients were essential: 1) the social contract of work-in which employees traded loyalty for security-crumbled; 2) individuals needed a large company less, because the means of production-that is, the tools necessary to create wealth-went from expensive, huge, and difficult for one person to operate to cheap, houseable, and easy for one person to operate; 3) widespread, long-term prosperity allowed people to think of work as a way not only to make money, but also to make meaning; 4) the half-life of organizations began shrinking, assuring that most individuals will outlive any organization for which they work.”

Here’s my question: What are the essential ingredients today?

Pink: I think they’re the same. Indeed, these forces have intensified. Long-term job security is even less prevalent than 10 years ago.  Technology is shockingly more powerful. (Remember: FAN came out before broadband was widespread and before iPhones, Blackberries, YouTube, and Facebook were around.)  As we discussed before, the search for meaning continues — in part because of the aging of the Baby Boom generation.  And the cycle times of organizations have quickened.  It’s amazing, really.

Morris: Specifically how have America’s new independent workers “transformed” the way people live, not only in the United States but also elsewhere throughout the world?

Pink: I think it goes back to one of those four forces. These workers have both shaped and reflected the new social contract of work. It used to be that organizations gave security in exchange for individuals giving loyalty.  The new social contract is that organizations give opportunity in exchange for individuals giving talent.  That approach is most robust in the US, but becoming more prevalent elsewhere. What’s also interesting, and somewhat related to this, is even people with “traditional” jobs are more like free agents.  They accept and bear much more of the risk. In some sense, the boundary between who’s independent and who’s traditionally employed is being blurred.

Morris: There are some people who simply are not cut out to be free agents. They are willing to work hard, but strict supervision.  They are much more productive of they have a time clock and a “boss.” How will they survive as the number of traditional jobs seems to be decreasingly more rapidly, especially given the current economy?

Pink: Let’s remember that most people in the U.S. workforce are not self-employed or entrepreneurs.  Most people still hold traditional jobs — and that will likely remain true for a long time. What worries me is that we’re leaving huge numbers of people behind — not because they’re self-employed rather than employed — but because they lack the skills and social capital to make it in a 21st century economy.

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To read the complete interview, please click here.

Dan Pink invites those who read this interview to check out the resources at http://www.danpink.com/.

Bob Morris is an independent management consultant based in Dallas who specializes in high-impact knowledge management and accelerated executive development. He has also reviewed more than 2,200 business books for Amazon’s US, UK, and Canadian websites. To contact him directly: [email protected]


Melissa G Wilson

Melissa has been a leader in the book writing, publishing and marketing arena for the past two decades. To date, she has helped more than 100 thought leaders write, publish and market their books. Her clients include executives such as Dan Weinfurter a seven-time Inc 500 winner and Orlando Ashford, President of Holland Cruise Lines.

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