Daniel Pink: Modern-Day Mentalist

The best-selling author and idea machine rethinks sales.
July 9, 2013

Daniel Pink revels in ideas—big ones, little ones, those that need action, those that need contemplation, and those that may lead to even more ideas. You might even call the best-selling author an idea junkie; he’s OK with the label. His most recent work, To Sell Is Human (Riverhead Books, 2012), is a prime example of how his mind works: The book takes age-old ideas about who is selling what to whom and why, and turns them on their sides with fresh analysis.

The 49-year-old Washington, D.C.-area writer constantly gathers information. At first, Pink may not have an inkling why something speaks to him. It could be data that ends up in the notebook he always carries. Or it might involve published articles that he puts in carefully labeled folders. Perhaps it is feedback from readers of his works or even statistics or trends to be stashed in computer files. Or maybe he will jot down the interesting snippet on a poster-size Post-it Note that joins a growing galaxy of information on his office wall, most of them ideas he wants within gazing distance so he can ponder them at will.

“I just swivel my chair and look at something, and that’ll give me a sense of where I am,” he says from his home office about an hour before he and his family leave for a Washington Nationals baseball game. “They give me a sense of how things will fit together.” At some point these notions may seed an article he writes (The New York Times, Harvard Business Review, Fast Company), a blog item (DanPink.com) or a book (five so far).

Letting the Cream Rise to the Top

Slowly but surely, Pink has picked at the changing world of work, scrutinized its various components with extensive research, and produced provocative books that also reveal a bit about his own evolution. “I’m very much of a tortoise rather than a hare when it comes to developing ideas. I’m just not a guy who bolts upright in bed at night with epiphanies.”

He has received much attention in the process. His books are best-sellers and critically acclaimed. He’s even received the O blessing—Oprah Winfrey wrote that his A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future (Penguin Group, 2006) “really spoke to me” and made sure it reached her goddaughter and her fellow 2008 graduating class of Stanford University, buying 4,500 copies so one could be placed in each graduate’s chair for commencement services. His The Adventures of Johnny Bunko: The Last Career Guide You'll Ever Need (Riverhead Books, 2008) was the first American business book in the Japanese comic format known as manga (it is the only graphic novel to become a BusinessWeek best-seller). Pink has found a receptive audience in business schools “because I think they’re looking to say, ‘How can we deliver the most value to our students?’ ”

More than 5.5 million views have made his 2009 “the puzzle of motivation” among the top 20 most-watched TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) Talks of all time. Thinkers50, an every-two-years ranking of the world’s thought leaders on business, listed him among its chosen 50 in 2011.

Pink didn’t exactly follow a straight-line career plan to get here. He completed an undergraduate degree at Northwestern University, where he was a Truman Scholar, and later graduated from Yale Law School, where he served as editor in chief of The Yale Law & Policy Review. He never practiced law. “After completing law school, I started doing speechwriting, did it reasonably well and reasonably quickly, so I was asked to do it again and again. But suddenly I didn’t want to do speechwriting anymore.”

Finding Ideas in a New Frontier

When Pink opted to work for himself—following stints as a speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore and as an aide to U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich—he discovered that “no one had really done anything to help people understand this huge group of people” making similar career changes. The resulting Free Agent Nation: The Future of Working for Yourself, which started as a Google eBook (Warner Books published a hardcover edition later in 2001), examined how the then-25 million and growing entrepreneurs, independent contractors, freelancers and temps were redefining North American business.

Pink’s gathering process is fairly straightforward, as is his self-deprecating humor. The lawyer in him that never practiced law—“I graduated in the part of my Yale law class that made the top 90 percent possible,” he told the TED audience—evidently serves him well in research and preparation.

He sifts through many sources for information and inspiration, from academic journals to mass media. On opening day of the 2013 baseball season, for example, Pink shares the contents of his three most recent files, one for a story he plucked from USA Today on how U.S. libraries are evolving—starting to lend items such as scientific equipment and fishing gear; another for a Forbes piece on 15 education innovators; and the third a Scientific American article on the cognitive science of creativity for further contemplation. None of these seeds may ever bear fruit for him, but each strikes a note on some level.

“I try to carry a small notebook with me everywhere I go and will write down a line that I heard, a fact, or an idea that occurs to me. It’s really important when I travel, because I might have a conversation with someone who’ll say something interesting or I might have a conversation with someone that says ‘Have you read this, that, or the other thing?’ ”

Pink puts his contact information in all his books and receives many emails from readers that can spark other ideas. “After I had written Drive [the New York Times best-seller Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (Riverhead Books, 2009)], which argued that we had the science of motivation wrong, readers asked me, ‘What about sales?’ That’s one of the things that took me down the path to actually writing a book about sales.”

Working the Process

The father of three (ages 10, 14 and 16) is adaptable and will discard ideas that don’t lead him somewhere new. He calls himself a “big proponent” of creating what management consultant David Allen (Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, Penguin Group, 2001) calls a “someday, maybe list.” In Pink’s case, that’s a list of book ideas.

“I also have an incubation list of books and ideas and things like that. I’ll return to those every few months to say, Hey, what’s going on there? I have this notion that when I collect all this stuff, whether electronic or paper, somehow those ideas are talking to each other while I’m gone. I think it’s important to collect a lot of stuff because most of the time, it’s going to be useful. I think it’s important to generate a lot of ideas because most of them, or at least most of mine, will stink. So I’ve had ideas for books I immediately delete from the list—that’s the book that no one ever finds out about or learns what a bad idea it was.”

Pink says he tends to be very open-ended at the beginning of a project, because “I’m not necessarily sure what I’m looking for. In the course of doing that, a lot of my questions are a total waste before I realize what I’m after. For certain kinds of things toward the end, I’m able to do much more surgical interviewing.”

The process for To Sell Is Human began when Pink determined he wasn’t being as productive as he wanted and scrutinized his calendar to evaluate how he was spending his time. It sparked a hunch that although he didn’t consider himself a salesman, he spent a great deal of time selling. That idea, combined with the seeds that readers had planted with their questions about the relationship between sales and motivation, prompted him to ask questions of people in the sales field. “I found their answers quite enlightening. I think what surprised me most is how much truly effective selling over the long term diverges from the stereotype about salespeople. Doing it well requires sophisticated human skills that are in some ways the antithesis of what we think of as the stereotypes of sales.”

In researching To Sell Is Human, Pink found that the mean for all workers, no matter what their jobs, was that 41 percent of their time was spent in a “saleslike” mode. The increasing role of entrepreneurs in the economy only heightens reliance on effective salesmanship, he says, and workers can no longer rely on being capable at only one task at work.

The writing process transformed Pink, too. “I stop and think a little bit before doing things and really ask myself, Am I taking another person’s perspective? and What can I do to take the other person’s perspective? I think writing this book improved my listening skills considerably.”

Carrying Ideas Forward

People as well as disparate ideas influence Pink. He credits his wife, Jessica Lerner, as the “most influential person in what I do.” With each book, Lerner reads “every sentence of every draft every time.” Besides management consultant-author Allen, others who “contribute a tile to a Pink mosaic” include entrepreneur and best-selling author Seth Godin, organizational psychologist and author Adam Grant, and Harvard professor and creativity scholar Teresa M. Amabile.

His children influence his work, too. “They help me see the world through fresher eyes and also at some level not to be sappy. I want to do stuff that I’m proud of, but I also want to do stuff that maybe they’ll be proud of someday.”

Pink’s writings always begin with analytical thinking, something he says he does better when pacing or running. But once Pink starts writing, he shuns all distractions and often dons earplugs. At the end of the day, however, the earplugs come out, and the Washington Nationals radio broadcast snaps on. His son, Saul, is an even more rabid fan (Pink’s dream vacation is to take Saul on a game tour of all the Major League parks one summer); his two daughters, Sophia and Eliza, not so much.

He chuckles when he allows that inertia is the main reason the Pinks remain in the D.C. area. “There are great things to do here, and our kids are really happy here. The other hidden benefit of Washington for us is that a lot of people come through Washington, so we’re able to see a lot of our friends we might not otherwise.”

There is no inertia in his work, however. In Drive, Pink suggested that successful people or enterprises should be able to form one sentence that defines what they do. For him, that sentence is: “He wrote a book to help people see their world a little more clearly and live their lives a little more fully.”

To do that, he keeps gobbling up ideas that strike his fancy and then allows them to speak to each other and to his curiosity.

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