Pink, Dan (No. 2)
We first interviewed Dan Pink in October 2001 to discuss Free Agent Nation, his provocative bestseller about the growing ranks of people who work for themselves. His new book, A Whole New Mind: Moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age, is about the six essential abilities that white-collar workers must master to survive in an outsourced, automated world.
Dan is a contributing editor at Wired and has written articles on business and technology for the New York Times, Harvard Business Review, Fast Company and other publications. A popular lecturer, he has also provided analysis on dozens of television and radio broadcasts and served as a business consultant for numerous Fortune 100 companies. Before becoming a free agent, Dan served as chief speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore and as an aide to U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert B. Reich.
You can read more from Dan on his new blog at www.danpink.com.
tompeters.com asks ...
Who's this book for? Who should read this?
DP: Well, I think it's for two main groups of people. The first group is people who sense that there's something pretty important going on in the broader world, through outsourcing and automation of work, and want to know what it's going to take to succeed in the coming years. These are folks who feel a sense of peril, a sense of anxiety, about the world shifting around them.
The second group are people who are essentially already saved. People who have been right-brained their entire lives, who have chosen professions or deployed abilities that we've often overlooked and undervalued, people like designers and artists and caregivers and inventors. I think those folks will enjoy reading about how the world is coming around to them.
Yes. I love that about this book. I kept cheering, reading through this, saying, "Yes, finally, these folks get their day." But just to step back a moment, in your intro, you say the book describes a seismic, though as-yet-undetected shift now under way in much of the advanced world. So how have you detected this as-yet-undetected shift?
DP: [laughter] Well, I think it's the sort of thing where if you begin to take little pieces of data and little examples, and then weave them together, you recognize a broader pattern. There are all sorts of things going on in the economy today—in the forces that are moving us out of the information age into the conceptual age, but also just everywhere you look, you can find examples of it. Whether it is—as Tom Peters talked about well before anybody did—the importance of design in business, and the migration of things that used to be somewhat exotic into mainstream life. Or the growing popularity of labyrinths, which I talk about in Chapter 9. Or the utter mainstreaming of yoga, which used to be an exotic practice, and now middle-class women in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, are doing it. Or the U.S. Army using video games as a form of recruiting. It's the prevalence of story and storytelling in marketing, in organizational leadership, in knowledge management, even in medicine. I mean, you have medical students, future doctors, who are being measured on empathy.
So you weave all these things together, and I do think that there's a very distinct and powerful pattern out there.
Speaking of doctors, I saw a new TV show featuring a female intern, and right away in the first episode it showed her having empathy for the patients that the male interns don't.
DP: Oh, interesting. Yeah, I think I saw a preview for it, I'll have to check it out. I think there is something there. In the book I talk about the JSPE, the Jefferson Scale for Physician Empathy. So, there is this very left-brain metric for measuring this right-brain ability. And if you think about that, I mean, I think what's happening in medicine, especially in doctoring, is really fascinating. The rise of narrative medicine, where doctors are being trained in story and storytelling and listening to patients' stories. And in some cases, keeping parallel charts, that is, a chart with the raw data, the left-brain data, but also a parallel chart where they tell the patient's story. So when these sorts of touchy-feely, artsy-fartsy things migrate to very, very left-brain realms, whether it is the U.S. Army or medical schools, something big is happening.
The structure of your book, I think, is very interesting, where you have your argument at the beginning and you discuss the prevalence of the left-brains and get our economy to where it is now, and how the right-brains need to take over now for the reasons you've just discussed. But then you have six chapters about your six aptitudes, and I'm just curious. How did you come up with this structure for the book? And then if you could touch on each of those six aptitudes?
DP: I'm glad you asked a question about structure, because I actually worked on the structure of the book quite a bit. And what I realized is that I have an argument here. In order to make the case, in order to convince people about something like this, I would have to play on, in some ways, the opposite terrain. I know that if I were to—and I've done this before—go to a group of designers or caregivers or coaches and say, "We're moving into a world where the scales are tilting away from left-brain thinking and more toward right-brain thinking. Away from pure logic and deductive reasoning, toward artistry and empathy." Tell that to a group of coaches or designers or caregivers, and they'll start applauding and say, "You had me at hello."
But the folks who need to be convinced are the engineers, the lawyers, the accountants, the programmers. So I wanted to make a very, very left-brain case. A cause-and-effect case, with numbers and all that kind of good stuff, about why this phenomenon is really happening. Because I don't think anyone will take the argument seriously unless I make it on very, very logical, linear, analytic terms.
So, the first third of the book is an argument about a big idea. I hope that anyone who reads those first three chapters will say, "Okay, wait a second. This guy is not just pulling this out of thin air. He's actually making a very sensible, hard-headed argument. And therefore, I can take the rest of it seriously now."
But I don't want to just make an argument, because the reason that I labor at writing books is that I hope to, at least in some small way, help people lead better, more satisfying, more fulfilled, more prosperous lives. So I don't want to simply lay out an argument and say, "Wow, look at this big argument I've made. Why don't you all give me a round of applause?" What I want to do is then offer people some tools and tips to help them navigate their careers and their lives.
That's why the second two-thirds of the book is about the abilities that I think are going to be the most important. I have one chapter on each of the abilities, and then at the end of each of those chapters, I have what I call the portfolio, which is a collection of tools and tips and exercises.
Can I just butt in here and say that I love your portfolio sections? In fact, I don't know if I can complete reading your book, because I've already spent about $100 just from the first two portfolios, ordering books you've recommended, and this and that.
DP: Wow. I wish I'd have figured out a way to get a cut of the sales.
Your portfolio sections are worth way beyond the price of the book, as far as I'm concerned.
DP: Well, from your lips to America's ears. [Or eyes—tp.com]
Anyway, sorry to interrupt.
DP: But no joke, Erik, I spent a lot of time figuring out the structure of this book. And the portfolios—the thing about the portfolios is that if you look at the design of the book, the portfolios are on shaded pages. So if you turn the book to the opposite edge from the spine, you can actually find the portfolio sections just by looking at the colors of the pages.
Right, but one small thing ... in one portfolio, you mention a page number, and there aren't any page numbers in the portfolio sections.
DP: [Sighs] Yep.
Not to be a nitpicker, but ...
DP: No, no, believe me, that's more than a nitpick. This is actually an ever-so-minor design defect that, of course, doesn't diminish the value of the book to all you readers out there. That needs to be corrected.
Now, I want to answer the other part of your question. You also asked how did I come up with the six abilities?
Yeah, let's talk about the six aptitudes. How'd you get to these six? How did you arrive at those particular aptitudes as requirements for thriving in the new economy?
DP: Well, I did it in much the same way that I did the rest of the book. I did lots of interviews, lots of one-on-one interviews, lots of reading, lots of research. I researched the argument, talked to people to strengthen the argument, and then I said, well, if this argument is right, then what abilities matter? And I started creating this master list of abilities that I thought mattered. And the number of abilities on that original list was probably in the twenties.
So, certain things fell by the wayside. For instance, at one point, I had "touch" as one of the abilities, because you can't outsource or automate physical touch. But then I realized that didn't work very well, and then I said, what if touch became this sort of metaphorical ability? And then it just wasn't happening. I wasn't finding evidence of it out there, or much evidence of it out there, so I dispensed with that. At another point, I had intuition as one of the abilities. But then I realized intuition—sometimes your intuition is right, sometimes it's wrong.
[laughter] It's not intuition if it's wrong, is it?
DP: Well, it's bad intuition. I ended up developing one ability that I call "symphony," which captures a lot of these things. The ability of inventiveness, the ability of big-picture thinking, the ability of what I call boundary-crossing. So certain things fell off, certain things got combined. Story is a good example of one that got combined.
Wait a minute. Let's just state the six. And what do they mean?
DP: Design, story, symphony, empathy, play, and meaning. Story was originally called storytelling, but as I started writing about storytelling and researching it, I realized it's not only about telling stories. It's also about the capacity to listen for stories, and to understand stories, and to, in some way, see the world as a collection of episodes and stories. So, it isn't simply about the capacity to tell them, it's the capacity to appreciate them. Whether you're the teller, whether you're the listener. And so I moved from "storytelling" to "story."
Also, meaning. I had different words and different notions for meaning. I had "spirituality" at some point; I had "transcendence" at some point. But those didn't quite capture what I was finding. So I eventually gathered these sorts of things under the rubric of meaning.
Yeah. But now symphony, I think, of that list of six, is the least intuitive. You can talk about design, if you're a sluggish businessperson, whatever. [laughter] Design and story and even empathy, play, and meaning. Just that one, symphony, is a little heavier, in a way, than the others.
DP: Yeah, I think so. In some ways, it's carrying a little bit more freight, because I'm introducing—and that's an interesting question—because I'm introducing a new piece of vocabulary.
DP: And that can be perilous. But I thought that the metaphor of a symphony captured what I was trying to talk about here. And in some ways, symphony is the uber-ability of all of these, because it's the thing that's particularly difficult to outsource or automate. It is also, I think, particularly important, especially when it comes to invention and satisfying the endless nonmaterial needs of an abundant age.
What prompted this inquiry to begin with? How did you start down the track to what became this book?
DP: A few things. I tend to approach things very inductively, so that I find little bits of things that I find interesting, and kind of collect them, and, in some cases, literally collect them. My office is full of piles and files of various things, bits of information. So, among the little pieces that I noticed out there, especially when I was researching Free Agent Nation, I noticed that a lot of people were working in some fashion like artists, and that had me interested.
Another thing that I started noticing around the same time was the number of businesspeople I encountered who had MFAs. So I added that to my collection of interesting bits. Another factor was that I had the good fortune of—let's see, nearly 20 years ago—I dropped out of law school after my first year, and I went to India and traveled around India. As a result, I've had a long fascination with India, and I know perhaps a little more about India than the typical American civilian. And I've followed India quite closely since then. So, when the outsourcing to India started happening in the late 1990s, I just happened to be following that story, not because I was interested in outsourcing, but because I was interested in India. And I began pondering, "What are the consequences of this? What will this mean for the United States?" So, I started following that.
Another thing is, I've also written a little, somewhat in Free Agent Nation and other things, about meaning and this pursuit of meaning in American life, particularly in business. The idea that your work and your career and perhaps your business can, at times, be about something bigger, something more than a paycheck, something more purposeful, something larger than yourself. I've always been fascinated by that.
Anyway, it's a case of connecting the dots or knitting together the various patches of this quilt.
One thought I had, maybe it was in that story—I think that's where I spent the most money, Dan. I had seen a reference to that book about comic books, Understanding Comics, elsewhere, so when I see something mentioned twice, I know I have to get it.
DP: Oh, that's such a good book.
I know. I immediately ordered it, and then I ordered the companion book about reinventing the comics, because I thought I was getting such a good deal at amazon.com. And while I was at it, I had to order the magazine One Story.
Well, back to the topic. It seems that these attributes or aptitudes you're talking about are things that we all have as humans and we've just lost track of them or compartmentalized them. It seems that in every family they say, "Oh, he's such a storyteller" or "She's the storyteller in the family." Is it a societal thing? Is it through work that we've lost empathy? For instance, I think everyone has empathy, and yet a lot of it has been drummed out of us. Because people say you have to be a hard-nosed business guy, or that empathy will make you weak, especially if you're a guy. Or play. God forbid. I loved the story about the Ford plant. The guy gets fired for smiling at work. Was it just the industrial age? Was this a short blip in human existence where our humanity was driven out of us?
DP: Possibly. I think that's a really good point, that these abilities are fundamentally human. I even think you could argue that these are some of the things that make us human. And in the world of business, especially, these abilities have often been overlooked and undervalued. And you're right: In some cases, they've been more explicitly drummed out of people. We have this false notion that some of these abilities, like design, are somehow less serious. Design is a very, very serious ability. It's not simply ornamentation. It's not simply prettifying objects. It's actually making them intrinsically better. We've thought that story is not a form of persuasion or truth-telling, that it's a diversion from the truth, somehow. We've thought that play and a sense of joyfulness, as you were suggesting, somehow take people away from the serious, sober tasks of business. But all that is wrong.
I really do think that these fundamentally human abilities have either been explicitly or implicitly drummed out of us, or certainly, woefully undervalued, yet all of us have them. That's back to the beginning, about who this book is for. A lot of people who have really flourished in this left-brained, SAT world—they've said to me, "These abilities are great. I actually believe you. I think your argument is right, but that means I'm in big trouble." They say, "I'm not that empathic. I don't understand story." But I think that these attributes are like muscles that haven't been used for a while, and we just have to work them back into shape. I think all of us have these capacities.
I even make an argument somewhere in there about how—again going back to your point about how these are fundamentally human abilities—back on the savannah when we were evolving, we weren't doing taxes. We weren't plugging numbers into spreadsheets. But we were designing cool stuff. I mean, scraping flint against rock and designing something. We were telling each other stories. We were playing, no doubt. We were searching for meaning. We were being empathic with each other. And I think that these fundamentally human attributes just so happen to confer a greater business advantage today than they ever have, and maybe that will allow more people to bring them to the surface.
Yes, and I applaud that. Like I said, I was cheering all the way through. [laughter]
DP: Good. I heard the cheers all the way down here inside the Beltway.
Here's another question that may be off track, but as part of your research, you got your self an MRI, and you actually do a lot of the things that you're writing about, and I want to see the movie. I mean, I want to see the PBS special about Dan Pink going into the Magnetic Resonating Image Machine, or ...
DP: The movie rights, I think, are still available, Erik. So, if you want to put together a production company ... Actually, this is a very visual book. I did not want to write a book about the importance of right-brain, holistic, artistic thinking and then have 400 pages of tiny little text. It would cut against the whole purpose of it. And thanks to the digital camera, I was able to, in my research, take a lot of pictures, and they ended up being a really cool addition to the book.
It makes the book very intimate, I think.
DP: Thanks. I'm glad you say that. That's the second thing today that's made my day. I got a great email from a reader who got stuck in an airport with my book, and he wrote and said how he couldn't believe how great it was—just one of those messages that gets you through another week being a writer.
But the intimacy is also by design, because I wanted to narrate this book as much as I could, and I wanted to do some things and try as much as I could to bring readers into it. So, what better way to talk about the left brain and right brain than to shove myself into an MRI and say, "Okay, let's find out how my brain works."
Yeah. And as part of full disclosure, I have to reveal to the audience that I saw you at the South by Southwest conference, and I saw your slide show. Are you going to put slides at your website, like we do at tompeters.com?
DP: I will now. [laughter] Yeah, we're going to try something. We'll eventually have a category called Cool Stuff to Do. Which I guess is—I hadn't even thought about it—sort of an homage to Cool Friends.
What I really want is to share with our readers is your drawing experience, where you have the picture that you do on the first day, which is [laughter] amateur.
DP: Calling it amateur is very kind.
I don't want to insult you.
DP: Donâ€™t worry. I'm impossible to insult. The other thing about that drawing—when I did it I said, "Oh, my God, this is the best picture I've ever drawn."
But it's wonderful. And that thing about learning to see, I say that to people all the time. You've really got to work at learning how to see. You talk about the negative space. I also want to mention to our readers that you point out that arrow that lies in the negative space in the logo for FedEx. And then, as a little bonus, there's also a little spoon in the bottom of the first e.
DP: Yeah, and you know what? I've stared at that FedEx thing, and I've thought I was totally cool for telling people about the arrow, and then someone says, "Oh, did you see the spoon?" And I said, "Spoon, what are you talking about?"
So, who's Mollie Lavin?
DP: Oh, that's my grandmother, my late grandmother, who died two days shy of her 95th birthday. She was a part of my life, and as a tribute to her, I decided to dedicate this book to her.
Oh, that's very sweet.
DP: Thanks for asking.
Well, you know, I'm always looking—it's in the interstices of a book that you find ...
DP: I know, have you ever seen—there used to be a show on C-Span called Booknotes.
I think I've sort of glanced by it.
DP: Brian Lamb would interview people for an hour about their book. But he would also ask these questions about the acknowledgements. He might go to the acknowledgements and say, "Who is Tina Smith?"
Exactly. I think that's important. That's actually the first thing I look at in a book because I know the code. You know, there's a whole code in the acknowledgements for who actually wrote the book. So that's why I always go to the acknowledgements first, to figure out who the real author is. But clearly, you're the real author here.
DP: Yeah, I actually write my own books, amazingly enough. But I agree with you. I go to books and see that same thing, saying, "And I want to thank Erik Hansen, my writing partner."
Yeah. "Without whom, words wouldn't have seen the page," or something.
DP: Yeah, exactly.
But yeah, you're always curious. Why do certain people show up in the acknowledgements? Or it's a little window into the author's thinking. Tom, for instance, he tries to thank everyone who's had anything to do with the book.
DP: Yeah. There are different strategies for acknowledgements. I mean, I went with the more modest strategy. I've found myself in acknowledgements of books, and I've been shocked. Because maybe I talked to the author on the phone for five minutes two and a half years ago. And suddenly, I'm in the acknowledgements. Which is fine, and bless somebody for doing that, but I'm not that charitable.
[laughter] Well, you've got Tom Peters, Seth Godin ...
DP: Yeah, but those guys helped me. You've got to help me if you want a mention. You've got to do something real, if you're going to be in Pink acknowledgements. Or you've got to marry me. One of the two.
Right. Or be one of your children. Anyway, anything I've forgotten?
DP: I'm sure there's a lot you've forgotten, Erik, but that's above my pay grade. No, let's see here. I think you've got it—I'm glad that you picked up on the structure of this, because I think the structure of the book is really important, in that there is a big-idea argument, but also plenty of takeaways.
I like that, because it's what everyone's always looking for—the to-do's. In fact, two-thirds of your book is a big to-do. And I think it's powerful. Like I said, I'm wowed by those portfolio sections.
DP: Great, I'm so glad about that. Because I think that they're really important. The portfolio sections are in there to help people get their right brains in shape to create a better balance between left and right brain. And also, from a writer's perspective, it's important to respect how people read books, because the truth is that not everybody reads a book from page one to page whatever, straight through. That's why the portfolio pages are a different color, so readers can spot them from the outside of the book and go directly to those sections, if they want.
Right. No one reads straight through anymore, except maybe me.
DP: I actually do, too, to some extent. But some kinds of books I want to just browse, or harvest information. And you know what? If someone doesn't want to read from page one to the final page, then I wanted to make it easy for them to get something important from the book, even if they don't read every page.
Yeah. Well, I think you've done a great job, and you make a very good argument, and it's a joy to read your book.
DP: Thank you. I mentioned Tom a couple of times, didn't I?
[laughter] Oh, yeah. That's another thing I always do—look through the index to see if Tom Peters is mentioned.
DP: Yes, he is. He's on—let me look—pages 44 and 78.
44 and 78, and the acknowledgements, so it's actually a triple play.
DP: It's a three-fer. I quote Tom saying that "Software is a forklift for the mind." I really wish to hell I'd thought of that line.
Well, you can use it all you want. Go wild.
DP: I say that Tom " was making the business case for design before most people knew the difference between Charles Eames and 'Charlie's Angels.'" That's not a bad line.
[laughter] I've sort of forgotten. Yeah, you've got some very good lines.
DP: Why, thank you.
So how right-brain are you?
DP: It's interesting. In some ways, I'm very, very left-brained. I'm somewhat—people would laugh at the modifier somewhat—I'm somewhat anal-retentive, and I do often think of things in terms of arguments, that is, linear arguments where you make a case, even though I didn't do very well in law school. On the other hand, on the six abilities, I think I'm fairly strong on meaning and on symphony, and to some extent on story. And symphony and meaning are, no joke, very, very important parts of my life.
Yeah, now I've heard you speak, I think I can see that. When does the book hit the bookstores?
DP: It should be there now. I know it started shipping from Amazon and 800-CEO-READ. It's made its way into bookstores. And my publisher just went back to press for a second printing. But I'll be out there talking about it every chance I can get—because I think these ideas are interesting and engaging and that the book can, in some small way, improve and enrich people's lives.
Good luck. And thank you.