Daniel Pink didn’t plan a career exploring the world of work as much as he gravitated toward it. After studying linguistics at Northwestern University and law at Yale, he became an aide to U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, and then served as chief speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore. “When I had the opportunity to dole out assignments, I kept the ones about work, labor, business, economics, and technology,” he recalls.
In 1997, disillusioned by the realities of politics and burned out by the workload, Pink quit to write under his own byline. An article published in Fast Company later that year became the kernel for his acclaimed first book, Free Agent Nation: The Future of Working for Yourself (Warner Books, 2002). It plumbed the transition from employee to self-employment by millions of people much like Pink himself, and established a format that Pink has been following ever since: presenting a highly articulate, accessible synthesis of a topic or trend and a practical tool kit for putting it to work at work.
Several more books followed, bringing Pink into the ranks of the world’s leading management thinkers and speakers. His most recent book, To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth about Moving Others (Riverhead Books, 2012), explores a topic ripe, perhaps even overripe, for Pinkian synthesis. The very nature of selling has been fundamentally altered by digitization, which continues to render long-accepted sales conventions irrelevant, yet, paradoxically, makes salespeople more important to companies and customers than ever before.
S+B: We used to hear that selling would cease to exist as a function—that salespeople would be disintermediated by the Internet. What really happened?
PINK: Those predictions underestimated how ingenious we would be at creating new products and services, all of which needed to be sold. Yes, we have fewer people selling music, but people are now selling artisanal foods and cloud computing.
The predictions also missed the rise of small entrepreneurship, which means more people are selling their own services. Someone like me isn’t categorized as a salesperson by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, but I spend a huge amount of my time trying to get other people to do things. Moreover, sales is no longer always a discrete function. The software companies Atlassian and Palantir, for example, have no formal sales forces. They say that nobody’s in sales because everyone is in sales. Then there’s non-sales selling. For instance, most of the jobs that have been created in the U.S. in the last 10 years have been in education and healthcare, which are all about selling behavior change.
In 2000, one in nine people in the U.S. workforce was in sales; today, one in nine people is still in sales. And none of the salespeople I interviewed in the course of doing the stories that led up to this book fit the old sales stereotype. They weren’t wearing plaid jackets and patting me on the back all the time, and I didn’t feel the need to cleanse the oil off myself afterward.
S+B: So how would you define selling today?
PINK: I don’t think there’s a catch-all term to describe selling, but for me, moving is the closest word. I’m trying to get you to go from here to there. I can persuade you that the Washington Nationals will win the National League this year, but I’m just changing your mind. Selling is an exchange. If we’re colleagues and I’m trying to get you to join my team, you’re exchanging your time and talent for the opportunity I’m giving you. It’s not denominated in dollars, but I still think that’s sales.