Daniel Pink’s required reading
A leading business author talks about the books that shaped his thinking and career.
For the better part of two decades, Daniel Pink has been skewering conventional business wisdom and transforming complex ideas into practical approaches that his readers can put to work immediately. A best-selling author, popular speaker, and one of the world’s leading management thinkers, Pink is a practitioner of what has become — in no small part through the skill with which he plies his trade — a familiar format on the business bookshelf: the application of behavioral research to the world of work.
Pink applied this formula to employee incentivization in Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (Riverhead Books, 2009), which described the largely untapped power of intrinsic motivators, such as autonomy, mastery, and purpose, in the workplace. He took on thinking skills in A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future (Riverhead Books, 2005), which tracked the rising need for cognitive traits, such as inventiveness, empathy, and meaning-making, in business. And he extended his reach into sales in To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others (Riverhead Books, 2012), which described a simple and powerful “ABC” for sales success (attunement, buoyancy, and clarity). In 2014, Pink began broadcasting his behavioral insights to broader audience as host and co-executive producer of “Crowd Control,” a 12-episode series airing on the National Geographic Channel.
Given the influential reach of his work (more than 2 million copies of his books have been sold), I asked Pink to name several books that had made a lasting impression on him. He called out four titles.
Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Harper & Row, 1990). “We’ve all had those moments. We’re working on something with such total absorption that we seem to enter a higher state. It’s not only that time passes quickly; it’s that we lose a sense of time itself. It’s not just that we’re focused; it’s that we’re scarcely aware of the boundary between ourselves and the world. Csikzentmihalyi calls such exquisite experiences flow. And in this landmark book, he unpacks what flow is and how we can experience it more often. I’ve recommended this book so many times that I can even pronounce the author’s last name. Repeat after me: Chick-SENT-me-high.”
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott (Pantheon, 1994). “This one isn’t obviously a business book, but it actually contains the secret to effective performance. Lamott, a well-known novelist, describes a moment in her youth when her 10-year-old brother had to write a report for school about birds. He’d had the assignment for a couple of months, but, of course, waited until the night before the deadline to begin. Panicked, he sought advice from Lamott’s father, who told him: “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” Whenever I’m stuck — which is pretty much all the time — I think of this book and that lesson. Then I take it bird by bird.”
Animal Farm: A Fairy Story, by George Orwell (Secker and Warburg, 1945). “What we take from a book often depends on who we are when we encounter it. Animal Farm is one of those books that I think about differently each time I read it. The first time, I thought it was a great story. When I read it again as a teenager, I felt cool for understanding that it was — aha! — an allegory about Trotsky, Lenin, and the Soviet experiment. But upon later reads, I realized it was also a brilliant book about organizational behavior — the story of a startup with high hopes that eventually veers from its purpose, rewrites its once forward-thinking mission statement, and rewards incompetent executives. In an age when high-profile CEOs fail spectacularly but exit with tens of millions of dollars while their employees get nothing but pink slips — I’m looking at you, Carly Fiorina — this book reminds us of the organizational dangers that lurk when some animals are more equal than others.”
Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do, by Studs Terkel (Pantheon, 1974). “One day in 1974, my mother borrowed this book from the public library and left it on a table in our house in Columbus, Ohio. I was 10 years old and bored — it was central Ohio in the 1970s, after all — so I picked up the book and read a short chapter in which a major league baseball player talked about his job. To my surprise, I kept reading, staying on for the cabdriver, the barber, the spot-welder, and the nurse. Each page of interviews offered a window into the adult world. Hearing people talk about their jobs was exhilarating. And for me, it still is. This book is one reason why talking to people about their work — and how it can be a source “of daily meaning as well as daily bread,” as Terkel put it — is a big part of what I myself do for a living.”