Dan Pink’s latest book, Drive, turns traditional thinking about how organizations motivate people (and how we try to motivate ourselves) on its head. After studying the scientific research on motivation, Pink came to the conclusion that what science knows about how to motivate people is entirely different than what organizations do.
If more of the world starts paying attention to Pink’s ideas, we should be seeing fewer carrots and sticks, and a lot more recognition that people are motivated by intrinsic forces like the desire for autonomy and mastery, as well as the quest to be part of something bigger than themselves, which Pink calls purpose. Sound familiar?
Drive includes reams of examples of how this theory is playing out – from customer service reps who are encouraged to go off-script at Zappos, to software developers in Australia who are given time-outs from their regular work to be innovative and report back in 24 hours on what they created. Even though Drive covers serious science, it’s a quick read because Pink is a deft storyteller and repeatedly reminds you what you’re learning.
I’ve been following Dan Pink’s books for nearly a decade and await a new one the way others long for the next Tom Clancy or Harry Potter. His books have an uncanny way of mirroring exactly what I am going through at any given moment, but maybe that’s just because Pink is always one step ahead of the zeitgeist.
When Free Agent Nation was published in 2002, I had recently left behind my identity as a lawyer and employee and moved to a new kind of independent work where other solo workers became my colleagues, where my work became exceedingly virtual and where I began experiencing countless other trends he predicted in that book.
The Adventures of Johnny Bunko, his Japanese Manga-style animated career fable, came out at a time when a comic book was an ideal way to reach readers with a short attention span. A Whole New Mind, Pink’s runaway best-seller, assessed the ways that right-brained skills like imagination and creativity would be increasingly valued in a global economy that relies on outsourcing for more rote and mundane tasks. I met up with Pink for a quick dinner and chat before his New York City book talk and we talked about why he thinks purpose is an important and overlooked component of human motivation. Here’s what he had to say:
Q: You’re familiar with the encore career movement and the huge numbers of people pursuing work after a primary career that combines continued income, personal meaning and social impact. What’s your take?
A: It’s a profoundly important recasting of the stages of life as they relate to work. In many ways it answers an urge or an impulse that a lot of people have and don’t know what to do about. Simply by putting a name on it, and carving encore careers as a separate stage, is remarkable social insight as well as a public service. It’s a double whammy – both a description of what’s going on and the lighting of a path for people to live better.
Q: How much of the purpose-driven work people are seeking do you think will be self-organized as opposed to the kind of work that is advertised?
A: I think it can easily be both. The categories that exist for how work, business and social interactions are structured often don’t accommodate how people want to live. That’s where the encore career fits in. It’s a stage of life that people had a yearning for but for which there was no established category.
It’s much like the ideas behind the new low-profit, limited-liability corporations that are starting to exist. What it says to me is that the existing categories – basically just “for-profit” and “nonprofit” – aren’t nuanced or supple enough to accommodate how people want to do things. So we’re creating new categories.
As for the encore career, if a couple of people do it, it’s interesting. If the largest, best-educated, most self-actualizing generation in history of us starts doing this in numbers that have seven digits, then it’s a huge deal. The very phrase becomes part of the national vocabulary.
Q: Research shows that people do intrinsically want to do work that has deeper meaning or purpose. The harder part has been around achieving that while organizations aren’t hiring. Aside from creating social ventures, what’s the best way for people to move forward on their intrinsic motivation for work with purpose?
A: One thing that happens in times like these is that painful as they are, they do serve as inflection points. It’s times like this that people are forced to think, “What is it that I want to do? What is my intrinsic motivation?” Still, in a world of 10 percent unemployment, you can’t just say, “I’m intrinsically motivated to do X,” and some job will materialize. So for many people, it will mean going out on their own or starting their own operation. And for those with jobs, it will mean trying to sculpt the day-to-day activities of the job to provide more meaning and purpose.
Q: What do you say to those who are stuck in a profit-seeking career path and seek to move to a more purpose-driven one?
A: I’d say the same I tell my kids: Just ask. The main barrier to making this transition is that people are either afraid to take the first step or don’t know how. So the best approach is to seek others who’ve blazed these sorts of trails and just ask – for their advice, their guidance, their feedback. What did they do first? What was the one mistake they made? What was the most pleasant surprise?
Unlike in some (though not all) profit-seeking careers, people with purpose-driven careers love to share their experiences and offer their advice. Indeed, helping other people taking a similar route is, in some ways, another dimension of that purpose. That’s the hardheaded, incremental, pragmatic approach. The other is to heed a piece of advice that I think comes from Zen: Leap – and the net shall appear.