How do we combat information overload? In this GTD Connect preview, David Allen & best-selling author Daniel Pink (Drive, To Sell Is Human) discuss technology’s impact on our decision making. They cover GTD’s timeless solution to the current problem, as well as Dan’s personal GTD setup.
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Note: This is the original transcript from the In Conversation with Dan Pink.
DA: Hi, I’m David Allen, back In Conversation, giving you a window into the world of interesting folks in our GTD® Network. This time, I’m talking with someone who probably doesn’t need much introduction for those of you who’ve been readers of best selling non-fiction books in the U.S. over the last two decades. Dan Pink is the author of Free Agent Nation, The Adventures of Johnny Bunko, A Whole New Mind, Drive, and his new book just released, To Sell is Human. Dan is a brilliant journalist and researcher, as well as a many year avid GTDer. Listen in.
DA: I’m delighted to be In Conversation now with a person who’s become, I hope I can say it, a good friend, Dan, certainly from my side it is.
DA: And someone that I was delighted to find out, not only did I discover you as a resource, but discovered that you had discovered me as a resource, way back then. So I love the sort of mutual back scratching that turned out to be. But before I go any further, let me just toss it to you. First of all, Daniel Pink, and by the way, if you have not heard of Daniel Pink then you obviously have been not very engaged in the popular business cool books over the last 5, 6, 8 years. So wake up! But I’m sure most people listening to this know, at least I’ve heard of you Daniel, if not read one or more of your books. But let me back off and let you give everybody, at least a reasonably long paragraph here about who Daniel Pink is, and—you know.
DP: Yeah, let’s see here. So, I was—Can I do like five decades? Almost 50 years in 50 seconds … want to know some things?
DA: Oh sure. Yeah! Absolutely! Yeah.
DP: Alright, so I was born in Wilmington, Delaware. That’s my secret. That’s my one dismal secret here. I was born in Wilmington, Delaware, but I grew up in Columbus, Ohio. I grew up in central Ohio, Columbus, Ohio, Middle America—football on Friday nights, Fourth of July parades, just a total kind of middle—I mean, the American-ness of my upbringing is breathtaking when I look at it from other vantage points. I mean, I played—my entire childhood was about team sports and watching television in the basement and I was very fortunate growing up in Ohio which has always had and continues to have a very strong public library system, public library. So team sports, public libraries and sitcoms I should not have watched, really shaped my childhood.
But fortunately I left central Ohio. I went to college at Northwestern. I was interested in a number of different things and I ended up through a series of quirks, majoring in linguistics, which is a fascinating subject area. It is, to me, the quintessential major for the liberal arts, in that it combines both the fine arts, literature, social science and the hard sciences. So I would go from class to class and some of my classmates would be poets and some of my classmates would be computer scientists. Some of the core courses for linguistics were also the core courses for computer science. Some of them were also the core courses for English and literature majors. So it was a great major. We only have four other people, four other students in my department. So I had almost like a graduate school experience as an undergraduate. I graduated with linguistics’ degree and all the job prospects attached to there too.
DA: Which you could count on half a hand, right?
DP: Yeah! I moved to Washington and worked here, where I’m talking to you now, Washington D.C., where I worked for a little while. I did some traveling overseas and finally, kind of because I was clueless and risk averse, went to law school. I managed to graduate from law school. Really didn’t enjoy it, didn’t do very well, it wasn’t for me. It did, as I told people before, have a dramatic upward swing in my lifetime earning power, because in law school I met my wife, whom you know David. So otherwise, law school was a complete loss for me.
So I graduated from law school and started working politics and that was really what I was most interested in and did a lot of economic policy, worked on campaigns; always very, very interested in economic policy. That was really my, to the extent that I had any kind of formal specialty, that was it. Not so much budget and tax side of economic policy but work force development, trade, technology, those kinds of things were my daily work when I was doing policy stuff.
DA: Wait a minute! How did you flip from linguistics, and sort of the anthropological and literary and all the implications of that to how the world’s working in terms of money and resources?
DP: Well, some of it had to do with having that legal background actually, so I shouldn’t dismiss law school altogether. Also, the other thing, basically the subject matter of linguistics to me is less relevant than the thinking style that it gave you because it actually allowed you to kind of toggle back and forth between, at some level this very literary way of thinking, but also an extraordinarily analytical way of thinking. Certainly, the time that I was studying linguistics was a time where it was really the triumph of almost a computer sciencey approach to understanding language. It was sort of the height of (I don’t want to empty the virtual room here by talking about Noam Chomsky, but it was sort of the apex of the acceptance of Noam Chomsky’s view that there’s a deep structure
of language and that the spoken languages goes through a series of transformations that allows it, individual languages, to be different but that actually are rooted in the deep structure of language which is why computer sciences were interested in it. In any event, it was what I was interested in and what I thought was cool and I’ve always been a reasonably hard worker and I find that, that helped me out a lot in getting smart on stuff. And the other thing was working in politics, particularly campaigns, one reason I liked working on them, and I did really like working on them, is a number of things. First, they are project with a discrete beginning, middle and an end, and they also have an outcome, which is unlike a lot of ventures, and it’s very intense. And there are some really good people who work there. And they also end up being internally very much meritocracies, because the pace is so quick. And that’s basically how I became a speech writer. Somebody needed a speech at some point and I was a fast typist and they turned to me. And I did it and I did it okay and then I did it some more, and then suddenly through no really great desire of my own, I became a speech writer.
So working as a speech writer for a while, here in Washington; worked for a few years for Robert Rice, the labor secretary, then became chief speech writer to vice president Al Gore for a few years in the 1990’s, and then to make this long story longer, I couldn’t take it anymore. I grew really disenchanted, really sick of politics, one of the things that I was most interested in—politics. And I became really disenchanted and I decided to leave and I went out—but I was interested in other things.
I felt like what was really going on interesting in the world was in the realm of business and work and technology and those sorts of things.
And now we’re up to the late, middle 1990’s and it was at the time that Fast Company magazine and Wired magazine were coming out and there was a sense in the business press that things were changing and there was a different way to do this kind of stuff and I ended up just riding that wave a little bit, going out on my own, trying to write my own stuff, and that was 15-1/2 years ago.
Since then I’ve written a bunch of books—not a bunch, five books, and try to make a living understanding the world, explaining it, giving people a new way to look at it and then, as you do David, try to give people one or two ways that they can do it a little bit better.
DA: And give me the five books, one at a time and two sentences about each, just so everybody can frame that.
DP: Book number one: Free Agent Nation, came out in 2001—remains in print to this day, selling tens of copies every year. I can read from my last royalty statement to prove about the tens of copies it sells. That was a book about the rise of people working for themselves.
DA: And that came out of your Fast Company work, right?
DP: It did actually. I was writing a lot for Fast Company and ended up doing a cover story called Free Agent Nation and I realized there was a lot more to it. And that was about people leaving large organizations to work on their own. Then the second book was called, A Whole New Mind. And that book makes an argument about the skills that are necessary in work and a move from left brain, logical, linear, sequential abilities to more right brain, artistic, empathic abilities. So that book came out in 2005. And then I did a smaller book in 2008 called The Adventures of Johnny Bunko. And that was a career guide in the form of a graphic novel. I had gone over with my family to Japan to do a fellowship where I studied the manga industry. Manga are Japanese comics. And in Japan, comics are used for everything. They’re not just for kids or freaks and geeks. They’re used as a way to convey ideas in every kind of realm. And so I did a manga style graphic novel business book, the first of its kind in the U.S., called The Adventures of Johnny Bunko; subtitle, The Last Career Guide You’ll Ever Need.
And then I wrote another book called Drive, and that was about the move from—looking at some of the social science, the move from relying on carrot/stick kinds of motivators to a different set of motivators and really looking at the social science behind why a lot of those carrot and stick motivators fail. And I am about to come out with a new book called To Sell is Human, which is about—wherein I’ve tried to write the first book on sales for people who would never read a book about sales.
DA: And by the way, by the time people hear this, I actually have the book in my hand, so I know it is now—you can say, “That book is now out!”
DP: And that book is wildly successful in bookstores all over North America and the world, I hope.
DA: And “wildly successful”. It’s a fabulous book, by the way.
DA: Yes, it’s super. I have to then intersect here because we had interesting intersections. First of all, my book came out in 2001, and at that time, I was delving into, I was very much involved and engaged around Inc. magazine, and Fast Company magazine, so I knew you were on the radar then. Having read A Whole New Mind, you turned me on to Brian Bomeisler.
DP: Oh, right!
DA: And drawing on the right side of the brain. So Kathryn and I took advantage, Brian is now, I consider him a close friend, so thank you for that. And then Drive, I believe I saw you at, I believe the ASTD convention.
DP: Ah—uh huh.
DA: There was an annual convention in Chicago, I believe it was. And I went, “Wow! That is such great stuff!” And so I don’t know how we then finally intersected, but fabulous! And interesting vector about all of that: If you step back a little bit, then what’s the thread, what would you say if you look back and somebody said, “Look, there’s a DNA in all of that that’s very common”. I don’t have the answer to it yet. As I’m thinking about these, it’s as much stylistic in the most positive way I can think of style in terms of how you write, how you think, how you research, how you pull all that together. And as some of the accolades that have been written about you are somehow you make—this is learning that doesn’t feel like learning. So you’re a phenomenal educator at least literarily.
DP: Yeah, is there a thread? You know, it’s an interesting thing about threads. Because I think that a lot of times people find threads or even confect them after the fact. And so for me, it’s so not the case that anything I’ve done is working from some kind of long term plan, to put it mildly, at all. It’s different from that. I think if there is a thread it is that I’m very interested, I’ve always been deeply, deeply interested in work. Why people work, how people work, what they do, why it matters to them, how it’s organized. I’ve always just had a very deep and peculiar interest in that part of life. And it’s an important part of life. It’s a part of life that I think doesn’t get enough attention. We spend half of our waking hours at work, so it becomes this way to look at, in many ways, the human condition, and so all my books ultimately are about work. Beyond that, there’s really not any kind of grand plan. At some level, it was just what I was curious about next.
DA: Uh huh.
DP: And at some level, each book carried me to the next book. For instance, in A Whole New Mind, when I said, “Hey, right- brainers are—these right brain skills are really important”, I got emailed from readers saying, “Okay, if you’re right or if you’re more right than wrong, how do we motivate the people to do these kinds of tasks? How do we configure organizations of the people that are motivated to do this?”
So I started looking at it and I found that a huge body of research on human motivations and I thought, “Wow! This is really interesting! Maybe I’ll write a book about that.” When this book Drive came out saying: These contingent motivators, these “if/then” motivators didn’t work all that well, I got emails from people saying, “Okay maybe you’re right but what about sales people? What about sales commissions?”
And I said, “Oh, okay. Hmm good point! And so I started looking at the sales and became absolutely fascinated with sales and that’s what led me to the next one. So, I’m interested in work and, I mean sometimes I’m interested in work and personally I’m interested in doing something that isn’t boring.
DP: You know, just doing something that—you know, just basically doing something that I’m curious about. I mean I hate to be so self referential about it, but as I think about it, as I reflect on it, which I, honestly David really, I rarely do, then I reflect on it and it’s like, well I want to do stuff that I’m curious about and write something that, “Hey, if that book were out, I’d read it.” And that’s really all that it is. There isn’t any kind of grand—there is no grand plan. And anybody who sees in a grand plan in it after the fact is in some ways just confecting it.
DA: Interesting as you mentioning that though. I was an American cultural history major myself so the whole idea of work, you know in my work oftentimes the concept shows up “work/life balance”, so when you say, “People spend half their waking time at work”, the whole concept of “at work” is actually historically quite a new concept—quite a new event.
DA: You know, the farmers have never thought of work and life as anything different from each other. There’s just what is. And we’re constantly—and my universal definition of work is going, “get something done that you want to get done”.
DA: You know, and that could be cook dinner, put the kids to bed, clean up after the dog, or go build a building. It’s in a way all the same kind of thing, but as I’m thinking about all the stuff you’ve written about, it’s really more about the discretionary world of choosing work and getting people motivated to do things that’s not self evident and driven by the simple survival necessities of life. So it’s almost like all the stuff you’ve written about is because now we have discretionary time if there is such a concept.
DP: You know what? I think that that’s actually really—I think actually that’s a very, very good insight. And it’s a very, very good insight. And I’ve written about this in a number of different ways. I don’t think I’ve ever really nailed it. In Free Agent Nation, I did talk about, as you’re suggesting, especially here in America, that there was—that for a long time, not even in America, for humankind, there was this kind of natural affinity between work and home, between work and family, that they weren’t these two separate domains, and then those domains split apart in say the nineteenth century and now I think at some level they’re fusing back together again and that might be more “natural”; that is the divide between what is work and what is family, what is work and what is home, what is work and what is leisure, might be this moment in time that could in retrospect look like an aberration. The other thing though that I think you’ve identified is that is, if there is a theme, is that things have gotten better. You know, one of my frustrations—among my frustrations, we don’t have—if you want to do like a telethon for 24 hours we can talk about all my frustrations, but one of my frustrations …
DA: Daniel’s rants. We should do that.
DP: One of my frustrations is that there is in sort of popular conversation, one is always consider smarter if one is negative and pessimistic, rather than positive and optimistic. And the truth is that the trajectory of this country certainly is a slow and steady progress. Not in one smooth line, but in general the arrow points towards progress. And if you look at the standard of living in this country compared to 50 years ago or 100 years ago, it’s breathtaking—I mean breathtaking improvements
in standard of living. And I think that’s affected our lives more profoundly than some of the things that might get the headlines. And this is partly connected to our brains. Our brains—one of the things that gets our attention both in terms of individual behavior and also media coverage is bad news that happens quickly. Okay? Because we need to be attuned to bad news
that happens quickly, so we can get out of a burning building or run passed the saber tooth tiger who suddenly came into our camp.
But, what affects our lives more profoundly I think is good news that happens slowly and that is, in many ways, the history of this country over the last hundred years. Not perfect, we’re always moving toward a more perfect union, but this good news that happens slowly has transformed people’s lives in some very, very profound ways with implications to how they work, so that’s maybe a latent theme.
DA: Maybe that’s your next book?
DP: You know what? I’ve tried to write about this before. I wrote about it a little bit in A Whole New Mind and I wrote a little bit about in Free Agent Nation …
DP: Yeah, well I’ll tell you, the guy who wrote the book, the best academic account of this is a book by a guy named Robert William Fogel, at the University of Chicago. He’s an economics Nobelist and he wrote a book and I’m spacing out on the title of it. It’s a popular book it’s called The Fourth Grade Awakening. It came out about ten years ago. And it’s essentially saying, “Hey, you know, things have gotten pretty good and it’s changed our lives.” But there’s always more to do.
DA: Well I think you’re up against something probably deep and primal, which is the evil eye. Like, “Oh if I say anything good, I will hex the whole situation.”
DP: Yeah, I think that’s part of it. I also think part of it is that people who are self proclaimed smart people are very good at deconstructing things rather than constructing things. They’re very good at deductive reasoning, maybe less good at inductive reasoning, and so, if you come up with something that is more true than not but isn’t airtight people are going to always try to take you down. But there is this bias, I don’t know where it comes from, I think there’s even research on this, showing that if you—I remember looking at this paper, I can’t remember which journal, but the paper basically said they had a review of a movie and one review was a very negative review and one review was a very positive review and then they had the participants in this experiment assess the intelligence of the two reviewers and uniformly people said, “Oh the negative reviewer is more intelligent.”
DA: And this may speak to your new book, which I would love to get into, because the “ta da—salesman”, the buck shoe— whatever is always so super positive that you’re going to love this car—as opposed to “Now wait a minute, you’re not going like this and this is probably not for you”, in which case you’re probably going to want it! Fascinating about that One other thing before I lose the thought on it too because when people come—when I get interviewed, a common question is: “Gee David, what about this 24/7 lifestyle that we’re all in right now?” And I go, “So? When did you not have a 24/7 lifestyle?” And of course they’re talking about all the electronics and everybody is always on, always wired and always connected.
But I think to your point that we may be coming back around to a much more natural state. That’s why kids are texting and on phones and on the text stuff. It’s a very natural—it’s the closest thing to nature you could be in, in terms of horizons and interests and variability and stuff that’s not particularly dangerous, but kind of fun and changing, and organic.
DP: I just don’t—I find these lamentations about, “Oh the always on…” I guess I should be more empathetic towards it. It even reminds of that old joke where a guy goes into a doctor and he says, “Doctor it hurts when I do this.” And the doctor says, “Don’t do that.” You know? All these devices have an off button. So you can put on an auto-responder. I just don’t have a huge amount of tolerance for that. And I also don’t think—and you know the other real test for that is when the people who complain about being always on, when they can’t get a cell phone connection or when you take away their phone, they start going into delirium tremens. So people have to figure out what their—people have to figure out how to use these tools. But for me, as you know, I’ve been a GTD devotee for a very, very long time. I mean GTD has been helpful on that, particularly in not getting too caught up in the tools but really getting understanding in, “Okay, what’s the next action? What’s the desired outcome, and what’s the next action?” And the tools end up being extremely helpful in figuring out those two things.
DA: Well it’s interesting Dan because people often say, “Well gee, you never get to leave work.” And I go, “Have you ever been a writer? Have you ever been an artist? When do you get off? When do you get to leave work?” When does work stop for you, relative to—how many things could you write or think about? How much more value could you add. So I think, maybe to the point there that maybe you bring that up, if we kind of combined on the right side of the brain and the kind of new world that we’re in where there is no time, or it’s all time, or we’re sort of in the experience now on a moment to moment, minute to minute basis. You don’t get a chance to go, “Okay now I’m going to be productive and conscious in my life and then I’m going to go unconscious”; unless of course, you do.
DP: Yeah, no I mean, that was my answer. It’s like—I mean that was really when you said, “When are you not working?” I said, “Okay—now let me just—when I pass out or something!” You know, that’s what … And the big problem, the big challenge at least, which we alluded to later is that we’ve often thought in economic terms that work is a disutility. It’s something you do in order to get enough money to have leisure. But I think, for a lot of us, not everybody, work itself is a utility. We like—we’re not going to like every second of it, but we kind of like some of it. It’s challenging, interesting, it’s meaningful to us. And so, if it’s a utility rather than a disutility, it’s something you seek, not try to avoid. And so for me, given—and it may be partly unique to what I do, if I am at dinner with somebody or having dinner with my family or going out for a run, or—I don’t know—whatever, and I come up with an idea for an article, or “Hey, this might make a good book”, and I write it down in a little notebook that I carry with me (not one of your notebooks, but another kind of notebook)—that’s a good thing! I don’t say, “Oh the oppression of 24/7!” I say, “Oh man, I’m psyched! I came up with an idea!” You know?
DP: So, you know, I just think it’s a different—we’re biased in that if we take—they’re certain things that we take, if we’re born into certain ways of doing things. If certain things exist prior to us, we think that somehow it’s the norm or somehow natural. When in fact, it’s just the way things were when you were born. And so, when we’re born, when we were born, there was this kind of Chinese wall between work and home and work and family, and there’s nothing natural about that. There’s nothing that’s really good about that. And the fact that, that wall is falling down, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact it can be a good thing.
DA: Yeah, the reason, you’re right—the nineteenth century is when we started to split them because as soon as the breadwinner went away to win the bread (from home), and they came home at the end of the night and they’re wasted because they’re tired from working all day somewhere else, and whoever—the homemaker has been there and they’re wasted and burned out, and how much energy do they have to update each other. I don’t think so!
DP: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
DA: So then there became kind of the split both personally, as well as family-wise, about all of that simply because there was not this integration of life and work, but maybe the virtual world is producing (maybe I’m just repeating ourselves right now), but the virtual world seems to be making that much more on. And of course, the new generation of kids, at least the millennials (we don’t know what the new generation is yet) …
DA: But at least given the millennials of people that are studying those, they’re basic idea was one of our In Conversations recently with Deb Smith-Hemphill, who’s an expert in generational psychology and behaviors and the millennials, they produce just as much work, but they’ll do it at 3:00 in the morning and then go out for a run, and then do emails in the afternoon, and then work at the computer at night. It’s called, “Don’t fence me in!” And work has got to be fun and fun has to be meaningful. So it’s becoming much more of an integrated life and lifestyle.
DP: Right. Right. The other thing is that we, I mean again, we tend to extrapolate from industrial notions of work, where you have to be physically present at a work place to get something done, where there is this perfect—not perfect but a very tight alignment between time devoted and output, whereas, today, both of those things don’t make sense anymore, but I think our vocabulary and our metric haven’t quite caught up to that.
DA: Cool. Okay—let’s shift gears here because all the people listening to this, in our GTD Connect universe out there and they love to hear, just to hear the productivity side of the game, so interesting …
DA: A guy who’s been studying work from the high level and a long term view level, and an interesting, very cool level, bring it down to how did you come across me or GTD? What was your—how did it impact you? What did you think about it? What surprised you about it? Anything—any and all of that would be rich stuff for people to hear.
DP: Alright! So, Fast Company did a story about you in what—1997, 98? Something like that?
DA: Yeah, they did a one-pager and then Keith Henman did a several pager.
DP: Yeah, but the first piece was maybe 1997 and 1998, and what’s curious about that is that right around the time that piece came out, maybe a little bit before it, I had a friend who had gone to one of your seminars. I don’t know how many seminars you were doing at that time, but she had gone to one of your seminars, either in New York or Chicago, in any event, and she said it was—she was just going crazy. She said it was amazing. I said, “Yeah right, just what I need. I need some schmoe to tell me like how to be more productive. It sounds like—you know, I’m not sold on this. And she said, “No I’m serious. This is different.” And I kept coming back, because like in any kind of realm there are all of these kinds of charlatans and shysters and certainly in the realm of personal productivity, there are folks who are pedaling kind of—I don’t want to call them shysters, but it’s not that well founded, it’s not that interesting. And she said, “No, no, no! This is different, this is different. This is different, seriously Dan, this is different.”
And so I got the—I did end up getting the cassette tapes. This must have been about—well, back when we used cassette tapes. But this must have been about 98, 97 or 98, but right around the time the story came out. And I listened to all the tapes. I still have them on cassette tapes, and in fact I should tell your listeners you were over here at Pink Inc, World Headquarters, and I showed you those cassette tapes and my daughter who is now 14, looked at those and literally, not joking around said, “What are those?” She had never seen a cassette tape. So I listened to those tapes and somehow I became a convert. I really did. I went out and bought a labeler. People think it’s silly, but I still have the same labeler that I bought then because I don’t think any other labeler since is adequate to the task. And so, I’m now like searching e-bay for used labelers because I only want one kind of labeler. So I started using the labeler. I converted it to—I mean I really did. I’m not quite orthodox on this, but I’m fairly observant, so what helped me were labels. In-boxes helped me a huge amount. I can’t tell you how much this notion of the in-box helped a lot because part of the time I was working on the third floor of our house, so there would be a kind of business stuff in the main part of the house and my work stuff upstairs and so the in-boxes helped really clear that away and make that more efficient.
The two-minute rule where if you can get something done in two minutes, do it right away—was a total game-changer and I’ve become basically an evangelist of that to everybody who I know. And so I became kind of a GTD devotee. This is now 15 years ago or so. And if you look at my—I mean, I sort of have some of the trappings of GTDness here because I have these beautifully labeled file folders and I have—I mean, I’m totally not making this up listeners, but truly as David and I are talking, one of the things I have, I have a very short little post-it of the main things that I wanted to do today and one of them, truly, I wish I could take a picture—I should take a picture. It says, “Weekly Review”, so today is the day that I’m doing my weekly review. I found that the idea of dividing things into desired outcome and next action was very, very—really, really helpful to me. I hadn’t thought about it that way and the other breakthrough for me on that was—sometimes the next action is waiting for something. If you look at my weekly review, there’s a lot of “waiting for” and that’s just—again, I’m preaching to the same here, but that just offloads that concern from your brain to a piece of paper and I can just, “Oh yeah, I’m waiting for that. I don’t have to think about that anymore.”
DA: And are you high tech or low tech in terms of how you keep track of that? You’ve got those on digital lists somewhere, or you keep it in folders or notebooks, or what?
DP: What, the weekly review?
DA: Any of the lists, any of that stuff.
DP: I’m actually, it’s interesting, I’m actually fairly—I’m a mix, but not particularly high tech. I have my weekly review as a Word document, basically a table where I have—here, I’ll pull it up here. Let me just see here. And like all GTD people, it’s like I love talking about this stuff. Hold on. Let me—I got to—what I have here is basically, I created a table in Word and it has—it’s like a grid and it has three columns and then gazillions of rows and the column is Project, the left column, middle column is Next Action, third column is Desired Outcome.
DP: And so, and I do that. And I will—I’ll sometimes—I’ll mostly do it on my computer, but—and then I’ll look for those—this is, I’ll look at that and then try to fashion a sort of a daily list, it’s actually a much more conventional kind of To Do list.
And then, let’s see what else I have. Oh yeah! Oh my gosh! This is a total—I love this. I just think it’s fun, is the Someday Maybe list, which is really, really useful and I have—I think it’s pretty much the same one for maybe ten years. Not the same list. What I’ll do is I go back to it periodically, add stuff, take stuff away, and in fact, a lot of my book ideas are on Someday Maybe lists.
DA: I was going to ask you about that because when I talk to authors or people who, for whom writing and research is a lot of their work and their thought process, curious about how you do that. You get an idea—are these scraps of paper in file folders based upon topics, are these—have you digitalized that so you can sort of search it?
DP: Yeah, on ideas for books and articles and things like that?
DP: Well again, I mean I hate to—I mean, I sort of feel like this is one of those televangelist hours where I’m coming up the stage and I’m testifying and witnessing to the glory of God here.
DA: Now you can see Daniel. Now you can see!
DP: Yeah, I was blind and now I see. No, but seriously, I mean—I mean—I really—I mean—I want to like invite your listeners here to say, “Look! Look! Look at this stuff! Look what I have here!”
So what I do, so I carry around—a lot of writers do this and you ____ it too. I carry around a notebook and it’s a small notebook. I have a fur kind of notebook that I carry around. It’s not a moleskin, it’s something called Field Notes, from a company, a really cool little company in Chicago, and they’re 48 page notebooks that fit really nicely in shirt pocket and what not, and what I will do is if I have an idea or if I turn a phrase even, I will write it down in the notebook and then what I’ll do is I’ll tear the pages out of the notebook and put it in my in-box. And when I process my in-box, that’s how I start dealing with things. Now, for particular ideas I do two things. Number one is that I have a folder right here, with the very inventive name of Ideas— actually it says, “Ideas, Misc.” for miscellaneous.
DP: It says, “Ideas, Misc.” And so what I’ll do there is, if you look at this folder, we’ll go here in real time, so I’ll pull it out right here, okay? So what I’ve got right here is—Okay, so I got a few newspaper clips, a few article clippings. Oh, so here’s a note. Okay, so here we go. This is, oh yeah—okay. So here I am at the—God that was a good day! Okay, so I was at the Gateway Conference Center in St. Louis, apparently, because there’s a piece of notepaper from there and I had two ideas in that (that’s rare for me)—two ideas in one setting. And I just wrote those ideas on—one of them is for different—it’s a long story (I won’t explain them all). So I put those in there. I’ve got a few more newspaper clips, a couple of more articles, a couple of ads that I’d seen, and again—oh here we go, some torn up pieces of paper. So I have that and I also have electronically, I have a file in my email file called Ideas, because I’m a really creative guy, and that one, when I see something online, I’ll stick it in there, and that has—there are a couple of items, subfolders in there that have—there are a couple of books that I might be more interested in than others and I’ll even file them within those particular subfolders there.
DA: And do you review them just ad hoc or when the mood strikes you, or do you have some sort of consistency with …
DP: It’s not that consistent. What I’ll do is—I will review them at various junctures and so—because my life tends to be very project based, so I’ll have a book and I’ll be working and I’m a terrible, terrible, terrible multitasker. So I’ll focus—I’m very much a serial processer rather than a parallel processer. It’s hard for me to work on two important projects at the same time. Call it the way my brain is wired or call it a character flaw or whatever.
So what I’ll do is I’ll devote huge—basically almost all of my attention to a particular project and then when the particular project wraps, those kinds of junctures are when I’ll go to my physical idea file, go to my electronic idea file and go to my Someday Maybe list.
Now, what’s interesting—let me give you another thing here. So, now I also did some GTD coaching, because earlier this year with Meg [Edwards], and I needed kind of a booster shot, because I was really not making a lot of progress on my book and
I was getting very much distracted by a whole bunch of different things and so I needed a booster shot which Meg gave me over a few weeks, but one of the things that she gave me, which I thought was really interesting was a sort—I guess a first cousin of the Someday Maybe list that she called an Incubation list.
DP: That is, there were things in the course of working on this project, this latest book project, that were kind of maybe shorter time horizons than a Someday Maybe list…
DA: Uh huh.
DP: …but, not anything I could deal with right now and so one way to offload them was by putting it on the Incubation list. And in fact, my wife and I—I mean, I sort of did – I sound like a crazy man here, but my wife and I actually reviewed the Incubation list a couple weeks ago because it was things that I couldn’t deal with at the moment, but that had some amount of interest in the short term, and so we—I just pulled out my Incubation list and we went over that.
DA: Cool. By the way, that’s very much when Kathryn, my wife and I, got—bought a house that was,— one of those, you know, with a lot of potential. One of those!
DP: Yeah, yeah, yeah!
DA: When you first move into those places the volume of projects, just doing a site walk around is so totally overwhelming, we had to make an Around the House projects list like that. So it’s exactly the same kind of thing called—if you don’t have either the money or the time or the band width to do it, but we will do it kind of in queue. So it’s actually a great category.
DP: Yeah—the things were different from, just for those of your listeners who haven’t done that, they’re different from the Someday Maybe lists.
DP: They are. They’re things that needed to get done, that you could execute a little bit faster. So there were things like certain exhibits that I knew, there were a couple of art exhibits that I knew would be around only for a year, or for 8 or 9 months or so, and so I knew I wasn’t going to see them while I was working on the book, but I wanted to make sure that I didn’t forget that they existed, so when the book was done, I would look at the incubation list and say, “Hey, what’s on our list now? We got to go see that Lichtenstein exhibit at the National Gallery before it leaves!” Boom—get that done!
DA: Oh, I remember that one. My books, when I finally, the final manuscript was turned in and suddenly how many new projects I went and grabbed—to the same effect.
DP: Right! I think the other thing that is interesting about the Someday Maybe list, at least for me, is how your—I guess how your life changes, or how your interests change. So there would be things that I think, or just how your perspective changes or maybe you get smarter or more mature, so there were things that I would put, say on my Someday Maybe lists, maybe potential book ideas or whatever and I’d go back and look at it periodically. And I look at my Someday Maybe list maybe three times a year. I’ll occasionally go back to those things and say, “Oh my God! That is the worst idea I’ve ever heard!” And I almost want to delete it so no one ever sees it, but at the time that I put it on there it seems like the most awesome thing in the world. So—it’s a good—I like the exercise—I like the Someday Maybe list because it allows you, in some ways, to revisit your previous self. That is, it allows you to see: What was I thinking then? How have my interests changed?
And one of the things that I’ve noticed in some of the ideas for books and what not, is that they more and more have a kind of a personal component to them. The trajectory is a little bit away from grandiose economic theories, more toward the unit of one.
DA: Well, to that point, let me ask you something Dan. I’d be curious, you know, I have sometimes described GTD and my work and my research and fumbling around with all this stuff for 30 years is really uncovering the art of work itself and thinking of work itself as an art and craft. Because nobody really things about how they work, they just work.
DA: They may think about what their work is.
DA: But they don’t think about work itself as an art and craft. And I’ve always thought about that’s something that the late great Peter Drucker would say, “Defining your work is your most important work. And so, the art of work has a lot to do with: How do I define what it is, and all the different shelves of agreements I have. That goes on that shelf and that goes on that shelf and that goes on that shelf. So, interesting because you’ve got sort of a larger or longer perspective in the same way that I have about work, you said that was your interest. So I’m curious, how do you see those things tied together? I mean to your point that a lot of what you’ve been addressing has been a lot about how we as individuals engage with what we call our professional world out there.
DP: Yeah, yeah—I think what’s interesting, I mean I think it’s an interesting—I think it’s an interesting insight. One of the things that I saw—I mean I saw this in my first book Free Agent Nation, where I basically thought I was writing a book about economics and how the ____ forces of information age capital were tossing people to the periphery and then we I actually started doing the work and researching it and talking to people, I realized that it had a lot to do with psychology, it had a lot to do with aspirations, it had a lot to do with these things that we often derive as soft, values, aspirations, feelings. And it seems like that there is this—that work today is in some ways a confluence of these more humanistic thoughts and values along with the hardheaded side and at some level the hardheaded stuff is easier to write about. It’s a little bit more comfortable. You can take a certain distance to it, but I think it would be really interesting to do something that really matters and to do something that’s relevant to people’s lives, you do have to go to that personal element and it goes to what you were saying earlier: It’s very hard to disentangle the professional and the personal. I think for a lot of us it’s all bound up in one.
And what’s interesting about that is that our mutual friends Alan Weber and Bill Taylor who are the founders of Fast Company, they put that—one of their—their credo which went on the cover of the first issue of that magazine nearly 20 years ago (which is kind of remarkable) is: Work is personal. That was one of those: Knowledge is power, is one thing that they said.
Computing is social (little did they know); and work is personal. And I think those insights ended up being really powerful, that work is personal for people. And there’s a reason, there’s something—there’s a reason, I mean if you think about personal productivity, I think one of the things that you helped people understand is the personal side of personal productivity.
DP: That—it isn’t a task of industrial engineering, it’s actually—there’s a personal side to it and it has to do with: What do you care about? What matters to you? What are your values? What are your priorities?
DA: Yeah. Well, speaking of you trying to sell books and me trying to sell people on GTD, let’s talk about To Sell is Human.
DP: Alright! Cool!
DA: Because I remember when you were just formulating your initial ideas about this book, I think we had dinner back then too, and you were talking about, selling. And I’m one of those people, those pinging you called, “How do we work this sales model and compensation models?” And things like that. We were going through: How do we restructure my company so it’s more self organizing and sort of aligned with the way we think work should happen? You know, big question mark most people had was: How do you manage sales people? Are they a different breed than the rest of the people in our company? So give folks a pitch or at least just a quick condensation, I guess, of what you discovered in all of that. I think its great stuff.
DP: Well, a few things. I mean I guess, and you’re right, what got me into this was the work on this—this book Drive, which talks about the poverty of some of these carrot and stick motivators and people said, “Okay, what about sales? Sales people are coin operated, they run by commission. If you don’t give them a commission, they’re not going to do anything.” And strangely, I started hearing from companies, all over the world, literally all over the world, saying, “Hey we eliminated commissions for sales people and saw sales go up”, which was a complete world-crusher. What? How did that work?
And so I got interested in this topic of sales and I started looking at it, I mean I’m a fairly—my default mode is very analytical and I’ve kind of learned to work the other side a little bit, but my default mode is analysis. So I started looking at some of the numbers and we had this belief, that when you see it out there all the time, “Oh, sales people are being disintermediated.” We don’t need them anymore because of the internet.
And if you look at the numbers, that turns out not to be true. In 2000, there were 1 in 9 American workers who worked in sales. That is, their job was to convince other people to buy stuff, to make a purchase.
Now, 2013, you look at the numbers and this is after a decade plus of wide spread broad band, smart phones, tablets, social media, Twitter, Facebook, I mean all of these disintermediating technologies. In 2000 1 in 9 American workers were in sales, today, 1 in 9 American workers are in sales.
DP: So, it hasn’t had that effect. There are still plenty of people out there pushing products and services.
But I think the other interesting thing that’s gone out there and it goes to some of what we were talking about earlier, is that if you look at the nature of what white collar workers actually do each day, a huge portion of it is a form of sales. They’re not cranking out widgets. They’re not even processing paper. What they’re doing is they’re persuading, convincing, cajoling,
they’re doing this thing that I call non-sales selling, which is essentially persuading people to make an exchange, to part with resources, but in a way the cash register doesn’t ring. And for this book, again, my default mode being analysis, I went out and did some fairly extensive survey research and we asked 7,000 adult full time workers in the U.S.: What portion of your time is spent trying to convince other people to part with resources? That was a version of the question, and we came back with 40%. We found people spending 40% of their time in this thing called non-sales selling; that’s 24 minutes of every hour.
And so the big catalyst, sort of the animating idea here is that 1 out of 9 people are in sales/sales and 8 out of 9 people are in non-sales selling, meaning that like it or not we’re all in sales now. And I think that’s a big change in the nature of work and what it leads to though when you tell people, “Hey! We’re all in sales now”, is 19 times out of 20, people say, “Oh God! You’ve got to be kidding! This is horrible!” Because we hate sales and we think of sales of sleazy and cheesy.
DA: Yeah and if you think everybody’s in sales, you see all these people out there in checkered pants pushing each other around.
DP: And you know what so funny about that …
DA: And it’s not rude for everybody to push everybody around.
DP: Right! But what’s interesting about that—I mean you said “checkered pants” and it’s actually—there’s … Let me focus on that here for a second. Among the research that we did, again asking 7,000 adult full time workers these questions, because I wanted to come out—I had this notion that we’re moving more towards—we’re all in sales now but everybody hates sales.
I sort of had that as my hypothesis. And the thing is if you’re a writer, you can go out and find the sources to support any hypothesis, but I said, “Okay, I want something more analytic here.”
Again, so we did this massive survey research and among the questions that I ask, one of the questions that I asked were: “When you think of sales or selling, what’s the first word that comes to mind?” And what we got there, when you look at the adjectives, the top adjectives people used were all these pushing, sleazy slimy terrible words like that.
But then the other interesting thing which I tossed in there almost as a throw away question, but ended up being very revealing was this: I said, “When you think of sales or selling, what’s the first picture that comes to mind?” And uniformly, it was: “Man in a suit selling a car.” Some people even mentioned plaid sport coat, checkered pants. I mean, truly, literally! We have this old fashioned notion of sales. Do you remember from WKRP in Cincinnati, the radio ad salesman, Herb Tarlek view of sales.
And my view is that idea of sales as slick and slimy and sleazy tells us more about the conditions in which sales have long taken place, rather than about sales itself. And the idea there is that most of what we’ve known about sales and mostly— a lot of sales training until very, very recently was for a world of information asymmetry. The seller always had more information than the buyer. When the seller has more information than the buyer, the seller can rip you off. This is why we have this principal, to some extent in law, to a larger extent in life, of caveat emptor, buyer beware, when the seller knows more. So you go 20 years ago to buy a Chevy, the Chevy dealer knows a lot more about cars than you’ll ever know.
Today, that information asymmetry is disappearing. That is, buyers can know as much as sellers in many cases. Cars are a great example of it. I can go into a Chevy dealership—my mother can go into a Chevy dealership and know just as much about cars as that Chevy dealer. She can go in with the factory invoice price of the car.
So when you have this world, not of information asymmetry, but of information parity, along with the fact that people have lots of options and the fact that they can talk back, caveat emptor or buyer beware is still good advice, but it’s been accompanied now by caveat venditor or seller beware. That when buyers have just as much information as sellers, and lots of options and the means to talk back, the sellers are on notice now too. What’s that’s doing is pushing people to the high road and if we’re all in sales and sales isn’t what it used to be, what I try to do then is figure out: Okay, what does it mean? What do we have to get good at? What do we have to be able to do? And identify some personal qualities and some particular skills, once again rooted in the social science in how we can do better in all respects.
DA: And probably there will be—as I was reading the book, I sort of recognized, people have often said, “Gee David, I get around you and I just want to go do GTD.” And I go, “I don’t sell.”
DA: But it is the new selling—is a not sale selling.
DP: Well yeah, and the other thing about it is, is that there’s a much greater premium. See, in the world of information parity, there’s a much greater premium on genuine expertise. Not knowing a little bit more than your utterly clueless buyer, but actually having some expertise, being able to take a welter of information and make sense of it. And there has been this idea and almost every good sales person has refuted this. There’s this notion, “Oh, look at Fred! He’s a great salesman. He can sell anything. He can sell Winnebagos, he can sell computer systems, he can sell tickets to—he can sell artisanal pickles at the Farmer’s Market, and what people were telling me over and over and over again, “No, no, no, no, no—not today.” You actually haveto know a lot and you actually have to care. And that having some expertise and having some conviction about something has become not quite mandatory, but close to mandatory today, and what that does is that sense of enthusiasm, that sense of conviction, that sense of genuine interest actually is winning, but it is not a kind of clap somebody on the back and say, “What can I do to put you in a Buick this afternoon?”
DA: Cool stuff. Daniel, what else, folks who may not be sort of tapped into you as resource in terms of committed, caring and expertise, which you’re full of, by the way, what are your avenues of distribution mechanisms now? You’re blogging. Are you doing podcasts? Aside from you book?
DP: We’re trying all kinds of stuff here. So I’ve got: DanPink.com, where I blog occasionally. I do this occasionally radio-ish talk show called Office Hours. I’ve got an email newsletter. So looking for all kinds of ways to keep the conversation going and it actually goes back – I never even made this connection until just now; this move from information asymmetry to information parity, actually effects writers too, and so this idea that a writer knows everything and the great unwashed simply take it as it is, is completely outdated.
And I’ve been quite the beneficiary of that on small things like readers finding—emailing me about typos. I had actually a mistake in drive, a pretty bad mistake, I don’t even know how it got in there, that a couple of readers found that I was able to fix. And then more and more readers ask questions that get me thinking and that often leads to the next project. And so my goal on these avenues is actually to have these avenues go two ways. Whether it’s to email a newsletter or a radio show that happens to be a call in, or a blog thing where people can leave comments, I’m really keen on hearing from people and I find that most people are really sharp and really generous and really make me thing.
DA: Fabulous. Great segue to my almost final question here Dan, which is: If folks want to get in touch with you in any way, shape or form, what are the best avenues to do that? How would you recommend it?
DP: They can just go to my website at: DanPink.com and there’s all kinds of stuff there, and if you want to send me an email, just go to that site, and there’s a little contact button there. It says, “Send me an email”, but it says, “I’m not going to help you with your school project or read your book proposal”.
DP: You wouldn’t believe how many school projects come over the transom, or how many people who say, “Oh I really want to write a book, but I just don’t have the time”, which is about the worst thing you could ever say to a writer.
DA: Yeah, indeed. Indeed.
Dan this has been fabulous and hopefully and probably will be a start of some interesting synergy showed up in my mind, anyway, with your work, your thought process and the research you’re doing and where we’re going with GTD. So hopefully, you’ll stay in our camp and we’ll keep going.
DP: I am a permanent member of the camp to the point where I’m trying to keep the camp across generations. I bought a copy of your book for our 16 year-old daughter, who, instead of going back to school for 10th grade, she decided to take, basically a sabbatical year to do her own stuff, make a movie and do her own research and as a result, she had to manage her time in a way that you don’t have to in school.
DP: And I bought that book for her and one of the delights as a father was in September, knocking on her door to her room at 9:30 at night and you know, where a lot of teenage girls would be—I don’t know, watching Katie Perry videos, or going on Facebook, or texting their friends, my daughter was sitting there in her beanbag chair reading Getting Things Done.
DA: What a great image to end on!
DP: It was awesome! I thought it was great! And she’s a thoughtful kid and so she’s taking some principles there too. Anyway, so I’m doing my part to move this across generations.
DA: Thank you. More to come and please consider me and our team as a resource for you as well. Really appreciate it.
DA Concludes: It’s really great to hear the thought processes and stories from someone like Dan and especially how he keeps himself fresh with his work and focus, a good example for all of us, I think. Thanks for joining me In Conversation, and I encourage you to stay connected through our forms, webinars and podcasts, honing our craft of winning at the game of work in this business of life.