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Author of DRIVE, TO SELL IS HUMAN, and other fine books.
Hi, everyone. I'm looking forward to this conversation. If you've got questions — about writing, persuasion, motivation, work, management, behavioral science, politics, whatever — I'll try my best to answer.
This Q&A took place between 8/21/15 and 8/29/15. Unanswered questions have been hidden
16 questions
Wharton professor, author of GIVE AND TAKE and ORIGINALS
Dan, your books have challenged so many important assumptions. You've shown us that left-brainers won't always reign dominant, extrinsic motivation isn't necessarily the most powerful driver of performance, organizations aren't the most effective way to get work done, and selling is more about asking questions than giving answers.

As you spread your ideas, they inevitably evolve, but it's all too rare that you have a chance to update a book. I'm curious about whether you've changed your mind about anything you've written. If you were going to turn one of your own arguments upside-down, which one would you choose and why?
Author of DRIVE, TO SELL IS HUMAN, and other fine books.
Thanks, Adam. Your generous words suggest you may be a giver! : )

On the broad arguments in the books, I'm still convinced I'm more right than wrong.

However, on some of the particulars, I kick myself for getting things wrong. I'll give you just two examples of blowing it -- to avoid boring readers (and damaging my self-esteem)

First, in A WHOLE NEW MIND, I underestimated the ability to automate certain kinds of "right-brain" tasks. I wrote about Deep Blue, of course, the IBM computer that could beat Garry Kasparov at chess. But I totally missed that within a decade IBM could come up with a computer that could crush humans in Jeopardy and understand puns, hints, world play, indirection, and humor so powerfully. Ditto for facial expressions. At the time I wrote the book, most technology could barely distinguish my face from yours. Today, technology can interpret facial expressions eerily well, something I thought would remain exclusively the province of human cognition.

Second, DRIVE, I write about purpose as a motivator -- and even cite some of your amazing work. But I conceived of purpose in too broad a sense -- in changing the world or doing something deeply significant and transcendent. What I neglected, and what the research also shows is that there's another dimension of purpose. If the first version I described is "Purpose" -- that is, purpose with a capital P -- the dimension I missed is "purpose" (again, purpose with a small p.) That means simply the motivational power of making a contribution -- not necessarily changing the world, but doing something that matters to and gets noticed by your immediate co-workers and colleagues. That's equally powerful -- and I missed it.

If you'll allow me to leave the confines of the Pink oeuvre for a moment, these are questions we all should be asking ourselves periodically. What did I once believe that is no longer true? How -- and why -- have I changed my mind about something important? These sorts of reflections are enormously useful - both to performance and well-being.
Product Guy / Fellow @ Harvard Ash Center
Thanks for being a member of Parlio. And great to have you do this Q&A.

Given your expertise, what are some of the work ethics/norms that you noticed in other cultures, that you wish to see in Corporate America?
Author of DRIVE, TO SELL IS HUMAN, and other fine books.
Hey, Wael. Thanks for starting Parlio. It's a terrific (and sorely needed) platform.

Your question is really interesting. But my take might be a bit different from others reading this Q&A. I've generally found that the differences *within* cultures can be just as great as the differences *between* cultures. That is, there are firms and organizations outside the U.S. that could be great models for Corporate America -- but their enlightened approach, IMHO at least, stems much more from their particular leadership and circumstances rather from the national culture they inhabit.

That said, there is one dimension of organizational behavior where we do find national differences. That's the concept of "power distance," which essentially means a society's respect for hierarchy and tolerance for unequal distribution of power. Cultures that exhibit low power distance (think Nordic countries, with flatter social hierarchies and less inequality) offer better models for Corporate America. Countries that value high power distance (China and Saudi Arabia, for instance), where everyone knows his or her place and where more rigid hierarchies are preferred seem like less sustainable models for a fluid, fast-moving, high concept economy.
Hi Daniel,

I'm a big fan of your books, so thanks for giving us the opportunity to ask you a question.

What would you tell your 20 year old self to do differently? What faulty mental models would you tell him to upgrade?
Author of DRIVE, TO SELL IS HUMAN, and other fine books.
Hi, Wayne. This is a great question and something I think about a lot -- especially now that my kids are far closer to age 20 than I am.

Alas, my first reaction is that my 20-year-old self wouldn't listen to me. He thought he'd had it all figured out. And for a guy so young, he wasn't all that open-minded.

But if I could grab him by the shoulders (and perhaps smack him upside the head), I'd tell him a few things.

First, don't stress so much about having a plan. Don't try to figure out how A will lead to B and B will lead to see and then try to execute against that plan. Life doesn't work that way. Do something meaningful and valuable and simply be open to the possibilities that can lead to.

Second, work harder. The bad news, young man, is that you're about to realize that you have far less talent than you think you do. The good news is that you can compensate for limited reservoirs of talent through persistence, practice, and what Carol Dweck will one day call a "growth mindset."

Third, ask for advice much more often and from many more people. You don't have to follow what they say. But simply listening to them will lead you to better decision.

Hope that helps.
What book has most heavily influenced your life?
Author of DRIVE, TO SELL IS HUMAN, and other fine books.
There's no single title. I've always read a lot -- it's pretty boring growing up in Columbus, Ohio, so I had to do something -- and across a range of genres and topics. So I tend to draw small nuggets from lots of books rather than use one book as a foundation stone.

That said, a partial list would include:

Man's Search for Meaning (Frankl)
1984 (Orwell)
Animal Farm (Orwell)
The Organization Man (Whyte)
On the Origin of Species (Darwin)
Working (Studs Terkel)
The cumulative works of Peter Drucker and Tom Peters
Nonzero (Wright)
The Righteous Mind (Haidt)
The Third Wave (Toffler)

There are more, of course (including some with female authors!), but this is a good start.
Hi I'm interested in your views on the current punitive approach to education "reform", which seems the opposite of your views in Drive on what gives people long term motivation.

This is not about tests, but about punishments to students and teachers when students don't perform.

Do you have views on this, and what should be done?
Author of DRIVE, TO SELL IS HUMAN, and other fine books.
Another good question. In my view, the issue is less about punishment (or reward) than about control.

Go back to the science of motivation. It shows that "if-then" motivators (as in "if you do this, then you get that") are effective for simple, algorithmic tasks with short term horizons. But they're far less effective for complex, creative tasks with longer time horizons.

The reason isn't money or rewards. It's control. If-then rewards are a form of control. Sometimes -- when the task involved simply following a set of instructions -- control can keep people on track and enhance performance. But sometimes -- in more fluid, complex endeavors -- control can inhibit performance.

So the real problem here is that it doesn't make a ton of sense to use "if-then" rewards for what I think is the inherently complex, creative, long-term task of education. People -- the big ones who stand in the front of the classroom and the little ones who sit in the seats -- need feedback. And people who run intuitions need to be held accountable. But it's possible to do this without having only "if-then" rewards in our arsenal.
Applied Psychology, University of Pennsylvania
Dan - I'm curious about times when, just maybe, your readers might have missed the mark a little bit in how they've interpreted and used your work. Specifically:

1. Are there any ideas you've put out there that you thought were gold but for some reason didn't get picked up by readers in the way you hoped? Put another way, if an editor forced you to make a "greatest hits" record of your own ideas, what would you put on there that might surprise people who didn't catch it the first time around?

2. Are there any common misconceptions or misapplications of your work that you've seen that you would love to clear up? One of the great things about insight books like yours is that they spark blogs, articles, talks, and other activity from readers who are creators in their own right. The only catch is that they probably don't always get it right. Is there anything you'd like to clear the record on?

Thanks for being such an impressively prolific contributor of accessible-but-complex ideas over the years.
Author of DRIVE, TO SELL IS HUMAN, and other fine books.
Thanks, Robert, both for the questions and the kind words.

On the first question, in FREE AGENT NATION, I introduced a concept I called "e-tirement" -- to describe the phenomenon of people not retiring and instead working as free agents finding and delivering work online. I thought it was going to be huge. Instead, the response was -- and still is -- crickets.

On the second question, yes, when a writer puts something out, there are always misconceptions about what he or she is actually saying. In my case, there are two annoying examples.

1. Some people have interpreted the argument in A WHOLE NEW MIND to mean that "left-brain" (logical, linear, analytical, SAT, spreadsheet) skills are irrelevant. No, no, no, no, no! I say many times in the book that those sorts of skills are absolutely essential. If you don't have them, you're going to be in a world of hurt. The argument is these skills are necessary, but not sufficient -- and that other skills are just as, if not more, important.

2. Some people have interpreted the argument in DRIVE as "money doesn't matter." Again, no, no, no, no, no! Money matters. Money matters a lot. Money is a motivator. However, money doesn't operate in quite the simple, mechanical way we believe. But the idea that you can pay a person poorly and that it won't affect his or her motivation is preposterous.

Thanks for letting me get this off my chest!
Senior Lecturer at Bush School of Texas A&M University
What has been the best way to teach your ideas? Do you have different techniques for teaching and coaching executives and emerging leaders? Thanks.
Author of DRIVE, TO SELL IS HUMAN, and other fine books.
I'm not sure I've figured this one out, Joe. I like to combine lectures and exercises in the hopes that each informs the other. But every time, I'm left with the nagging sense that there's a better way to help people really absorb and understand these ideas.

I'd love to hear more from you or other Parlio readers about what you've found effective.
Industrial-Organizational Psychology Practitioner

There has been a lot of business headlines on performance review ratings lately. Some companies are ditching entirely, others are getting rid of their rank & yank systems. A few are taking into account the SCARF model and replacing with formal reviews with frequent coaching conversations.
Given all of your research on motivation, and peoples' need for autonomy and mastery I am wondering where you come down on the debate around performance reviews. What do you think is the optimal way for organizations to implement a performance management system. Thank you!
Author of DRIVE, TO SELL IS HUMAN, and other fine books.
Great question. I come down on the side that traditional performance reviews are obsolete.

The reason goes to what I think is the most important piece of research in talent in the last 15 years. Harvard's Teresa Amabile and psychologist Steven Kramer did an amazing study a few years ago that found that the single most powerful day-to-day motivator on the job is "making progress in meaningful work."

The trouble is that progress depends on feedback. The only way you know whether you're moving in the right direction at the right rate is if you're getting information on how you're doing. So giving people feedback once a year is ludicrous. If the practice didn't already exist, it would seem like a headline from The Onion.

That's doubly true for Millennials, who have lived their lives in a world of rich, regular, robust, immediate, feedback -- from computers, phones, video games, etc. To them, a once a year feedback is a joke.

So I think the answer is to give the feedback inside of organizations close to the same metabolism of feedback in the rest our lives. That doesn't mean abandoning performance reviews altogether. But it does mean coming up with new ways to offer feedback -- more weekly one-on-ones, more individual coaching, experiments in peer-to-peer feedback, etc.
Writer / Podcaster Co-Host of Part Of The Problem
Do you practice any daily rituals or routines to help you stay motivated, happy, and successful?
Author of DRIVE, TO SELL IS HUMAN, and other fine books.
Exercise. It'ss one of the few things in life that is 99 times out of 100 a pure positive. So in an ideal world, I would run every day. And in the less idea world I actually inhabit, I've found that on the days that I run I'm much more motivated, happy, and successful than the days that I don't.
What do you think of minimalism by and large as an aspiring philosophy and its productivity approach of goallessness as preached for example by Leo Babauta of Zenhabits?
Author of DRIVE, TO SELL IS HUMAN, and other fine books.
I'm cool with it, even though I don't necessarily embrace it myself. There's something going on culturally here, as evidenced by the raging success of Marie Kondo's LIFE-CHANGING MAGIC OF TIDYING UP.

On goals, it's a fascinating topic. I'm not sure I would eliminate them altogether. But the research shows that they're not exactly foolproof. I buy the argument in the wonderful (and wonderfully titled) paper, "Goals Gone Wild" ( that says goals should come with warning labels.
Web developer, entrepreneur, ex hedge fund quant
Hey Dan!

Love your books, really liked the seminar you gave at the top of Huntsman Hall a few years ago.

I'm curious to hear, what have been a couple of the highest impact strategies/tactics/perspectives that you've applied to your own life (doesn't have to be related to what you've written about before)?
Author of DRIVE, TO SELL IS HUMAN, and other fine books.
Forgive the small ball nature of my suggestions, but here I two that I live by.

One comes from David Allen. (I've been devotee of his Getting Things Done methodology for many years). He says that if there's some task you can complete in less than 2 minutes, do it now. I know it sounds simple, but it's a life-changer.

The second has to do with the process of writing. When I write a book or a long article, I work like a bricklayer. I show up to my office every day a certain time -- around 830 or 900am. And I give myself a quota of words that I must hit. (Generally, it's 500 or 750 -- because I'm a very slow writer). Then I don't do anything else -- no phone, no email, no Twitter -- until I hit my word count. Sometimes I can do that by 1030 or 1100. Other times I can't get it out until the afternoon. Regardless, I prevent myself from doing anything else until I reach my total. It's usually painful. But it always works. Five or six hundred words a day every single day for a long time adds up.
Dan, your work has inspired me in many ways. I am a middle school Principal in DC, and I have implemented a lot of strategies and I currently have an Entrepreneur club where we are using exercises from To Sell... You have written a lot about persuasion and motivation. What do you think is the best strategies to use in school to motivate students? (Outside of Genius Hour)
Author of DRIVE, TO SELL IS HUMAN, and other fine books.
Hi, David. Thanks for being a middle school principal. That is a tough, tough job.

On strategies for motivating students, I'd got back to the three animating principles in DRIVE: Autonomy, master, and purpose.

On autonomy, what can you do to foster greater self-direction? Maybe it's something as simple as letting students choose what they read rather than have all the books chose for them. Maybe it's giving students, even at the middle school level, a greater say (and therefore a greater stake) how the classroom is run.

On mastery, what can you do to give students a sense of progress and provide them meaningful feedback that helps them get better? In my view, that calls for a greater emphasis on formative assessment -- so that teachers can refine and recast their efforts. I'm not necessarily in favor of eliminating grades altogether, but I'd like to see quicker, more personalized, more individualized feedback in the classroom. Likewise, I'd love for students to learn how to set their own goals (rather than the teacher's goals or the school board or state legislature's goals) and monitor their own progress.

Finally, on purpose, I think it's essential for teachers to explain why students are studying a particular topic or unit. If kids know why they need to solve quadratic equations, they be much better at solving those equations. If schools can tear down the wall between the classroom and the so-called "real world," students will see the "why" more clearly.

Now, one last word. I recognize that doing any of these things is really, really hard. Teachers and principals simply don't have enough autonomy. They're typically overworked and underpaid, yet are some of the most dedicated people I've ever seen. As a building leader, my best advice is to try to get a few small wins -- and hope these small wins cascade to something larger.

Good luck! And thanks again for being an educator.
Corporate Innovation Activist | Social Scientist in training
Hi Daniel,

It has been reported that 75% of max security offenders come from (and return to) 25% zipcodes in Australia. Having spoken to some of these offenders, there is a strong theme of absent role models in their lives and social circles. Yet, they feel unable to break out of the cycle, perpetuating the issue into their next generation.

It seems flawed to me that we have such depth of insight into biopsychosocial science, yet still have these issues in such condensed [therefore arguably easier to treat] areas of society.

What's missing? And, from a behavioural science perspective, where's the biggest opportunity to reverse this statistic for the youth in these zipcodes?

Looking forward to hearing your thoughts!


Author of DRIVE, TO SELL IS HUMAN, and other fine books.
This is a tough one. I don't have a good answer. But I do think the search for it begins with the proper diagnosis.

The more time I spend on this planet, the more I realize that all of us are subject to a birth lottery. Much of the course of our lives is shaped by essentially random, uncontrollable circumstances -- who are parents are, what neighborhood we're born, what genetic hand we've been dealt.

I still believe in free will and individual effort. But we -- that is, "we" in our guise as citizens who elect policy makers -- have to recognize the power of the birth lottery and the challenges it poses for building a just society.
Hi Daniel,

I tend to observe a lot of depression among startups. What do you think of this?
Author of DRIVE, TO SELL IS HUMAN, and other fine books.
That's an interesting observation. I'd love to see it studied empirically.

Is that the people inclined toward depression (e.g., creative nonconformists) gravitate toward startups? Or does a startup environment -- high pressure, awash in uncertainty -- create depression in those who might be unaffected in other circumstances? Or is it neither.

I'd love to find out.
Singularity will alter the very definitions of work, workplace, work relations... are you optimistic about it?
Author of DRIVE, TO SELL IS HUMAN, and other fine books.
I'm a bit of a Singularity skeptic. I do think the world is heading in this direction -- that machines and software are becoming ever "smarter." But I don't thing we'll see a fully realized version of world in which machines vastly exceed and perhaps human cognitive capacities for a long while.

Of course, I could be wrong. If I am, and the Singularity as it's currently described does appear, all bets are off.
Senior Fellow for Innovation at Alliance for Peacebuilding
Given what I've read of your work, I was a bit surprised to see politics on your list.

So, how might your work on persuasion help those of us interested in large scale social and political change, not "just" electing the next president?
Author of DRIVE, TO SELL IS HUMAN, and other fine books.
Hi, Chip. As it happens, I devoted a chunk of my misspent youth to working in politics -- so I still have a residual interest in the topic.

On this, there's no easy answer. In fact, fostering change on the political level is usually even harder than promoting change in, say, a company or organization.

The explanation goes to one of the books I cited earlier -- THE RIGHTEOUS MIND. That book plumbs the social science of moral reasoning to reveal a somewhat disconcerting truth. We like to believe that we make moral decisions -- say, our position on abortion -- by reasoning through the issues and reaching a conclusion. Alas, what we really do is making quick decisions based on instinct and emotion. Then we use reason to justify the decisions we've already made. As a result, giving people more information about moral issues or fostering robust debate, often does very little to change people minds. Indeed, debate and new information can actually harden existing positions.

What seems to work better is exposure. For example, one of the reasons for the change in public opinion on gay marriage is that, over time, more and more people discovered they had a neighbor or a sister or a co-worker who was gay or lesbian. And as they got to know that person, they discovered that he or she was pretty much like their straight neighbors, siblings, or co-workers. And that human connection (rather than a reasoned, quasi-legal argument about tolerance or fundamental rights) is what likely tipped the scales. For instance, many of the Republican elected officials who first supported gay marriage were those who had sons or daughters who'd come out.

So if you're looking to make political change, especially on an issue with significant moral freight, you're best off trying to expose those whose minds you're trying to change to the human dimension of your position.