Good news: Author Dan Pink has a new book coming out on 12-29-09. Better news: He’s taking an interest in Sabbaticals! That gave me courage enough to invite him to visit BreakAway, and he kindly did, responding:
Glad you liked the Sagmeister post, gladder still you hipped me to your website. It rocks. I think you’re on to something big. (In fact, I write about this trend in my upcoming book.)”
Sagmeister, of course, is the world-famous graphic designer who closes his shop and takes a year off every seven or so—and generated quite a buzz when he preached about it during his TED conference appearance earlier this year.
Mr. Pink may be one of the most in-demand thought leaders of our time, but he still found time to talk about what we’ll soon be reading—and Sabbaticals too. Thanks, Dan!
Pink: I actually never thought about it that way, but I think that’s not a bad way to put it. One way to think about it is the last book was about the what of work. This book is more about the why—why we do what we do. But there are a lot of lessons in this for individuals—about how they can find their own motivation, and maybe even set up a context that allows other people find their own motivation.
BA: You describe that it’s time to move beyond the “carrot and stick” approach of work. What some of the new motivators—and can employers provide them?
Pink: We tend to think the way to get better performance out of people is carrots and sticks; we sweeten the reward, or stiffen the punishment. That’s true for some things. But science shows that for creative conceptual tasks, those sorts of motivators don’t work very well, and often have a whole array of collateral consequences. Sure, we need baseline rewards. If people feel they’re not getting paid fairly, then there’s not going to be much motivation. But once you get past that baseline level of compensation, it’s not even about fairness or massive amounts of money. It’s about fair pay. Money ceases to be a motivator, and in fact can be a DE-motivator. So the goal, in many ways, is to take the issue of money off the table.
The real motivators are things like autonomy, mastery and purpose. Autonomy means the ability of people to direct their own lives—to have control over their time, technique, and team. Mastery is the desire to get better at something that matters. As for purpose, that’s serving something larger than ourselves.”
Those end up providing motivation that is more attuned to the sorts of work people are doing now. And it also provides the sort of motivation that is much more enduring.
Carrots and sticks are very good short-term motivators, but they can impose a myopia on people. They may work when you want something to get done NOW—when you need people to focus on what’s in front of them. But if you want a long term view, they can be quite devastating.
BA: If your job doesn’t much inspire you, can you give us some ideas on how the Average Joe might avoid becoming a carrot-and-stick couch potato?
Pink: Well, it depends. There’s some interesting research on this, including some from the University of Pennsylvania about hospital janitors. That may not be what you’d think is an exciting job. And there are some janitors who say, “I’m simply here to clean the floor and get out.”
There are others, though, who looked at the role more broadly, and said “I’m going to talk to patients because I’m interested in them; I can play this small part in helping people who are hurting to get better.” In other words, these were janitors who were sculpting their jobs. A janitor may not seem like the sort of job where there would be a lot of intrinsic motivation. But are always ways. It depends to the extent you can get a sense of autonomy—a sense of not only what you do, but when and how you do it, including finding something in your job you can keep getting better at. Is there a complex skill you can master? Is there some purpose to this, beyond simply getting a paycheck?
That’s important, but if people are only in it because they’re fearful their family won’t eat, they probably won’t stick around when things get better. So organizations need to provide the context for these other sorts of motivators, recognizing of course that there is a baseline of compensation that people need in order to survive.
BA: Do you think corporations are getting better at that?
Pink: Some are, and some are not. Some have completely bought into the folklore of carrots and sticks. So what they do when times get tough is just offer more carrots or threaten with more sticks. Some of that is backfiring, I think. One reason for the financial collapse was a lot of extrinsically motivated carrot-seeking without any consequences to behavior. But there are some other places that are doing some incredibly interesting things.
Zappos, for instance, is a business with a call center. Again, this may not be a high-level job. But do you know what Zappos said to its call center reps?: “You don’t have to follow a script. We’re not going to time you or monitor you; you can do about whatever you want that works. Your job is to serve the customer.” That’s a huge amount of autonomy in what is usually a low-autonomy kind of work. Usually, call centers have these elaborate scripts to follow. And their calls are timed and if employees deviate, they get in trouble. Well, lo and behold! Zappos comes out of nowhere to become one of the highest rated customer service firms in America—simply by providing autonomy to frontline service workers.
Another firm I write about is Atlassian, a software company that provides one day each quarter when staff can work on anything they want. Then they have to show what they’ve created to the rest of the company at the end of that 24 hours. It turns out this the one day has produced a whole array of software fixes and new ideas that might otherwise have not occurred. So on the fringes, there’s a different approach to motivation.
Another, called Redgate, eliminated commissions for salespeople, which seems almost like heresy. But what they realized was there were always unintended consequences of a totally commission-based sales process. They discovered that they wanted to hire salespeople who cared—who wanted to do a good job and were intrinsically motivated.
Kirk, these are radical ideas in a way. No commissions for salespeople? That sort of violates the whole theology of business! But one of the things they gained was much greater collaboration—and that ended up benefiting the whole company.
BA: Dare I ask, as a self-employed thought leader who’s often on the road, how to YOU keep fresh, recharged and motivated yourself?
Pink: Above all, I like what I do and find it interesting. And that wasn’t always the case in my work.
BA: Like when you were a lawyer?
Pink: I wasn’t actually ever a lawyer, but I got a hint of it. A lot of it is finding out what you like to do—and do that. That doesn’t mean that every day is a land of milk and honey, at all! But in order to have an impact on the world, sometimes you have to do things that aren’t that fun. In my case, that can mean staying up late at night answering email from readers. Or making three extra phone calls to get a fact right.
On my wall, I have a saying that I literally turn to. It’s by Julius Irving, of all people, and it says,
Being a professional is doing the things you love to do, even on the days you don’t feel like doing them.”
I think that’s right. But getting the BIG part right is really the key. I think there are a lot of people out there struggling to motivate themselves, when really, the nature of what they do isn’t that all that interesting and motivating.
BA: One thing BreakAway promotes is the idea of taking down time and unplugging—for balance, inspiration and sanity. Do you ever mention those kinds of things in your book—the quiet side of “DRiVE?”
Pink: That’s a nice way to put it, really. Except for this talk about taking a Sagmeister—which is what I call Sabbaticals and which I write about a bit in my new book—that’s something I’m coming to slowly. Intellectually, I recognize that it’s valuable, but in my personal day-to day-life, I’m not all that good at.
BA: Well, maybe you’re one of the lucky ones who doesn’t need it.
Pink: I think everybody needs it. I think it’s in some ways foolish to think that not everybody needs it.
BA: True, true. I would just submit that when you need downtime, you’ll find it, and it will find you. But I do believe that people are so plugged in and work so hard these days—that also can be counterproductive and un-motivating in the end.
In your blogpost about “taking a Sagmeister,” your last quote is, “Cool. If I can swing it, I’d like to give it a try.” Can you? Will you?
Pink: It’s funny you mention both of those things, because my family and I are taking kind of an unplugging vacation starting on the 18th. And one of the things my wife and I are going to talk about during that time is when and how we take our Sagmeister.
BA: Good for you! It may take you a year or 2 to figure that out…
Pink: Right. There are lot of moving pieces here, because as you mentioned, I am self-employed—although that may make it easier. But, you know, giving up an income stream is a difficult thing, and of course our kids are all involved in different things. But the questions are so front of mind for my family right now, it’s kind of eerie.
BA: May I ask, what would you say is the closest you’ve ever gotten to a Sabbatical?
Sure. The closest thing was in 2007. I got a fellowship to go to Tokyo and took the kids out of school for two months. I was working—doing research—but it was a real change in the rhythm of life and scenery. It got us seriously out of the day-to-dayness of life in Washington, DC.
BA: What would you do if you won the Sabbatical lottery? Do you have any idea of where you’d go, for how long, and how you’d get the kids out of school and all that?
Pink: I would want it to be a whole family adventure. I don’t want to wait til my kids are, you know, all old and grown up and have there own lives.
BA: They’re not even kids any more then…
Pink: True. So I think the family aspect would be a big part of it. I’ll tell you what we’re thinking of, not that we’ve hit the lottery or anywhere close—and the financial considerations are significant. But we’re thinking of traveling around the world for a year—and pick, say, 10 destinations and go to each one for a month and check it out.
BA: Awesome. I would only suggest you might pick one destination for three months or so, and reallly get to know one culture and area. You know, make friends, feel at home, learn the rhythms there…
Pink: That’s one of the things that I think would be ideal. It strikes me that 10 might be too many, and that a greater length of time might be more valuable. One of our takeaways from our experience in Tokyo—one of my enduring memories—is swimming every day at a public pool. Our two daughters are swimmers, and it was important to keep that up while we were away. So we found this indoor pool close to home. And every day at 5:30 or 6, this family of five giant white people would traipse across these few blocks, cross these busy streets, go through this strange little alley, and into this public pool where we were easily the only foreigners there. It wasn’t a tourist destination of any kind. It’s not in any guidebooks. But because we were there a while and had some rhythm to our lives, I think it will be one of the most enduring memories for my family from there.
BA: My family—just three of us at the time—went around the world and only had four months, with seven destinations…
Pink: Seven destinations in four months? That’s a lot!
BA: Well, it is. But LA and DC were short stopovers visiting relatives on the way in and out, so there were really only five major destinations, including Italy, where we’ve lived and knew exactly where we would stay and have friends and familiarity. We made the itinerary as easy as possible because we were taking a four-year-old, and yet we filled it with just enough strangeness and adventure to challenge ourselves and do some wonderful new things. We picked a town in New Zealand to settle for two months, and that was so sweet.
I’ve found on these trips that wherever we stay the longest, that’s the place I love the most. When you take the time to figure things out, make some friends, feel like you belong, know where the good food is, how to handle the library, find a good babysitter… These things take a while—yet not having them can greatly compromise what you can do.
So if—or should I say when?—you go around the world, I sure hope you find time to wander and to hunker down. I’m certain you’ll find what you’re looking for. Meanwhile, I’ll buy your book, “Drive,” right after it comes out, AND come to Barnes and Noble in Edina in January for an autograph!
Thanks so much for the insightful chat. And happy travels.