Johnny Bunko and the Future of Work

Dan Pink, whose work I’ve written about before, is releasing a new book next week that will likely bring to a conclusion a powerful line of thinking about the nature of work, that’s been gathering momentum for about a decade. In doing so, this new book, The Adventures of Johnny Bunko, will likely spark some controversy, elevate the debate to another level, and frame a whole new set of important questions about the future of work. Johnny Bunko is a deceptively simple and doctrinaire business parable that distills the essence of a strengths-based millennial philosophy of work into a comic-book. So let’s take a look.

The book is pitched at a level that fresh high-school and college graduates will get. Since the book is being strategically released around graduation season, it makes a perfect graduation gift for the 18-year-olds and 22-year olds you might know (kids, nieces and nephews, mentees, new employees). Heck, you might even buy copies for rising high-school seniors and juniors, so they can make good use their liminal summers to steer their careers away from years of frustration (hint hint: use my affiliate link to order a case of gift copies!)

The Review

Johnny Bunko is something like Dr. Seuss’ Oh, the Places You’ll Go! with adult characters. Form, narrative and content all are worth some comment, so let’s deal with the first two quickly, and then tackle the content in more detail.

The Form

As far as form goes, the book adopts the conventions of Japanese Manga. If you haven’t encountered this style of comic book art before, you might have trouble for a few minutes while you learn to read the unusual panel transition conventions and subtle metaphoric elements (faces without eyes for instance). But once you ‘get’ the style, things should sail smoothly.

Viewed purely as a comic-book, I was mildly disappointed that Pink chose a straight narrative instead of a non-fiction style like Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. Since it is a quick-read parable, it also does not have the subtle visual complexities or depth of, say, Art Spiegelman’s Maus. Nevertheless, the book is ground-breaking as far as form goes, simply because it works out the form in the new domain of business (though Rob Salkowitz over at Generation Blend traces the history of business Manga much further back). Why? Because business discourses, for far too long, have limited their use of narrative to boring two-dimensional characters in non-visual parables. When characters and narrative do acquire some depth, the business ideas seem to suffer (as in The Goal). Comic books though, seem capable of carrying a clearly-articulated business message without sacrificing the richness of the narrative. I hope this existence-proof case unleashes a flood of creativity. I posted my own first attempts, Mousetrap 2.0, and The Blue Tunnel over the last few weeks, and I am working on a longer story.

The Narrative

Now for the narrative. Our protagonist, Johnny Bunko finds a half-dozen magical disposable chopsticks that, when snapped apart, conjure up a work-mentor/life coach genie named Diana who dispenses context-relevant kick-in-the-pants aphoristic career advice. The six aphorisms thus revealed through the narrative constitute the doctrine of the book (we’ll get to that in a minute). The story itself has Johnny working himself out of a dead-end job he hates and onto a Maslow-approved self-actualization path, aided by Diana and a couple of able sidekicks. The situations he works through are somewhat simplistic, but fairly representative of the workplace hurdles you need to overcome in order to have a real impact and find your sweet spot.

The story is pretty entertaining, and enough to keep you engaged for a single-sitting read. There are two elements in the narrative though, that create problems for the doctrine being propounded.

The first is the apparently innocent choices of the to and from of the dead-end-to-dream-job transition Bunko makes. The from is an accounting role, while the to is a creative design role in marketing. The choices are revealing, because Pink, in his writing elsewhere, has shown a tendency to reductively define “right-brained artistry” as “fine-art sensibilities” (a favorite line of his, one I violently disagree with, is “The MFA is the new MBA”). I so wish Bunko had navigated a counter-cultural transition from art and to accounting. From a purely narrative perspective, that would have been refreshing, rather like Andy DuFresne, the philosopher-accountant of the Shawshank Redemption. Melville’s Bartleby ought to have been the last fictional accountant-like creature with existential issues. From the perspective of the doctrine, a different choice of from and to would have made the story vastly more persuasive. As it stands, the story invites suspicions of a rather hasty and unjustified conflation, on the part of Pink, of this doctrine with the doctrine in his earlier A Whole New Mind.

The second is a glaring leap in the narrative logic that is worth mentioning, since it has implications for the soundness of the doctrine. At one point in the story, Johnny works himself out of the accounting function he hates and is no good at, and into an exciting assignment in marketing that plays to his strengths. This transition, which Diana enables literally by magic, is possibly among the hardest things to actually do in an organization, while still remaining true to the six principles the book proposes. In my experience, you have to break all six of Diana’s rules in order to make this transition, before you can get to a place where you can practice them.

The Content

Now, let’s get to the content. It is easiest to get at the importance of this book by looking at three things: the content itself, why it marks the end of an era, and why it marks the beginning of a new one.

The Bunko Doctrine

Here are the six principles (with my short explanations) that Diana teaches Johnny at opportune moments (you’ll need to buy the book to get yourself the richer exposition with examples).

  1. There is no plan: If you believe the world is fair and orderly, and that you need to dutifully jump through various hoops and pay your dues to ‘succeed’ you are in for a shock. You do need to jump some hoops, from the SATs onwards, but that’s merely calibrated pragmatism. What a friend of mine called ‘maze-brightness’ — running through the maze after the cheese, while keeping your eye out for breaking out into the real world.
  2. Think strengths, not weaknesses: Work to your strengths, manage around your weaknesses. Read Markus Buckingham to find out how and why (cryptic hint: compound interest). Unfortunately, I had to learn this particular lesson the hard way, in 1999, before the idea made it into the popular literature, around 2001.
  3. It’s not about you: This isn’t an abstract moral point about selflessness. It is the common sense piece of arithmetic that says you need to exchange that self-actualizing stuff you love to do for the money to buy the stuff and services you need to survive. Therefore you need to find a way to do what you love in a way that makes somebody want to pay you.
  4. Persistence trumps talent: This is possibly the hardest lesson to learn. Sometimes all that separates the winners from the loser is a willingness to find a real and valid opportunity and just keep at it until you get to the light at the end of the tunnel (again, cryptic hint: compound interest). Andy DuFresne is again an ideal prototype, and one of my more interesting ‘persistence’ lessons is chronicled here. Seth Godin’s The Dip also hammers home this principle.
  5. Make excellent mistakes: This is the one principle in the book I have issues with. Since you haven’t yet read the book, an ‘excellent’ mistake is roughly what Jerry Maguire commits when he prints and distributes a spiral-bound articulation of his vision for a Better World to everybody is his firm of cut-throat sports agents. In real life, the line between what is forgiven as well-intentioned-but-hasty over-reaching and what is just plain stupid is often very hard to see, and very very risky to cross.
  6. Leave an imprint: I thought I’d have nothing to say about this principle, since it sounds tautological, but upon reflection, I realized that this is the one principle I don’t agree with at all. My own attitude is much more Sisyphean. You’ve gotta want to roll that rock up the hill, but you’ve really got to learn to get your kicks from watching it roll down again. But then, this is the one, among the six, that is a religious rather than pragmatic principle.

If you are over 30, I’d say there is a 50-50 chance you’ve already learned these lessons the hard way. If not, you are probably among the whiners who complains about the ‘system.’ If you are over 50, there is only a 10-90 chance you’ll get this, partly because the ‘organization man’ workplace hadn’t evolved during the core years of your career to reward such thinking. If you were one of the bold people who thought this way in the 70s and 80s, you are probably in the C-suite by now. If you are under 25, there is a good chance you haven’t learned these principles, and unconsciously believe the opposite. Read the book.

As Pink acknowledges, these are not new insights. What is new is their reduction to a set of simple, unqualified, un-argued doctrinaire assertions. Which is why the Johnny Bunko marks the end of an era. Let me explain.

The End of an Era

The era I am talking about is about a decade long. It’s beginning coincides with the maturation of the Internet as a medium of commerce around 1997, and the enabling of powerful new approaches to the organization of work. Between 1997 and 2007, smart people around the world read the writing on the wall (or learned through quick, painful lessons like me) and adopted the work ethic that Bunko distills. As the evidence grew, with two waves of Internet-driven innovation, the literature emerged. Besides Markus Buckingham, there have been other characteristic works chronicling the rise of this new breed of worker, including Pink’s own Free Agent Nation: The Future of Working for Yourself, the annoying The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich and the useful, but pedestrian recent addition, No More Mondays.

Johnny Bunko represents an end-point for this line of thinking because it shows that the underlying ideas have spread and been accepted to the point that they can be distilled into a comic-book constructed out of archetypal characters and casual references to the enabling cultures (one character in the story quits work to find a new career as a long-tail blogger). Five years ago, you’d only have gotten this story if you’d had relevant validating experiences you could look back to. Today, I suspect my 16-year old niece with no experiences to draw upon will get it.

So that’s what I mean by end of an era. Without some fundamentally new ideas in the discourses around the nature of work, this line of thinking will yield nothing more. We’ll probably see several more books though, that seem like endnotes to the existing literature, but containing no real new insights.

Framing the New Debates

Let’s finish up by exploring why Johnny Bunko helps frame the debates that we need to evolve our understanding of work, taking as a given that the Bunko doctrine will likely be the default stance in the workforce in about 5 years.

If you construct a naive strawman antithesis to the Bunko Doctrine, you get:

  1. God has a plan for you
  2. Build your career around your worst weaknesses
  3. Self-indulge and pretend you are self-actualizing
  4. Depend on the Universe to Obey Your Intent (the execrable Secret is hopefully the last piece of New Age trash to propagate this particular piece of idiocy)
  5. Avoid all risk of making mistakes
  6. Try to die unsung and unheard

The silliness of this list might suggest that the Bunko Doctrine is tautological. But I am much too Popperian (and Sisyphean-tragic) to believe in such an ironclad set of truths. So here’s my non-strawman antithesis, that I hope will frame some interesting questions for the next era of thinking:

  1. “Plans are nothing, planning is everything.” — Eisenhower
  2. “If everybody plays to their strengths, nobody takes out the trash.” — Me
  3. “If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.” — Henry Ford
  4. There really are people who win the lottery.
  5. There are no mistakes. Only dumber and smarter risks.
  6. “Leave only footprints, take only pictures”: is there a case to be made for not trying to change the world?

Let’s see if Johnny Bunko resolves his yins and yangs in a future installment. I’ll be exploring some of these themes (both thesis and antithesis) in future posts on other subjects.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. I read Johnny Bunko in under 45 minutes inside a Barnes & Noble today and I think it was EXACTLY what someone my age (20) has been waiting to hear affirmed by someone respected and pragmatic like Pink. I am a huge fan of Seth Godin, I’ve read The Dip and a lot of his blog post say the things Pink was able to encapsulate in this really compelling narrative. I stumbled onto a comic styled tutorial on the programming language Ruby and thought it was brilliant ( It’s really inspiring to see something this innovative done by a major author.

    You stated the last point about leaving a mark is religiously toned but I would suggest that a better label might be “philosophical”. My history teacher in high school would always ask us students “don’t you people ever just sit down and think?”. I appreciate Pink’s attempt to end his book by asking the reader to just “sit down and think”.

  2. I’ve seen the poignant guide too, though I didn’t think of it before as representing the same sort of new graphic-non-fiction writing. It’ll be interesting to see whether the most people who read the book are in the target demographic.

  3. I see that Salkowitz gives a nod to Ishinomori’s Japan, Inc. as an early predecessor. Drop by my office if you want to borrow it – but bring back my copy of Coase first! (:-)

  4. Thanks for the thorough review and related pondering. I am using Bunko in a 10th grade career prep/English integrated course. I’m going to use your antitheses with my students in discussion of Pink’s messages.