Drive by Dan Pink

At the heart of Dan Pink’s new book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us is an insight that makes you want to yell in frustration at perversely obtuse academic worlds that marginalize seminal clarifications of the blindingly obvious: trying to motivate creative work with carrots and sticks backfires. As the book notes, this truth has been known to folk wisdom at least since Mark Twain wrote the famous fence-whitewashing episode in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876). Apparently — and I did not know this — this folk insight has been repeatedly validated by the discipline of psychology since 1949, when the first clear evidence appeared in a serendipitous accidental experiment by Harry Harlow. Yet, mainstream psychology has systematically ignored and marginalized this line of research, even going to the dystopian extreme of firing those intellectually honest enough to pursue the work anyway.

The major contribution of Drive is in elevating what ought to be a basic axiom of business from the level of Twain-ian (and Drucker-ian) opinion, to the level of scientific, not-optional, fact. The “Aha!” element of the book isn’t this bald fact (which isn’t surprising in isolation), but in pointing out the gap between “what science knows and what business does.”  The marginal status of the body of research in psychology is no excuse: major business thinkers from Drucker onwards have been saying the same thing for decades. Yet, nearly all businesses run on carrot-and-stick motivational architectures.

The Big Idea

The book contains a pretty comprehensive overview of the entire body of work in psychology underlying the insight, starting with Harlow’s experiments with monkeys in 1949 to hot-off-the-presses work by Theresa Amabile of Harvard. Here is perhaps the most accessible result, which you may have seen before, that builds on the “candle experiment” devised by Karl Duncker in 1945 (Wikipedia says 1945, the book says “1930s” and I am not sure which is correct). In the original experiment, given a box with some thumbtacks, matches and a candle, you have to figure out how to attach the candle to the wall.


The solution is to tack the empty thumbtack box to the wall and use it as a stand.  People find it difficult because they have to overcome “functional fixedness”: seeing the box only as “container of tacks” which blinds them to its use as a “potential candleholder.” I suspect, even when you do see the possibility, you might hesitate out of undue deference to authority and the idea that you aren’t “allowed” to use the box that way. Subjects solve the problem much faster if presented with the same raw material, but with the tacks outside the box.

Functional fixedness, interesting though it is in its own right, isn’t the point. The point in Drive is made by further experiments by Sam Glucksberg of Princeton, on what motivational schemes do to solution times. The unambiguous result is this: adding cash incentives results in the subjects taking, on average, three and a half minutes longer to “see” the solution. This perverse effect goes away if you redesign the problem to be routine/mechanical instead of requiring creativity (by taking the tacks out of the box). Carrots and sticks do work for more mechanical tasks (Pink distinguishes between the two types of problems with the labels “algorithmic” and “heuristic” but I think these are problematic, not least because there are such things as algorithms that run on heuristics. The looser labels “mechanical” and “creative” are probably safer).

That’s the big idea. Pink cites dozens of other experiments and variations that validate and build on the same basic point: creativity is killed by carrots and sticks.

The Book

The book itself has two agendas: to describe and drive home the Big Idea and its implications, and to start a conversation about the “gap between what science knows and what businesses do.”

Part I starts by covering the story of the research, including bits from behavioral economics for those of you who like that stuff.  This section alone is probably worth the price of the book.

Next, we get a speculative list of reasons why carrots and sticks don’t work for creative work. The book calls this list the “Seven Deadly Flaws”

  1. They can extinguish intrinsic motivation
  2. They can diminish performance
  3. They can crush creativity
  4. They can crowd out good behavior
  5. They can encourage cheating, shortcuts, and unethical behavior
  6. They can become addictive
  7. They can foster short-term thinking

I was a bit disappointed by this, since it is essentially a restatement, with different words, of the empirical results. It isn’t an analysis or an exploration of more fundamental causality.  Part I then moves on to a short discussion of special circumstances when carrots and sticks do work (no surprises there: algorithmic work, the mainstay of industrial organization). Part I concludes with a riff on Douglas McGregor’s Theory X and Theory Y, and is titled “Type X and Type I” (for intrinsic), and is based on an approach to motivational psychology called “self-determination theory” developed by psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan. This chapter is solid.

Part II is an attempt at generalization and broader synthesis, and draws on, among other things, the work on flow by positive psychologist Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi which you are probably familiar with, if you read this sort of nonfiction. The generalization offers up a framework based on “Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose.” There is a good deal of discussion of recent management ideas like the “Results Only Work Environment” (ROWE) pioneered at Best Buy. This material is largely skimmable if you’ve been keeping up with recent 2.0-flavored management literature and are familiar with positive psychology. If not, the review is workmanlike and will get you up to speed.

Part III is the “conversation starter” material for wannabe evangelists and management change-agents. The section is not intended for smooth, enjoyable reading, but for reference and as cut-and-paste fodder. There are plenty of lists, including a list of six business thinkers who “get it” (not surprisingly, the list contains Douglas “Theory X and Theory Y” McGregor, Drucker, Jim Collins, Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson (ROWE) and Gary Hamel), and another list of 15 fifteen essential business books. There is a quick recap, a glossary, and something called a “Drive Discussion Guide” with 20 conversation starters. The material will likely be useful to those who intend to use this book to launch yet another attack on Management 1.0. Dan Pink is certainly among the leading innovators when it comes to rethinking the book as merely the anchor element in a whole multimedia production that includes Twitter, Facebook, videos (there is a TED video) word-of-mouth evangelists, and a business-social agenda.

But Part III is likely to annoy those who have no intention of becoming evangelists, don’t want to “start conversations” about the idea, and like their books to be books. My advice: if that’s you, just ignore Part III entirely.  In fact, Part III could have been entirely removed from the book and put on an online-only “extras” Web site. Readers smart enough to be reading books like this don’t really need dead-trees versions of material that naturally lends itself better to online organization, and is meant for cut-and-paste use.

The Road Not Taken

I do wish though, that the book had dived into the why more deeply. The “Seven Deadly Flaws,” like I said, are merely a succinct restatement of the empirical results. They do not constitute an analysis. Neither does the SDT idea (which seems vaguely like Maslow in a new package). The book moves a little too rapidly from diagnosis to prescription. The prescription is based on an extrapolation from “carrots and sticks are bad” to “goals are bad,” a stronger assertion that I happen to agree with. But the incomplete diagnosis leads to problems at this point: we get a prescription based on the idea of “purpose,” a close cousin of “goal” which I don’t think gets us anywhere. Purposes are merely somewhat softer and more abstract goals that sound more lofty and noble and suggest a hint of religion (as in the Christian bestseller, “The Purpose-Driven Life”). It’s just holy carrots and sticks or “mission statements” and “values.”

The more promising path is actually indicated but sadly, not pursued very far in the book: the key words here are “intrinsic drive.”  I think this intrinsic drive, far from being about lofty things like purposes, is about a very childish quality: playful restlessness (which Pink does talk about briefly, using his own kids as examples). In its natural form, this results in random pleasurable behavior that merely lets out energy, and is driven by immediate, uncensored reactions to sensory stimuli (what we call “curiosity”). Play is fun because the behavior itself is fun, regardless of what, if anything, it achieves (ever seen a child just skipping around in circles yelling “Whee!”?). Play is possible because play environments are built to be safe (no sticks).

My theory is that adult drive is nothing more than comprehensively hooked childish curiosity that has led play down an interesting rabbit hole (or a virtuous spiral), so we end up putting in 10,000 hours of Ericssonian deliberate practice and turning into driven adults, passionate about chemistry or steam engines or whatever.  This argument is present in the book, but buried and lost among many other narrative threads. It should have been front-and-center.

Coincidentally, Dan’s social-media publicist, Jeremy Epstein, sent me a link to a great article making precisely this point: that to be innovative, you have to think like a 4-year old at some level.

This is a rich vein worth exploring deeply. I have a good many thoughts of my own in this direction, but I’ll leave those for another day.

The Evolution of Dan Pink

I’ve kept up an occasional email exchange with Dan over the past 6-7 years, mainly because, through a curious coincidence, I’ve been thinking about many of the same things at the same time. I recently met him in person for the first time during a Drive event at a DC bookstore.

I’ve reviewed his earlier books Johnny Bunko (JB) and A Whole New Mind (AWNM), and his first book, Free Agent Nation, not only motivated a lot of writing on this site, but actually motivated a technology project I started at work (on next-generation crowdsourcing/marketplace platforms). I routinely cite FAN in presentations for that project. Drive explores a topic that I have also explored quite a bit (see for instance, my post Theory W, Theory X and Theory Y).

If you are hearing about his work for the first time, you might find this Dan Pink trail useful. Besides his books, his website is well worth following. One of the threads on his blog that I enjoy the most (in fact I was hoping that would be his next book) is on emotionally-intelligent signage.  Here’s a pecha-kucha presentation he did on the topic (20 slides, 20 seconds each, 6 minutes, 40 seconds total).

I recommend all of Dan’s writing, but not because I agree with it completely. I don’t,  and in many ways I am philosophically his evil twin, since I approach many of the same ideas with a more tragic stance and a cynical outlook. I could never work up the enthusiasm and energy he does, in linking his writing to a positive social change agenda.

Dan’s writing is important because it is honest, which is quite a rarity in this genre. As it builds on itself, it self-corrects. If FAN, for instance, over-stated the case for free agents, Johnny Bunko corrected that by exploring how life within large corporations could be satisfying as well (hint, become a sociopath, to use my own darker language). FAN had the seeds of a weakness for form and style over content, and AWNM went a little overboard with high-concept design, but then again, with Johnny Bunko, a nice balance was struck between form and content (in fact, thanks to the comic-book medium, the distinction vanished).

Drive, in some ways, represents a full-circle return to a start-of-journey FAN-like voice. The approach is cautious and tentative. The book is unusually deferential towards the authorities it cites, compared to the previous books, and errs on the side of praise and inclusion rather than exclusion. Though there is, like I said, a too-quick move to prescription, the focus is, rightly, on starting a conversation rather than defending definitive-sounding answers.

Not to be mean, but unlike a certain other famous zeitgeist-leading-pop-social-psychology writer whose last name starts with G and ends with ladwell, Pink never deliberately mangles ideas and facts in the service of an overweening high concept, or assumes a voice of authority where even the experts admit to uncertainties. Unlike Gladwell, whose ideas (always intriguing and thought-provoking) I naturally distrust, and routinely re-analyze for myself, I find myself generally trusting Dan’s ideas out of the box. The assumption of best faith is far easier to make.

So go ahead and read his stuff. You may occasionally be annoyed by the change-the-world agenda, but you’ll get your money’s worth and find yourself going down lots of interesting paths.

Get Ribbonfarm in your inbox

Get new post updates by email

New post updates are sent out once a week

About Venkatesh Rao

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


  1. There’s a simple reason why managers think carrots work: Because that’s how you attract great employees in the first place. You offer people great money and (these days) mediocre benefits. You always tell them it’s a fun and interesting work place but that’s just spin and anyone with any brains knows it. It’s the money that brings people in.

    So in convincing people that carrots don’t work, you have to overcome the reality that sometimes they do. But a once a year raise (which is always going to be less than people want) is irrelevant to the daily grind. It’s motivational value is lost once the review period has come and gone and the daily burden of work life returns.

    So your argument should be not with carrots and sticks so much as with the whole stifling structure of command and control. Good luck with that.

    • The book cites research that shows that compensation only matters up to a point, and as a basic condition of working at all, not as a motivator. In compensation, what people most look for is simply equity, with respect to internal/external peers, not absolute numbers.

      I am guessing the same holds for raises and benefits.

      As for the larger 2.0 battle against C2… I agree. That will only succeed up to a point, because C2 is the only way we know of, to accomplish some large-scale things.

    • It’s a joy to find sonmoee who can think like that

  2. I appreciate the level headed nature of your review. While clearly a fan of Dan (as am I), you seem to be insightful enough to challenge his nature of shit disturbing….which I believe is Dan Pink’s grand intent. Like him or not, I appreciate Dan Pink’s ability to take a topic, research it and frame a point of view that challenges convention.

    Being an Employee Recognition professional, I can tell you that “Drive” is shaking up thought in our industry…which I LOVE! Convention is for wussies.

    Great Review!

  3. Thanks for the clear, concise review. Very helpful and a confirmation I need to read Dan’s book. But I too am more interested in the “Why”, having already intuited the value of intrinsic rewards in my career and life. Let’s continue to talk about “Why” so we can get to “How”; constructing the optimal environment for human creativity is really what we’re all after, isn’t it?

  4. Great review of Drive. I just learned about Daniel Pink, and am fascinated by his analysis of incentives! I first learned of him from an interview on

    I am going to pick up Drive and learn more!

  5. I love the review and some – but not all – of Dan Pink’s artful exposition on the topic. However, I take offense with your claim academics have somehow “marginalized” this work. Deci and Ryan have been publishing on self-determination theory in top-notch journals since the seventies. Further, many other management scholars have written about this countless times in textbooks, educational pamphlets, and journals. Deci & Ryan have even written multiple books on the topic in the nineties.

    Dan Pink is merely a good writer who capitalized on a well known phenomena to make a profit on others’ ideas.