Daniel Pink: When – The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing

I sat down with Daniel Pink, the author of six provocative books — including his newest, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, which spent four months on the New York Times bestseller list. His other books include the long-running New York Times bestseller A Whole New Mind and the #1 New York Times bestsellers Drive and To Sell is Human. His books have won multiple awards, have been translated into 39 languages, and have sold three million copies worldwide. He lives in Washington, DC with his family.

Gretchen Tarrant: How did your journey begin and where do you draw inspiration from? Does it stem from things that you have noticed about your own behavior and were working to optimize, maybe something you read?

Daniel Pink: It came from both directions. As you say, part of it is my own behavior. For this latest book, When, about the science of timing, that was very much rooted in my own behavior and frustrations with my behavior. I was making all kinds of timing decisions in my own life. But I was making them in a very sloppy way, and that frustrated me. I wanted to make them in a more intelligent way, so I started checking out the research — and it turned out there was a huge amount of science on the subject. 

Once I harvested that science, it gave me clues about how to make better decisions on the ‘when’ questions of my own life. I figured if it gave me tools and evidence to make better decisions, it could give other people tools and evidence to make better decisions too. So, my own behavior is definitely one driver for figuring out what I’m going to write about.

The second driver is “weak signals.” There are strong signals, which are loud and obvious and get people’s attention. Then there are weak signals, which are quiet, obscure, and exist only on the periphery of people’s attention. Weak signals to me are always more interesting. Sometimes weak signals disappear. But sometimes weak signals become strong signals, and that’s what really interests me. So, for some of my books I was detecting weak signals, and was curious about whether they had the potential to become strong signals. As a writer, I want to write about a topic before it’s well-known. So, looking for weak signals that seem to be on the path to becoming stronger signals is another driver for me. 

I’ve never really thought about it this way, but there are really two directions to my focus. One is internal, looking at my own behavior, and the other is more of an external direction, looking at the world.

Daniel Pink in a dark suit

GT: What do you think made your books so successful, and what does that say about people’s questions about their own behavior?

DP: Who knows why some books work and others don’t? But I’ll give you a theory, or at least I’ll tell you what I’ve tried to do.

In this particular world of nonfiction, there are often two kinds of books. One you can call a “big idea book”: those that say “What you think about the world isn’t quite right. Here’s a new way to think about it.” Then you have books you can think of as “transformation books.” These are books that will help you lead your life in a different and better way.

I’ve always found both of those genres of books somewhat unsatisfying. With a big idea book, if the author is right and I say, “Wow, that’s really interesting. What should I do about it?” The big idea books don’t tell me. With the transformation books you might read them and say, “Well, I guess that advice could be sensible. But how do you know? What’s your evidence?” 

What I try to do is marry those two genres. Books that are aimed to help readers live better and work smarter, but are animated by a big idea. I’ll begin with an alternative – and better – description of how the world works. And it will be based on real evidence. But I’ll also offer advice and tools and tips on how to respond. So, if I argue that timing is a science rather than an art, and present the science, footnotes and all, I’ll also give you science-based tips to improve your timing. If I argue that labor markets are now prizing artistic, empathic, big picture skills, I’ll give you some guidance on how to develop those skills. 

Rather than occupying one of those two different worlds — big ideas or transformation – I try to bring the two worlds together.  

GT: How long did all of this research take you?

DP: The research for When took close to two years. There were just so, so many studies across so many different domains. So, there was research in economics and social psychology, where I’m reasonably experienced. But there was also research in microbiology and chronobiology and epidemiology, where I had little background. Literally, 20 to 25 different disciplines were studying this in some way. They were often asking similar– in some cases identical–questions. What’s the effect of time of day on how we feel and how we think? How do beginnings affect us? How do midpoints affect us? How do groups synchronize? But they weren’t talking to each other! The economists weren’t talking to the anthropologists. The anthropologists weren’t talking to the cognitive scientists. The cognitive scientists weren’t talking to the endocrinologists.

GT: On this trend of connecting different areas, at the end of the book you select different case studies ranging from rowing teams to choirs to dabbawalas making deliveries at lunchtime in Mumbai. How did you select these different situations as ones that would resonate?

DP: I lead with the Dabbawalas because I was fascinated by them. I’d heard about men who made daily lunch deliveries on an incredible scale in a chaotic city with almost no errors and it just didn’t seem possible. I wanted to see it, and figure it out, for myself. So, I started with them. Then I began thinking, “Okay, what are some other areas where people need to be coordinated and synchronized in time?” I started reading a little bit of the research on choral singing and that just blew my mind. Seriously, the research on choral singing was just mind-boggling. So, I said, ‘Okay, I should go see a chorus and how they work and talk to the people running it.’ Then, looking at the research I thought, ‘Hmmm, how about rowing?’ Rowing and choir singing are quite similar. There is one person whom the rest of the group faces. The choir director and the coxswain are incredibly important people in the team performance, but the coxswain doesn’t touch an oar, the choir director doesn’t make a sound. I thought that was an interesting comparison.

GT: Going off this theme of teamwork and synchronization, as a writer which is typically considered a somewhat solo profession, how do you implement teamwork?

DP: Very good insight. Writing is weird, because there’s a purely individual aspect of it. But there’s also more of a collaborative, team aspect than some people know.  You have an agent who helps you figure out the project. you have an editor who helps you realize the project. You often have a network of friends and other writers who’ll give you honest feedback. You have the invaluable publicity and marketing people at the publisher – and even the senior executives, whom you want to get behind your book. So, you have to be able to switch modes – to work solo and to collaborate with others. What I try to do during the team aspect is be consistent with the principles of coordination, keep people informed as much as possible along the way. I don’t want to go into a cave and then emerge with a manuscript a few years later and say, “Okay, run with this.” The other reason I like keeping people involved is writing a book is really hard.  If I have multiple brains on it, it’s going to be a better book. 

GT: Given your emphasis on endings, how did you decide to end this book? 

DP: I tried to adhere to the principles of endings here, particularly ending with a rising sequence rather than a declining sequence. I wanted to do two things. First, to the extent that I could, I wanted to pull everything together so that the reader had a sense of completion. But what I didn’t want to do is belabor the ending or just write several pages of, “Okay, class. Here’s what we’ve learned.” But after several failed attempts I thought of a construct that’s sometimes used in pedagogy, where students are asked to say what they used to believe and contrast that with what they now believe. So, I tried that — just as an exercise — and it was like butter! I mean, it just came out more smoothly than anything else I’d written. 

GT: What role do you think timing has played in your career? 

DP: This particular book changed my practices as a writer. This research changed how I do my work. I’m more of a lark than an owl, so my peak period, the period where I do my best work, where I’m harder to distract, is definitely the mornings. Once I learned about chronotypes and the like, I was very deliberate about carving out time in the morning to do nothing but write. I would come into my office every day and I would get myself a quota, a word count. For example, I would say to myself ‘Today you have to write 800 words,’ and I wouldn’t do anything else until I hit that quota. I wouldn’t bring my phone into the office with me, I wouldn’t check my email, l wouldn’t go down the rabbit hole of Twitter madness or ESPN highlights. I knew that my brainpower wasn’t going to last throughout the day, and I needed a certain kind of brainpower for the excruciating task of writing. I knew from the research that I had maybe three or so hours of optimal brain power, and if I squandered it, as I’d done hundreds of times in my life, that would be a disaster. This is the sixth book that I’ve written. It’s the only one I’ve delivered by the deadline specified in my contract. It sounds a bit circular — but researching this book helped me write this book.  

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