Dan Pink's Essential Career Advice

Dan's top advice for ambitious young professionals.

Posted Jul 30, 2020

Dhpmccullought/Wikimedia Commons
Dan Pink
Source: Dhpmccullought/Wikimedia Commons

You probably know Daniel Pink best as a leading management thinker and best-selling author of books like To Sell is Human, When, and A Whole New Mind, but what you probably didn’t know about Dan is that writing, for him, really started out as a side gig instead of his main job, which was in politics. From the time Dan was in college, he was writing articles, essays, and columns in his spare time. And it was only decades later that he realized his side hustle, which he loved, could eventually become a full-time gig for him. Inspired by his story, I recently caught up with Dan to talk about advice he’d have for young professionals looking to make a difference and achieve their own early career success.

Andy Molinsky: What misconceptions do you think college students have about entering the professional world? 

Dan Pink: That life in general, and careers in particular, are linear. In fact, I'm not even sure they're two-dimensional. They're more like a Salvador Dali painting overlaid on a three-dimensional game of poker. Or something like that. Put another way, the path your life takes is rarely obvious at the outset. Sometimes it makes sense only retrospectively. And sometimes even then it doesn't make sense.

Molinsky: What advice would you give to a young professional who experiences the “imposter syndrome”—the fear that they are not worthy, and couldn’t possibly be qualified to do the job or task that they’re attempting to do?

Pink: The people you encounter in professional environments are far less competent than you imagine. They're just as flawed as you are. So, stop fretting and get to work.

Molinsky: What’s an underrated or overlooked factor you think is critical for achieving early career success?  

Pink: Ignoring what other people think. I used to be concerned about that. Then years ago, I discovered what people actually think of me. The answer? They're not thinking about me. They're thinking about themselves.

Molinsky: What specifically about your college experience has proven to be most helpful for your eventual career success? Is there anything you didn’t necessarily anticipate being helpful, but actually has been? 

Pink: Exposure to the arts. I used to think that paintings, sculpture, theater, and music were ornamental. Nice to have, but not all that important. That's wrong. The arts are fundamental. They're integral to the human experience and have the side benefit of equipping you with useful professional skills like perspective-taking and composition.

Molinsky: What’s your very best advice for helping a student or young professional craft a career with a strong sense of meaning and purpose?  

Pink:  Think less and do more. We tend to believe that thought always precedes action—that the first step is to figure out your purpose or passion or whatever, and then use that as your guide. But the process often runs the other direction. Action precedes thought. Only by doing something can you figure out what you think. So, show up. Do the work. Make a contribution. Not in the future. Right now—in whatever you're doing. Eventually, the picture will become clearer.