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Daniel Pink on How AI Has Changed the Way He Works

Pink reveals how he uses AI as a brainstorming partner, his #1 piece of storytelling advice, and the human qualities that will set knowledge workers apart.

When best-selling author Daniel Pink gets writer’s block, he has a secret weapon, and it’s not AI.

It’s a tiny red chair.

The tiny red chair sits on his desk at all times. “When I'm stuck, I think, “Okay, imagine there's somebody sitting in that chair, and they're reading something I've written. What's that experience like? And am I wasting their time?” he told me.

If you’ve read Pink’s work, you already know this relentless focus on his audience sets him apart. When reading his books, I’m often struck with the feeling that he wrote this for me. (Which is, objectively, a crazy thing to think). But the tiny red chair isn’t the only piece of technology powering the prolific author’s creative process. AI has found its place, too—but within limits.

Last week, in part 1 of our exclusive interview, I spoke with Pink about the future of creativity and the importance of taste in a world flooded with AI-generated content. This week, in part 2, I Pink reveals how he uses AI as a brainstorming partner, his top piece of storytelling advice, and the human qualities that will set knowledge workers apart in an AI-driven world.

Joe: How are you integrating AI into your creative process?

Pink: I don't think I'm a super sophisticated user. I use it in part to get unstuck. Sometimes, I might write a phrase like, “It sent shockwaves through Baba.” Okay, that's a cliche. So what's an alternative? Give me ten alternatives to the cliche “shockwaves.” It'll give me ten, and nine will be horrible. One might be okay, and then I'll use that one.

I'm like, “Oh, wait a second, I can take that one as a jumping-off point to something else.” I'm doing some dramatic writing, TV, and playwriting right now. I've used it for: I'm going to describe to you a character; give me 25 ideas of what that character's name might be. Most of them were not very good. But there was one character in something I've written that was named by AI because it was a great name. That said, I had to recognize what a great name was — which comes from the hard, accumulated experience of being a human being.

Joe: Honestly, that’s a little surprising. Usually, I find that naming is one of the things that AI is worst at.

Pink: Right now, it’s an n of 1 that’s given me a good name. It’s not so much that it lands you on a good answer. To me, it gets you unstuck. I’ll give you an example. A long time ago, I worked as a political speechwriter in an office with three other people. We’re saying, “Hey Eric, what’s another way to say such and such?” It’s sort of like having those colleagues in a room right now.

Yeah, it's like having your army of interns to brainstorm ideas with. And this is how brainstorming happens. It’s not in huge leaps. It's these small, incremental leaps of creativity where the thing you said makes me think of this other thing, which gets me to this better idea. I find myself using AI for that a lot, as well.

For brainstorming, what kind of prompts do you use? Give me an example.

Say I’m writing my newsletter. Usually, I’m not stuck on the lede. But the other day I was. So I told ChatGPT: Here is the newsletter I want to write. What are ten possible angles to jump into the topic? In the end, I didn’t end up using any of them as the lede, but they helped me think of a good one. And I ended up using one of the angles later in the newsletter because I hadn’t thought to address it. 

Another use case is that once I’ve written a draft of my newsletter, I go to ChatGPT and say, “Imagine yourself as the audience for my newsletter. What questions or criticisms would you have?” And it’ll often bring up one or two things I might have missed. 

A third one is research. For studies, Perplexity is way better than Google. I say: Give me five studies on how people perceive AI content vs. human-generated content with research summaries and citations, and it’s way easier than with Google. 

Pink: I’ll give you another use case on that. Every once in a while, there’s a long paper that might not have a good abstract or executive summary. I’ll put that into Claude and ask it to summarize it for me, and it’s pretty good. It becomes a screen to let me know if I want to read the whole thing. 

It reminds me a little bit of the Hollywood producers who have an assistant who reads the pile of stuff that comes in and then says, “Okay, I read through this stuff. You should read these two things, and the rest of it, you can throw away.”

Okay, so returning to the idea of an intern. Those interns might not even be there because all the crap work you’d give to an intern before can now suddenly be done by AI. So how do we mitigate the risk of people not developing the taste they need to determine whether the output they get from AI is good or not?

It's an important question. I don't have a good answer for you. Part of me wonders whether we've seen this movie before. When we think about things like the advent of the personal calculator in the 1970s, they said, “Oh, kids aren't gonna be able to do math now that we have calculators.” But you know, kids today can do math. 

It reminds me a little bit of the Hollywood producers who have an assistant who reads the pile of stuff that comes in and then says, “Okay, I read through this stuff. You should read these two things, and the rest of it, you can throw away.”

There were some cries when Google came out that kids aren't gonna be able to learn how to do research. They're gonna do it all online, they're not going to know what it's like to go into a library and find it. That worked out. 

That said, this idea of doing the work and accumulating the experience is still really valuable. What concerns me is that when it comes to writing, the way to be a good writer is to write a lot and start when you're young and do it and do it and do it and do it and do it and do it and do it and do it and do it. And over time, you get better. There's something to be said for just doing relatively straightforward work where you're learning how to do it and what it means to be a writer. What it means to be a professional. The same thing is true in medicine. In teaching. There is a period where you are an apprentice and have the freedom to make some mistakes and look at people who are more seasoned than you for guidance. That is extremely valuable. If we're somehow bypassing that, that could be bad.

The audience for my newsletter is a lot of marketers, creators, and knowledge workers who have told me they feel a little panicked and uneasy due to AI. They’re hearing everyone talk about the potential to replace them. What advice would you give a creative coming to you with those concerns? 

Honestly, Joe, I would try to allay some of the concerns. First, I don't think it's going to be that cataclysmic. It could be tough on individual levels, but I don't think it will be universally devastating. Just chill out for a moment and focus on the fundamentals. The fundamentals are getting good at something through real practice. 

Find something that I regret not finding earlier in my life: a mentor. Because of my own hubris, I never had a mentor, and I think that was a loss for me. 

There is a period where you are an apprentice ... that is extremely valuable. If we're somehow bypassing that ... that could be bad.

Establishing your habits and values is really important because those are enduring. The habit and value of showing up. Of doing the work. Of being reliable, conscientious, generous. Those are going to serve you well over time. They’re not going to have an immediate payoff, but the accumulation is going to have a big payoff. 

There’s also the habit and value of curiosity. You can look at something and say, “Oh my gosh, I don’t know what this is. I expect it to be bad. Let me try to protect myself.” Or you can say, “What’s going on here? Let me ask some questions about it.” When Excel came out, it didn’t destroy accountants. It became a tool that accountants could use to do more sophisticated things. I think of it like that. 

I love how it comes down to the human values. Are you a person that people want to work with? Are you someone people want to follow? And that requires empathy. A lot of those soft skills. 

Exactly. Are you someone who people can trust? Are you someone who delivers? Do you actually think about things from someone else's point of view? Are you able to ask questions? Do you have enough humility to say, I don't know, and to treasure people who are better than you? Who are smarter than you AND know more than you? A lot of it comes back to these fundamentally human things.

What is your number one piece of storytelling advice?

Think about the reader or the viewer. It sounds very reductive. But there are a lot of people who are creators who don't put themselves in the position of being the person for whom the work is being created. Would you find this interesting? Would you find a story interesting, where nothing happens in the first one-third? Would you sit through that? 

I find that a lot of the times that I get stuck, I'm not able to answer this question: What promise am I making to the reader in doing this? When you write something and deliver it to people, you're making a promise. The promise is that they're going to learn. They're going to be entertained. They're going to be enlightened. They're going to have a tool or a tip to make them better. 

Think about the reader or the viewer. It sounds very reductive. But there are a lot of people who are creators who don't put themselves in the position of being the person for whom the work is being created.

So when you're writing a story, always think about the reader, think about the viewer, and what promise you're making. And one other thing: take more risks. One of the things I've seen, particularly in creative work in drama and fiction, is that people could do two clicks up on risk-taking — in terms of form, in terms of the story itself, in terms of the characters. They’re a little bit constrained. 

When you focus on your audience, do you have a specific person in mind that you're writing for, like the old Vonnegut advice?

Sometimes. I have something to remind me of that on my desk. (Holds up a tiny red chair.) I have a little plastic chair on my desk. And when I'm stuck, I think, “Okay, imagine there's somebody sitting in that chair, and they're reading something that I've written. What's that experience like? And am I wasting their time?” Other times, when it's a more frustrating situation, I will grab this chair, look at that, and say, “Okay, you're writing this, there's someone sitting there, what promise are you making?” 

I love that: the signature Dan Pink chair for unblocking your writing. The perfect tech.

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