I stopped reading Daniel Pink's bestseller Drive before chapter 1. I bet it's entertaining, but if you read it to improve yourself and your career, it helps less than you think.

Not to single-out Drive. I'm only using it to illustrate what a big category of books, TED talks, and others do, that people think help more than they probably do.

Science and Practice

With my physics  background, I hear the comment a lot: "You must be good at pool." I don't play. They say it because teachers gave them physics problems about pool balls.

But, despite their mental connections of physics with pool, learning physics doesn't improve pool skills.

Practice does.

I doubt any great pool player, athlete, or performer of any sort improved as much from learning science as from practicing their craft.

I consider science incredibly valuable. I want society to support it more. But to play pool better, learn from players and coaches, not physicists.

Daniel Pink's Drive

Before I connect the above with Daniel Pink's bestseller and business education, I should note that the evidence suggests you should ignore me and read his book instead. Drive is a bestseller for the NY Times, Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, LA Times, and more. It was an Amazon top 50 bestseller. Pink was named a top 10 business thinker. He has a top-ten TED talk. He writes for the NY Times and Harvard Business Review.

Me? I have an Inc.com column called " The Fundamentals of Hustling." Not much.

Well, my students give my leadership and entrepreneurship courses reviews like, "This is one of the greatest classes I have ever taken" and "as a senior, this was the first course that challenged me."

The first-course-that-challenged-me comment at an elite university suggests that something is missing from traditional education.

Reacting to Drive's Introduction

Drive's introduction engagingly recounts two psychologists' experiments that "should have changed the world--but did not." The experiments showed that motivations businesspeople use often don't work and sometimes de-motivate.

You don't know their results because the "establishment" squashed their findings. One abandoned this line of inquiry, the other was fired.

I first reacted as intended: "Holy cow! Secret information? I can use it to get ahead. I want to know more." That's how TED talks, Malcolm Gladwell books, and a whole section of the bookstore make us feel.

Until I read these three sentences:

The good news is that the solution stands before us--in the work of a band of behavioral scientists who have carried on the pioneering efforts of Harlow and Deci and whose quiet work over the last half-century offers us a more dynamic view of human motivation. For too long, there's been a mismatch between what science knows and what business does. The goal of this book is to repair that breach.

Why what science knows? Scientists are not known for motivating others. Scientists know we're destroying our environment more than anyone and are distinctly ineffective in motivating people to stop.

Here's how I read it:

Two people who studied motivation got squeezed out of their jobs and he's recommending we learn motivation from them!

Why would we look to scientists who don't motivate well to improve our practice? Because they know theory?

Again, I value science. Scientists are great at science, but I wouldn't look to learn business skills from them any more than pool skills, especially ones who didn't motivate others with their careers on the line.

I have no problem with Drive if its goal is to teach facts or entertain. If its goal is to help you improve your practice, I suggest its method is off.

I support the scientists that Drive described and hope they continue, but the mismatch to bridge is not with scientists but successful practitioners.

The Problem With Business Education

Drive's goal is consistent with mainstream business education, books, and TED talks: teach facts and let the student figure out how to apply them. 

Sounds reasonable, but it doesn't work with business skills any more than with billiards.

The Way Out

If you want to improve at pool, learn from players and coaches. Same with a performance-based, emotional field like leadership: learn by practicing what works.

If you coach or teach, instead of teaching theory, digest it into exercises the student can do. A piano student learns more theory playing scales than reading it. Sure, learn theory--after practice.

That's why students find my coaching and teaching challenging. I give them exercises to perform. My job is to digest the theory, then give them practice that works. They have to face social and emotional challenges. Later, when the stakes are high, they fall back on experience, not words.

I continued to skim Drive, by the way. It contains a section of action you can take at the end, which puts it ahead of most business books. I wonder if they helped more than the main part of the book. What if they went first accompanied less by engaging stories than effective lesson or implementation plans?