David Burkus is a best-selling author, a sought-after keynote speaker and an associate professor of leadership and innovation at Oral Roberts University. David Burkus’ latest book, Under New Management, challenges the traditional and widely accepted principles of business management and proves that they are outdated, outmoded, or simply don’t work — and reveals what does. David Burkus has delivered keynotes to the leaders of Fortune 500 companies and the future leaders of the United States Naval Academy. His TED talk has been viewed over 1.5 million times. David Burkus is a regular contributor to Harvard Business Review. Please enjoy my interview with David Burkus.
How do you describe your occupation?
I think the best way to describe it is actually how my sons (who are 5 and 3) describe it. If you ask them what Daddy does, they will say, in order; that he makes books, he gives talks and he takes care of them. Which I think is a pretty good explanation. I kind of wish they would invert the order because I feel like I take care of them first – but hey, I like it!
Talk us through a typical day for you…
My typical day involves waking up when one of the aforementioned 5 or 3-year-olds wakes up before us and shortly thereafter wakes us up. Then we get them ready, have breakfast and walk them out to where they get picked up by the school bus. I then come back into the house, and that is my writing time – its usually around 8 am until 10:30 am. In that time I’m either writing a book or articles; currently, the time is being used to help me plan out the launch of the next book. But that’s my dedicated and focused quiet time. Following that, I’ll head to the gym just before noon. Have some lunch, and then I spend my afternoon dealing with phone calls, podcast interviews, etc. My afternoons are more of a social time, and that’ll usually run through until about 4:30 – 5:30 pm. That’s a typical non-travel day for me. Of course, if I’m travelling to do a speaking gig or something, then there really is no ‘typical’ day for that.
What are you reading at the moment and what made you want to read it?
I’m actually working my way through a bunch of books that I should have read more closely. So, the book that I’m reading right now is Peak by Anders Ericsson; Anders is the guy that did the research that Malcolm Gladwell popularised in Outliers around the 10,000 hours rule. I’m familiar with Anders’ research, so when I first got the book from the publisher, I did a really quick scan and then I jumped into an interview with Anders for my podcast. Then the other day I was talking to somebody and looking at the book and they started talking about it, and I realised that they got a very different thing out of it than I did. Which made me think that maybe I didn’t read it deeply enough, so I picked it back it up.
Can you remember the first book you read by yourself?
I can’t say I remember the very first book. One thing I think is really interesting is that the first book I remember having to read for school that I actually enjoyed was The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton. Which I think is actually really funny because I grew up in New England and now I live in Tulsa, Oklahoma where the book is set. I was surprised to learn that your average middle school here doesn’t actually read the book, which doesn’t make any sense to me. Growing up, I was a big fan of the books of Shel Silverstein and then later as I was able to read longer books, I was a huge fan of The Boxcar Children series by Gertrude Chandler Warner.
Are you a page folder or a bookmarker?
I’m actually neither. Books to me are like a work of art. A well-printed book needs to be taken care of. I think this stems from the fact that I know how much time I dedicate to my own books and how they are going to look. So, instead I get those small, miniature post-it notes, and when I’m reading a book purely for research I am a post-it note flagger. So I will flag something that I want to remember with a post-it note, and then I will essentially pick it back up from that post-it note when I go to continue reading the book. But I could never bring myself to fold over a page of an actual book.
If you could gift yourself books at age 16 and age 25 – what would they be and why?
Well, at age 16 and 25 I guess would require two very different books. At age 16, I was actually kind of satisfied with what I was reading. So in high school, English and writing was very much my subject of choice and so I was diving into a lot of pieces of American literature from Twain to Kerouac. I don’t write those types of books now, but those would be the books that I’d gift myself at age 16. At age 25, which for me is only 9 years ago, and I don’t know if there was a book out at that time that I didn’t read that I regret not reading. I don’t know that I would gift myself a book at that age. I will say that I’m a huge fan of The Opposable Mind by Roger Martin and had that book been out ten years ago or twenty years ago – I would have loved to have read it sooner, but it wasn’t out!
Can you remember your first demonstration of entrepreneurial ability?
I think I am supposed to tell you about the time that I had the lemonade stand and all that sort of stuff. But the truth is that I think those examples are always weird because I think every kid at some point had a lemonade stand. For me, my first demonstration of what you might call entrepreneurial ability, or maybe just a demonstration being tech savvy was that I realised that you could use the internet to build a platform. So, even before I was actually 18 (and 18 was how old you needed to be to register a domain), I had an older brother that worked for an internet service provider and so he knew how to do that stuff. So, at aged 16 or 17, I had my first website up and running, and was interacting on AOL and that kind of stuff. None of it ended up being useful for what I do now, but it taught me that the internet was a tool that you can use and that was something that I came back to when I started building a platform as a non-fiction business book author.
If you could invite 5 authors (dead or alive) to a dinner party – who would they be and why?
You know what’s interesting is I have been privileged to attend a couple of author dinner parties that my good friend Dorie Clark throws. She throws an author dinner party about every two weeks at her place in NYC, so anytime I’m in town I ask her if she’s doing one that week. It’s awesome because someone else handles the guestlist and like I discuss in my forthcoming book I talk extensively about improving the diversity of your connections when it comes to networking. So, if I was going to a dinner party of authors I would actually prefer that I don’t know who they are so that I can meet people who aren’t like me and don’t think like me – and have the best chance of gaining a diverse set of perspectives on what it means to be an author.
What was the last book you purchased, and why did you buy it?
The last book I bought was The Power of Moments by Chip Heath and Dan Heath, which is funny because I had a galley copy of it ahead of time, so I didn’t need to buy it. But I enjoyed reading the advanced copy so much that I wanted to buy the final copy too. This will probably drive a bunch of people nuts and also legitimise what they do, but I also wanted to see how their cover was going to turn out. Because if you follow anything about the Heath Brothers, they have a very tactile cover every time, there is some design and you can touch it and feel the texture of the cover.
What is your favourite thing about reading?
A book is really one of the best investments you can make because for ten or twenty dollars you get to see the world from a different person’s point of view. This is something that took me a while to develop. When I was younger and the school system teaches you to read to learn so you begin to accept everything written as factual. But it gets so much more enjoyable when you realise that it is in fact not all factual, and everyone has a different perspective on those said facts. Anytime you’re reading a book you can get to see the world from that person’s point of view, and it might change your perspective or it might strengthen the perspective you already have. It’s a fascinating experience that you can’t really get if you just spend all your time watching comedies on Netflix. You might get a little bit of another perspective but you don’t get it the same way that you do when you read a book.
What’s the best book you’ve read in the last 6 months?
Probably that same one, The Power of Moments by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. It is at least the best book I’ve read that has come out in the last six months. It’s a fascinating read, which is not really about moments exactly, but instead why we remember certain things and then how to shape your experiences in such a way that you will remember them more positively.
If you could insert yourself into any book, which would you pick and why?
This is going to sound super sappy, but I hate dramatic irony so the whole accidentally killing each other situation in Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare, all the way to the confusion that goes into the aforementioned The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton. When I read fiction like that, I just want to jump in and straighten it all out, so I guess that’s what I’d do. I think the real world works out like that, there are certainly moments of dramatic irony but it usually gets straightened out, as opposed to in dramas where we need it to not be straightened out to allow for a dramatic finish.
When you think of success in the business world, who is the first person that comes to mind?
The normal answer here would be Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, Henry Ford or Thomas Edison o someone like that. But really, I’m proud of almost every single person who runs a Mom and Pop business and makes it sustainable. It is such a hard thing for everyone to take the leap from being an employee to going into business for themselves and then to later become an employer. Anyone who has done that and is sustaining it is a success and so I’m far more proud of the millions of Mom and Pop shops that are around than I am of any one person for success.
What is the book that you feel has had the single biggest impact on your life? What impact did it have?
I’m a Christian, so my first level answer would be The Bible, it’s actually 66 books written by very different authors throughout several thousand years and it tells a story of people interacting with God and with each other. Even if you just look at it as a piece of literature, it still is one of the biggest and most influential books out there. If you’re looking for a business book or a non-fiction book, then I would probably go with The Opposable Mind by Roger Martin, which was really the first book that taught me that you don’t have to settle for either or. Often, the most significant business leaders are those who look at two opposing models and say ‘yes – how can I get this to work together?’.
What two pieces of advice would you give a young aspiring entrepreneur?
There is so much talk about ‘hustle’ and ‘grinding it out’, and I believe that to be important but almost more important than hustle is patience. A lot of people can get frustrated when they are working hard and they don’t see success. Success is like an investment, it’s compound interest, so you’re not going to see a lot of progress for a very long period of time. But then things are going to go crazy really fast because the compounding starts to take over. Hustling is super important and I would validate all of those pieces of advice but it has to be balanced with patience. We don’t talk enough about how long it takes; we much prefer to read the stories about when things suddenly compound, not the story about someone grinding it out with no credit for four to five years.
Are there any books you haven’t mentioned that you feel would make your reading list?
I would include anything by Daniel Pink is fantastic; I haven’t had a chance to get my hands on his upcoming book When, but I’ve talked to people who have and I’m super anticipating it. I’m a surprisingly big fan of The Undercover Economist by Tim Harford (see Tim Harford’s reading list here). He has a couple of different books that I don’t think get enough credit, but they’re awesome. Messy is one of them, The Undercover Economist is another and then I’d also include Adapt is a fantastic book.
What’s the worst advice you hear given to young people looking to start their own business?
This goes back to my two pieces of advice. Everyone talks about hustle and nobody talks about patience. Patience is the far more important factor. Most of the mistakes I have made in growing my own persona as a business and non-fiction author and speaker, came from trying to do things faster.
Which book sat on your shelf are you most excited about reading next and why?
I have an anti-library, so if you look at any of my videos you’ll see that I don’t have many books on my shelf. This is because it’s my anti-library, so it’s the books to read – and there are maybe fifty books on it right now. I’m excited to read all of them, I just don’t have enough time! But I think that’s a good practice if you want to read a book – make sure to buy it and then you’ll have a visual reminder that you need to eventually read it. I’m currently two years behind on reading some things, but I have that visual reminder.