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A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future by Daniel H. Pink

February 20, 2012

The transition from the Industrial Age to the Information age saw a fundamental shift in the workforce and the skills that were valued. The central premise of this book is that a new shift is taking place. We are seeing the end of the Information Age and the beginning of what Pink calls the Conceptual Age, in which the most valued skills will be what are traditionally called “right brain” skills.

After giving an overview of modern research into how the two hemispheres of the brain work (left brain=logic, right brain=creativity, although it’s not as clear-cut as most of us learned), Pink outlines three forces that are shaping the current job market: Abundance, Asia and Automation. We live in an age of mass-produced abundance where consumers have ample choice (and every product has ample competition). This means that products often depend on design and branding—the non-functional, “right-brain” characteristics—to distinguish themselves. Asia and Automation refer to jobs being exported or performed by computers or robots.

So which jobs are safe? Jobs that rely on the right brain skills. Information- and process-based jobs—even jobs once considered safe from exportation such as engineering and lawyering—are now frequently performed at much lower wages overseas. Or worse, they’re performed by computers thousands of times faster than the fastest human worker. That leaves the right-brain jobs. As advanced as today’s computers are, they still fail at the most basic right-brain tasks: understanding language and non-verbal cues, empathizing and creative thinking.

Pink gives a list of the six skills he considers most important in this new Conceptual Age: Design, Story (it’s not about conveying information, it’s about how the story is told), Symphony (being able to synthesize and see the big picture—the opposite of the specialist), Empathy, Play (or engagement) and Meaning (or greater purpose). With each skill, he provides a list of activities to flex those muscles.

Pink is careful not to dismiss left-brain skills. To him, those are a given. But his central point is that we need to reconsider the traditional emphasis we put on left-brain skills, because they alone won’t cut it anymore. The power is shifting to those with right-brain skills.

Because I am a “right brain worker,” this is a notion that sounds good to me. At the very least, it sounds like job security. And much of what Pink says makes sense intuitively. You can see this type of thinking paying off for the new giants of industry, the Apples and Facebooks and Googles of the world. But I have two criticisms of the book. The first is that much of his support is anecdotal. Mostly interesting anecdotes, to be sure, but if the negative reviews on Amazon are any indication, he’ll need more to convince the skeptical. My second criticism is that Pink presents creative thinking as if it’s immune to globalization. Having worked with creative people all over the world, I can attest to the fact that a design shop in, say, Singapore, can offer the same services, often cheaper, than an American firm. The question then becomes one of quality. Or it might be more about the benefits of a face-to-face relationship—the customization, empathy and the true understanding that comes from being in a room with a client.

That said, the ideas Pink presents here are important. And the implications for how we teach, build curriculums and measure students’ progress is far-reaching. There is a tectonic shift taking place in the way businesses succeed, and that necessarily filters down to the skills each worker must have to succeed.

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