A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future

Rating: 4/5

In A Whole New Mind, Dan Pink argues that the necessary skills for being successful in the business world have shifted dramatically. He describes evolutions of work starting with the Agricultural Age moving to the Industrial Age then the Information Age and finally, the Conceptual Age. Each one of these periods required a distinct set of skills. The Industrial Ages valued “physical strength and personal fortitude.” The man/woman that could outwork another man would ultimately prevail in the end. The Information Age prized knowledge workers and what Pink refers to as “L-Directed Thinkers.” The Conceptual Age we’re entering now prizes the creator and the empathizer with distinct mastery over R-Directed Thinking.

Throughout A Whole New Mind, Pink examines why this shift is taking place and dissects the characteristics of both L-Directed and R-Directed Thinkers. Ultimately, Pink defines six “senses” that characterize R-Directed Thinkers, senses he feels everyone that wishes to succeed in this new world should develop.

I really enjoyed the book. I’m always fascinated by authors that can weave story and science together to provide a compelling narrative. I also really enjoy Pink’s books (To Sell is Human was great as well) because he includes action-oriented items at the end of each chapter. In A Whole New Mind, he placed a section after each sense that covered tactics and resources to help you improve a specific capacity. A great narrative combined with actionable takeaways sealed the deal for me.

Pink covered a fair amount of science on the brain and busted some myths surrounding left and right brain functions. Here are the four key differences he highlights between the hemispheres:

  1. The left hemisphere controls the right side of the body; the right hemisphere controls the left side of the body. This applies not only to things like moving your arms but also processing information. For example, reading (from left to right) exercises the brain’s left hemisphere.
  2. The left hemisphere is sequential; the right hemisphere is simultaneous. The right hemisphere has a special talent – “the ability to interpret things simultaneously.” This talent means the right hemisphere excels at tasks like recognizing faces which happens all at once (we don’t go from eyes to nose to mouth to hair – we take it all in at once).
  3. The left hemisphere specializes in text; the right hemisphere specializes in context. For example, “the left hemisphere handles what is said; the right hemisphere focuses on how it’s said – the nonverbal, often emotional cues delivered through gaze, facial expression, and intonation.” Patients with damage to the right side of their brain can talk coherently, but they lack the typical musical quality and intonation we expect from speech. They also have a hard time understanding things like sarcasm, which are typically detected through aspects of tone and expression.
  4. The left hemisphere analyzes the details; the right hemisphere synthesizes the big picture. “The left focuses on categories, the right on relationships. The left can grasp details. But only the right hemisphere can see the big picture.”

As mentioned above, A Whole New Mind focuses on the shift from the Industrial Age to the Information Age and finally the Conceptual Age. Pink identifies three characteristics that allowed this shift to take place: Abundance, Asia, and Automation.

Abundance

“In an age of abundance, appealing only to rational, logical, ad functional needs is woefully insufficient.” Pink argues that with so many options (think about the selection of DVD players available), providing just the basics is no longer enough to set you apart from your competition. You have to find other ways to differentiate yourself (like design).

Asia

“…just as those factory workers had to master a new set of skills, and learn how to bend pixels instead of steel, many of today’s knowledge workers will likewise have to command a new set of aptitudes. They’ll need to do what workers abroad cannot do equally well for much less money – Using R-Directed abilities such as forging relationships rather than executing transactions, tackling novel challenges instead of solving routine problems, and synthesizing the big picture rather than analyzing a single component.”

Automation

“…automation has begun to affect this generation’s white-collar workers in much the same way it did last generation’s blue-collar workers, requiring L-Directed professionals to develop aptitudes that computers can’t do better, faster, or cheaper.”

Pink provides three useful questions that he feels individuals and organizations must ask themselves if they’re going to survive:

  1. Can someone overseas do it cheaper?
  2. Can a computer do it faster?
  3. Is what I’m offering in demand in an age of abundance?

Six Senses

Pink describes “six essential R-Directed aptitudes” he feels we must master to be successful in the Conceptual Age.

Design

“It’s no longer sufficient to create a product, a service, an experience, or a lifestyle that’s merely functional. Today it’s economically crucial and personally rewarding to create something that is also beautiful, whimsical, or emotionally engaging.

“‘Design, stripped of it’s essence, can be defined as the human nature to shape and make our environment in ways without precedent in nature, to serve our needs and give meaning to our lives.'”

A tip from Karim Rashid in the “Portfolio” section of Design:

Experience is the most important part of living, and the exchange of ideas and human contact is all life really is. Space and objects can encourage increased experiences or distract from our experiences.

The four basics of effective graphic design via Robin Williams in her book The Non-Designer’s Design Book (which is on my reading list):

  1. Contrast
  2. Repetition
  3. Alignment
  4. Proximity

Story

“The essence of persuasion, communication, and self-understanding has become the ability also to fashion a compelling narrative.

Symphony

“Much of the Industrial and Information Ages required focus and specialization. But as white-collar work gets routed to Asia and reduced to software, there’s a new premium on the opposite aptitude: putting the pieces together, or what I call Symphony. What’s in greatest demand today isn’t analysis but synthesis – seeing the big picture, crossing boundaries, and being able to combine disparate pieces into an arresting new whole.”

“What’s the most prevalent, and perhaps most important, prefix of our times? Multi. Our jobs require multitasking. Our communities are multicultural. Our entertainment is multimedia. While detailed knowledge of a single area once guaranteed success, today the top rewards go to those who can operate with equal aplomb in starkly different realms. I call these people “boundary crossers.”

Daniel Goleman about the results of a study that looked at executives at fifteen large companies:

Just one cognitive ability distinguished star performers from average: pattern recognition, the ‘big picture’ thinking that allows leaders to pick out the meaningful trends from a welter of information around them and to think strategically far into the future.

From the “Portfolio” section of Symphony, Pink offers up five lessons for successful brainstorming sessions:

  1. Go for Quantity.
  2. Encourage Wild Ideas.
  3. Be Visual.
  4. Defer Judgement.
  5. One Conversation at a Time.

Empathy

“What will distinguish those who thrive will be their ability to understand what makes their fellow woman or man tick, to forge relationships, and to care for others.”

Simon Baron-Cohen on empathy:

Empathy, he says, “involves inexactness (one can only ever approximate when one ascertains another’s mental state), attention to the larger picture (what one thinks he thinks or feels about other people, for example), context (a person’s face, voice, action , and history are all essential information in determining that person’s mental state), with no expectation of lawfulness (what made her happy yesterday may not make her happy tomorrow).”

Play

“In the Conceptual Age, in work and in life, we all need play.”

“Learning isn’t about memorizing isolated facts. It’s about connecting and manipulating them.”

Meaning

“We live in a worldd of breathtaking material plenty. That has freed hundreds of millions of people from day-to-day struggles and liberated us to pursue more significant  desires: purpose. transcendence, and spiritual fulfillment.”

Jim Collins offers up a pretty awesome test of meaning: “He encourages people to look at their lives – in particular, their work – and ask themselves whether they would still do what they’re doing now if they had $20 million in the bank or knew they had no more than ten years to live.”

Viktor Frankl:

Live as if you were living for the second time and had acted as wrongly the first time as you are about to act now.