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19 September 2013

Book Review; A Whole New Mind

A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the FutureA Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future by Daniel H. Pink
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Despite the fact that every time I saw the cover of this book, the song "A Whole New World" from Aladdin was stuck in my head for hours, I still kind of enjoyed this book.

And the "kind of" has reasons beyond annoying earworms.  Pink's thesis is this; we are transitioning from an Information Age economy to a Conceptual Age economy.  So we'd best get ready.

"For nearly a century, Western society in general, and American society in particular, has been dominated by a form of thinking and an approach to life that is narrowly reductive and deeply analytical.  Ours has been the age of the 'knowledge worker,' the well-educated manipulator of information and deployer of expertise.  But that is changing.  Thanks to an array of forces--material abundance that is deepening our nonmaterial yearnings, globalization that is shipping white-collar work overseas, and powerful technologies that are eliminating certain kinds of work altogether--we are entering a new age.  It is an age animated by a different form of thinking and a new approach to life--one that prizes aptitudes that I call 'high concept' and 'high touch.'  High concept involves the capacity to detect patterns and opportunities, to create artistic and emotional beauty, to craft a satisfying narrative, and to combine seemingly unrelated ideas into something new.  High touch involves the ability to empathize with others, to understand the subtleties of human interaction, to find joy in one's self and to elicit it in others, and to stretch beyond the quotidian in pursuit of purpose and meaning."

Phew.  But that's the book.  Then Pink spends the next 250 pages over-explaining himself and gazing at his navel.  Pink tries to avoid the overused terms "right brain" and "left brain" but ends up with the equally divisive terms "R-Directed Thinking" and "L-Directed Thinking" in his quest to demonstrate that we're moving into a world where creativity will increasingly make logic take a back seat. Pink is not predicting a world where "millionaire potters drive BMWs and computer programmers scrub counters at Chick-fil-A."  Pink goes ont to say, "L-Directed Thinking remains indispensable.  It's just no longer sufficient.  In the Conceptual Age, what we need instead is a whole new mind. (cue music from Aladdin)

Pink then presents the reader with "tools" to develop the "six senses" Pink believes will be the most in demand as we move into this age; Design, Story, Symphony, Empathy, Play and Meaning.

Design; people heal faster and work more productively in hospitals and offices that demonstrate thoughtful aesthetics of design.

Now that facts are so widely available and instantly accessible, they are not as valuable as they used to be.  Computers will always be faster at gathering and organizing information, so what becomes valuable is someone, a real, live, person, who can make sense of the facts.  Story; stringing those facts together in a context that has emotional impact.  Symphony; putting the facts together in a way that makes them stronger and more persuasive.  Empathy; one thing computers cannot do, and will probably never be able to do, is demonstrate empathy. Play; a move away from sober seriousness as a measure of ability.  Meaning; people have enough to live, but nothing to live for--we must find a way to find meaning.

So, really, this book is about the fact that being human is going to be increasingly valuable and we should embrace our human-ness.  We've spent the last fifty years trying to be more like the machines but as the machines have progressed, we can't keep up.  So we're left with making a point of being different than the machines; providing something the machines cannot.  Pink's six traits are human traits that have been suppressed during the Information Age.  They are now ready for a renaissance.

Why did I just "kind of" like this book?  Pink provides a chapter on the six senses and then a "portfolio" to improve on those six senses.  Ugh.  I can just see stick-in-the-mud middle managers creating business meetings and retreats, replete with forced games and powerpoint presentations, designed to increase capacity for these six senses based on Pink's portfolios.  They would be following Pink's advice to the tee but totally missing the point AND the mark.  David Collison writes, "Attempts to manufacture humor can actually suppress it..."  I would submit that attempts to manufacture ANY of these six senses will, in effect, suppress them.  As soon as my boss tells me I HAVE to be funny, I probably won't really be able to be funny anymore.  What organizations need to do is find people who have these skills in abundance already.  And then let those skills start to change their organizations.

I may be delusional, but I think I have most of these traits and bring them to my work.  Let's take "play," for example.  I cannot count the number of times I've been in trouble at work for laughing and showing joy. Just yesterday, a coworker said, "Don't let the others know you're having fun."  Why not?  I was doing the work; I just found a way to make it enjoyable for myself and the other two coworkers with whom I was collaborating.  Is fun inherently bad?   Not according to Pink.  He cites research that found that the most effective leaders within organizations are funny and had their charges laughing three times more often than their managerial counterparts.  Score!  I'm funny!  I win!  Yay me!   But Pink's book is now almost 10 years old and we're still mired in L-Directed Thinking; yesterday's encounter proves it.

So make your middle managers read this book.  It is unlikely that they will be able to change and suddenly embrace these senses and embody them authentically.   And that's ok.  But they they are in a position to change their departments, and the larger organization, by restructuring the human make-up of the employees who work for them.  Organizations should keep, and value, effective L-Directed thinkers.  We need them.  But we also need poets and musicians and actors and artists.  They won't alway fit in.  Or wear proper business attire.  Or be serious.  They won't always be brilliant.  Or have life-changing ideas.  They may not always be inspiring.  Hire them anyway.  And watch how the culture changes.

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