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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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16 September 2013

Book Review: The War Lovers

The War Lovers: Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearst, and the Rush to Empire, 1898The War Lovers: Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearst, and the Rush to Empire, 1898 by Evan Thomas
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Would we have gone to war in Cuba without Hearst, Roosevelt and Lodge?

Would we have gone to war in Iraq without Cheney, Rumsfeld and Murdoch?

The more things change, the more they stay the same.  Thomas' thesis is that worries about the weakening of the Anglo-Saxon race, combined with the rise of strong women, created a generation of men with free-floating anxiety and angst that was only cured by strenuous exercise and war-lust.

That was in 1898.  But read it again.  Could be now, couldn't it?  Cross-fit and Afghanistan.

Thomas' book concentrates on a select few figures, one of which is philosopher William James.  James, who taught at Harvard (taught Roosevelt and Lodge, in fact) had the "good sense, and the rare judgement, to see through the social Darwinists."  James was not "free of the prejudices of his age, but he was unusually--among his fellow academics, almost uniquely--open to the idea that different races had different qualities, and that one should learn from them, and not simply judge."

Outside of James, the prevalent teaching was Anglo-Saxon superiority, which requires the parallel belief of All-Other-Race inferiority.  W.E.B. DuBois studied with James.  Roosevelt was more partial to a man named Norman Shaler, a social Darwinist who worried that "alien races" would water down good American stock.

On the surface, Shaler paired fighting for the independence of the dark-skinned Cubans seems oxymoronic.  Just as the strenuous exercise and war-lust paired with the prevalence of nervous exhaustion seems so.  But logic is rarely a driving force in history.

Take the sinking of the Maine, one of the reasons the US sent troops to Cuba.  The ship blew up.  Logical minds thought, "Accident," because the coal bunker was right next to the gunpowder magazine.  But Hearst ignored logic, stirred up conspiracy, ignored facts and presented the kind of news that is less news and more fodder for advertising dollars and sales.

And then there's Spain, who knew they would lose a war with America but felt the need to fight one anyway because of a concept called punctilio: better to be defeated than to be seen backing down (at one point, they even fought a fake battle, but got confused and people died anyway)

By the time the first shots were fired, the war was actually mostly over but it led to a quagmire in the Phillippines, which Korea and Vietnam echoed a half-a-century later.  And the question of how Cuba would govern itself has multiple echoes in the 20th century.

Those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it. --  Edmund Burke

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the shadow

T.S. Eliot

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