[Paleopsych] Wired 13.02: Revenge of the Right Brain
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Sun Apr 24 20:11:04 UTC 2005
Revenge of the Right Brain
Logical and precise, left-brain thinking gave us the Information Age.
Now comes the Conceptual Age - ruled by artistry, empathy, and
By Daniel H. Pink
When I was a kid - growing up in a middle-class family, in the middle
of America, in the middle of the 1970s - parents dished out a familiar
plate of advice to their children: Get good grades, go to college, and
pursue a profession that offers a decent standard of living and
perhaps a dollop of prestige. If you were good at math and science,
become a doctor. If you were better at English and history, become a
lawyer. If blood grossed you out and your verbal skills needed work,
become an accountant. Later, as computers appeared on desktops and
CEOs on magazine covers, the youngsters who were really good at math
and science chose high tech, while others flocked to business school,
thinking that success was spelled MBA.
Tax attorneys. Radiologists. Financial analysts. Software engineers.
Management guru Peter Drucker gave this cadre of professionals an
enduring, if somewhat wonky, name: knowledge workers. These are, he
wrote, "people who get paid for putting to work what one learns in
school rather than for their physical strength or manual skill." What
distinguished members of this group and enabled them to reap society's
greatest rewards, was their "ability to acquire and to apply
theoretical and analytic knowledge." And any of us could join their
ranks. All we had to do was study hard and play by the rules of the
meritocratic regime. That was the path to professional success and
But a funny thing happened while we were pressing our noses to the
grindstone: The world changed. The future no longer belongs to people
who can reason with computer-like logic, speed, and precision. It
belongs to a different kind of person with a different kind of mind.
Today - amid the uncertainties of an economy that has gone from boom
to bust to blah - there's a metaphor that explains what's going on.
And it's right inside our heads.
Scientists have long known that a neurological Mason-Dixon line
cleaves our brains into two regions - the left and right hemispheres.
But in the last 10 years, thanks in part to advances in functional
magnetic resonance imaging, researchers have begun to identify more
precisely how the two sides divide responsibilities. The left
hemisphere handles sequence, literalness, and analysis. The right
hemisphere, meanwhile, takes care of context, emotional expression,
and synthesis. Of course, the human brain, with its 100 billion cells
forging 1 quadrillion connections, is breathtakingly complex. The two
hemispheres work in concert, and we enlist both sides for nearly
everything we do. But the structure of our brains can help explain the
contours of our times.
Until recently, the abilities that led to success in school, work, and
business were characteristic of the left hemisphere. They were the
sorts of linear, logical, analytical talents measured by SATs and
deployed by CPAs. Today, those capabilities are still necessary. But
they're no longer sufficient. In a world upended by outsourcing,
deluged with data, and choked with choices, the abilities that matter
most are now closer in spirit to the specialties of the right
hemisphere - artistry, empathy, seeing the big picture, and pursuing
Beneath the nervous clatter of our half-completed decade stirs a slow
but seismic shift. The Information Age we all prepared for is ending.
Rising in its place is what I call the Conceptual Age, an era in which
mastery of abilities that we've often overlooked and undervalued marks
the fault line between who gets ahead and who falls behind.
To some of you, this shift - from an economy built on the logical,
sequential abilities of the Information Age to an economy built on the
inventive, empathic abilities of the Conceptual Age - sounds
delightful. "You had me at hello!" I can hear the painters and nurses
exulting. But to others, this sounds like a crock. "Prove it!" I hear
the programmers and lawyers demanding.
OK. To convince you, I'll explain the reasons for this shift, using
the mechanistic language of cause and effect.
The effect: the scales tilting in favor of right brain-style thinking.
The causes: Asia, automation, and abundance.
Few issues today spark more controversy than outsourcing. Those
squadrons of white-collar workers in India, the Philippines, and China
are scaring the bejesus out of software jockeys across North America
and Europe. According to Forrester Research, 1 in 9 jobs in the US
information technology industry will move overseas by 2010. And it's
not just tech work. Visit India's office parks and you'll see
chartered accountants preparing American tax returns, lawyers
researching American lawsuits, and radiologists reading CAT scans for
The reality behind the alarm is this: Outsourcing to Asia is overhyped
in the short term, but underhyped in the long term. We're not all
going to lose our jobs tomorrow. (The total number of jobs lost to
offshoring so far represents less than 1 percent of the US labor
force.) But as the cost of communicating with the other side of the
globe falls essentially to zero, as India becomes (by 2010) the
country with the most English speakers in the world, and as developing
nations continue to mint millions of extremely capable knowledge
workers, the professional lives of people in the West will change
dramatically. If number crunching, chart reading, and code writing can
be done for a lot less overseas and delivered to clients instantly via
fiber-optic cable, that's where the work will go.
But these gusts of comparative advantage are blowing away only certain
kinds of white-collar jobs - those that can be reduced to a set of
rules, routines, and instructions. That's why narrow left-brain work
such as basic computer coding, accounting, legal research, and
financial analysis is migrating across the oceans. But that's also why
plenty of opportunities remain for people and companies doing less
routine work - programmers who can design entire systems, accountants
who serve as life planners, and bankers expert less in the intricacies
of Excel than in the art of the deal. Now that foreigners can do
left-brain work cheaper, we in the US must do right-brain work better.
Last century, machines proved they could replace human muscle. This
century, technologies are proving they can outperform human left
brains - they can execute sequential, reductive, computational work
better, faster, and more accurately than even those with the highest
IQs. (Just ask chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov.)
Consider jobs in financial services. Stockbrokers who merely execute
transactions are history. Online trading services and market makers do
such work far more efficiently. The brokers who survived have morphed
from routine order-takers to less easily replicated advisers, who can
understand a client's broader financial objectives and even the
client's emotions and dreams.
Or take lawyers. Dozens of inexpensive information and advice services
are reshaping law practice. At CompleteCase.com, you can get an
uncontested divorce for $249, less than a 10th of the cost of a
divorce lawyer. Meanwhile, the Web is cracking the information
monopoly that has long been the source of many lawyers' high incomes
and professional mystique. Go to USlegalforms.com and you can download
- for the price of two movie tickets - fill-in-the-blank wills,
contracts, and articles of incorporation that used to reside
exclusively on lawyers' hard drives. Instead of hiring a lawyer for 10
hours to craft a contract, consumers can fill out the form themselves
and hire a lawyer for one hour to look it over. Consequently, legal
abilities that can't be digitized - convincing a jury or understanding
the subtleties of a negotiation - become more valuable.
Even computer programmers may feel the pinch. "In the old days,"
legendary computer scientist Vernor Vinge has said, "anybody with even
routine skills could get a job as a programmer. That isn't true
anymore. The routine functions are increasingly being turned over to
machines." The result: As the scut work gets offloaded, engineers will
have to master different aptitudes, relying more on creativity than
Any job that can be reduced to a set of rules is at risk. If a
$500-a-month accountant in India doesn't swipe your accounting job,
TurboTax will. Now that computers can emulate left-hemisphere skills,
we'll have to rely ever more on our right hemispheres.
Our left brains have made us rich. Powered by armies of Drucker's
knowledge workers, the information economy has produced a standard of
living that would have been unfathomable in our grandparents' youth.
Their lives were defined by scarcity. Ours are shaped by abundance.
Want evidence? Spend five minutes at Best Buy. Or look in your garage.
Owning a car used to be a grand American aspiration. Today, there are
more automobiles in the US than there are licensed drivers - which
means that, on average, everybody who can drive has a car of their
own. And if your garage is also piled with excess consumer goods,
you're not alone. Self-storage - a business devoted to housing our
extra crap - is now a $17 billion annual industry in the US, nearly
double Hollywood's yearly box office take.
But abundance has produced an ironic result. The Information Age has
unleashed a prosperity that in turn places a premium on less rational
sensibilities - beauty, spirituality, emotion. For companies and
entrepreneurs, it's no longer enough to create a product, a service,
or an experience that's reasonably priced and adequately functional.
In an age of abundance, consumers demand something more. Check out
your bathroom. If you're like a few million Americans, you've got a
Michael Graves toilet brush or a Karim Rashid trash can that you
bought at Target. Try explaining a designer garbage pail to the left
side of your brain! Or consider illumination. Electric lighting was
rare a century ago, but now it's commonplace. Yet in the US, candles
are a $2 billion a year business - for reasons that stretch beyond the
logical need for luminosity to a prosperous country's more inchoate
desire for pleasure and transcendence.
Liberated by this prosperity but not fulfilled by it, more people are
searching for meaning. From the mainstream embrace of such once-exotic
practices as yoga and meditation to the rise of spirituality in the
workplace to the influence of evangelism in pop culture and politics,
the quest for meaning and purpose has become an integral part of
everyday life. And that will only intensify as the first children of
abundance, the baby boomers, realize that they have more of their
lives behind them than ahead. In both business and personal life, now
that our left-brain needs have largely been sated, our right-brain
yearnings will demand to be fed.
As the forces of Asia, automation, and abundance strengthen and
accelerate, the curtain is rising on a new era, the Conceptual Age. If
the Industrial Age was built on people's backs, and the Information
Age on people's left hemispheres, the Conceptual Age is being built on
people's right hemispheres. We've progressed from a society of farmers
to a society of factory workers to a society of knowledge workers. And
now we're progressing yet again - to a society of creators and
empathizers, pattern recognizers, and meaning makers.
But let me be clear: The future is not some Manichaean landscape in
which individuals are either left-brained and extinct or right-brained
and ecstatic - a land in which millionaire yoga instructors drive BMWs
and programmers scrub counters at Chick-fil-A. Logical, linear,
analytic thinking remains indispensable. But it's no longer enough.
To flourish in this age, we'll need to supplement our well-developed
high tech abilities with aptitudes that are "high concept" and "high
touch." High concept involves the ability to create artistic and
emotional beauty, to detect patterns and opportunities, to craft a
satisfying narrative, and to come up with inventions the world didn't
know it was missing. High touch involves the capacity to empathize, 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.
Developing these high concept, high touch abilities won't be easy for
everyone. For some, the prospect seems unattainable. Fear not (or at
least fear less). The sorts of abilities that now matter most are
fundamentally human attributes. After all, back on the savannah, our
caveperson ancestors weren't plugging numbers into spreadsheets or
debugging code. But they were telling stories, demonstrating empathy,
and designing innovations. These abilities have always been part of
what it means to be human. It's just that after a few generations in
the Information Age, many of our high concept, high touch muscles have
atrophied. The challenge is to work them back into shape.
Want to get ahead today? Forget what your parents told you. Instead,
do something foreigners can't do cheaper. Something computers can't do
faster. And something that fills one of the nonmaterial, transcendent
desires of an abundant age. In other words, go right, young man and
woman, go right.
Adapted from A Whole New Mind: Moving from the Information Age to the
Conceptual Age, copyright © by Daniel H. Pink, to be published in
March by Riverhead Books. Printed with permission of the publisher.
Contributing editor Daniel H. Pink (dp at danpink.com) wrote about Gross
National Happiness in issue 12.12.
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