[Paleopsych] Wired 13.02: Revenge of the Right Brain

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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
    personal fulfillment.

    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
    the transcendent.

    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
    US hospitals.

    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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