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Book review: The rise of right-brain thinking

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

By Daniel Pink

The Berkley Publishing Group

$18

I’m trapped in a committee meeting and we’re only a half-hour in.

To sustain the illusion of engagement, I’m staring intently at the agenda and minutes from our last get-together. But my mind’s wandered to the clay figurines in my daughter’s bedroom.

Arranged along the top shelf of her dresser is a wizard, a king and queen, two princesses and something even my daughter can’t recognize although we think it could be a friendly dragon.

My daughter handcrafted these masterpieces at her day care with an assist from Joan the Artist. Every week, Joan the Artist would inspire my daughter and the other kids in the class to draw, paint, sculpt and make weird and wonderful foam core creations decorated with pipe cleaners and held together with a surprising amount of black electrical tape.

To the uninitiated, Joan the Artist was teaching art lessons to toddlers.

But she was actually giving my daughter an invaluable right-brain workout and hardwiring my offspring to think with a whole new mind.

It’s a workout badly needed on our committee.

Analysis paralysis is setting in. The left-brainers are in their functional, process-oriented glory. And the first item on our agenda has become a portal to one of the lower rings of Hades. I’d donate my left kidney if Joan the Artist suddenly interrupted our meeting and encouraged us to brainstorm with clay, foam core and electrical tape.

This isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds. Innovative companies aren’t just hiring artists, poets, painters and storytellers.

Creative types are actually being put into positions of power, responsibility and influence. In our newly emerging Conceptual Age, author Daniel Pink says a master of fine arts is the new MBA.

"Today, the defining skills of the previous era — the left brain capabilities that powered the Information Age — are necessary but no longer sufficient. And the capabilities we once disdained or thought frivolous — the right brain qualities of inventiveness, empathy, joyfulness and meaning — increasingly will determine who flourishes and who flounders. For individuals, families and organizations, professional success and personal fulfilment now require a whole new mind."

So why are right-brainers getting the keys to the kingdom? Credit or curse the triple combo of abundance, Asia and automation. In our big-box world, there’s no shortage of stuff. "For most of our history, our lives were defined by scarcity.

"Today, the defining feature of social, economic and cultural life in much of the world is abundance." So, best of luck trying to compete with a product or service that’s reasonably priced and adequately functional.

You also need to come up with something that’s beautiful, unique and meaningful.

Hence the middle-class obsession with design and the popularity of Target, a retailer that sells clothes and household items dreamt up by world famous right-brain designers.

How else to explain a $5.99 toilet brush designed by one of the world’s most renowned architects and product designers?

Then there’s Asia with its swelling armies of low-cost left-brain knowledge workers. Here’s a sobering stat, courtesy of Forrester Research. At least 3.3 million white-collar jobs and $136 billion in wages will shift from the U.S. to low-cost countries like India, China and Russia by 2015. By 2010, one in four IT jobs in the U.S. will be offshored. The good news? It’s tough to outsource right-brain thinking through fibre-optic cables. The key to success, says Pink, is to be good at "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."

And if your left-brained job isn’t outsourced overseas to a cheaper version of you, there’s a good chance it’ll get automated. "Last century, machines proved they could replace human backs. This century, new technologies are proving they can replace human left brains. Any job that depends on routines — that can be reduced to a set of rules, or broken down into a set of repeatable steps — is at risk. If a $500-a-month Indian chartered accountant doesn’t swipe your comfortable accounting job, Turbo-Tax will." Again, the key to survival and success rests on firing more of the synapses in our brain’s right hemisphere.

Pink says we need to supplement our well-honed left-brain, high-tech abilities with high concept, high touch right-brain know-how. In this new Conceptual Age, we’ll need to master six essential right-brained aptitudes:

  • Design. "Today, it’s economically crucial and personally rewarding to create something that is also beautiful, whimsical or emotionally engaging."
  • Story. "The essence of persuasion, communication and self-understanding has become the ability to fashion a compelling narrative."
  • 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."
  • 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."
  • Play. "Too much sobriety can be bad for your career and worse for your general health."
  • Meaning. In the Conceptual Age, meaning is the new money, as we pursue purpose, transcendence and spiritual fulfilment.

As we get serious about charting Hamilton’s future, we need to collectively ask ourselves three tough questions. Is our local economy built on jobs that someone overseas can do cheaper? Can a computer do our jobs faster? And are we making and selling products and services that are in demand in this age of abundance? The key to creating new opportunities and sustainable prosperity will rest on inviting Joan the Artist and other right-brainers to pay an extended visit to our workplaces and bring along lots of clay, paint, pipe cleaners and electrical tape.

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