Daniel Pink Explains Why the Right Brain Rules

Short Q&A with Dan Pink, Author of 'A Whole New Mind'

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"A Whole New Mind" is about the increasing demand for right-brain skills-synthesis, design, storytelling-over left-brain skills such as performance of sequential, logical tasks. Which are you, a righty or a lefty?

I'm a very left-brained guy. I'm the sultan of sequence. The book looks at the issue in a systematic way. I wasn't thinking: Oh, it would be lovely if we had economies, careers and societies built on artistry and empathy; we could all link arms and frolic through the daisies. I reached this conclusion in a hardheaded way. If you look at the data, the evidence, and take the most voraciously left-brained approach it's not even in question: Today, right-brain abilities are the ones that matter most, and that creates an urgency for people like me to get better at these things.

For those who haven't read the book, explain a bit about the impact of abundance and Asia and automation, and why they are making right-brain functions more important.

To start with Asia, what's happening is that even though, as I wrote, outsourcing is overhyped in the short term, it's underhyped in the longer term. If 15% of India's population hits the middle class or upper-middle class, that's 150 million highly educated people, larger than the entire U.S. work force. Couple that with the fact that India's going to be the largest English-speaking country in the world, add in the fact that the rest of us can connect to India for free, and that's a big deal. What it means is that any work that is routine, reducible to a script, to a spec sheet or a series of steps will race to India.

The left brain is the routine, logical, linear, get-me-the-right-answer side. That process is largely a commodity, and any commodity races to the lowest cost. That's what's happening with routine, white-collar work. Anything that's routine is going to disappear from countries like the United States in the same way that routine mass-production work disappeared last century. Americans are doing less and less routine work like financial analysis, basic legal work or accounting, and our kids won't be doing any of it. It's going to Asia.

Automation is the same story. Last century machines replaced human muscle. This century, software is replacing-or at least augmenting-the human brain. But again, software can only replace one part of our brain: the logical, linear, routine, sequential, step-by-step, zero-in-on-the-right-answer ability. The whole hue and cry during tax time was about the number of U.S. tax returns done in India-because an Indian certified accountant makes 500 bucks a month. But what about the 21 million Americans who did their taxes on TurboTax? That's the accountant job killer. A $39.99 piece of software. That's automation.

Then there's abundance. America today is preposterously well off materially in a way that would stun my grandparents, well off in almost a disproportionate way by historical or international standards. When my parents were in their 40s, an automobile was essentially a luxury item, a rich person's toy. Now you have more cars than licensed drivers. At a time when homes are getting bigger and households are getting smaller, we have a $17 billion self-storage industry. Abundance may be the biggest business force today. Certainly in the advertising industry, because there's an abundance of messages, an abundance of channels, an abundance of stuff to be advertised in a way that's just almost manic, in a way that makes 20 years ago look like a walk in the park.

Abundance has two consequences. To stand out, you have to have at least a significance beyond just utility. (Utility: It has to work. Significance: it has to have some kind of extra dimension to it.) Utility has become a commodity; you can find a product that works in any type of category. Toilet brushes are an interesting example. Read Virginia Postrel's book, "The Substance of Style." She has a whole section about this arms race of designer toilet brushes. We solved the engineering side of the toilet-brush challenge, so if you're selling toilet brushes you have to stand out on emotional, aesthetic, spiritual, or some other kind of dimension. It's about significance rather than utility. Look at the Philippe Starck fly swatter. It costs 14 bucks. It's three cents of plastic. The margins in that product are from significance, not utility. That's how abundance puts a premium on these right-brain things.

Also this stuff that hasn't made us any happier. We're richer, liberated by prosperity, but not fulfilled by it, so you have this widespread middle-class search for meaning, search for purpose and that's perhaps the biggest thing going on in middle-class America. You have a kind of democratization of self-realization, democratization of self-actualization. Something like 70% of Americans today describe themselves as spiritual, according to this Newsweek poll a year ago. I don't think my grandparents would even know what the word meant.

Do you think corporations get it? I mean, those left-brainers in accountancy, law, financial analysis and so on-they out-earn most of the artistic or ideas-oriented people I know.

Remuneration and recognition for right-brain skills hasn't caught up yet, but there are plenty of indications it is catching up. I don't know if it's true but somebody from P&G told me they're laying off engineers but have a shortage of designers. These big companies are recruiting at art and design colleges. And professional schools for the "left-brain professions" are changing. In "The World is Flat," Tom Friedman writes about how the vast majority of students who come into Georgia Tech play a musical instrument. Now that's not interesting at a hardcore engineering school. They are using playing a musical instrument as proxy for whole-mindedness. Georgia Tech is responding to the imperatives of employers who are saying: Send me people who can think, send me people who can cross disciplines, send me people who can work with others; don't send me technicians. That work's going to India.

And it's happening within professions, too. If you're a lawyer doing uncontested divorces, you're in big trouble because it's easier and cheaper for clients to do it online. It's already happening with accountants, who are this generation's factory workers. What's keeping accountants afloat right now is Sarbanes-Oxley. But there are all kinds of smart people working to automate that, just as they've automated many of the other tasks of accountancy. And beyond that, you're going to have accountants moving away from routine calculation kind of work and becoming more financial advisers, maybe even morphing into life financial coaches.

So you say people are being trained in the right-brain, creative skills, yet every marketer and agency I speak to is struggling to find talent that has a sufficient mix of left and right brain to thrive in the businesses we cover. Why?

That's about the tight labor market. But at a deeper level it may be because in the creative industries people need organizations less than organizations need talented people. That big agency or marketer needs you a lot more than you need them. I mean, what do you need now to reach potential clients? A phone, a computer with an internet connection. Karl Marx said the revolution would come when workers owned the means of production. Well, you know, now workers can own the means of production. Marx was thinking of factories, which are too large for one person to house and too expensive for one person to purchase. But he was sort of right, because if the means of production are your brain and your computer, you don't need an organization. It's cheap enough for one person to buy, easy for one person to operate and small enough for one person to house. Maybe that explains the talent shortage: Talented people don't necessarily need the organization.

How do you reconcile your view of the growing importance of right-brain skills with the growing importance of data, data analysis and particularly algorithms? I mean the Google and Amazon phenomenon is key to selling things today-we have automated the ability to predict consumer's next purchase.

Google is actually a very whole-mind type company. On the one hand, it has a lot of computer scientists and mathematicians, who are traditionally left-brain, but there are no technicians. Their people are way above technicians. They're not doing routine work. They're doing high-level conceptual work; they're inventors. The degree of invention at Google is stunning. They're coming up with new products, new services and these new algorithms. The best mathematicians or scientists are whole-minded, if not very right-brain people, because they're so incredibly holistic. They're about seeing around corners, not simply about calculations. Google has gotten its edge for two very right-brain reasons. One is design: The Google homepage is gonna be one of the iconic designs of our age. Its search engine works well, but Yahoo's search engine works well, and a lot of search engines work well. Google got its edge through design-it says brilliant, simple, easy to use. The other thing is that Google got its edge less due to algorithms and more by coming up with a better business model, a different approach to business that all the other search engines are aping.

You've been out on a speaking tour following the publication of the book. What advice do you give to corporations about becoming a more whole-mind type of organization?

Firstly, recognize where the value is, and that utility is abundant and significance scarce. They gotta get the utility right, but all of them are ultimately in the significance business. And what's interesting about that is how much that message has taken hold with companies that you wouldn't think. For instance, insurance companies. We've gotten a huge response from insurance companies. Because insurance is simply a math problem, and on the web, with transparency, you can compare who has the best math problem. So now you're looking at insurance companies that are trying to distinguish themselves based on other things.

Secondly, you need to understand the changing dynamics of talent. That these organizations need talented people more than the talented people need them. Smart managers, smart leaders recognize that. And again, Google's a good example of that. I mean, Google is recruiting people [by saying], "Come here and solve really cool problems." And Google says, "What we're also gonna do is we're gonna let you spend 20% of your time working on anything you want." The power of intrinsic motivation has been neglected in business: We think the way to get the best out of people is with sweeter rewards and stiffer punishments, when in fact in many cases that is empirically wrong. The great stuff is created by people who are following their own intrinsic motivations, their own sense of enjoyment and pleasure and creativity. That calls for a very different approach to management, and a very different approach to organizing and recruiting and managing talent-offering people the chance to solve cool problems and work with cool people, giving them autonomy and letting them follow their intrinsic motivation without some manager breathing down their neck.
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