Your left brain is logical, linear, by-the-numbers; the right side is creative, artistic, empathetic. Oprah talks with Daniel Pink about his groundbreaking book, A Whole New Mind, and explores how right-brain thinkers are wired for 21st-century success. The best part: Anyone can tap into the right mind-set.
Last spring I read a book I just couldn't put down:
A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, by business and technology writer Daniel Pink. Daniel, a former chief speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore, presents a convincing argument that our country is entering a new era—the so-called conceptual age—during which right-brained skills such as design and storytelling will become far more crucial than traditionally left-brained skills such as accounting and computer programming. While the latter skills are readily outsourced, transformative abilities such as empathy and creativity are crucial in a new age "animated by a different form of thinking and a new approach to life," he writes.
Because I've always been a right-brain kind of person—more of an inventive and empathetic storyteller than a linear, logical number cruncher—this book really spoke to me. Now, you know what happens when something new excites me: I want to share it with as many people as I can.
Last June I was invited to Stanford University to give the commencement address (my goddaughter Kirby was among the graduates). After finishing Daniel's book, I ordered 4,500 copies, one for each student in Stanford's class of 2008. I wanted to present them (along with another of my favorites, Eckhart Tolle's A New Earth) as graduation presents. For four days straight, a team of people tied ribbons around the books, which were waiting on their chairs.
I recently interviewed Daniel for my Soul Series show on Sirius XM Radio. When we sat down in the studio in Chicago, I told him the story of my ribbon assembly line. "That's the kind of work we typically try to outsource!" Daniel joked. In A Whole New Mind, he explains that one of the trademarks of the Conceptual Age is the outsourcing of traditional white-collar jobs such as law, accounting, and engineering to less-expensive overseas workers, particularly in Asia. But as he points out, you can't outsource creativity.
Feel left out? Fear not, Daniel says: He has identified six right-brain-associated aptitudes that he believes anyone can develop, and tells us how we can use these skills not only to stay competitive in the workplace but to improve our lives and our world.
Oprah: Let's start with the bold statement you make on the cover of your book: Why will right-brainers rule the future?
Daniel: In many professions, what used to matter most were abilities associated with the left side of the brain: linear, sequential, spreadsheet kind of faculties. Those still matter, but they're not enough. What's important now are the characteristics of the brain's right hemisphere: artistry, empathy, inventiveness, big-picture thinking. These skills have become first among equals in a whole range of business fields.
Oprah: Does this mean that left-brainers are going to be out of work?
Daniel: Not necessarily—but it does mean that people like me have some work to do. I happen to be extremely left-brained; my instinct is to draw a chart rather than a picture. I'm trying to get my right-brain muscles into shape. I actually think this shift toward right-brain abilities has the potential to make us both better off and better in a deeper sense.
Oprah: You write that after living through the agricultural, industrial, and information ages, we've entered the conceptual age, in which creators and empathizers will lead. How have what you call the three As—abundance, automation, and Asia—ushered in this new era?
Daniel: In the same way that machines have replaced our bodies in certain kinds of jobs, software is replacing our left brains by doing sequential, logical work. And that brings us to Asia, to where that work is being shipped. In Asia you have tens of millions of people who can do routine tasks like write computer code. Routine is work you can reduce to a spreadsheet, to a script, to a formula, to a series of steps that has the right answer.
Oprah: So you suggest that right-brain aptitudes, when complemented with left-directed thinking, can result in a whole new mind. Because we've entered a conceptual age, where meaning and harmony, design and purpose are going to be more significant to the world than formulaic thinking and activities. After I read your book, I thought, 'This is my time.'
Daniel: That's how a lot of people have responded: that the world has come to them. In this country, the "smart" people have these logical, linear abilities, while right-brain people are often seen as flighty, spacey, artsy-fartsy.
Oprah: They're viewed as being "woo-woo."
Daniel: Yes, exactly! I'm not much of a woo-woo guy, so when I used my left brain to look at the facts, it became clear that the scales are tilting. My generation's parents told their children, "Become an accountant, a lawyer, or an engineer; that will give you a solid foothold in the middle class." But these jobs are now being sent overseas. So in order to make it today, you have to do work that's hard to outsource, hard to automate. Ultimately, here's what is heartening: The right brain is finally being taken seriously. The Dalai Lama is doing joint projects with neuroscientists. People like Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor [the Harvard-trained brain researcher who chronicled her stroke in the book My Stroke of Insight], who have incredible street cred in neuroscience, are offering their stories.
Oprah: So what advice do you give kids who are in school?
Daniel: Ultimately, it's about following your intrinsic motivation. What are you here to do? What are you uniquely good at?
Oprah: Do you believe that the paradox of prosperity is the reason we're seeking meaning more than ever?
Daniel: I think that's part of it. All this abundance has liberated us but not fulfilled us. So people are using their extra time and energy and money to lift that level of satisfaction. The yearning to understand what it's all about is a human yearning. When we were on the savanna evolving, running from saber-toothed tigers, we didn't have the luxury of thinking about why we were put here. Prosperity has freed us to consider what's fundamental about being human and to ask, 'How am I connected to everything else?' I think people get satisfaction from living for a cause that's greater than themselves. They want to leave an imprint. By writing books, I'm trying to do that in a modest way. And apparently it works, because some of the Stanford grads you gave my book to have sent me e-mails.
Oprah: What have they said? Tell me, tell me!
Daniel: Some have written that the book made them think about why they're here. And, interestingly, a lot of students tell me that they're going to give A Whole New Mind to their parents. One student is passionate about art, but his mom wants him to get an MBA and become an accountant.
Oprah: You've said that the new master of business administration is the master of fine arts.
Daniel: After that statement, I'm sure I'll never get invited to speak at a business school! Here's the point: Financial firms are sending their back-office jobs overseas. But what do fine artists do? They create something new, unexpected, and delightful that changes the world. MFA abilities are harder to outsource and more important in an abundant world.
Oprah: How does abundance affect us in the conceptual age?
Daniel: Abundance is one of the most significant things going on in the country. My grandparents were middle-class, didn't have a car, and neither of my grandmothers ever learned how to drive. My kids find this surprising, but at one point in this country, a car was a luxury; now we have more automobiles than we have licensed drivers. There are huge stores brimming with products and an entire storage industry devoted to housing our excess stuff. In the early '70s, I grew up going to the tiny Eastland Mall in Columbus, Ohio.
Oprah: Where I grew up, we didn't have a mall—there was only Sears!
Daniel: Yes! At Eastland, Sears was one anchor and JC Penney was the other. Now you go into Target, where there are loads of designer goods at reasonable prices. And the pet store next to Target is larger than the entire Eastland Mall. Electronics stores overwhelm you with sound and light. A mobile phone has more computing power than existed when my grandparents were my age.
Oprah: You've said that abundance changes the way we see material goods. We no longer just want to have things; we want cool things. We want well-designed things. We want things with meaning.
Daniel: Absolutely. Tens of millions of people have iPods, whereas eight years ago, they didn't know they were missing them.
Oprah: I remember seeing people standing in line at the Apple store in Chicago waiting for the very first ones.
Daniel: Because in a world of abundance, our new job is to give people something they didn't know they were missing. What do artists do? Artists give people something they didn't know they were missing: a dance, a piece of music, a painting, a piece of sculpture. Catering to that need is the best business strategy.
Oprah: You need your left brain to invent the iPod, but the idea of the iPod is very right brain.
Daniel: An iPod is easy to use, it's beautifully designed, and it's an object of desire.
Oprah: Let's talk about a right-brain ability you think we should all develop.
Daniel: I'd say "design." Design is the ability to create something that has significance as well as usefulness. Even hospitals are bringing in designers to redo waiting rooms. A young designer in New York re-created the prescription bottle because she noticed that her grandparents were getting their medications confused. She put the medicine's name in large type at the top instead of the doctor's name, and Grandpa gets a green band on his medicine bottle and Grandma gets a yellow band so they can see the difference more clearly. That's an example of how design can literally save lives.
Oprah: How do we begin to create more design in our lives?
Daniel: Carry a notebook and write down examples of good and poor design. After a week, you'll begin to realize that nearly everything is the product of a design decision. The type of lid you put on the cup of coffee you bought this morning was a design decision. So were the shoes you're wearing.
Oprah: Before reading your book, I'd always thought of design in terms of fashion. But then I started noticing the plates that I chose for my home, the kinds of kitchen counters, the knobs, the cabinets, all were about the design.
Daniel: I'm not trying to turn everyone into star designers. I'm trying to help people become more literate about design.
Oprah: Another right-brained skill you talk about is "story."
Daniel: We live in a world where facts are everywhere. If we wanted to know the gross domestic product of Ecuador, my kids could find that online in 15 seconds. What matters more now is the ability to put facts into context and deliver them with emotional impact. And that's what a story does. We have in our head something called story grammar. We see the world as a series of episodes rather than logical propositions; when your spouse asks, "How was your day?" you don't whip out a PowerPoint presentation and a pie chart. Instead, you narrate: "First, this happened, and you'll never believe what happened after that...," and so on. In our serious society, storytelling is seen as being soft. But people process the world through story. Companies are now using a product's backstory as a way to differentiate items in a crowded marketplace.
Oprah: Of course, I have a great affection for story because I make my living telling others' stories. Story is a way to build connection.
Daniel: Amen. That's why business schools are slowly starting to recognize the power of narrative—if you want to lead an organization, you have to be effective in creating a compelling vision with a beginning, a middle, and an end.
Oprah: Tell me about the skill you call "symphony."
Daniel: Symphony is the ability to see the big picture, connect the dots, combine disparate things into something new. It's a signature ability that is a great predictor of star performance in the workplace. Visual artists in particular are good at seeing how the pieces come together. I experienced this myself by trying to learn to draw. The teacher showed us how to see proportions, relationships, light and shadow, negative space, and space between space—something I never noticed before! In one week, I went from not knowing how to draw to sketching a detailed portrait. It literally changed the way I see things; now I view the world in a much more holistic, symphonic way.
Oprah: What about the right-brain ability you mention in your book, "play"? I've got to get better at play.
Daniel: Me too. One aspect of play is the importance of laughter, which has physiological and psychological benefits. Did you know that there are thousands of laughter clubs around the world? People get together and laugh for no reason at all!
Oprah: Isn't it kind of pitiful? You don't have anything really to laugh about so you go to a club, you have a meeting to laugh?
Daniel: That's what I used to think, too. And so I went to a laughter club in Mumbai. It was 6:30 in the morning, on a muddy soccer field. About 40 people gathered around a woman, who said, "Ho-ho-ha-ha-ha, ho-ho-ha-ha-ha, ho-ho-ha-ha-ha." Everyone repeated after her. And I sat there thinking, 'This is the freakiest thing I've ever seen.'
Daniel: I realized that it's not about laughing at a joke; it's about the physicality of laughing. It's laughter yoga, or a kind of meditation. Even as the left brain is thinking, 'What the heck are you doing?' the right brain says, 'Be quiet—this is cool.' So I started doing it.
Oprah: It's nearly impossible to say "ho-ho-ha-ha-ha" and not at least smile! Let's move on to another right-brain skill you mention in your book: "empathy."
Daniel: Empathy is about standing in someone else's shoes, feeling with his or her heart, seeing with his or her eyes. Not only is empathy hard to outsource and automate but it makes the world a better place.
Oprah: Yes. And finally, there's the capacity you call "meaning." Isn't meaning the common denominator of human experience? Over the years while doing my show, I've learned that we all want to be validated, to know that what we say matters, that it means something. We all want to feel as if our lives have been significant and purposeful.
Daniel: This is why I think baby boomers are going to do something quite spectacular. They say, "Sixty's not old. Oh, I've got 25 years left." Then they look back 25 years and say, "Holy smokes, that sure happened fast. Are the next 25 years going to happen as fast? And if they are, what's my legacy going to be? When am I going to live my best life? What kind of imprint am I going to leave on the world?" Roughly 100 baby boomers turn 60 every 18 minutes in this country. Imagine the collective force of that. So I think that this widespread search for meaning is one of the most important things going on in American life today.
Oprah: Do you believe that we all have souls?
Oprah: So does the soul live in the right brain?
Daniel: I'll answer with my left brain: There's scientific evidence that shows that it does. There are experiments during which scientists have quieted the left brain that have allowed a person to have ecstatic or divine experiences.
Oprah: So does this mean that if you're left-brain oriented, you're less spiritual?
Daniel: Not necessarily. Right-brain abilities are fundamentally human abilities. Some of us exercise these muscles repeatedly over our lives; others don't use them at all. Regardless, it's encoded into our DNA to wonder what life is about.
Oprah: To sum up: The keys to the kingdom are changing, and right-brainers will be our new leaders. Is the kingdom itself changing?
Daniel: Yes. The kingdom changes based on who's holding the keys. In our world now, those with right-brain skills will flourish. That doesn't mean computer programmers are going to be scrubbing counters at fast food restaurants, but it does mean that those programmers have to understand their customers better, look at the different parts of their business in a symphonic way, have a design sensibility, and speak in story terms about what they're doing.
Oprah: How does the integration of meaning help us rule this new kingdom?
Daniel: Everything big begins with a conversation. Those assembling the conversation are the ones who shape our experiences. One conversation turns into another and another. That contagious conversation is what changes the world.
Oprah: Is that why you wrote this book—to start a conversation?
Daniel: Yes. In our hyperconnected world, authors get the first word—but they definitely don't get the last one. For me, a great day is when I get an e-mail from someone who says, "I've never felt like I was taken seriously, but after reading this, I think I'll be all right." And in the book, there's an exercise in which I ask the reader to picture himself or herself at age 90—what are your regrets? What did you do right? One of my favorite responses came from a reader who wrote, "Dear Mr. Pink, I enjoyed A Whole New Mind, but I have to take issue with the picture-yourself-at-90 exercise—you see, I'm 91."
Oprah: Daniel, what do you know for sure?
Daniel: These right-brain abilities are more than a way to get ahead in today's economy. They're part of what it means to be human. Everybody has the capacity to develop them. And if we encourage people to tap the right side of their brains, we have the potential to transform our world—to make ourselves not just better off but just plain better.
Printed from Oprah.com on Monday, March 10, 2014
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