of the Right Brain
Daniel H. Pink
Logical and precise, left-brain
thinking gave us the Information Age. Now comes the Conceptual
Age - ruled by artistry, empathy, and emotion.
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
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
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
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 competence.
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
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 and published by Riverhead Books. This article
from Wired Magazine (www.wired.com)