Russ Roberts

Dan Pink on How Half Your Brain Can Save Your Job

EconTalk Episode with Dan Pink
Hosted by Russ Roberts
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Author Dan Pink talks about the ideas in his book, A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future. He argues that the skills of the right side of the brain--skills such as creativity, empathy, contextual thinking and big picture thinking--are going to become increasingly important as a response to competition from low-wage workers overseas and our growing standard of living.

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0:36Intro. What do you have in mind when you say the right side of our brains will play an increasingly important role in modern workplace? Using the structure of our brain as a metaphor for understanding the contours of business and labor markets. Science has caught up: Our brains are elegant and efficient. Left side specializes in logical, linear, analytical, right side in processing simultaneously, context, synthesis. Today the left side abilities are absolutely necessary; but they are not sufficient. Right side's creativity, empathy, etc. are also critical. The three As--abundance, Asia, and automation. Abundance: Material now well-being goes deep into the middle class. Would have been unrecognizable to our grandparents in their 40s. It's shaped business by putting a premium on the emotional, companies stand out in crowded market place by appealing to the aesthetic. All the abundance though hasn't done a lot to increase the sense of well-being. It's democratized the search for meaning, liberated by prosperity but not fulfilled by it, so use extra time to do things that are meaningful. Fogel, Nobel Prize Winner, The Fourth Great Awakening. So abundance tilts the scale toward the right brain. Easterbrook podcast. Scary fact of life: get sense that everyone is standing teetering on the abyss of commodity hell. Way to stand back is to de-commoditize through design, customer service, dramatic leaps in functionality via invention, not just tinkering. iPhone--Will it have what it promises? Aesthetics and functionality. Japan, electronics store: cosmetics counters and cell-phone counters look the same, customized with rhinestones, Hello Kitty, etc. Ten or twelve years ago everyone didn't carry around a cell-phone, but now not only are they carried, but they are customizable and cool-looking. Cell-phones in the '90s look like walkie-talkies. Might as well hold up a microwave oven to your ear.
12:47Asia: offshoring to India, Malaysia, Philippines, etc. White-collar work has become commoditized. Anything routine, that can be reduced to a series of instructions, is racing to wherever it can be done the cheapest. But white collar work is the kind of work we encouraged by our parents to do. If 15% of India's population hits the upper middle class, that's 150 million people, more than Japan's population, more than the U.S. workforce. Have to make migration in this country to much more empathic work, away from the routine. Are you worried? Dan: "I'm not worried about that." Worried about backlash that would stop it from happening, and worried about being too cavalier and leaving people behind. This is the way economies work. Dislocation effects in the short term. But it enhances our standard of living. The Choice, on importance of comparative advantage. Raises questions of health, social security; but it also frees up people to do more creative, interesting work. Levy, Murnane, book on role of automation in labor markets. Story of President Johnson's mid-1960s blue-ribbon conference on future of economy. Alarming report that by 2000 we'd have massive unemployment because there would be nothing left for people to do. Underestimates the dynamism in the economy. Ohio, rustbelt, in the air is notion that we are moving from an industrial to a service economy. Nonsense, said Dan's dad--we can't all do haircuts. Didn't foresee search engines, webdesigners, massage therapists, Starbucks, designer toilet brushes, creative capacity resulting from transition.
20:48If we can do something much cheaper than now, we're going to be better off. New things are going to be possible. Ultimate resource is our brains. Book imagines a set of paths for how we can continue to use our brains in creative ways. Outsourcing means change in what we do in U.S., new things that are lucrative. Automation: Last century machines replaced muscles. Forklift, machine tools. This century, software is replacing our brain. But at least for now, it can't replace the right-brained side, the creative. You can now go online and do online divorces, wills--replaces some functions of lawyers; software also replaces some work done by doctors, accounting and tax software outsourced to India but also done by TurboTax. You have to be able to do work that is hard to outsource or automate. Have to focus more on artistry, empathy, design, story-telling, contextual thinking, boundary-crossing thinking, playfulness. Those things provide an economic edge.
26:17Six senses that we should try to enhance to compete in this new world of abundance, Asia, and automation. Hard, though not impossible to automate: Design, story, symphony (ability to see the big picture), empathy, play, and meaning. Look at businesses that are working well or individuals who are flourishing in their careers, they have these abilities. Design: explosion of design schools around the world and in the U.S. Corporate recruiters are going to these schools. "The MFA (Master of Fine Arts) is the new MBA." Data: Employment categories shows uptick, but not yet seen in salary data. More in United States, flexible higher education system. But no permanent lock. Korea, India, China, Japan. Traditional business schools are trying to team up with these design schools. Jeff Pfeffer, Stanford: MBA doesn't confer much in terms of earning effect. Lots of fads in business school curricula. Every business needs a logo! But it's more profound: marketing, etc. should be done in an aesthetic manner. And designers think in a certain way, problem solvers, combine utility and significance. Design is a whole-minded skill, engineering and aesthetics. Rotman School of Management, Canada. Left-brain abilities still have value; still have to be able to do that. IPhone, iPod; Newton palm-based device didn't work though it had the aesthetics. Challenge: These things are important but hard to teach.
36:31Story: Facts have less value now because anyone can find them on the Internet. But delivering them with impact means having a story. Differentiation of product. Commercials tell stories rather than just sell product, trying to get you to remember it. Russ's novel helps teach economics. "How was your day?" is answered by narrating, not with a Power-Point presentation. Series of episodes, not series of logical propositions. Story is more effective because it is closer to how we operate. Wired Magazine recently came with a DVD with ad for Shell Oil, filmed as a Hollywood-style movie. Visual storytelling. Manga, Japanese illustrated comics, pop culture, spreading all over the world, combines text and image. Communication by itself is undervalued. Russ had students who said the best thing about being a business major was that you don't have to write any papers. Error of judgment. Saying things well is a valued skill. Also have to have content, saying something. False sense of what it is to sound like a business person. Mystique about bad communicators--maybe he's a genius; but maybe it's a myth and he really doesn't know his stuff. Emperor has no clothes. If you understand something you should be able to communicate it. Though Hegel used to deliberately make his lectures confusing.
45:40Symphony: seeing the big picture, teasing out the meaningful currents from the wealth of information, combining two things into something new. Argument against pure specialization in work. What you learn in college in a technical field will probably become obsolete quickly. More returns to multi-ness than to pure deep momentary specialization. See it in hiring: more multidisciplinary hiring. Heart of invention. Rare skill, though. Can you personally enhance your own ability to do that? Maybe deep specialization is best for many individuals? DNA determines height range narrowly, but people may be able to move to the upper realm of a larger DNA-band for things like multidisciplinary aspects. Four times increase in self-designed college majors. Combine biology and philosophy. Lack of innovativeness in education. Is saying you have an interdisciplinary approach--e.g., business schools--a sham? The professors themselves are not interdisciplinary, so hard to teach. Med school similar. Challenge is to unleash that interdisciplinary approach. Can get team-teaching; but biggest challenge is the practicality of it. Thinking outside the box, but most people think, in fact, inside the box. Context in which they operate rather than intrinsic limitations on their abilities. Maybe different kind of formal education would allow people to see it more broadly. Being literate or numerate doesn't mean becoming a novelist or mathematician, but with proper environment, context, setting, these more abstract abilities may become feasible. Task of moving across the boxes is left up to the individual, though, still. Northwestern U., senior thesis project outside your major, joint question across disciplines. Home schooling: opportunity for interdisciplinary synthesizing. Are home-schooled kids better at this? Two kinds of home schooling, one recreates traditional schooling, other is more synthetizing. Baseball fans become numerate (math-literate). Fantasy leagues, simulation leagues. Strat-O-Matic.
1:01:29Course on learning how to draw in Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain: Started as a horrible artist, but can actually learn the basics of how to draw. Deeply gratifying, changed the way I looked at the world around me. After a certain age, though, it's considered a waste of time in school. Is it more than that? Can it make you a better parent, better see-er of trees and ideas? Can it make you a more productive person as well? Being happier makes you more fulfilled, more productive in and of itself. Pink: "I see the world differently after taking that drawing course." Hadn't seen negative spaces, light and shadow. Enhanced design sensibility, better sense of proportions and relationships. Is there a direct payoff? Maybe can't compute it, but being able to see what is not there enhances your ability to come up with ideas, metaphorically to see the big picture, makes you productive. Can't prove direct causal relationship with earnings, though. Pink: "If they have enhanced those kinds of abilities, they're going to have a better life, but I also think they're going to have a life that's better off as well." Same for taking math courses. Way of thinking. The more of these arrows of understanding you have, the more you can see it in a different way. All approaches valuable, so 1+1+1 may be more than 3.

COMMENTS (5 to date)
Steve writes:

Russ,
Another great podcast! I am noticing a pattern. I think your best podcasts tend to be with writers and journalists. Last weeks podcast with Amity Shlaes was one of my all time favorites. I love the economists you interview but the writers and journalists seem to be a more engaging lot. So now I am going to ask you to do an interview with an economist. How about Bill Easterly?
Steve

Tom Kelly writes:

I think Dan Pink's thesis is a sign post on the way toward the eventual destiny for mankind- an economy of love.

Machines will do all tasks that require muscle or sequential thought. People will compete for their share of the resources produced by the machines based primarily on their ability to make others feel loved.

Oprah Winfrey and many in the creative community are in the vanguard of this movement. Even "regular" businesses today are foolish if they are not incorporating a sense of love into their product or service. Getting your customer to feel loved is the ultimate competitive advantage.

Brad Hutchings writes:

Listening to him, I wanted to cry because he was giving all my survival secrets away. However, the way things are today, if you're really talented technically, you have to make the effort to get in touch with your right brain because most technically talented people don't think it's cool to bring in the artsy. To their own long term peril of course...

One nit to pick. I loved how one of you mentioned seeing the world through a totally different lens after reading "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain". I will have to pick that book up. But after reading Taleb's two books, I definitely shifted how I perceive some things -- doesn't happen often, BTW. So when you were comparing the Newton to the Palm(Pilot), I was screaming "hindsight bias" at the TV (yes, I am now listening to EconTalk podcasts on a 46" Sony, call me a dork). Run that Palm v. Newton competition in 1000 alternate universes, and the Newton could take 25%. It was popular among its users before the Palm. Many successful 3rd party Palm software developers started on the Newton. Mark/Space (they make Missing Sync) comes to mind. There have been countless Palm blunders since USR originally released its device, got acquired by 3Com, and subsequently spun off its little hobby division. If you had the original Palm phone (from Qualcomm and then Kyocero) a decade ago, you'd have never thought today's Treo was possible. I think you can safely say that Palm's companies were more persistent with the Palm(Pilot) than Apple was with the Newton. And the prime example is the Apple eMate, a late model batman-ish Newton aimed at kids. For the less than a year it was shipping, it owned the education market for field data gathering, with all sorts of software and probes for collecting data (temperature, moisture, etc.). Jobs pulled the plug on Newton and eMate and Palm cleaned up in that little market. Small nit...

Russ Roberts writes:

Brad,

I think it's a good nit. I don't know much about the Newton so I'll take your point as a good one until further notice.

You won't learn much reading "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain." You have to make a commitment to actually doing the drawing exercises. As someone who has no artistic ability, I was shocked at how it helped me "see" the shapes and colors and shades of the world more vividly. My wife, who also worked through it, has become a pretty serious painter.

shawn writes:

...that's really interesting...I wonder what that 'drawing on the right side of the brain' would do for someone who's already got some talent.

Intriguing. And, as a rather young someone in a creative field, this was a particularly fun podcast to listen to.

Always nice to think you'll be needed.

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