Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

Are We in Our Right Minds? LFA's Interview with Bestselling Author Dan Pink

vonzastrowc's picture

DanPink.jpgYou might want to put your kids through art school after all.

Best-selling author Dan Pink's prediction that the MFA could become the next MBA is sure to kindle joy in the hearts of underfed visual arts majors everywhere, but it also has profound implications for K-12 public schools. Right-brained skills are becoming an increasingly important ticket to success in the post-information age, Pink argues in his book A Whole New Mind. 

Public schools will have to do much more to promote such skills, he suggested, at a time when employers can easily automate or outsource traditional left-brained activities.

In a phone interview last week, Pink spoke with me at length about this new state of affairs, and he gave me a rare preview of his upcoming projects. 

Here’s a thumbnail sketch of what Pink told me….

The Demand for Right-Brained Skills in a “Conceptual Age.”
Pink argued that we have entered a “conceptual age” in which right-brained attributes such as artistry, empathy, inventiveness and big-picture thinking have become every bit as important as logical, sequential and analytical left-brained skills.

The Causes of the Conceptual Age: Asia, Automation and Abundance
What has brought on this new age?  Asia, automation and abundance, he claims—forces that have made left-brained abilities easier to outsource to China or India, easier to assign to computers, and simply less desirable in a crowded market for goods. 

Right-brained skills, by contrast, are harder to buy on the cheap in Beijing or Bangalore—and almost impossible to entrust to a computer.  What’s more, employers are looking for such skills at a time when a product’s design is at least as strong a selling point as its utility.  In an age of relative material abundance, almost anyone can own a functional toaster, so Target lures customers to its stores with toasters designed by renowned architect Michael Graves.

Are Public Schools Ready for the Conceptual Age?
Pink told me that the conceptual age has enormous implications for public schools, which unfortunately still give right-brained skills very short shrift.  He laid much responsibility for this misalignment at the feet of policymakers.  Educators, he argued, intuitively understand the importance of right-brained abilities, but they are hamstrung by outmoded and often counterproductive policies.

Dan Pink’s Upcoming Projects:  Learning through Comics
Pink said he would soon publish the world’s first “manga” business guide, entitled The Adventures of Johnny Bunko: the Last Career Guide You’ll Ever Need.  For those who are as woefully un-hip as I am, “manga” is a form of graphic novel or comic book that is dominating the publishing industry in Japan and attracting an enormous following in the United States as well—among adults as well as youth.  Pink’s book, which is slated to appear on April 1st (no joke), will use the manga format to connect with young readers who are just entering the workforce. 

manga.jpg (In case you doubt the potential impact of manga, a Google search for the word “manga” yields about 188 million results.  “Public schools,” by contrast, yields just under 26 million.)

Pink noted that comic books and graphic novels can be effective learning tools, especially for struggling readers.  He argued that comics help students connect word and image, understand narrative and find their own voices. 

Hear the Interview
You have several options for listening to my interview with Dan Pink:

Listen to a six-minute excerpt, or read through the transcript below:

Or hear the entire 23-minute version.

Or choose specific segments of the interview from the following list:

  • The conceptual age  Listen (1:40)
  • Causes of the conceptual age  Listen (3:00)
  • Implications for schools  Listen (1:36)
  • Are educators and policymakers responding?  Listen (2:00)
  • The future of service sector jobs  Listen (3:28)
  • Good news for educators and students?  Listen (1:09)
  • Dangers in the conceptual age  Listen (3:55)
  • Pink’s new project on intrinsic vs. extrinsic Motivation  Listen (1:34)
  • The world’s first comic book business guide  Listen (2:17)
  • Learning from comic books  Listen (2:00)

Excerpt Transcript

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS:  This is Claus von Zastrow with publicschoolinsights.org at the Learning First Alliance.  I'm joined on the phone today by Dan Pink, bestselling author of "A Whole New Mind," a groundbreaking book that describes the new importance of right-brain skills in a world dominated by outsourcing and automation.

Welcome, Dan.

PINK:  Hi, Claus, it's great to be here.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS:  In your book you argue that we're living in what you call a "Conceptual Age."  Describe what that means.

PINK:  What I mean is that it's an age that is defined by a different logic, by a different set of competitive principles. 

It used to be, in the "Information Age," that the abilities that mattered the most were abilities that were characteristic of the left brain: logical, linear, sequential, analytical, SAT, spreadsheet, zero-in-on-the-right-answer kind of abilities.  And today those abilities are absolutely necessary, but they're just not enough.  It's now abilities characteristic of the right side of the brain: artistry, empathy, inventiveness, big-picture thinking.  Those kinds of abilities are the ones that are moving to the center of our economy.  The "Conceptual Age" is just the era following the "Information Age."

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS:  What exactly has brought about this new conceptual age?

PINK:  It's three A's: abundance, Asia, and automation.  By abundance I mean the startling levels of material well-being deep into the middle class in much of the advanced world.  So the middle-class person in the United States, in material terms, is actually stunningly well off by historical standards or international standards.  What its meant is that when more and more people's functional, utilitarian needs are satisfied and over-satisfied, that puts a premium on things that are in some fashion non-material: aesthetics, emotions, and spirituality.  So you now see more and more products and services infused with an aesthetic sensibility or an emotional sensibility.  This is why you have a company like Procter & Gamble attritioning engineers and hiring designers, because what they're essentially selling are commodities and the way you differentiate among commodities is increasingly through design and story, and those sorts of things.  So that's how abundance tilts the scales.

Asia tilts the scales in that many kinds of routine left-brain work - that is, work you can reduce to a script, work you can reduce to a spreadsheet, things that have a series of steps that have a right answer - that kind of work can now get done cheaper in places like India. 

Finally, there is automation.  And by that I mean that software can do certain kinds of intellectual work simply better than our brains can.  But for now at least it's only a certain kind of intellectual work.  It's, again, that logical, linear rule-based kind of work. 

So [to succeed in the conceptual age] you have to be able to do work that's hard to outsource, hard to automate, and that delivers on the growing demand for aesthetics, emotion, spirituality.

And what that means, going back to what I was saying earlier, Claus - those left-brain abilities absolutely matter, but they're just not enough.  What's really determining who moves forward and who falls behind is mastery of those more right-brain capabilities, and, unfortunately, those are often capabilities that we haven't taken seriously enough, certainly in this country. 

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS:  You mentioned NCLB and a number of other factors.  It sounds to me like this has pretty enormous implications for K-12 education. 

PINK:  If you think about the economic preparation aspect of school, I think it does.  Because it suggests that we might be fighting the last war.  I think what's gone on in a lot of schools is an intensified preparation for kind of routine, rule-based knowledge work rather than the more whole-minded abilities and careers that these kids are actually going to be working in.

I want to emphasize that I think it's really about education policy much more than what's going on in classrooms, per se.  Because the teachers and principals and superintendents whom I've met with in the last year...They're very frustrated with what's going on, and they actually get this economic transition better than most people in this country.  Except that they're shackled a little bit by all the rules and regulations that are often imposed from state capitals and the federal capital.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS:  I thought I would end this interview with a somewhat different question - which you can take or leave, Dan - but I wanted to ask you if you've got anything else on the horizon, any books or projects that you wanted to tell the public education community about.

PINK:  Sure.  I've got a couple of things.  I spent a couple of months this spring with my family in Japan, and I was studying the "manga" industry.  Manga is a distinctive form of Japanese comics.  Comics in Japan are not like they are here.  It's not just the kind of Superman, Marvel comics that we tend to associate [with] here in the U.S.  You can read a manga for how to find a mate, a manga [to learn] the history of Buddha, a manga to help you manage your finances.  Against my better judgment, I have decided to do the first business book in manga for a western audience.

So in April I come out with a book called "The Adventures of Johnny Bunco" (the subtitle is "The Last Career Guide You'll Ever Need"), which is a 160-page graphic novel that is a career guide for younger people that tells the trials and tribulations of this fellow Johnny and the six key principles of what it takes to have a satisfying, productive career.

And of course there's magic chopsticks in it, too.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS:  [Laughing]  Dan, thank you very much.  I truly appreciate the time you've given us today.

PINK:  Thanks a lot for having me.  It's been a pleasure.