Think Rightly

Today I’d like to take a look at some important concepts contained within Daniel Pink’s bestselling book, A Whole New Mind. His focus on the ascendance of right-brain thinking fits squarely into our continuing conversation about ways to best train our youth to meet the financial, educational and career challenges facing the Millennial generation. My goal is to help students, and their parents, better understand how to prepare for the ever shifting economic landscape.

As I mentioned in our recent discussion of Geoffery Colvin’s Talent is Overrated, one key to success in the Information Age is to avoid the commoditization of your expertise and skills. This may be the greatest career challenge our children face because Big Data may soon end up replacing many jobs with algorithms. According to Pink, developing the right side of the brain is a key component for success in the 21st century. Considering this, let me ask you a question:

Of these four general areas of study, which one is the most important for a student to master in order to provide the greatest opportunity for significant career achievement?

  1. History
  2. English
  3. Science
  4. Math

The obvious answer – based on the emphasis currently dominant throughout academia – is certainly either science or math. But the correct answer is unquestionably English. Whywould this be the case?

First of all, we must realize that college is only a start in the education process. Remember what Colvin taught us? It takes 10,000 hours, or ten years, to become an expert in any field. The ability to analyze arguments, and formulate your own, is the skill most valuable in any field of endeavor. This skillset is frequently best learned in the English and literature (liberal arts) learning experience. These subjects provide a broader perspective. That, in turn, allows doctors to be healers instead of mere technicians, professors to be mentors instead of just lecturers, and engineers to build interpersonal bridges, not just those for automobiles.

Secondly, if you can speak and write, you can do anything. Science and math are clearly indispensable skills, and they’re needed for our overall economy to function. But individuals with proficiency in the spoken word and written language typically direct the engineers and scientists in their work. From the standpoint of the sheer number of career opportunities, English and the humanities are the trump card. The good news is that, with a little work, you can be balanced and have both left-brain and right-brain skills.

Pink notes that according to the latest research, IQ accounts for only 4 to 10 percent of career success. In addition, he explains that good leaders are not only organized and disciplined (left-brain), but they tend to be funny. Yes, funny. He writes: “The most effective leaders had their charges laughing three times more often than their managerial counterparts.” Humor is heavily dependent on the right-brain.

Furthermore, leaders are great storytellers. Much of our experience, knowledge and the way we think is organized via story. This is how we remember things, because technology today makes facts so widely available and instantly accessible that each one becomes less valuable to retain. Context is what really matters. Stories provide context. And where are stories best told and interpreted? In English Lit class, and by reading good books on your own. English class is a good start, but a life-long dedication to reading is really the key to success.

Readers are leaders. It’s said of Winston Churchill that he read so much, he “became his own university.” Abraham Lincoln read every book he could buy or borrow. And the perhaps the most famous historical figure, at least in terms of voracious reading, was president Theodore Roosevelt, who averaged reading one book per day.

My own reading pales in comparison, but I have taken the time to chart my progress over the last five years by hanging a chart on my office wall. It contains the books (well, their covers) that I have read. So far I’m at 394 and counting.

A final reason that an emphasis on right-brain instruction is just as important as left-brain comes from research by Nicholas Negroponte of MIT. Pink cites Negroponte, who writes:

“Perspective is more important than IQ. The ability to make big leaps of thought is a common denominator among originators of breakthrough ideas. Usually this ability resides in people with very wide backgrounds, multidisciplinary minds, and a broad spectrum of experiences.”

So you see, like great portfolios, great minds are most often distinguished by diversification. But in this case, diversification comes in the form of a broad-based bed of knowledge in areas outside of your field of study or expertise, in addition to knowledge from inside it.

Our brains – both the left side and the right – have extraordinary capacities. Just make sure your children develop, and continually nurture, both halves. Doing so will allow them to become the most they can be.

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