I am not a “left-brain, right-brain” fan.  I will therefore freely admit that I was prepared to dislike Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind. He predicted why in the early pages of his book: I had assumed that his thesis was that left-brain thinking was no longer useful, and that right-brain thinking would now dominate.

That is not his thesis. He instead believes that we have emphasized left-brain thinking in the West for many decades, and now thinking patterns that are associated with “right-brain thought” are going to become increasingly important to value creation.  He contemplates a shift in emphasis, not a shift in kind. I accept that, but I don’t accept the full implications of his analysis.

He states that three trends — abundance, Asia, and automation — are leading to a shift in emphasis. Abundance is leading to a proliferation of so many things that differentiation of products and services is increasingly necessary. It’s not enough to supply a toaster, since there are thousands of those. Make it a “beautiful” toaster, a meaningful toaster in some way. Furthermore, keep in mind that Asia can build or do almost anything more cheaply than we can. And finally, be mindful of the fact that automation is also, through expert systems, taking away jobs from the living and breathing.

As a result of these trends, a lot of people in the West are going to find themselves obsolete. Unless, Pink posits, they focus cultivate “six essential aptitudes” that are grounded in right-brain thinking: Design, Story, Symphony, Empathy, Play, and Meaning.

I do not intend here to describe these attributes. They are fairly well known to those who have perused the right-brain literature over the past few decades. I also don’t dispute that someone who has cultivated creativity, synthesis, meaning, and empathy is going to be a more complete person, and perhaps a better global competitor. I have spent the last decade reading about and working on success and creativity, and I believe that one will be more fulfilled, and quite possibly more “successful,” if one cultivates what we tend to call right-brain aptitudes.

No, my concern is with what may be an unstated premise in Pink’s work. Is Pink saying that if we in the West focus on these aptitudes, we will be better at those skills than those in developing countries? This seems to be his thrust — that somehow, Westerners can exploit a natural competive advantage here.  Does that really withstand scrutiny? For example, why can’t right-brain thinking tasks be outsourced to the young people Pink interviewed in India, whom he describes as doing “left-brain” tasks at such dramatically lower cost than here in the US? I could hypothesize that people who are living on subsistence wages are not going to be able to contemplate the stars and spend lazy days at the canvas, but Pink maintains that the four he interviewed earn wages that “afford[] them an upper-middle-class lifestyle with vacations and their own apartments.”

So I wonder why these four bright people, and billions others in India and China, are disabled from receiving “creative” outsourced work. After all, let’s keep in mind that much of what we now call right-brain thinking has been hallmarks of art, literature, and spirituality for centuries, and much of that art, literature, and spirituality has a longer pedigree in the East than the West (Yoga, Zen, Taoism — these are obviously not Western concepts). We were relative barbarians when the Chinese and Indians were creating wonderful things, and many dynasties rose and fell throughout Asia, including the ancient ares of what are now Iran, Iraq, and India — full of artistic blossoming — while Europeans wallowed in relative barbarism. And if right-brain tasks may be outsourced just as readily as left-brained, how can whole-mindedness be some panacea?

I don’t want to fight a straw man. Pink may simply be saying that all over the world, a mingling of left- and right-brain thought is going to be increasingly important. Americans have to get on the whole-mind bus or we will be left behind. If that is true, and I expect and believe it is, it is important to emphasize “whole-mind” thinking, which probably requires remedial right-brain work in our all-too-left-brained society. But I’m not confident that these will be the skills that, suddenly harnessed, will save American jobs.

Furthermore, it is going to take much more than Pink’s effort to reorient our thinking. There is a more basic issue that thoughtful educators have been grappling with for years. How should schools teach in a way that fosters learning instead of perhaps inhibiting it? John Holt may overstate the argument in his seminal cautionary tale, How Children Fail, but he touches on some troubling issues when he explains that schools sometimes reward conformity and passivity and penalize creativity. Too often our schools warehouse children, instead of instructing them.  Moreover, supposedly right-brain aptitudes may be even less susceptible to traditional methods of instruction than left-brain reading, writing, and ‘rythmatic. So if we’re having trouble teaching even left-brain skills, how will we teach our children whole-minded learning? I found it disappointing that Pink did not even attempt to confront this issue.

I am probably expecting too much, but I was baited. The book’s back cover, which promises that Pink not only outlines “the six fundamentally human abilities that are essential for professional success and personal fulfillment” but also “reveals how to master them,” engages perhaps in a touch of puffing. Pink introduces certain aptitudes. No more. No defense of whether or why these are the sum total of “right-brain” aptitudes, or whether they were simply six convenient ones to discuss. He falls short of revealing how to achieve mastery, and certainly provides no pedagogy.

No doubt, he introduces these aptitudes in an easy read. Perhaps that is enough. Maybe that will make a few people truly dive in and think the deep thoughts.  He certainly provides a jumping-off point for discussion of these issues here.

What do you think?  And how?