Right-brain revival

Humans tend to pick sides. Splitting everything into two groups. And see life in contrasting pairs. Good versus bad. God versus evil. East versus West. Mars versus Venus. Left versus right. Logic versus emotion. Yet, in most cases, we don’t have to pick sides. And it’s often dangerous if we do. Say, logic without emotion is cold. Emotion without logic is weepy. The yin always needs the yang. It’s the same with our brains too. Left brains need right brains and vice versa. Only by using them together turns brains into real thinking machines. Using either one leads to absurdity.

But some people are comfortable with logical, linear reasoning. A form of thinking that is functional, textual and analytic. They tend to become lawyers, accountants and engineers. The left brain directs their thinking. And has led to the Information Age that started in the 1970s. So it’s overemphasised in schools and prized by firms. Encouraging left-brain results.

Others are comfortable with intuitive, nonlinear reasoning. A form of thinking that is simultaneous, visual and aesthetic. They tend to become artists, inventors and entertainers. The right brain directs their thinking. It is underemphasised in the Information Age. So schools neglect it and firms disregard it. Undervaluing right-brain results.

It is these individual inclinations that go on to shape families, institutions and societies. While both ways are needed to form productive, fulfilling lives, there remains a tilt towards the left – our society seems to prize left-brain directed thinking.

For much of the last century, parents fed their kids with the same advice. Get good grades; go to college; and purse a profession that’ll offer a decent standard of living with some prestige. Kids who were good at maths and science were told to become doctors or engineers. Kids who were good at English and history were told to become lawyers. Kids who were slack on verbal skills were told be become accountants. As computers arrived, kids were told to take up high tech. The rest flocked to business schools, finishing with MBAs. Lawyers, doctors, accountants, engineers and executives were, as put by the father of management, Peter Drucker, classified as ‘knowledge workers’. For Drucker, these people were simply paid for putting to work what they learnt in school rather than for their skills. What set this group apart was their ability to grasp and apply theories. They excelled at left-brain directed thinking. Entrance exams for such professions measure what is essentially undiluted left-brain directed thinking. These are filled with linear, sequential exercises that are bounded by time. With rewards based on logic and single correct answers. Most developing countries are producing plenty of such left-brained knowledge workers.

So, twentysomethings in developing countries are doing what was, until recently, mostly done in the United States. They are doing them just as well; if not better, and just as fast; if not faster, for the wages of a typical McDonald’s worker. This includes software and operations work for everything from banks to airlines. Half of Nokia, Sony and GE’s software is developed in India. Seems feasible for a country producing half a million engineering graduates in a year. Number crunching work for financial firms like Lehman Brothers, Morgan Stanley and JP Morgan Chase are done by Indian MBAs. Most low-level editorial work for Reuters is done there too. This is difficult news for the white-collared, left-brained worker of the developed world. Also, machines proved that they could replace human backs in the last century. While technology is proving it can replace human left brains in this century. So any job that can be reduced to a set of rules, or a set of repeatable tasks, is at a risk.

For much of history, our lives were defined by scarcity. Today it’s not scarcity, but abundance. Abundance defines our social, economic and cultural lives. It has lifted our standard of living to remarkable levels. It has made us rich. But left-brained thinking has also produced an ironic result in its triumph. It has lessened its own significance. While placing a premium on less rational and more right-brain sensibilities. Such as beauty, spirituality and emotion. We no longer create products purely on price or function. We create them on meaning and beauty. This has led to a new middle class-obsession with design.

Abundance has brought beautiful things to our lives. But material goods haven’t made us any happier. This is the essence of the paradox of prosperity. Which is why more people, free from prosperity but not fulfilled by it, are searching for meaning instead. As social critic Andrew Delbanco puts it, the most striking feature of contemporary culture is the unslaked craving for transcendence. It is this craving that’s made yoga mainstream business. Just as books on meditation and spirituality are too. Meaning and purpose in life is now more crucial than ever.

We’ve progressed from a society of farmers to a society of factory workers to a society of knowledge workers. Now, we’re progressing yet again, as put by Daniel Pink in A Whole New Mind, into a society of creators and empathisers, of pattern recognisers and meaning makers. In other words, we’ve moved from an economy built of people’s backs to an economy built on people’s left brains to an economy built more on people’s right brains.

Columbia University’s medical students are being trained in narrative medicine. For it turns out that a patient’s story could sometimes tell more than diagnostics. Yale’s medical students are learning the art of observation from their art school. For it turns out that painting helps pick subtle details of a patient’s condition. Japan tops the world’s scores in maths and science. Yet it’s recreating its education system to foster greater creativity, artistry and play. Which is why Japan’s most lucrative export isn’t automobile or electronics today, but pop culture.

Asia has turned MBA graduates into this century’s blue-collar workers – people who entered the work force with great promise, only to see their jobs move overseas. While corporate recruiters are now looking to art schools for talent. America’s art and design industry now employs more people than in law or accounting. Global giants like Unilever employ painters and poets to inspire the rest of their staff.

In a world tossed by abundance, Asia and automation, as identified by Pink, left-brain directed thinking remains necessary but no longer sufficient. We must become more proficient in right-brain directed thinking and its aptitudes. Just as the factory workers of the Industrial Revolution learnt to bend pixels instead of steel, today’s knowledge workers need to command a new set of aptitudes. They’ll need to do what workers abroad can’t do equally well for much less money. This means using right-brain aptitudes to forge relationships rather than execute transactions. Applying aptitudes like empathy, design and play over logic and function. Tackling novel challenges instead of solving routine problems. Synthesising the big picture rather than analysing a single component.

Back in the savannah, our ancestors weren’t plugging numbers into spreadsheets. They were telling stories, putting play into seriousness, showing empathy, designing innovations and doing things with purpose. It is these abilities that have defined what it means to be human. These are fundamental human attributes. But after a few years in the Information Age, these muscles have shrunk. It’s time to work them back into shape. For right-brain directed thinking, once disdained for its artistry, empathy and longer view, is what decides who gets ahead now.

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