This book review is happening now because
1. I like Dan Pink. I like his conversational writing and his gentle way of plating up insights with a dollop of fun on a platter of wonder.
2. I loved this book so much all those years back, that I did what I usually do-write in to say thanks. He wrote back and that taught me something too. I decided to put up this nice little and too-long-in-the-offing review.
3. It was a book that pushed me towards bringing a lot of my “artsy” strengths to the logic-loving workplace. So, this is a “better-late-than-never” summary of the book and a recommendation to read it.
Now, the book is by no means new. My copy says I bought it in August 2011. The book was first published in 2005. Why this is relevant now and immediate is that this was one that allowed the right brained me to meet the left brained me.
A brief history of my right-brain:
Age 5: Started learning classical dance.
Age 15: Professional dancer, per the guru-shishya parampara.
Age 9: Hailed as pottery genius in summer class.
Age 10: Stopped drawing and painting… picked it up again at age 22.
Age 10: Original fiction appeared in the school yearbook.
Age 12: Career in theatre. Silent, dancing dancing parts gave way to speaking parts.
Age 14: Mandal commission unrest induced non-activity time in school. Handwrote, bound and “published” my first non-fic piece, “Recipes for life”.
Age 16: Learnt Carnatic music to complement my dancing.
Age 19: Learnt calligraphy.
If there’s a pattern there, it’s that I am an artist, even if it’s taken me 42 years to own/ say it. Studying maths and biology in high school, studying business for my post grad… and having the aptitude to comprehend stuff and the discipline to carry through studying meant that I was expected to give the left brained options priority. I did.
When I started working, in the nascent stages of India Inc., nobody had time to soul search… just do stuff. While I have been subconsciously bringing my artisty self to work for years and infusing my work with it, that’s been entirely unconscious. This book changed that.
With that context, let’s jump in to the book:
Three forces are challenging the status quo of the Information Age
Abundance: There are more products, being hawked in more malls, than (almost) there is purchasing power. What used to be upmarket is now fairly affordable. Abundance brings beautiful things into our everyday lives. This also explains why beauty is not its own end anymore. We are not likely to get moved by a designer wastebasket. Prosperity and the ability to buy all this good stuff is not enough, it’s directing people to look for more-for purpose.
Asia: We’re it. Labour arbitrage. For the West (and for those of us logged out of India Inc.), there is a need to find a unique blend of skills for value contribution that is over and above problem solving, analysis etc. (despite this part, which leans towards the Western audience, the book is relevant. Read on to find out why)
Automation: What the Asians aren’t taking away, automation is. In fact, that’s a reality for Asians just as much. Shout “AI” or “machine learning” in a tech park in Bangalore and watch the panic. We need to look for skills and abilities that the computers haven’t yet learnt to do better than us.
In what he calls the Conceptual Age, there is a need to move away from what we have been taught in our formal education: over reliance on logic and the left brain, and include the abilities of the right brain also.
Pink shares how, in fMRI scans, you can see the left side of the brain reacts to some stuff and the right to others, thus dispelling age old myths that the left is the cooler and more developed side of the brain.
1. The left hemisphere of the brain controls the right side of the body and the right hemisphere, the left side.
2. The left hemisphere is sequential while the right is simultaneous. He poetically says “the left hemisphere is a thousand words and the right, the picture”
3. The left specialises in text and the right in context.
4. The left analyses the details and the right synthesises the big picture (there’s a difference in what and how)
In the Conceptual Age, there is a need for knowledge workers is morphing into dependence on creators, empathisers, pattern recognisers and meaning makers.
Enter stage left, Emotional Quotient. Given that IQ accounts for 4-10% of career success, the differentiator is clearly emotional intelligence. Stating the obvious was research by Daniel Goleman and the Hay Group that humour contributes significantly to leadership effectiveness.
A need to empathise more is seen in fields as diverse as medicine, where a doctor’s ability to heal is as important as his ability to understand what the patient is experiencing.
Finally, the money vs. meaning mental war. In Bangalore in the early 2000s, the brave few that logged out of corporate India to go their own quirky way were a rarity and merited much press attention paved the path for the rest of us. When I tell my current clients that I had a thriving corporate career once, they look at me askance with curiosity or with mild pity. “Nothing special”, their body language signals. It’s that common (well, at least in Bangalore it is).
Then, what are tools to deal with the Conceptual Age?
Here you have them: The Six Senses.
Sense 1: Design (the other side of function)
Look at the cult-like status of design school demigods like Tom Kelley of Ideo and The Stanford D-School… not to mention “design thinking” taking over the world. Keep in mind, this book came out in 2005. Design is a force, a differentiator and a reason for existence all its own. Any retail brand wishing to sell to you has to have a unique and visual identity that sets it apart from others… in your mailbox. That’s how pervasive design is.
Bringing design into our lives: As we grow up, we lose our artistic identity. Anyone can draw. Last week, I was at a visual note taking workshop with Christopher Malapitan and I saw 30 others in the room draw with abandon. And do a good job. Functional sketching-all of us are capable. Be conscious of the design of various valuable products in your life: that Mac machine or that iPhone, that beautiful mug for your morning coffee… what makes you attached to it?
Sense 2: Story (the other side of argument)
Stories are sticky. They have a structure that connects to our caveman part of the brain which is used to receiving valuable real life knowledge huddled around a fire for warmth.
Cut to the present: business storytelling is something every business uses. Look at any business’s Insta account-it’s a story being told. Excellent reference here to Joseph Campbell’s epic “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”, the idea of the monomyth and the deep psychological insights from it. The stories we tell about our lives are the stories we believe and the stories we write in our future. To change your future, change your story.
How to bring more story into our lives: read ’em, write ’em (even mini sagas). StoryCorps – a repository of the every person’s cultural history of America. The human library project worldwide and in Bangalore. Listen to storytellers like By the River.
Sense 3: Symphony (the other side of focus)
This is the opposite of the ability to analyse. To analyse is to prise apart a whole picture and examine component parts. Symphony is to put together pieces to make a meaningful whole. Let me give you a far-out example. In the last 6 years of working with the boys at Crankmeister, I have seen an uptake in the synthesis ability of all of them-all, already intelligent people. My pet theory: for a living, they take things apart, fix parts and put them back. Zero margin for error in any part of the process. They are able to deconstruct and reconstruct other questions and problems with the same dexterity.
This is the skill of seeing relationships, seeing the bigger picture and making metaphors.
Sense 4: Empathy (the other side of logic)
Now, we aren’t born with the ability to empathise. For most of us of a certain generation and above, it’s a skill learnt late in life. Passively fed to us through kindness, consideration, owning up own faults, apologising etc. we somehow figure out how to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. Those who do it well, are seen as warm, sensitive etc. Now, in schools, empathy is taught from as young an age as is possible. It shows in the current crop of emotionally highly aware and articulate Gen Z folk. The ability to not just identify an honest smile from a fake one… all the way to learning to “smyze”
To bring more empathy, you could baseline where you are. Volunteer time. Take acting classes.
Sense 5: Play (the other side of adulting?)
Employee engagement and annual sports meets, a significant increase in grown-ups playing sports as a strict amateur, Decathlon grounds booked in early morning and after work hours, the explosion of online games for grown-ups, game nights meaning board games more than poker, maybe. The usage of humour (I say with pride that I am a part of a whatsapp group called Pungents and we keep sharing awful puns followed by groans and gleeful laughter in equal measure)
To play more: play more! 🙂 Simple.
Sense 6: Meaning (as opposed to accumulation)
The Victor Frankl lead in to man’s search for meaning (and the book of the same name), and how at a stage of affluence or comfort of living, the spirit seeks for outlets so as to be a part of something bigger than ones own daily goals and struggles. The rise in corporate CSR is an example (if we are being idealistic. And we are). The rise in mindfulness, meditation, yoga etc. as practices that everyone from filmstars to corporate honchos swear by.
To bring more meaning: Practicing gratitude, being conscious of and taking responsibility for own happiness (one of the moments of inflection in my life was when, aged 29 and stuck in a job I hated, I was whining to my sage like brother and he said “You want to be happy? You work on it. The world doesn’t owe you any happiness”). Also, Dan Pink recommends a nice reading list comprising of Victor Frankl, Marty Seligman, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the Dalai Lama and more.
Summing up: This book spoke to me as an artist trapped inside the body of a business talking, data-driven HR person. It made me realise that there are elements of my self that are under utilised. I have a great aesthetic sense. I am a riveting storyteller. I can see the woods (and have been trained to see the trees). I have learnt to empathise and see myself better off for it. As an INFJ (more on that another time), I am clued into others shoes and often energies. I am a mental 7 year old. I unwind by playing. And I have been constantly chasing meaning.
In the intervening 8 years since I first read this book, I have made space for all these strengths, carefully nurtured by life (and parents-one of whom is a published author, another who is a sportsperson… and both so poetic that they named my brother after their favourite poet) and that has been what makes me and my work unique. I am not “Monica, whose name means unique, just like everyone else”. I am Monica, who brings her collection of unusual, often disparate skills and strengths and stands out in her ability to make connections where none exist and make meaning out of it.”