Daniel Pink: Why Your Human Capital May Be in Jeopardy

Last Updated Jun 16, 2009 3:32 PM EDT

Workplace expert Daniel Pink


As a Yale Law School graduate, former political speechwriter,
and best-selling author, Daniel Pink clearly has a wealth of what are
traditionally thought of as left-brain skills — analysis, logic, and
language ability. But as he argues in his recent book, A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, Pink actually thinks the future will be dominated by those
with right-brain skills — people who can see the big picture and
empathize, tell stories, and create things. Here he discusses why the world is
shifting away from the "Information Economy" to what he
calls the "Conceptual Economy," what skills will be most
valued as a result, and how you can learn them.

In your book, you claim that traditional left-brain approaches to careers are no longer
sufficient. Why?


They’re necessary, but they’re not
sufficient because some of those sorts of abilities that are routine can be
outsourced or automated. The key phrase here is “abilities that are
routine” — abilities that you can reduce to a script or
formula. Those kinds of things can now be done cheaper overseas. This includes certain
types of accounting, financial analysis, programming, and even certain kinds of
law.


To be clear, I think the amount of outsourcing that will
occur is overstated in the short run, but understated in the long run. It’s
just arithmetic. You have a country like India, and let’s say 15
percent of the people there become college educated and so can compete in the
global labor market. Sine India has a billion people, 15 percent is a 150
million people! That’s more than the total number of workers in this
country. And next year India will be the largest English-speaking country in
the world. And it’s connected to North America for free. Right now,
in the midst of our phone conversation, I can fire up Skype and call somebody
in India for free.


So you’ve got huge numbers of talented, often
college-educated folks who speak perfect English that are connected to North
America for free. And that’s just India. I haven’t said
anything about Malaysia, China, the Philippines, or Vietnam. And this is all
left-brain work. In the 20th century, we began outsourcing physical
labor. Now we’re outsourcing intellectual labor, but intellectual
labor that is rule-based, routine, algorithmic, left-brain work.


So those white-collar jobs are being commoditized?


It’s not so much that those jobs are being
commoditized but that many of the functions of those jobs are being
commoditized. For instance, certain functions in accounting are commoditizable.
You could send a basic tax return to India, and the person could look it over,
audit it, and add up the numbers very easily and for a lot less than paying
someone to do it here.


So what should accountants in the U.S. do to differentiate themselves?


You have to have good big-picture skills. Be able to see
the totality of the picture, not just the narrow arithmetic of a particular
accounting equation. Functions within the accounting profession that are about
looking at complicated family finances and figuring out the best strategy —
that’s harder to outsource because it’s not routine. And
part of this is you have to have a great degree of empathy to understand where
somebody else is coming from. I see that trait a lot among successful financial
planners.


And it’s not just the number-crunching
professions. Medical schools, for example, are doing some very interesting
things. Jefferson Medical College created something called the Jefferson Scale
of Physician Empathy, and they found that high scores on this empathy index
correlate to better patient outcomes. That’s why almost every medical
school in North America is teaching clinical empathy by focusing on
role-playing, listening skills, reading facial expressions, and learning how to
ask questions that are a little more open-ended and less directed. This is why
you also have a move toward “narrative medicine,” which is
about listening to a patient’s story.


So doctors should watch more episodes of 'House' then?


[Laughs] Actually, I have to admit I don’t
watch House, but I hear that guy, for all of his weirdness, is a pretty
right-brain guy. He’s who you go to for a diagnosis that is not
routine. Of course, doctors have to have that ability to make routine
diagnoses. Certain kinds of diagnoses are decision trees: yes-no questions that
branch off to other yes-no questions. But the tougher kinds of diagnoses are
ones that elude that kind of routinization.


How do I use these narrative skills if I’m a manager in a
corporation?


If you’re in a leadership role, leadership is
often about telling a compelling story and listening to other people’s
stories. Really understanding the folks who are working for you and what their
lives are about calls for exquisite listening skills — not just
listening for the facts but for the context. Another way to apply them is in
knowledge management. With consulting firms or professional-services firms, in
many ways the knowledge they have is essentially the collection of stories of
various projects. So you have some companies who are systematically collecting
those stories into a larger knowledge-management system.


Such as?


Xerox is doing this. Each time their people go out to
repair a copier, they have to quickly type up a one-paragraph story of what
happened. They put this in a giant knowledge-management system and tag them,
and this accumulation of stories ends up being this incredible database of
knowledge. Stories are a more effective way for people to recall that knowledge
than reading a manual.


Given the growing value of right-brain thinking, are there industries or
jobs that people should be focusing on if they’re entering
the workforce now or making a change?


I’m not sure that I would advise anybody to go
into an industry for that particular reason. I would never want to say to
somebody, “You should go into design,” because if they don’t
have any interest in design, they’re going to be crappy designers.
People should do what they love to do and what they’re good at, but
also recognize that they have to be able to do stuff that’s hard to
outsource and automate. Think about your set of abilities and decide if any one
of these abilities is vulnerable. For instance, if one of your great abilities
is doing arithmetic in your head, that’s not that useful now. It hasn’t
been useful for 30 years.


You cite a very
predictive test that, in part, rates one’s humor by asking people to
write captions to 'New Yorker' cartoons. So should we work more on
our caption writing?


Yes, you should. When you write a caption for a cartoon,
there’s no right answer. That’s one of the things that
makes it challenging. Whereas, if I ask you the square root of 144 plus the
square root of 81, there’s only one answer. And there’s a
way to do it. You can show your work. With a cartoon caption, you don’t
follow a set path to an answer; there’s no algorithm. And that makes
it challenging.


If you think about good colleges, it’s less
about multiple-choice tests and more “Write a paper about the causes
of World War I,” or “How is the newspaper industry
portrayed in Dickens’ novels?” There’s no right
answer to that or no single way to do it. That kind of nonalgorithmic thinking
is valuable. For example, when I started my research, I found that a lot of
really talented people in business had a degree in fine arts, which really surprised
me.

  • Edmund Lee

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