Aptitudes for the Conceptual Age


Speeding Up Cancer Research With Citizen Science ~ Big data is a potential “goldmine” for biomedical research, but handling terabytes and petabytes of material can be a huge challenge. As Tim Thorne, innovation director at Cancer Research UK, puts it: “The problem is not getting the data. It’s the time it takes to analyze it, and interpret it. via FastCo.Exist, published November 5, 2012.

How Xerox Uses Analytics, Big Data and Ethnography To Help Government Solve “Big Problems” ~  There are things that we can certainly accomplish with our algorithms and Big Data alone. We can look at the data and see trends that we would not otherwise see. Ethnography is a strong counterpart to looking at the data a certain way and drawing conclusions from it. We can confirm that we’re working on the right problem, that we haven’t missed something and that our interpretations are correct.Ethnography helps us confirm those factors and that we’re seeing the bigger picture that includes human interaction.via Forbes, published October 22, 2012.

Our Storytelling Minds: Do We Ever Really Know What’s Going on Inside ~ On hemispheric connectivity in our brains and our inherent need for storytelling.  via The Creativity Post, published September 16, 2012.

The Secrets of Generation Flux ~ How brilliantly managed chaos sparks success inside Nike, Box, Cisco, Foursquare, Intuit, and more. via Fast Company, published October 15, 2012.

Data Is Useless Without the Skills to Analyze It ~ Jeanne Harris on how the advent of the big data era means that analyzing large, messy, unstructured data is going to increasingly form part of everyone’s work. Managers and business analysts will often be called upon to conduct data-driven experiments, to interpret data, and to create innovative data-based products and services. To thrive in this world, many will require additional skills. Published September 13, 2012 via Harvard Business Review.

Big Data’s Human Component ~ Machines don’t make the essential and important connections among data and they don’t create information. Humans do. Tools have the power to make work easier and solve problems. A tool is an enabler, facilitator, accelerator and magnifier of human capability, not its replacement or surrogate — though artificial intelligence engines like Watson and WolframAlpha (or more likely their descendants) might someday change that. That’s what the software architect Grady Booch had in mind when he uttered that famous phrase: “A fool with a tool is still a fool.” We often forget about the human component in the excitement over data tools. Consider how we talk about Big Data. We forget that it is not about the data; it is about our customers having a deep, engaging, insightful, meaningful conversation with us — if we only learn how to listen. So while money will be invested in software tools and hardware, let me suggest the human investment is more important. By Jim Stikeleather, published September 17, 2012 via Harvard Business Review.

In Mental Exercise, Variety Matters ~ Alan Jacobs makes the claim that ‘Only by embracing a wide range of intellectual challenges can we help our minds to be all they should, and can, be.” providing further evidence of the complex and nuanced interplay between our brains’ left and right hemispheres involved in a range of cognitive functions. via The Atlantic, published September 24, 2012.

6 Projects Harnessing Data To Do Good ~On the ideas that make the large amounts of information produced each day available, understandable and actionable. Data is nothing without the human component, Fast Company highlights six companies making data accessible to that crucial human touch. via FastCo.Exist, published September 21, 2012.

Measure Creativity & Ethical Judgement Now! Robert Sternberg on Assessment ~ Sternberg’s call to collectively rethink…* the skills and knowledge that we assess and value in our education system. Sternberg urges us to develop and test more ‘right’ brain aptitudes such as creativity and empathy. via 21K12, published September 20, 2012.

Why We Should Teach Empathy to Improve Education (and Test Scores) ~ Psychologists, neuroscientists, economists, and educators have envisioned a new direction for education emphasizing on a different set of qualities, that are—for a lack of a better term—“non-cognitive skills.” In other words: soft skills or social skills. It’s empathy. Empathy can help reduce the damaging effects of repeated stress in human children—like it did for the rat pups in the McGill University laboratory—which seems to suggest that empathy has tremendous implications for achievement, both socially and intellectually. Empathy isn’t just something for youth, either. It’s a skill that can transform a community and build social capital. via Forbes, published September 26, 2012.

Human Irrationality is a Fact, not a Fad ~ In between the absurd extremes of Perfect Rationality and and Perfect Irrationality (which nobody believes in anyway) are important questions, all of them still open, and none simple: When is Reason actually engaged? How can we tell? What rules do we follow instead of logic? And, most importantly, what do we mean by “thinking straight”? via Big Think, published June 15, 2012



Daniel Pink: The Puzzle of Motivation ~ Career analyst Dan Pink examines the puzzle of motivation, starting with a fact that social scientists know but most manager’s don’t: Traditional rewards aren’t always as effective as we think. Listen for illuminating stories–and maybe, a way forward. via TEDGlobal 2009, August.

These contingent motivators–if you do this, then you get that–work in some circumstances. But for a lot of tasks, they actually either don’t work or, often, they do harm. This is one of the most robust findings in social science, and also one of the most ignored.

I spent the last couple of years looking at the science of human motivation, particularly the dynamics of extrinsic motivators and intrinsic motivators. And I’m telling you, it’s not even close. If you look at the science, there is a mismatch between what science knows and what business does. And what’s alarming here is that our business operating system — think of the set of assumptions and protocols beneath our businesses, how we motivate people, how we apply our human resources — it’s built entirely around these extrinsic motivators, around carrots and sticks. That’s actually fine for many kinds of 20th century tasks. But for 21st century tasks, that mechanistic, reward-and-punishment approach doesn’t work, often doesn’t work, and often does harm.

If-Then rewards work really well for those sorts of tasks, where there is a simple set of rules and a clear destination to go to. Rewards, by their very nature, narrow our focus, concentrate the mind; that’s why they work in so many cases. And so, for tasks like this, a narrow focus, where you just see the goal right there, zoom straight ahead to it, they work really well. But for the real candle problem, you don’t want to be looking like this. The solution is not over here. The solution is on the periphery. You want to be looking around. That reward actually narrows our focus and restricts our possibility.

That routine, rule-based, left-brain work — certain kinds of accounting, certain kinds of financial analysis, certain kinds of computer programming — has become fairly easy to outsource, fairly easy to automate. Software can do it faster. Low-cost providers around the world can do it cheaper. So what really matters are the more right-brained creative, conceptual kinds of abilities.

There is a mismatch between what science knows and what business does. And what worries me, as we stand here in the rubble of the economic collapse, is that too many organizations are making their decisions, their policies about talent and people, based on assumptions that are outdated, unexamined, and rooted more in folklore than in science. And if we really want to get out of this economic mess, and if we really want high performance on those definitional tasks of the 21st century, the solution is not to do more of the wrong things, to entice people with a sweeter carrot, or threaten them with a sharper stick. We need a whole new approach.

And to my mind, that new operating system for our businesses revolves around three elements: autonomy, mastery and purpose. Autonomy: the urge to direct our own lives. Mastery: the desire to get better and better at something that matters. Purpose: the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves. These are the building blocks of an entirely new operating system for our businesses.

Traditional notions of management are great if you want compliance. But if you want engagement, self-direction works better.

And here is what science knows. One: Those 20th century rewards, those motivators we think are a natural part of business, do work, but only in a surprisingly narrow band of circumstances. Two: Those if-then rewards often destroy creativity. Three: The secret to high performance isn’t rewards and punishments, but that unseen intrinsic drive — the drive to do things for their own sake. The drive to do things cause they matter.

Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us ~ Rethinking motivation and management techniques for the Conceptual Age. This lively RSA Animate, adapted from Dan Pink’s talk at the RSA, illustrates the hidden truths behind what really motivates us at home and in the workplace. via RSA Animate, April 2010

On Productive Play ~ Educators talk about how the Imagination Playground encourages children’s growth through play. via Imagination Playground, published September 6, 2012.

The Divided Brain ~  Great overview of hemispheric connectivity in the brain. In this RSAnimate, renowned psychiatrist and writer Iain McGilchrist explains how our ‘divided brain’ has profoundly altered human behaviour, culture and society. Taken from a lecture given by Iain McGilchrist as part of the RSA’s free public events programme.via RSA Animate, published October 24, 2011.

The Emphatic Civilization ~ Bestselling author, political adviser, social and ethical prophet Jeremy Rifkin investigates the evolution of this core Conceptual Age aptitude, and imagines what the next evolutionary iteration of empathy might look like. (Hint: A single race writ large in a single biosphere). via RSA Animate, published May 10, 2010.

On the Art of the Metaphor ~ How do metaphors help us better understand the world? And, what makes a good metaphor? Explore these questions with writers like Langston Hughes and Carl Sandburg, who have mastered the art of bringing a scene or emotion to life. via TED ED.




Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principle of Screenwriting by Robert McKee

Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud

The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell


Beethoven’s Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture by William Benzon

Powers of Ten by Charles and Ray Eames

Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson

No Waste (a project by Laboratorio De Creacion Madeojo)

How to See: A Guide to Reading Our Man-Made Environment by George Nelson.


Emotions Revealed by Paul Ekman

Telling Lies: Clues to Deceit in the Marketplace, Politics and Marriage by Paul Ekman


The Naked Cartoonist: A New Way to Enhance Your Creativity by Robert Mankoff

Laughter: A Scientific Investigation by Robert Provine


Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment  by Martin E.P. Seligman

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihalyi Csikzentmihalyi

What Should I do with My Life?: The True Story of People who Answered the Ultimate Question by Po Bronson

Mindfulness by Ellen Langer

The Art of Happiness by HIs Holiness the Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler




Startups: This is How Design Works ~ A guide for non-designers by Wells Riley. Companies like Apple are making design impossible for startups to ignore. Startups like PathAirbnbSquare, and Massive Health have design at the core of their business, and they’re doing phenomenal work. But what is ‘design’ actually? Is it a logo? A WordPress theme? An innovative UI? It’s so much more than that. It’s a state of mind. It’s an approach to a problem. It’s how you’re going to kick your competitor’s ass. This handy guide will help you understand design and provide resources to help you find awesome design talent.


Invention at Play ~ Learn about the importance of play at the Lemelson Center’s Invention at Playexhibit.

The Art and Science of Play ~ Some people seem born to play. In fact, the urge to play drives just about everything they do.  And in some cases, it ends up linking multiple interests and endeavors across the arts and sciences into one large network of creative enterprise. Among these people count Desmond Morris, artist, scientist and science writer. via The Creativity Post, June 27, 2012


RETHINKED*ANNEX POSTS ON APTITUDES FOR THE CONCEPTUAL AGE Contextualizing the Three rethinked*annex Disciplines: Integrative Thinking, Design Thinking and Positive Psychology



Source: Pink, Daniel. A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future. New York: Riverhead Books, 2005. Print.


The last few decades have belonged to a certain kind of person with a certain kind of mind–computer programmers who could crank code, lawyers who could craft contracts, MBAs who could crunch numbers. The future belongs to a very different kind of person with a very different kind of mind–creators and empathizers, pattern recognizers, and meaning makers. These people–artists, inventors, designers, storytellers, caregivers, consolers, big picture thinkers–will now reap society’s richest regards and share its greatest joys. 1

We are moving from an economy and a society built on the logical, linear, computer-like capabilities of the Information Age to an economy and a society built on the inventive, emphatic, big-picture capabilities of what’s rising in its place, the Conceptual Age. 2

For nearly a century, Western society in general, and American society in particular, has been dominated by a form of thinking and an approach to life that is narrowly reductive and deeply analytical. Ours has been the age of the “knowledge worker,” the well-educated manipulator of information and deployer of expertise. But that is changing. Thanks to an array of forces—material abundance that is shipping white-collar works overseas, and powerful technologies that are eliminating certain kinds of work altogether–we are entering a new age. It is an age animated by a different form of thinking and a new approach to life–one that prizes aptitudes that I call ‘high concept” and high touch.” 2

High concept involves the capacity to detect patterns and opportunities, to create artistic and emotional beauty, to craft a satisfying narrative, and to combine seemingly unrelated ideas into something new. High touch involves the ability to empathize with others, to understand the subtleties of human interaction, to find joy in one’s self and to elicit it in others, and to stretch beyond the quotidian in pursuit of purpose and meaning. 3

As it happens, there’s something that encapsulates the change I’m describing–and it’s right inside your head. Our brains are divided into two hemispheres. The left hemisphere is sequential, logical, and analytical. The right hemisphere is nonlinear, intuitive, and holistic. These distinctions have often been caricatured. And, of course, we enlist both halves of our brains for even the simplest tasks. but the well-established differences between the two hemispheres of the brain yield a powerful metaphor for interpreting our present and guiding our future. Today, the defining skills of the previous era—the “left brain” capabilities that powered the Information Age–are necessary but no longer sufficient. And the capabilities we once disdained or thought frivolous–the “right-brain” qualities of inventiveness, empathy, joyfulness, and meaning–increasingly will determine who flourishes and who flounders. For individuals, families, and organizations, professional success and personal fulfillment now require a whole new mind. 3


Right brain rising 


With more than three decades of research on the brain’s hemispheres, it’s possible to distill the findings to four key differences:

1. The left hemisphere controls the right side of the body; the right hemisphere controls the left side of the body. 17

Our brains are “contralateral“–that is, each half of the brain controls the opposite half of the body. 18

In Western languages, reading and writing involve turning from left to right, and therefore exercise the brain’s left hemisphere. Written language, invented by the Greeks around 550 B.C.E., has helped reinforce left hemisphere dominance (at least in the West) and created what Harvard classicist Eric Havelock called “the alphabetic mind.” So perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that the left hemisphere has dominated the game. 18

2. The left hemisphere is sequential; the right hemisphere is simultaneous.18

Consider another dimension of the alphabetic mind: it processes sounds and symbols in sequence. When you read this sentence, you begin with the “when,” move on to the “you,” and decode every letter, every syllable, every word in progression. This too, is an ability at which your brain’s left hemisphere excels. In the sequential words of one neuroscience textbook:

[T]he left hemisphere [is] particularly good at recognizing serial events–events whose elements occur one after the other–and controlling sequences of behavior. The left hemisphere is also involved in controlling serial behaviors. The serial functions performed by the left hemisphere include verbal activities, such as talking, understanding the speech of other people, reading and writing. 19

By contrast, the right hemisphere doesn’t march in the single-file formation of A-B-C-D-E. Its special talent is the ability to interpret things simultaneously. This side of our brains is “specialized in seeing many things at once: in seeing all the parts of a geometric shape and grasping its form, or in seeing all the elements of a situation and understanding what they mean.” This makes the right hemisphere particularly useful in interpreting faces. And it confers on human beings a comparative advantage over computers. For instance, the iMac computer on which I’m typing this sentence can perform a million calculations per second, far more than the fastest left hemisphere on the planet. But even the most powerful computers in the world can’t recognize a face with anywhere close to the speed and accuracy of my toddler son. Think of the sequential/simultaneous difference like this: the right hemisphere is the picture; the left hemisphere is the thousand words. 19

3. The left hemisphere specializes in text; the right hemisphere specializes in context. 20

In most people, language originates in the left hemisphere. (This is true of about 95 percent of right-handers and 70 percent of left-handers. In the rest–about 8% of the population–the division of linguistic labor is more complicated.) But the right hemisphere doesn’t cede full responsibility to the left. Instead the two sides carry out complementary functions. 20

To oversimplify just a bit, the left hemisphere handles what is said; the right hemisphere focuses on how it’s said–the nonverbal, often emotional cues delivered through the gaze, facial expression, and intonation. 21

But the distinction between left and right comprises more than the difference between verbal and nonverbal. The text/context distinction, originally put forward by Robert Ornstein, applies more broadly. For instance, certain written languages depend heavily on context. Languages such as Arabic and Hebrew are often written only in consonants, which means the reader must figure out what the vowel is by the surrounding concepts and ideas. 21

Neither side of the brain …can do the job without the other,” Ornstein writes. “We need the text of our lives to be in context.” 22

4. The left hemisphere analyzes the details; the right hemisphere synthesizes the big picture. 22

“In general the left hemisphere participates in the analysis of information” says a neuroscience primer. “In contrast, the right hemisphere is specialized for synthesis; it is particularly good at putting isolated elements together to perceive things as a whole.” Analysis and synthesis are perhaps the two most fundamental ways of interpreting information. You can break the whole into its components. Or you can weave the components into a whole. Both are essential to human reasoning. But they are guided by different parts of the brain. Roger Sperry noted this key difference in a paper he wrote (with Jerre Levy-Agresti) in 1968:

The data indicates that the mute, minor [right] hemisphere is specialized for Gestalt perception, being primarily a synthesist in dealing with information input. The speaking, major hemisphere, in contrast, seems to operate in a more logical, analytic computer-life fashion. Its language is inadequate for the rapid complex syntheses achieved by the minor hemisphere. 23

The left converges on a single answer; the right diverges into a Gestalt. The left focuses on categories, the right on relationships. The left can grasp the details. But only the right can see the big picture. 23

[…] leading a healthy, happy, successful life depends on both hemispheres of your brain. But the contrast in how our cerebral hemispheres operate does yield a powerful metaphor for how individuals and organizations navigate their lives. Some people seem more comfortable with logical, sequential, computer-like reasoning. They tend to become lawyers, accountants and engineers. Other people are more comfortable with holistic, intuitive, and nonlinear reasoning. They tend to become inventors, entertainers and counselors. And these individual inclinations go on to shape families, institutions and societies. 26

Call the first approach L-Directed Thinking. It is a form of thinking and an attitude to life that is characteristic of the left hemisphere of the brain–sequential, literal, functional, textual and analytic.  Ascendant in the Information Age, exemplified by computer programmers, prized by hardheaded organizations, and emphasized in schools, this approach is directed by left-brain attributes, toward left-brain results. Call the other approach R-Directed Thinking. It is a form of thinking and an attitude to life that is characteristic of the right hemisphere of the brain—simultaneous, metaphorical, aesthetic, contextual and synthetic. Underemphasized in the Information Age, exemplified by creators and caregivers, shortchanged by organizations, and neglected in schools, this approach is directed by right-brain attributes, toward right-brain results. 26 *

*Because very few things human beings do are governed exclusively by one hemisphere or the other, I’ve chosen the terms “L-Directed” and “R-Directed” instead of the more convenient “left-brain thinking” and “right-brain thinking.” This is not a book about neuroscience, of course. It’s a book that uses neuroscience to create a metaphor. But even (perhaps especially) in the realm of metaphor, it’s important to be true to the science. 26 

Of course, we need both approaches in order to craft fulfilling lives and build productive, just societies. But the mere fact that I feel obliged to underscore that obvious point is perhaps further indication of how much we’ve been in the thrall of reductionist, binary thinking. Despite those who have deified the right brain beyond all scientific evidence, there remains a strong tilt toward the left. Our broader culture tends to prize L-Directed thinking more highly than its counterpart, taking this approach more seriously and viewing the alternative as useful but secondary. 27

But this is changing–and it will dramatically reshape our lives. Left-brain-style thinking used to be the driver and right-brain-style thinking was the passenger. Now, R-Directed Thinking is suddenly grabbing the wheel, stepping on the gas, and determining where we’re going and how we’ll get there. L-Directed aptitudes–the sorts of things measured by the SAT and deployed by CPAs–are still necessary. But they’re no longer sufficient. Instead, the R-Directed aptitudes so often disdained and dismissed–artistry, empathy, taking the long view, pursuing the transcendent–will increasingly determine who soars and who stumbles. 27




Lawyers, doctors, accountants, engineers, and executives. The great Peter Drucker gave this cadre of professional an enduring, if somewhat wonky, name: “knowledge workers.” Knowledge workers are “people who get paid for putting to work what one learns in school rather than for their physical strength or manual skill,” Drucker wrote. What distinguished this group from the rest of the workforce was their “ability to acquire and to apply theoretical and analytic knowledge.” (In other words, they excelled at L-Directed Thinking.) They might never become a majority, said Drucker, but they nonetheless “will give the emerging knowledge society its character, its leadership, its social profile.” 29

Knowledge workers and their thinking style have indeed shaped the character, leadership and social profiles of the modern age. Consider the tollbooths than any middle-class American must pass on his way to the land of knowledge work. Here are some examples: the PSAT, the SAT, the GMAT, the LSAT, the MCAT. Notice any similarity beyond the final two initials? These instruments all measure what is essentially undiluted L-Directed Thinking. They require logic and analysis–and reward test-takers for zeroing-in, computer-like, on a single correct answer. The exercise is linear, sequential and bounded by time. You answer one question with one right answer. Then you move to the next question and the next and the next until time runs out. These tests have become important gatekeepers for entry into meritocratic, middle-class society. They’ve created and SAT-ocracy–a regime in which access to the good life depends on the ability to reason logically, sequentially, and speedily. And this is not just an American phenomenon. From entrance exams in the United Kingdom to cram schools in Japan, most developed nations have devoted considerable time and treasure to producing left-brained knowledge workers. 29

This arrangement has been a rousing success. It has broken the stranglehold of aristocratic privilege and opened education and professional opportunities to a diverse set of people. It has propelled the world economy and lifted living standards. But the SAT-ocracy is now in its dying days. The L-Directed Thinking it nurtures and rewards still matters, of course. But it’s no longer enough. Today, we’re moving into an era in which R-Directed Thinking will increasingly determine who gets ahead. 30

To persuade you that what I’m saying is sound, let me explain the reasons for this shift using the left-brain, mechanistic language of cause and effect. The effect: the diminished relative importance of L-Directed Thinking and the corresponding increased importance of R-Directed Thinking. The causes: Abundance, Asia, and Automation. 30




For most of history, our lives were defined by scarcity. Today, the defining feature of social, economic, and cultural life in much of the world is abundance. 32

But abundance has produced an ironic result: the very triumph of L-Directed Thinking has lessened its significance. The prosperity it has unleashed has placed a premium on less rational, more R-Directed sensibilities–beauty, spirituality, emotion. For businesses, it’s no longer enough to create a product that’s reasonably priced and adequately functional. It must also be beautiful, unique and meaningful, abiding what author Virginia Postrel calls “the aesthetic imperative.” Perhaps the most telling example of this change, as our family outing to Target demonstrated, is the new middle-class obsession with design. World-famous designers such as the ones I mentioned earlier, as well as titans such as Karim Rashid and Philippe Starck, now design all manner of goods for this quintessentially middle-class, middle-brow, middle-American store. Target and other retailers have sold nearly three million units of Rashid’s Garbo molded polypropylene wastebasket. A designer wastebasket! Try explaining that one to your left brain. 33

In an age of abundance, appealing only to rational, logical, and functional needs is woefully insufficient. Engineers must figure out how to get things to work. But if those things are not also pleasing to the eye or compelling to the soul, few will buy them. There are too many other options. Mastery of design, empathy, play, and other seemingly “soft” aptitudes is now the main way for individuals and firms to stand out in a crowded marketplace. 34

Abundance has brought beautiful things to our lives, but that bevy of material goods has not necessarily made us much happier. The paradox of prosperity is that while living standards have risen steadily decade after decade, personal, family, and life satisfaction haven’t budged. That’s why more people–liberated by prosperity but not fulfilled by it–are resolving the paradox by searching for meaning. As Columbia University’s Andrew Delbanco puts it, “The most striking feature of contemporary culture is the unslaked craving for transcendence.” 35

Visit any moderately prosperous community in the advanced world and along with the plenteous shopping opportunities, you can glimpse this quest for transcendence in action. From the mainstream embrace of once-exotic practices such as yoga and meditation to the rise of spirituality in the workplace and evangelical themes in books and movies, the pursuit of purpose and meaning has become and integral part of our lives. People everywhere have moved from focusing on the day-to-day text of their lives to the broader context. Of course, material wealth hasn’t reached everyone in the developed world, not to mention vast numbers in the less developed world. But abundance has freed literally hundreds of millions of people from the struggle for survival and, as Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert William Fogel writes, “made it possible to extend the quest for self-realization from a minute fraction of the population to almost the whole of it.” 35




Outsourcing is overhyped in the short term. But it’s under-hyped in the long term. As the cost of communicating with the other side of the globe falls essentially to zero, and as developing nations continue to mint millions of extremely capable knowledge workers, the working lives of North Americans, Europeans and Japanese people will change dramatically. If standardized, routine L-Directed work such as many kinds of financial analysis, radiology, and computer programming can be done for a lot less overseas and delivered to clients instantly via fiber optic links, that’s where the work will go. This upheaval will be difficult for many, but it’s ultimately not much different from transitions we’ve weathered before. This is precisely what happened to routine mass production jobs, which moved across the oceans in the second half of the twentieth century. And just as those factory workers had to master a new set of skills and learn how to bend pixels instead of steel, many of today’s knowledge workers will likewise have to command a new set of aptitudes. They’ll need to do what workers abroad cannot do equally well for much less money–using R-Directed abilities such as forging relationships rather than executing transactions, tackling novel challenges instead of solving routine problems, and synthesizing the big picture rather than analyzing a single component. 40




Human beings have much to recommend, but when it comes to chess–and increasingly other endeavors that depend heavily on rule-based logic, calculation, and sequential thinking–computers are simply better, faster, and stronger. What’s more, computers don’t fatigue. They don’t get headaches. They don’t choke under pressure or sulk over losses. They don’t worry what the audience thinks or care what the press will say. They don’t space out. They don’t slip up. And that has humbled even the notoriously egomaniacal grand master. In 1987, Kasparov, then the chess world’s enfant terrible, boasted: “No computer can ever beat me.” Today, Kasparov, now our modern John Henry, says: “I give us only a few years. Then they’ll win every match, and we may have to struggle to win even a single game.” 44

Last century, machines proved they could replace human backs. This century, new technologies are proving they can replace human left brains. Management meta-guru Tom Peters puts it nicely saying that for white-collar workers “software is a forklift for the mind.” It won’t eliminate every left-brain job. But it will destroy many and reshape the rest. Any job that depends on routines–that can be reduced to a set of rules, or broken down into a set of repeatable steps–is at risk. If a $500-a-month Indian chartered accountant doesn’t swipe your comfortable accounting job, Turbo-Tax will. 44

To recap, three forces are tilting the scales in favor of R-Directed Thinking. Abundance has satisfied, and even over satisfied, the material needs of millions–boosting the significance of beauty and emotion and accelerating individuals’ search for meaning. Asia is now performing large amounts of routine, white-collar, L-Directed work at significantly lower costs, thereby forcing knowledge workers in the advanced world to master abilities that can’t be shipped overseas. And automation has begun to affect this generation’s white-collar workers in much the same way it did last generation’s blue-collar workers, requiring L-Directed professionals to develop aptitudes that computers can’t do better, faster, or cheaper. 47



Think of the last 150 years as a three-act drama.

  1. In Act I, the Industrial Age, massive factories and efficient assembly lines powered the economy. The lead character of this act was the mass production worker, whose cardinal traits were physical strength and personal fortitude.
  2. In Act II, the Information Age, the United States and other nations began to evolve. Mass production faded into the background, while information and knowledge fueled the economies of the developed world. The central figure in this act was the knowledge worker, whose defining characteristic was proficiency, L-Directed Thinking.
  3. Now, as the forces of Abundance, Asia, and Automation deepen and intensify, the curtain is rising on Act III. Call this act the Conceptual Age. The main characters now are the creator and the empathizer, whose distinctive ability is mastery of R-Directed Thinking. 48-49

As individuals grow richer, as technologies become more powerful and as the world grows more connected, these three forces [AffluenceTechnology, and Globalization] eventually gather enough collective momentum to nudge us into a new era. That is how, over time, we moved from the Agriculture Age to the Industrial Age to the Information Age to the Conceptual Age once again fed by affluence (the abundance that characterizes Western life), technological progress (the automation of several kinds of white-collar work), and globalization (certain types of knowledge work moving to Asia). 50

In short, we’ve progressed from a society of farmers to a society of factory workers to a society of knowledge workers. And now we’re progressing yet again–to a society of creators and empathizers, of pattern recognizers and meaning makers. […] And if a picture is worth a thousand words, a metaphor is worth a thousand pictures. We’ve moved from an economy built on people’s backs to an economy built on people’s left brains to what is emerging today: an economy and society built more and more on people’s right brains. 50

To survive in this age, individuals and organizations must examine what they’re doing to earn a living and ask themselves three questions:

  1. Can someone overseas do it cheaper?
  2. Can a computer do it faster?
  3. Is what I’m offering in demand in an age of abundance?

If your answer to question 1 or 2 is yes, or if your answer to question 3 is no, you’re in deep trouble. Mere survival today depends on being able to do something that overseas knowledge workers can’t do cheaper, that powerful computers can’t do faster and that satisfies one of the nonmaterial, transcendent desires of an abundant age. 51

High-concept and high-touch aptitudes are moving from the periphery of our lives to the center. 53

But within a profession, mastery of L-Directed Thinking matters relatively little. More important are qualities that are tougher to quantify, the very kinds of high-concept and high-touch abilities I’ve been mentioning–imagination, joyfulness, and social dexterity. 58

While work is going high concept and high touch, the most significant change of the Conceptual Age might be occurring outside the office–and inside our hearts and souls. Pursuits devoted to meaning and transcendence, for instance, are now as mainstream as a double tall latte. 60

‘What exactly are we supposed to do?” I’ve spent the last few years investigating that question. And I’ve distilled the answer to six specific high-concept and high-touch aptitudes that have become essential in this new era. I call these aptitudes “the six senses.” Design. Story. Symphony. Empathy. Play. Meaning. 61




  1. Not just function but also DESIGN. It’s no longer sufficient to create a product, a service, an experience or a lifestyle that’s merely functional. Today it’s economically crucial personally rewarding to create something that is also beautiful, whimsical, or emotionally engaging. 65
  2. Not just argument but also STORY. When our lives are brimming with information and data, it’s not enough to marshal an effective argument. Someone somewhere will inevitably track down a counterpoint to rebut your point. The essence of persuasion, communication, and self-understanding has become the ability also to fashion a compelling narrative. 65
  3. Not just focus but also SYMPHONY. Much of the Industrial and Information Ages required focus and specialization. But as white-collar work gets routed to Asia and reduced to software, there’s a new premium on the opposite aptitude: putting the pieces together, or what I call Symphony. What’s in greatest demand today isn’t analysis but synthesis–seeing the big picture and, crossing boundaries, being able to combine disparate pieces into an arresting new whole. 66
  4. Not just logic but also EMPATHY. The capacity for logical thought is one of the things that make us human. But in a world of ubiquitous information and advance analytic tools, logic alone won’t do. What will distinguish those who thrive will be their ability to understand what makes their fellow woman or man tick, to forge relationships, and to care for others.
  5. Not just seriousness but also PLAY. Ample evidence points to the enormous health and professional benefits of laughter, lightheartedness, games and humor. there is a time to be serious, of course. But too much sobriety can be bad for your career and worse for your general well-being. In the Conceptual Age, in work and in life, we all need to play. 66
  6. Not just accumulation but also MEANING. We live in a world of breathtaking material plenty. That has freed hundreds of millions of people from day-to-day struggles and liberated us to pursue more significant desires: purpose, transcendence, and spiritual fulfillment. 67



John Heskett, a scholar of the subject, explains it well: “{D}esign, stripped to its essence, can be defined as the human nature to shape and make our environment in ways without precedent in nature, to serve our needs and give meaning to our lives.” 69

Design is a classic whole-minded aptitude. It is, to borrow Heskett’s terms, a combination of utility and significance. A graphic designer must whip up a brochure that is easy to read. That’s utility. But at its most effective, her brochure must also transmit ideas or emotions that the words themselves cannot convey. That’s significance. 70

Utility is akin to L-Directed Thinking; significance is akin to R-Directed Thinking. And, as with those two thinking styles, today utility has become widespread, inexpensive, and relatively easy to achieve–which has increased the value of significance. 70

Design–that is, utility enhanced by significance-has become an essential aptitude for personal fulfillment and professional success for at least three reasons. First, thanks to rising prosperity and advancing technology, good design is now more accessible than ever, which allows more people to partake in its pleasures and become connoisseurs of what was once specialized knowledge. Second, in an age of material abundance, design has become crucial for most modern businesses–as a means of differentiation and as a way to create new markets. Third, as more people develop a design sensibility, we’ll increasingly be able to deploy design for its ultimate purpose: changing the world. 70

Good design is a renaissance attitude that combines technology, cognitive science, human need, and beauty to produce something that the world didn’t know it was missing. –Paola Antonelli, curator of architecture and design, Museum of Modern Art 72

“I see the design curriculum as providing a modern version of a liberal arts education for these kids.” No matter what path these students pursue, their experience at this school [Charter High School for Architecture and Design (CHAD)] will enhance their ability to solve problems, understand others, and appreciate the world around them–essential abilities in the Conceptual Age. 74

We “need to reduce the nervousness” surrounding design, [Frank] Nuovo says. “Design in its simplest form is the activity of creating solutions. Design is something that everyone does every day.” 75

The democratization of design has altered the competitive logic of businesses. Companies traditionally have competed on price or quality, or some combination of the two. But today decent quality and reasonable price have become merely table stakes in the business game–the entry ticket for being allowed into the marketplace. Once companies satisfy those requirements, they are left to compete less on functional or financial qualities and more on ineffable qualities such as whimsy, beauty, and meaning. 78

Business people don’t need to understand designers better. They need to be designers. –Roger Martin, Rotman Management School 78

Ponder that humble toaster. The typical person uses a toaster at most 15 minutes per day. The remaining 1, 425 minutes of the day the toaster is on display. In other words, 1 percent of the toaster’s time is devoted to utility, while 99 percent is devoted to significance. Why shouldn’t it be beautiful, especially when you can buy a good looking one for less than forty bucks? 80

Today’s products make the journey from L-Directed utility to R-Directed significance in the blink of an eye. Think about cell phones. In less than a decade, they’ve gone from being a luxury for some to being a necessity for most, to becoming an accessorized expression of individuality for many. They’ve morphed from “logical devices” (which emphasize speed and specialized function) to “emotional devices” (which are “expressive, customizable and fanciful”), as Japanese personal electronics executive Toshiro Iizuka puts it. Consumers now spend nearly as much on decorative (and nonfunctional) faceplates for their cell phones as they do on the phones themselves. 81

Indeed, one of design’s most potent economic effects is this very capacity to create new markets–whether for ring tones, cutensils, photovoltaic cells, or medical devices. The forces of Abundance, Asia, and Automation turn goods and services into commodities so quickly that the only way to survive is by constantly developing new innovations, inventing new categories, and (in Paola Antonelli’s lovely phrase) giving the world something it didn’t know it was missing. 81

A growing body of evidence is showing that improving the design of medical settings helps patients get better faster. 82

A study at Georgetown University found that even if the students, teachers and educational approach remained the same, improving a school’s physical environment could increase test scores by as much as 11 percent. 82

Design is a high-concept aptitude that is difficult to outsource or automate–and that increasingly confers a competitive advantage in business. Good design, now more accessible and affordable than ever also offers us a chance to bring pleasure, meaning, and beauty to our lives. But most important, cultivating a design sensibility can make our small planet a better place for us all. “To be a designer is to be an agent of change,” says CHAD’s Barbara Chandler Allen. 86




Stories are easier to remember–because in many ways, stories are how we remember. “Narrative imagining–story–is the fundamental instrument of thought,” writes cognitive scientist Mark Turner in his book The Literary Mind. “Rational capacities depend on it. It is our chief means of looking into the future, of predicting, of planning, and of explaining…Most of our experiences, our knowledge and our thinking is organized as stories.” 99

His brain [loincloth-draped prehistoric guy], like ours, had an internal “story grammar” that helped him understand the world not as a set of logical propositions but as a pattern of experiences. He explained himself and connected to others through stories. 100

When facts become so widely available and instantly accessible, each one becomes less valuable. What begins to matter more is the ability to place these facts in context and to deliver them with emotional impact. And this is the essence of the aptitude of Story–context enriched by emotion. 101

Story exists where high concept and high touch intersect. Story is high concept because it sharpens our understanding of one thing by showing it in the context of something else. 101

To paraphrase E.M. Forster’s famous observation, a fact is “The queen died and the king died.” A story is “The queen died and the king died of a broken heart.” 101

In his book Things that Make Us Smart, Don Norman crisply summarizes Story’s high-concept and high-touch essence: “Stories have the felicitous capacity of capturing exactly those elements that formal decision methods leave out. Logic tries to generalize, to strip the decision making from the specific context, to remove it from subjective emotions. Stories capture the context, capture the emotions…Stories are important cognitive events, for they encapsulate, into one compact package, information, knowledge, context and emotion.” 101

The ability to encapsulate, contextualize, and emotionalize has become vastly more important in the Conceptual Age. When so much routine knowledge work can be reduced to rules and farmed out to fast computers and smart L-Directed thinkers abroad, the more elusive abilities embodied by Story become more valuable. Likewise, as more people lead lives of abundance, we’ll have a greater opportunity to pursue lives of meaning. And stories–the ones we tell about ourselves, the ones we tell to ourselves–are often the vehicles we use in that pursuit. 102

In his 1949 book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, [Joseph] Campbell argued that all myths–across time and across cultures–contain the same basic ingredients and follow the same general recipe. There are never any new stories, he said–just the same stories retold. And the one overarching story, the blueprint for tales since humankind’s earliest days, is the “hero’s journey.” The hero’s journey has three main parts: DepartureInitiation, and Return. The hero hears a call, refuses it at first, and then crosses the threshold into a new world. During Initiation, he faces stiff challenges and stares into the abyss. But along the way–usually with the help of mentors who give the hero a divine gift–he transforms and becomes at one with his new self. Then he returns, becoming the master of two worlds, committed to improving each. 103

[…] stories in general, and the story structure of the hero’s journey in particular, lurk everywhere. Our tendency to see and explain the world in common narratives is so deeply ingrained that we often don’t notice it–even when we’ve written the words ourselves. In the Conceptual Age, however, we must awaken to the power of narrative. 104

We are our stories. We compress years of experience, thought, and emotion into a few compact narratives that we convey to others and tell to ourselves. That has always been true. But personal narrative has become more prevalent, and perhaps more urgent, in a time of abundance, when many of us are freer to seek a deeper understanding of ourselves and our purpose. 113

More than a means to sell a house or even to deepen a doctor’s compassion, Story represents a pathway to understanding that doesn’t run through the left side of the brain. We can see this yearning for self-knowledge through stories in many places–in the astonishingly popular “scrapbooking” movement, where people assemble the artifacts of their lives into a narrative that tells the world, and maybe themselves, who they are and what they’re about, and in the surging popularity of genealogy as millions search the Web to piece together their family histories. What these efforts reveal is a hunger for what stories can provide–context enriched by emotion, a deeper understanding of how we fit in and why that matters. The Conceptual Age can remind us what has always been true but rarely been acted upon–that we must listen to each other’s stories and that we are each the authors of our own lives. 113




Symphony, as I call this aptitude, is the ability to put together the pieces. It is the capacity to synthesize rather than to analyze; to see relationships between seemingly unrelated fields; to detect broad patterns rather than to deliver specific answers; and to invent something new by combining elements nobody else thought to pair. 126

Modern life’s glut of options and stimuli can be so overwhelming that those with the ability to see the big picture–to sort out what really matters–have a decided advantage in their pursuit of personal well-being. 127

One of the best ways to understand and develop the aptitude of Symphony is to learn how to draw. 127

Drawing,” says Brian Bomeisler, “is largely about relationships.” 127

Bomeisler believes drawing is about seeing. “The naming of things is where you get into trouble. 127

My problem, Bomeisler tells me as he squints at my artwork, is that I’m not drawing what I’m seeing. I’m drawing “remembered symbols from childhood.” […] My lips don’t really look like that. Nobody’s lips look like that. I’ve drawn a symbol for lips–a symbol, as a matter of fact, that comes from childhood. […] I’ve merely written “lips” in modern hieroglyphics instead of truly seeing my lips and recognizing how they relate to the totality of my face. 128

When the left brain doesn’t know what the right brain is doing, the mind is free to see relationships and to integrate those relationships into a whole. In many ways, this is the core of learning how to draw—as well as the key to mastering the aptitude of Symphony. 129

Like drawing, Symphony is largely about relationships. People who hope to thrive in the Conceptual Age must understand the connections between diverse, and seemingly separate, disciplines. They must know how to link apparently unconnected elements to create something new. And they must become adept at analogy–at seeing one thing in terms of another.  130

What’s the most prevalent, and perhaps most important, prefix of our times? Multi. Our jobs require multitasking. Our communities are multicultural. Our entertainment is multimedia. While detailed knowledge of a single area once guaranteed success, today the top rewards go to those who can operate with equal aplomb in starkly different realms. I call these people “boundary crossers.” They develop expertise in multiple spheres, they speak different languages, and they find joy in the rich variety of human experience. They live multi lives–because that’s more interesting and, nowadays, more effective. 130

Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, the University of Chicago psychologist who wrote the classic book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience as well as Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, has studied the lives of creative people and found that “creativity generally involves crossing the boundaries of domains.” The most creative among us see relationships the rest of us never notice. Such ability is at a premium in a world where specialized knowledge can quickly become routinized work–and therefore be automated or outsourced away. Designer Clement Mok says, “The next 10 years will require people to think and work across those boundaries, but they will also have to identify opportunities and make connections between them.” 131

The ability to make big leaps of thought is a common denominator among the originators of breakthrough ideas. Usually this ability resides in people with very wide backgrounds, multidisciplinary minds, and a broad spectrum of experiences. 132

Boundary-crossers reject either/or choices and seek multiple options and blended solutions. They lead hyphenated lives filled with hyphenated jobs and enlivened by hyphenated identities. (Example: Omar Wasow, a Nairobi-born, African-American-Jewish entrepreneur-policy wonk-television analyst.) They help explain the growing ranks of college students with double majors–and the proliferation of academic departments that dub themselves “interdisciplinary”. 132

R-Directed thinkers understand the logic of this confectionary fender-bender. They have an intuitive sense of what I call the “Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup Theory of Innovation:” sometimes the most powerful ideas come from simply combining two existing ideas nobody else ever thought to unite. 133

Invention isn’t some impenetrable branch of magic: anyone can have a go.” Most inventions and breakthroughs come from reassembling existing ideas in new ways. Those willing to have a go at developing this symphonic ability will flourish in the Conceptual Age. 134

Metaphor—that is, understanding one thin in terms of something else–is another important element of Symphony. 135

Metaphor is often considered ornamentation–the stuff of poets and other frilly sorts, flowery words designed to perfume the ordinary or unpleasant. In fact, metaphor is central to reason–because, as Lakoff writes, “human thought processes are largely metaphorical.” 135

In a complex world, mastery of metaphor–a whole-minded ability that some cognitive scientists have called “imaginative rationality“–has become ever more valuable. Each morning, when we rise from our slumber and flick on the lights, we know we’ll spend much of the day paddling through a torrent of data and information. Certain kinds of software can sort these bits and offer glimpses into patterns. But only the human mind can think metaphorically and see relationships that computers could never detect. 135

“Everything you create is a representation of something else; in this sense, everything you create is enriched by metaphor,” writes choreographer Twyla Tharp. She encourages people to boost their metaphor quotient, or MQ, because “in the creative process, MQ is as valuable as IQ.”

Today, thanks to astonishing improvements in telecommunications, wider access to travel, and increasing life spans, we come into contact with a larger and more diverse set of people than any humans in history. Metaphorical imagination is essential in forging emphatic connections and communicating experiences that others do not share. Finally–and perhaps most important–is metaphor’s role in slaking the thirst for meaning. The material comforts brought forth by abundance ultimately matter much less than the metaphors you live by–whether, say, you think of your life as a “journey” or as a “treadmill.” “A large part of self-understanding,” says Lakoff, “is the search for appropriate personal metaphors that make sense of our lives.” The more we understand metaphor, the more we understand ourselves. 136

The boundary crosser, the inventor, and the metaphor maker all understand the importance of relationships. But the Conceptual Age also demands the ability to grasp the relationship between relationships. This meta-ability goes by many names–systems thinking, gestalt thinking, holistic thinking. I prefer to think of it simply as seeing the big picture. 137

Seeing the big picture is fast becoming a killer app in business. While knowledge workers of the past typically performed piecemeal assignments and spent their days tending their own patch of a larger garden, such work is now moving overseas or being reduced to instructions in powerful software. As a result, what has become more valuable is what fast computers and low-paid overseas specialists cannot do nearly as well: integrating and imagining how the pieces fit together. This has become increasingly evident among entrepreneurs and other successful businesspeople.  137

“All great entrepreneurs are Systems Thinkers. All those who wish to become great entrepreneurs need to learn how to become a Systems Thinker…to develop their innate passion for seeing things whole.” –Michael Gerber, who has studied entrepreneurs of all sorts. 138

Daniel Goleman write about a study of executives at fifteen large companies: “Just one cognitive ability distinguished star performers from average: pattern recognition, the ‘big picture’ thinking that allows leaders to pick out the meaningful trends from a welter of information around them and to think strategically far into the future.” These star performers, he found, “relied less on deductive, if-then reasoning” and more on the intuitive, contextual reasoning characteristic of Symphony. 138

“Get me some poets as managers.” Poets are our original systems thinkers. They contemplate the world in which we live and feel obliged to interpret, and give expression to it in a way that makes the reader understand how that world turns. Poets, those unheralded systems thinkers, are our true digital thinkers. It is from their midst that I believe we will draw tomorrow’s new business leaders. –Sidney Harman 

The capacity to see the big picture is perhaps most important as an antidote to the variety of psychic woes brought forth by the remarkable prosperity and plentitude of our times. Many of us are crunched for time, deluged by information, and paralyzed by the weight of too many choices. The best prescription for these modern maladies may be to approach one’s own life in a contextual, big-picture fashion–to distinguish between what really matters and what merely annoys. […] this ability to perceive one’s own life in a way that encompasses the full spectrum of human possibility is essential to the search for meaning. 139




Empathy is the ability to imagine yourself in someone else’s position and to intuit what that person is feeling. It is the ability to stand in others’ shoes, to see with their eyes, and to feel with their hearts. It is something we do pretty much spontaneously, an act of instinct rather than the product of deliberation. But Empathy isn’t sympathy–that is, feeling bad for someone else. It is feeling with someone else, sensing what it would be like to be that person. Empathy is a stunning act of imaginative derring-do, the ultimate virtual reality–climbing into another’s mind to experience the world from that person’s perspective. 153

Empathy is largely about emotion–feeling what another is feeling. But emotions generally don’t reveal themselves in L-Directed ways. “People’s emotions are rarely put into words; far more often they are expressed through other cues,” writes Goleman. “Just as the mode of the rational mind is words, the mode of the emotions in nonverbal.” And the main canvas for displaying those emotions is the face. With forty-three tiny muscles that tug and stretch and lift our mouth, eyes, cheeks, eyebrows, and forehead, our faces can convey the full range of human feeling. 156

Many of us can boost our powers of Empathy. And nearly all of us can improve our ability to read faces. Over the years, [Paul] Ekman has compiled an atlas of facial expressions–likely all the facial expressions that human beings throughout the world use to convey emotions. And he’s found that seven basic human emotions have clear facial signals: anger, sadness, fear, surprise, disgust, contempt, and happiness. Sometimes these expressions are full and intense. Many other times they are less conspicuous. There’s what Ekman calls the “slight expression,” which is usually the first prickle of an emotion or the failed attempt to hide that emotion. There’s the “partial expression.” And then there’s the “micro expression, which flashes across the face in lest than one-fifth of a second and often occurs “when a person is consciously trying to conceal all signs of how he or she is feeling.” 160

Empathy is not a stand-alone aptitude. It connects to the three high-concept, high-touch aptitudes I’ve already discussed. Empathy is an essential part of Design, because good designers put themselves in the minds of whoever is going to experience the product or service they’re designing. […] Empathy is related to Symphony—because emphatic people understand the importance of context. They see the whole person in much the way that symphonic thinkers see the whole picture. Finally, the aptitude of Story also involves empathy. As we saw in the section on narrative medicine, stories can be pathways to Empathy–especially for physicians. 162

“To empathize you need some degree of attachment in order to recognize that you are interacting with a person, not an object, but a person with feelings, and whose feelings affect your own.” Empathy [Simon Baron-Cohen] says, “involves inexactness (one can only ever approximate when someone ascertains another’s mental state), attention to the larger picture (what one thinks he thinks or feels about other people, for example), context (a person’s face, voice, action, and history are all essential information in determining that person’s mental state), with no expectations of lawfulness (what made her happy yesterday may not make her happy tomorrow.)” 167




Like its five sibling senses, Play is emerging from the shadows of frivolousness and assuming a place in the spotlight. Homo ludens (Man the Player) is proving to be as effective as Homo sapiens (Man the Knower) in getting the job done. Play is becoming an important part of work, business, and personal well-being, its importance manifesting itself in three ways: games, humor and joyfulness. Games, particularly computer and video games, have become a large and influential industry that is teaching whole-minded lessons to its customers and recruiting a new breed of whole-minded worker. Humor is showing itself to be an accurate marker for managerial effectiveness, emotional intelligence, and the thinking style characteristic of the brain’s right hemisphere. And joyfulness, as exemplified by unconditional laughter, is demonstrating its power to make us more productive and fulfilled.

From their humble beginnings thirty years ago, when Pong, one of the very first, made its appearance in arcades, video games (that is, games played on computers, on the Web, and on dedicated platforms such as (PlayStation and Xbox) have become a booming business and a prominent part of everyday life. For example:

  • Half of all Americans over age six play computer and video games. Each year, Americans purchase more than 220 million games, nearly two games for every U.S. household. And despite the common belief that gaming is a pastime that requires a Y chromosome, today more than 40 percent of game players are women.
  • In the United States, the video game business is larger than the motion picture industry. Americans spend more on video games than they do on movie tickets. On average, Americans devote seventy-five hours a year to playing video games, double the time they spent in 1977 and more time than they spend watching DVDs and videos.
  • One game company, Electronic Arts, is now part of the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index. In 2003, EA earned $2.5 billion, more than the combined revenue of the year’s ten top-grossing movies. Nintendo’s Mario series of video games has earned more than $7 billion over its lifetime–double the money earned by all the Star Wars movies.

For a generation of people, games have become a tool for solving problems as well as a vehicle for self-expression and self-exploration. Video games are as woven into this generation’s lives as television was into that of their predecessors. 184

James [John] Paul Gee, a professor at the University of Wisconsin and author of What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, argues that games can be the ultimate learning machine. “[Video games] operate with–that is, they build into their designs and encourage–good principles of learning, principles that are better than those in many of our skill-and-drill, back-to-basics, test-them-until-they-drop schools.” That’s why so many people buy video games, and then spend fifty to one hundred hours mastering them, roughly the length of a college semester. As Gee writes, ” The fact is when kids play video games they can experience a much more powerful form of learning than when they’re in the classroom. Learning isn’t about memorizing isolated facts. It’s about connecting and manipulating them. 185

Indeed, a growing stack of research is showing that playing video games can sharpen many of the skills that are vital in the Conceptual Age. For instance, an important 2003 study in the journal Nature found an array of benefits to playing video games. On tests of visual perception, game players scored 30% higher than nonplayers. Playing video games enhanced individuals’ ability to detect changes in the environment and their capacity to process information simultaneously. 185

There’s also evidence that playing video games enhances the right-brain ability to solve problems that require pattern recognition. Many aspects of video gaming resemble the aptitude of Symphony–spotting trends, drawing connections, and discerning the big picture. “What we need people to learn is how to think deeply about complex systems (e.g. modern workplaces, the environment, international relations, social interactions, cultures, etc.) where everything interacts in complicated ways with everything else and bad decisions can make for disasters,” says Gee. Computer and video games can teach that. In addition, the fastest growing category of games isn’t shooter games like America’s Army but role-playing games, which require players to assume the identity of a character and to navigate a virtual world through the eyes of that figure. Experiences with those simulation games can deepen the aptitude of Empathy and offer rehearsals for the social interactions of our lives. 186

“Changes in the ways games are built indicate less of a future demand for coders, but more of a demand for artists, producers, story tellers and designers….”we’ve moved away from relying simply on code,” said [one game developer]. It’s become more of an artistic medium.'” 187

From their research, the neuroscientists concluded that the right hemisphere plays an essential role in understanding and appreciating humor. When that hemisphere is impaired, the brain’s ability to process even semi-sophisticated comedy suffers. The reason has to do with both the nature of humor and the particular specialties of the right hemisphere. Humor often involves incongruity. A story is moving along when suddenly something surprising and incongruous occurs. The left hemisphere doesn’t like surprising and incongruity. […] So, as with metaphors and nonverbal expression, it calls over for help from its companion hemisphere–which in this case resolves the incongruity by making sense of the comment in a new way. […] But if the joke-loving, incongruity-resolving right hemisphere becomes hobbled, the brain has much greater difficulty understanding humor. Instead of surprise being followed by coherence–the chain reaction of an effective joke—the attempted yuk just lingers, an incongruous, confusing set of events. 189

Humor embodies many of the right hemisphere’s most powerful attributes—the ability to place situations in context, to glimpse the big picture, and to combine differing perspectives into new alignments. And that makes this aspect of Play increasingly valuable in the world of work. “More than four decades of study by various researchers confirms some common-sense wisdom: Humor, used skillfully, greases the management wheels,” writes Fabio Sala in the Harvard Business Review. “It reduces hostility, deflects criticism, relieves tension, improves morale, and helps communicate difficult messages.” According to the research, the most effective executives deployed humor twice as often as middle-of-the-pack managers. “A natural facility with humor,” Sala says, “in intertwined with, and appears to be a marker for, a much broader managerial trait: high emotional intelligence.” 191

It’s time to rescue humor from its status as mere entertainment and recognize it for what it is–a sophisticated and peculiarly human form of intelligence that can’t be replicated by computers and that is becoming increasingly valuable in a high-concept, high-touch world. 191

Laughter, says [Robert] Provine, “has more to do with relationships than jokes.” We rarely laugh alone. Yet, we often can’t help but laugh when others begin to chuckle. Laughter is a form of nonverbal communication that conveys empathy. 197

But it seems clear that in an age of abundance, laughter provides something the left brain cannot. More broadly, today a play ethic can strengthen and ennoble a work ethic. Games are teaching a variety of whole-minded lessons to a new generation of workers and have given rise to an industry that demands several of the key skills of the Conceptual Age. Humor represents many aspects of the sophisticated thinking required in automated and outsourced times. And just plain laughter can lead to joyfulness, which in turn can lead to greater creativity, productivity and collaboration. 196


MEANING *…coming soon…* 

(oh, the irony.)

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