Birth of the Conceptual Age

A few years ago Dan Pink wrote Free Agent Nation, a book  which caused quite a stir in thinking circles. His following book, A Whole New Mind taking an in depth look at the roles of right brain/left brain utilisation into the future suggested we are entering a ‘Conceptual Age’ – and to prepare for it we need to improve six essential abilities: design, story, symphony, empathy, play and meaning.

As the forces of abundance strengthen and accelerate, he explained the curtain is rising on this new era. If the Industrial Age was built on people’s backs, and the Information Age on people’s left hemispheres, the Conceptual Age was being built on people’s right hemispheres, the realm of the idea…

Growing up, parents always provided their children with the same advice.  Get good marks, a university exemption, attend a good university and then pursue a profession that offers a decent standard of living and perhaps a bit of prestige that parents could later boast about at the old age home.

If you were good at math and science, naturally, you would become a doctor or accountant and if you were better at English and history, you had an aptitude to become an advocate or lawyer. Later, as computers arrived, young ‘boffins’ appeared who were really good at math and science and some IT boffs chose to go to business school, for the passport to professional pleasure, the MBA.

Attorneys, financial analysts, software engineers and the like, the ‘knowledge workers’, were paid to put to work what they learnt at university, rather than for their physical strength or manual skill. What distinguished members of this group and enabled them to reap society’s greatest rewards, was their ability to acquire and apply theoretical and analytic knowledge. Anybody who could get to university could join their ranks. All one had to do was study hard and you were set on the path to professional success and personal fulfillment.

However, according to Daniel Pink’s books, while some worked hard at university and got the right jobs, in the changing economic and political climate, the world changed. The future no longer belongs to people who can reason with computer-like logic, speed, and precision. Instead, the future will be a success for anyone who displays what one would term ‘a different type of mind’.

Scientists have long known that a neurological ‘Mason-Dixon line’ cleaves our brains into two regions – the left and right hemispheres. Recently, however, researchers have begun to identify more precisely how the two sides divide responsibilities. The left hemisphere handles sequence, literalness, and analysis, while the right hemisphere takes care of context, emotional expression, and synthesis. Of course, the human brain, with its 100 billion cells forging a quadrillion connections, is unbelievably complex. The two hemispheres work in conjunction as we use both sides for nearly everything we do. However, the structure of our brains can help explain the contours of our times.

Until fairly recently, the abilities that led to success in school, work, and business were characteristic of the left hemisphere. They were the sorts of linear, logical, analytical talents measured by those aptitude tests we all had to sit through at some stage in our school career. Even though those capabilities are still necessary today, they’re no longer sufficient. We live in a world diluted with data and suffocated with choices. Now, the abilities that matter most are closer in spirit to the specialties of the right hemisphere – artistry, empathy, seeing the big picture, and pursuing the transcendent.

No one states it quite as well as Daniel Pink himself who said, “Beneath the nervous clatter of our half-completed decade stirs a slow but seismic shift. The Information Age we all prepared for is ending. Rising in its place is what I call the Conceptual Age, an era in which mastery of abilities that we’ve often overlooked and undervalued marks the fault line between who gets ahead and who falls behind.”

It seems that the Information Age has unleashed a shaky prosperity that places a premium on less rational sensibilities such as spirituality, out-the-box thinking, beauty, and emotion. From the mainstream embrace of such once-exotic practices as yoga and meditation, to the rise of spirituality in the workplace, the quest for meaning and purpose has become an integral part of everyday life.

In Daniel Pink’s book, however, the author emphasised that the future was not some Manichaean landscape in which individuals are either left-brained and extinct or right-brained and ecstatic. There will always be a place for logical, linear, analytic thinking. The problem is -  these are just not enough.

To flourish into the future, we will need to supplement our well-developed high tech abilities with aptitudes that involve the ability to create artistic and emotional beauty, to detect patterns and opportunities, to craft a satisfying narrative, and to come up with inventions the world didn’t know it was missing. In addition, we will need to empathise and understand the subtleties of human interaction and find joy in one’s self and others.

What’s great for humankind however, is that these sorts of abilities that now matter most are fundamentally human attributes. After only a few generations of rampant progress, many of our basic skills – of being in touch with ourselves, each other and our natural environments – have disintegrated. The challenge into the future will be to get them back. But the journey will be well worth travelling…

Research created: A Whole New Mind: Moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age, copyright © by Daniel H. Pink