An associate recently gave a very strong recommendation for a book entitled, ‘A Whole New Mind’ by Daniel H. Pink. Whenever I have someone recommend a book in an enthusiastic manner, I immediately run out and get it. In this case, I found it at my local library. Since I’ll be returning it soon, I thought I’d do a short review so I’d better remember it and to share what I learned from it with readers who might enjoy the material covered in the book.
The book focuses on what will be necessary to have a valued skill set in the future. When I was growing up, the advice was usually to stay in school, get good grades, and then study a profession like medicine, law, or engineering. I chose engineering. But there are reasons to believe that this advice is outdated due to several phenomena that have occurred in the past few decades. The author uses the alliterative effect of the words ‘Abundance, Asia, and Automation,’ to help describe these phenomena. Abundance is the recognition that over the years, most material needs have been satisfied with the abundance of high quality consumer goods that are more affordable than ever before. To be successful in this market of abundance, products need to be distinguished from each other by virtue of their transcendental qualities, not just their features and price. The word ‘Asia’ is related to globalization and how any job that can be done cheaper in India or China will likely be done there in the future, so if you find yourself in one of those professions whose jobs seem to be exiting stage left, you’ll have to retool your career to find a way to make yourself useful in this new economy. ‘Automation’ refers to the skills that used to require the ability to concentrate on fine details for hours now being done in seconds by a computer. Again, if your major skill is something that can be done faster and cheaper with a computer, you’ll need to figure out how you can add value some other way in the future.
I graduated from college at a time where an engineering degree meant a lifetime of job security combined with above average pay, so these phenomena all sounded very familiar to me, since that is no longer the case in the U.S.. I’ve seen many jobs that had been done here in my lifetime disappear into Asia seemingly overnight. Automation is a subject I studied in college, and I have always had a fascination with it. I recall asking a professor what would happen to the manual laborers who were replaced by robots. He responded that I was an engineer and shouldn’t be asking that kind of question, a response which I found more amusing than enlightening. It turns out that I didn’t need to worry so much about robots taking manual labor jobs. They were taken by lower cost workers in other countries. Similarly, I am a beneficiary of the low cost, high volume products that are significantly less expensive today in inflation-adjusted dollars than they were when I was a child. But I am also a victim of it because the engineering on many of these consumer and durable goods is increasingly being done in Asia, which reduces demand for the engineering to be done here in the U.S..
Is there a silver lining in this cloudy job forecast? The answer is not to change careers to become a doctor or lawyer, since some of that work is already being off-shored and taken over by technology as well. One way to become more aligned with the times is to re-activate the right side of our minds. Much of the work involved in writing software and doing engineering analysis is left brained, but the things that really differentiate products are less about the technology and more about the artistic side of product development. I can attest to the fact that much of the work I did on the last several products I designed had much more to do with Industrial Design, that is, the design of the user interfaces, colors, shapes, and textures than it ever had in the early days of my career. Back then, we could just put a product in a rectangular enclosure and paint it the standard corporate color and sell it. In the more recent products, we developed at least a half dozen artist renderings, ran them through customer testing and only then did we choose the shape and colors. Then we came up with full scale 3D models and solicited feedback on those as well. The appearance of the product these days is as important as what it does. The hardest part was trying to figure out a way to make everything fit inside of the design that was eventually chosen. So I can agree that when it comes to product design, the aesthetics definitely matter more today than they did 20 years ago.
It’s these right-brained values that are becoming more important in differentiating products than just price points and feature sets. It may account for why Apple has made such headway in the computer business after nearly losing it all a decade ago. That company definitely marches to its own drummer from a design standpoint and they’ve carved out a very profitable and ever growing slice of the pie as a result.
The book goes on to talk about how the right and left lobes of the brain interact and is full of examples which help to drive the point home. It covers exercises to help better utilize both sides of your brain. The second half of the book goes on to explain a sequence of the six senses of the coming Conceptual Age, namely, Design, Story, Symphony, Empathy, Play, and Meaning. You will not find these terms in any old-school engineering texts.
In the case of my associate who recommended the book, it was a result of an educational product we’re advising a company about and we were trying to relate how the product could be used to improve test scores, yet this book questions the validity of test scores in relation to success in one’s chosen career. It’s true that they may help you select a career and perhaps get you into a better school, but there are many other ‘soft’ skills determined by the right brain that may be a bigger determinant of one’s career success than shear IQ points or aptitude test scores. These soft skills are not easily measured with standardized tests. Good test scores will still be necessary, but not necessarily sufficient, when it comes to demonstrating marketable skills in the future.
I found the book to be a fast and enjoyable read with lots of great pointers to other resources. I would highly recommend the book, particularly if you’re contemplating how you might spend the rest of your career after seeing jobs like yours disappear to other lower cost economies.