Succeeding in the Conceptual Age

Published Aug. 23, 2011

There’s an unusual art school in New York with a one-week course of study. What distinguishes this place isn’t the length of its course but rather its student body. They’re mostly people with neither talent nor ambition in the arts.

David L. Rawle
So what are they doing there? Learning to use their right brain.

A good friend and top marketing executive at a major corporation described her experience there.

“On the first day, we were asked to draw a self-portrait. Mine was awful, as were most of them. Then, for the next several days, we learned about seeing things, seeing their context and how they relate to one another, and freeing our expressions. On the last day, again we each made self-portraits. And it was stunning how much progress each of us had made.”

This school ( is but one of the jewels found in Dan Pink’s A Whole New Mind. Having just re-read the book, I believe it’s more relevant than ever.

Pink’s overarching thesis is that we moved from the Industrial Age to the Information Age and — now — to the Conceptual Age. “The future,” according to Pink, “belongs to a very different kind of person with a very different kind of mind — creators and empathizers, pattern recognizers, and meaning makers.”

While the Information Age belonged to the brain’s left hemisphere, the Conceptual Age belongs to the right. The left handles what is being said. The right focuses on how it is said. The left analyzes the details. The right synthesizes the big picture.

As we all know, today’s challenging economic environment fosters commoditization, a sea of sameness with price as the prevalent characteristic. The only antidote is differentiation: making your product or service different or better.

How do you do that? Pink cites six ways, what he calls “six essential aptitudes on which professional success and personal satisfaction increasingly will depend.”

They are Design, Story, Symphony, Empathy, Play and Meaning. Each makes perfect sense. To what extent are they part of your business?

Design. We all recognize the importance of good design. Yet, when budgets get tight, compromises are often made. Unwisely, Pink would say. He cites a couple of powerful examples. According to research at the London Business School, for every percent of sales invested in product design, a company’s sales and profits rise by an average of 3% to 4%.

And, surgery patients in rooms with ample natural light required less pain medication and their drug costs were 21% lower than their counterparts in traditional rooms.

Design is a compelling differentiator. Just ask Steve Jobs.

Story. In the Information Age, we shared statistics. But stories are more resonant, and are the currency of the Conceptual Age. After all, writes Pink, “Stories are easier to remember — because, in many ways, stories are how we remember.”

“When facts become so widely available and instantly accessible, each one becomes less valuable,” Pink says. “What begins to matter more is the ability to place these facts in context, and to deliver them with emotional impact.”

That’s what stories can do.

Symphony. Here’s where that art school fits in. It’s all about observation, recognizing patterns, uncovering connections and seeing how things (and people) relate to one another.

As Pink says, “Seeing the big picture is fast becoming a killer app in business.”

He also points out the advantages of people with dyslexia. They think differently, are intuitive, and excel at problem solving, seeing the big picture and simplifying. And he quotes Daniel Goleman as concluding from a study of executives at 15 large corporations that “Just one cognitive ability distinguished star performers from average: pattern recognition, ‘big picture’ thinking.”

A vital differentiator, then, is the ability to apply big picture thinking to the ubiquitous information available in today’s digital world.

Empathy. This, of course, is all about stepping into the other person’s shoes. Truly seeing things from their point of view. How often we see things only from our own perspective. And then we mistakenly extrapolate that perspective to apply to some or all of the universe.

Empathy, according to Pink, is all about emotions — feeling what another is feeling.

After all, it is always about them. Never about us.

Play. Pink shares this truism: “People rarely succeed at doing anything unless they are having fun doing it.” These days when we’re all working harder just to stay even, it’s sometimes difficult to have fun.

But it’s so very important for both professional and personal good health. And, of course, nothing makes you feel better than a good laugh!

Meaning. Here’s a concept way too easily overlooked in these tough times. People want meaning.

Pink quotes Viktor Frankl’s seminal book, Man’s Search for Meaning: “Man’s main concern is not to gain pleasure or to avoid pain but rather to see a meaning in his life.” How do we create a meaningful community within our companies? How do we create products and services that are meaningful to others? How do we make our own lives more meaningful?

These are the kinds of questions that are part of the Conceptual Age, the age of right brain dominance, the age in which we live.

Although you may not have time to take that one-week drawing course, within the pages of A Whole New Mind you will discover a bunch of exercises and resources that help you develop your very own “whole new mind.”

These are the required skill sets for success today, and tomorrow.

David L. Rawle is founder and chairman of Rawle Murdy, a Charleston-based marketing, advertising and public relations firm.

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Added: 23 Aug 2011

Excellent and insightful information - thank you for sharing.

Chad Vail