Conference Spotlight: Q&A with Daniel Pink

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September 2012

By Carolyn D. Cowen

Dan Pink Headshot Black and WhiteDaniel Pink, best-selling author and a keynote speaker at our upcoming 63rd Annual Conference in Baltimore, chatted with us by phone recently about his keynote, “A Whole New Mind,” and about his very popular book of the same title.

Our conversation ranged over a host of topics, particularly Pink’s premise: The future belongs to those with a different kind of mind—“designers, inventors, teachers, storytellers—creative and empathic ‘right-brained’ thinkers.” Pink says three forces—abundance, Asia, and automation—drive this shift away from the “narrowly reductive and deeply analytical” form of thinking that has dominated American society for a century. Here is a slice of our conversation. Pink answers seven questions; many are of special interest to those concerned with dyslexia.

Don’t miss what promises to be a lively and thought-provoking keynote: Friday, October 26 at 2:00 p.m. (page 51 in the program).


Q: Tell us a little about the theme of your IDA keynote and book, A Whole New Mind.

A: A certain set of abilities used to be essential to make your way in the economy, but now a different set of abilities matters more. The way I’ve chosen to clarify this is through a metaphor—the metaphor of the brain.

It used to be that the most important abilities in any kind of profession were characteristic of the left hemisphere: Logical, linear, sequential, analytical, spreadsheet, SAT abilities. Today, those kinds of abilities still are essential. That’s pretty important to underscore. However, those abilities, while necessary, are not sufficient.

What matters more is a set of abilities that we haven’t taken seriously enough in this country. These abilities are characteristic of the right hemisphere: Artistry, empathy, inventiveness, big-picture thinking, synthesis, pattern recognition. For all kinds of reasons, these abilities now matter most in a whole range of professions.

You still need to have a foundation in basic literacy and numeracy skills, without which, it is hard to get through the threshold. But if you only have those skills, even in a highly developed form, it’s really not enough.


Q: Many of the “right-hemisphere abilities” you just mentioned and the “Conceptual-Age” aptitudes in your book (design, story, symphony, empathy, play, and meaning) are similar to strengths often attributed to people with dyslexia. Do you see any special connection between dyslexia and the abilities and aptitudes you cite?

A: Yes, absolutely. That became clearer to me after I had written the book and I started hearing from people who knew about dyslexia.

It makes sense that someone who has a difficult time dealing with logical, linear, sequential kinds of skills would end up compensating. If someone has a harder time with “left-brain” abilities, what they do just to get through the day might end up developing hyper-muscled “right brains.” It turns out those abilities are extraordinarily effective.

I think there’s a nice convergence with this shift favoring “right-brain” abilities and some of those abilities many people with dyslexia seem to have.


Q: Are there practical implications for people with dyslexia or for their parents and educators in your “whole-new-mind” framework?

A: Absolutely, on a number of different dimensions.

We have to educate kids for their future rather than my past. Their future is one where these sorts of “right-brain” abilities will be highly prized. Our education system has to start taking these abilities more seriously.

The nature of our education system is mass production. That’s a problem. When it comes to educating people who don’t fit this scheme, there needs to be much more differentiated learning, much more education at the unit of one, much more customization and tailoring.

That’s how it works in the broader world. Even taking an example as mundane as a smartphone, the way my smartphone is configured—the apps that I have, the way I have things arranged—is going to be different from yours and yours will be different from Fred’s and Fred’s will be different from Maria’s. That’s the nature of our lives.

We are moving toward the ability to customize and tailor things for our own individual needs. And yet, our education system remains locked into a one-size fits all, take-it-or-leave-it mass approach. That is dangerous for a host of reasons. And, I think people with dyslexia end up getting the worst part of that deal.


Q: What should school structure and content look like in the “Conceptual Age?”

A: I don’t think there is one answer. But there are some general principles about how education should change to make it more like the world young people actually will be living in, rather than the world I was living in 40 years ago or someone else 40 years before that.

As I mentioned before, we need greater customization, which will become much more doable. There will need to be more autonomy in the system both for teachers and students.

A lot of people don’t realize how much teacher autonomy has been constricted in recent years with rules and regulations imposed by state legislatures about what teachers teach, when they teach it, and how they teach it.

We need more autonomy for students as well. Your ability to navigate the world of work and lead a satisfying life—a life where you are happy and contributing to the world—depends so much on self-direction. There’s very little self-direction in our schools today.

Also, we haven’t thought about arts education in the right way.

Arts education should be fundamental. It should be woven through the entire curriculum. The cognitive skills of artists are some of the most important cognitive skills today—the ability to compose, the ability to take disparate things and combine them into something new, the ability to give the world something it didn’t know it was missing, the ability to collaborate. Those kinds of abilities are fundamental now. Kids can learn them deeply through the arts.

We tend to think of art as ornamental. It’s the first thing that goes overboard when the boat starts getting rocky. That’s a huge mistake.

I’m also concerned about how we teach science, technology, engineering, and math—the STEM subjects.

We teach these subjects purely as a system of rules and facts rather than as an exploration. A lot of kids don’t like science and math because of the way these are taught. Kids are inherently curious. They want to know why the sky is blue. They want to know what happens when you drop something from a third-floor window. They want to know why some people get sick and others do not.

The way we teach science doesn’t allow kids to answer these questions. I think we’re losing a lot of scientists, technologists, engineers, and mathematicians because of that. We need to re-think that aspect of education.

The good news is that a conversation is beginning to take place about all this. A lot of smart people are trying to do these things better. The kind of education system that I imagine—the end game of an education system like that—is going to work best for everyone and is going to work extremely well for kids with dyslexia.


Q: How do you think people with dyslexia will fare in the “Conceptual Age?”

A: I think they will do well.

My one concern is what we were talking about earlier, which is the ability to get through these literacy and numeracy thresholds. I don’t want to downplay that. Someone who doesn’t have decent literacy and numeracy skills is going to be in a world of hurt.

But I think once through these thresholds, other sorts of both cognitive skills and non-cognitive characteristics matter more. The cognitive skills are the ones that we’ve been talking about—symphonic thinking, invention, design, those sorts of things.

We often overlook the non-cognitive skills. There’s a lot of evidence showing that what really leads to flourishing are things like grit (the capacity to persevere and have passion over the long haul), the mindset of wanting to learn and grow, self control and being able to defer gratification. Those things matter a lot.

Finally, individuals exist in context. Some kids in this country have very rich and nurturing environments. Other kids don’t. Those kids are at huge disadvantage no matter what their innate cognitive abilities are.


Q: Some neuroscientists have urged an abundance of caution about looking to neuroscience to guide practice, parenting, and policies. Others have voiced concern about oversimplifications (such as right-left brain concepts). How do you see the Whole New Mind framework fitting within these concerns?

A: That’s a great question. In the book, I go overboard to say this is a metaphor.

The number of stupid things that have been written about the left and right brain over the years is abominable. It’s one of those ideas where its popularization got way ahead of the science. So, I was hesitant at first to use this metaphor. I decided to use it because if you look at the literature, our brains actually do divide up functions.

It’s not correct to say so-and-so is “left-brained” or so-and-so is “right-brained.” And, it’s not correct to say that only the left hemisphere does this and only the right hemisphere does that. We use both sides of our brain for everything we do.

However, there is lateral specialization in our brains and if you look at the evidence, it’s clear that our brains have done an interesting job of dividing up tasks. The left hemisphere does specialize in certain things, such as logical, linear kinds of processing. The right hemisphere specializes in more synthetic, contextual, simultaneous processing.

So, I think it ends up being a useful metaphor. But again, it’s a metaphor. It helps us explain and clarify what’s going on. But it’s a metaphor!

If I use a simile and say, “this guy is as strong as an ox,” it doesn’t mean he literally can do everything an ox can do. It means this guy is incredibly strong. It gives us a sense of his capacity. In my book, I bend over backwards on this. I take the science very seriously.


Q: You wrote a Whole New Mind in 2005. If you were to write this book today, informed by the 2012 zeitgeist, would the book be different in any way?

A: Maybe a little bit. But on the big stuff, I’m not sure it would be that different.

For instance, if you look at the forces moving us in this direction—Asia, automation, and abundance—the forces of Asia and automation have only intensified in the last seven years. If you look at something like the ability of smartphones, even, to automate certain kinds of info-processes, we’ve gone orders of magnitude more powerful in the last seven years.

On abundance, I have what may be a counter-intuitive view.

Obviously, we had this ginormous financial crisis that hit a lot of people very hard. But I don’t think the broader notion of abundance has gone away. If you look at the level of material wellbeing in this country, it is still pretty astonishing—whether it’s color television sets, or phones, or computers, or access to broadband, or automobiles. At one point in our lives, these were luxury items. Now, they are ubiquitous, not only in the upper-middle class and middle class, but also deep into the socio-economic spectrum.

I think when the financial crisis made people feel scared and cautious, it intensified the need for business to offer something unique—that is, to give the world something it didn’t know it was missing.

Look at something like television sets. If you’re a television manufacturer offering up a 50-inch TV in hard times to somebody who already has a 48-inch TV, that’s not going to work. You need to come up with something that people didn’t know they were missing, something that’s more of a conceptual breakthrough.

In the hardheaded world of business, there used to be some juice in being able to take a category and enhance it. Somebody invents some category of products or services and everybody else scrambles to enhance it and make it a little bit different. Now, there’s a greater premium on category creation. Can you create an entirely new category? That’s a very symphonic, design-oriented, big-picture kind of capability.

The one thing I didn’t emphasize enough in the book is that the West and developed nations do not have a monopoly on these kinds of abilities. Not at all. It isn’t the case that there is going to be a permanent shift, where the U.S., Canada, Western Europe, Australia, Japan, do the conceptual work and everybody else in the world does the more grind-it-out, algorithmic work.

One of the things that’s happening now in parts of Asia—India, for instance—is they’re making this move from the industrial age to the information age to the conceptual age in the course of their careers. Where the U.S. made the shift from generation to generation, they are making it in the course of individual careers.

So, the urgency is even greater to equip people with these kinds of abilities, especially here in the U.S. If you have someone in India, Malaysia, or the Philippines, who is able to do this conceptual work better and cheaper, that changes the game for Americans big time. The question is, does it race us to the bottom or the top?

I don’t think the U.S. has enough of a sense of urgency about this. If you look at an iPhone, it says designed in California and made in China. But that doesn’t mean that’s the way it will be ten years from now.

A Whole New Mind Book CoverLEARN MORE

Daniel Pink’s keynote, A Whole New Mind, is scheduled for Friday, October 26, 2:00 p.m. – 3:00 p.m., see page 51 in the program.

Interested in learning more about A Whole New MindDaniel Pink, or his other books? Visit:

Carolyn D. Cowen, Ed.M., Social-Media Editor/Strategist: Degrees to Dreams and The International Dyslexia Association (IDA) eXaminer; Past Chair IDA Nominating Committee