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The Perils of Academic Book Reviews

"A Whole New Mind"

Some books are ground-breaking. Others read like inflated magazine articles from authors who fill pages with trite observations for the pleasure of charging $15 for the paperback of their musings. "A Whole New Mind" belongs to the second category. (I shudder to think it was once offered in hardcover, for which the publisher charged $25 or more.)

The author's thesis is that the era of left-brain dominance is gone and people now need to develop the right side of their brain. Goodbye lawyers, accountants, software engineers; hello designers, inventors, teachers, storytellers. The author lists the following three factors as having contributed to this situation:

  • Abundance: "The prosperity [L-directed thinking] has unleashed has placed a premium on less rational, more R-Directed sensibilities - beauty, spirituality, emotion."
  • Asia: companies have been more and more knowledge work to Asia.
  • Automation: routine tasks in many jobs are now turned over to computers.

The author, Daniel Pink, advocates the development of the following skills (introduced on p.65):

  1. Design. Today people have to "create a product, a service, an experience... that is also beautiful, whimsical, or emotionally engaging." (To develop this skill, Pink advises, among other things, to read design magazines. Fair enough. But then he includes as an example: "O Magazine - Oprah Winfrey's publication, which bears its creator's design sensibility, is one of my three favorite magazines of any kind. Period." (p.91) That's when the author - a former speechwriter of Al Gore's and straight married male - lost any credibility with me. Sorry, Oprah. My three favorite magazines of any kind are The Economist, Harvard Business Review and Yoga Journal. But hey, they all bear their creator's design sensibilities too.) For more on "design thinking", this article in The Economist is a must-read.
  2. Story. "The essence of persuasion, communication, and self-understanding has become the ability also to fashion a compelling narrative." (Pink advises to sit in a crowded place such as an airport and make up stories about strangers.)
  3. Symphony, or "seeing the big picture, crossing boundaries, and being able to combine disparate pieces into an arresting new whole." (Learn to draw.)
  4. Empathy. "What will distinguish those who thrive [from those who don't] will be their ability to understand what makes their fellow woman or man tick, to forge relationships, and to care for others." (Volunteer. Take an acting class. Measure your empathy quotient.)
  5. Play, or: video games are good for you. The story of the video game America's Army, developed by a West Point professor, is worth reading - it starts on p.189. (Sample of Pink's advice: find a laughter club, play the cartoon captions game.)
  6. Meaning. Find meaning in your life. (Read Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl.)

The book had mostly good ideas (except for the part where MFA [Master of Fine Arts] is supposed to be the new MBA and companies allegedly want to hire poets to put in business positions - thankfully, Katherine Bell in this HBR blog post offers some convincing arguments as to why the idea has merits; it would have been nice if Pink had backed up his ideas a little more himself). The arguments, though, were rather shallow and the stories were never explored in any depth. I began to suspect that the author was desperate to fill pages when, in the "Abundance, Asia and Automation" chapter, he shows a picture of a rather ordinary toilet brush he bought at Target (p.34, everyone). He says the toilet brush has been designed by a renowned architecture professor at Princeton. There is no reason whatsoever to print a picture of it, especially since it looks like any other toilet brush you have ever seen and the picture takes half a page.

In the Design chapter, we are treated to the photograph (p.73) of a former student of the Charter High School for Architecture and Design (CHAD) in Philadelphia, which takes another half-page although that student is never even mentioned in the text. And I am very happy for the student that, according to the caption, he enrolled at the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design and I wish him the best, but there is still no reason to print - in the middle of a chapter - the large picture of someone who is not mentioned in the text itself. I would have loved to learn more about CHAD, whose goal is to "use design to teach core academic subjects" to high-school students who, for the most part, "come from some of the roughest neighborhoods in Philadelphia." Before they enrolled in the charter school, "one-third read and did math at a third-grade level." (p.71) Unfortunately, the book does not go in any kind of details into the curriculum or the way students are taught to develop their right brain.

From the "Fast Facts" page on CHAD's website: "CHAD is the first charter high school for architecture and design in the nation. Design is central to the curriculum, and used as the instrument to help students develop: 1) creative problem-solving skills, 2) visual and spatial literacy and competencies, and 3) an appreciation for and understanding of the physical environment and its impact on our quality of life."

From the "Accomplishments" page on CHAD's website: "[Students] are serving as mentors in the Architecture in Education program. Architecture in Education brings architects, landscape architects and other design professionals into classrooms to help young people understand what it takes to make buildings and communities work for the people who live in them. Our students are partnering with graduate students from the University of Pennsylvania program of Architecture and are working with kids at Shaw Middle School and The Henry School. For more information, visit www.aiaphila.org/aie."

Also: "Several students, in all grades, are participating in the ACE Mentor Program, founded by prominent structural engineer, Dr. Charles Thornton. The ACE Mentor Program serves high school youth who are exploring careers in Architecture, Construction, or Engineering. The mentors are professionals from leading design and construction firms who volunteer their time and expertise. The program is designed to engage, inform, and challenge youth. This past year, three CHAD seniors were awarded college scholarships at the close of the program. For more information, visit www.ACEmentor.org"

There was a wonderful story waiting to be told about CHAD and it is a pity the author did not take the time to tell it.

Overall, the book would have made a superb magazine article for, say, Harvard Business Review, but there simply isn't enough substance in the author's research to turn this into a full-fledged book without a stretch. (Tom Davenport provides valuable counter-arguments to Pink in this HBR blog post. For instance: "The best statisticians and quantitative analysts are intuitive and creative. What is a hypothesis other than an intuition about what's going on in the data? And if they can't explain their results to decision-makers in metaphorical, easy-to-understand terms, they're not going to be very influential.") That did not prevent "A Whole New Mind" from becoming a New York Times and BusinessWeek best-seller. Pink's new book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, is out in hardcover now.

Comments

Good review.

But watch out. Back where you came from, harsh negative reviews could get you sued.

For Libel!

http://crookedtimber.org/2010/02/25/libel-and-academic-book-reviews/

Thanks so much for the link, Abi! Everyone - follow the link in Abi's comment and read this! I'll probably write a blog post about the whole sad situation. I hope EJIL prevails - this is so egregious. Definitely reminds me of Kissinger's quote about academic fights...

This just hit me with an epiphany. Blog post coming soon.

Aurelie,
Greetings. So glad to see a review of A Whole New Mind in the INFORMS context. I discovered the book about 4 years ago and it has had a profound impact on my world view. I am going to link in on my BLOG, www.BakerStreetPublishing.com .

Steve,
thanks for the comment and the link! I appreciate them. I wish A Whole New Mind had been written as a magazine article. That would have been one of the most influential articles of the decade.

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