Told You So, Dad

Debra Rienstra

Obviously, even in my late forties, I still have some father issues to work out. I realized this afresh as I was reading through Daniel Pink’s 2005 book, A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, because I kept thinking of my poor dad and how I wanted to show him the book and say, “Ha! See? I was right all along!”

How immature of me, since these days it is more pointless than ever to argue with my dad. At almost 87, his mental capacities are slowly ebbing away. And besides, our old tensions are long behind us.

Still, it’s helpful to me at least to have some tools to understand those old tensions, and Daniel Pink offers a couple sharp ones in his analysis of our current shift into what he calls the “Conceptual Age.” My parents’ generation was part of the Industrial Age, children of the Depression who then rode the post—World War II economic boom. The correct narrative for life, according to them, was as follows: get a job early, stay loyal to your company, be thrifty and save for retirement, and you will rise from the working class to the white-collar middle class or beyond. Then make sure your children go into the right fields, preferably the lucrative professions, where they can make a lot of money and secure your family’s continued upward mobility. By the way, college is a tool only for securing upward mobility.

Unfortunately, my youthful interests in literature and music did not conform to this plan. They were dangerous—and, in the case of music, annoyingly expensive—distractions, tolerated largely, I think, because they at least appeared to make me a young lady of accomplishment. The right paths for a serious career, however, were law (oldest brother did this), medicine (second brother did this), and business (alas, I missed that boat).

So as I pursued my flakey interests, I was repeatedly warned I would never make a living doing these things, and they had better remain side dabblings at best. When I married a pastor-to-be (a confusing development, spiritually noble but financially risky), and then decided to go to grad school (the folly!), I relegated my parents to prayerful hand-wringing as they imagined for me a destiny of hopeless penury.

But you see, they needn’t have worried. In my frivolous pursuit of the liberal arts, literature, and music, I was actually wise beyond my years and savvy before my time. Becau

se while Mom and Dad were living in the Industrial Age and vaguely aware of the Information Age rising around them as they were raising their children, I was busy preparing for the Conceptual Age, where we have now arrived. As Pink explains rather persuasively, in a world of abundance, people want more than just economic stability. And in a global economy, not only manufacturing but also any kind of routine knowledge work can be automated or outsourced, probably to Asia. Naturally, this changes what is valued and rewarded.

Used to be, the world was ruled by what Pink calls “L-directed thinking,” with L signifying left-brained processes of analysis and logic with their reliance on things like spreadsheets and algorithms. Master some technical field and you had job security for life. No more. Now, computer coding, financial numbercrunching, even the boring, routine parts of lawyering and doctoring—much of this formerly valuable knowledge work can be automated by computers or outsourced. Technical knowledge and skills are still vital and necessary, Pink insists, but they are simply not enough. What gets a person ahead now (he means in first-world power economies) is “R-directed thinking.” In other words, all the right-brainy stuff that is nurtured and developed by—wait for it—the arts.

Pink names six “senses” that are already, he claims, greatly prized and sought after in every field: Design, Story, Symphony, Play, Empathy, and Meaning. These are the capacities that activate that L-directed stuff into meaningful synergies. The best minds, therefore, masterfully integrate both sides of the brain. Everywhere in the book Pink looks to visual artists, designers, performers, innovators, the border crossers and broadly educated—these, these are the prophets of the new era!

Do I believe it? Yes. Kind of. As usual with books like this, you wonder if Pink is a little too breathless, maybe a tad simplistic. But he does muster the usual assortment of neurobiological studies to support his premises about brain processes (another hot career choice these days, it seems: neurobiology researcher). He assembles many supporting examples and testimonies from Fortune 500 companies and successful entrepreneurs. So he’s got the evidence, though of course by the book’s own premises, one must also look to one’s intuitions. What does my playful, symphonic, empathic brain tell me? Hmmm. That Pink is exactly right.

If Pink is right, this could be an interesting new time for the church. The chapter on Meaning enjoins us to “take spirituality seriously” but carefully avoids advocating for religion per se. Instead, Pink sort of points and waves from afar. Understandable. But what if people really are more desperate for meaning in a world of abundance? Is the church comprehending and responding to these deep conditions, or are we still caught up in “market-share” thinking?

Even if I accept Pink’s broader assessments, I still find it hard to imagine that, if my academic employer were suddenly to fire me (not likely, Mom and Dad—don’t worry!), I could write up my resume and within weeks some Fortune 500 would snap me up as the Corporate Poet. According to p. 143, this actually happens, but . . . really? What would that look like? “To do list: Plan marketing group seminar on the villanelle.”

At any rate, I am now trying to put my Industrial- and Information-Age insecurities aside. For example, to my liberal arts institution, I shall now say: “Never apologize for the humanities! Utility and pragmatism are so last century!” To my literature and writing students, I shall now say: “Stay the course! You’ve got the hot stuff for the next century!”

Also, I suddenly feel brilliant about my parenting choices, which have involved paying for lots of music lessons and attending many theatrical performances. You might boast that your kid won an engineering scholarship. Big deal. My kid was the state champion in story-telling.

That same son is now going off to college, worried about how he will combine his interests in music, theater, computer science, and physics. And I shall be the parent who says, “Don’t worry. Do it all. A new age dawns, and you are perfectly poised to thrive in it.”

Debra Rienstra teaches English at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She blogs regularly on Perspectives’ blog “The Twelve” (the12.squarespace.com) where this originally appeared on August 23, 2013.