Dan Pink, Howard Gardner and the Da Vinci Mind

Do labels like “broad thinker,” “generalist,” “synthesizer,” “right-brained,” or “conceptualizer” get at aspects of a coherent personality type? Call this mind the “Da Vinci” mind for short. Recently, two rather interesting takes on such minds have appeared: A Whole New Mind (WNM) by Dan Pink and Five Minds for the Future by Howard Gardner. Do you have what these two authors think is the kind of mind that will dominate the future? Are you sure you want such a mind, even if they are right? Let’s get to the answers through some right-brained meandering.

Let’s start on a sober note. George Will, in a column on Howard Dean titled, “The Dean of Shallow Thought” compares Dean to Everett Wharton, a character in Anthony Trollope’s The Prime Minister, who is described as follows:

“[He] had read much, and although he generally forgot what he read, there were left with him from his reading certain nebulous lights, begotten by other men’s thinking, which enabled him to talk on most subjects. It cannot be said of him that he did much thinking for himself — but he thought that he thought.”

Let’s face it: redeeming breadth-oriented narrative and metaphoric thinking in a specialist world is hard. Breadth-oriented people today end up as dilettante dabblers more often than they end up as Da Vincis, and even those deeply convinced of their own Da-Vinci-hood must face this statistically significant reality that they are more likely Everett Whartons. I say this as someone who has frequently attracted all the attractive labels above, but just as frequently attracted the “mile wide inch deep” and “style over substance” sorts of dismissals. The jury is still out on whether I’ll do great things or live my life out finding intellectual sustenance through a discursive blog that a few find mildly charming.

That said, let’s accept as a working hypothesis the idea that such a personality type may exist, and that it might, with some non-zero probability, lead to either an Everett Wharton outcome or a Da Vinci outcome. That given the right sequence of life events, people possessed of such a mind might actually have an impact on the world beyond supplying charming and wide-ranging conversation at parties. What can you say about such a mind?

Models of Da Vinci’s Mind

Specialists are relatively easy to understand, appreciate, effectively employ, recognize and reward. Athletes and cardiac surgeons come to mind as stereotypical examples. The world knows what to do with them. They are square pegs for square holes and come in thousands of varieties.

Generalists though, come in fewer varieties. By one account, only two varieties exist: I am thinking, of course, of Oliver Wendell Holmes famous remark, “I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” So the 12-year-old is a generalist because she has not yet had a chance to specialize beyond the three R’s, while the polymath who can talk about any subject under the sun (the most famous contemporary example appears to be Nathan Myrhvold, former Microsoft Sage), has achieved a different sort of simplicity, one that relies on a enormously abstracted and unified world view that encompasses everything, and within which everything is meaningfully connected to everything else via metaphor, narrative and patterns.

I have encountered at least 6 conceptualizations of such mindsets:

  1. Inductive Model: People struggling for a point of reference usually characterize by example. Leonardo Da Vinci is the classic example of the ‘Renaissance Man’ archetype (whether or not the historical Da Vinci actually fit the mold). Call this the inductive model. Most people stop here.
  2. Sociological Model: The late reformer of American higher education, Ernest Boyer, sought to counter the trend of increasing academic specialization by proposing, in his Scholarship Reconsidered a distinction between the ‘Scholarship of Discovery’ and the ‘Scholarship of Integration.’ As you might suspect, the idea got a lot of use in rhetoric about interdisciplinary research, and not much actual traction. Call this the sociological model, since it attempts to defend a normative construction of the social role of ‘scholar.’
  3. Entrepreneurial Model: The idea of a “high-bandwidth polymath” personality has acquired a certain mystique in the world of startups. Call this the entrepreneurial model, because it is largely used to describe a role played by a particular sort of personality in entrepreneurial environments, a role involving making connections. The business model of Myhrvold’s open innovation intermediary company, Intellectual Ventures, is based on getting such polymaths together in the same room.
  4. Economic Model: Thomas Friedman, in The World Is Flat emphasizing the economic shift from lifetime employment to lifetime employability, and the implied need for workers who can adapt rapidly by learning new skills, characterizes the necessary mindset as the ability to “learn how to learn.” Call this the economic model.
  5. Howard Gardner’s Model: Howard Gardner (he of Multiple Intelligences fame), in his recent Five Minds for the Future, proposes “disciplinary”, “synthesizing”, “creating”, “respectful” and “ethical” minds (the last two revealing more about Gardner’s membership of the positive psychology movement — which for the record I dislike — than about minds).
  6. Daniel Pink’s Model: Finally, Dan Pink’s recent bestseller, A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, characterizes the Da Vinci mind via an extended metaphor centered around the idea of “right-brained” thinking.

The first, inductive, “like Da Vinci” model, gets us nowhere. The sociological, entrepreneurial and economic models aren’t, by themselves, psychologically substantive models but help prop up the “will dominate the future” case. They really describe social roles that are necessary for particular normative theories of specific parts of society. Just because Friedman’s idea of a better America requires workers whose education is about “learning how to learn” does not mean this type of mind is psychologically plausible, or if it is, that it can be created via education (I lean towards the idea that this trait is more nature than nurture, and not as common as Friedman’s prescription requires).

So really, the only two useful models are the ones by Gardner and Pink.

Howard Gardner versus Daniel Pink

Both Gardner and Pink arrive at very similar conclusions: that the creative synthesizing Da Vinci personality is about:

  • Ability to think with conceptual metaphor, in the sense of George Lakoff (both)
  • Ability to think with narratives (both)
  • Comfort with complex concepts (both, “Symphony” for Pink)
  • Comfort with taxonomies and ontologies (Gardner)
  • A knack for identifying ‘high concepts’ (Pink)
  • A knack for rules and aphorisms (Gardner, heuristic and proverb-driven thinking)
  • A strong architectural instinct for theories and meta-theories (Gardner)
  • Evolved aesthetic sensibilities and design instincts (Pink)

Don’t be misled by the fact that they highlight different aspects of the Da Vinci personality or miss one or the other. Both are really getting at essentially the same profile (where they differ, in my opinion, Pink gets it right more often).

Let’s start with Dan Pink. The notion of right-brained personality types started with some 60s-vintage coarse observations about our neural architecture (roughly, the right brain is “creative and holistic” and the left brain is “sequential, logical and verbal”). As you might expect, neuroscientists themselves have abandoned this somewhat dubious distinction for more refined (and less fun) models, but the “right-brained” idea acquired a cultural life of its own, leading to an entire class of popular literature (my favorite being Betty Edwards’ Drawing on the right side of the Brain which I swear by).

Pink builds a nimble and robust treatment despite the foundational idea of right-brainedness being suspect. His is a poetic and metaphoric (rather than literal) use of the right-brain idea to get at what really characterizes creative synthetic minds. The result is a stylish, self-referentially right-brained, high-concept driven treatment that, at least in a literary sense, absolutely nails the subject. It is how a Da Vinci mind would characterize itself. He builds his model around the idea that the Da Vinci mind comprises six metaphoric senses: design, story, symphony, empathy, play and meaning.

Gardner’s work is at once more scholarly, much duller and ultimately, less powerful. Though he is a psychologist, his treatment is much too normative to be illuminating in psychological terms. His book relies on the idealist doctrine of the positive psychology movement, and proposes five models of particular types of thinking that, he believes, will be necessary (and implicitly, possible) in the future. The five minds are: disciplinary, synthesizing, creative, respectful and ethical. There is a preachy quality to his treatment, especially in his notions of ‘ethical’ and ‘respectful’ minds, which have weak to nonexistent empirical support from neuroscience (Pink’s “empathy” sense achieves the same intent more elegantly and robustly). Though I respect Gardner’s earlier work on multiple intelligences (an example of workmanlike, but not particularly creative synthesis whose impact exceeded its profundity), I have to say that Five Minds is the product of a non Da Vinci mind describing the Da Vinci mind from the outside. Safely ignorable.

So if you had to pick one, go for Pink’s book.

Will this Mind Dominate the Future?

Whole New Mind is a book with which I resonated wildly, but which nevertheless made me very uncomfortable. On the one hand I felt an instant surge of resonance and recognition. I could not help but recognize myself clearly in the portrait Pink paints of this thinking style. In fact, through my meandering years through graduate school, I zeroed in on almost exactly the same set of attributes as characterizing the strengths of my thinking style. Metaphor and narrative, in particular have driven much of my work. So Pink’s book was, in a way, a source of strong validation to the point where I found myself thinking, “Dammit, if I were a better writer, I could have written this book.”

And yet, I found myself feeling uncomfortable about the uniformly “brave new world” tone of both books. My discomfort probably has to do with my fundamentally tragic outlook on life, which rests solidly on the idea that our brains (right-brained or not) are hopeless flawed and optimized for self-delusion. Had I been the one to write WNM, I suspect I’d have devoted as many chapters to the pathologies of the whole new mind as to its strengths. Wild mood swings and bipolar tendencies, bouts of deep and extended lethargy, dissipated daydreaming, sloppy amateurishness — these are all traits as characteristic of the WNM as its conceptual and creative strengths, and no amount of the sort of educational reform that Gardner and others like Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi and Martin Seligman suggest, will fix these flaws.

Which does not mean necessarily that the WNM will not rule the future. But just because many influential people may be (metaphorically, in the Pink sense) right-brained in the future does not mean most right-brainers will be influential (applying a dose of left-brained necessary/sufficient logic here). Most of us will in fact fade into oblivion as blog writers or end up institutionalized believing we are Napoleon or Bill Gates. The reason is hard logic: the output of one Einstein can keep hundreds of left-brainers busy for decades. The world only has the bandwidth to realize the conceptual imaginings of a few of the most creative right-brainers. The rest who don’t make the Einstein grade will have to learn to play with their underdeveloped left brain.

End Note

On the about page of this blog, you’ll find one of my favorite quotes. The quote, from Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, in the voice of narrator Nick Carraway introducing himself (rather wistfully), goes :

“and now I was going to … become again that most limited of specialists, the “well rounded man.” This isn’t just an epigram — life is much more successfully looked at from a single window after all.”

But in a way, this acceptance that during all but the most profound paradigm shifts, left-brained folks will dominate, shouldn’t bother us WNMers. Even if you don’t change the world, there are other pleasures to be found in the life of the (right-brained) mind, as Samuel Florman eloquently describes in The Existential Pleasures of Engineering.

The insurance policy that comes with having this whole new (but as old as humanity) mind is that we are easily distracted away from potentially terminal despondency by the next new shiny object.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. This is all very good news for us left-handed (and thus right-brained) engineers! I have felt the same “recognition” as you did while reading your blog, and indeed, “innovation” (right-brained, presumably) by engineers is what industry is asking for more and more.
    But my worry is that is might still take a bit of time before people actually figure out how to make money with right-brained thinking (apart from blogs and books, of course), considering Leonardo da Vinci lived 500 years ago…

    • You have to understand that making money is more a ‘left’ drive, where the possibility of being free from money resides on the ‘right’. The equation changes and you cannot solve numerical equations with poetry…

  2. Thanks Kaps, very interesting. Scott McCloud in ‘Understanding Comics’ proposes a similar distinction, but refines it further and ends up with 4 types. It would be interesting to see if his refinements can be empircally validated like this one. Dean Simonton has also looked at this kind of distinction, as have others. I wouldn’t trust the ‘young’ or ‘old’ distinction too much though, since the sweet-spot ages for ‘conceptual’ vs. ‘perfectionist’ art/science differ by discipline, but yes, the former does peak earlier than the latter. But in math or music, conceptual prodigies appear much earlier than in, say, literature.

  3. Chris Reid says:

    You wrote “My discomfort probably has to do with my fundamentally tragic outlook on life, which rests solidly on the idea that our brains (right-brained or not) are hopeless flawed and optimized for self-delusion.”

    Hopeless was likely meant to be “hopelessly”.
    (Although, considering the context I quite like this typo)