Cre-8-TVT will trump systems thinking

The Right Brain Revolution

Over the next 100 years, the importance
of creativity will trump systems thinking due to the rapidly escalating power
of computers.

BrainleftNo, I’m not talking about an
apocalyptic “Rise of the Machines,” but rather about the future ascent of
people who excel in creativity, intuition, and the marshaling of original
solutions, things that computers won’t be able to do for a long time. Tomorrow’s
rewards will be won by creative people who contribute new ideas.  Call it the Right Brain Revolution.

For the past few centuries, society has
richly rewarded strong systems thinkers, logical, analytical, objective people
such as computer programmers who build software, engineers who build bridges,
lawyers who write contracts, and MBAs who crunch numbers. But as computers take
over more of the pure systems thinking, people with only this skill set will
find their importance decline. There are about 4 to 5 million engineers and
computer scientists employed today in the US and few will be automated out of
existence. But in the next 50 years, those that excel in creativity– big
picture thinkers, artists, inventors, designers — will rise to the top. It
could be as big a paradigm shift in labor market history as when tools made
physical strength irrelevant, or assembly lines replaced the cottage industry.
The illiterates of the future will not be those who cannot read and write or
code, but those who cannot connect the dots and imagine a constellation.

Brainleft2From 1975 to 1994 only 0.5% of
psychological studies concerned creativity, but now it’s a flourishing field
complemented by an entire industry of self-help books on how to become more
creative.  A recent IBM poll of 1,500
CEOs from 60 countries and 33 industries identified creativity as the No. 1
“leadership competency” of the future (more than rigor, management discipline,
integrity and even vision).

In the United States, the key
predictive score to spot a good systems thinker– our future leaders– has been
the SAT and IQ tests.  Our universities
have, for the most part, outsourced their admissions decisions to these tests.
And that was probably a good thing. In the last few hundred years, systems
thinking trumped all other talents.  We
needed to build bridges and understand complex matters. While creativity,
emotional intelligence, and other talents have been important, they were
relegated to second place in predicting a person’s success.  But while high IQ is important, it isn’t very
correlated to creativity

That is going to change.

Brainleft3Over the next 30 years, we are going to
see a big societal shift that will give outsized rewards to creativity.  Systems thinking, while still important, will
move to second-fiddle in the talent hierarchy.

And here’s why…

Computers are becoming better and better
systems thinkers every day.  Besides
beating us at chess and at Jeopardy, computers will soon be able to provide
important functions such as medical diagnoses and designing structures.  Every day computers
are taking over more systems tasks once done by humans.  The number of computer chip designers, for
example, has stagnated due to powerful software programs that replace the work
once done by logic designers and draftsmen.

legal profession is already feeling the effects. There
are some aspects of legal work that will always need the personal touch and top
lawyers will always make the big bucks, but today many young lawyers are
struggling to pay back their student loans.   

Brainleft5It cost $2.2 million for a platoon of
lawyers and legal assistants to examine six million documents in a 1978 Justice
Department antitrust lawsuit against CBS. In a recent case, Blackstone
Discovery of Palo Alto, Calif., an e-discovery and litigation support
firm, helped analyze 1.5 million documents for less than $100,000.  [see article
on this in the NY Times

Those contemplating becoming lawyers
will want to pick a concentration where they can uniquely excel or one which will
expect reduced competition from a computer. 
A good specialty to pick is one that is always changing and makes no
logical sense – like international tax — no human or computer will ever be
able to figure that one out. But no one should feel overly secure. Systems
thinking will attack any area of perceived inefficiency with automation and
likely deliver an automated solution over time.

So what to do?

In a world where you need to be awesome
or be outsourced
you should plan on a career where you can be awesome. 

Education and parenting should aim to
provide the conventional skills (math, problem solving, and test taking skills)
while also encouraging creative, out-of-the-box type thinking. Computers are no
match for the average fourth-grader when it comes to creativity.

Instead of making a resolution to learn
how to code in 2013, you might make a resolution to learn how to draw. After a
few months of lessons you might begin to observe the world differently seeing
details, light and shadows, shapes, proportions, perspective and negative space.

Instead of encouraging your child to
major in engineering, you might encourage her to study philosophy, ask smart unsettling questions and practice making
unusual and unexpected mental associations.

Albert Einstein said; “I have no special gift. I am only
passionately curious.”

Brain-color chart

34 thoughts on “Cre-8-TVT will trump systems thinking

  1. Jennifer Buxton

    For the past few centuries, society has rewarded strong systems thinkers with outsize compensation (money, status, and power). But as computers become better and better at doing the pure systems thinking for us, people with only this skill set will find their importance diminishing. In the next 50 years, the people who will rise to the top are those with excel in creativity.

  2. Mark Stevens

    Here is my perspective for the lawyer angle:
    Lawyers in the U.S. are quickly being outsourced. Law used to be a highly compensated profession for everyone. Today, many lawyers are struggling to even pay back their student loans. The best lawyers are still thriving but it is harder and harder to make a living.
    Document review can be done extremely quickly by a computer. So while you still need a human to make the final call on a legal subject, documents can be quickly scanned and flagged for a small number of high-skilled legal minds. That means we need less people to attack any legal problem. Inflation adjusted compensation for lawyers has been on the decline ever since Big Blue beat Garry Kasparov.

  3. Mason Lee

    Goog point!
    Why is learning to code so important? It is a super good skill to have. (Disclaimer: I have been coding for almost 20 years). But to code even half-well takes thousands of hours of practice.

  4. Byron Doodlebury

    This doesn’t boil down to “everyone should become a novelist/photographer/actor” – it means that even in so-called hard disciplines like science and engineering, you should focus on using technology to supercharge your effectiveness. I think in some ways this might mean that actually everyone should learn to code, since it’s such a massively beneficial technology for individual productivity – but that the ability to code should not be viewed as a differentiating talent. It’s an assumed skill, like long division.

  5. Jennifer Barrier

    Three thoughts that come to my mind:
    1. Everything matures – as in any field, too much of a good thing eventually gets to saturation point where each incremental engineer, lawyer is marginal in value.
    2. Balance is required for all things good – in many orgs that have too much of one gender, the best ones find diversity and balance create optimal perf. Wall street has too many men. Fashion has too many women. With push on systems thinkers, math/science majors – we will reach a point of too much.
    3. Systems is the foundation – technical skills, strong system creates the foundation. Individual leaders are then needed to operate/wield the power of/ leverage the strength of a system. The best individual leaders will design environments where systems are continually improving, they listen better than others and serve the needs of others (stewardship), and become the teacher. Think steve jobs didn’t code but it took a single guy to command a 50k person org of systems engineers to build one killer product. Individual/independent thinking matters.

  6. Terrence Chang

    systems thinking is a key to the higher development of creativity. Computers are better at “taking apart” systems, at the deconstruction, measurement, etc. But humans are better at the “creative” side of systems thinking, meaning the design, evolution, integration with other systems, and critically, understanding the systems that are uniquely human (the “inner perspective” of humans, the phenomenological experience, and the collective human perspective and experience). To humans, mastering these “creative” or “generative” aspects of systems thinking, especially as they apply to the “inner view” from the individual and group human perspective, is key to success in the future.

  7. Donna Markowsky

    What is the best thing to do with your kids?
    One should not be so bold to say not to focus your kids on being great systems thinkers. But as they grow up, it is really important that they exercise creativity. Most people are really creative in elementary school. They have regular arts and crafts projects, they have to write (and read) fiction, they perform in plays, they make music, and they are encouraged to be really curious. For most people, most of that creativity is beaten out of them by the time they graduate high school.
    One strategy is to hedge a bit. A good university major to the hedge the world change is one that combines statistical rigor, creativity, and thought experiments. Of course, that can be any major and any profession with the right motivated person.

  8. Leanne

    KEY: “The illiterates of the future will not be those who cannot read and write or code, but those who cannot connect the dots and imagine a constellation. ”

  9. Steve Ely

    You must have been reading my right-brain. I have a 17 year old son trying to figure out where to go college, and what to do when he gets there – and beyond. I said these very same words to him just two weeks ago. Thank you for putting it in writing. I’ll share it with him, and he might actually listen to the words – since they came from someone else 🙂

  10. Jeff Hawkins

    There will never be a time where technology companies hire philosophers in quantity but they will always be hiring engineers. The better advice is to make sure engineers are trained broadly, make sure they understand the creative process. This is the trend at major universities where engineers take courses in creativity and entrepreneurism.

  11. Bing Gordon

    I would add
    – Creativity is enhanced at the nexus of two disciplines (see The Medici Effect, Frans Johannson)
    – To be effectively creative requires some domain expertise, preferably 2.
    – What you call systems thinking I would call a domain.

  12. Adam Nash

    It’s not obvious that the elements that are diminishing value around systems thinking are enhancing the value of people who are purely creative.
    The truth may be not that creativity is rewarded more than systems thinking, but that in the future in order to be successful you’ll need to be gifted in both areas.

  13. Greg Dillon

    I think you are spot on, and hitting something that some psychiatrists have feared (having there skill sets diluted and outsourced) and others, like me, have been waiting for (the resurgence of psychiatrist as shaman/philosopher king.) As a global culture, many have lost sight of Freud’s brilliant leap, which was a purely creative hypothesis (the try-partite system of id-ego-super-ego) that he could admittedly, only infer, with no good data in Victorian times. Every quantum leap in medical history or (physics, mathematics, etc) has been premised on an outside the box theory, only later backed up by wonk data. I think we are in a temporary fascination period with data (“big data”, etc), like a new D-battery, RC truck at x-mas. Books like Freakanomics, everything by Malcolm Gladwell, and lay-person pandering compendiums of psych experiments drive me crazy as they try to titillate us with “new data”, when the interesting part is the intuited hypothesis and the data is merely the post-facto grunt work. whether data bears out or contradicts a hypothesis, the story is still interesting, and a lesson is learned.
    When I was 6, I walked through BBDO ad agency with my dad, a senior, Mad-Men era, copy-writer, on a bring-your-kid-to work tour. He should me some editors toiling and cutting a television spot. I was fascinated and said, “I want to do that. I want to make commercials!” My dad laughed. “They don’t make commercials. They just do what I tell them.” I buy that. But, maybe we are just hopeful, creative, first world types who understand the value of creative thinking. I hope our vision and foresight carry us through the pending apocalypse, nuclear winter and/or global-warm deluge, just long enough to make it to the next renaissance.

  14. Patrick McKenna

    Cool. Very provocative and well researched. Great use of data.
    All that said, I suppose I have a slight disagreement. Creativity has always been the most valuable trait. See innovators throughout history. I propose that the real change is that the system-based tools required to implement a creative solution will be more accessible and a result, more creative minds will be able to develop their visions without the system thinkers who have typically stood between vision and execution. Or in the best cases possesses both system and creative minds.
    So I agree creativity will be even more important in the future but the creative person is not off the hook for system thinking just the system tools to implement their creativity will be more accessible.
    While I agree with your premise that if your career is in the system thinking back office, then you are at high risk; however, I’ve always thought of great engineers as artists. They understand the systems and have mastered the tools to bring their vision to life. A creative person will still have to understand the system but the barrier to the tools will be lower.

  15. Susan Wachter

    Yes and that is why cities and cities increasingly sorted for the knowledge class are coming back strong. Creativity is not a singular pursuit but is spurred/powered/augmented when creative individuals get together with other creative people and with implementers, virtually and in actual space.

  16. Ali Partovi

    I very much agree with the broad thesis.
    However, I’m *extremely* dismayed that you included software engineers among your “non-creative” disciplines, resulting in the dangerous and flawed conclusion that one shouldn’t learn to code or teach our kids to code.
    Any computer programmer can tell you that coding is more art than science. And for kids, learning to program is one of the best ways to “teach” creativity. Just look at and
    browse through millions of kid-created programs to see this creativity on display.
    Learning to code teaches creativity. That should be the conclusion/advice you prescribe.
    (And you should know better if you’re trying to recruit engineers for your own company!)

  17. Derek Merrill

    Awesome. Though, the rigor of training in systems thinking (studying math / engineering / law) at a high-level is still just as valid path to creativity as philosophy may be. Its about the refinement of thought.

  18. Jim Burnett

    Thanks for the fascinating — and hopeful? — piece. I’m an older journalist with a law degree, and about as much ability to code as to perform brain surgery. So a creative approach seems essential for many of us who are navigating the shoals of dying industries, such as traditional book publishing, and industries being outsourced, such as the law.
    My vessel for the journey is “ Your Guide to The Best of [Almost] Everything.” We believe we’ve found the right solution to a widely recognized gap in search — the lack of a quick, easy, and enjoyable way for Internet users to access unbiased and reliable expert recommendations in virtually every category. This is a problem — like many other problems — that isn’t amenable to an algorithmic solution.
    Anyway, please excuse the shameless plug, but we’re looking for VCs who might be interested in discussing a new media site, using a unique revenue-generating model. Demo at
    And now back to your regularly scheduled programming.

  19. Kevin Howard

    There is no shortage of creative individuals in the world, but 99.9% of creative people never get the opportunity to put that creativity to work.
    I admit I’m a frustrated “ideas person” 🙂
    How to direct our children? That’s a tricky one. Creativity can be nurtured for sure, but can you teach creativity or is it a talent we are born with?
    I believe there’s a lot of merit in following a path which leads to a career that you truly enjoy, because there are too many people in the world doing jobs they don’t want to do.

  20. amaliahoffman

    I agree with you Auren.
    Unfortunately, if you examine elementary school’s learning curriculum, you’ll see that there’s less emphasis, less money, less teachers and, most alarming, less parents who look at art, music, drama and creative thinking as a number one priority in education.
    At a recent article in the NY Times, it was reported that parents discourage their 8-12 years old from reading picture books. They much rather boast that their kids are so “smart” that they can read text without pictures, indicating that the visual is less important then reading skills.
    Luther Burbank said, ” Every child should have mud pies, grasshoppers, water bugs, trees to climb, pine cones; and any child who has been deprived of these has been deprived of the best part of his education.”
    I think he was right!

  21. Adamspector2

    Auren – completely agree with you especially since creativity is so hard to train or quantify. Unfortunately, the things that make it so tough to train or quantify are also the same qualities that make it hard to judge and measure. This means that people will still fall back to basic yet partially invalid tools such as standardized tests.
    As for how to teach it, I think it starts with an ability to ask “why?” If one is unhappy with the way things are now (and the rules in place), then creativity will naturally flow since the status quo won’t be good enough.
    Thanks for writing this.

  22. Adamspector2

    Auren – I agree with the broad thesis but the question is how can you really measure creativity? Part of what makes creativity so special and so hard to outsource (to computers) is that it is not easily quantifiable. Hence, people will continue to revert to simplistic tools to judge others such as standardized tests. Until those tools change, the more creative will be under recognized (at least out of Silicon Valley) since it’s simply easier to judge people based on metrics.
    For me, a proxy for creativity is one’s ability to ask “why?” If you are unhappy with the status quo and the rules surrounding it, then you are probably going to try and find a new, creative way to change things. Why? Because you won’t have a choice. A challenge is the beginning of creativity.

  23. Ylechelle

    Auren, I agree with your thesis except for one thing in the conclusion. I would replace “Instead of encouraging your child to major in engineering…” by “in addition to encouraging your child to major in engineering…”; simply because the next few decades will need leaders that can bridge the two worlds…
    Entrepreneur, Coder, MBA, and presumably dying breed 😉

  24. Dave Stein

    I read your post with great interest, Auren, because more left-brain thinking is required within the professional discipline that my firm covers.
    A large percentage of business-to-business salespeople are in sales because they were unable to meet the requirements of traditional left-brained positions in engineering, law, medicine, etc. In fact, an informal survey we did a few years back puts the number of careers (not jobs) of the sales person respondents at 3.5.
    So, many of those right-brain thinkers wound up in sales because those job requirements seemed to favor right-brained behaviors. Creativity, intuition, people skills, etc.
    Unfortunately the opposite is true. Although some right-brained type thinking is required, we now know that logic, discipline, the ability to analyze a complex situation, and orderly thinking are among the capabilities found in top-performing sales professionals.
    The reason that this is an issue now more so than say five or ten years ago, is the complexity of many selling environments. Politically and functionally diverse buying committees, long buying cycles, complex products, and the need to pursue many business opportunities at once leave the very bright, but right-brained sales person, at a loss. Many shun the very systems and processes that will enable success.
    So oddly enough, when we recruit salespeople we look for primarily left-brained thinkers.

  25. Craig Mundie

    Auren – There are part of this I agree with, but in general I think that the importance of creativity has always been high. I looked at the linked article “unless you are awesome, you will be outsourced” and was struck by something that was there that I believe is the real shift and is slightly different, at least in emphasis, from what you say below in Cre-8-TVT. The following table was in the linked article:
    1) General Knowledge
    2) Knowing more than one major spoken language
    3) Coding
    4) SAT scores
    5) Majoring in business
    1) Judgement
    2) Sales in any language
    3) Art
    4) Combining left-brained and right-brained thinking
    5) Majoring in philosophy
    1) Search engines will be attached to our brain
    2) We’ll have universal translators
    3) Building things will be much easier Designing aesthetics will always be hard.
    4) Systems-thinking will be easier to outsource
    5) Learning to “think” will be more valued than just learning
    Of the four rows the one I really agree with much more than the others is the third row. This is where the magic happens, and increasingly will happen. The really valuable people are the ones that combine left and right brain fluency and communication skills. I have always thought that when you managed brilliant people that often a key part of your job was to “interpret” what they were thinking for mere mortals who could then help implement it. The evolution of tools and the increasing complexity of the technology and environment must be understood directly by the creative thinker in the future to really get the benefit. So I think that what will be rare but extremely valuable are those that ambidextrous in terms of their ability to operate in both modes of thinking and to be able to communicate to people whose individual gifts are stronger in one or the other, but not both. A nuanced difference perhaps, but one that I think is important.

  26. Auren Hoffman

    Ali: I think learning to code is awesome — and it is extremely creative and important. But if one if going to code, one should strive to be great at it (and be a software engineer). In the new world we are moving to, you need to be great or you will be outsourced.

  27. Igor Kuznetsov

    Auren, thank you for sharing your thoughts.
    I may be wrong, but I disagree with the point that criativity WILL trump systems thinking, as I’m convinced that it already DID. You see, creation of new technologies, building bridges or managing finances involves more of creativity than systems thinking, cause you have to imagine something before making it. And if you look at the number and quality of “life disruptions” happened in the past century (the way we live, the way we communicate, the way we do stuff, etc.) you’ll see that the Right Brain Revolution is already here. In today’s world you have to figure out something new everyday, or you won’t survive. And I mean it in the broader sense of life, not just employment.
    So, IMHO, creativity has already took over the systems thinking, it is just not an overall dominant yet.

  28. Naghi Prasad

    Auren – Great post! I am used to Systems Thinking being used the context of wholistic thinking as espoused by Jay Forrester and his Systems Dynamics principles. I reread the article to interpret your usage of Systems Thinking as Left Brian thinking vis-a-vis Right Brian thinking. I dont see it as one versus the other. It is more how one kind of thinking can enhance and augment the other. How can we develop talent at the interesection of the two. Can we design teams (even of the individuals that are predominantly one or the other) that bring this kind of balance and even more interestingly, how can we make them work seamlessly?

  29. Ron W.

    Hi Auren,
    At age 78, I’ve been successful in business since age 24, making some money along the way, and since age 55 I’ve also been a painter. Doing both requires me to use both sides of my brain. Being a successful entrepreneur requires an array of skills; being an artist requires the skills of an entrepreneur. In both endeavors it’s necessary to deal with uncertainty and complexity, to organize, to visualize, to be persistent, innovative, self-assured and self-motivated, to take risks, in general to use all the brain power available. The major difference is that in business I work with and manage people while painting is a solitary activity. Both are exciting and challenging and make for a well-rounded life.

  30. Dianne Fodell

    I like your article and agree in large part but I still think system thinkers are unique and necessary. I am forwarding your article to my 18 year old son who is about to go to college in the fall and he will thrive if creativity, art and philosophy will get him ahead. I am a huge fan of Richard Florida’s books Rise of and Flight of the Creative Class. I think the key to future success for businesses, governments and people will be diversity – both within a person like having T-shaped skills but also diversity across working teams. You need lots of different strengths and skills on any team and you need team members who appreciate what each member brings to the table. I long for the days when engineers are never arrogant and welcome the artists’ and the philosophers’ opinions… or at least the marketing team’s opinions. An exercise which is practiced in high school faculty workshops where I live is for each member to solve a difficult problem with the skills they have. Often, as you suggest, the most creative solutions come from those who consider themselves poor in math and science. I am starting not to use the term STEM in my talks about skills for the 21st century because I agree with you that we need other skills for today’s challenges, including arts (visualization, creativity), philosophy (asking the right questions), etc.. And that is not to say that STEM people aren’t creative – because Jim Spohrer and Steve Gold as exemplary creative, STEM geniuses. The are more than T-shaped. I wish we had a way to grow more creative STEM geniuses. Thanks for letting me in on the conversation.

  31. Daniel Tung

    Creativity is indeed very important. It sees beyond the horizon and opens up new possibilities.
    I think now the mobile device market, although driven by a fierce race towards ever more high specs and pretty hardware, severely lack creativity.
    I’m not an engineer, but during daydreams I created many ideas by drawing, like a wrist wearing device that can read finger and hand gestures to interact with screens:
    I think this is even better than the recently very hot device (Myo, by Thalmic Labs), because unlike that device, it can read finger movements.
    (BTW, I wonder if you’re interested?)


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