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The New Economy: Retrain Your Brain

The New Economy: Retrain Your Brain

USA Today

August 24, 2009

As stars of the Old Economy go, Shu Kim and Khanh Pham sparkled. Working for a storied finance firm — Kim, 40, as in-house counsel and Pham, 33, as a real estate investment banker — the two women deployed classic analytical left-brain skills to keep a seemingly well-oiled machine humming. A machine called Lehman Brothers.

Lehman is dead, but the two New Yorkers are alive and optimistic, thanks to a simple yet significant shift. They embraced their right brains, the bold, creative lobe that in the New Economy can make the difference between reinvention and extinction.

“Those old jobs are just not there anymore, so to survive you have to think outside the box,” says Pham, who along with her former colleague recently launched Shustir.com, a marketing website for small businesses. Now, instead of parsing legal and financial documents, the two brainstorm innovative ways to bring their new brand to the masses, relying on flights of creative fancy rather than rote skills.

“It’s funny — our parents were entrepreneurs,” Kim says. “So we’re going back to right-brain thinking.”

And not a moment too soon. As companies continue to triage their way through this economic war, a growing chorus of cultural observers argue that recovery is contingent on the marriage of right-brain innovations with left-brain skill sets.

Put bluntly: The economic engine needs more iPods (a talisman no one really knew to miss until it arrived) and fewer data-crunchers (tasks that can be shipped overseas or tackled with software such as TurboTax).

“There’s an acceptance that as a century ago machines replaced muscle, today computers are turning traditional left-brain work, jobs where a series of steps leads to one answer, into a commodity that can be outsourced,” says Daniel Pink, whose 2005 book, A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, recently was turned into the PBS special Living on the Right Side of the Brain. “Our children will no more be doing routine white-collar work than we were likely to inherit the blue-collar jobs of our grandfathers.”

Pink says the shift to right-brain thinking already can be found in companies that welcome well-rounded employees, medical schools that push art studies and classrooms that encourage collaborative problem-solving. “We’re realizing that our economy is not about standardization,” he says.

It’s also no longer about job security, which makes taking the leap away from once-stable left-brain jobs less daunting, says Pamela Skillings, a New York-based career coach and author of Escape From Corporate America: A Practical Guide to Creating the Career of Your Dreams.