Five Minds that will Dent the Future: A Q&A with Dr. Howard Gardner

Dr. Howard Gardner, a professor of cognitive science and education at Harvard, is probably best known for his theory of multiple intelligences. In lieu of a one-size-fits-all IQ standard, Dr. Gardner posited in his 1983 book Frames of Mind that there are eight major categories of intelligence, most of which are not valued highly enough by our culture and are thus ignored in our education system.

In his subsequent work, Five Minds for the Future, Dr. Gardner goes on to propose that there are five major cognitive skill sets that individuals and institutions must cultivate if they are to succeed in our interconnected, fast-paced world.

  • Disciplined minds are characterized by a deep familiarity and comfort with the mode of thinking that is endemic to a particular field of study or professional practice. Disciplined minds are not merely steeped in the knowledge base of their field, but have learned to think deeply and problem solve proficiently within that context.
  • Synthesizing minds are at their best when given information gleaned from multiple disciplines or personal perspectives and asked to explain the connections and contrasts within the set in an understandable and actionable way.
  • Creative minds develop groundbreaking work within a particular discipline. Work which merely reinforces or repeats the way things are already done cannot be considered the work of a truly creative mind. Rather, a creative mind changes the parameters of thought and practice within the discipline.
  • Respectful minds are constantly opening themselves to the perspectives and ways of other people. Respectful thinkers are inclusive and seek to find common ground and to honor all individuals despite differences of opinion, background, and status.
  • Ethical minds focus on the impact of decisions and courses of action on the world around them. They take the long view and seek to balance their personal and institutional needs with the needs of the community, the workforce, the human species and the planet itself.

These minds are not mutually exclusive, one individual can cultivate all of these cognitive capacities to one degree or another.

After the jump: my interview with Dr. Gardner. Enjoy, and please be sure to pick up a copy of this indispensable book.

Is creativity innate or teachable? What stifles it and what encourages it?

Q: In Five Minds for the Future, you write that prodigies and established experts – those whose talents are recognized by the status quo, but adhere to what has already been accomplished – differ from innovators. You also credit fear of failure with stifling innovation and creativity. This makes it seem as though creativity is an innate and unteachable trait that is only available of a specific class of people and cannot be cultivated in existing prodigies and experts. Is this true, or can organizations (and indeed, experts and prodigies themselves) break out of old models of thinking, move beyond fear of failure, and get creative? How can this take place?

A: I don’t believe and have never stated that creativity is an innate and un-teachable trait. Quite the opposite. I don’t think that anyone is born creative or non-creative.  Whether one inclines toward creativity depends chiefly on the messages in your society: at home, at school, in other organizations, on the street, etc. These messages have to encourage thinking outside of the box, present effective models of such thinking, and, most important, not penalize individuals who take a chance and don’t come up with a winning idea. The biggest killer of creativity is the message that if you try and fail, you had better not try again.

Can creative minds be taught to synthesize? If so, what are their strengths and weaknesses in this mode of thinking?

Q: Both creative and synthesizing minds connect ideas across disciplines, but synthesizers seek to explain the status quo in a useful way, while creators shake up the status quo with new ways of thinking. Can natively synthesizing minds be taught to create? Can creative minds be taught to synthesize, and if so – are those minds more likely to become “lumpers” [those who only see connections between pieces of information] or “splitters” [those who seek contrast between ideas in addition to connection]?

A: Again, I don’t believe anyone is born as a synthesizer. Even though synthesizing may seem less demanding than creativity, it’s been studied much less, and so we know even less about how to develop gifted synthesizers. In fact, that is why in my book I began to develop ideas about “Synthesis 101.”

By the time that individuals come to the work place, their relative proclivities toward synthesizing, or toward creating, are probably pretty well established if not  already coalesced. It will not be easy to prod or nudge one type of person to become another, nor is it necessarily a good idea. But if it is important, one can certainly try to induce the alternative approach.

As to whether creators are more likely to become lumpers or splitters, I don’t have a strong intuition. Indeed, I suspect that they will bring to synthesizing the same ‘habits of mind’ that they do to creation. Linnaeus as splitter, Darwin as synthesizer. But perhaps that can also be changed, I just don’t know.

How can businesses and other organizations attract and retain people who have cultivated these modes of thinking?

Q: Attracting, retaining and promoting creative, disciplined talent is one of the pillars of successful organizations. But you point out that, during the hiring process, many organizations present potential hires with challenges that reward quick thinking toward an answer that fits established norms. When organizations want to optimize for hiring talent that is deeply disciplined or genuinely creative – as opposed to the merely glib – what sorts of interview questions and challenges should they use?

A: I don’t think that you can establish whether someone is deeply disciplined or genuinely creative through an interview. I’d recommend that hiring individual(s) look at the past record, which would include grades, recommendations, how individuals have spent their spare time and what they achieved. If you insist on having a high stake interview question, then I would choose the kind of problem that you hope that your employees will be able to make progress on, and watch how they think about it when it is posed to them. So for example, if I am looking for individuals who will carry out original research, I’ll give them a short published article in the relevant area, ask them to critique it (disciplined) and then ask them to design a better study (creative). But I would be a fool to pay more attention to that performance than to the earlier, richer sources of ‘data’ that are available. And if such ‘data’ are not available, I’d go back to the pool and look elsewhere.

Our business and popular culture often values narcissistic traits that are at odds with respectful thinking. What can be done to counter this cultural influence and encourage respect?

Q: Our culture prizes individualism, invulnerability, polish, and a talent for managing the perceptions of others; but these traits are often at odds with the kind of empathy and compassion required to cultivate a mind that is truly respectful of individual differences. What cultural elements and policies must organizations cultivate in order to encourage more respectful, inclusive thinking?

A: In this case, I agree fully with your opening characterization of our present society. By far the most important influence on empathy vs narcissism are the overt behaviors and models of the individuals who are in positions of authority. If they embody empathy and respect, if they promote individuals who have those properties and fire individuals who continue to be selfish and self-centered, new employees will soon get the point, or they will leave voluntarily, or they should be fired as toxic for the institutional culture. In schools, it is not difficult to ascertain whether the climate is supportive or cutthroat. Within a larger organization, one may have to look at specific departments. Still, the messages at the top are clearly noticed by everyone else: Warren Buffett vs ”Chainsaw” Al Dunlop.

What can ethically-minded individuals do to change a culture whose short-term focus produces unethical behavior from the inside?

Q: Most profit-oriented organizations prize short-term results over long-term investments, and often they only pay lip service to any purpose greater than the enrichment of shareholders. Ethical thinkers, by contrast, are always looking at how their actions or inactions will impact the bigger picture over the long term. What can ethical thinkers working within these types of organizations do to instigate and shepherd change toward a more ethical mode of doing business?

A: It is essentially impossible for ethically-oriented persons to change the culture of an organization unless they are supported by the senior leadership, really supported, not just lip service. If there is support at the top, then the methods used for inculcating respect are helpful for producing an ethical culture. But as I argue in my recent writings, ethical issues are more complex than moral ones. It’s often not clear what to do in a complex situation and no one has perfect pitch when it comes to ethics. If you want to have an ethical atmosphere in a company, you have to be willing to discuss what you have done in a complex situation, what you could have done better, what you would do different next time. And again there should not be negative sanctions unless you continue to choose unethical courses.

I have been studying these issues for almost two decades. One of the biggest influences in my thinking is Albert Hirschman’s book Exit, Voice, Loyalty. In any organization where you have spent a non-trivial amount of time, you owe it a measure of loyalty. But if members of the organization are behaving unethically, you need to speak up. And if you feel that you are knocking your head against a wall, ultimately you should exit. Of course that is easier to do in a democratic society, particularly one with a reasonably vibrant economy.

For more information on Dr. Gardner, his books, and his research, you can check out his website. Our sincerest thanks go out to him for taking the time to give us this fascinating interview.