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Left Brain, Right Brain

brainBy Kevin Tatterson

The odds are you’re pretty good at something. Something technical, I’d wager. Maybe you’re a seasoned C++ developer and you shred mulithtreaded code. Maybe you’re a Java god and ooze Java apps in your sleep. Maybe you’re a .NET developer and see the world in CLR byte-code.

The odds are you’re good at what you’re good at because you like it. You’ve spent your extra hours thinking about it. You dream about it. And what more, your peers and your boss recognize you as a leader on the subject. Feels good, doesn’t it? It stands to reason, then, that if you spent even more time improving what-you’re-good-at, even more recognition and good feelings should result, right?

Let’s take a step back. Think about the leaders in your organization. How would you describe their best qualities? I bet you would say things like "sees the big picture", "stands up for my needs", "treats me with respect", and even "funny". Did you say, "They’re super technical"? Maybe, but rarely.

I agree with Daniel H. Pink’s perspective in A Whole New Mind: Why Right Brainers Will Rule the Future, that almost everything about the manner in which we’re schooled, tested, and even interviewed – is left-brained: quasi-robotic memorization of facts, standardized testing, and strict analytical thinking. I find this odd because the human qualities that are typically possessed by organizational leaders are right-brain qualities: empathy, big-picture-view, seeing relationships, and humor. You probably wonder, then, like me: why the dichotomy? I mean, if we want more first-class leaders and thinkers, why do we only teach and measure in a pure left-brained fashion? The answer is easy: because for the most part, we’re lazy.

I have a saying: if it’s easy to measure, it probably isn’t a good metric. Think about that for a second. Of course there are some exceptions, but for the most part, it’s true. Take for example the definitive standard for college admission: the SAT. I understand the societal desire to provide some kind of measure – but holistically, the SAT measures just a couple mental abilities, leaving hundreds unmeasured.

Another classic measure of intelligence: IQ testing. As Malcom Gladwell tells in his book Outliers, having a super high IQ does not correlate to being super successful. In fact, above an IQ of 120, there is no correlation between an individual’s IQ and their measure of success. The compelling case made by Outliers is that the super successful are the result of a combination of factors:

  • Being taught at an early age to speak up for one’s self and the ability to negotiate
  • Having access to the “resources” needed to develop one’s talent
  • Having an internal drive that compels them to practice and study their talent for 10,000 hours (the level Malcom defines as required to become an expert)

Finally, consider the interview process. Typically, but not always, the interviewer will test the candidate’s ability to communicate by asking them penetrating questions about their past work. Also typical – and very important – is to test the candidate’s aptitude for the job function they’ll be performing. But a strictly technical interview is like the SAT or an IQ test – it is a one-dimensional picture of the candidate’s mental abilities – and tells you nothing about the candidate’s hundreds of other critically important qualities.

Judging a person using left-brained aptitude tests is easy – it allows for quick ranking and decision making - but don't stop there. Talk to them. Listen to them. Analyze their perspectives and philosophies. Challenge them and see how they react. Measure their internal drive. Ask them to explain something using a 'big picture view'. Look for a sense of humor.

Being left-brained is comfortable. It is how all of us have been raised. It is built into our programming. So you know what I say? Go get your 10,000 hours of expertise as quickly as you can. You’ll fit right into what society expects and rewards – and there’s nothing wrong with getting a paycheck. However, once you get there, you have a decision. You can either stay left brained – or challenge yourself to take the “road less traveled” and use both sides of your brain.

The funny thing is this: with practice, you can switch between focused left-brained activities and big-picture right-brained thinking quite easily. By doing so, you harness the best of both worlds – and you will create amazing Products that strike a balance between being very well engineered and yet highly usable, testable, and ergonomic.


Gladwell, Malcom. Outliers

Pink, Daniel H. A Whole New Mind: Why Right Brainers Will Rule the Future

Shenk, David.  The Genius in All of Us



I think just chalking this up to laziness is, well, lazy. One thing that is problematic about testing left-brain vs. right-brain activity is the consequences of doing poorly. If I work out a long proof and come up with the wrong answer or download the latest version of a threading library and do some testing and things go horribly wrong, so what? I get to try again.

Now I'm several years into my job and don't have a lot of experience interacting with people and I've got my head down banging away on a complex problem for a very important potential client who manufactures semi-conductors and somebody comes to your cube and taps you on your shoulder and you say "Yeah" and he responds with "I'm Ken Kane" and you reply with "So?".

Hi again, Mike.

(Just so everyone knows, Mike and I worked together ~11-12 years ago.)

Before I respond directly to your comments, I'd like to go back to when I was your manager. I can remember it like it was yesterday... (dreamy fadeaway music)

I was a young manager then, still forming my thoughts on what I felt were good "developer qualities" - and your professional talents were similar, but different from the norm. With you around, the team ran more smoothly. Meetings were much more enjoyable because of your sense of humor. You gave a crap about the team: the members and the product. When it came to do your performance review, I followed the conventional aspects of discussing your technical/professional aptitudes, but was compelled to discuss your ability to act as "team glue". I knew that there was more to being a good developer than just "technical aptitude". You were proof. Looking back, I can see now that this was me struggling with how to bring to light your compelling right-brained qualities.

"The consequences of doing poorly" - this is definitely a related subject. I would see it slightly differently, though: "what can we learn from our mistakes and our struggles?" Sometimes we get kicked in the butt - sometimes we kick butt. As you say, "you get to try again". The key is to develop a mind that is quick to respond to mistakes - and how to get the most from them.

What studies show (see References) is that aptitudes and talents are not "God given" - but instead, are the result of your environment, your opportunities, and your practice. To measure someone using solely left-brain aptitude testing is to simply measure if they've learned what you're expecting them to know. Aptitude testing says nothing about a person's potential for learning, their motivation, their "steel", or their right brain talents - all of which, in my opinion, are invaluable professional qualities.

(Just so everyone knows, young manager Kevin is still the best manager I've had in my career.)

I don't disagree with any of the things you've said here, except one. I think there is some element of God-given when it comes to talent. There is absolutely no doubt that most people can go waaaay further than they thought possible if they actually applied themselves. But, no matter how much I practice and train, I will never, ever by as good at basketball as Michael Jordan was.

You can look at it however you want. I know several people that have said that I'm lucky to not have been fired from at least 2 jobs I've had, because of what I've said and who I've said it too. Maybe I am lucky. I'm also usually secure in being right before I speak my mind. If I had earlier learned the lesson that "speaking truth to power" (I hate that phrase, by the way.) was a road to the unemployment line, I'm not sure I'd have all those compelling right brained qualities I exhibit today :-)

You're right, genetics play a role in a person's talents and aptitudes - but not as big a role as people believed even a couple decades ago.

Check out some of the case studies cited in "The Genius in All of Us" - the idea of "naturally gifted" is pretty much debunked. Instead, if you study those who are "naturally gifted", common characteristics are revealed: their environment demanded and supported them, resources and time were abundant, and they practiced like crazy.

Which is to say: if your mom and/or dad were pro-basketball coaches, your upbringing could have been much different - and with enough vigilance to the game, you might have at least gotten to go toe-to-toe with with Jordan. :)

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