Five Minds for the Future by Howard Gardner

Published by: Oxford University Press, 2012
Pages: 272 pp
Price: $29.95
Reviewed by Lana Atanazevich & Anne Olderog

“The empires of the future will be empires of the mind,” Winston Churchill once declared. He was not alone in his fascination. The enterprise of classifying the human mind has both attracted and eluded thinkers ranging from Plato to Max Weber. Howard Gardner’s book Five Minds for the Future suggests a new paradigm of mind types, while acknowledging perspectives such as Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind (Riverhead, 2005), which puts the emphasis on the “softer sides of cognition.”

Gardner, a professor of cognition and education at Harvard, is best known for his work on multiple intelligences. He ties together his experience in neuroscience, psychology and education to create a sweeping classification of the human mind defined as cognitive abilities, or the “ways of being” required for the “survival of our species in the 21st century.”

The Five Minds

The book is organized in chapters corresponding to the five minds: the Disciplined Mind, theSynthesizing Mind, the Creating Mind, the Respectful Mind and the Ethical Mind.

At the foundation of Gardner’s paradigm is the disciplined mind, which features an ability to master the way of thinking associated with a major discipline or profession, as well as the ability to improve and learn continually. In a prevailing culture that values creativity and self-expression, Gardner makes a point of emphasizing mastering “the basis of a discipline before entering a debate,” and sees logical and cognitive ability as necessary for any work, including creative endeavor.

Further, the synthesizing mind is uniquely capable of processing disparate pieces of information from multiple sources, “uncluttering the mind” to focus on what is important to create a coherent picture and reach valid conclusions. Based on the intellectual rigor of the disciplined mind and the insights of the synthesizing mind, the creating mind uncovers new horizons and defines new ways of thinking as opposed to following the old. Edward de Bono conceptualized it as “lateral thinking,” the capacity to shift frameworks and wear different hats.

It is particularly curious to read how Gardner contrasts the Chinese education approach, centered on tradition and memorization, and the American paradigm that puts creativity on a pedestal—a contrast that may be waning, as Asia increasingly builds its capacity as a center of creativity (which Gardner himself recognizes). Gardner’s interpretation of creativity, unlike Pink’s, goes beyond traditional creative disciplines into business, where he makes the distinction between the manager, with predominantly a disciplined and synthesizing mind, and the leader, who breaks new ground, formulating and pursuing new visions.

Gardner argues that the respectful and the ethical minds will command a premium in the future. The respectful mind possesses the ability to respond sympathetically and constructively to differences between individuals and groups; Gardner insightfully describes this skill as a particular kind of intelligence. Finally, the ethical mind falls within the realm of bringing meaning to one’s life and work—”the ability to strive towards good work and citizenship,” and live one’s life in accordance with those values. Gardner’s explorations of these last two minds are intriguing, but he describes them less vividly than the others, and does not provide a clear practical application.

The focus of the book is to make the case for cultivating all five areas and to illustrate the best ways of doing so. One of the other intriguing points of Gardner’s approach is on fostering the different minds through one’s formal education and adult life, in particular the creating mind, claiming that the creating mind is akin to that of a fiveyear-old. As Picasso famously said, “I used to draw like Raphael; it took me my whole life to learn to draw like a child.”

Gardner postulates from the outset that he intends to avoid the stark contrast of his predecessors’ classifications—his system is more akin to concentric circles or a pyramid, in which each type of mind builds on each other, rather than discrete “boxes” of different categories of cognition. The book goes to great lengths to show interdependencies, which reveals its strength and its weakness at the same time. Gardner writes, “In no sense do these kinds of minds need to represent a zero-sum. There is no legitimate reason why the cultivation of one kind of mind should preclude the cultivation of others. Yet, as a practical matter, there may be trade-offs.”

Some Complexities and Inconsistencies

Gardner himself recognizes the difficulty of his approach, and his arguments can be inconsistent. He disagrees with Pink’s exclusive focus on cultivating the “right brain,” yet joins Nietzsche in contrasting the Apollonian mind (which, in Gardner’s terminology, would be “synthesizing”) with the Dionysian (which Gardner would call “creating”). This creates difficulties in identifying concrete applications of his typology to developing certain types of intelligence. For example, while there are clear implications for educators (such as the need to develop the whole range of different minds rather than “boxing” students into particular categories), conclusions for nonprofit leaders and managers are harder to draw, particularly in the absence of clear correlations between the specific mind areas and factors such as success, managing teams, recruiting and training individuals, etc. Gardner explicitly talks about selecting people already possessing the “right” kind of mind for a particular position—a stance that seems contradictory to his “inclusionary” approach to education.

Gardner’s approach shares the weakness of previous classifications in its ambition to draw a comprehensive landscape of human intelligence. This exercise is fundamentally abstract. Only the ethical mind is based on any kind of empirical evidence, drawn from Gardner’s Good Work project, a study interviewing more than 1,200 individuals to explore which factors contribute to work that is “excellent, ethical and engaging” and determine formative influences on a “rich life.” Gardner claims that work stands at the center of modern life (in contrast to Freud, whose phrase “lieben und arbeiten,” or “love and work,” described his key to a good life).

Understanding the mind will continue to fascinate us, especially in our increasingly “flat” world, interconnected and overloaded with information. While Gardner offers captivating illustrations of the different foci of human intelligence, his argument largely falls in line with the existing classification systems while providing some interesting, if not ground-breaking, contributions.

Still, the idea that these five minds could offer a framework for education, talent and leadership development is intriguing and relevant to nonprofit leaders, whether they aredirectlyinvolved in succession planning, strength-ening the governance or executive team, or maximizing the human potential of the organization.

Furthermore, Gardner’s description of the different types of minds is not necessarily exhaustive. Gardner himself points out the possibility of uncovering or seeing the rise of new minds —especially as our cultural horizons broaden eastward into Asia.

Ultimately, the book prompts two observations: first, Gardner does not entirely clarify the relative weight of each mind toward contributing to a person’s success and happiness or a “good life” in a platonic sense, nor does he decisively reconcile our society’s preoccupation with rigor and “bottom-line” orientation with the need to value creativity. Second, the work would benefit from more scientific evidence to bolster its arguments. Surely, there will be others to tackle these issues. That said, Five Minds is an engaging and accessible read for anyone with an interest in human intelligence, which surely includes most nonprofit leaders.

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