The Mind of Howard Gardner

From his Harvard bio, one of my personal heroes. Few academics have captured my imagination, and affected my thinking, as consistently or as deeply as Howard Gardner.

Harvard Professor Howard Gardner has written more than a dozen books with the word “mind” in the title. Few researchers have spend so much of their professional careers thinking about how our minds work, whether our minds might be better trained, and whether our minds can be put to better use. He’s a brilliant thinker, and I have thoroughly enjoyed reading his evolving work over these past few decades.

Earlier this year, with co-author Emma Laskin, Gardner republished Leading Minds: An Anatomy of Leadership with a new introduction, and that led me to the slimmer 5 Minds for the Future, a slim book that captures his evolving philosophy in a succinct, deeply meaningful way.

From the start, Gardner’s 5 Minds for the Future is more contemporary, acknowledging the tangentially  overlapping work of Daniel Pink, Stephen Colbert (“truthyness“)  and the enormous changes brought about by globalization. Gardner is famous for his theories about multiple intelligences (“M.I.” these days), but M.I. is not what this book is about. Instead, Gardner presents his case as a progression from basic to higher-level thinking, and his hope that we will climb the evolutionary ladder as a collective enterprise.

He begins by revisiting one of his favorite themes, the disciplined mind (which provided both title and subject matter for his 1999 book). Here, the goal is mastery, which requires a minimum of a decade’s intense participation, a thorough examination of all relevant ideas and approaches, deep study to understand both the facts and the underlying fundamentals, and interdisciplinary connections. This is serious work, and it must be accomplished despite the sometimes crazy ways that schools think about learning, and the equally crazy ways that the workplace may value or advance those with growing expertise. The disciplined mind does not simply accept what has been written or taught. Instead, the disciplined mind challenges assumptions, and digs deep so that it may apply intelligence when conventional thinking does not produce valuable results. No surprise that Gardner is deeply critical of those who invest less than a decade in any serious endeavor, or those who fake it in other ways.

Next up the ladder is the synthesizing mind which accomplishes its work by organizing, classifying, expanding its base of knowledge by borrowing from related (and unrelated) fields. Placing ideas into categories is an important step up the ladder because the process requires both (a) a full understanding of  specific disciplines and how they relate to one another, and (b) the means to convey these ideas to others. And so, Gardner views the Bible (a collection of moral stories), Charles Darwin’s theories, Picasso’s Guernica, and Michael Porter’s writings about strategy as related endeavors. At first, this seems to be a stretch. Then again, each of these are bold combinations of ideas based upon a complete understanding of a domain–(a) above–conveyed in a way that connects people to the synthesized ideas (b).

You may know Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as the author of the excellent book FLOW, but his best work may be a book simply entitled CREATIVITY.

Then, there’s the creating mind. At this stage, the progression begins to make a lot of sense. Novel approaches are not based upon random ideas that may or may not work. Instead, the creating mind grows from deep study of a specific domain in a disciplined manner, followed by various attempts to organize that knowledge in ways that propel an argument forward. At a certain point, the argument has been advanced, and the opportunity for new thinking presents itself. Many creative professionals are required to advance new ideas without the requisite discipline, and so, our society generates lots of ephemeral stuff. In the creative space, Gardner’s thinking has been affected by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who believes:

creativity only occurs when–and only when–an individual or group product is recognized by the relevant field as innovative, and, sooner or later, exerts a genuine, detectible influence on subsequent work in that domain.”

I would argue that the respectful mind ought to precede the disciplined mind as the ladder’s first rung, and Gardner provides ample evidence to support my argument. For one thing, the respectful mind is the only one of Gardner’s five minds that can be nurtured beginning at birth. What’s more, the ability to “understand and work effectively with peers, teachers and staff” would seem to be a prerequisite for any disciplined approach to learning and personal development. The whole chapter is nicely encapsulated by a sentence from renowned preschool teacher Vivian Paley:

You can’t say ‘you can’t play.'”

A decade ago, Gardner, Csikszentmihalyi, and William Damon wrote a book called Good Work, and this effort has expanded into The Good Work Project. Central to this effort is the ethical mind, which carries a meaning well beyond the ethical treatment of others. Here, we begin to touch upon the idea of professional or societal calling, and one’s role within a profession or domain. It begins with doing the best work possible–that is, the work of the highest quality, as well as work of redeeming social value–but it’s not just the work itself, it’s the way that you apply yourself to the job at hand. Here, Gardner covers the diligent newcomer, the mid-life worker who continues to pursue excellence every day, the older mentor or trustee whose role is to encourage others to build beyond what has already been accomplished.

In less than 200 pages, Gardner accomplishes a great deal. If time permits you to read only two Gardner books, I would start with Frames of Mind, which explains his theory about multiple intelligences, then jump to 5 Minds for the Future. After these two, you’ll probably want more. His book about leadership, mentioned above and discussed below, is certainly worthwhile. And Good Work will fill your head with wonderful ideas and inspiration for all you could do to help make the world a better place.

BTW: If you want to watch Gardner discuss 5 Minds for the Future, you’ll find his 45-minute video here.

As for Leading Minds, it’s an extraordinary book, a collection of analytical biographies written as parts of a whole, a cognitive view of leaders and leadership. He examines leaders by taking part their fundamental identity story: who they are, how their domain and influence grew, how and why they succeeded, how and why they were unable to accomplish their ultimate goals. This is not a book whose core ideas can be reduced to a few bullet points. Instead, it’s a few hundred pages of reflection on the nature of leadership shown through the examples of Albert Einstein, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Alfred P. Sloan, Eleanor Roosevelt, and a half dozen other 20th century figures. The significance of some names is fading; it was disappointing to find that this revised edition of a 1995 work did not include anyone who made his or her mark in the 21st century.

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