Companies & Industries

The Making of a "Shrink"


In his new book, The Future of Success, former Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich explores how and why the New Economy requires employees to work longer and harder, but with less job security, than previous generations. Reich also argues that the talents of two distinct types of people are increasingly valued by business. In yesterday's excerpt from his book, he describes the people he calls "geeks": those whose creativity leads to innovative products and services. In today's excerpt, he describes "shrinks": people who can read consumers and put the geek's creativity to use in the market.

The geek is a necessary, but not sufficient, source of commercial innovation. A second personality is essential to it as well. It is that of the marketer, the talent agent, the rainmaker, the trend spotter, the producer, the consultant, the hustler -- the person, in short, who can identify possibilities in the marketplace for what other people might want to have, see, or experience, and who understands how to deliver on these opportunities.

This second personality type is no less creative than the artist, inventor, or geek, but her creativity is of a different kind. Rather than seek novelty in a particular medium and find joy in overstepping its boundaries, she exercises originality in identifying people's possible wants and latent desires -- desires that even those people may not have been fully aware of possessing, desires for products that do not yet exist. She is no less an expert than the geek, but her expertise, rather than involving a thing or a medium, focuses on others -- business customers in a particular industry or sector of the economy, a set of clients, a cohort of young Internet users, likely voters -- and she builds on that expertise by imagining new ways of satisfying and delighting them. She is no less absorbed in what she does than the geek inventor, but her absorption is in discovering what people want rather than in what a given medium can do.

This talent should not be confused with that of the conventional marketer or salesperson. These people have specific products to sell, and their job is to persuade customers to buy them. Their art -- and it is an art (even a great con man possesses a certain artistry) -- lies in knowing how to persuade, how to play upon the customers' emotional needs, how to turn a tangible product into something more by adding intangible qualities (such as glamour, sexual attractiveness, self-esteem, the esteem of others) that the customer desires for herself. In his smoothness, manipulativeness, and even his occasional failures, the salesman is something of an American icon -- Sammy Glick, Willie Loman, the Madison Avenue advertising executive, the man or woman on the make.

But the person I'm now talking about -- this second kind of creative innovator -- has no particular product to sell. As has been noted, products increasingly can be built to order; services can be customized, software can be tailored to the needs of a particular business. Instead of persuading customers to buy a particular thing, her job is to imagine what they might want if it existed, and figure out how to create and deliver it.

My former student who's developing giant Internet games is also developing a feel for the kind of interactive cyber-experiences young people will find fun and exciting. She conducts "focus" groups and interviews hundreds of twentysomethings. She watches their behavior as they play various games. Now she's working with programmers to design ways players can invent their own games and attract other players from around the world to join them. Her artistry comes in asking the right questions, listening thoughtfully to the answers, watching for behavioral cues, and on these bases imagining what the customer will find most appealing or useful. In this sense, she works for the customer rather than on behalf of the seller of any specific product. She is the customer's agent, consultant, adviser, and voice.

Architect Thierry Despont designs mansions for the super-rich. He does not pretend to be one of the world's great architects; he is not a trendsetter or a visionary. His talent lies in discovering the personalities of his clients and giving three-dimensional form to their unique desires. "To be successful at my job," he says, "one must be very good at understanding not only the client's needs, but also the client's dreams and memories. One must know where the client comes from and what they desire. Part of the craft is learning to read people, to see things they are sure about, the things they are unsure about; the things they don't convey verbally, but express through their surroundings."

In many respects, this second personality type resembles a counselor or even a psychotherapist, although she would never pretend to have their full set of skills or share entirely their motives. But she does share some of their abilities to elicit and intuit what people want or need. For want of a better term, and because it is important to emphasize the interpersonal nature of this work and distinguish it from that of the traditional sales or marketing role, let me call this second person a "shrink."

The geek draws on his endless fascination with a medium -- a technology, a science, a visual art, a literary form, a system of symbols, with its own rules and internal logic. The shrink, by contrast, draws on her fascination with people -- their aspirations and fears, their yearnings and needs, their unexamined assumptions. The shrink is empathic where the geek is analytic. The geek understands it -- the possibilities for novelty within a given medium. The shrink understands them -- what they could possibly want or need.

Excerpted from The Future of Success, (c) 2001 by Robert B. Reich. Published by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. New York, N.Y. Used with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved. Available at bookstores and online at www.aaknopf.com


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