The Neo-Generalist, and why we should all have ‘one’

The Neo-Generalist (Design by Caroline Li, partly inspired by the American graphic designer Saul Bass)

“I am large, I contain multitudes.” — Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

The Neo-Generalist, and why we should all have ‘one’

It’s a bit awkward to write about a book that stirs up so many memories and thoughts, it almost reads like a biography. But The Neo-Generalist by Richard Martin and Kenneth Mikkelsen isn’t about me as such, it’s ‘merely’ about people like me — people who live in more than one world and who are able to strike meaningful connections between these worlds. It so happens that I was one of the lucky interviewees. Lucky while at the same time humbled to be included in a list of people who are far more accomplished than I will ever be. But that, at least, gives me something to aspire to. If I have any time left that is, because The Neo-Generalist includes a list of books that will keep me rather busy. In the words of Austin Kleon in Steal Like an Artist: “Read bibliographies. It’s not the book you start with, it’s the book that book leads you to.”

But what is a ‘neo-generalist,’ and more importantly, should you have one? To answer the latter question first: yes, you should, by all means (and I don’t mean just the book). But I will come back to that later. First, the what is question.

According to Martin and Mikkelsen, “the neo-generalist defies easy classification. They are tricksters who traverse multiple domains, living between categories and labels. Encompassing rather than rejecting, the neo-generalist is both specialist and generalist. A restless multidisciplinarian who is forever learning. They bring together diverse people, synthesising ideas and practice, addressing the big issues that confront us in order to shape a better future.”

It’s however not something you either are or aren’t. “We all carry within us the potential to specialise and generalise,” they write. “Many of us are unwittingly eclectic, innately curious. There is a continuum between the extremes of specialism and generalism, a spectrum of possibilities. Where we stand on that continuum at a given point in time is governed by context.” This makes their idea about neo-generalism very much an inclusive one. It’s not some sort of secret brother or sisterhood with funny handshakes or silly walks. Potentially, we are all neo-generalists. If only we allow ourselves to be. Unfortunately, most of us have been labeled from a very early age — forced to choose one thing over the other — and it takes a lot of self-confidence, or, as in my case, just plain stubbornness to resist.

What The Neo-Generalist makes perfectly clear though, through all the personal stories and anecdotes, is that there isn’t one single magic formula for becoming a neo-generalist. They have all traveled their own journey. Some come from diverse cultural backgrounds, others have lived in multiple countries, done several seemingly unrelated studies, or, as in my case, have a more complicated relationship with our formal education system. But regardless of the many differences, I suspect they, or dare I say ‘we,’ all share a profound feeling of understanding — of relating to each other’s narratives. I certainly do, and that’s precisely what makes reading The Neo-Generalist almost like reading one’s own biography. A rather confronting experience.

But it’s not all stories. Martin and Mikkelsen have developed, what they call, the ‘infinite loop.’ This lemniscate cleverly combines the many different theories and ideas about specialism and generalism, including the WWW or polymathic generalist, and the somewhat troublesome T-shaped person, into a single inclusive continuum.

The specialist-generalist continuum

The loop shouldn’t be interpreted as a linear progression from one point or type to another. According to Martin, in a recent interview with E-180, “our own experiences (which we describe in the third chapter) and those of our interviewees (which are covered in the second part of the book) suggest a more hyperlinked progression across the continuum. Context dictates where you find yourself at any given point in time.”

It’s an interesting exercise to figure out your personal specialist-generalist continuum. Here’s my first, far from perfect attempt (it needs a lot more thought and reflection) …

My first attempt specialist-generalist continuum

(If you haven’t bought the book yet, here’s an earlier post by Richard Martin in which he explains the continuum, and the reasoning behind it, in more detail.)

So, back to that other question: do we need neo-generalists? And if so, why? I have already answered the first part of this question with a solid “yes,” but reality of course is never straightforward.

When asked by E-180, whether neo-generalism is the ‘new normal’ of agile, flexible, multi-hyphenated workers, Mikkelsen replies by saying that “we are currently witnessing a wide range of socioeconomic shifts, which indicate that the character traits and capabilities we associate with the neo-generalist will be in high demand in the future.” In the coming years, automation will make many specialist jobs obsolete, while new, increasingly hybrid ones will emerge. These jobs “require that people can work in complex teams and combine skills from, for example, engineering, arts, coding and computer science,” Mikkelsen continues. “It is a challenge we still haven’t figured out how to respond to, neither in organizations nor our educational systems. We have built our entire society around specialization, which makes it hard for many to understand and value what falls outside the boundaries and do not fit within established categories.”

I strongly agree with Mikkelsen, both with regard to the need for multidisciplinary thinking, as to the difficulty many neo-generalists experience in ‘silod’ systems, such as education or corporate environments.

The Neo-Generalist’s penultimate chapter, called Shadows, addresses this darker side of neo-generalism. In it, Simon Terry, an Australian change agent and business adviser, and also a great amateur baker, shares how the CEO of a retail bank Terry was working for, told him that his generalism was perceived as a problem. “It rendered him difficult to categorise, which meant that whenever promotion opportunities arose, he would always be overlooked,” Martin en Mikkelsen write. “Only through the visible demonstration of deep expertise in a specialist field can recognition be gained in situations like these. The ability to add value across numerous fields may be acknowledged but rarely rewarded.”

But this value is certainly not always acknowledged. Far from it. Legend has it that Picasso was sketching in the park when a bold woman approached him, and asked if he would sketch her portrait. Picasso agreed, and after studying her for a moment, he used a single pencil stroke to create her portrait. “It’s perfect,” she gushed, “you have managed to capture my essence with one stroke, in one moment.” She thanked Picasso, obviously, and asked how much she owed him. “Five thousand dollars,” the artist replied. How is that possible, she wanted to know, for only a few minutes of endeavour. To which Picasso responded, “No, madam, it took me my whole life.”

Of course, not every neo-generalist is a Picasso. Nevertheless, a single insight or observation, a single pencil stroke, which, to others, might seem like a spur of the moment, can have transformative power. But how does one value such a ‘flash’ in a world that measures success in terms of quantity rather than quality? That values words and slide decks over impact, form and substance over meaning.

This raises a number of important questions. Many companies, and society as a whole, face complex interconnected challenges. Responding to these ‘wicked problems’ not only requires deep expertise, it also, and maybe above all, demands cross-pollination from a wealth of accumulated knowledge and lived experience. So, how do we make this happen, knowing that there is something far too valuable at stake to simply leave it to chance? Raising this, and other questions makes The Neo-Generalist more than a book about ‘quirky’ people. It’s a timely call to action. A call to change the way we run our organisations, our society. Not just for the benefit of neo-generalists, but for the benefit of all of us.

Its final chapter is called Fade out, and maybe that’s the only ‘mistake’ Martin and Mikkelsen make ‡. Instead of fading out, we should turn up the volume. Let The Neo-Generalist be the start of a conversation about what and who it takes to solve today’s wicked problems. An inclusive conversation. I, for one, am more than happy to shout from the rooftops…

‡ As it turns out, there is a cinematographic explanation for the chosen title, as Richard Martin explains in his post Fade out. [Sadly, this post is no longer available.]

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