Working Notes of a Practising Neo-Generalist (#3) — On wandering minds (and feet)

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“If anyone can refute me — show me I’m making a mistake or looking at things from the wrong perspective — I’ll gladly change. It’s the truth I’m after, and the truth never harmed anyone. What harms us is to persist in self-deceit and ignorance.” — Marcus Aurelius in Meditations, Book 6:21 (translated by Gregory Hays, The Modern Library, New York)

On wandering minds (and feet)

I have always been easily bored. Already as a child, nothing could captivate my attention for long spells. Yet, I was interested in many different things. However temporarily and briefly enjoyed, my interests could still run deep. But as soon as I knew enough, or something more interesting came along, my mind wandered off. This ‘restless’ curiosity never dwindled. It’s with me even today, however, far less ‘all over the place.’

Secondary school was my first real battle ground. Like all other children in the Netherlands, I was forced to quickly narrow down the number of main subjects, and focus my attention. It didn’t suit my eagerness for discovering the ‘unknown.’ Neither did it correspond with the way in which my head seemed to work. Although I didn’t have a hard time ‘result wise,’ it wasn’t intellectually challenging either. It was all far too easy to put in a real effort. So, I hardly ever did.

I subsequently went to university, hoping it would change for the better, but it didn’t. I had never felt so lost as during those years. First, I tried to get to grips with Information Management, back then an entirely new studies, but it wasn’t for me. I decided to stay in Rotterdam to study international law, but being bored yet again, I tried to skip as many lectures as I possibly could — apart from philosophy of law and a few ‘obscure’ subjects such as Roman law. Without knowing what else to do in life, apart from reading and watching test matches on the BBC, I started wandering through Rotterdam and other cities in the Netherlands and Belgium. Once I became familiar with their streets and neighborhoods, their people, I started noticing things I hadn’t seen before, often very small things. Unwittingly, I was training myself to observe the world and people around me. Trying to look at, by now, familiar things with ‘fresh eyes.’ Like the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas has a particular attention for what it neglected, I developed an eye for anomalies. And a lasting love for strolling around without a specific goal or destination — for being a ‘flâneur.’

You could easily mistake my wanderings for loneliness, maybe emptiness even, but it was nothing like that at all. I met all sorts of people who I would otherwise never have met, developed an interest in architecture, and got to know myself pretty well along the way. Those ‘wandering years’ at university have formed me as an individual in ways that lectures on, say criminology or civil law could never have done. It turned me into an observer — neither in nor out, already on the edge of inside.

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Belvedere III, sculpture in concrete and wood, by Renato Nicolodi (2007).

In the final year of my studies, I decided to follow a marketing minor at the Faculty of Economics. As it turned out, I had stumbled upon something I was really interested in, especially in its human behavioral side. I seemed to understand what motivates and drives people, far better than my fellow students. Flâneurs make for better marketers, apparently.

After completing my studies, I got a job at the marketing department of a professional publisher. To be honest, nobody else would have me. But to my astonishment, my ‘marketering’ colleagues weren’t at all interested in people or their behavior. They excelled in writing brochures and making ads. To them, marketing was merely a function at the end of a long publishing line — a way of pushing products onto the market.

I somehow persisted, against all odds, and was eventually ‘promoted’ into a publishing job. (“Good riddance,” they must have thought.) From there on, I climbed the corporate career ladder, rapidly. It gave me an often self-created opportunity to turn things around — to transform existing media companies, and even build a few new ones. Being able to see things differently turned out to be a great help, especially given the freedom I had, or ‘simply’ created for myself. In 2006 however, I concluded it could only get bigger, not different. ‘Bigger’ meant more meetings, larger spreadsheets, and, above all, being further away from the market. Time had come to move on.

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Personal Museum II, sculpture in concrete and wood, by Renato Nicolodi (2010).

Round that time, I also came to realize that the condition I suffer(ed) from has a name. I had, apparently, always been ‘highly gifted.’ Back in the early 70s, when I went to primary school, this “wasn’t an available condition,” as Sir Ken Robinson would say. Suddenly, it made sense why I had always been ‘rebelling’ intellectually — wanting to know ‘why,’ never settling for the first answer, the wanderings in my head, which turned into a physical activity during my years as student, the continuous synthesizing of ideas, concepts.

This is all ‘pretty cool stuff,’ of course, but being highly gifted has also had, and still has, several serious disadvantages. During my education, obviously, but also afterwards — rigth from the start of my career until this very day. The root problem is how we view and value people like me, but also how we have organized work — in silo’s based on specific domain expertise. Nice if you are a specialist, but far from nice if you are, what Richard Martin and Kenneth Mikkelsen call, a neo-generalist.

From early on, children are being pushed into this mold. Even today, with all our knowledge of what is needed to confront the many complex challenges we face as a society, they still need to ‘choose this over the other’ to become highly skilled and knowledgeable at one particular subject. Many don’t seem to mind, and that’s quite understandable because the rewards for being an expert can be very high, and not only financially. And indeed, let’s not forget we still need specialists in many domains. You wouldn’t want me to operate on you. So. it’s certainly not a case of ‘either-or’ but ‘both-end.’ But evermore people have second thoughts about their chosen career paths, despite all the ‘goodies.’

I have never been willing to choose, and I haven’t. This wasn’t always easy, and it has come at a price. On the one hand, it has brought me enormous freedom. On the other hand though, work can be a struggle as most people find it difficult to understand and value my cross-disciplinairy thinking and doing. “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,” said Kenneth Mikkelsen in a recent interview with E-180. And he’s right. Yet, despite all the talking about the importance of ‘connecting the dots’ and tearing down silo’s, nothing much happens. I haven’t seen many walls come crumbling down. Many HR departments continue to hire for cultural fit, which actually means ‘people just like us,’ as well as their search for experts, often in increasingly narrow domains.

At the same time, though, every single company and organization is being challenged by complexity, uncertainty, ambiguity — confronted with ‘wicked problems.’ Exploring possible responses, and finding answers and solutions to these challenges requires more than deep domain expertise. What these companies and organizations, and, as a matter of fact, society as a whole, need isn’t more experts.

What we need is a few ‘wandering minds’ — flâneurs who are capable of traversing diverse neighborhoods; who notice what others miss or can’t see yet; who aren’t afraid of being wrong. Please, get yourself a few of those, quickly. Your future might depend on it…

“All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.”

— J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

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