How many people do you know who don’t work in the field they studied for? In my case—and it’s probably skewed by having worked around technology for years—it sure feels like most people I know have jumped (or carefully transitioned) to other fields. People who know many domains, who work and play across a variety of disciplines, who repeatedly develop targeted skills and broad knowledge, are everywhere and kind of fascinate me.
My hunch is also that a lot of our readers here and the readers of our collaborative learning newsletter are doing exactly that; learning, thinking and working across disciplines, seeking new knowledge every day.
Those are but two of the reasons why this concept of the neo-generalist, put forth by Kenneth Mikkelsen and Richard Martin in a new book coming out in September, has drawn my attention since the term first started popping up in my network.
“The neo-generalist is both specialist and generalist, often able to master multiple disciplines.” It sounds like a number of concepts you might have seen used but there are some unique aspects to their view, a lot of thinking behind it and they graciously agreed to take the time for some questions to delve deeper in this topic.
Patrick Tanguay— E-180 spends quite a bit of time looking at peer and collaborative learning and the power of discussion and what happens through good conversation. When the three of us chatted initially I mentioned the Take your ideas for a walk article about two authors talking through and structuring a book over a series of walks around Paris. There are some commonalities with your own story, can you tell us more?
Richard Martin— We have taken our ideas for a walk both digitally and in the physical world. Our friendship began online with mutual appreciation of one another’s writing and curation. We then connected via Twitter and talked on Skype. The first time we met in person was in Paris at a business conference in February 2014. In the book, we describe how we played truant one afternoon, heading instead for a walk around the Père Lachaise cemetery. Our conversation was inspired by the different tombstones we walked past, spinning off in multiple directions. We found we had a shared interest in polymathic generalism and a discomfort with simplistic labelling. The rest is history. Kenneth invited me to co-author a book with him later that year, and I said yes without even knowing what the topic was. The trust we had established that day was deep-rooted already. Online interaction and “idea walking” has remained very important to us. Evernote and Skype have been essential collaborative tools throughout the book’s genesis and completion. We have spent hours together walking the Whitstable coastline, and visiting favourite cafés, while we have talked around the ideas that appear in the book.
On a side note, both Kenneth and I have read Mash-up, the book that Ian Sanders and David Sloly wrote together after their own Parisian wanderings. There are even some thematic overlaps between the two books. Ian and I live opposite one another on the Thames estuary, and have chatted about our shared interests over coffee before.
Walking ties in with a certain wanderlust, an eagerness to explore and discover what lies beyond the known territory.
Kenneth Mikkelsen— The concept of movement is a recurring theme in our book. Neo-generalists move from not knowing to knowledge and back again. Our identity is constantly in the making as we attune to new environments and contexts. We traverse the spaces between polarities, bridging generalism and specialism. Where you go is who you are, as we indicate in the subtitle. For me, walking ties in with a certain wanderlust, an eagerness to explore and discover what lies beyond the known territory—not only geographically but also professionally and mentally. We begin our book with a quote from Antonio Machado that we both hold very dear. It says that there is no road, the road is made by walking. This is true for any creative process. You take a step into the unknown where you have to allow yourself to get lost in order to find the right way forward. For us, walking became a meditative, filtration process where many crucial decisions about what to include and what to leave out were made. I imagine it can be difficult to write a book as equal partners, especially if you don’t know each other well before embarking on such a challenging journey. When we agreed to write the book together, it was still unknown whether we had the same pace, commitment and endurance to keep walking when we encountered obstacles along the road. I think we both sensed that we would be able to overcome that, but I never imagined that we would also build such a strong relationship in the process. Richard has enriched my life not only as a friend but also as a fellow, critical writer. I trust his opinion and know that he will always deliver on his promises and offer genuine feedback. It is quite symbolic that we met physically for the first time in Paris, the birthplace of the flâneur as described in the writings of Charles Baudelaire, among others. We are both wanderers who love to observe people and collect mental notes that we use to make sense of the world that we live in. We will always have Paris, but many layers have been added since we walked the dusty roads of Père Lachaise.
It’s clear that there are more and more people we can call neo-generalists but why do you think they are needed? (I would even tend to say thriving.)
As big picture thinkers and why-seekers, neo-generalists shine light in unfamiliar places.
KM— There is no shortage of reductionistic solutions in our workplaces or in politics to the challenges we face as a human species. From the industrial era, we have learned to operate in a default setting where most things are seen in absolutes, in either/or perspectives. Division of labor and hyperspecialism has served us well in the past but it also has fragmented our society and compartmentalized our thinking. We have become victims of the streetlight effect where we primarily look for solutions where it is easiest, meaning in confined, specialist domains. As big picture thinkers and why-seekers, neo-generalists shine light in unfamiliar places. We need that to solve interconnected and complex challenges. Neo-generalists are driven by a deep desire to understand how the dots connect and question the status quo relentlessly. By living in more than one world, they are exposed to a diverse set of interests, people and ideas. Their experiences as critical thinkers, shapeshifters, constant learners and boundary crossers make them uniquely qualified to help shape tomorrow’s world by thinking the unimaginable, exploring the unknown and doing what seems impossible to others.
RM— Neo-generalists are catalysts, sparks which move others to action. They are translators and border crossers, following their curiosity into the unknown, bridging between multiple disciplines, exposing people to new perspectives that challenge their preconceptions. I often use a network metaphor: The specialist resides in the nodes on a network. They mine deeply and develop narrow but important expertise. The generalist resides on the bridges that connect those nodes. But the neo-generalist, who is both generalist and specialist, is in constant flow between bridge and node. Their energy, responsiveness and connective capabilities help make things happen.
RM— We view the neo-generalist as an inclusive term. The second chapter of the book introduces the concept of the infinite loop, a continuum that connects hyperspecialism and polymathy, and visualizes the concept of neo-generalism. The various types you reference in your question are just points on the continuum. That is not to suggest that there is any linear progression from one point or type to another. 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.
KM— We introduce a new way of looking at specialism and generalism that recognizes the interdependency between the two. We do not buy into the idea that being a generalist or a specialist is more valuable than the other. We need both, but we have different preferences and it is the context that determines where we find and apply ourselves at any given time. We have deliberately not written a prescriptive how-to book that proposes five simple steps to reach nirvana and become a successful neo-generalist. The reason is simple. There is no single truth but many variations. Instead, we ask a series of questions about what constitutes a good life, how we can live with ambiguity and not knowing, why we need to be critical about our current educational systems, what it means to shape our own identity, why pattern recognition and horizon scanning is important, how we can leave a legacy, and what the shadow sides of being a neo-generalist are, just to mention a few. Our hope is that the readers will explore these questions with us and, hopefully, help broaden and enrich the conversation by sharing their thoughts and experiences.
Are there as many kinds of neo-generalists as there are people fitting the description or are there some common traits (or requirements) you’ve identified?
RM— There are many different kinds. We have spoken to people from around the globe and across the age spectrum. Men and women from a variety of business backgrounds, entrepreneurs, academics, people from the military and sports, scientists, artists, activists. Throughout the second part of the book, we focus on some common characteristics and behaviours, but I would not say they apply universally to every single individual. If I can abstract anything from the many conversations we have had both with interviewees for the book, as well as with other people, then it is that neo-generalists are curious, responsive and connective. They learn constantly; hunger for new knowledge, in fact. They effortlessly adapt to context, specializing and generalizing, leading and following. They constantly seek to connect and combine people and ideas in new and innovative ways, addressing big issues, maximizing opportunities.
Neo-generalists are curious, responsive and connective. They learn constantly; hunger for new knowledge, in fact. They effortlessly adapt to context, specializing and generalizing, leading and following.
KM— They are curious and adventurous people. Like Ishmael in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, they have an itch for new lands, a desire to see with fresh eyes. The neo-generalist is often a cultural and social explorer who has traveled, lived or worked in countries outside his or her native environment. In our conversations with people, we discovered that many are ferocious readers who read more than one book at a time. It is a way to enhance the reading experience and feed their cross-pollination gene. As part of their sense-making process, they generously share ideas and knowledge in conversations, writing or through curation. As a consequence, they engage in social interactions from which they learn, challenge conventional thinking and enrich the lives of others.
Is neo-generalism the “new normal” of agile / flexible /multi-hyphenated workers where it’s becoming a requirement for everyone or are they less common, bridging gaps, connecting silos?
RM— With the way that we still educate in our formal institutions, the manner in which we define, recruit to and assess jobs, I think it is far from the “new normal.” Many of the people we have spoken to have felt themselves to be outsiders, living at the edges, trying to make a difference despite being misunderstood and underappreciated. There is a long, long way to go. We hope that the book helps people recognise the value of the neo-generalist and their importance to shaping our future. That it also gives a level of comfort to those who self-identify as neo-generalists too. They are not alone, not as isolated as they may have once believed themselves to be.
KM— On a positive note, 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. Automation will make many specialists obsolete. At the same time, new jobs emerge that are increasingly hybrid. They require that people can work in complex teams and combine skills from, for example, engineering, arts, coding and computer science. 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.
My feeling is that though there are some career and employability explanations for the existence of neo-generalists, there are also—perhaps more interestingly—personal and lifestyle reasons. A shift in values and priorities where people look for a better fit, more flexibility, more meaning, etc. Would you agree? (And why?)
KM— As human beings we live in multiverses. Our identity is made up of a mélange of interconnected pieces. Yet, many people do not feel safe and secure enough to bring their whole selves to work. The increased focus on finding purpose and living a meaningful life in recent years is a response to this disconnect. For neo-generalists, passion and commitment is not a switch that can be turned on and off. They rarely separate work and life but rather strive to live an integrated life in accordance with their core values. It calls for a certain maturity to live with such clarity, focus and intention. In situations where their integrity is tested, neo-generalists are often willing to make hard, existential choices, which can involve walking away from a lucrative job or a business deal if it violates what they believe in. This has certainly been the case in my life. For the same reason, I am very selective about the people and organizations that I work with. I do not get involved with organizations where politics, hidden agendas, big egos and dishonesty are part of the game.
RM— The workplace and many of our social institutions are becoming increasingly atomised. David Weinberger’s phrase “small pieces loosely joined” often comes to mind, or Gordon MacKenzie’s notion of “orbiting the giant hairball.” We are ending up with small core organizations establishing time-bound partnerships with a cohort of business partners, suppliers and freelancers to deliver projects. In a work context, a neo-generalist approach can help make the individual freelancer increasingly relevant. As long as they remain adaptive. I returned to the freelance life 18 months ago after a 15-year hiatus working within organizations. It took me a while to find my feet again, but being unshackled from a job title and description has allowed me to exercise my neo-generalism in far more rewarding ways. Both for myself and, hopefully, those I have been supporting too. It suits my desire to work with different people, learn new things, spend more time with my family, use my time more effectively. I am enjoying the benefits but I recognise that there is a shadow side too, something that we explore in the last section of the book. By shedding other people’s labels, I have made myself harder to understand. But, on the plus side, I no longer have to check most of my interests, much of my knowledge and experience, at the door when I enter my place of work. I can draw on all of it, perform all the roles rather than the singular one ascribed to me.