The continuum

Multa novit vulpes, verum echinus unum magnum / The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog one big thing.
— Desiderius Erasmus, Adages

We are tornadoes that pick up fragments from the most varied historical and biological origins. This makes of us—thankfully—fickle agglomerations that maintain a fragile equilibrium, that are inconsistent and complex, that can’t be reduced to any fixed framework that does not inevitably leave out a great deal.
— Elena Ferrante, Frantumaglia

Edges involve extremes. Edges are borders. Edges are very much about identity, about who you are. Crossing a border is not a simple thing. Geopolitically, getting anywhere around the world in which we live requires a constant producing of proof of identity. Who are you? You can’t cross till we’re sure. When we know, then we’ll decide whether you can or not.
— Ali Smith, Artful

The Greek poet Archilochus observed that the hedgehog knows one big thing but that the fox is curious about many things. His anthropomorphic distinction between specialism and generalism appealed to the Renaissance scholar Erasmus who included the idea in his Adages.

Isaiah Berlin popularised the concept further as he assessed the writings of Tolstoy and his Russian compatriots. He recognised the distinction between personal preference for one tendency and the lived reality of its alternative.

Philip Tetlock applied the hedgehog and fox distinctions to expertise. He realised that there was a continuum between the two. Nothing was black and white. Hybridisation was possible. Context was important for determining where one found oneself on the continuum.

The hedgehog and the fox

But the hedgehog and the fox only told part of the story. The extremes of the continuum are the domains of the hyperspecialist and the polymath.

The continuum as line

Given the shape of the Earth, a straight line will eventually lead back to its starting point. To chase the horizon is, eventually, to return home.

When the continuum is transformed into a circle, therefore, the hyperspecialist and the polymath find themselves nestled alongside one another. Initial surprise gives way to understanding: the polymath, in effect, is an individual who hyperspecialises multiple times over. They are serial masters.

The continuum as circle

The line and circle, however, misleadingly suggest some form of step-by-step progression. The reality is more complicated than that. As the context shifts, so does the individual. We experience hyperlinked, disjointed travels on the continuum. Sometimes we specialise, sometimes we generalise, regardless of where our preferences lie. The Möbius strip or infinite loop better reflect the experience.

The continuum as infinite loop

The neo-generalist is an inclusive term that incorporates all the different types that appear on the continuum: the specialists, the hedgehogs, the foxes, the renaissance men and women, the multipotentialites, the multi-hyphenates, the jacks of all trades, the Pi-shaped, the comb-shaped, the T-shaped (even if they are often miscategorised, misunderstood) and the polymathic generalists.

The specialist–generalist continuum

In The Neo-Generalist, Kenneth Mikkelsen and I explore how those with a preference for polymathic generalism nevertheless find themselves in constant and restless motion, responding and adapting to context. We illustrate our argument with stories drawn from interviewees, historical figures, business, activism, science, sport, the military, art and popular culture.

You can see how these various musings provide a theoretical foundation for our exploration of neo-generalism in chapter two of the book. Our personal stories are mapped to the specialist–generalist continuum in chapter three. My own version can be seen below, while Kenneth has shared his on a LinkedIn post. Meanwhile, Mark Storm, who is featured in the book, has published his in an article on Medium.

Richard's neo-generalist story

‘This isn’t just an ordinary up-and-down lift!’ announced Mr Wonka proudly. ‘This lift can go sideways and longways and slantways and any other way you can think of! It can visit any single room in the whole factory, no matter where it is!’ … ‘The whole lift is made of thick, clear glass!’ Mr Wonka declared. ‘Walls. doors, ceiling, floor, everything is made of glass so you can see out!’
— Roald Dahl, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

I can’t think of a single philosophical reason why sameness should be valued over variety or incremental changes over great leaps.
— Siri Hustvedt, Living, Thinking, Looking

To have a home is to have a biography. A narrative to refer to in years to come.
— Deborah Levy, Swallowing Geography


Further reading: