Talking polymathy

Robert Twigger, the author of Micromastery, kindly invited me to answer some questions about polymathy. Robert’s own writing on the topic has been a personal source of inspiration for many years, exemplified by his Aeon essay. Our exchange was published on the Idries Shah Foundation blog. I am grateful to Robert and the ISF for permission to reproduce it here.

I found untouched the desert of the unknown,
Big enough for my feet. It is my home.
— W. S. Merwin, ‘Noah’s Raven’

I skip along in frequencies, my all-
black bandwidth crackles.
— Fran Lock, Nothing Grows Here But the Weather

and the distance he’s kept from his different selves
is all undone
— Jacob Polley, ‘Les Symbolistes’

Robert Twigger: Why is polymathy shunned in many public educational areas? Why do writers on polymathy prefer to avoid the term?

Richard Martin: I wonder if one of the issues is about the definition of the term. In the OED, a polymath is defined as ‘a person of wide knowledge and learning’. Some will find the apparent emphasis on study, intelligence and intellect off-putting. Others seek practical application. A frequent challenge is framed as follows: It is all very well acquiring all this knowledge and learning, but where is the evidence of its being put into practice?

When Kenneth Mikkelsen and I were researching our book The Neo-Generalist, only one interviewee expressly stated a desire to become a polymath. It was an aspiration, the objective of a learning journey they had embarked upon. Several others, however, indicated an unwillingness to associate themselves with the term. Partly, this was motivated by humility despite their obvious mastery of serial disciplines. Partly, it was the result of fear – fear of being misunderstood, miscategorised. It was something we found with much of the terminology associated with polymathy and generalism. Over time, these terms have been transformed into ones of dismissal and abuse.

What had initially started out as a study of what might loosely be termed ‘polymathic generalism’ ended up being something more sweeping and inclusive. Our term neo-generalist is intended to span the whole spectrum from polymathy to hyperspecialism. Our insight was that few individuals remain static on that continuum, which we visualised as an infinite loop. Everyone can specialise or generalise. What they do at a given point in time is largely governed by context. But it is the curious, responsive and connective who are the most comfortable with these constant shifts.

The polymathic generalists we were initially drawn to had much in common with the micromasters you explore in your own book. What was remarkable about them was how they had varying levels of depth in multiple disciplines as well as huge breadth across diverse industries, hobbies and interests. There was both macromastery as well as micromastery. Most are combinatorial in their approach, picking and mixing, hybridising knowledge, experience and practice across multiple domains.

It is this magpie approach, which defies easy categorisation or labelling, that presents problems to our academic institutions and places of work. Their models have been fine-tuned for the deep specialists, and have their foundations in the approaches to work and education that were encouraged in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. A polymath does not fit in our line-and-box conception of corporate organisational structures. They are bored by the hermetically sealed approach to classroom study, in which a subject is isolated from all others. Music and mathematics are separated, geography and history, physics and philosophy.

Robert: Are some cultures more polymathic than others? Which can we learn from?

Richard: I’m not convinced it is a case of cultural differentiation so much as temporal. When people talk of polymaths, they often start with figures from the pre-industrial era: the ancients of China, the Middle East, North Africa and Southern Europe; the shining lights of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. But there is a radical shift after that. After the Industrial Revolution, there seems to be greater compartmentalisation, separation of functions and emphasis on specialisation. The polymath becomes the exception rather than the norm of an educated or inquisitive person.

I come back to the consideration of context and need. Over the past year, I have been working as ghostwriter on a book about Nordic leadership. One aspect it explores is the legacy of the Vikings on the Nordic region. The Vikings were essentially a network of small communities in which people had to be multidisciplinarian. Without it, you simply would not survive the harsh winters. So any given individual on a long ship, for example, might be a combination of warrior, sailor, craftsman and/or farmer. These multiple talents were put in service of the community, the multidisciplinarity evidenced individually and collectively.

The Neo-Generalist and Micromastery

When The Neo-Generalist met Micromastery, December 2017

Robert: In your book The Neo-Generalist – a fascinating read – is there one point you’d like to summarise as being of most urgent importance for people today?

Richard: Relevance. Without multidisciplinarity, fuelled by curiosity, and enabled by a willingness to adapt to ever-shifting contexts, it is unlikely that you can retain it.

Many specialist tasks no longer require humans to perform them. So, it is important that we exercise our creativity and ingenuity, our capacity to mix up different interests and skills, in order to address the problems and leverage the opportunities that AI and robotics cannot. But such an outlook really requires dismantling our current approach to education and how we think about recruitment, employment, career progression and organisational structure.

Robert: We live in a culture in which the physical is increasingly absent from our work. Should we think about integrating that into intellectual endeavours? How?

Richard: The physical is absent from a lot of office work, or jobs that require a lot of screen or wheel time. But I think it is still evident in the way many work whether that is in service roles, retail, healthcare, education, agriculture or manufacturing.

When I was a commuter, I spent a lot of time sitting: on a train, on a bus, in the office, stuck in meetings. Now that I’m a freelance writer and editor, I still experience much time at my desk. But I seek out and require personal locomotion to help me think and create too, whether that is walking on the beach or in the woods, venturing out into the Kentish countryside on my bike or doing a few household chores.

Activity frees my mind. The mechanics of motion actually shakes loose and helps organise my ideas. I often say that I do my best writing on my bike, drafting and re-drafting in my head while I ride. The observation of action by other people I also find essential. I have gained more insight about people, roles and organisation by watching professional cycling and rugby, for example, than from any business conference or book. You see abstraction put into practice, made visible and tangible.

Robert: What sort of connections do you make between polymathy and storytelling?

Richard: Scheherazade in One Thousand and One Nights is the narrator as polymath, demonstrating an immense breadth and depth of knowledge. In addition to sport, I filter my understanding and appreciation of the world around me through the arts, in particular fiction and film. I’ve learned more about the great scientific advances of the 20th century, for example, from novelists and poets than from any formal study of physics or chemistry.

The art that emerged in the early decades of the last century was as much a vehicle for new ideas about time, anthropology, the mind and quantum physics as it was experimental in form and subject matter. In fact, T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land gave Kenneth and I a concept – shoring fragments – that served as a major theme and an organising principle for our book.

In chapter 9 of The Neo-Generalist, we make the case for the polymathic generalist as someone who is adept at both sense-making and storytelling. We use the metaphor of the detective for this, as well as the investigative journalist. People who draw on wide sources of information, mash it up, analyse and internalise, then present it back out to others, influencing them and their actions. The detective and journalist have this ability to cross borders, moving between worlds. Their stories have a catalytic effect, bridging across the divides. They bring together the polymath’s multiple domains of mastery.

Distortion is one way of making sense of things, she said,
which seemed too easy, but I wasn’t even born yet,
I hadn’t learned the art of asking questions
— Emily Berry, ‘Ghost Dance’

I ask the universe: What? and Why?
Now wakened, I must remake the world,
One grain at a time.
— Alan Lightman, Song of Two Worlds

That’s the thing about me. I’ve got a very fluid sense of self.
— Ali Smith, The Seer

Peloton interview

In Summer 2014, I was interviewed by Stowe Boyd about the concept of peloton formations. This was a topic that I had started to explore earlier in the year in a series of blog posts. Stowe published the interview, based on an email exchange, on 26 July 2014. It appeared on the Gigaom Research site under the title ‘The New Visionaries: Richard Martin on the Peloton’. I am grateful to Stowe and Gigaom for permission to reproduce it here.

Richard Martin wrote a series of posts in which he characterized people working together productively as being like the bicycle racing phenomenon of the peloton: the main group of riders that conserve energy by riding close together.

Martin’s exposition owes a great deal to Dan Pontefract, who used the analogy in a post last year, but Martin has intertwingled it with Jon Husband’s wirearchy notion, and the thinking of other theorists and practitioners.

I thought I’d ask Richard some questions, and the interchange below is the result.

Team Sky in Control

Sky in Control, Will Bakker, June 2011

Stowe Boyd: I think there is a great deal of depth in the metaphor of new way of work being like the peloton, which is the formation of cyclists in a road race. The cyclists ride in close formation because of the benefits in reducing drag, but of course different teams are trying to win the race even while benefiting from the aerodynamics of being in a pack.

Richard Martin: One of the things that unites the cycling peloton is common purpose. All the teams, all the riders, are trying to get from point A to point B on a designated course as safely and in the shortest amount of time possible. Additionally, day-by-day, in long stage races like the Tour de France, each team will have a slightly different objective. Some are aiming for the overall prize of the yellow jersey awarded to the rider who covers the entire course in the least amount of time. Others target the white jersey of the best young rider, the green jersey of the points classification leader or the polka-dot jersey of the mountain climber’s classification. The composition of their team may well reflect these particular goals. Others still may simply target a stage win on a specific day when the terrain and conditions suits their team or, more modestly, may hope for lengthy TV exposure for their corporate sponsors by getting one or more of their riders into the day’s breakaway.

Because of this mixture of goals, sometimes you will witness great examples of partnership, collaboration and cooperation between riders and different trade teams. There is also, of course, a lot of competition too. In the latter case, though, it might not just be people competing against one another but against the elements, the terrain or the clock. There is wonderful human drama in evidence in bicycle racing. There is also a lot of camaraderie and mutual respect that transcends the boundaries between trade or national teams. You can get a taste for this by following a few professional riders on Twitter.

In the context of the racing itself, it is evident on the days that the race routes head steeply upwards into mountainous terrain. While TV coverage focuses on the front end of the race, behind it the peloton fragments into many parts. Right at the back a gruppetto of riders forms, usually composed of the sprinters, the riders with bigger physiques, the cooked and the wounded. They work together regardless of team affiliation. Their goal is to arrive together as a single unit at the finish line within a time limit calculated on the basis of the stage winner’s finishing time. Another example of cross-team cooperation can be seen in the way breakaway riders work together to stay away from the peloton. It is only in the last kilometres of the stage when this cooperation gives way to competition again. The breakaway usually serves as the hare to the peloton’s greyhound. Occasionally, though, the hare eludes the hound – especially in cases when the cooperation between the breakaway group persists to within sight of the finish line.

From a business perspective, there is a lot to be said for this notion of common purpose that can help unite multiple divisions and project teams. But also for those willing to partner and cooperate with others, even those outside your own company. I recently read A. G. Lafley and Roger Martin’s Playing to Win. There are some good examples in it of when P&G realised they could create more value by partnering and cooperating with companies who were competitors in other fields. I think you witness evidence of this on a daily basis in the cycling peloton.

SB: On top of the manoeuvring of the teams against each other, there is a dynamic interplay among the members of a team, where they switch off in different roles, taking turns leading, sprinting and climbing. That seems to be in perfect alignment with the notion of fluid or emergent leadership: what I refer to as leanership. There has to be a lot of planning and communication for that to work, right?

RM: My thinking about this has been strongly influenced by Jon Husband and his concept of wirearchy. Jon defines wirearchy as: ‘a dynamic, two-way flow of power and authority, based on knowledge, trust, credibility and a focus on results, enabled by interconnected people and technology.’ What intrigues me about Jon’s concept is that he is not denying the existence of a hierarchy, but he recognises that this has shifted from a pyramid to a network model. Do any network analysis, and you will identify nodes of influence and authority. These do not recognise the stripes on the arm or the job titles that we associate with military-industrial ideas about hierarchy. These influential nodes are also in a constant state of flux. Leadership roles may be defined, as in more traditional notions of hierarchy, but what is different here is that people move fluidly to and from these roles, dependent on context and circumstance. So, as I work on multiple projects for my employer, in one situation I may be the leader, in another I will follow someone else’s lead, and in yet another I may be acting more in a consultancy capacity, providing specialist subject matter expertise.

You certainly observe this fluidity of roles and leadership responsibilities in the cycling team. This can be determined by a number of factors: terrain on the day, weather conditions, the form of the rider, experience. Even on the day itself leadership responsibilities will shift as the race progresses. Usually teams will have a road captain. In most cases this is not the team’s main sprinter or climber but one of the support riders or domestiques. This individual will be liaising with the directeur sportif via radios or visits to the team car, but there will also be a high degree of autonomy for the other riders, with each of them responding to what they see around them, assessing risks, seizing opportunities.

Some teams are built around sprinters who come into their own on flatter stages. Sprint trains form in front of the sprinter, with a line of riders following closely on one another’s wheel. The front rider punches a hole through the air, takes the wind resistance, and their colleagues ride in their slipstream. When they peel off another comes to the front, and so on until, with about 300m to go, the sprinter comes to the fore. All along, they will have been calling our instructions and encouragement from the rear of the sprint train. On mountainous days, the team puts themselves in service of their climber, who also, if they can time trial too, is often their contender for the overall general classification. The team members aim to deliver their leader to the foothills of the day’s final climb in the leading group so that they are in a position to compete for the stage victory or minimise the loss of time to their main rivals.

Cycling, in this sense, is infused with the idea of servant leadership. I think there were a couple of great examples of this from Team Sky at the 2012 Tour de France. Often we would see television images of Mark Cavendish, adorned in the rainbow stripes of the reigning world champion, ferrying water from the team car to his teammates. This, bear in mind, was the world’s dominant sprinter at the time, who was putting personal ambitions on hold in support of the team’s overall objective: securing the yellow jersey for Bradley Wiggins. On the final stage of the same race, with Wiggins’s and the team’s victory assured, we then witnessed a role reversal. The final stage is an iconic race for sprinters, one that Cavendish had won each of the previous three years. There in his sprint train, in service of Cavendish and his goal, was Wiggins leading out his friend and teammate.

As for planning, there is certainly a lot of work done. Many teams will visit certain climbs and stage finishes well in advance of the grand tours. On race day itself, they will send former road racing professionals ahead to check conditions (both of the road and the weather) and to communicate their findings back to the team car and the riders. British cycling coach Rod Ellingworth has written an illuminating book called Project Rainbow. It describes the collaborative work of backroom staff, coaches and riders in planning for the 2011 men’s world road race championships and for the 2012 Olympic Games race. For the GB team, their aim of securing bunch sprint finishes for Cavendish earned victory in the 2011 world championships and nothing at all at his home Olympics. The team rode strongly on both occasions, but others had learned how to counteract their tactics by the time of the latter race.

What emerges in bike racing are loose frameworks rather than detailed plans. This is not racing by remote control. It involves decision making at the edges as well as in team management. Not all variables can be accounted for, and riders need to be able to respond to what they see before them. This is well illustrated in a video exploring Team Garmin Sharp’s targeting of stage 9 of the 2013 Tour de France. Dave Brailsford, one of the leaders behind the recent success of British Cycling and Team Sky, is interviewed in Richard Hytner’s recent book, Consiglieri: Leading from the Shadows. He makes an interesting observation: ‘My approach is as an orchestra conductor, with an absolute recognition that the most important people in our world are the people who win and they’re the riders.’ Brailsford and colleagues can select the nine-man team for the Tour, but then they have to get out of the way and trust the instincts, expertise and experience of the riders on each day of racing.

SB: You’ve written about the various roles in a cycling team, and how these roles are similar to archetypes in the new way of work. The climber, for example, has attributes of a driven, high energy visionary. Perhaps you could give a short explanation of the other roles?

RM: When they step into their leadership roles on the flatter ground, sprinters are great salesmen. I mean this in the sense intended by Dan Pink in To Sell is Human. They sell ideas, galvanising their teammates, getting them to believe in their objective for the day, building common purpose, and inspiring them to invest effort in delivering them to the finish line, where they will complete the job. It is notable that the first action of the highly successful sprinters like Mark Cavendish, André Greipel and Marcel Kittel is that they greet their colleagues at the finish line to thank them for their efforts. There is also a commercial aspect to the sprinter’s salesmanship. They are often great communicators, comfortable in front of the media cameras and microphones. Their job is to cross the finish line, arms in the air, displaying the names and logos of their corporate sponsors. They are mobile, high velocity advertising hoardings.

Rouleurs are strong riders, adept in rolling terrain, time trials, sprint trains and chasing down breakaways. These are team people whose primary role is service of others, assuming domestique functions. I liken them to the internal service roles in corporations, the people in finance, facilities, HR, IT, learning and development and KM departments. Occasionally they are set free to pursue personal goals, getting into breakaways, winning time trials. This is not unlike the occasions when somebody from a support function takes on a leadership or specialist expert role in a corporate project.

Baroudeurs are among my favourite riders. These are the change agents, the chancers and experimenters. They constantly challenge the status quo, making things up as they go along, taking risks, testing their colleagues in the peloton. There was a great example of this in Tuesday’s Tour de France stage this week. A strong group of baroudeurs – people who can climb but not overall contenders for the Tour win – had formed an impressive breakaway. As they hit the final climb they began challenging one another, comfortable in the knowledge that one of their number would win the stage. Two riders from Team Europcar were working together, taking it turns to attack. They could not shake loose Michael Rogers from Team Tinkoff Saxo, though, and in the end he chose his moment to attack and just rode away from them. His post race interview was brilliant, demonstrating a cool, calculating mind, mental fortitude, a tolerance of risk and an acceptance of possible failure. If you do not try things out, how will you learn if they are going to work or not?

That covers the riders, but we must not forget that a role is also played by the tour organisers, the local government for the towns that play host to the start and end of each stage, the police, the backroom staff for each team, the directeurs sportifs, and the riders’ coaches, not to mention the crowds that line the route. These are the policy makers, the regulators, the landlords, the suppliers and customers that are all involved to varying degrees in a company’s business.

SB: It’s the fluidity and near flight of the peloton that makes it such an inspiring image. In one of your pieces you call it ‘humankind’s answer to the murmuration of starlings’. How can we transcend the poetic and aspiration of the peloton into concrete learning for the business, today?

RM: The reason I am so drawn to the metaphor of the cycling peloton as a model for organisational structure is because it is suggestive of responsiveness, fluidity, agility and adaptiveness. I like the idea of small pods or teams loosely joined, which respond and cater to their customer needs. This can mean the rapid forming, disbanding and reshaping of teams to deliver different projects. These can extend beyond organisational boundaries too, suggesting the permeability of the modern, responsive company. A project team can be comprised of your own employees working in partnership with people not on your payroll. It can include your customers and suppliers too.

The other thing I take away from bike racing is this idea of multiple systems being interdependent on one another. On any given day you could have a route that covers 200-plus kilometres, travelling through numerous towns and cities, over railway crossings, bridges and roundabouts. Agreements have to be drawn up with these communities, crowd control needs to be put in place, and the roads closed for a period of time. Then there is all the infrastructure of the race itself, the catering vehicles, publicity caravan, the media, the gendarmerie, the team cars and support vehicles. There are the huge crowds too, who on mountainous stages will be spilling on to the road, and who have to be trusted not to interfere with the riders as they pass by. On top of all that there are the meteorological conditions and the state of the roads to be traversed too. A huge spaghetti soup of complex interlocking systems. No one of these systems can be treated in isolation. Just like the different systems that shape and inform the operation of any other business.

I get frustrated when I hear people talking about work as an ecosystem operating in splendid isolation from everything else – government policy, financial markets, customer needs. As a counter argument I’m inclined to use an example that affected me earlier this year: we experienced heavy rainfall in Kent where I live. When the rain stopped our streets were lightly dusted with sand from the Saharan desert. What a great example of how different ecosystems connect and are dependent on one another.

Richard’s expansion of Pontefract’s peloton metaphor is rich and illuminating. The interplay between different roles in the teams is captivating, and so is the manner in which individuals lead at the front – to break the air for the peloton and their teammates in it – and then fall back into the pack as another – often a competitor – presses forward to take a turn at the front.

Martin draws our attention to the image of ‘small teams, loosely joined’ – an allusion to David Weinberger’s Small Pieces Loosely Joined, I’m sure. I’ve written on the distinction between different social scales, and the way that the interplay differs in small sets of people – networks of a few or a handful of people – versus the louder and less intimate interactions of social scenes, where dozens or hundreds may be connected.
I’ve made the claim that we live our work lives in our sets, although businesses may want to treat us as scenes, thinking that it is easier and more efficient. But we are more at home and at ease when working as a sprinter or climber on a team, jostling for position in the peloton, signalling and pushing the team ahead, one of the loosely joined.