Bridging poles

Earlier this week, I had the good fortune to discuss neo-generalism in the company of Lucy Moore, Al Smith, Cath Bishop and Ella Saltmarshe at the UK Sport PLx conference in Manchester. This latest addition to the bricolage series pulls together some ideas regarding continuums and pluralism touched upon in passing during our conversation.

Whenever there’s an ending, look for the beginning.
— Amy Arnold, Slip of a Fish

Factfulness is … recognizing when a story talks about a gap, and remembering that this paints a picture of two separate groups, with a gap in between. The reality is often not polarized at all. Usually the majority is right there in the middle, where the gap is supposed to be.
— Hans Rosling, Factfulness

Polarities to manage are sets of opposites which can’t function well independently. Because the two sides of a polarity are interdependent, you cannot choose one as a ‘solution’ and neglect the other.
— Barry Johnson, Polarity Management

Nothing exists without duality, simultaneous as a shadow
— Anne Michaels, Infinite Gradation

I am a Saturn who dreams of being a Mercury, and everything I write reflects these two impulses.
— Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium

My fox/hedgehog model is not a dichotomy. It is a spectrum.
— Philip Tetlock & Dan Gardner, Superforecasting

For there exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system, less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel – a single, universal, organising principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance – and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause, related to no moral or aesthetic principle.
— Isaiah Berlin, The Hedgehog and the Fox

Swans by M. C. Escher

Swans by M. C. Escher

It is not either-or, it is both-and, and that is a central part of metamodernity.
— Lene Rachel Andersen, Metamodernity

There wasn’t a single meaning. There were many meanings. It was a riddle expanding out and out and out.
— Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch

This is not a matter of arguing so much as of perceiving. It’s a matter of vision. And when it comes to vision, we need to be able to see contrary things and believe them both true: ‘Without Contraries is no progression’ (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell), despite the scorn of rationalists whose single vision rejects anything that is not logically coherent.
— Philip Pullman, Dæmon Voices

The range of human knowledge today is so great that we’re all specialists and the distance between specialisations has become so great that anyone who seeks to wander freely among them almost has to forego closeness with the other people around him.
— Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Losing perspective is an intellectual virtue because it requires mourning, confusion, reorientation, and new thoughts. Without it, knowledge slogs along in its various narrow grooves, but there will be no leaps, because the thinner my perspective, the more likely it is for me to accept the preordained codes of a discipline as inviolable truths. A willingness to lose perspective means an openness to others who are guided by a set of unfamiliar propositions.
— Siri Hustvedt, Living, Thinking, Looking

Change happens at the boundaries of things: the boundary between the known and the unknown, the familiar and the different, between the old way and the new way, the past and the future.
— Dave Gray, Liminal Thinking

The liminal area of one thing, by definition, has to meet the edge of something else even if that’s thin air. Limbo suspends bodies and minds in-between.
— Dan Fox, Limbo

At the edges of the given patterns, there are liminal zones. The boundaries. This is where interaction takes place. These are the places where the directions of potential pathways as yet uncharted live.
— Nora Bateson, Small Arcs of Larger Circles

In short, trickster is a boundary-crosser. Every group has its edge, its sense of in and out, and trickster is always there, at the gates of the city and the gates of life, making sure there is commerce. He also attends the internal boundaries by which groups articulate their social life. We constantly distinguish – right and wrong, sacred and profane, clean and dirty, male and female, young and old, living and dead – and in every case trickster will cross the line and confuse the distinction. Trickster is the creative idiot, therefore, the wise fool, the grey-haired baby, the cross-dresser, the speaker of sacred profanities. Where someone’s sense of honorable behavior has left him unable to act, trickster will appear to suggest an amoral action, something right/wrong that will get life going again. Trickster is the mythic embodiment of ambiguity and ambivalence, doubleness and duplicity, contradiction and paradox.
— Lewis Hyde, Trickster Makes This World

He’s not just one thing or another. Nobody is. Not even you.
— Ali Smith, Autumn

A cross-disciplinary curiosity is vital for originality in any field of creative endeavor. But solving the major unsolved problems in any one discipline requires deep expertise in it, even if the final insight is aided by a wide lens on surrounding fields.
— Maria Popova, Figuring

Questions are invitations to conversations in business boardrooms, community groups and in institutions of governance. Questions are ways to build bridges between these different sectors and between different disciplines that compartmentalize our knowledge. Questions – and the conversations they spark – can unleash collective intelligence and help us value multiple perspectives.
— Daniel Christian Wahl, Designing Regenerative Cultures

Everyone automatically categorizes and generalizes all the time. Unconsciously. It is not a question of being prejudiced or enlightened. Categories are absolutely necessary for us to function. They give structure to our thoughts.
— Hans Rosling, Factfulness

A gift for embracing paradox is not the least of the equipment an activist should have.
— Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark

You gotta think about it the same way as if you want to see it. You got to look at it sideways. Out the corner of your eye. So you gotta think about it out the corner of your mind. It’s there and it en’t, both at the same time.
— Philip Pullman, The Secret Commonwealth

I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason
— John Keats, Letter to George & Tom Keats, 22 December 1818

the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.
— F. Scott Fitzgerald, ‘The Crack-Up’

we were born with an opposable mind we can use to hold two conflicting ideas in constructive tension.
— Roger Martin, The Opposable Mind

this straining and stretching to a higher level which is the specific challenge of a divergent problem, a problem in which irreconcilable opposites have to be reconciled.
— E. F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful

It’s the place where reality strikes the ideal, where a joke becomes serious and anything serious is a joke. The magic point where every idea and its opposite are equally true.
— Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch

When others interact with us we often have to adjust our view of reality.
— David Didau, What If Everything You Knew About Education Was Wrong?

Because, between ‘reality’ on the one hand, and the point where the mind strikes reality, there’s a middle zone, a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being, where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not: and this is the space where all art exists, and all magic.
— Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch

When we push beyond a boundary, we often discover that what lies beyond is not so strange. We are still ourselves. But what we learn is that to bridge differences is better than to place barriers in front of them. Perhaps there is no waste ground, only ground with which we are not familiar.
— M. W. Bewick & Ella Johnston, The Orphaned Spaces

Sketch of the neo-generalist continuum

Sketch of the neo-generalist continuum

Answers or Questions.
The sum or its parts.
Inside or Outside.
Light or Dark.
Sun or Shade.
Empty or Full.

And yet most things that seem like binaries don’t really hold, once you being to think about them in any great detail.

In the sense that every doorway is both an entrance and an exit. Open – close – arrive – depart. And so the threshold, the indeterminate place – hover, pause – is the most interesting space.
— Emily LaBarge, ‘Adaptation’

Show your map

Like all people who feel uncomfortable in an uncomfortable world you want to make a map. Well let me tell you it is difficult to make a map in splintered times when whole worlds and histories collide.
— Deborah Levy, Beautiful Mutants

We organize information on maps in order to see our knowledge in a new way.
— Peter Turchi, Maps of the Imagination

The story is a map, the landscape a narrative.
— Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust

‘What do you do?’ is a conversational gambit that many people dread hearing. How to respond? What if you consider yourself hyphenate, a multifaceted individual who, for pleasure or for income, does many things? What if you find it difficult to communicate this in a digestible way? What if your personal sense of identity and self-worth is founded upon the avoidance of neat labels and the impulse to categorise? Do you filter and select, presenting just part of who you are? Often this is the most convenient path to take.

It is one I am guilty of having followed recently, with a website rebrand, focused on who I am and what I currently do. The indalogenesis domain name that I had used since late 2013 had a defunct Twitter association, as well as a story involving a childhood home, a regional symbol (the índalo) and a love of cycling. But it did not convey what I can offer to potential clients as a freelance writer, editor and mentor. So I have replaced it with richardmartinwriter. Even then I have had to erase the hyphens, highlighting just the writing aspect of the services I offer. What am I? Who am I? A writer and and and.

The ‘What do you do?’ question requires a simplified response. It demands abstraction and clarity in the same way that a job application form, CV template and LinkedIn profile do. There is little allowance for the complexities and occasional chaos of our lived experience. Where there is space for commentary of any sort, we are expected to apply a degree of narrative coherence, making sense of memories and past events, creating connection and continuity. It is necessary to supply a beginning, middle and end, summarising what has brought us to this current juncture in our lives.

Reality is invariably more shambolic than this. More a hyperlinked web of avenues followed and retraced, jump cuts to elsewhere, occasional returns, disappearances and new beginnings. It is a ball of wool, a tangle of spaghetti, rather than a long straight line or a ladder extending ever-upwards. There are parallel paths too, simultaneously followed, within this entangled mess. Both/and rather than either/or. In his recent book Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine, Alan Lightman observes, ‘From all the physical and sociological evidence, the world appears to run not on absolutes but on relatives, context, change, impermanence, and multiplicity. Nothing is fixed. All is in flux.’ Our lives in a nutshell.

This is what Kenneth and I were grappling with when we were thinking through the theory behind The Neo-Generalist. It resulted in the continuum, which attempted to visualise the blending of specialism and generalism, and the disjointed, contextual experiences that characterise learning and work. While we walked and talked, we took in a Grayson Perry exhibition in Margate, which fuelled hours of additional conversation. While it was on, Provincial Punk, hosted by the Turner Contemporary gallery, provided me with several opportunities to spend time standing in front of Perry’s A Map of Days.

Fragment from Map of Days by Grayson Perry

Fragment from A Map of Days by Grayson Perry

In the Map, Perry presents his complex personality and plural identity in the form of a walled city. Streets, buildings and other locales represent personal traits and behaviours, indicating a self-exploration that embraces both the positive and the negative, that poses questions, as well as providing answers, binding together truth and fiction. At the centre of Perry’s map is a labyrinthine garden, in which a figure walks, off-centre, pursuing ‘a sense of self’. Each time I look at the Map, either in a gallery or online, I question how my own version would differ from Perry’s. What words would I choose? What images?

As a reader, writer and erstwhile film academic (yet more hyphens), both words and images exert a certain magnetism on me. Together they are particularly powerful. Images, of course, were one of our earliest forms of communication, including the aforementioned índalo found on a cave wall in southeastern Spain. Each of the letters we use to write are themselves images, so it could be argued that the bond between word and picture has always been hidden in plain sight as far as typography is concerned. Why, then, are we so limited when invited to sell ourselves to a potential employer? Why do only words matter to the recruiter? Why is such weight lent to words either of the most simplistic and anodyne variety or words so buzzy they are hollowed out of all meaning?

So much time is expended on the crafting of a CV. It is something that summarises our past, the schools we attended, the qualifications attained, the organisations worked with, the roles fulfilled. It is a record of selected facts, facing backwards, destined for the archive. It allows little space to present who we are and what we can do. An artist, at least, can show a portfolio of their work, making it as varied as they wish. They have images as well as words at their disposal.

Social philosopher Charles Handy has often spoken of the portfolio career. This is one that includes paid endeavour, charitable work, study and domestic chores. It all contributes to learning and the acquisition of skills. Something picked up in one field can provide insight in another. But how to present these multiple avenues via which we learn and work? How to capture and convey our multidisciplinarity and the potential this offers? Perhaps, like Perry, we need to draw our own maps, reflecting our convoluted journeys, our diversity of experience, the lessons we have learned, the places visited, the destinations yet to be attained. These could be maps of possibility, of intersections, convergence and mash-up. Maps that look to the future and what might be.

Such maps can be presented in numerous ways. They could be topographical, covering breadth and depth of experience. They could demarcate a series of islands, suggesting how you have navigated from knowledge to not knowing to yet more knowledge, dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty. Or perhaps a network map of connections and intersections or an infinite loop like the neo-generalist continuum.

A map can be presented and interpreted in many different ways, it prompts curiosity and questions, inviting a conversation that rapidly leaves behind the shallow waters suggested by a curriculum vitae. A living document that has the potential to enhance the organisational Atlas; a book of personal maps. Why not show your own map and move beyond the CV? Allow yourself to choose what defines you rather than conforming to a template.

The map of what we call reality is an ever-shifting mosaic of ideas.
— Marcelo Gleiser, The Island of Knowledge

Between words is silence, around ink whiteness, behind every map’s information is what’s left out, the unmapped and unmappable.
— Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

The process of making a map helps us rise above the limits of the local to see the whole, but this bird’s-eye view isn’t suitable for all audiences. Often we must aim for simple visuals that make the complex clear, focus attention, and transform ideas and understanding into decisive action.
— Peter Morville, Intertwingled

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

The poem defines

This week (7-13 November 2016), it is International Working Out Loud Week. Simon Terry kindly invited Kenneth Mikkelsen and I to be interviewed about neo-generalism and working out loud. As a companion piece to that interview, the following post retrospectively shares ideas that went into one aspect of our book.

I Tiresias, old man with wrinkled dugs
Perceived the scene and foretold the rest—
— T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land

He will be more than the sum of his parts.
— Kate Tempest, Tiresias

Tiresias who sees what only a child could see
— Sean Bonney, Letters Against the Firmament

At the centre of The Neo-Generalist can be found the chapter ‘Shoring Fragments’. In it Kenneth and I observe, ‘we are all an assembly of what we have read, the people we have met, the places we have visited, the conversations we have had, the work we have done, the shared experiences and recollected histories of the communities in which we live.’

In speaking for ourselves, in telling our own stories in the book, we discovered that we were simultaneously telling those of other people too. In recounting fragments of their stories, or highlighting examples from popular culture, we found again that we were telling our own stories. Our ever evolving selves, our sense of identity, are made up of these shored fragments.

On a personal level, there are certain cultural artefacts that anchor me. These are my touchstones. The art through which I make meaning, and with which I gauge and assess other art and the broader world around me. From poetry, there is T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, to which shoring fragments alludes. From fiction, there is Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, which gave us another chapter title (as did other literary and artistic sources captured in the images below). From film, there is Robert Towne and Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, the screenwriter’s masterful script darkened and enriched by the director’s cinematic vision. From television, there is Northern Exposure, the subject of an earlier post and another cultural reference to find its way into our book. In painting, there is Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks.

The touchstone of touchstones for me is The Waste Land. I can build a case for how each of the other works cited borrows from and is influenced by it. So too other novels, films and visual art. This goes far beyond shared motifs and a thematic interest in all things modernist. The Waste Land has long tentacles. In 2018, its legacy will be the subject of an art exhibition at the Turner Contemporary gallery. It also lingers below the surface of the work of contemporary poets, as witness Sean Bonney’s searing Letters Against the Firmament and Kate Tempest’s brilliant Let Them Eat Chaos.

With The Neo-Generalist, Eliot’s poem proved to be a gift that kept on giving. Beyond the title of and opening to chapter 7, it gave us an organising principle (shoring the narrative fragments) and an architecture too. Some of this was addressed overtly, some of it happened unconsciously, influenced by constant reference to the poem while we were researching and writing.

For example, in the book we deliberately draw attention to the fact that both The Waste Land and The Crying of Lot 49 highlight their own artifice in the way they close. In the poem, Eliot concludes with his carefully crafted notes ending with the word word; in the novella, Pynchon closes with the book’s title. We opted to follow the latter in The Neo-Generalist. It was an in-joke, much like some of the images that adorn the book’s cover.

At the centre of The Waste Land can be found the mythological figure of Tiresias. Tiresias experiences life as both a man and a woman, is blinded by a goddess and given the gift of foresight by a god. In Tiresias, polarities between masculinity and femininity collapse, while time and place become one. Tiresias embodies the continuum of our infinite loop. In Eliot’s poem, then, Tiresias becomes the vortex around which other characters and voices spin kaleidoscopically. Everything converges and collapses into the singularity of this man–woman.

It is a notion, consciously or not, that we borrow in telling the stories of our interviewees. One story bleeds into another. Boundaries are blurred. Delineation fades. Because our argument is that anyone can be a neo-generalist. No matter what you are doing now, no matter your educational background, no matter where you currently find yourself. We all carry the potential to both specialise and generalise. So the stories we tell, in the end, are our stories and your stories too. The names are just labels for ease of understanding. The shored fragments an indication that where you go is who you are; always beginning, always learning, always adapting.

Metamorphosis is generally more creative than that, not echoing but erasing forms and inventing other ones from the material, a kaleidoscope of atoms and molecules tumbling into new formations over and over.
— Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby

I was on the lookout for residue, for texture, for accidents and encounters and unexpected openings.
— Lauren Elkin, Flâneuse

In every piece we write, we contemplate a world; and as that world would not otherwise exist, we create it even as we discover it.
— Peter Turchi, Maps of the Imagination

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.

‘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

* A T-shaped person, is often a specialist (I – hedgehog) who has been given a manager’s hat. Invariably, this is the only way they can achieve promotion and greater remuneration. They should not be confused with the comb-shaped (WWW – polymathic generalist). The T-shaped usually incline more towards specialism than generalism. Their knowledge and experience enable them to manage and instruct others in their area of expertise. However, as they embrace leadership responsibilities, becoming more involved in the development of other people through mentoring and coaching, or assuming cross-organisational responsibilities, they venture into generalist territory too. This is why, in The Neo-Generalist, we argue that it is necessary to reposition the T on the specialist–generalist continuum.

The apprentice’s craft

The old craftsperson is back. He lost his job to the factories and became a worker; now he is back as a small business owner, this time with new tools to compete with the old workplace.
— Rolf Jensen and Mika Aaltonen, The Renaissance Society

The master craftsman is adept in using a philosophical framework, as well as tools and materials, to deliver useful things to the world. But more than that, the craftsman must be open constantly to new ideas; he is essentially always in beta.
— Alan Moore, No Straight Lines

If you were a craftsman, or merchant, or clothier in the case of Rembrandt’s drapers, guilds offered members and society at large great benefits: ranging from education and apprenticeships to medieval forms of peer review, and all important stamps of approval.
— Peter Sims, The Return of the Guild

For all the innovations and dominance of different materials in their manufacture, the shape of the racing bicycle frame has remained remarkably consistent since the latter years of the 19th century. The road bike diamond is familiar to all, regardless of whether you express an interest in the sport or not. The production of these frames transcends the hazy line that separates bespoke artisanship and craft from large-scale industrial output. Indeed, just as professional cycling is inextricably connected to the evolution of mass media from the late Victorian period onwards, so too does the history of the bicycle in the same period reflect in microcosm shifting attitudes towards industry and craft. The revival of interest in cycling and the emergence of the maker movement has prompted increasing curiosity about the skills of the master framebuilder.

In Open, David Price observes that ‘Efficiency, standardisation, elimination of waste, were key drivers in the shift from craft production to mass production.’ Bicycle manufacture was no exception. Early on, craftsmen had mastered the manipulation of steel tubing, shaping it into attractive frames with ornate lugs. However, the incessant search for lighter, cheaper, stiffer and stronger parts and frames, particularly in professional cycling, led to experimentation with other materials too, including titanium, aluminium and carbon. The development of carbon moulds, as well as alternative methods for manipulating carbon-fibre-reinforced polymers, opened the way for outsourced mass production in Asian factories. Designed in Italy. Made in Taiwan. The names of famous brands plastered over uniform products lacking any idiosyncrasies.

Off-the-shelf bicycles flooded the market to suit all riding styles, body shapes and sizes, not to mention wallets. But they lacked the personal touch. It was at the fringes of cycling culture, among the messenger community, for example, and the fixed-wheel enthusiasts, that something a bit more distinctive could be seen. Famous old marques and steel steeds were dusted off and repurposed. Artisans of the past were sought out, their knowledge and craft highly valued again. Steel and titanium frames offered romanticised memories of things past, a different feel on the road, a ride that appealed to those less interested in haste. Measurement here related not so much to speed, distance covered, calories burned and heartbeat, as to bespoke fit for your own body. In his It’s All About the Bike – and the documentary film that complements it – Rob Penn enthusiastically describes the experience of having crafted for you, by an experienced artisan, a frame that fits you like a glove. Bella Bathurst, in her The Bicycle Book, goes further still, describing the experience of making your own frame under the watchful eye of a master framebuilder. The journey to knowledge mastery starts with both conversation and action.

Genesis Equilibrium Ti frameset

It is intriguing to see how the professional cycling teams have carried over the notion of the master–apprentice relationship into the sport itself and not just in its supply chain. In peloton formations there is always a fluidity of leadership, roles and responsibilities that is governed by context. The passage of time comes into play too. For example, many successful professional cyclists at career’s end as practitioners on the road move into advisory or management roles off it, serving as sporting directors, coaches and mentors. At the other extreme is the space created for promising, young amateur riders towards the end of each professional cycling season. Stagiaires are given the chance to gain experience competing in professional races as short-term members of established teams. This gives both the rider and the team the opportunity to assess readiness, attitude, aptitude and team fit. It is an immersive learning experience, where callow youth rubs shoulders with and performs alongside seasoned veterans of the road racing circuit. For some it is the launching pad to a successful career. Mark Cavendish, for example, was a stagiaire with the T-Mobile Team in 2006, having spent time in one of their feeder squads. The following year he was riding his first Tour de France with the same team.

The novice is exposed to the knowledge and expertise not only of the master but of the colleagues with whom the master interacts. Skills are acquired through observation, imitation, enquiry, internalisation, deed and subsequent repetition. It happens in the cycling team with the annual introduction of new team members and constant access to veterans of the sport. It happened in the medieval monasteries, as suggested by The Name of the Rose; Adso learning not only in the moment alongside Brother William, but years after the fact as he reflects back on past events and filters them through decades of subsequent experience. It happened with the blacksmiths, bakers, cobblers and masons of old too. It happens still on a daily basis, in workplaces large and small, in both the office filled with knowledge workers and the artisan’s workshop occupied by the few. It is personal knowledge mastery made manifest. A perpetual exercise in curiosity, acquisition and application of learning. Both master and apprentice continuing to learn together.

Where recognition and reward for one’s expertise is the end goal, there is always the danger of stagnation. An organisation comprised only of a team of deep specialists is not unlike a bank of elevators, separated from one another, loosely serving a common purpose but only occasionally pulling in the same direction. The tendency towards hyperspecialisation fosters a blinkered perspective. The knowledge and personal experience of the individual gradually becomes valued above all else, curiosity fades, self-promotion escalates, expertise loses its currency and evolves into empty rhetoric without foundation in the market it is intended to serve. The craftsman as the incomplete, always evolving learner is a useful countermeasure to this. By remaining open to new ideas – including those introduced by their own youthful apprentices – the craftsman allows themselves to blend new knowledge with traditional practices, to experiment and tinker at the edges.

Some of the great innovations in cycling equipment, including the quick-release wheel, have resulted from such Trojan Mice initiatives. So too some of the nutritional and training practices adopted by cycling teams open to the influence of newcomers experienced in other disciplines. Many of the great masters of painting have also shown themselves to be receptive to new influences and ideas. Picasso’s career, for example, is one marked by many sudden deviations and experiments in form and style, co-opting and personalising, cycling constantly between the role of master and apprentice. Maybe what our modern offices need are a few more neo-generalists, who can both span as well as mine specialisms, an injection of artisanship and a greater emphasis on learning while doing.

It is a rewarding, stretching venture. The quest for a mastery that can never quite be attained. What Harold Jarche calls life in perpetual beta.
Knowledge artisans are retrieving the older artisan model and re-integrating previously separate skills. Knowledge artisans not only design the work but they can do the work. It is not passed down the assembly line.
— Harold Jarche, ‘A New Way to Work’

An apprenticeship is one kind of learning field. A team is another kind of learning field, because the action is shared among the members of the team.
— Dave Gray with Thomas Vander Wal, The Connected Company

Craft is what we are expected to know; art is the unexpected use of our craft.
— Ed Catmull with Amy Wallace, Creativity, Inc.

It turns but does not try to remember
it does not precede or follow
obey or disobey
it is not answering a question
it arrives knowing without knowledge
— W. S. Merwin, ‘The Artisan World’