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 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.