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Work specialisation and the division of labour have been central characteristics of civilisational development, from ancient times to our post-industrial present. Yet the case can be made that we may have taken our inclination to specialise too far. In their new book The Neo-Generalist, authors Kenneth Mikkelsen and Richard Martin claim that our cultural, societal and professional worlds are enthralled by extreme and inhibitory specialisation, and that it is time to make a change. They argue that now more than ever, we need the outlook of the ‘neo-generalist’ if we want to thrive in an uncertain future.
So what exactly is a neo-generalist? He or she is both specialist and generalist, masters several disciplines and has an eclectic and inquisitive outlook. A neo-generalist is less willing to stay within the bounds of highly specialised fields that lead to ‘silo mentalities’ and stagnant thinking, and more keen to adopt a multidisciplinarian approach to work. Neo-generalists search for inspiration in both their neighbouring disciplines and in fields unrelated to their professional expertise. This, argue Mikkelsen and Martin, allows the neo-generalist to to bridge people, ideas and domains, and suggest new solutions to problems that it would be harder for a hyperspecialist to spot.
Many of the lessons presented in The Neo-Generalist are drawn from interviews with professionals, artists, writers, scientists, athletes and film makers, as well as from historical figures that each in their separate ways embody the neo-generalist approach to work and life. This diverse cast of characters underlines a point central to the book: that there is no fixed, one-way approach to neo-generalism, and that what Mikkelsen and Martin are describing is more of a mindset than a how-to guide. Read our interview with Mikkelsen and Martin below.
You argue that the world needs more generalist thinking if we want to avoid being stuck in self-enclosed ‘silo mentalities’, and that we should ‘generalise to specialise’. Can you explain what you mean by this?
Kenneth: The governing narrative in society is specialisation, which makes it hard for many people to appreciate and understand what defies easy categorisation. Neo-generalists are people with a diverse set of interests that practice serial mastery. They have the capacity to switch in and out of specialism and generalism as context dictates. We claim that their work is often overlooked, undervalued and misunderstood in a world that imposes a sense of order by attaching labels to people and separating ideas into spatial and mental boxes.
Most thinking today suggests a relationship predicated on the false understanding of specialists and generalists as discordant practices. We present the two practices, not as a dichotomy, but as a continuum, suggesting an equal and mutually amplifying relationship that can be found in their close collaboration.
Silos exist in structures. But they also exist in our minds and social groups. Silos breed tribalism and go together with tunnel vision. We argue that the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of hyperspecialism, and that there is a strong need for neo-generalists if we are to resolve the world’s interconnected global, social, environmental and economic challenges. We need hyperspecialists to work alongside neo-generalists who not only serve as connectors, bridging between disciplines, but who see the big picture and bring into play metaskills like combinatorial creativity, systems thinking and pattern recognition.
Richard: Consider this hypothetical scenario. Two people separately seek to address a water supply issue in a sub-Saharan village. One has a geology degree. Their subsequent career has involved specialism in water reuse and desalination in Latin America. The other has an interdisciplinary academic background, which includes topics as diverse as geography, anthropology, geology, political studies and languages. Their career has been multifaceted, requiring them to draw on different aspects of their educational background, as well as acquiring new skills, while they have fulfilled a variety of roles around the world.
Which do you think is most likely to effect an appropriate solution that meets the community’s needs in Africa? The one-track specialist, now finding themselves confronted with a slightly different challenge, or the multidisciplinarian?
Do you think the opposite case could be made: that increased specialisation is what has allowed us to accomplish otherwise unattainable goals – from ancient bureaucracy to the space shuttle – by dividing complex tasks out among ourselves?
Richard: No, I do not. I believe that the multidisciplinarians have been necessary to many of these accomplishments. Often they are the ones who have the vision, the big-picture perspective, to join up the different fragments that have resulted from the work of the specialists. It is difficult for a President, Prime Minister, CEO or General to pursue a specialism once they attain these positions. Their leadership responsibilities require neo-generalism.
Someone has to maintain a bird’s-eye view while being willing to swoop down into the minute detail on occasion too. Think, for example, of the different elements that went into the first Apple Macintosh computer. They were sourced from or inspired by different people, different companies. But it took someone with neo-generalist proclivities to see how they would all fit together not just as a piece of technology but as an experience.
Extreme compartmentalisation and fragmentation can result in dysfunction and systemic failure. You mention the space shuttle. An amazing accomplishment on many fronts. But to what extent were localised specialism and lack of connection and understanding factors in the Challenger and Columbia incidents?
Kenneth: We are not arguing that specialists are irrelevant or that we should do away with them. There is proven value in specialisation. In a historical context, clusters of knowledge formed around a craft or discipline have played a major role in the development of societies. Murano [a group of islands north of Venice, ed.) became a center for glassmaking in the 13th century when the Venetian Republic ordered glassmakers to settle on the islands, fearing that fires could destroy the inner city’s wooden buildings. It is, however, not the hoarding of knowledge that produces important innovations. It is when ideas are shared, discussed and built upon in a diverse network of individuals and organisations that breakthrough innovations happen. The invention of greenhouses, spectacles, microscopes, telescopes and the camera all depended on utilising glass in new ways. But it was not the glassmakers of Murano that came up with these innovations. They did not have the imagination, ingenuity or skills to apply their specialised knowledge to other domains. The lesson to take away, is that information spillovers depend on people who can cross boundaries, bring a broader perspective into consideration and apply existing knowledge in a different context.
Hierarchical bureaucracy, the standardisation of best practices and linear thinking served us well in the industrial age, but we are beginning to see societal and ecological crises and massive institutional breakdowns as a consequence of this somewhat antiquated approach.
In what areas of society do you see hyperspecialism as being most damaging or inhibitory? Where could we benefit from a neo-generalist approach?
Richard: Education. It all starts in schools and the mandates imposed on them by governments obsessed with measurement. The tendency to always value the quantitative over the qualitative is disturbing. The advocacy of admittedly important STEM disciplines at the expense of the humanities and social sciences is madness. Both are essential. There is a constant stream of business and leadership literature on the importance of community, networks, trust and relationships, yet those very subjects (literature, art, history, philosophy, anthropology) that help us achieve an understanding of humans and our interactions are being diminished by policymakers.
Since the late Renaissance, on through the Enlightenment and into the Industrial era, we have witnessed this tendency to segregate disciplines. Why do we continue with it? Why should someone who wants to pursue a career as a physicist suddenly stop learning about music and art in their mid-teens and focus only on mathematics and the sciences? Is it not the case that certain poets and novelists have disseminated the wonders of scientific discovery to a broader audience than a scientist alone could reach?
Kenneth: The first example that comes to my mind is the financial crisis in 2008. The fragmentation of the financial system made it impossible for anyone to have an interconnected view of how risks were developing in the markets and banking world. We now know that specialist teams inside the institutions were operating in silos, competing for resources and failing to communicate and collaborate. To make matters worse, people were incentivised to take dangerous risks that sub-optimised isolated parts at the expense of the system as a whole.
The more expertise people gain, the more likely they are to develop rigid standpoints, focusing on giving answers rather than asking questions. Privilege, pride, ego, fear and laziness are all persuasive reasons for conserving what we have and slowing down change. When our careers depend on fitting in, we are less motivated to venture beyond the well-known territory of our specialism and challenge the complacency of the status quo. Neo-generalists do not just talk about new ways of thinking and being, they pioneer new ways of operating that we all can learn from, regardless of our occupation.
In your book, you list many examples of neo-generalists: artists, businessmen, athletes, etc. who have refused to adhere to a singular mode of thinking. Which person, living or dead, would you say is the best example of a successful neo-generalist?
Kenneth: From our interviews and extensive research it is clear that there is no simple formula for becoming a successful neo-generalist. We indicate that in the book’s subtitle, Where You Go is Who You Are.
We aspired to write a poetic, smart-thinking book that invites the readers to make their own interpretation. Some people will be irritated by this approach, others will hopefully find it liberating and inspiring. Having said that, we did identify certain characteristics shared by neo-generalists.
They are comfortable living with not knowing and with ambiguity. They are self-directed learners, driven by an insatiable appetite to know more and explore new ideas. Just as cultures are not static, neither are our identities. Neo-generalists embrace this state of constant becoming. It is by living in more than one world that they know how to connect people and ideas, and shift perspective. Constantly, they examine and critique how they think, act and live. It is such habits that make shape their legacy and make them natural leaders.
Richard: This is not a game that I would like to play, for a number of reasons. In The Neo-Generalist, we make three important points: First, there is no right answer, just contextually and temporally convenient ones. Second, to aspire to best practice is to accept that no further progress can be made. We refuse to subscribe to that point of view. To settle, to stand still, is the beginning of the end. Third, with the infinite loop, we indicate that life as a neo-generalist is one of constant shifts and adaptation.
There is no single point on the specialist–generalist continuum where you can say, ‘That is what a neo-generalist looks like.’ Because the whole continuum reflects it, and our underlying message is that anyone can be a neo-generalist. Admittedly, most people we spoke to or who we researched in relation to the book probably had a preference for the space we denoted as polymathic generalism on the continuum. But they were highly adept at applying themselves at deep specialisms too. It is impossible to extract a model or an ideal from what we researched. No two people are exactly the same.
By way of illustration, compare how Kenneth and I have used writing. For Kenneth, trained as a journalist, it appears as a deep specialism. For me, writing is one of my most generalist traits; an arena in which I feel able to apply myself to whichever subject happens to take my interest in whatever style I fancy adopting. These differences became more overt in the way we wrote the book too, with Kenneth planning and mapping, and me discovering exactly what I wanted to say in the act of writing. Yet we are both neo-generalists. The same but different.
What needs to be done to make us think more like neo-generalists?
Richard: We could start by thinking in terms of continuums rather than either/or polarities. In the book, we visualise specialism and generalism as an infinite loop. If you begin from the perspective of both/and rather than either/or, you are immediately opening yourself to a more rounded, empathic point of view. One from which surprise, creativity and connection can all flow. One which enables high levels of responsiveness.
Kenneth: Our society will undergo a major transformation in the coming years as we make our way further into the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Technology is influencing many segments of life, and I think it is imperative that we have a much wider discussion about how we live a good and examined life under these new conditions. I see neo-generalists being important stewards of that conversation given their curious, responsive and adaptive nature. I hope that our book can serve as a conversation starter and hopefully open people’s eyes to a more inclusive way of looking at the value that specialists and generalists add to society.
Photo: Katrine Møbius