The Neo-Generalist – A revolutionary book

The MatrixThe beauty of multiple, movement, and change

The Neo-GeneralistWe all know that the young apprentice starts out as a generalist – someone without any particular skills – and then, gradually, moves towards specialism in order to one day become a master in his or her field. We know that this is the way it must be, that the world needs those specialists and just have to accept for a short while how people are not yet there – but soon will be. We know that everyone belongs into a box, a type.

We also all know that the Earth is flat, that money grows on threes, and that the moon is made of green cheese.

In general, we know a lot of nonsense. Society is pushing us into accepting a wealth of so-called facts about life and we add to those ourselves because it makes our lives easier.

Some people really enjoy this simplicity. If they during a short moment with little effort can categorize everything and everybody around them, they need to make no further efforts to understand the world. They already know it all.

Other people do not enjoy it. They spend their whole lives looking for more info, more knowledge, trying to see the world from new angles. They know that a “type” and a categorization is just an over-simplification and may be practical for a specific, limited purpose, but they also know that there is more to it – that people can do more than their type denotes, and that any categorization looks at only one or a few aspects out of the thousands or millions available.

The first group are happy to be specialists and to see others as one or the other kind of specialists as well. The second group hate to be grouped. In fact, making them accept that they are not specialists may be the only possible grouping for them to take part in, if they are ever being asked.

These non-specialists, the generalists, are often living miserable lives trying to fit in – as society requires them to fit in, they must study a narrow subject and become specialists in that, or else they will never get a job. Nobody at the study or at the workplace is interested in hearing about their thoughts about how things could be different. They are considered bad specialists at times, or maybe good specialists but unable to focus on “what they are good at” in the longer run.

But when it comes to getting the big picture and seeing how things must be changed in times of change – and how they must be improved in times of trouble – this is a skill that comes inherently from not having a too narrow mind. From not being a true specialist.

They think outside of the box because they never really got into the box. Maybe they accepted for a while to pretend that they were there but they always kept one foot outside or in the doorway, always keeping in touch with the real world.

So the generalists are masters in change and improvement. And they are flexible too. Because they never lock themselves fully up into just one topic, they maintain a broad skill set that allows them to quickly jump into other tasks and to move completely from what their surroundings may see as one kind of specialism to another, but what they themselves more likely see as simply looking at the same universe from another standpoint, giving a different view of it all – but still the same world.

The are movable, flexible, creative, constructive, change agents, improvement catalysts. They are perfect for a fast moving world.

The book

Kenneth Mikkelsen and Richard Martin interviewed a long line of people who seemed to be generalists. From the many life stories appearing, the two authors were able to treat the topic of generalism from various angles – poking into it from all sides and extracting many clever thoughts and observations. They also examine the phenomenon from the inside as they consider themselves generalists too and have added their own stories.

We do not get the actual interview answers. We do get the questions, though, and we get the synthesis.

One remarkable aspect of the book is that it doesn’t fit the general business improvement type of book where a problem is presented along with its solution. “Just create a burning platform”, “just map the value streams”, just do this and that and you will for sure reach for a success. These books are giving a moment of hope but rarely a deep understanding of the world, since they are claiming that by using this one silver bullet, the one monster will be killed. Even if the bullet works, there could be more monsters and some of those having a good side too, but this kind of complexity is being ignored.

It is not a typical self-improvement guide either. It is not trying to tell that everyone can become a generalist – and here is how to do it. You must yourself find the generalist in your heart if this is your purpose of reading the book.

Rather, it is describing how it works. What does it mean to a lot of real people to be generalists? It doesn’t tell why they are this way or how you can become one of them. It is more of a record of life. Like watching the Discovery Channel on TV – seeing and learning how there are lions, zebras and loads of other creatures on the savanna, and how they live. No conclusions really, but now and then a comment on how complicated it can be to have assets that are considered valuable for various human purposes, or how to be considered a burden for the world, both leading to a situation of almost extinction. The Neo-Generalist describes the trouble and the joys of generalists, their achievements and their peculiarities.

It is an advert, to some extent. By reading the book you will learn that a generalist is good for your company, good for society. That we need them. But only if, that is, you do not already know – because, who other than those who already see themselves as generalists will read this book?

Who will read it?

There are various books on the market about types of people. HR departments seem to be subscribing to those, being happy to sort out candidates and sometimes also those who have already been working there for a long time into boxes and from that, make conclusions on who can work where, in which roles. It makes life very simple. If you are an INTF according to the MBTI measurement method, you may fit exactly into a job as a programmer. Then it doesn’t matter what else goes on in the mind of a person. Fitting a standard designation means that he or she will fit a gap in an organization that is constructed like a machine – will be a perfect replacement for a part that has broken, a spare cogwheel. A leader in the organization must simply match a set of pre-defined results in order to be a good leader. Those who do not match, will never get that chance, and all leaders will this way be identical – clones of the archetype that we all know is good at this…

This book may look like such a typifying book, and hopefully this will make HR departments read it. Maybe they will even arrange courses in the topic, teaching their cogwheels that there are people in this world who are not cogwheels and that these are in fact good people too. And maybe they will even start hiring generalists.

My guess is that many of us who have felt at times that we did not fit into this machine thinking, this view on people as spare parts to the company machine, who felt that there had to be a bigger world than this – that we will read it. We will then find in the book an explanation and some encouragement and start accepting that things can be different.

This is very much the same as having one’s mind freed, like in the movie “The Matrix”, and considering the title of Kenneth Mikkelsen’s blog post, “Do you take the blue pill or the red pill?” it could be a nearby thought that this is also why the authors decided to speak about a Neo-generalist rather than simply a generalist. Maybe to indicate that by waking up and seeing the real world, you can finally start feeling and using the muscles that you have, in fact, never used before…

The revolution

The two neo-generalist authors are taking their own medicine by not claiming to be experts but merely, through this book, initiating a discussion about the topic.

I truly hope for such a discussion to arise, revolutionizing the view on how and by what means people can contribute to the company and to the world. That the broader worldview of the generalist not only may but simply must be brought into the solutions of the general problems and into the self-image of any gathering of people.

The world is facing the depressing and at times terrifying results of a complete lack of systems thinking and a too narrow focus on one specialism at a time, making it fragmented and allowing the problems to get completely out of control.

Most of today’s major problems have been warned about long ago by those who could see the connections between different areas, who could look holistically at the complex systems of causation and mutual influencing of basically everything in the world. Warnings that were ignored by those who found it more interesting to narrow down the questions to which one cause there could be for a certain effect, leading to all other considerations, all the complexity and all the warnings, to be ignored.

Easy solutions are appealing to many. A strong man to clean up the society, make order, and remove all the confusion seems to be the best solution for all those many people who do not know how to take part themselves and how to fix the problems instead of “wiping them away”. This is happening now in several countries and the big flashing red lights set up by history are being ignored.

The future will not even be there – it is no longer a matter of it being good or bad – if not a broader way of thinking will become more common, if not more minds are being freed. The generalists are bound to play a part in this and therefore they must now step forward as generalists, as systems thinkers and holistic thinkers, no longer pretending to be just specialists who didn’t yet find their right shelf.

This makes The Neo-Generalist a potentially very important book. It may in fact save the world.

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1 Response to The Neo-Generalist – A revolutionary book

  1. jwinther says:

    Richard Martin has commented: “To clarify, the neo-generalist is both generalist and specialist. Ourselves included.”

    This is of course true. I have written the text more in the style of an entry in the debate than as a classical review, providing my own thoughts and having my own purposes as well as those given by the book. I do apologize for any misunderstandings this may lead to. In fact, I urge everybody with an interest in the topic to read the book and tell me what else is there to disagree with me about 😉

    To catch up on this particular topic: the neo-generalist is such a person who can change from one specialism to another, navigating through life by the means of several different careers or job types, often several at the same time. Many amazing people have been interviewed and their stories are in the book to illustrate how this works in real life. The authors have described this in a very convincing way, leaving no doubt that this is possible, should anyone be in doubt, and that the neo-generalists are often very valuable in the contexts in which they appear.

    The book is highly recommended and is, indeed, a new kind of book.

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