the neo-generalist

A neo-generalist is somewhere between a polymath and a hyperspecialist. One metaphor used by the authors of The Neo-Generalist is ‘frequency hopping’, “wandering, accumulating, sampling, mixing, putting into practice what they learn.” Kenneth Mikkelsen and Richard Martin have written a book that defies the formula of most business and management books. Instead of one or two easily understood ideas, they offer a cornucopia of ideas, perspectives, and opinions. If you just read all the books they mention, you would be much the wiser.

“The jack [of all trades] is a lifelong learner, a trickster who will acquire the skills to navigate multiple domains … It is why this book is called The Neo-Generalist rather than The Neo-Specialist. It is about people who can specialise as the context requires it but whose personal preferences lie in the area of polymathic generalism, where they are able to exercise their curiosity and pursue diverse interests by choice, through the confluence of both preference and context.”

Neo-generalist do not fit easily into a simple definition or classification. They find it hard to describe what they do, to which I can relate. Neo-generalists defy common understanding. They cross boundaries, and some break them. They see patterns before others do, as Kenneth notes in his own experience that neo-generalists, “live on the edge of the future and detect signals early on by accessing a wide variety of people, ideas and information.” They go against hundreds of years of cultural programming.

“Yet we continue with a polemic today that can be traced back at least to the time of the Renaissance, evidenced by an artificial schism between the arts and the sciences … It is why the current advocacy of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the STEM subjects, by policy makers and funding bodies seems so misguided. They are essential, but so too is the study of the humanities … It is through the hybridization of and cross-pollination between such disciplines that we will arrive at solutions for our wicked problems.”

Not only was this book a pleasure to read, it expanded my knowledge on a variety of subjects. I now have a much longer ‘to-read’ list (thanks guys). I am already working on re-reading this one, as there is so much to learn from this pair of deep thinkers and excellent writers. The Neo-Generalist will be added to the suggested reading list for my personal knowledge mastery workshop.


Read more in this interview with the authors the-restless-multidisciplinarian/

6 Responses to “the neo-generalist”

  1. Clem Molloy

    This is an important contribution. Even within a field, an eclectic approach offers benefits that a more specialised approach does not. A protocol has existed that one should stay within one’s field of expertise. While this may be wise in the delivery of specific services, the freedom to explore across fields supports one of the five areas of the applied wisdom model – broad awareness. In my 2004 attempt to demonstrate that uncertainty might be the elusive fifth dimension, the journey covered a lot of ground. It is interesting to note that various disciplines actually use uncertainty measures in reporting their results, such as the order of accuracy in classical physics, probability waves in quantum mechanics and the confidence interval in behavioural statistics. Neo-generalist is a useful term.

  2. Jordi S. Guzmán i Conesa

    Well, the problem seems to be, in a market which is fundamentally narrow-object/-result oriented –even if Clem’s observation that “various disciplines actually use…” is true–, how to value such generalists and how to recongnise what the contribute with, and how is the way for them to be understood and how to “sell” their abilities.
    We have to keep in mind that, even if there is a real need for them, in the most cases they are still seen as “the ugly duckling” or the “new fool in town”…
    I mean it, specially, at the median/small level, which is the most contributing to market, development and thus GDP, and at the same time does not have the same risk-abdorving capacity than big business have.

  3. Shaun

    Could not agree more Harold. A great book that sit by my desk – after reading it I find it useful to dip into from time-to-time to stir the creative juices. Nice post!

    terima kasih banyak

  4. Jacques

    Consider the medical profession as a good example to illustrate this context. In Africa, you have fewer practitioners per population sample. Hence, there is not the luxury to refer every patient to another more specialized practitioner. … you become good at more things and you are trained to think wider.

    In the USA, the larger supply of trained physicians leads to greater specialization and a system that passes around the patient. In the end, the service is more costly in the USA. My ailment has more mouths to feed, so I really need an insurance company, so we can command the contributions of all the insured and their employers to feed the big mouths of a large system.

    I know I have gone places with this comment; however, it gives you an insight how a social and cultural context can shape the path — to either demand or discourage the concept of being a neo-generalist.


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