Numbed by the effect – aware of the muse
Too in touch with myself – I light the fuse
I’m the changingman – built on shifting sands
I’m the changingman – waiting for the bang
As I light a bitter fuse
Time is on loan – only ours to borrow
What I can’t be today – I can be tomorrow
And the more I see – the more I know
The more I know – the less I understand.
— Paul Weller, The Changingman
I’m bringing back ghosts
That are no longer there
I’m gettin’ hard on myself
Sittin’ in my easy chair
Well, there’s three people in the mirror
And I’m wonderin’ which one of them I should choose
— The White Stripes, 300 M.P.H. Torrential Outpour Blues
So, I want to reassure those of you who feel the way that I did and do, I want to reassure you that that feeling of not really knowing what you should, that feeling may stay with you forever. In fact, I hope it does – for your sake, for your profession, and for all of us.
— David Weinberger, In Over Our Heads
The Women’s Rugby World Cup tournament concluded mid-August 2014. England, having endured three successive final defeats to New Zealand in the competition between 2002 and 2010, eventually prevailed over Canada. What was remarkable about their success, for those of us exposed to a constant diet of male sport on our television networks and Internet channels, was that this was an amateur squad. In it’s match report, The Guardian observed that ‘This is a team of plumbers, vets, teachers, police officers and students’. Many of the English players, in the lead up to and for the duration of the World Cup, had taken a three-month sabbatical from their jobs in order to give themselves the best opportunity to win.
As with men’s rugby union in the wake of the 1995 Rugby World Cup, though, times are changing – and quickly. Professionalism is now inevitable. The seven-a-side version of the sport will be a feature of the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, and moves have already been made, barely a week after the conclusion of the World Cup, to identify a group of players from which a Games squad will be built. Twenty English players have been awarded full-time, professional contracts, including twelve women from the World Cup-winning 15-a-side squad. The group will compete in the IRB Women’s World Sevens Series, aiming to qualify on behalf of Great Britain for the Rio Games. Suddenly they have a shared profession; they are sporting specialists rather than representatives of assorted trades. Their worlds have the potential to narrow dramatically in perspective and focus over the next few years.
There is a cycle that observers of sport see repeated over and over again. A highly skilled sportsperson who has specialised in a particular discipline for much of their adult life reaches their early-to-mid thirties and suddenly finds very few options are open to them in terms of the next step in their career. We see footballers moving into coaching, journalism or television punditry. We observe cyclists who migrate to team management, roles with niche manufacturers affiliated with their sport or bar ownership. Book projects and public tailspins are all too common too. The small professional world of their deep specialism ceases to be available to them, and they are returned to the ranks of the amateur, the generalist, the continuous learner. This is unlikely to affect the newly professional women rugby players, as many already have trades to fall back on at the end of their rugby playing days. But what of the next generation of players, those identified at a young age for future sporting success and fast-tracked into the professional arena?
[Photo credit: England's players celebrate World Cup success. Sourced from The Guardian]
Of course, there are some who exercise a degree of multi-disciplinarity throughout their sporting careers. They use downtime or periods off through injury to broaden their horizons, accumulating knowledge and experience, exercising the polymathic tendency. Jonny Wilkinson, another rugby player, is a case in point. In the early days of professionalism in men’s rugby union, he side-stepped the usual track to university and moved straight from school to one of the top English teams. His 17-year career included many highs at both club level, in England and France, and as an international player. But it was also one marked by an extended hiatus of multiple injuries and near-crippling self doubt. Yet Wilkinson is someone who has exercised the thirst for knowledge and built impressive leadership skills, founded upon his own self-awareness and understanding of other people. A favourite story involves the Englishman, who spent the latter years of his playing career based in Toulon, delivering a lecture in fluent French on quantum physics while sharing a stage with two Nobel prize winners. Quantum physics presented him with a different perspective on how to look at life. It taught him to not fear failure.
The acting world is filled with people who have looked beyond the confines of their profession. They recognise the vagaries of a career in film, for example, or simply seek to accommodate multiple interests and talents. Both Jodie Foster and Natalie Portman experienced early stardom as child actors but opted to pursue and complete university educations too at Yale and Harvard respectively, picking up degrees in literature and in psychology. I have written before about the work of Hedy Lamarr as both Hollywood screen siren and applied scientist and inventor. Many others diversify into business, charitable work or other arts. They are not one-trick ponies, but make use of their well-known specialism to fund other interests.
The point is that such people, who have both a breadth and depth of skills, who are WWW-shaped rather than T-shaped or defined by one hyperspecialism, have a role to play in our organisations and society. There is a place both for the generalist and the specialist. The generalist position should not be viewed through a jaundiced lens as some form of disability or disadvantage. It is a position of strength. One that allows for constant framing and reframing, synthesising multiple perspectives, aggregating knowledge from numerous fields, connecting dots, recognising disparate patterns, building and implementing solutions. There may, at times, be an element of amateurism about it, but this is a positive thing. Not knowing, finding our way, leads to the constant acquisition of new knowledge, experimentation and play.
There is also an overt sense of evolution to it too, of frequent self-transformation. This is something the generalist shares with the professional sportsperson who suddenly finds themselves separated from their specialism and thrust back into the ranks of amateurism.
No matter how successful you are, change is always good. There can never be a status quo.
— Michael Lewis, Moneyball
That’s what our lives do. Wear away what’s not part of the sculpture. Pare us down, if we’re lucky, to some kind of essential self.
— James Sallis, Eye of the Cricket
Are you saint, sinner, or something in between, because nothing’s worse than in between. To disappear into the lumpy, undefined center when the lure is so clearly found at the edges. No-one aspires to mediocrity. Mediocrity withers and dies with nary a notice; its practitioners rendered mute by their race to the middle.
— Sergio De La Pava, A Naked Singularity
Online, everyone – the artist and the curator, the master and the apprentice, the expert and the amateur – has the ability to contribute something.
— Austin Kleon, Show Your Work