Wherever I Go

I looked and looked and changed
unknowingly by looking
— David Whyte, The Thicket

Each moment is like this—before it can be known, categorized as similar to another thing and dismissed, it has to be experienced, it has to be seen.
— Claudia Rankine, Citizen

I asked for a story and you gave me my story.
— Henrik Nordbrandt, Near Lefkas

Wherever I go, there I am. It is the subjectivity conundrum. We can never disengage ourselves entirely from where we find ourselves or what we see. Just as the mapmakers of yesteryear invested their own preferences, prejudices and ideologies into what they drew, so we too carry our own baggage with us. We recognise the necessity of empathic practices but experience also their limitations.

Consider this minor thought experiment. A group of people sit at a circular table. At its centre is a vase of flowers, varied in shape, height and hue. The occupants of each chair have a different perspective of the vase and its contents in comparison with the other people at the table. If requested to do so, each person can describe vocally, in writing or images what they see for the benefit of the others. Every ten minutes, they also stand up and move, in a clockwise direction, to the next chair before resuming their contemplation of the floral display. This continues until everyone has returned to their original chair.

In some respects, each person is reframing, assimilating the descriptions provided by the others, as well as what their own eyes tell them. To change chairs is to move, however temporarily, into a new point of view. To look at and assess things differently. To broaden personal horizons, accumulating new knowledge and data. But is this genuinely a case of looking with the eyes of another, of filling someone else’s shoes? Again, we bump up against the conundrum of subjectivity.

[Picture credit: Wall with Green Door, Georgia O’Keeffe, 1953]

While exposure to a diversity of perspectives is essential to any attempt to understand how other people see and interpret the world around them, it is impossible to divest ourselves of all our own accumulated knowledge, experience, culture and filters. To assess someone else’s description or to sit in another’s chair, does not alter the fact that we are still using our own eyes, not theirs. That only happens in films like Being John Malkovich.

In that case, men and women enter a portal into John Malkovich’s mind, retaining their own subjectivity, but using his eyes and body as vehicles with which they interact with the world. In my own reality, I can respond viscerally to the poetry of, say, Claudia Rankine or Sarah Kay. But as a white, middle-aged, middle-class, British male I can make no pretence to see the world with their eyes. My interpretation of the words they have written might diverge in significant ways from the meaning they conveyed in the writing of them.

This is one of the wonders of our cultural artefacts: meaning is co-created by the artist and the reader, viewer or listener. There is an empathic connection, for sure, but in the sense that two worldviews have mingled rather than one has entirely overridden another. We do not step into the artist’s shoes. But, when open-minded, we do allow their ideas to infect our own thinking, to challenge and expand it.

In engaging with a novel, a film, a painting or a song, we enable a complicit entanglement. In participating in a conversation, in person or online, we exchange ideas continuously, and in so doing experience mental movement and flux. In travelling ourselves, or opening our borders to others, we willingly expose ourselves to a cultural kaleidoscope. We watch, listen and absorb, filtering and assimilating, sharing and receiving.

Through curiosity, we maintain an interest in the diversity of people, their mindsets, perspectives and ideas. It is essential, though, to recognise the limitations of our own subjectivity and the dangers of imposing our vision upon others.

To simply project our own ‘expertise’ is myopic in the extreme. Worse still, to close ourselves off, to build walls, to declare the undesirability of the other, is to proclaim the beginning of the end. If you are the only person sat at the table, never leaving your chair and with no others to supply alternative points of view, how do you attain the big picture? How do you broaden your knowledge horizons? Meanwhile, the flowers wilt.

The only power we have is to project.
— Ian McEwan, Nutshell

She had no patience for the illusion that you could know someone because you knew her novels.
— Idra Novey, Ways to Disappear

This is what I did in any new environment. I tried to inject meaning, make the place coherent or at least locate myself within the place, to confirm an uneasy presence.
— Don DeLillo, Zero K

Fade out

Lacking “a critical dimension” of potentialities to transcend their existing state, everything has its place. Here even choices (of which there are seemingly many), are predefined. Forgotten is the wonder of what might be, in its place a single chorus… This is how it is.
— Nick Sousanis, Unflattening

Distracted states are states in which a new open mind is possible.
— Kyna Leski, The Storm of Creativity

We encourage you to create the space for stillness, inquiry and reflection; to further build your capacity to become more present in the uncertainties and doubts that face you in your life and work; to build your tolerance to the uncomfortable feelings that arise at the edge of your competence; to create a new way, your way, of positively engaging with Not Knowing.
— Steven D’Souza & Diana Renner, Not Knowing

In 1995, deep into the research for my PhD thesis, I found myself at an impasse. It stemmed in part from my own curiosity, following new leads, new areas of interest. At some point the subject of exploration and analysis – the evolution of American film noir in the context of industrial, sociopolitical and cultural change – had developed too many tributaries.

I had lost my way, following the lure of too many loosely connected interests. This made it difficult to shape a coherent argument. I needed to take a step back. Fortuitously, a September vacation allowed me to pause for a couple of weeks, to turn away from academic preoccupations. It was time to lose myself in the beauty of the Californian landscape, and enjoy the company of friends and family.

Which is not to say that I stopped thinking about the project. Rather the thinking was happening subconsciously, shunted to a slower more reflective part of my self. Sense-making never really stops. Towards the end of our Californian sojourn, we went to see the newly released The Usual Suspects. The combination of this film, which was so pertinent to the case I was trying to make about noir in the modern age, and the much needed pause in work were catalytic.

Returning to the UK, all the puzzle pieces I had been grappling with suddenly fell into place. There was now a clear path through the once-confusing landscape. I knew which tributaries to navigate and which to ignore. By the start of December, I had submitted a completed thesis, including as close an analysis as I could muster of The Usual Suspects based on that singular viewing. Everything that had been percolating in my head had suddenly been brought into sharp focus. The time taken to pause and reflect had been crucial.

That thesis eventually became my first book, Mean Streets and Raging Bulls. Now, 19 years after its initial publication, I have just published my second: The Neo-Generalist, co-authored with Kenneth Mikkelsen. As with the first, a deliberate decision has been taken to offer no definitive conclusion. The reader has to do some of the lifting, address many of the questions the book raises.

One of the points Kenneth and I make is that we see a book as an invitation to converse. It does not mark an ending but a beginning or even a continuation of existing discussions. One book bridges and connects to many others. Books converse. One book synthesises and introduces ideas from other people, opening the door for yet more to join in. But a single book can only offer a snapshot in time. It is a collection of thoughts and ideas that may evolve, possibly be expanded upon, and almost certainly be usurped with the passage of time and the acquisition of new knowledge.

Julie Drybrough sagely advised me earlier this year that once the ideas are ‘out there’ they are no longer yours. You cannot control the conversation. You join in and learn from other people’s points of view. I could not agree more. It has been wonderful to read initial responses to The Neo-Generalist from the likes of Harold Jarche, Tanmay Vora and Mark Storm; to witness the conversational flames fanned by others, prompting further exchanges on social media.

Mark helpfully challenges our use of ‘Fade Out’ as the title for our last chapter. Does it fit with our notion of continuing the conversation, of raising awareness and asking questions? The words are one of several cinematic allusions that frame the book, including the use of a cast list and a visual reliance on the work of Saul Bass. In the cinema, when the screen fades out, the film then cuts to the closing credits. It lists those to whom its very creation is indebted. In our book, we fade out and cut to a lengthy bibliography. Our work stands on the shoulders of giants.

With a good film, though, something else happens as the fictional or documentary images fade out and the credits roll. The viewer takes over. The synapses are crackling. They are reflecting, establishing connections, making their own meaning. They participate in the creation, prolonging the film’s effects long after they have walked away from the theatre. They may talk about it with others, prompting interest, opening up conversations.

It is aspirational on our part, but we can but hope that this is what happens when people close the covers of our book. Long may the conversations continue. With and without us.

The very word “patience” originally implied a kind of suffering or forbearance, implying the time it would take to do something. Implied too was the idea of fortitude and endurance, a nod to an implicit kind of stamina, personal strength, and capacity to self-regulate. At the core of this essential human practice, quite simply, lay the act of waiting.
— Jessica Helfand, Design: The Invention of Desire

Meaning is created through a craft approach to life.
— Alan Moore, Do Design

Unfinished. Beautiful. Everything.
— Max Porter, Grief is the Thing with Feathers


Exact conclusion of their hardiness
Has no shape yet, but from known whereabouts
They ride, direction where the tyres press.
They scare a flight of birds across the field:
Much that is natural, to the will must yield.
Men manufacture both machine and soul,
And use what they imperfectly control
To dare a future from the taken routes.
— Thom Gunn, On the Move

Funest philosophers and ponderers,
Their evocations are the speech of clouds.
— Wallace Stevens, On the Manner of Addressing Clouds

The clouds travel like white handkerchiefs of goodbye,
the wind, travelling, waving them in its hands.
— Pablo Neruda, The Morning is Full

Long car journeys are always an opportunity for reflection. A lone tree in a field, a historic building, clouds in the sky, reflected sunlight, traffic signals and road furniture are all catalysts to random thoughts as they are viewed by the passing traveller. The roads we traverse have stories imprinted on them or instead serve as portals to narratives of our own creation.

Making my way back from a family holiday in southwestern France, I was struck by the tyre markings on the road. Rubberised memories of past events. One particularly dark pair that gently curved towards a ditch running parallel to the autoroute, for example, were imbued with traces of recent catastrophe and were a powerful reminder of potential danger.

Someone else’s misfortunes prompted me to reflect on the notion of the traces we leave behind as I slowly made my way northwards through stop–start holiday traffic. It is a concept always bubbling away at the back of my mind. Something linked to the ephemerality and reshaping of memory. An idea often brought into focus by the image of contrails that aircraft write on the sky, which then gradually disperse and vanish not long after the vehicle’s passage through the heavens.

One of my favourite authors, James Sallis, has frequently observed in his fiction and poetry how memory is more poet than reporter. My response to the tyre marks on the road reminded me of this. So too the recall and crafting of my own story in The Neo-Generalist. The stories we tell are always heavily edited, elliptical in their nature, with small fragments illuminated and expanded at the expense of the mundane or the too-personal-to-share.

As Mark Pagel observes in Wired for Culture, language is a great way to implant our thoughts and ideas in the minds of others. This can be language verbalised, written or rendered in the form of images. There is, however, a constant filtering process going on. You select certain things to share and a recipient chooses only a portion of them to internalise and make their own. Already, we are embarked on the path from solid to liquid to vapour. From a fragment of ourselves to a trace.

Even after death, though, we persist, however temporarily, in the memories of others. A little of what I have done and said throughout my life will be recalled, retold, reshaped by friends and family. My grandchildren may hear certain things about me from my own children, they may even benefit from a small number of my actions, enjoying some sort of familial legacy. Generally, however, the traces we leave behind disperse like the contrails in the sky.

It is reflections like these that have taken me back, albeit circuitously, to the long form of writing. My friend Doug Shaw encourages people to draw for the bin, as they hone their artistic skills, remove inhibitions and practise their craft. I have adopted a similar approach with social media. A tweet, even a blog post, tends to have a short life span in my view. I delete and unpublish often, having tested out and refined ideas that will find their way into longer pieces of writing. In some cases, I erase myself as completely as I can from a given platform, choosing to focus my attentions elsewhere.

My approach to the publication of a physical book, however, is very different. This I see as having a longer life span, a greater opportunity to convey ideas beyond my own lifetime. The book stands in conversation with many others: those that have influenced its contents, and whose traces are visible in its own pages, and those that it in turn will influence in the future. The book becomes a repository for ideas but also a space for curation. Undoubtedly, I am giving expression to my preference for the analogue form of literature over the digital one. The tangibility of print on paper wins me over, whereas the digital form leaves me cold.

I have expressed elsewhere my desire to read poetry on paper rather than on a screen, and my post-commuter shift away from the digital book back to the physical volume. One poem, T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, exerted a massive influence on me during my years as a university student. It continues to do so today. In ‘shoring fragments’ it gave Kenneth Mikkelsen and I not only a chapter title but an organising principle for The Neo-Generalist. As with Eliot’s poem, we were able to synthesise what we had read, the experiences we had enjoyed, the conversations we had been involved in, the people we had met, in a fragmentary soup that told a broader story. It contains both memories of things past and traces of things to come.

But as the withdrawal persists there is less and less chance of the bonanza – one is not waiting for the fade-out of a single sorrow, but rather being an unwilling witness of an execution, the disintegration of one’s own personality.
— F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Crack-Up

If memory were to fade uniformly with time it should be less clear. Instead novelty stands out.
— Claudia Hammond, Time Warped

Our young have been sundered from tradition and the entire creative heritage of their race; they live in an endless present, without illusion, without history, with only a series of images that flash across their lives and quickly fade. They are like pools of still water left behind on the beach when the tide goes out.
— James Sallis, Living Without History


Superforecasting demands thinking that is open-minded, careful, curious, and—above all—self-critical. It also demands focus.
— Philip Tetlock & Dan Gardner, Superforecasting

The curse of knowledge means that the more you know, the harder it is to think and talk about your area of expertise in a simple way.
— Steven D’Souza & Diana Renner, Not Knowing

I was recently asked why being an expert no longer guarantees success. I am not sure I understand the question. Or, rather, I have no desire to address it in the way it is framed. Expertise is important. One of our arguments in The Neo-Generalist, though, is that it is possible to be an expert in more than one discipline. That serial mastery at a personal level, or the ability to facilitate the partnership of multiple masters from different subjects, is where creativity and innovation happen.

If you want to fix an economic crisis, do not just turn to experts in banking. If you want to address issues relating to global warming, seek to bring together experts from a diversity of different fields, not just one area of scientific research. If you want to tackle healthcare in an ageing population, look beyond medical practitioners and social welfare experts. There are lessons to be learned from multiple disciplines. Bringing them together is where the magic happens.

Bashing experts has become a new sport in the wake of the last UK general election and the Brexit vote, when pundits got things so wrong. But it is a sport often carried out by people who probably consider themselves experts too. I do have a significant problem with these self-titled gurus whose loudly proclaimed and shallow ‘expertise’ is all geared towards putting money in their bank accounts. They are full of sound and fury but, on closer inspection, what they say signifies nothing.

I am reminded of a passage from the Tao Te Ching:

Those who put on a show are not enlightened.
Those who are self-righteous are not respected.
Those who boast achieve nothing.
Those who brag will not endure.

We have to be careful of constraining our world, of living in an echo chamber. Experts who look beyond their own domain of knowledge and experience are to be valued. Lao Tsu goes on to acknowledge this in the Tao when he states: ‘Knowing others is wisdom; / Knowing the self is enlightenment.’ We have to be aware of our own limitations, and of the power of connection. Knowledge lives in the network, and true expertise comes from synthesis and combination. From an acceptance of not knowing at a personal level.

Curiosity about the unknown, exposure to the ideas and discoveries of others, its fusion with or replacement of the already known… This is what pulls us forward.

If our accumulated knowledge of the world makes up an island, the island grows as we learn more. (It may also occasionally shrink, as we discard an erroneous theory or explanation.) As with every island, this one is also surrounded by an ocean, in this case the ocean of the unknown. However—and here is the twist—as the island grows, so do the shores of our ignorance, the boundary between the known and the unknown. In other words, new knowledge generates new unknowns.
— Marcelo Gleiser, The Simple Beauty of the Unexpected

Unlearning is like the storm’s disturbing and agitating characteristics. It disturbs our sense of what we know. We are agitated when we discover we don’t know, and that compels us to go forward in search of knowing.
— Kyna Leski, The Storm of Creativity

Mastery refrain

all modes seemed exhausted, and he had left nothing
Of any importance for them to do,
While what had escaped him eluded them also.
— W. S. Merwin, The Master

The masters of the subtle schools
Are controversial, polymath.
— T. S. Eliot, Mr Eliot’s Sunday Morning Service

Brains reel,
Master charts of old ideas erased.
— Maya Angelou, Junkie Monkey Reel

Book in hand, I wandered around the garden that encircled the house, seeking out a bench and a little respite from the familial hubbub. The perfect spot overlooked an enclosure on the fells behind the house, demarcated by stone walls. It was located next to a vertiginous beck that must have been something to behold during the heavy rains late last year. Its occupants, a flock of Herdwick sheep, with several young among their number, had kept me awake much of the night with their bleating.

As I approached my destination, I noticed that a trailer had been reversed into the gateway at the bottom of the field. The gate and some additional railings were being secured by a shepherd who had driven past our rental home a few minutes previously. It looked like he was about to decant the flock from this enclosure to another. I scanned the fell for his sheepdog, eventually coming to the conclusion that it was still inside his Land Rover.

Only a couple of weeks before travelling to the Lake District, I had raced through James Rebanks’s account of a very specific way of life in the region. There was much in The Shepherd’s Life that had surprised me because of its many overlaps with what Kenneth Mikkelsen and I had only recently explored in The Neo-Generalist: education on our own terms, legacy, belonging, identity, and that fascinating contextual fusion of specialism and generalism.

Rebanks hails from a long line of sheep farmers, and is deeply immersed in their traditions. But he has found himself living in multiple worlds, stewarding his farming heritage, even as he has studied at Oxford University, written books, and taken on academic and consultancy roles with the likes of the University of Birmingham and UNESCO. This is a man who understands landscape, people and animals, who communicates eloquently about them, and who paints pictures with words.

One thread that runs through The Shepherd’s Life relates to the partnership that is established between shepherd and sheepdog, as well as the former’s reliance on finely crafted tools such as their crook. Both shepherd and dog undergo a learning journey that begins when they are very young. It is one that moves from apprenticeship to journeyman status and, ultimately, to mastery. Rebanks’s relationship with his dog, Floss, is one of mutual dependency and trust. This is about co-workers, very distant from the owner-pet interactions typical of non-agricultural regions.

With all this fresh in mind, I set my book to one side as I took my place on the garden bench and prepared to witness a masterclass from shepherd and dog. How quickly would the sheep be transferred from enclosure to trailer? How would the dog round up the more stubborn ewes and their lambs? Would the shepherd have to make use of his crook? Everything that ensued over the next hour or so enthralled but for all the wrong reasons. In fact, as man and beast put on their very own Laurel and Hardy show, I laughed so hard I popped a rib.

[Photo credit: The Grasmere stage, Richard Martin, May 2016]

The farmer opened the Land Rover door and pulled the gate to one side to let his Border Collie, Georgie, into the field. Within seconds all the sheep had fled to the top end of the enclosure. A series of calls and whistles from the shepherd had the collie manoeuvring but the effects were not all that were intended. The sheep were in motion but rarely in the direction of the desired destination. Georgie was frequently chased off, tail between his legs, by the odd confrontational ewe who not only stood her ground but chased him from his too.

Georgie required frequent breathers, seeking out the shade of a trench or the underside of the trailer. Meanwhile the shepherd gave vent to apoplectic blasphemy aimed at dog, sheep and innocent passersby. A unique form of agricultural Tourette’s. At times, he was to be seen leaning silently over his crook, head hanging in shame and discontent, the weight of the world on his shoulders. Occasionally, the croook was brandished and swung menacingly at errant sheep. Once it was even launched as a missile, but it was hard to tell whether sheep or dog were the intended target.

After much struggle, and a considerable elapse of time, several sheep had been herded on to the back of the gaping trailer. Only for them to indulge in an ovine version of The Great Escape. This happened more than once. Such antics prompted an escalation in profanity, the humour and combination of which finally put paid to my rib. Exasperation and, you would suspect, the need to restore a degree of decorum to proceedings, prompted the shepherd to cut matters short.

He ended up making three journeys to transport his flock. Thereby demonstrating that a lack of mastery creates work and costs time. Mastery may never be attained, but the journey, its pursuit, is something we should all attempt. To stand still, is to assume that ostrich-like position of shepherd bent despairingly over mistreated crook.

In the postindustrial era, success will no longer hinge on promotion or job titles or advanced degrees. It will hinge on mastery.
— Marty Neumeier, Metaskills

The past and the present live alongside each other in our working lives, overlapping and intertwining, until it is sometimes hard to know where one ends and the other starts.
— James Rebanks, The Shepherd’s Life

The craftsman must combine technique and expression so that he is also able to act intuitively. This can only happen when he possesses deep or what is called implicit knowledge. Rather than acting only upon empirical information, the craftsman’s ultimate act is one of unique expression which can only be delivered through the mastery of these skills.
— Alan Moore, No Straight Lines

Angel Clarence

The political and social struggles of our time are not concerned merely with external changes and new borders – they involve the very core of our existence. A civil war is being fought inside every soul; and the movies reflect the uncertainties of that war in the form of general inner disintegration and mental disturbance.
— Siegfried Kracauer, Hollywood’s Terror Films

Crime doesn’t disturb this world, it’s foundational to it. Noir stories gave the stage to criminals and their motivations, which range from unspeakable passions to a firm conviction that their particular crime serves a greater good.
— Nicholas Seeley, Noir is Protest Literature

It took a war on a grand scale to shake humanity temporarily out of the economic funk, mass amnesia and ideological brainwashing of the 1930s. As is often the case, we have looped back to what went before. Back to the future; the same but different. Small dark clouds on the horizon rapidly transform into overhead thunderstorms.

During the 1940s, popular culture took our measurements and found us wanting. A film like Citizen Kane dissected the megalomania of a media baron. He closed himself off like an island, built a castle which only his personal invitees could enter, and witnessed the energy fizz away. By life’s end, he was a solitary figure lost in an echoing chamber.

Kane was one of several ingredients that fed the style, form and thematic content of the emergent noir genre during this period in the USA. Other factors were the influence of émigré filmmakers from Europe, the hardboiled fiction of Hammett, Cain and Chandler, the paintings of Edward Hopper and the photojournalism of Weegee. Noir held up a dark mirror to the sociopolitical and cultural reality of America in the 1940s and 1950s. It investigated the shadows.

[Photo credit: Henry Travers & James Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life]

Noir narratives were imbued with existential angst and fear of otherness. The questionable ideal of the male WASP was found to be flawed, floundering as it sought to find the source of malaise elsewhere: women who had usurped jobs while men were away fighting; African Americans and Mexicans who had moved into city centres; Communists who apparently were everywhere. The finger of blame always pointed away.

If all this sounds familiar, in the context of contemporary politics, it is little wonder that noir – literary, cinematic, televisual – has become such a mainstay of our culture again, not only in the USA but throughout the West. From the dark recesses of our minds, our misgivings, our nightmares, are projected for others to endure and amplify. Occasionally, horrifyingly, such fictions become reality too.

It’s a Wonderful Life is another classic film of the 1940s that dipped into noir territory. George Bailey is a man on the edge, facing financial ruin and disgrace, driven to suicidal action by the machinations of the corrupt banker Henry Potter. It falls to George’s guardian angel, Clarence Odbody, to unveil an alternative reality. This is one in which George never existed, never stood up to Potter and his kind. One in which the corruption and lust for power of one individual infect a whole community.

In this George-less world, it is always night, people are downtrodden and town names are rebranded to reflect the glory of the dictator. The authority and service of Me is all that matters for people like Potter. Clarence’s intervention is enough to clear George’s head, to shift his mindset and lead him to positive action…

The crisis of identity that is at the core of the modern “raging bull” films has no potential for resolution. We simply watch the antisocial behavior of a psychotic figure result in his or her own self-destruction within an inhospitable and uncaring environment.
— Richard Martin, Mean Streets and Raging Bulls

It thus becomes clear that one and the same reality may be split up into many diverse realities when it is beheld from different points of view.
— José Ortega y Gasset, The Dehumanization of Art


Whether his little brain be quick or slow,
Man everywhere quakes at the mystery,
And looks up only with a trembling eye.
— Charles Baudelaire, The Pot Lid

When things happen too fast, nobody can be certain about anything, about anything at all, not even about himself.
— Milan Kundera, Slowness

We have all been too quick to make up our minds and too slow to change them.
— Philip Tetlock & Dan Gardner, Superforecasting

To defeat the ill effects of urgency, then, we need two types of tools: those fostering greater awareness of our situational need for closure at a particular juncture, and those that keep the consequences of decisions salient at the right moments.
— Jamie Holmes, Nonsense

A few years ago, on the morning of a friend’s wedding, I went for a bike ride in the wine country to the south of Dijon. Returning back to the city on a circuitous route, I had one of those rare moments when I experienced flow. It is a memory I return to often, a raft of stillness highlighted in the frenetic maelstrom of modern life. I visualise a gentle incline curving through an agricultural landscape, climbing towards a small village atop a hill. Everywhere I look is yellow and green. Rich perfume wafts from the crops that surround me. At my back is both the sun and a light breeze, inducing pleasurable early summer sensations on my bare legs and arms. The act of pedalling feels effortless. Man, nature and machine are at one.

When I first rediscovered a love of the bike as I approached my forties, there was too much focus on the paraphernalia of cycling, the right kit, the measurement of distance, climbs and, above all, speed. Meandering through my forties, those obsessions have fallen away. I am content with the single bicycle I own now, that sees me through all twelve months of the year. I am more interested in the journey than the destination, and anything that measures has been discarded or hidden away. If I need to know the time, then I have to fish my smartphone out of my back pocket. That device is referred to more often for navigation as I venture down the path less taken, or note-taking as the mechanics of the body free up the mind to craft the phrases and paragraphs that end up in my writing.

Of course, all journeys ultimately have a destination, often a deadline too. These can add a little creative constraint and are often helpful. But the path of obliquity, while moving towards that destination, is often far more interesting than that of directness and speed. The journey can be physical, actually moving through space and time, or it can be mental, venturing into the mindscapes of imagination, reflection and memory. The path tends, therefore, to eventually bend back on itself, leading to home, or to the self. Astride my bike, heading out from Whitstable, I can visit the coast, climb up into the Downs, head for the woods or find my way to the nearby city of Canterbury. Walking along the beach, I can plug in earbuds and listen to music or interviews. Either option opens up the possibility of physical wandering and mental flâneurie. Both have the effect of slowing and expanding time.

[Photo credit: Pace of Life, Richard Martin, April 2015]

While writing The Neo-Generalist, I found that I spent almost as much time walking as I did sitting at my desk, chained to a keyboard. Walks along the seafront presented me with the opportunity to listen to and absorb the recordings of interviews conducted by my writing partner Kenneth Mikkelsen. They helped me shape ideas, discovering ways of expressing what I had been grappling with while looking at that blinking cursor on the screen. They were also periods of reflection, allowing for the creative mash-up of the different books, articles and blog posts I had been reading; the fusion of fiction, poetry, art, science, business and sport. The ability to go slow, to wander and ponder, enabled the discovery of intriguing synergies and connections. I doubt that stasis and experiencing the tangible pressure of having to write quickly would have had the same effect.

Extended moments of slow motion and fluid thinking were then punctuated by short bursts of rapid writing, followed by further reflection and intermittent editing. It had a rhythm of sorts, a destination and deadline too. Prevarication was balanced by discipline. Daniel Kahneman’s system 2 (slow) thinking by his system 1 (fast) thinking. Changes of pace were made to match contextual shifts. But always there was a tendency to gravitate back to the slow pace, reading a book or two, allowing ideas and memories to assemble themselves into some kind of meaningful order, frequently corralled by the act of wandering. It was the nourishment of a leisurely meal enjoyed in the company of friends and family rather than the quick fix of a snatch-and-grab snack.

Having recently finished writing The Neo-Generalist, these experiences are still fresh in my mind. A beautiful post by Julie Drybrough today on Coaching, Walking, Thinking, Changing cast them in a new light. I see much that I write, whether blog posts, articles or books, as being in conversation with other ideas, other publications, other people. Leisurely discussion is opened up when we choose to click on that publish button. I have already much enjoyed the conversation that has followed Julie’s musings, and now throw this post into the mix as a personal contribution.

If we make the speed of light the constant, then time slows down the faster we move, lengths contract, and masses increase. We enter the world of special relativity.
— Gary Klein, Seeing What Others Don’t

Walking is the best way to go more slowly than any other method that has ever been found.
— Frédéric Gros, A Philosophy of Walking

To be a randonneur, then, is to be a wanderer. Someone on a journey, but in a somewhat random way. The wanderer does not know his course, but discovers it. The path discovers him, as much as he it.
— Matt Seaton, The Wanderer

Because of this at this moment I know
something of the future, how it will
give itself to us slowly, its reticence.
— James Sallis, Trying to Surface

Punctuated equilibrium

That the future’s no calamitous change
But a malingering of now,
Histories, towns, faces that no
Malice or accident much derange.
— Ted Hughes, A Woman Unconscious

You arrive as a ripple of change emanating
from an original, unstoppable,
memory, a then made now
— David Whyte, The Wave

Only endings allowed things to stay
as they were, as they had been:
otherwise it was all change
— James Sallis, Other Conclusions

It is with language and action, enabled and accelerated by technological infrastructure and tools, that we disseminate ideas and make things happen. Language in all its verbalised, encoded and visualised forms is itself a social technology. Yet, with the passage of time, some of its discrete elements, certain images and words, can lose their potency. Round up the usual suspects too often, scoop out their meaning, leave them hanging as empty metaphors, and people soon stop paying attention.

Euan Semple, that admirable digital cage-rattler, catalysed and facilitated a useful discussion on the topic yesterday when he blogged about his misgivings regarding the word transformation. Euan has long been an advocate of an incremental approach to change, founded upon Trojan Mice, or risk-free, small-scale experiments, the effects of which impact over time. Another friend, Anne Marie McEwan, has taken up the baton with her Tiny Triumphs project.

The effectiveness of the gradual, accumulative approach is something that we have witnessed in sport. As Clive Woodward guided the England rugby team to victory in the 2003 Rugby World Cup, he often observed that improvement ‘was not about doing one thing 100% better, but about doing 100 things 1% better’. Dave Brailsford followed suit during his tenure with both the British track cycling squad and the Team Sky road-racing outfit, advocating ‘the aggregation of marginal gains’. Their respective success indicated the attractiveness of this approach. It made risk management and the size of the tasks ahead more palatable. Small steps were contextualised in relation to a grander vision.

Of course, one size does not fit all. Our corporate, governmental and societal institutions are often stubborn beasts. They are entrenched in their ways because there are usually many who benefit from the established methods of doing things. They fight hard to protect what they know, activating antibodies to resist the virus of change. Their world is one of tradition, rulebooks and ‘best practice’. The latter is the factor that really sucks the air out of the room. It allows no freedom or space for experimentation and emergent practice, which are essential to the marginal gains approach. It is characterised instead by stasis. There is no requirement for improvement, as the ‘best’ has apparently already been achieved.

Such a mindset is highly damaging. Founded upon the myopia of expertise, it inhibits and demarcates, creating a closed system. Inevitably, entropy has its way, energy is lost, and everything ossifies. Sometimes the only way to shake things up again in such a scenario is with large-scale and rapid transformation. That can seem really counterintuitive to an advocate (and I am one) of small experiments. As with so much else, however, there are lessons that can be learned from the natural world.

While Kenneth Mikkelsen and I were researching The Neo-Generalist, we were introduced to the concept of punctuated equilibrium by conservation biologist, artist and textile designer Susy Paisley-Day. The theory was developed in the 1970s by Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould, who noted that the fossil record of many species offers little evidence of gradual evolutionary change. Instead, change appears to have happened very rapidly, at the edges, often when a small group has become isolated. Following rapid evolutionary change, the new species variant settles down into a steady state. It suggests, then, that transformation is intermittent, rather than perpetual. Stasis is normal.

This biological analogy casts a new light on human behaviour and action. Often we witness the rebel become part of the establishment, the cause institutionalised in the process. Cultural, political and sporting history serves up many examples. Vivienne Westwood, a leading figure in London’s punk scene is now one of the grandes dames of the fashion world. Dylan Hartley, the recidivist rugby player, is now captain of his country. Lech Wałęsa, Nelson Mandela, Fidel Castro and Václav Havel all graduated from the status of activist, dissident or revolutionary to that of political leader. Massive change soon fades into the past, and a steady state is resumed.

What Euan’s post stirred up was recognition that, personally, I have a preference for a particular approach to change, but acknowledgment that there are others ways too. The challenge is to ensure that the words associated with these ideas retain meaning, and no longer ring hollow with the empty rhetoric of the self-styled business guru.

The word “transformation” is beginning to worry me. It implies a total change, a radical departure from the status quo, a discarding of how you currently do things. It also implies an idealised end state.
— Euan Semple, Transformation

Change the words and you begin to change the way you think. That in turn changes the way you behave.
— Charles Handy, The Second Curve

Under phyletic gradualism, the history of life should be one of stately unfolding. Most changes occur slowly and evenly by phyletic transformation; splitting, when it occurs, produces a slow and very gradual divergence of forms. We have already named our alternative picture for its predicted extrapolation—punctuated equilibria. The theory of allopatric speciation implies that a lineage’s history includes long periods of morphologic stability, punctuated here and there by rapid events of speciation in isolated subpopulations.
— Niles Eldredge & Stephen Jay Gould, Punctuated Equilibria

The specialist–generalist continuum

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, however, only told part of the story. The extremes of the continuum are the domains of the hyperspecialist and the polymath.


When the continuum is transformed into a circle, a funny thing happens. The hyperspecialist and polymath nestle 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 line and circle 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 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.


In The Neo-Generalist, Kenneth Mikkelsen and I explore how those with preferences for the WWW curve of the continuum nevertheless find themselves practising all over the map, 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. We even delve into our personal experiences to explore how they correspond to the continuum. Here is my learning–working story distilled:


We have had great fun researching and writing the book, and have been gratified to encounter so many fascinating people along the way.

The Neo-Generalist will be published by LID in September.


Galactic Discomfort

No answer then
but the ache
of that wanting,
no answer then
but the innocence
of a growing
need to know,
enlarging and
— David Whyte, Who Made the Stars?

The period spanning the late sixties through the mid-seventies was one of the most fascinating in the history of mainstream Hollywood cinema. The industry itself was undergoing fundamental structural change. New technology was being incorporated into filmmaking practices. The literacy of the cinema-going public was enhanced by their informal small-screen education via television. A new generation of film school-educated writers, directors and cinematographers were beginning to find their feet and get personal projects backed by financiers. With them, they brought ideas and techniques developed away from the Classical Hollywood machine. These were introduced in the European new waves and the cinema of Japan.

Formal experimentation was but a vehicle, however, to explore questions of a cultural and ideological nature. Society was in flux, and the established military-industrial complex, as well as its supporting political infrastructure, was being challenged and questioned. This was the era of Vietnam, race riots, assassinations, Watergate, high-profile investigations, oil crises, economic stagflation and a counter-culture fuelled by popular music, drugs, feminism and youth disenfranchisement. From Bonnie and Clyde to Nashville, The Conversation to Taxi Driver, The Wild Bunch to Chinatown, and Network to All the President’s Men our screens were filled with images of institutional corruption, impotence, gratuitous violence and futile attempts to make sense of things, to make a difference. The private investigator and reporter were our anti-heroes, doomed to failure and harm even before they embarked upon their quest for knowledge and understanding.

This was challenging cinema. Provocative, thoughtful, technically innovative and radically different from what had previously been served on the mainstream conveyor belt. Even saccharine fare like Grease could have an edge, weaving tales of teen pregnancy, simmering male violence and tribal belonging and alienation into its musical love story. But its release and popular success in 1978 really coincided with the death knell of mainstream experimentation. As a new decade dawned, independent filmmaking would become home to those who wanted to play with form and technique, or who were drawn to the more provocative material. The success of Jaws, Rocky and Star Wars pulled the mainstream in another direction, launching decades’ worth of franchise cinema and product tie-ins. The commercial imperative was supplemented by an ideological shift to the right, first confronting the term of the Carter administration then underpinning the policy and actions of the Reagan–Bush years.

It is intriguing to compare the sprawling chaos and mythical-psychological journey of Apocalypse Now, for example, with the simplified vision of Star Wars. Both borrow from archetypes and the examination of myth, fairy tale and religion by the likes of James George Frazer, Vladimir Propp, Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell. Whereas Star Wars (and the later Indiana Jones series) returns to the style and content of the film serials of the 1930s, however, Apocalypse Now is more reliant on literary sources like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and an early treatment of it by Orson Welles. Francis Ford Coppola’s film is messy, anarchic, challenging. George Lucas’s is straightforward, apparently uplifting in its recycling of a Christ-like narrative, but politically unnerving. The empire is defeated, the monarchy is restored, and the victors are assembled in images that resemble the ordered masses filmed by Leni Riefenstahl in Triumph of the Will, a cinematic document of the Nuremberg rallies of 1934.

The Nazi message was one that boiled everything down to a simplistic essence. It promoted fear of otherness, the primacy of a certain kind of super being and the belief in a single right answer. That should be anathema for anyone with liberal tendencies, a fondness for diversity in all forms, a comfort with ambiguity and a reluctance to accept that there is any such thing as ‘right answers’. That such ideological undertones find their way into the original Star Wars film is disturbing. It is why I have never been able to share so many of my contemporaries’ passion for the film or for several other franchises that appeared in the subsequent decade.

Take the blinders from your vision,
take the padding from your ears,
and confess you’ve heard me crying,
and admit you’ve seen my tears.
— Maya Angelou, Equality