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.