Extracted from chapter 3 of The Neo-Generalist. The story was drafted in 2015. The book was published in September of the following year. This version has been lightly edited in 2018 to reflect my current experience as freelance writer and editor.
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
During my teen years, I used to bat away the inevitable question about what I wanted to be when I grew up with this stock response: ‘An assassin. They are well paid, and they get to travel the world.’ While such an answer was fuelled by the facetiousness of youth, it also betrayed my distrust of labels and neat pigeonholing. In my late forties, I still am discovering what I want to be, still learning who I am and where I belong beyond the safe haven of home and family. Belonging has as much to do with relationships, ideas and mindset as it does with notions of time and place.
Steve Jobs once observed, ‘You can’t connect the dots looking forward, you can only connect them looking backwards.’ This is an observation that resonates with most people given to wandering, whether that is through the physical ambulations of the flâneur or the even less constrained roaming of the mind. What in the act of living can appear circuitous and fragmentary, in memory’s reconstruction can be shaped into a coherent narrative. We humans are ever sense-makers, always storytellers. Our memories, as James Sallis phrases it, are more poets than reporters. Elliptical, metaphoric, abstract, symbolic. Their realities ones of contextual convenience rather than necessarily lived experience.
As I reconstruct them, then, my early years were somewhat itinerant, leaving me with a sense of rootlessness. By the time I was ten years of age, I had started life in rural Yorkshire, spent four years in southeastern Spain both on the coast in Mojácar and in the city of Murcia, then moved to an Oxfordshire market town where my parents set up a business. My schooling experiences to that point were equally disjointed, some of my stays lasting little more than a week. Friendships were transient, all too quickly left behind. An experience exacerbated in my early teens when my closest friend lost his life in a tragic household accident. Little wonder, then, that from an early stage in life I cultivated the position of an outsider. I expected impermanence. Best to observe and learn before moving on again, even as I railed against the moves, the constant change, the potential loss of treasured possessions, valued relationships. Settling in to a second Oxfordshire home for the next decade of my life did little to alter this outsider’s perspective. School and friends were elsewhere. The only tenuous connection I had to the local community was through the nearby rugby club.
It is the recollection of time spent in Mojácar that is idealised in my mind’s eye. Memories of the sandy expanse of beach below where our family home was perched on the side of a hill; of fish landed and sold at the local harbour in Garrucha; of the prevalence of índalo iconography; of film-set playgrounds that I subsequently learned were left over from the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns I would grow to love later in life. But I also recall my first exposure to the institutions of formal education at this time. I was a non-Catholic Anglo attending a school run by strict nuns in Franco’s authoritarian Spain. An outsider again. My reaction was visceral and it shaped my response to the classroom setting for the next fifteen years or so. In fact, it would not be until I returned to Spain for a year as an undergraduate at the University of Zaragoza that I fully began to appreciate my academic potential and the scaffolding that could be provided by established centres of learning.
In the intervening years, back in England, I encountered Catholic nuns again who instilled in me not their faith but a deep sense of guilt. Between the ages of ten and thirteen, my happiest educational experiences were at a local private school. The Elizabethan house where we studied and slept, the broad curriculum and, above all, the emphasis on sports and the great outdoors all contributed to my appreciation of those years. Grammar school and a very different approach to education followed. This was my first taste of life as a commuter, with a two-hour round trip by bus each day. Rugby again was the raft I clung to, as I otherwise was manoeuvred along the fast-moving educational torrent, shaped, conditioned and smoothed by the water’s flow.
The objective was the accumulation of certificates. Examinations were taken early, qualifications secured, in order that yet more examinations could be squeezed in. The deep shafts of specialism were being assembled. Constraints were in place too, either through exclusion or selection. Given my childhood, it was understandable that Spanish was a favoured subject. Interestingly, however, I never had much aptitude for its study as a language, speaking and writing it, but was more interested in the cultural elements: food, history, literature and film. Latin would have offered a useful complement, but I was not permitted to study it as my mathematics were not strong enough. In its place, I was compelled to take biology, as well as having to choose between history and geography, when I would have liked to spend more time with both.
Today, I retain nothing of the experience of formal scientific study. Rather it was the deep exploration of literature and film history while at Zaragoza that opened my eyes to the potential of science. It was through the humanities that I gained understanding and appreciation, not through the seemingly endless hours in the science laboratories at grammar school. Modernism and its successors expanded what I knew and the places I looked for inspiration. That year in Zaragoza was seminal in my personal development. Until then, I had played the game, collected the certificates, experienced both success and failure. A difficult decision at eighteen had paved the way. A surprisingly mediocre result in one subject prompted me to spend an extra year as a schoolboy. During that period, I mixed part-time study with temporary employment, determining that rather than going on to study law as originally intended, I would continue with Spanish for a few more years. My first year at Newcastle University raised questions about the wisdom of that choice. School had spoon-fed. I now needed to work out for myself how to learn.
Experiments in my second year at Newcastle, exploring beyond the curriculum, helped lay foundations that the experience of studying in Spain then built upon. By the time of my return to Newcastle for the final year of my degree, I knew that I wanted to research film history at postgraduate level. Zaragoza had given me the confidence to go both deep and wide, to combine different disciplines, to follow my curiosity. I experienced the benefit of mentoring from young, enthusiastic academics, as well as a crash course in film history at the local filmoteca that I sometimes visited twice a night. Comparative literature made me appreciate familiar texts in a completely new way. Discussion of theory and philosophy made sense in ways they had not done previously. Learning in my twenties was suddenly fun and rewarding. Being in a certain place at a certain age had the happy effect of completely shifting my mindset, developing an appreciation for lifelong learning that has little to do with the institutional conveyor belt of our formative school years.
Largely, this was because I was now investing so much of myself in the act of learning. I was no longer being done unto, offering up my mind unquestioningly to others like a sausage casing waiting to be filled with meat. Instead, I was engaged and active in the process of learning. I was looking a few steps ahead now too, wondering whether academia was a place where I might belong. The possibility of researching deeply into a subject, of hyperspecialising, was appealing. Especially if that could lead to an academic career, further writing and research, and the opportunity to mentor and guide others in the way I had been in Zaragoza. By the time I returned to England, I had already determined a topic to research for a PhD thesis. I began to live in two academic worlds, completing my undergraduate course on Spanish and Latin American studies even as I started to research the history and evolution of American film noir in the context of industrial, sociopolitical and cultural change.
As it transpired, I spent the bulk of my postgraduate years away from Newcastle University, where I was affiliated to the Department of English Literature. As a film specialist, I needed to be closer to the British Film Institute’s facilities in London. I quickly fell into the solitary life of the writer and researcher. An outsider, an exile, once more. When I did have opportunities to teach, I disliked the expectation that I was all-knowing, ready to impart knowledge and receive nothing in return. This was not the kind of mentoring, not the hoped for mutual development, that I had had in mind. Once I had graduated, I strayed from the academic path and found myself in the freelance publishing world mostly editing, sometimes writing, even fulfilling one of my childhood ambitions to see my own book in print.
The most interesting work at this time, though, tended to be the side projects rather than the paid assignments. Some of these involved self-education, picking up HTML and CSS skills, for example, or making initial forays into information architecture and user experience. Some involved the occasional writing experiment. On the back of my research into post-World War II US history and culture, I had developed a fascination with crime fiction, particularly with examples that challenged conventions and bridged the boundaries between genre fiction and literary modernism. The discovery of James Sallis’s oeuvre was significant for me, appealing to the latent scholar as I produced an article on his Lew Griffin novels, as well as the apprentice coder as I dabbled with various iterations for a website to showcase the man and his work.
It was an important lesson too in how internet-based technologies could enable connection, helping establish a new friendship, making accessible and humanising the name that adorned the covers of the books I admired. While researching my book on film noir, I had enjoyed the occasional frisson of excitement as I exchanged letters and faxes with the great and good of the cinematic past. With Jim Sallis, I enjoyed the more regular interaction that email enabled. Social media subsequently served to amplify these effects, breaking down barriers, improving both accessibility and immediacy of interaction. Often I have found myself in recent years reading a new book and simultaneously interacting with its author online, perhaps simply expressing thanks, occasionally pursuing ideas that their work has inspired.
As I diversified during these post-academic years, first as a freelancer, then through a series of roles with private, public and non-profit organisations, it was fascinating to discover how those postgraduate experiences stayed with me. They were both foundation and touchstone. Whatever your generalist inclinations, academic research is a form of hyperspecialism. The joke goes that PhD stands for ‘piled high and deep’, suggestive of the individual’s mining of an ever-narrowing field. They learn more and more about less and less, blinkered about what they do not know, disconcertingly satisfied with what they do. The trick is to learn how to apply the knowledge gained in different contexts, occasionally opening the way to new insights and innovation.
Writing and research were obviously portable skills. But I also found that I retained an aptitude for learning, as well as for translating the new knowledge that I acquired into something that could be shared with others too. Study of a visual medium gave me an understanding of on-screen communication, which overlapped with ideas relating to user experience and design. Storytelling and an understanding of culture – embracing history, semiotics, anthropology and psychology – were all vital to the ways in which I made sense of the world around me. In a workplace context, where I might be surrounded by web developers, health professionals, scientists, regulators, civil servants, policymakers or engineers, it gave me a different perspective, a different lens. It helped me understand that the role of an outsider could be a position of strength, one that could benefit the organisations I worked for. It was the conduit to external ideas, transcending corporate, industrial and national boundaries, opening up the possibility of cross-pollination. It was a case of learning how to navigate different networks, mapping them in order that others could follow.
[The specialist–generalist continuum. See the blog or chapter 2 of the book]
[Richard’s learning and professional story mapped to the continuum]
In Flawed but Willing, coach and facilitator Khurshed Dehnugara differentiates between the teacher as expert, representative of the industrial age, and the community as expert, which is more characteristic of what he calls the age of connection. This resonates with my personal experience as an academic. In the 1990s, I developed deep expertise regarding film history and the noir genre in particular. I spent countless hours watching relevant films. I read about the topic, I wrote about it, I taught courses about it. By the end of the decade, however, I had left academia. Today, I still retain a keen interest in cinema and film history, still write about it on occasion, weaving references to it into my work on business, change, leadership and learning. However, I am no longer what could be thought of as an expert in the field. Instead, I rely on networked connections, access to other people, their ideas and published work, to maintain some currency in the subject. I may not have the answers but I know who to turn to if I need them. The knowledge, the expertise, is in the network. It is always in motion. My own expertise, unused, has atrophied. Temporary residence transforms into a sense of no longer belonging.
This has been a recurrent theme in my personal experience. Knowledge withers if the vine is not tended and watered. My Spanish remained dormant when I returned to the UK as a child, but I found it easy to relearn as a teenager after a seven-year hiatus. But I have lapsed again since my undergraduate days, and would find it difficult now to hold my own in conversational Spanish without immersing myself in the culture for a period of time. Over thirty years since I last played, I would struggle to produce anything melodic on a guitar, while musical notation has lost all meaning for me, nothing more now than blobs on the page, birds on a telephone wire. New knowledge, though, can rapidly lead to expertise. Working in the health sector in adulthood, for example, it was necessary for me to rapidly gain breadth and depth in the theory and practice of information governance. This shaped my work, my behaviour and who I was required to be in the office for a number of years. I again became an expert in a narrow discipline, practising it, guiding colleagues on it, cooperating with other experts outside my own organisation.
An interesting experience during this time was when I opted to pursue a master’s degree in information rights. I quickly dropped out, realising that I was gaining far more useful knowledge and experience through what I was doing in the workplace than in any of the interaction with the course leaders, who only knew the theory. Who needed another certificate to validate what they were doing on a daily basis? Nevertheless, this form of deep specialism was restrictive. It imposed a label on me, a workplace identity, that I struggled to escape. However much I might protest that in addition to this, I was also this, I had been categorised and pigeonholed by those who surrounded me. The option was either to move on, to change my specialism, or to buy into the masquerade. That would require continuing to perform, getting into character as the subject expert, checking most of my interests, much of my personality, at the door before entering the workplace each morning.
At one job, I used to have to commute by car every day along the concrete and asphalt arteries that connect Kent to London. I often found myself caught up in the experience of travelling at velocity but feeling like I was moving in slow motion. This is the effect of all the vehicles surrounding you moving at the same speed. As you become conscious of the phenomenon, your focus shifts and you become more attuned to those around you. It is not unlike one of those special effects seen so frequently in television advertising, where the protagonist occupies an oasis of calm while all around them is a blur of frenetic motion. It is an apt metaphor for the manner in which we can shift repeatedly from generalism to specialism, from self-contained silos to border-crossing wanderings. People occupying the narrow lanes of subject matter expertise race towards the acquisition of more experience and knowledge in their chosen field, only dimly aware of others outside their lane as streaky blurs in their peripheral vision. I longed to be the brave soul who opts to change lanes, to alter their pace, to explore elsewhere. To move from fast to slow.
My own wanderings have taken me from academia to publishing, from web consultancy to corporate governance, from rural furniture manufacture to the centre of the City, from health to transport, from a dot-com start-up to the public sector, from knowledge management to change leadership, from writing to mentoring. Context has determined to what extent I have been able to generalise or specialise. Web consultancy, for example, required a breadth of skills but little depth. Client liaison, information architecture, user experience, technical specifications, content management and some coding were all part of the mix. It was a facilitative role, a bridge between internal developers and external customers, understanding and translating the needs of each. The role of a trickster-like messenger. Information governance in the IVF sector, on the other hand, demanded deep specialism in a quasi-legal role. Context shifts triggered by job changes, redundancies, revised legislation, economic crashes, new governments, simple curiosity for alternative ideas, for new knowledge, demand parallel shifts on the specialist–generalist continuum. I have had to work as a hedgehog, as a T-shaped person, as a hyperspecialist, even as I have had to suppress an inclination towards, and preference for, the foxiness of the polymathic generalist.
Working as an independent is where I feel I have been able to give most expression to that polymathic tendency. My workplace is wherever I happen to be: my home, the saddle of my road bike, local cafés, the beachfront, art galleries. My clients are dispersed, living and working in other countries, other time zones. The assignments are varied. For a brief period, I was a school governor, acting as a critical friend to the teaching staff and administrators. It is that ability to constructively challenge, to be in many worlds at once, introducing knowledge and ideas from elsewhere into a different context, where I feel my neo-generalism has been most beneficial to the individuals and the organisations I have worked with – whether operating as an outsider-on-the-inside for various employers or, more recently, providing editorial and advisory guidance to other authors. On occasion, however, I have had to take a Trojan Horse approach, withholding my multidisciplinarity until others have grown comfortable with me in relation to a given specialism, only gradually revealing other capabilities and interests that can add value.
Tied in with this is a strong personal belief in the notion of transformational leadership, in preparing the ground for others, supporting them, transferring skills where relevant and, ultimately, making myself redundant. It is leadership as a form of service. A consigliere, rarely in the spotlight, often in the shadows whispering in a well-chosen ear. I also am a firm advocate of both individual and collective responsiveness, of adapting fluidly to the contexts in which we find ourselves. It is not in business literature or corporate training programmes that I have learned about these things. Instead, it has been through practice, experimentation, reading fiction and poetry, watching film and sport (especially rugby and professional cycling), enjoying the benefits of parenthood, and through interaction with friends and family.
I understand now that as a neo-generalist my role is to help others appreciate what they do and where they find themselves. This is the role of mentor and guide stripped of its scholastic trappings, informed by personal knowledge and experience. My story has threaded through it an academic theme because at heart I retain a desire to teach, to continue learning, to follow my curiosity and to maintain the sense of wonder I appreciate so much in my own children.