Legacy thinking

All that remains is legacy.
— Lauren Elkin, Flâneuse

Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors
— Jonas Salk quoted in Liam Fahey & Robert M. Randall, Learning from the Future

This cycle is now a cardinal component of my existence. It makes me part of an ancient tradition and gives me a role in the landscape.
— Robert Penn, The Man who Made Things Out of Trees

When Kenneth Mikkelsen and I first discussed a book project, we were drawn to the notion of polymathic generalism. This we contrasted with the prevalence of deep specialism. Our breakthrough came when we realised that distinction was a distraction.

The neo-generalist lives in-between. They deny easy labelling and classification. Theirs is a world of both/and rather than either/or. They are both specialist and generalist. Multidisciplinarians who adapt to context, deriving interdisciplinary benefits through their willingness, their need, to bridge, elide and blur.

What they know depends on accumulation, remixing and mash-up. They fit in no specific box, belonging to all things and no thing. They are simultaneously of the bridge and of the node, serial masters caught in the detail, curious explorers drawn to the big picture.

In The Neo-Generalist, Kenneth and I represented the movement and restlessness of this figure with a continuum. We visualised this as an infinite loop or Möbius strip. Our contention was that such an approach helped break down arguments founded on polarities, establishing nuanced connections that embraced both similarities and difference.

Often the apparent poles were found to be striking in their resemblance. In our thesis, for example, polymathy could be said to be the serialisation of hyperspecialism, the polymath being a specialist multiple times over. On the political spectrum, it could be argued that the extremes of Fascist and Communist dictatorships also shared many similarities. The richness, the variety lay in the in-between of these continuums.

We approached the topic of neo-generalism from a variety of different angles. One of these considered leadership, and helped us to gain further understanding of another continuum relating to time.

Legacy Thinking

Legacy thinking is about respecting the past, acting in the present and serving the future. It is about being a good ancestor, taking into account future generations, the environment and sustainability in the decisions you make and the actions you take. But it is also about being a good descendant too, learning from and building on what went before, avoiding the repetition of mistakes, enhancing the advances and innovations, preserving the stories and adding new pages to them. The legacy thinker is historian, playmaker, futurist.

The neo-generalist leader, exercising legacy thinking, is required to be a time traveller. They must look forwards and backwards at the same time. Like the cathedral builders of old, they are stewards of a future that they may never experience themselves, servants to the generations of grandchildren and great-grandchildren that will follow them.

this legacy, eager to be given, yet no one wanting to carry its burden
— Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib, The Crown Ain’t Worth Much

Let no one say the past is dead.
The past is all about us and within.
Haunted by tribal memories, I know
This little now, this accidental present
Is not the all of me, whose long making
Is so much of the past.
— Oodgeroo Noonuccal, The Past

We are strung between the point of ending and
the point of having started.
— Jack Underwood, The Anatomy of the Hammock

Where can it be found again,
An elsewhere world, beyond

Maps and atlases,
Where all is woven into

And of itself, like a nest
Of crosshatched grass blades?
— Seamus Heaney, A Herbal

In chapter 10 of The Neo-Generalist, we include stories from a range of people in sport, business, activism, science, the military and politics who have adopted a legacy thinking approach to leadership. These include Al Smith, Charles Handy, John Michel, Robin Chase, Anand Mahindra and Geoffrey West.


Humanities? Law? Tourism? Zoology? Politics? History? Art? Maths? Philosophy? Music? Languages? Classics? Engineering? Architecture? Economics? Medicine? Psychology? Daniel said.

All of the above, Elisabeth said.

That’s why you need to go to collage, Daniel said.
— Ali Smith Autumn

Collage is an institute of education where all the rules can be thrown into the air, and size and space and time and foreground and background all become relative, and because of these skills everything you think you know gets made into something new and strange.
— Ali Smith, Autumn

Who am I? Where am I? What am I?
— Ali Smith, Autumn

As the stumblings of the Trump press office have demonstrated repeatedly, words matter. They are both imbued with meaning and open to interpretation. Any crossword enthusiast will recognise that a single word can be burdened with an array of definitions even before their metaphorical usage is taken into consideration. They are pregnant with possibility, adapted to nuance, context and inflection.

Novelist Ali Smith captures this beautifully in her most recent novel Autumn. We time travel with her protagonists Elisabeth and Daniel backwards and forwards through various moments in their respective lives. As Elisabeth blossoms into her early teens, the eighty-something Daniel assumes the role of mentor and guide, questioning, challenging, having a catalytic effect on his protégée’s future.

Walking and talking together, they paint with words. Smith is an extraordinarily visual writer, often incorporating the description of photographs, paintings and film scenes into her narratives. Sometimes, as is the case with How to be Both and Artful, the images which adorn the covers of her books are reconstructed through her prose. With Autumn, the work of pop artist Pauline Boty is significant to the lives of each of the two protagonists, one of the many connections that bind them together.

[Picture credit: My Colouring Book by Pauline Boty]

Boty often made use of collage techniques in her artworks. Daniel’s word play with the term establishes a bridge between the paintings he describes to the young Elisabeth and their conversation about her future education. Elisabeth speaks of going to college when she is older. Daniel, a trickster, urges her to go to collage instead, where she can combine multiple interests and embrace multidisciplinarity.

Having so recently published The Neo-Generalist, reading these passages had a pleasurably jarring effect on me. In the chapters titled ‘Provincial Punk’ and ‘Shoring Fragments’, borrowing from punk culture, the Modernists, a variety of writers, artists and interviewees, Kenneth Mikkelsen and I explore how our lives, our identities, are an accumulation, remix and mash-up of interactions, lessons, memories and roles, characterised by fluidity and adaptiveness. In ‘Picaresque Tales’, we examine alternatives to established 21st-century education practices.

Smith distils all these ideas into a single word. Collage. An artwork. A descriptor. A place. An experience of learning for us all.

Maybe “self” was a free variable with no bounded value.
— Michael Chabon, Moonglow

She didn’t truck much with conventional ways of dividing up the world—black/white, male/female, gay/straight, abnormal/normal—none of these boundaries convinced her. These were impositions, defining categories that failed to recognize the muddle that is us, us human beings. “Reductionism!” She used to shout this out every now and then.
— Siri Hustvedt, The Blazing World

Punk, in turn, celebrated the fragment and the conjuncture. Torn clothing, for example, reassembled with electrical tape, chains, or safety pins, privileged the collage, rather than the seamless whole. Contrary to the alleged timelessness of artistic truth, punks celebrated the ephemeral quality of the commodity. Contrary to the rectitude of virtuosity, punk bands openly flaunted their haphazard musical skills.
— Randall Doane, Stealing All Transmissions

The poem defines

This week (7-13 November 2016), it is International Working Out Loud Week. Simon Terry kindly invited Kenneth Mikkelsen and I to be interviewed about neo-generalism and working out loud. As a companion piece to that interview, the following post retrospectively shares ideas that went into one aspect of our book.

I Tiresias, old man with wrinkled dugs
Perceived the scene and foretold the rest—
— T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land

He will be more than the sum of his parts.
— Kate Tempest, Tiresias

Tiresias who sees what only a child could see
— Sean Bonney, Letters Against the Firmament

At the centre of The Neo-Generalist can be found the chapter ‘Shoring Fragments’. In it Kenneth and I observe, ‘we are all an assembly of what we have read, the people we have met, the places we have visited, the conversations we have had, the work we have done, the shared experiences and recollected histories of the communities in which we live.’

In speaking for ourselves, in telling our own stories in the book, we discovered that we were simultaneously telling those of other people too. In recounting fragments of their stories, or highlighting examples from popular culture, we found again that we were telling our own stories.

Our ever evolving selves, our sense of identity, are made up of these shored fragments. On a personal level, there are certain cultural artefacts that anchor me. These are my touchstones. The art through which I make meaning, and with which I gauge and assess other art and the broader world around me.

From poetry, there is T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, to which shoring fragments alludes. From fiction, there is Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, which gave us another chapter title. From film, there is Robert Towne and Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, the screenwriter’s masterful script darkened and enriched by the director’s cinematic vision. From television, there is Northern Exposure, the subject of my last blog post and another cultural reference to find its way into our book. In painting, there is Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks.

[Book covers and poster art: The inspiration for our chapter titles]

The touchstone of touchstones for me is The Waste Land. I can build a case for how each of the other works cited borrows from and is influenced by it. So too other novels, films and visual art. This goes far beyond shared motifs and a thematic interest in all things Modernist.

The Waste Land has long tentacles. In 2018, its legacy will be the subject of an art exhibition at the Turner Contemporary gallery. It also lingers below the surface of the work of contemporary poets, as witness Sean Bonney’s searing Letters Against the Firmament and Kate Tempest’s brilliant Let Them Eat Chaos.

With The Neo-Generalist, Eliot’s poem proved to be a gift that kept on giving. Beyond the title of and opening to chapter 7, it gave us an organising principle (shoring the narrative fragments) and an architecture too. Some of this was addressed overtly, some of it happened unconsciously, influenced by constant reference to the poem while we were researching and writing.

For example, in the book we deliberately draw attention to the fact that both The Waste Land and The Crying of Lot 49 highlight their own artifice in the way they close. In the poem, Eliot concludes with his carefully crafted notes ending with the word word; in the novella, Pynchon closes with the book’s title. We opted to follow the latter in The Neo-Generalist. It was an in-joke, much like some of the images that adorn the book’s cover.

At the centre of The Waste Land can be found the mythological figure of Tiresias. Tiresias experiences life as both a man and a woman, is blinded by a goddess and given the gift of foresight by a god. In Tiresias, as I have previously outlined in the The Eye of I, polarities between masculinity and femininity collapse, while time and place become one. Tiresias embodies the continuum of our infinite loop. In Eliot’s poem, then, Tiresias becomes the vortex around which other characters and voices spin kaleidoscopically. Everything converges and collapses into the singularity of this man–woman.

It is a notion, consciously or not, that we borrow in telling the stories of our interviewees. One story bleeds into another. Boundaries are blurred. Delineation fades. Because our argument is that anyone can be a neo-generalist. No matter what you are doing now, no matter your educational background, no matter where you currently find yourself. We all carry the potential to both specialise and generalise. So the stories we tell, in the end, are our stories and your stories too. The names are just labels for ease of understanding.

The shored fragments an indication that where you go is who you are; always beginning, always learning, always adapting.

Metamorphosis is generally more creative than that, not echoing but erasing forms and inventing other ones from the material, a kaleidoscope of atoms and molecules tumbling into new formations over and over.
— Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby

I was on the lookout for residue, for texture, for accidents and encounters and unexpected openings.
— Lauren Elkin, Flâneuse

In every piece we write, we contemplate a world; and as that world would not otherwise exist, we create it even as we discover it.
— Peter Turchi, Maps of the Imagination

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 conversation. 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

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

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.

The Neo-Generalist poster

Repositioning the T

T-shaped people have two kinds of characteristics, hence the use of the letter “T” to describe them. The vertical stroke of the “T” is a depth of skill that allows them to contribute to the creative process. That can be from any number of different fields: an industrial designer, an architect, a social scientist, a business specialist or a mechanical engineer. The horizontal stroke of the “T” is the disposition for collaboration across disciplines.
— Tim Brown interviewed by Morten Hansen

A T-shaped person is someone who has a strong descender (the vertical stroke of the T) and a well-developed crossbar (the horizontal stroke). The descender represents deep experience in a certain discipline, and the crossbar represents the ability to work with people across disciplines. Like rock bands, creative groups need specialists who can contribute something unique to the collaboration. The last thing they need is I-shaped people—specialists who have useful skills but don’t connect with others.
— Marty Neumeier, Finding X: Why T-shaped People Are Valuable but Insufficient in an Age of Nonstop Innovation

The beauty of simple models, like IDEO’s T-shaped thinkers is they are simple to convey and remember. Their marketing power is undeniable, and they serve the consulting model superbly. But the drawback is they are often too simplistic to be accurate. In fact, I say the T-shaped thinker model is quite poor in capturing the generalist-specialist synergy.
— Liviu Nedelescu, Forget IDEO’s T-shaped Thinkers – Enter Meta

The concept of the T-shaped person advocated by the likes of Tim Brown at IDEO and Morten Hansen and Bolko von Oetinger in the pages of the Harvard Business Review is one that continues to provoke ambivalent feelings. On the one hand, I am attracted to the notion of people who can combine a deep set of skills with shallower managerial practices, potential leadership capability, and the facility to connect with others and develop collaborative experiences. On the other, I am mystified by the notion that a T-shaped person could be confused with a generalist.

A T-shaped person, following a traditional career path, tends to be one who develops and refines a deep specialism over time. Often this has a basis in their education, and is subsequently narrowed in focus as the subject is mined ever deeper. It is a practice that has become emblematic of the silos we are all so keen to bemoan. The span of time and the deepening specialism ultimately results in promotion and the acquisition of managerial responsibilities. It does not mean that the blinkers of specialism have been wholly removed. Responsibilities remain largely operational, drawing on the experience and deep knowledge of someone with subject expertise. For me, it feels like the T-shaped person is a category that should be associated more with the hierarchy than with the network. My case, then, is that the T should be positioned on the specialism curves of a specialist–generalist continuum.

We need both specialists and generalists.

In The Neo-Generalist, the book we are writing at present, Kenneth Mikkelsen and I make a case for recognising the value a generalist can add to a world which, in so many walks of life, has skewed towards hyperspecialism. Our aim is to reclaim the term generalist as something that is positive rather than detrimental. Also to position it, in its various manifestations, on a continuum with specialism. Borrowing from and adapting the hedgehog–fox continuum developed by Philip Tetlock in Expert Political Judgment, we propose a model that looks like this:

Infinite Loop

The suggestion is that various forms of specialism reside on the left loop, while generalism – from its most rudimentary to its most polymathic – is found on the right loop.



In this continuum, Archilochus’s fox and hedgehog, discussed in Natural lessons and The myopia of expertise, view one another from either extreme of their respective loops.



Because of the nature of an infinite loop, curving back on and crossing over itself, hyperspecialism and polymathy align with one another. For the polymath is able to hyperspecialise in multiple disciplines.



The T-shaped person, more specialist than generalist, therefore can be found between the polymath and the hedgehog, while the polymathic generalist inhabits the ground between the polymath and the fox.



Where any one individual sits is not a question of nature or nurture but rather of context. It is more than likely that at different times someone will occupy different positions on the continuum. Previous roles, for example, and the expectations that have attached to them, have pushed me into the specialism loop in the past. Sometimes even down the deep shaft of hyperspecialism. For now, though, I see myself floating around the foxy apex to the right of the continuum.

How about you? Where do you see yourself? Does this embryonic model even work for you? Both Kenneth and I are keen to hear your thoughts.

Maybe we have to become flatter. Maybe the stem of the T gets shorter, the bar gets wider. Maybe we are getting pretty squished out, widely spread, more like a pancake. But what this metaphor of flattening doesn’t show us is that we are connected. There are fewer and fewer isolated Ts, fewer lonely, solitary pancakes. Who we are and how we operate, how we think, is increasingly related to our connections. We are becoming the Stickle Brick people.
— Carl Gombrich, T-shaped People, Pancake People and Stickle Brick People

The typical “T-shaped” team member is no longer adaptable enough to keep up and maintain their value in a market that evolves as quickly as today’s market does. The ideal evolving skill set for today’s digital strategy world is shaped more like an expanding square than a “T”.
— Mike Arauz, Square-shaped is the New T-shaped

So there is the potential for us to develop what we might call “Comb-shaped” skills, in which we have many specific domains of expertise as well as breadth. In this case we can certainly never match the knowledge of a deep specialist in any one area.
— Ross Dawson, Building Success in the Future of Work: T-shaped, Pi-shaped, and Comb-shaped Skills

Natural lessons

mist is a friend
I am alien
to expectations
absent from definitions
— W. S. Merwin, Fox Fire

Multa novit vulpes, verum echinus unum magnum / The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog one big thing.
— Desiderius Erasmus, Adages I V 18

But we are still part of Earth’s fauna and flora, bound to it by emotion, physiology, and, not least, deep history. It is folly to think of this planet as a way station to a better world.
— Edward O. Wilson, The Meaning of Human Existence

The freest human being is not one who acts on reasons he has chosen for himself, but one who never has to choose. Rather than agonising over alternatives, he responds effortlessly to situations as they arise. He lives not as he chooses but as he must. Such a human being has the perfect freedom of a wild animal – or a machine.
— John Gray, Straw Dogs

We learn from nature because we are of it. In particular, we are drawn to the realms of animals, birds, fish and insects, studying their behaviours and actions, borrowing from them in our folk tales, mythologies, poetry, fiction, even our business literature. In his latest book, The Meaning of Human Existence, E. O. Wilson points to humanity’s anthropocentricity, our fascination with both ourselves and others like us. We project our humanity on to other things, other creatures, in order to sense-make and explain. He elaborates: ‘Our stories about animals require human-like emotions and behavior understandable with well-worn guidebooks of human nature.’ This is common knowledge for students of human storytelling through the ages like Marina Warner, Steve Seager and Vladimir Propp. It informs our understanding of narratives about Little Red Riding Hood’s lupine encounters, Gregor Samsa’s metamorphosis, Aslan’s wanderings through Narnia and the adventures of Rat, Mole, Badger and Toad.

The attraction of metaphors drawn from the natural world applies as much to those who perceive humankind to be at the centre of the universe as it does to advocates of Gaia theory, who recognise the Earth as a self-regulating system and maintain that humanity has no more value or meaning than any other life form. The metaphors expose the porousness of boundaries, serving as bridges between apparently contrarian views. They are open to interpretation from a variety of perspectives, bringing personal context and subjectivity into play. Phil Jackson, the former coach of the Chicago Bulls, used to cite a line from Rudyard Kipling’s poem The Law of the Jungle to articulate the importance of both the team unit and the skilled individuals within it: ‘For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack.’ It is a concept that has been picked up in recent years by the Saracens rugby team who describe themselves, particularly their approach to defence, as a wolf pack. In Reinventing Organizations, however, Frederic Laloux argues that the wolf pack is a marker of red organisations, redolent of early forms of human consciousness and organisation. It is a metaphor, then, that has both positive and negative connotations, dependent on your perspective at a given point in time.

Other business writers have been drawn to animal pairings. They continue a tradition that can be traced to Aesop’s tortoise and hare, via the satirist Jonathan Swift’s bee and spider. Charles Handy explores the elephant and the flea, Rogier Noort contrasts the bear and the eagle, while Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom examine the differences between the starfish and the spider. From such studies we learn about human characteristics, decision-making capabilities, leadership style and organisational preferences. One of the most recurrent pairings to appear in recent literature both about business and our understanding of people has been the hedgehog and the fox. The concept has a long lineage. The adage from Erasmus quoted above can be traced back to the Ancient Greek Archilochus. It was then popularised mid-Twentieth Century by Isaiah Berlin in a celebrated study of Tolstoy. This gave us the building blocks for exploring the differences and potential synergies between specialists and generalists.

Berlin’s central ideas subsequently were co-opted and modified by others in diverse fields. Philip Tetlock, for example, in Expert Political Judgment, describes a twenty-year study exploring how successful people were at making predictions, and highlighting the differences of people on a hedgehog—fox continuum, including hedgefox and foxhog hybrids. Jim Collins, in Good to Great, makes a case for the value of hedgehog-like qualities in leaders. His argument has been somewhat undermined, though, in that many of the individuals and companies he chose to focus on have suffered badly during the recent economic crisis. A suggestion here, perhaps, of the myopia of expertise. In The Hedgehog, the Fox and the Magister’s Pox, his brilliant thesis on why we need to bridge the gap between the sciences and the humanities and do away with age-old misconceptions, the polymathic Stephen Jay Gould builds a case for the hybridisation of the hedgehog and the fox.

There are theoretical underpinnings here, then, for the notion of neo-generalists; for people who generalise to specialise, serially, remaining open to broader influences and sensitive to shifts in context. As Gould rightly observes, these are not Renaissance People. They do not just look to the past and the knowledge of the Ancients. Nor are they simply scientific Modernists looking to the future and filling knowledge gaps. These are holistic individuals, adept at navigating all times, comfortable in the domains of knowing and not knowing, both with the manuscript and in the virtual world. Tetlock’s terminology (echoed by Ian Leslie in Curious), in which he recognises the existence and value of hedgefoxes and foxhogs, resonates not only with Gould’s call for hybridisation but with our organisational requirements for a diversified workforce. It is never a case of either/or but always of both/and. We need our polymathic foxes just as much as our expert hedgehogs. But we also require the full spectrum of everything that sits in between too.

For there exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system, less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel – a single, universal, organising principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance – and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause, related to no moral or aesthetic principle.
— Isaiah Berlin, The Hedgehog and the Fox

While hedgehogs were locked into their own disciplines, foxes could think laterally, applying the insights from one field to another. Knowledge had handicapped the hedgehogs, while the wide ranging curiosity of the foxes gave them the edge.
— Douglas Rushkoff, Present Shock

What experts think matters far less than how they think. If we want realistic odds on what will happen next, coupled to a willingness to admit mistakes, we are better off turning to experts who embody the intellectual traits of Isaiah Berlin’s prototypical fox.
— Philip E. Tetlock, Expert Political Judgment

Scramble or persist. Foxes owe their survival to easy flexibility and skill in reinvention, to an uncanny knack for recognizing (early on, while the getting remains good) that a chosen path will not bear fruit, and that either a different route must be quickly found, or a new game entered altogether. Hedgehogs, on the other hand, survive by knowing exactly what they want, and by staying the chosen course with unanswering persistence, through all calumny and trouble, until the less committed opponents eventually drop away, leaving the only righteous path unencumbered for a walk to victory … Diversify and color, or intensify and cover. Foxes (the great ones, not the shallow or showy grazers) owe their reputation to a light (but truly enlightening) spread of real genius across many fields of study, applying their varied skills to introduce a key and novel fruit for other scholars to gather and improve in a particular orchard, and then moving on to sow some new seeds in a thoroughly different kind of field. Hedgehogs (the great ones, not the pedants) locate one vitally important mine, where their particular and truly special gifts cannot be matched.
— Stephen Jay Gould, The Hedgehog, the Fox and the Magister’s Pox

Second curves

In the time of that life, and in his work, he has been many people, and if sometimes he contradicted himself well then, like Whitman he contains multitudes.
—James Sallis, Accounts Due

The nasty and often fatal snag is that the Second Curve has to start before the first curve peaks. Only then are there enough resources – of money, time and energy – to cover that first initial dip, the investment period.
— Charles Handy, The Second Curve

This pattern of connectedness is rife in humanity, technology and science. If you have two similar tuning forks, whack one and the other will sing, despite the fact they’re not touching. It’s the same in humans. Everything has a natural frequency of vibration. We resonate at certain frequencies, seeking and finding meaning in different experiences, clans and value-sets.
— Alan Moore, No Straight Lines

Practised obliquity routinely wins against disciplined directness.
— John Kay, Obliquity

As an amateur international rugby player, Martin Bayfield earned his living as a police officer. Having won 31 caps representing England, and a further three for the British Lions, he continued at club level into the professional era that emerged in the wake of the 1995 World Cup. Injury brought a premature end to his playing career, and Bayfield made one of numerous shifts that have been a feature of his adult life. Now a former policeman and rugby player, Bayfield moved into both journalism and acting. Opportunities emerged which have served to cement his presence as a media stalwart. Bayfield has worked variously for Channel 5, ITV, the BBC and BT Sport over a number of years now, covering rugby union and the NFL on the sporting front, but prime time programmes like Crime Watch too. He has also featured on the big screen, occasionally as an actor, but perhaps more famously as a body and stunt double. In the Harry Potter film series, it is Bayfield’s 6 foot 10 inch frame that stands in for Robbie Coltrane’s half-giant Hagrid, usually hidden inside an animatronic disguise.

Bayfield’s story is one example among many of people who have enjoyed a diversified, mashed-up, portfolio career. Others have enjoyed a narrower range but over a more extended period of time.

Debbie Harry, for example, enjoyed success as the lead singer of the band Blondie, as well as occasional acting roles in front of the movie cameras. As with Joe Strummer, another singer-actor to emerge from the fusion of music, art and protest that characterised punk in the 1970s, Harry’s personal diversity was also representative of the group with which she was identified. Indeed, both Blondie and The Clash proved to be great surfers of the zeitgeist, constantly moving between musical genres, anticipating changes in public taste. To listen to their music is to listen to rock, reggae, disco, funk and rap. Punk is too narrow a label, too great a constraint. Two of the key members of Blondie have similarly changed streams at will. Harry moving from the band to acting and a solo singing career then back to the reformed group, even performing at Glastonbury in 2014, showing no signs of letting up as she approaches her seventieth year. Chris Stein, co-founder of Blondie, has also demonstrated his versatility and adeptness as a photographer, enjoying a solo exhibition in 2015 and an associated book publication.

It is relatively easy to spot the polymathic generalism of the individual, especially when they have gained prominence in one discipline – like Bayfield, Harry, Strummer and Stein – and then demonstrated elevated proficiency in another. What is observed less often, though, is this tendency among collectives too.

In his new book, The Second Curve, business writer Charles Handy develops a metaphor based on the sigmoid curve; a form of elongated s turned on its side. In Handy’s view, this ‘is the line of all things human, of our own lives, of organisations and businesses, of governments, empires and alliances, of democracy itself and its many and varied institutions.’ Handy describes how the curve represents a familiar life cycle that is repeated over and again: an initial investment of effort and resource, followed by eventual progress, culminating in a peak, extended decline and end. The trick is to anticipate the peak and change before you reach it, starting a second curve. The career of a Bayfield, for example, suggests that each new curve leads constantly in new directions; that of a Harry that a new curve can actually cycle back to an old one, the same but different.

We live in an era when the average company life span is getting shorter and shorter. Organisations either need to learn to shift to a second curve on a frequent basis or accept inevitable decline and demise. Handy highlights Apple as one company that has jumped from one curve to another: from Mac to music to iPhone to tablet to wearable. As Steve Jobs wandered with the Apple brand, Richard Branson also did so with the Virgin name, embarking on adventures in multiple industries. Google are trying it too. Some of the big financial, petrochemical and pharmaceutical companies have dabbled for years. The danger, though, is that organisations can become too bloated, trying to swim in too many streams simultaneously, strangling themselves with bureaucracy. It is possible to over-diversify, as witness Tesco or Walmart, for example.

It seems, however, that the second-curve mindset can open the way for rethinking organisational design. Perhaps smaller corporations – or at least reduced cores – can interact with a host of satellite teams comprised of employees, customers, suppliers, freelancers and other business partners. These can be small-scale and diversified, free to self-manage, to detect and act upon second-curve opportunities. Lessons can be learned from those experimenting with Dunbar numbers and capping the size of plants or operational units. The examples of Semco, W. L. Gore and the military are cited too often. We need new examples.

Maybe now is the ideal opportunity for the autonomous crew to emerge as the default work unit. As Mark Gould, building on ideas developed by Dave Snowden, describes it, a crew ‘is a temporary group of people brought together for a particular job or task and then disbanded’. Not unlike the breakaway in #pelotonformations. The arc of the breakaway follows that of the curve. The opportunist, therefore, needs to look for the right moment to attack and move away from their breakaway partners, before the catch is made by the peloton, before the curve peaks and declines.

The modern, responsive organisation has to be comprised of small crews loosely joined. Crews whose membership is fluid, as are the leadership roles within them. Crews whose lifetime may not exceed one project curve. Crews comprised of a collective of individuals who are polymathic in outlook and skill set, willing and able to shift in multiple directions, horizon scanning and jumping when peaks are in sight.

We require both individuals and collectives following oblique paths, discovering second curves.

Sometimes the best way to have ideas is to be thinking of something else.
— David Hieatt, Do Purpose

A fixed mindset is a critical stumbling block at the edge. It stops us from being open to trying new things and experimenting.
— Steven D’Souza & Diana Renner, Not Knowing

Anything that takes us out of our comfort zones for a while can act as a reminder that the past we are used to may not be our best future.
— Charles Handy, The Second Curve

My strong conviction is that the more of us that try both A and C roles, and the more effortlessly we can switch between them, even wearing both hats at different times on the same day, the more successful we will be as leaders and the more successful will be our collective efforts.
— Richard Hytner, Consiglieri


‘This isn’t just an ordinary up-and-down lift!’ announced Mr Wonka proudly. ‘This lift can go sideways and longways and slantways and any other way you can think of! It can visit any single room in the whole factory, no matter where it is!’ … ‘The whole lift is made of thick, clear glass!’ Mr Wonka declared. ‘Walls. doors, ceiling, floor, everything is made of glass so you can see out!’
— Roald Dahl, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Obliquity is a process of experiment and discovery. Successes and failures and the expansion of knowledge lead to reassessment of our objectives and goals and the actions that result.
— John Kay, Obliquity

A linear approach to what we make, how we make it, who we make it with and how we share and communicate is a framework or lens that sets us to look upon our world and act in a very particular fashion. Shuffle is an example of a non-linear approach, a means by which we can access, curate and interpret the world in a different way.
— Alan Moore, No Straight Lines

In their constant search for competitive advantage, organizations are seeking people who already have specialized knowledge. This encourages people to keep going deeper rather than wider in their formal and informal learning.
— Steven D’Souza & Diana Renner, Not Knowing

Metaphors are a great vehicle for communication. Kit White observes in his aphoristic 101 Things to Learn in Art School that ‘Metaphor is the medium of symbolic language and is the language of art.’ With metaphors we can package up ideas and concepts and convey them to other people. A metaphor is something that can transcend visual, written and verbal language. As Susan Greenfield suggests, metaphorical thinking is one of the ways that humans distinguish themselves from closely related species like chimpanzees. The torch and compass help us navigate our way into and map the unknown. The candle’s flame enables us to light the wicks of other candles as knowledge is shared and amplified. The spider’s silk is suggestive of the digital, networked world in which we now commune.

Author James Sallis offers an intriguing perspective in his essay Gently into the Land of Meateaters: ‘Certainly each of us becomes a metaphor of the world: we figure the world from ourselves.’ When I think of how I use this blog – as a sense-making tool, as a platform for sharing ideas both embryonic and developed, as a repository of curated content, as a catalyst to conversation – I find this is an interpretation that resonates with me. In some respects, this blog and the books that are evolving from it are exercises in metaphorical enquiry. Each metaphor used here – the peloton, the cathedral, the detective, the flâneur, the bridge – are threads that are being woven into a larger tapestry. One of the latest threads, representative of an interest in both the polymathic generalist and the act of stewardship, is the elevator.

The elevator with which Willy Wonka transports Charlie Bucket and his grandfather is one of opportunity, curiosity, transparency and multidirectionality. Not only does it operate within the loose framework of Wonka’s factory, but it has the potential to journey into the unknown too. It is not regulated by one set course, but it can navigate in any direction. Compare this to the traditional bank of elevators in an office building. They travel up and down. Some require passes to activate them. Certain floors are restricted and off-limits. The fast elevator to the top floor is reserved for senior executives. Not so very different, then, as I observed in The apprentice’s craft, from the deep channels of silo-based expertise and hyperspecialism that characterise the make-up of many organisations.

The traditional career path we have settled on suggests the exploitation of a narrow set of specialisms. The individual is recruited to a post based on a combination of academic credentials and previous experience. They are labelled and pigeonholed by both a job title and job description. By conforming with the latter and working within its bounds, they develop, even narrow, their specialism. Their subsequent progression up the corporate ladder, their access to the building’s upper floors, are closely aligned with this increasingly dated expertise. Their understanding of the other elevator shafts, the knowledge contained within them, the role of their occupants in achieving corporate goals and delivering on common purpose, is limited. Eventually they alight on one of the upper floors, the speed of their upwards trajectory either slowed or curtailed altogether. They are now a manager, acquiring a shallow set of broader skills to supplement their area of specialist expertise. They have been branded with the letter T.

Wonka’s elevator is one for the neo-generalist. It is the hyperlink made conveyor of people. It defies the silo of the traditional elevator shaft. It knows no restrictions. Its path is the path of obliquity, travelling to the unknown. It moves through space and time like the Doctor Who’s Tardis or Bill and Ted’s phone booth, acquiring knowledge, cross-pollinating ideas, taking a bird’s eye view, picking out patterns in the big puzzle. When all has been digested, internalised, sifted and blended, then a more traditional course can be set. Sometimes even to the top floor. So, for example, Alexander Fleming discovers penicillin by accident rather than design, and a pharmaceutical industry focus on antibiotics and their medical application subsequently follows. Or actress Hedy Lamarr and composer George Antheil combine their interests in applied science to develop frequency-hopping ideas that today are building blocks for wireless technologies. Or businessman Steve Jobs invests his personal energies and finances in multiple industries including personal computers, animation, music, high street stores, software and mobile telephony, and through an intricate game of hopscotch manages to master and integrate them all.

What happens when a polymathic generalist assumes a leadership role in an organisation? The intertwined stories of Jobs and Ed Catmull, documented in the latter’s Creativity, Inc., hint at the fusion of art and science and technology. Of people playing, experimenting, learning, failing and triumphing in several fields. In Catmull’s case, in particular, there is the suggestion of an individual seeking to create conditions in which others can bloom. The idealised polymathic leader is a visionary who strives for a future that they will not be part of themselves, an elevator floor at which they will never arrive. They aim to steward others, dedicated to the husbandry of their organisation, the individual people within it, nurturing the potential each has to fulfil. The stories that emerge about such people invariably point to their mentoring capabilities, their willingness to share knowledge and experience, to send the elevator back down so that others might follow, might build on the foundations they have laid, might push at the boundaries of the maps they have drawn.

You have to send the elevator back down.
— Jack Lemmon in conversation with Kevin Spacey

The saving grace was that declaring my beliefs about the asphyxiating effects of mechanistic organization versus the vitalizing results of organic systems had an unexpected liberating effect on me. That experience of liberation through speaking personal truths – along with the fact that my presentation caused no significant change at the heart of Hallmark – convinced me that, in the future, my efforts would be best spent in not trying to change Hairballs, but in offering to midwife out of Hairballs anyone who longed for a fuller, more original work experience.
— Gordon MacKenzie, Orbiting the Giant Hairball

Enlightened leaders deliberately hand over responsibility in order to create engaged team-players able to adapt their approach to suit the conditions.
— James Kerr, Legacy

When looking to hire people, give their potential to grow more weight than their current skill level.
— Ed Catmull with Amy Wallace, Creativity, Inc.