Working Out Loud in Action: Richard Martin and Kenneth Mikkelsen, Authors of The Neo-Generalist

neogen2An interview with Richard Martin and Kenneth Mikkelsen, authors of The Neo-Generaliston the book, the changing nature of work and the role of openness and adaptability in work.

Simon Terry: Your book, The Neo-Generalist, which I strongly encourage people to read, describes a new dynamic many people pursue of being both a specialist and a generalist. Most business books are prescriptive but you describe a very open and inclusive concept. What drove this focus?

Kenneth: Most business books are deceptively simple. They tempt us with catchy titles and flashy ideas, often playing on the illusion that success is obtainable by following a five-step formula. This marketised simplicity permeates much of our media culture today. Everywhere we turn, we are exposed to easily digestible information snacks and sound bites.

We deliberately reject giving definite answers in our book. Instead, we raise important questions about, for example, living with uncertainty, learning, identity, leadership and legacy. We then relate these questions to how organisations function and the direction our society is headed in. We want to challenge the simplistic idea that you are either a specialist or a generalist. As human beings we are capable of being both and mastering multiple disciplines depending on the context we find ourselves in.

Our intention was to write a book that we wanted to read ourselves, hoping that it would also resonate with others. Umberto Eco’s concept of The Open Work is a guiding principle for us, meaning that we want the reader to actively engage with our ideas and come up with his or her own interpretation. Our book bridges and connects to many others and is ultimately an open-ended invitation to explore and broaden your perspective.

Richard: There is an element of the contrarian at work here. I am very resistant to how-to books. I find them presumptuous. Someone claiming to have discovered ‘the right way’, then imposing it on others. That said, I am a reluctant reader of business books in general. I gain more from poetry, fiction and film. While there is content relevant to the business reader in our own book, it is equally relevant to someone interested in cultural studies, for example.

The prescription of some business literature is very off-putting. We are far more interested in co-creative ways of learning and exploring; in opportunities to learn ourselves as well as sharing our ideas with other people. One of the reasons I opted not to pursue an academic career in film history resulted from the experience of teaching a group of postgraduate students who wanted to be spoon-fed. I have no appetite for that kind of one-way experience.

The book is just one contribution to an ongoing conversation. It might inspire a few people, it might irritate the hell out of a few others. All good, if they engage with the ideas it contains, if we can converse and learn together.

What benefits do you see in the practices and approaches of neo-generalists in the new world of work?

Kenneth: In the new world of work, we find ourselves on the edge of the unknown. The person who picks one career and sticks with it is likely the least secure. To stay relevant, we must get comfortable with reinventing ourselves more than once in our professional lives. In such an environment, neo-generalists have an adaptive advantage because of their shapeshifting nature. Driven by an insatiable appetite for learning, they are fluid, flexible and adaptive, always questioning labels and rigid standards of conformity.     

Skills like pattern recognition, sense-making, media literacy, curiosity and critical thinking are important in dealing with the massive societal shifts that confront us. There are many contexts through which we can learn. Neo-generalists acquire these skills by combining formal education with experiential learning and social interactions. They are often early adopters of new technologies. Not because they are gadget freaks, but because it allows them to work in smarter, faster and more efficient ways.

I believe self-agency and self-responsibility are key features of the emerging society. To be free is to claim agency and develop a strategy for lifelong learning. Knowing how to build relationships, seek and filter information, make sense of the world and engage in conversations is imperative. It helps us build the capacity for continuous renewal and intervene meaningfully in the course of events.

Richard: On the back cover of the book, we summarise the characteristics of the neo-generalist in three words. They are curious, responsive, connective. Their restless curiosity, impulse to learn, exploration and experimentation introduce energy and dynamism into the organisations they work with.

Because they pursue multiple interests, maintaining a big picture perspective whereby they see both forest and tree, they are responsive individuals. They are better able to adapt to contextual shifts, remaining relevant even as the environment around them changes.

They also are adept at making connections between people, ideas, industries and sectors, which can often have a catalytic effect on those around them. This kind of capability is essential when the unexpected opportunity presents itself. So too in sense-making, problem-solving and decision-making.

You describe the boundary-crossing capabilities of neo-generalists. How do practices like working out loud play a role for these individuals?

Richard: This is where ideas about neo-generalism intersect with personal knowledge mastery and working out loud. In chapter 9, we use the metaphor of the detective to explore both sense-making and narration. Harold Jarche’s seek > sense > share framework is extraordinarily useful in this respect. As we acquire data and information from elsewhere, we filter and internalise it, blending it with previous knowledge and experience. Through our actions and narration (whether vocalised, written or visualised), we then share this with others.

With regards to the multidisciplinarian neo-generalist, they may be seeking in one field or domain, then carrying these external ideas into a new one. There they need to share, translate, work out loud, even as they enable others to sense-make and assimilate.

Kenneth: The five elements of working out loud – relationships, generosity, visible work, purposeful discovery and curiosity – are important in equal measure for neo-generalists.

Curiosity is what drives them to take interest in the unknown and connect with others. Purpose is what directs their foraging for new ideas and insight. By openly showing their interests and knowledge, it becomes clear to others who they are, what they stand for and what they are capable of. Being generous with their time, resources and connections is what enables them to build trustful relationships in a wide variety of disciplines and networks.  

The creation of the book was a collaborative process of online chats and idea walking. How did the process of working out loud together and with your interviewees shape the book?

Richard: Conversation is a process of discovery and learning. We definitely found that as we walked and talked or conversed online. The relationship with the interviewees was slightly different, in that it was Kenneth who was interacting directly with them, either in person or on Skype. I only attended one interview. On all other occasions, I was listening to recordings. This proved to be very useful as, deprived of visual cues and body language, I might zoom in on certain points, whereas Kenneth would highlight others in his note-taking and our conversations. Together, then, we got a more rounded sense of what to explore, what to develop, what to discard.

Kenneth: When the idea emerged nearly five years ago, I knew less than a handful of the 50+ people we ended up interviewing for the book. Over the years, I kept a journal with names of interesting people, concepts and potential angles worth exploring. These notes served as a preliminary guideline when Richard and I first met in Whitstable to discuss the book. It was surprisingly easy to structure the book and name each chapter. It took us less than a day and these ideas made it all the way through to the final manuscript. We wrote the whole book in shared Evernote folders and had regular Skype calls to coordinate our work and go over the actual content and interviews. In the 10 months it took us to complete the book, we met three times in England to take our ideas for a walk and get our thinking in sync.

Most of the people we interviewed surfaced through our social networks and to this day we still haven’t met the majority of them face to face. In appreciation of the time and stories they generously shared with us, we decided to list their names on the inside cover and in a separate cast section of the book along with their Twitter handles. It was a way for us to avoid labeling people and enable readers to personally connect with and learn from them.   

You emphasise the curiosity and learning orientation of neo-generalists. How important is that to people’s ability to leverage the ambiguity that comes with change and adaptation.

Kenneth: Ambiguity is the quality of being open to more than one interpretation. Niels Bohr once said, ‘How wonderful that we have met with a paradox. Now we have some hope of making progress.’ I strongly support his viewpoint. The presence of change is a sign of life, a necessary component to being alive. Adaptability and identity are two sides of the same coin. Adaptation is activated in response to, and ultimately shaped by, the everyday demands of life. As such, it relies on a readiness to scan and read external signals consciously and continuously. For curious people, this comes as naturally as breathing.

It is the grounding provided by personal identity that prevents us from getting lost when the context shifts. Identity is not about being who you are, but about being who you become. This implies that identity is something that we are constantly earning; a process we must be active in. Peace comes from the acceptance of the part of us that can never be at peace. It is through learning we examine, identify and, when needed, revise our values and gain a stronger sense of self. In short, we can tolerate ambiguity when there is a healthy balance between our inner world and the outer world, between introspection and outrospection. I sometimes use the metaphor of a microscope and a telescope to explain this. A microscope allows us to zoom in on the details and focus narrowly. A telescope is useful for scanning the horizon and seeing the broader picture. Knowing how and when to use both instruments is essential for wayfinding in times of change.  

Richard: Accepting that our knowledge is ephemeral is crucial. The history of scientific discovery illuminates the point. Yesterday’s absolute fact (e.g. the Earth is the centre of the universe) is proved inaccurate by tomorrow’s insight (the Earth is the third rock from the sun, and even that is not the centre of the universe). Curiosity is what pulls us forward, both expanding our knowledge banks and highlighting uncertainty. The real experts are those who recognise the boundaries of their own knowledge, but leverage the benefits of the network, turning to those who have the knowledge they lack, seeking beyond their own fields of endeavour.

The ‘island of knowledge’ argument put forward by Marcelo Gleiser is very appealing: our accumulated knowledge forms an island, the borders of which grow. But as the island grows so do the boundaries with the unknown. We have to develop some level of comfort with uncertainty and ambiguity. Accept that there may never be a right answer, just a contextually and temporally convenient one, soon to be usurped by another. At the same time, we have to maintain an interest in the ideas and views of others, keeping an open mind, receptive to the new. If we close ourselves off from diversity of perspective, lack curiosity in what others think, then we invite entropy and systemic failure.

Not every neo-generalist feels supported when they shift in a world of specialists. You explore the shadows in the book. What insights and coping strategies did you encounter? How might they be relevant for people promoting new and different work practices?

Richard: Two insights. First, it is OK to be an outsider. It may even be the reason you add value in an organisational context. Second, as a consequence of researching the book and conversing with readers after its publications, the realisation that I am not alone in mindset, preference or behaviour. That is a source of comfort and energy.

Coping. That is more difficult to address. As we reflect in the Shadows chapter, it can be difficult to achieve a sense of belonging, understanding or appreciation as a multidisciplinarian when the education system and workplace environment are geared towards deep specialism.

Kenneth: It is a natural human response to disregard what we do not understand or what contradicts that which we consider normal. All our interviewees had experienced situations where they were rejected because of this. One way to cope is to craft a convincing narrative that visualises what you do. At times, this means leaving out parts of your story and achievements in order not to confuse people. You have to avoid giving the impression that you are incapable of focusing narrowly on just one thing. It feels a bit like wearing a mask, but it is often needed to be accepted when applying for a job or starting a new project with people that are unfamiliar with doing more than one thing.  

One of our interviewees, Maggie McDonald, describes herself in terms of the mythological figure of the Chimera: a lion with a goat’s head and serpent’s tail. For Maggie, the goat represents her omnivorous, wide-ranging curiosity; the lion her fierce advocacy for social justice and loyalty to her community; the snake her artistry and excitement at the prospect of performance. Filling out your personal infinite loop, introduced in the book, is a good reflection exercise. It can then serve as a useful conversation starter to show people a more holistic image of your full potential.     

I have worked independently for nearly 15 years. Freedom is one of my core values, but while writing the book I realised that I have to balance my need for independence with finding allies and partners that can help me go further and fulfil my vision of starting a school in Africa.  

What role does purpose play in your conversations with neo-generalists and how did they discover their personal purpose?

Richard: Purpose is a highly nuanced concept, the understanding of which will vary from person to person. It is not a prerequisite for neo-generalism. For some people, myself included, it may be an emergent property; something that has only taken shape or come into focus over time. I worked in an editorial capacity with Dan Pontefract on his book The Purpose Effect at the same time that we were writing our own book. It made me reflect more deeply on the topic than I had done previously; made me question if I even had a purpose.

For other people, they develop a very clear sense of purpose quite early in life and everything they do is informed by it. Sometimes it can appear that that purpose is inherited, passed on from parent to child like genes. Lucian Tarnowski’s story, which is covered in The Neo-Generalist, may be a good example of this.

Kenneth: Purpose is a moving target. It changes as we progress in life and enter different life spheres. What we find meaningful as teenagers mutates as we become adults. Finding a meaning and purpose to life is the most challenging journey we face as human beings. For some it may occur as a result of careful examination, for others it surfaces through a life crisis.

In the book, we use Lucas Amungwa’s story to illustrate this point. Due to changing immigration policies in the UK, Lucas had to abandon a PhD program in microbiology and return to his native Cameroon. Shortly after his arrival, his father passed away. He then found himself playing a significant role in sorting out a dispute with his extended family over his father’s land. Not only did he find a purpose in securing the land for future generations, he also reinvented himself as an agricultural entrepreneur in the process. By circumstances beyond his influence, Lucas was forced to reflect about two of the most important questions in life: Who am I? and Where am I? His story highlights the importance of balancing personal interests with the caretaking of others. A higher purpose only exists if it takes into account the mutual dependence between humans to survive and thrive.   

Working out loud often surfaces more of people’s experiences and thought processes. How do you see this benefiting a neo-generalist?

Kenneth: Our perception of reality is contextual. The way we see the world is influenced by our values, culture, interests, filters and the people we surround ourselves with. By having varied interests and engaging with a diverse network, neo-generalists are less likely to become prisoners of narrow theories and single-minded ideas.

Neo-generalists are a source of oxygen for insiders, bridging to people and ideas from outside established spheres of practice and organization. Working out loud is not only how they show, test and validate their ideas, they are also ready to advise or lend others a helping hand when needed. If you go to a party, you would want to be seated next to one. They are first and foremost interesting people because of their generous spirit and mind.

Richard: A neo-generalist’s network is often multifaceted, spanning many areas of interest and several different communities. As such, working out loud exposes them and their ideas to diverse perspectives and conversations. This can enrich their own thinking and actions. Ultimately, the boundary-spanning nature of what they do also can prove to be beneficial to all the different groups, communities and organisations that they are involved in. The benefits are collective and communal rather than just personal.

You both work out loud through fantastic blogs, social media activity and networks. What benefits and challenges have you experienced with working in these new ways?

Richard: The greatest benefit is friendship. Without Twitter, for example, Kenneth and I might never have connected, never embarked on the journey of writing a book together. I returned to the freelance life at the end of 2014. All the work I have had since then has come either directly from Twitter connections or from introductions made by Twitter friends. On another point, I still get a buzz from connecting with authors via social media and interacting with them while I am reading their books.

But there are limitations too. Yes, some social media has served as a useful icebreaker for me, meaning that when online relationships are developed further with video calls, then in-person meetings, it feels like picking things up mid-conversation. Often, though, my introverted self is overwhelmed by the noise, the occasional hostility, the faux expertise. There are many social platforms I have tried out and abandoned because of this. I rarely attend conferences for the same reasons. I am far more selective now, having gone through a trial-and-error process.

That said, the social web and networked communities provide a rich ground for experimentation. In sharing online or in a group context, you need to do so with an open mind, ready to be challenged and critiqued, and to learn from it. More than once, a tweet has led to a blog post, triggering discussion, which in turn has led to content in a book or article.

Admittedly, I treat the social content as disposable. Indeed, I delete what I share online often, including many blog posts. But the aim is always to create something more durable in book form, polished and improved by exposure to a knowledgeable network. Although I accept that I will still want to critique and change that with the passage of time. After all, I am an editor. Never satisfied, never finished, always learning. An inveterate tinkerer.

Kenneth: Working out loud has enabled me to establish a circle of trusted and like-spirited friends all over the world. Being part of diversified networks provides me with fresh perspectives and helps me detect weak signals early on. I am a strong supporter of serendipitous discoveries. Random creative collisions is often how I find or refine ideas that I am working on.

I have curated stories and perspectives about learning, leadership and responsive organisations for many years. Being educated as a journalist, it felt very natural to me and I used it to get familiar with the dynamics of social media. When we wrote the book, I went through a more quiet period. It has prompted me to rethink how I spend my time online and further sanitise my news sources and the company I keep. I would characterise my use of social media as ebb and flow, a constant adjustment to a shifting landscape.       

I made a choice early on to communicate in English on social media. Why did I do that as a Dane? For two reasons. First, I wanted to avoid being trapped in a homogeneous, cultural echo chamber. Second, it expanded my global reach. Groundbreaking ideas that surface in my network often have an incubation time of up to two years before they become mainstream in Denmark, which gives me a natural edge. Navigating in two parallel universes is a constant challenge, though. When asked what our book is about in a recent conversation with our local community gardener, I found it difficult to explain since all of our thinking and writing about neo-generalism was done in English.

Any advice for someone starting out with working out loud?

Richard: Dive in and experiment. Do not worry about being able to swim. It is like crowd-surfing: lots of willing hands to hold you up and stop you from going under. Be willing to walk away too. If you experience extreme discomfort at a party, you exit the building. It is OK to do the same online. Follow the impulse to explore elsewhere. Stay curious. Be discerning in how you share, prepared to assume the role of both learner and guide.

Kenneth: Ask yourself what you want to learn. Defining your areas of interest not only helps you focus, it also directs who you should be learning from and suggests a menu for your information diet. Start out small and find the right balance between seeking information, making sense of it and then sharing it. Nobody wants to hang out with a taker or a broadcaster who repeatedly amplifies and promotes their own agenda. Do not be that person. You might score a few points, but in the long run people will get tired of you. Find good people and be kind to them. Ask questions, offer your help or opinion. Be thoughtful about your online presence and what you share. The internet has an outstanding memory.  

Kenneth Mikkelsen
Kenneth Mikkelsen is a writer, speaker, business adviser and learning designer. He curates and blogs at kennethmikkelsen.com, and can be found on Twitter as @LeadershipABC.

Richard Martin
Richard Martin is a freelance writer and editor. His previous publications include a book on the evolution of film noir. He blogs at indalogenesis.com, and can be found on Twitter as @IndaloGenesis.

For further reading:  Read the book. Richard Martin also posted a companion blog post explaining a few concepts in the book inspired by this discussion, The Poem Defines, that ends with the comment:

‘People are always beginning, always learning, always adapting. Their inner voice telling them that where you go is who you are.’

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