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Neo-Generalist: A New Way of Being


The invite to connect in LinkedIn read: “I read your fine post/synthesis 'Skills you will need for the future'. Thank you for sharing your reflections. I'm a friend of Marty and I've followed Ito's work for a long time." Kenneth Mikkelsen

This personal message led me to buying and reading his book. And I'm glad I did.

The message was the first time anybody made the effort to write out a personal note rather than use the generic "I'd like to join your LinkedIn network..." Sometimes the requestor is an absolute stranger. A rare few times it has been a recruiter. And in the early days, when I accepted two or three, it was to try to sell me something. Don't these people, especially recruiters, know better than to be lazy and use the canned request? A well written message will hook people better than the lazy route.

LinkedIn doesn't really help people like me unless you have those exquisite technology skills that everybody is looking for.

Anyway, I got curious about Kenneth Mikkelsen and started doing research on him before making a decision on whether to ignore him or not (yes, I ignore most requests unless I knew the person and have worked well with him or her or they do something unusual like Kenneth did...unfortunately, he's the first one to have ever written a personal note).

It turns out he is from Norway Denmark* (cool!) and he is a writer, amongst other things. I never had a writer reach out to me so this was exciting. He had written a book, The Neo-Generalist, and it had just been published but he didn't tell me that. Instead, he left it to my curiosity to do research on him, starting with LinkedIn first and then moving on to his site on Scoop.It. In the end, after perusing his curated articles, I ended up buying his book. His was a very gracious form of marketing and I was very happy for it.

*Big OOPs! Corrected on 7/11/2017. Thank you, Kenneth, for apprising me of my error.

The post Kenneth Mikkelsen was referencing can be found here.  I was writing about Metaskills by Marty Neumeier or Whiplash by Joi Ito and Jeff Howe, where each prescribes the skills we will need in the future. The image to the right highlights the main skills mentioned in both books. The post also enumerates them in detail in case the image is too small to read. The Neo-Generalist's approach is different: the author is prescribing more of a way of being rather than specific skills to develop.

9 Principles and 5 Metaskills
Thank You for Being Late

The Neo-Generalist prescription may be closer to Thank You for Being Late, written by Thomas Friedman, in that both stresses the learning component that we will need in the future. Thank You for Being Late actually touches on the broader topic of the accelerating forces of technology, markets and Mother Nature (or specifically climate change) but the post found here focuses on what we will need to do to prepare for the future world of work. The main point of Thomas Friedman's thesis on the work world is that we will have to be lifelong learners and we will have to develop the discipline to create our own learning path to suit our innate talents. While Mr. Friedman did not mention a list of skills to inculcate, he did mention we would need STEMpathy skills: a combination of STEM knowledge and social skills.


Neo-generalists: what is a neo-generalist? Neo-generalists are people who flow between being a specialist and being a generalist. They are multidisciplinarian and thus serially specialize as the circumstances warrant it. Neo-generalists are extremely curious and are therefore continually learning and expanding their knowledge. They cross-pollinate industries by carrying over ideas and innovations from one industry to the next. Although not mentioned in the book, their learning could very well be a blend of technology/science and humanities/art. They have a "high level of literacy". They are people who live in more than one world.

The best part about the book are the descriptions of real people who are considered neo-generalists. Their life path appears intriguing and the people themselves sound like they would be fascinating conversationalists.

So how does this neo-generalist fit in with the future world? Well, the world is changing so fast, a la Thomas Friedman's acceleration, that the field that you specialize in today may be non-existent in, say, five years. You will need to constantly learn new things and to carry over what you learn in one field to the next. You will need agility, flexibility and broadmindedness to learn new things and to work with different kinds of people. It's really hard to imagine another way of succeeding with the constant change.

Now I will admit that the prospect is daunting. I'm already naturally curious and try to learn different things. My current effort centers on art/design (for visual communication since the world is turning very visual) and computer science related (although it's been hard to find extra time) and stay in touch with finance and continue my reading to keep learning about the world and try to do my own cooking and do my exercise and ... I'm already exhausted. It's not easy. The neo-generalists that the author described in his book, while fascinating, sound intimating - they are super beings! It's hard enough to be an expert in one thing in this winner take all world, never mind multiple.

And the author does note the drawbacks:

"...the breadth of interests of a neo-generalist means they always have more ideas than they can ever act upon, more books and articles lined up than they can ever read. That can be personally overwhelming." The Neo-Generalist, p. 187, electronic version.

Oh, boy, I can relate to that! This is kind of funny, and yet, not so funny.

The other drawback is that other people don't understand the neo-generalist or to put it in Wall Street terms, they can't see the return in interest of all of those skillsets blending together. They are unable to see the value. Some may not believe that one can be self-taught; maybe they believe that they themselves cannot be self-taught and thus by that reasoning, no one else can. Heck, I've been working with a lot of financial types who haven't progressed beyond addition and subtraction on their Excel files that they haven't used a tiny bit of the power of Excel.

So being a neo-generalist isn't going to be easy but this new world will require some form of self-discipline, courage, curiosity and continuous learning. We're going to have to figure out a way to do this. Maybe the robots can help us with that.



If you want to improve your thinking or have tools to combat fake news, consider this -

Thinking tools from Mindware by Richard Nisbett:

  1. Be aware that we don’t always know what is going on in our thinking process.
  2. Take into account of the fact that the situation may be driving people’s or even your behavior.
  3. Rely on your unconscious to solve some of your problems because there are certain kinds of problems that your subconscious is best at solving.
  4. Use economic tools such as cost-benefit analysis.
  5. Don’t fall into the sunk cost fallacy. Think: the rest of your life starts now when doing the cost-benefit analysis.
  6. Also consider your opportunity cost when doing cost-benefit thinking.
  7. When listening or reading statistics from others, think of the law of large numbers and random assignments. The larger the number of samples and the more random the assignments or selection, the greater the confidence you can have in the results. This kind of thinking applies to interviews or assessing skills (football or theater tryouts as examples).
  8. Ignore "I know of the man who..." stories.
  9. Think regression to the mean: anytime someone performs superlatively or really badly the first time you encounter that person, then expect the next encounter will show either a so-so performance or dramatic improvements. This concept of regression to the mean is very closely related to the law of large numbers.
  10. Some key ideas about standard deviations for normal distributions: 68% of the population falls within 1 standard deviation, 96% within 2 standard deviations, 1 standard deviation is 84th percentile while 2 standard deviation is just below 98th percentile.
  11. We are not very good at doing correlations so watch out.
  12. Perform experiments such as AB testing or “before and after” design.
  13. Use Venn diagrams to work your way around logic problems.
  14. For things of the human heart, as opposed to the scientific, use dialectical reasoning.
  15. Pick the simpler theory over the complicated one. Any ad hoc theories that are meant to handle situations not fitting in the main theory means the main theory is probably not it.
  16. The theory has to be tested both for whether the theory is true and whether it is falsifiable. We tend to just seek situations that prove our theory as true but ignore those that would make our theory false.