The Rise of the Neo-Generalist

Geoff Pilkington
Feb 7, 2017 · 16 min read

“I have never tried that before, so I think I should definitely be able to do that.”

~ Pippi Longstocking

So there’s a substantial shift occurring & people are starting to notice. It seems to be most prevalent right now in Silicon Valley world, but it’s spreading — fast.

We see Elon Musk combining a mix of skills to manifest a new idea or product we have not seen before. Or Richard Branson and his multitude mixed bag of tricks that has manifested as a multi-billion dollar empire.

So I’m going to take you on a journey today that dives into a new style of approach to life. One that has always been here but is starting to manifest in a big way.

My point is I believe that our innovators are providing a gateway to futuristic thinking. And in today’s society we still tend to frown on this. We have always been taught that you go to school, pick a focus, get your degree, and become a specialist at whatever it is you do. But it seems this is becoming less and less of a trend. We are changing, education is changing, and even the job market is shifting.

First off, this goes into why I’m passionate about schools and how they are educating our future youth. We need an overhaul to survive in the future landscape.

Let’s first take a look at some current big changes happening in education and the people leading the way. Entrepreneur, Professor, Scientist, Engineer and Dean of Graduate Education at MIT Christine Ortiz has a plan in the works with her Research University of the new Millennium.

She writes:

To summarize our vision: the new university will:
1) Focus on frontier fields at the transdisciplinary interface between science, technology, humanity and social impact;
2) Maintain an educational core of research-based pedagogy — learning through authentic project-based inquiry and the generation of new knowledge — supplemented by personalized virtual learning pathways;
3) Employ a high quality, affordable, scalable financial model to increase access.

The system is based around a system of learning pathways and a Trans-disciplinary Approach. Notice in the graph below as time passes we are working towards having more “general” merged knowledge to gain knowledge and in turn breed success as humans.

This is such a wonderful thing. Science, education, and technology. A system of learning pathways. Christine talks about in the above youtube video a student waking up in the morning and being extremely excited about their day. All day they’d be doing active things. Exploratory things. Experiments.

And above all else they’d have a variety of skills based on what interests a student, project based education, discovering where they’re skills are, and what they see themselves as.

This is a hidden bridge to the future. It leads to progress.

Kelly Young and her team at Education Reimagined, an initiative of Convergence, are also working to accelerate what’s being called the learner-centered movement, which emphasizes the acquisition of knowledge, skills, and dispositions toward learning that will allow each unique, individual learner to realize their full potential.

The vision that guides their work was created by 28 ideologically diverse education stakeholders (educators, administrators, politicians, union members, etc.), which serves as a North Star for pioneers that have been leading this charge for as long as two decades and as short as two months. This is much more fitting for our current job market and networking age of lateral connections.

People have to be placed in areas where they are prone to thrive. And it even goes beyond that. By encouraging our schools to recognize combining ideas within realms of general interest and skill-sets we can set future generations up for success. The learn a little bit about everything because you have to and then specialize in something not necessarily on your list of desires or even skill-sets format is stale.

In fact, the recent study How to Become an Executive” on the social network LinkedIn written by economist Guy Berger recommended that if you want to become an executive you should have experience in as many job functions as possible. It also revealed that one additional functional area improved a person’s odds of becoming a senior executive as much as three years of extra experience. And working in four different functions had nearly the same impact as getting an M.B.A.!

Columnist Neil Irwin of the New York Times in his column “How to Become a C.E.O.? The Quickest Path Is a Winding One” provided a graph below that is interactive so I suggest you take a look on this link. But it shows how much more likely you are to have a job if you’ve held roles in multiple areas:

So this trans-disciplinary/interest-based approach to learning helps us thrive in the job market and also is the hidden fuel for generating creativity.

Beyond education and the job market there’s this concept of mixing ideas. And the fact is it’s not that we’ve run out of ideas, but rather we are coming to realize that mixing ideas, careers, and schools of thought creates new ones. And it’s as simple as genetics and our initial creation of a new person from two other people. Infinite combinations are possible in people just as in ideas.

Writer Conor O’Rourke breaks this down:

Think about creativity like genetics: just as your DNA is a unique mix of your parents’ genetic material, your creative self is a unique mix of all of your influences. By mapping out a “family tree” of these creative influences, you can start pushing the bounds of your creativity.

So when we have children we create a whole new version of the mixing characteristics of two people. Can’t the same be said for ideas? I believe it can.

So where does this leave us? Now’s the good stuff. Stick with me. There’s a new term emerging. It sounds very sci-fi and retro but it’s really rather simple if you look at it with an open mind. It’s this term “Neo-Generalism”. Steve Jobs I suspect picked up on Neo-Generalism but he didn’t quite know what to call it. In the mid 90’s Jobs was way ahead of the curb as far as being a futurist, theorist, and innovator.

Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while.

That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.

Unfortunately, that’s too rare a commodity. A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.

~ Steve Jobs, 1995

Jobs was on to something here. Recently I came across this concept known as “Expert Generalist” and it peaked my curiosity. I even wrote about it in my last column “The 4 Pillars of Futuristic Thinking.”

But upon more examination I realized that recently this term “Neo-Generalist” is slowly making it’s way into the mainstream. I did a lot of reading and researching it from current authors, thinkers, and philosophers of our time and came to realize everyone is talking about the same thing: Neo-Generalism.

In a society that focuses on one skill or talent, all too often we miss those who criss-cross varying degrees of skills and talents in multiple realms. Theorists have labeled this a so-called “Fox” (Fox vs. Hedgehog) who has multiple focus areas in a variety of realms.

What exactly is a Neo-Generalist?

In their recent book “The Neo-Generalist” Kenneth Mikkelsen and Richard Martin really nail it. I want to give immense credit to these men because they’re on to something.

They write:

The neo-generalist defies easy classification. They are tricksters who traverse multiple domains, living between categories and labels. Encompassing rather than rejecting, the neo-generalist is both specialist and generalist. A restless multidisciplinarian who is forever learning. They bring together diverse people, synthesising ideas and practice, addressing the big issues that confront us in order to shape a better future.

This is striking for a number of reasons. As mentioned above, in my last column I spoke of the “Expert Generalist”. I’d like to delve into this a little bit further.

This concept of “Expert Generalist” or “Neo-Generalist” is basically a person who has knowledge about multiple realms and ideas in lots of different areas. They mix and mash ideas.

I want to defer to Richard Martin (above) on this because he wrote a blog post about this. And it’s brilliant. Here are a few excerpts from his blog:

Mikkelsen and Martin write:

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.

After reading all of this I began to draw a conclusion. The mixing of careers, ideologies, thoughts, and modes of operations seems to be providing a gateway to the future.

Imagine for a second a highway of ideas. A super-charged jetway floating 10 feet above your head. It’s a buffet of ideas. Whomever 1. sees them and 2. grabs them and puts them on their tray gets to walk around the cafeteria saying “look what I found?” to everyone else. What are you pulling out of the jet-stream these days?

Anyway, the breakdown of it goes even further than that as far as different roles fitting on certain sides of the spectrum. The brilliant author Mark Storm created his own version of this Neo-Generalist continuum. I am very intrigued by his interpretation:

Hmmm…Still with me? So the more we expose ourselves to a variety of thoughts, jobs, skills, careers, and ideas the more prone we are to pull them from the idea highway 10 feet above our head. They’re always there. We just can’t see all of them.

As mentioned above, the genetics theory on this is spot on. It’s mixing ideas like mixing genes. Neo-Generalism in essene is creativity fuel. It’s a secret potion for success and progress.

James Altucher’s version of “combination sex” or “idea sex”. As referenced in my last column, James Altucher is a huge advocate of this.

Ah, so it’s not just that you can see and grab ONE idea from our buffet food cafeteria highway and pull it down. If you take one idea and mesh it with another you then are the leader in that particular brand of idea. Cue Elon Musk and his SpaceX brilliance. Or Henry Ford knowing we needed cars not horses. Alas, Neo-Generalism is born.

Let’s look at entertainment.

Hollywood is doing a lot of recycling of ideas right now and I have to tell you it is becoming as stale as the Patriots winning Superbowls. They’re recycling a lot of the proven projects over and over and over again. God bless Peter Parker but we’ve seen enough Spiderman already.

How many Spiderman reboots old are you? Take a bonafide “star”. They’re safe. A bonafide idea. It’s safe.

The best ideas come from mixing. It’s what it’s all about. But for whatever reason, most don’t want to go there. People are comfortable in what they like.

And while we’re on mixing ideas, ideas can’t just be “ideas”. Per above, they need to be physicalized into our 3 dimensional physical world. Talk is cheap. But when something is thrust into the universe and physically put out there it exists. And often with much controversy. But you have to take the risk. That’s where the good stuff is.

Neo-Generalists do this. They do it with a passion. They combine knowledge from multiple realms and breed creative ideas we haven’t seen before. The bottom line is all of these people are discussing the same concept. And that is that mixing of platforms, ideas, concepts is one of the best kept secrets around. It’s key for the future.

Neo-Generalists get this right. The problem is most people don’t want to do this. They want to get specialized and thats good enough for them. They’re fine with it. But the BIG POINT I’m making is that the key code for invention and innovation is not only recognizing the need for knowledge and wisdom in a variety of areas you’re passionate about and/or skilled at, but also then mixing combinations. It’s a two-step process.

Frank Wilczek an American theoretical Physicist, mathematician, and winner of the 2004 Nobel Prize wrote an article “Why Physics Needs Art to Help Picture the Universe.” He discusses how the interactions between science and art lead to immense discoveries in both fields. It’s a study of Projective Geometry and how art and science influence each other.

Another obvious example of this is in one of my top 3 available books right now is “Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World.”

Author Adam Grant writes:

When Galileo made his astonishing discovery of mountains on the moon, his telescope didn’t actually have enough magnifying power to support that finding. Instead, he recognized the zigzag pattern separating the light and dark areas of the moon… He had the necessary depth of experience in physics and astronomy, but also breadth of experience in painting and drawing…Galileo was able to detect mountains where others did not.

Mixing ideas has no boundaries. It crosses the borders of physics, art, law, astronomy, health, and pretty much any other area you can think of. People have been doing it for centuries. Neo-Generalists are doing this all the time: in Sports, Politics, Science, Education, Entertainment, Law, and even fiction.

A favorite childhood book of mine was “Pippi Longstocking” by Astrid Lindgren. There’s a lesson underneath young Pippi’s joy of life and randomness and love of EVERYTHING.

Columnist Niklas Goeke writes:

Pippi Longstocking is an estimated 9 years old (though no one knows for sure), has superhuman strength, and lives in a rainbow-colored house with her monkey, Mr. Nilsson, and her horse Old Man.

She takes care of herself entirely, as her father, a famous seafarer, has been lost at sea for a few years, after dropping her off in the village, because he thought life at sea was too dangerous for her.

Although Pippi has no manners, can’t do math and neither read, nor write, she lives an extraordinary life, filled with adventures, mostly involving the neighbors’ kids and shows that living by the world’s rules is hopelessly overrated. She never ceases to shock adults, but is living proof that you can make the world what you want it to be, without fitting any template the world would call normal.

I’ll leave you with a final observation and it actually comes from the world of sports. I believe in sports we see Neo-Generalists in it’s purest of forms. We see professional sports players be it a running back or an outfielder mixing their own version of a variety of skills to become elite athletes in their respective fields. They “connect the dots” as Steve jobs said. And it’s not just any dots. It’s their own dots.

To see this you have to look no further than the most lopsided trade in baseball history now termed “Brock for Broglio.” From years of going to games with my grandfather I came to realize the value of 5 tool players. These are guys who are a great mesh of skill-sets who seem unstoppable. They rise above the rest by being generally pretty good to great at 5 different baseball skills. The general data points are hitting, hitting for power, fielding, throwing, and running.

Guys in recent years that have been put in this category would be Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Andrew McCutcheon, Carlos Gomez, and Yoenis Cespedis. How did they get this good? Skills in many baseball areas mixed and a unique ball player was born! Imagine that.

But in sports or any other line of work sometimes it’s not just those who have multiple tools in their tool bag, but those who recognize it ahead of time. One of the great all-time players with a 5-tool gift was Saint Louis Cardinals Outfielder Lou Brock. He could hit, hit for power, field, throw, and run. In fact, Brock became the first major league player to steal 50 bases and hit 20 homeruns in the same season.

On June 15, 1964 Saint Louis Cardinals General Manager Bing Devine must have seen this in Brock. He traded pitcher Ernie Broglio, Bobby Shantz, and Doug Clemens to the Chicago Cubs for Jack Spring, Paul Toth, and some guy named Brock. The deal became known as the most lopsided deal in baseball history.

Brock went on to be a superstar for Saint Louis and helped them win multiple World Series. Broglio, who at the time was a promising pitcher, did not last long. His career quickly faded and by 1966 was out of Major League Baseball. Ironically, Devine was subsequently fired that same season by August “Gussie” Busch (of Anheuser Busch) and Brock went on to help the Cardinals win the World Series that year (1964), again in 1967, and the pennant in 1968. Brock was subsequently elected to the Hall of Fame in 1985.

Bing Devine with Lou Brock:

The lopsided success of Devine’s trade was so grand that it holds particular meaning in Washington. A little known secret organization, the Emil Verban Society started in 1975 by midwesterners and members of the Nixon Administration most notably Bruce Ladd, is a long-running group of over 700 longtime Politico Cubs fans who’s members past and present have consisted of former President Barack Obama (Chicago Native), former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (Cubs fan before she was a Yankees fan), former Vice President Dick Cheney, former President Ronald Reagan, current Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, TV personalities Bryant Gumbel and Bruce Morton, columnist George Will, actor Gary Sinise, former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Antonin Scalia, major league baseball player Joe Garagiola, former MLB commissioner Bud Selig, and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld among many others.

They get together every 2 years to hand out an award known as the “Brock for Broglio Judgement Award”.

Ladd through the years has kept them updated every 2 months with memos. All these Politicians leading up to the Cubs 2016 World Series victory celebrated the Cubs and gave this Cubs lack of judgement award through the years. That of course recognizing the Cubs lack of judgement in the Brock for Broglio trade.

Quietly on the other side of the deal though there was a guy who saw something. He saw this rare mesh of skills in a player. Something in Brock perhaps nobody else did. Bing Devine saw something in Brock. Bing Devine saw Brock was a 5 tool player. He “connected the dots” and saw a Neo-Generalist. He saw that having multiple skills in even the most minute areas (hitting throwing, speed, etc) all combine and manifest a more successful baseball player.

It doesn’t have to be skills or careers as broad as being a rocket scientist, quantum physicist, and amazing public speaker. It can be very simple. Even as simple as mixing skills on the baseball field. Brock’s success was no different that Galileo using his mix of physics and astronomy knowledge to see mountains on the moon. Brock, in turn, became one of the most successful Neo-Generalists (5 tool players) within baseball. Bing Devine saw it. He was also my grandfather.

“I still do not understand why, but somebody must have saw something in Lou Brock as a minor leaguer that they liked and I dunno something about Johnny Keane why he did not like me I do not know why he did not like the other two guys I do not know. But evidently he got a REAL good report on Lou Brock…and wanted him.”

~ Ernie Broglio, October 2016

The bottom line is Jobs, Mikkelsen, Martin, Storm, Ortiz, Young, Altucher, Grant, Devine, and oh yes…Pippi Longstocking along with many others who I don’t have the column space to write about are all on to something. They recognize that the future is being able to broaden and apply your knowledge in an array of ways and then mix and match those ways to create new ways. Genetics, futuristic thinking, and mixing ideas are all connected.

People recommend always reading books for that very reason. They are instruction manuals for furthering humanity. By recognizing this concept of Neo-Generalism we are expanding our soul, allowing our creativity and inner-self to flourish, and furthering humanity’s future. But above all else, and perhaps most importantly, Neo-Generalism is bringing us all closer together.

Startup Grind

Stories, tips, and learnings from and for startups around…

Geoff Pilkington

Written by

CEO of Launch Industries, Blogger, Podcast Host, Actor, Filmmaker, Futurist, Tech Enthusiast, Social Media Expert, and Content Creator. Personality Type: ENTP

Startup Grind

Stories, tips, and learnings from and for startups around the world. Welcoming submissions re: startup education, tech trends, product, design, hiring, growth, investing, and more. Interested in submitting? Visit our submission form here:

Geoff Pilkington

Written by

CEO of Launch Industries, Blogger, Podcast Host, Actor, Filmmaker, Futurist, Tech Enthusiast, Social Media Expert, and Content Creator. Personality Type: ENTP

Startup Grind

Stories, tips, and learnings from and for startups around the world. Welcoming submissions re: startup education, tech trends, product, design, hiring, growth, investing, and more. Interested in submitting? Visit our submission form here:

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