Some thoughts on, not quite a review of, The Neo-Generalist

I finished Richard Martin and Kenneth Mikkelson‘s new book, The Neo-Generalist, this morning. Where to start talking about this incredible book? I think I’ll start at the back, with the 17 page bibliography.

ng-cover1Yes, 17 pages. I was happy to see that I have read at least a few items from each of those 17 pages, a couple are on my Kindle waiting to be read, and even more are on my ever expanding to-read list. But so many more I’ve not read, or even heard of. Daunting for some, perhaps, but intriguing and inspiring for a neo-generalist like me. Because I am, in answer to the final question Richard and Kenneth pose in the Fade Out chapter, a neo-generalist.

That is not the only question they leave with us, though; they provide a full list of the questions they used to guide the interviews they conducted with the many incredible and interesting people featured in the stories told throughout the book. Seeing these questions at the end, after reading all the stories and the insights that Richard and Kenneth pull from them, helped me start to pull together my own thoughts on what I had read, to begin creating my own new knowledge from what they shared of theirs.

I only gave the questions some cursory thought, and am looking forward to answering them in detail (when I’m not typing this on my phone on a full airplane flying through turbulent air on my way home.) I’m thinking it might be a good excuse to finally start up a podcast to accompany the Phrontistery, something I’ve been wanting to do but just never quite had the right incentive. Interview myself? Maybe have one of the boys interview me?

The most powerful part of the book for me was the wrap up, in the final two chapters, where Richard and Kenneth talk about what neo-generalism means in more practical terms, the effects it has on career and life, and some of the challenges of being a neo-generalist in a world of hyperspecialization. Although I have always known, in the abstract at least, that the challenges and decisions and implications of my approach to the world are shared by others, it is still nice to see kindred spirits share their experiences and insights.

Speaking of kindred spirits, the book is full of them. I’ll leave it to you to read their stories and learn about them, with the following warning: prepare to be awe-struck. Unless, of course, you’re not.

If you are not a neo-generalist, your impression of the people and their stories may be a little – or a lot – different than mine. You may not see yourself in the stories, but I encourage to to read the book all the way through, to absorb it, so that you can better understand the neo-generalists in your life. Chances are you will see in these stories someone you know, someone you work with. Or perhaps you are a parent of a child who has these crazy ideas and can’t just focus on one thing because there is so much out there to know and to learn.

I was one of those kids, and was fortunate to have parents who accepted and generally encouraged my eccentricity. Though I never had a chance to explore these types of questions with my dad, I have a feeling that he would have identified as a neo-generalist as well.

As for the book itself, I chose to get the soft cover (“paper back” doesn’t do it justice) instead of the Kindle. Partly because the Kindle version was not yet available in the US at the time I ordered it, but mainly because this is the kind of book I personally prefer on paper. Paper on which I can jot notes, doodles, and other markings, and which I can dog ear for browsing again later. And which I can add to the permanent collection of key texts I keep above my desk for when I need a shot of inspiration and encouragement. The only thing I really missed about the Kindle was the dictionary; I found myself long-tapping words in the book on at least one (OK, more than one) occasion in a futile attempt to have a definition displayed.

To say I learned a lot from this book would be a huge understatement. I have a feeling I will continue to learn from it.

tl;dr Highly recommended, add it as close to the top of your to-read pile as you can.

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