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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Liminal Thinking – a review

I had the pleasure a couple of years ago of hearing Dave Gray talk about and explore some ideas he had for a new book, throwing them out to the audience and having a conversation around them. Earlier this year I had the privilege of reading some early versions of pages that had evolved from those explorations and which now form the heart of Dave’s new book, Liminal Thinking. I was excited to get the final version of the book and looking forward to sitting down and breezing through it, to soak it all in like a blast from a fire hose. And, at about 150 pages, it would be easy enough to do. To just read through it in one sitting, in probably just a couple of hours. Which is what I was expecting to do. Until…

Until I read Chapter 1, titled “Beliefs are models”. And then I wasn’t in a hurry any longer. I wasn’t interested in getting to the end, I wanted to read that chapter again. Even though he started with the story of the blind men and the elephant, a story I’ve heard many times before. A story I’ve heard before, but not really “seen” before.

Not surprisingly, this process repeated itself as I made my way through the book. Though I only made it from front to back once over the weekend, I figure I read the entire book at least 3 times in that period. Reading a chapter, re-reading it, maybe going back a chapter or two to make a connection. And I realized that, contrary to my original thought of just blasting through the book, I didn’t really want to get to the end. I didn’t want the experience of the book to be over.

And speaking of the experience of the book, I need to mention here just how beautifully designed the book is. Beyond the insight and knowledge in the words and drawings Dave gives us, the team at The Heads of State have created a work of art in this book. The most obvious aspect is the cover, but as you read through the book the design elements guide you along, quite unobtrusively, to help you get the most from those words and drawings. Simple touches like the spare use of color, consistent layout of the chapters so that you know when one is starting and when it is ending, and materials that feel luxurious in the hand. Not to mention the fountain pen friendly paper. Do yourself a favor, and get the hard copy book. (Though I will probably also pick up a Kindle version so that I can always have the book on hand.)

At one point in the book Dave acknowledges that some people naturally or intuitively think liminally, and I count myself among those just as you may. I’ve always thought “in systems”, trying to understand the why behind rules, traditions, and behavior. But, as I learned from Dave in this book, I have only been scratching the surface, getting down to maybe the level of a person’s beliefs, maybe their theories about life and the world. Beliefs, as Dave explains, go much deeper than that.

More importantly, I realized that I’ve never really turned that systems view on myself, on my own thinking, to understand how it is I’ve come to be the way I am. I’ve always thought I understood, but now I’m not so sure. I am looking forward to finding out.

Most managers don’t want creative employees

A couple of summers ago I read Management of the Absurd by Richard Farson. The book lives up to its title and one that I heartily recommend. It contains a wealth of ideas and views on management that you don’t often come across.

For example, this on the management of creativity:

Real creativity, the kind that is responsible for breakthrough changes in our society, always violates the rules. That is why it is so unmanageable and that is why, in most organizations, when we say we desire creativity we really mean manageable creativity. We don’t mean raw, dramatic, radical creativity that requires us to change.

As much as managers and organizations say they want to be innovative and groundbreaking, they usually don’t mean they want each of their individual employees to be innovative and groundbreaking. They want the rules to be followed, because that’s how things are supposed to work. They don’t believe that rules are meant to be broken.

The real message, though, is this: break the rules and be successful and we’ll back you all the way, but break the rules and fail and you are on your own.

This is something that Seth Godin talks about quite a bit. Don’t expect any cover from your boss when you try something new, he tells us, because that’s not your boss’s job. If your creativity, your art, is important to you, the best thing you can do is to simply do it. Or, as he says in Linchpin:

The reason you might choose to embrace the artist within you now is that this is the path to (cue the ironic music) security. When it is time for layoffs, the safest job belongs to the artist, the linchpin, the one who can’t be easily outsourced or replaced.

Update: This post is an updated version of something I first wrote in June 2008. I was inspired to update it by a common search term in my referral logs (rules are meant to be broken), my earlier post (Some) Rules are meant to be broken, and the recent series of Hey Leaders, Wake Up! posts at hackingwork.com.

Autism and “I”

Since I signed up today for the Strange Loop software developer conference here in St. Louis, it seemed fitting to repost this article, originally published on my autism blog nearly three years ago.
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Earlier this summer [2007] I read Douglas Hofstadter’s new book, I Am a Strange Loop. As Hofstadter mentions early in the book, a more appropriate title would have been “I” is a Strange Loop; the book is about the nature of consciousness, that elusive concept of “I”, and not an autobiographical work as the actual name of the book suggests.

Hofstadter’s works have been among my favorites since I read his first book, Godel Escher Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, in high school. The new book is, in fact, an updating of the ideas he first expressed in GEB. I have long hoped that he might address issues of the mind and consciousness in terms of atypical minds (such as autism), but aside from some passing discussion of those minds, I Am a Strange Loop does not provide any real insight into how the concept of “I” fits with autism.

On Monday, I was pleased to find a paper that specifically addresses the question of autism and “I”, Self-Referential Cognition and Empathy in Autism, co-authored by Michael V. Lombardo, Jennifer L. Barnes, Sally J. Wheelwright, and Simon Baron-Cohen. From the paper’s abstract:

Background. Individuals with autism spectrum conditions (ASC) have profound impairments in the interpersonal social domain, but it is unclear if individuals with ASC also have impairments in the intrapersonal self-referential domain. We aimed to evaluate across several well validated measures in both domains, whether both self-referential cognition and empathy are impaired in ASC and whether these two domains are related to each other.

Conclusions/Significance. We conclude that individuals with ASC have broad impairments in both self-referential cognition and empathy. These two domains are also intrinsically linked and support predictions made by simulation theory. Our results also highlight a specific dysfunction in ASC within cortical midlines structures of the brain such as the medial prefrontal cortex.

Instead of looking at autism as a syndrome of self-focus (the Kanner approach), the paper starts from the concept of “absent-self” put forth by Uta Frith in her book Autism: Explaining the Enigma. I had not heard of Frith before reading this paper, so I can’t really comment on her ideas. But the paper itself seems to make sense. I’m still going through it, trying to understand all that they are studying and what their results mean. (I did learn a new word:alexithymia – difficulty identifying and describing one’s own emotions.)

My first time through I Am a Strange Loop was to soak in the big concepts. I typically wait a few months before re-reading something like this so I can get into the details, but I think I’ll start again sooner than that. (At the moment, I’m reading Steven Pinker’s latest book The Stuff of Thought.) Now that I have a bit more information about autism and “I”, I’ll have a better context for processing what I read.

Another interesting note about the paper, it was originally published by the Public Library of Science under a Creative Commons license. The PLoS home page describes it as a “A new way of communicating peer-reviewed science and medicine”, so I will assume the paper has been appropriately peer reviewed. But I think I will do a bit more checking just to be sure. (Of course, any insight from readers here would be greatly appreciated.)

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Chances are very good that I will re-read I Am a Strange Loop again before Strange Loop; curious to see what I get from it this time.

An abundance of opportunity (some initial thoughts on “Cognitive Surplus”)

Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected AgeCognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age by Clay Shirky

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In his new book, Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, Clay Shirky covers some of the same ground as several other authors I’ve read this year. But even though some of the starting material may be the same – such as the Israeli day care story – Shirky tells a very different story, with a very different moral and outcome than those other books. (In case you’re wondering, the two that come immediately to mind are Dan Pink’s Drive and Seth Godin’s Linchpin.)

The upshot of the book is that in the last half of twentieth century people found themselves, in general, with a higher level of education and a larger amount of free time than at most any other time in history, while at the same time “accidents” of technology and policy created an environment of increased social isolation (think interstates, suburbs, and TV). On top of this physical isolation, there was technological isolation; the means simply did not exist for individuals to easily share their knowledge or their interests, and the ability to organize large groups around an interest was reserved for the well financed. This was the purview of the “professionals”.

As a result, we – especially in the US – became a nation of consumers. Even as the technology has developed over the past decade or so to allow for broad sharing and easy organizing, Shirky says, we are only now coming to understand the implications and actually be ready to take advantage of the opportunities this technology presents. We are only now coming to appreciate what the “amateurs” can bring.

And this, in the end, is the point of the book: We have an abundance of opportunities available to us as a result of the technologies of social media (and all that entails), and it is our responsibility to take advantage of those opportunities.

A lot of thoughts rattling around my brain about this great book, more to come. In the mean time, check out Shirky talking about his ideas in this TEDx talk.

Life is for living – a review of “Get out, explore, and have fun!”

On her blog at About.com:Autism, Lisa Jo Rudy usually asks questions. In her soon to be released new book, Get Out, Explore, and Have Fun!: How Families of Children With Autism or Asperger Syndrome Can Get the Most Out of Community Activities, she answers two very important questions:

  1. Why should you “get out, explore, and have fun” with your autistic child?
  2. How do you do this?

By far the more important of these two questions (in my opinion) is the first, the “why”. Too many parents of children diagnosed as autistic spend all of their “free” time trying to make their child “more normal” or “less autistic”, and not enough time on letting their child be a kid. As Lisa explains, this is true even in – especially in – school.

Many IEPs are so focused on making kids normal that they deny kids the chance to be part of a normal environment. Lisa describes, for instance, how some schools will take autistic students on “life skills” field trips to a grocery store or McDonald’s while their classmates take a trip to a museum or other entertaining – and educational – locale.

Life is for living, and in the first couple of chapters Lisa reminds us that this is as true for our autistic children as it is for our non-autistic children. The first two chapters of the book should be required reading for all parents of children who receive a diagnosis of autism, that’s how important her message is in answering the “why” question. If autistic kids are never given a chance to experience life, how will we – or they – ever know what they want from life?

Lisa spends the bulk of the book exploring the “how” of getting out. As the parent of an 18 year old autistic son who has gotten out there, explored, and had fun, I can say that she has done an excellent job compiling not only lists of possible activities, but the good and potential bad of each as well as tips on how to make sure the experiences are valuable ones.

What I most appreciated in the “how” section is that she doesn’t sugar coat anything. Far from being pessimistic about things, she is simply honest about what you are likely to experience. She also reminds us to be realistic in what we expect of our kids, and of those we interact with “out there”. Even though the “why” applies equally to all kids, the challenges of the “how” will vary. Autism is, after all, a spectrum, and the experiences parents will have when they “get out” will cover a wide spectrum as well.

Only parents can appreciate the challenges they will face with their own kids in trying to get out there. My only suggestion here is that you lean toward stretching your boundaries, and your kid’s, by trying something just a little bit harder than what you think you can do. You will find that this can be hard work, but you will also see that it is worth every ounce of sweat you put into it.

If you are the parent of a young – or not so young – autistic child, you should get and read this book. And give a copy to your child’s teacher, their IEP case worker, the IEP team.

Life is for living, even for an autistic child, and this book reminds us why this is true and how to make it happen.

Ignore everybody (but don’t ignore this book)

Like Rework (which I reviewed last week), Ignore Everybody is my kind of book. Written by Hugh MacLeod of gapingvoid.com, it is made up of 40 short essays that each dive into a very specific idea or question. And pictures, lots of pictures from the cube-grenade gallery at gapingvoid.com.

Based on many years of experience, the advice that MacLeod dispenses is almost brutal in its description of what aspiring artists (used in the loosest, Seth Godin-esque way) have to look forward to, and what they have to do to get there. Just reading the essay titles gives you an idea of what to expect:

  • Put the hours in
  • If your business plan depends on suddenly being “discovered” by some bit shot, your plan will probably fail
  • Keep your day job
  • Selling out is harder than it looks

If you are looking for an “easy ticket” to success, this isn’t the book that will get you there. (Hint: such a book doesn’t exist.)

None of this is new, of course, to those who are interested in pursuing mastery and are willing to put in the effort it takes to achieve that mastery. Who aren’t focused on a specific outcome but are interested in the journey on which they find themselves. There is plenty in the book to reinforce the importance of that attitude:

  • Don’t try to stand out from the crowd; avoid crowds altogether
  • Sing in your own voice
  • Worrying about “Commercial vs. Artistic” is a complete waste of time
  • Write from the heart
  • The best way to get approval is not to need it

In some ways, this book simply tells us what most of already know. Maybe we know it subconsciously, just under the radar of what we are willing to acknowledge. Maybe we know that it is true but just can’t bring ourselves to do anything about it. But as MacLeod lays out in the opening essay:

GOOD IDEAS ALTER THE POWER BALANCE IN RELATIONSHIPS. THAT IS WHY GOOD IDEAS ARE ALWAYS INITIALLY RESISTED.

Good ideas come with a heavy burden, which why so few people execute them. So few people can handle it.

Ignore Everybody simply lays it out on the table to where you can’t ignore it, where you have to decide for yourself, “Can I handle it?”

One of my favorites...