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.

50 books in 52 weeks – not this year

I enjoy reading, so like many people I have set a goal for myself to read at least 50 books a year for the last couple of years. I read 45 last year, you can see my list on GoodReads.  As I was getting ready to publicly commit to another year of 50-in-52, though, I realized that I’m not really ready to move on from the books I read in 2011 2010.

It’s not that I don’t want to read anything new, I do. I’ve got several new books on my list, including David Siteman Garland’s Smarter, Faster, Cheaper, Neal Bascomb’s story of FIRST Robotics, The New Cool, and Hal Needham’s Stuntman! I’m also looking at some older books that I’ve never read.

But well over half of the books I read last year are still bouncing around inside my head.

In a blog post last October, Harold Jarche  expressed a similar sentiment in the context of conferences that he attends:

One thing missing in these discrete time-based events is that there is little time for reflection. … This presentation is followed by some immediate questions & discussions and a coffee break. Then it’s off to see the next presentation. Reflection, if it occurs, comes much later, and usually after the participants have gone home.

Replace “presentation” with “book”, and that his how I am feeling about the books I read last year.

During a pre-launch webinar for his new book Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson also talked about the state of reading.

Bill Gates takes a “reading vacation” to read. Ray Ozzie does the same thing. A very interesting strategy; usually when we read it is at night, when we are tired and have 20-30 minutes before we go to bed. Takes a couple of weeks to read, you lose the possible connections between the books you read.

All of this is my overly long way of saying that I’m not committing to 50-in-52 this year. Instead of moving on to the next conference, in my case a new year of reading only new books, I’m also going to spend some time quality time reflecting on the books I read last year.

What are your reading plans for 2011?

Update: Check out my  2010 Reading List lens on Squidoo.

Permission and forgiveness

“Do you really think George bothered to ask for f***ing permission?”

This was Kevin Spacey’s response to a question from the audience during the Q&A following the St. Louis premiere of George Hickenlooper’s movie “Casino Jack” at the St. Louis Film Festival. This specific question was related to getting legal clearance for the music used in the film, but it reflected a general theme of the evening as friends and family honored George – a high school classmate of mine – following his sudden death only two weeks before this hometown premiere.

In addition to numerous stories of guerilla filmmaking on the set of Casino Jack (like the scene filmed at the Capitol), friends old and new described George’s lack of concern for obtaining permission to do things. My favorite was a story told by Mike Beugg about the making of George’s first, sadly long lost, feature length movie. As the roller coaster (Screaming Eagle) pulled into the station, and passengers were screaming because of the knife and the blood, George was calmly reassuring everyone that “it’s OK, we’re making a movie.”

When asked, “Why didn’t you tell anyone?”, he responded, “I wanted to get real reactions.”

Not only had George not asked permission to do this, he wasn’t even asking forgiveness.

A few days later I came across Chris Guillebeau’s book The Art of Non-Conformity. With the above thoughts about George still fresh in my mind, I picked up the book and read it (devoured it?) in a couple of hours. What Chris had to say made sense to me on an intellectual level, but it was my recent evening with the legacy of George Hickenlooper that really brought it home, really made an impact.

As Chris tells us, and George showed us, it may be better to ask forgiveness than permission, but most of the time you don’t need either.

Something to think about as we head into the new year.

On the path of knowledge creation

ThiagiIn his foreword to Marc Prensky‘s book Digital Game-Based Learning, Sivasailam “Thiagi” Thiagarajan (@thiagi) recounts the following (emphasis is mine):

Early in my life, my mentor explained to me the three paths that lead to the creation of knowledge. The analytical path, where philosophers reflect, meditate, and make sense of objects and events; the empirical path, where scientists manipulate variables and conduct controlled experiments to validate reliable principles; and the pragmatic path where practitioners struggle with real-world challenges and come up with strategies for effective and efficient performance.

Each of these paths can be taken in isolation from the others, we see that every day. It is also common to see these paths taken one after the other: analyze -> experiment -> implement.

More challenging, and much more powerful, is to integrate these three trails into a single path that allows you to go from trail to trail as needed to get you where you want to go.

Be excellent to each other (thoughts on Ubuntu!)

I had been reading up on Ubuntu (the operating system) when I came across ubuntu!: An Inspiring Story About an African Tradition of Teamwork and Collaboration (the book) at the library. It was obvious from the subtitle that this was not a book about the OS, but the title pulled me in to at least take a look.

At first I thought it was a true story, perhaps an extended case study, since it was in the new non-fiction section. It turns out, though, that it is actually a work of didactic fiction, a story created by the authors to make a point. That point being that at work we all seem to forget that our co-workers are human, that they aren’t just there as “cogs in the machine”, and that we all need to start respecting our fellow workers as people, even if the work they perform isn’t (yet) worthy of our respect.

Or as those two great philosophers Bill Preston and Ted Logan once said, “Be excellent to each other.”

This point is made through the application of the African tradition known as ubuntu, brought to (stereo)typical big box corporate America by a young South African man working at the company while an MBA student at a local university. The short definition of ubuntu is

a philosophy that considers the success of the group above that of the individual

Here is a more detailed description, as given by Simon (the young South African student) early on to John, his overly stressed and on the verge of failing manager:

Ubuntu…is about teamwork and brotherhood. It is finding that part of you that connects with other people and bringing it to life…. When you struggle, the Ubuntu in me reaches out to give you a hand. If you wander into my village with nothing to eat, our villagers will provide you with food. Why? Because at the deepest level we are all brothers and sisters…. If one of us hurts, we all hurt.

The rest of the story revolves around John’s learning journey, his epiphany, and the sharing of this new knowledge with the rest of the company.

If you are looking for engaging characters, a suspenseful plot, and a twist at the end, this is not the book for you. As William Gibson said recently, didactic fiction rarely results in deep characters or plot. And that’s fine, because the point of this story is to make a point.

For someone open to the idea of an engaging workplace, where each person is respected as a human first, and only then viewed as an employee, the story told in Ubuntu! will provide some insight into the possibilities. Ironically, these are the people who least need to read this book, because they probably already feel this way.

On the other hand, the people who could most benefit from this book – the managers who treat their employees like, well, employees – will most likely read this book and dismiss it as “touchy feely crap”.

The power of Ubuntu is, I’m afraid, one of those things that you have to experience to truly appreciate.