The Professional Neo-Generalist

Much of my career I felt I was an amateur. Because I changed industry and field often, I worked in environments where others had deeper and more specialised expertise. I had fallen into the common trap of confusing generalism and amateurism. A society that venerates specialism treats anything less than a dedicated single specialism as unprofessional. The Martin and Mikkelsen’s book The Neo-Generalist helped me understand the role of a Neo-Generalist and the unique value that I brought to those roles.  Reading Steven Pressfield’s Turning Pro has helped me understand better the distinction between an amateur and a professional. This post explores these two important concepts for anyone who has diverse interests.

Amateur and Professional

Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art was a book I highly recommend to anyone looking to understand how to make a greater contribution in life. In this book he describes the battle against Resistance that artists face when they choose to tackle a creative endeavour. Resistance is all the fear and excuses we summon to get in the way of practice of our purpose and best work. The War of Art introduced the concept of Turning Pro, the moment when an artist determines to begin the consistence battle against Resistance and to create consistently.  His book Turning Pro, explores amateurism and professionalism in greater detail.

The distinction for Pressfield in Turning Pro is as follows:

“Each day, the professional understands, he will wake up facing the same demons, the same Resistance, the same self-sabotage, the same tendency to shadow activities and amateurism that he has always faced. The difference is he will not yield to them. He will have mastered them and continue to master them” (Note: Pressfield alternates gender in referring to the professional and amateur throughout his book)

I recognise this battle. My belief that I was an amateur in fields of professionals was one example of the Resistance. I was self-sabotaging my ability to contribute by demeaning my contributions before I had even made them.

The Quest for Mastery Distinguishes the Professional

The critical distinction is in the last line of the paragraph above: the professionals focus on mastery. The continued effort to learn and improve through practice is what distinguishes Pressfield’s professional from an amateur who yields to the distraction of Resistance.

My focus in my roles was always to learn more because I felt I was behind my more experienced and more specialised colleagues. When they may have felt content to settle into their expertise, I felt the need to push my practice and I felt the continuing tug of a Neo-generalist’s curiosity. The tug of mastery is that there is always a better way to practice.

The Advantage of the Neo-Generalist

In their book, Martin and Mikkelsen define a Neo-Generalist as follows

The neo-generalist is both specialist and generalist, often able to master multiple disciplines. We all carry within us the potential to specialise and generalise. Many of us are unwittingly eclectic, innately curious. There is a continuum between the extremes of specialism and generalism, a spectrum of possibilities. Where we stand on that continuum at a given point in time is governed by context.

Again the concept of mastery is key to the way that Martin and Mikkelsen see Neo-Generalism.  The Neo-Generalist no longer feels restrained by the arbitrary dichotomy of specialist or generalist.  The Neo-Generalist shifts as required between the domains, pursuing better mastery of practice in each context with the most relevant of their skills, whether a deep expertise or the breadth of their practice.  This fluidity of practice and the continuing curiosity and learning enables the Neo-Generalist to see potential where the domains of expertise overlap or a particular expertise ceases to run.

The intersection of Pressfield’s concept of Turning Pro and the discussion of mastery in the Neo-Generalist highlights an important point for any Neo-Generalist.  The personal commitment to mastery is what distinguishes a professional from the amateur. Neo-Generalists can overcome the resistance and self-doubt that comes from their diversity of interests when they recognise and embrace the role of mastery and continued learning in their work. Both books explore the shadows thrown by society and our own doubts. The need to continue to learn is not a disadvantage against a Specialist. A continued pursuit of mastery is an advantage for the Professional Neo-Generalist.

Be clear that amateurism and professionalism are not tied to the exercise of expertise. They are driven by a commitment to learning. Turning Pro is a defining moment for anyone Specialist, Generalist or Neo-Generalist.  Professionalism begins with an irrevocable commitment to pursue the practice of mastery.


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