A generalist among generalists, I move on

A few of you have already noticed an unusual and almost personal rubric above my piece in the new issue of The Economist (the accompanying audio chat with Tim O’Reilly is here):

Our correspondent in Silicon Valley looks back before moving on to a new beat

So indulge me, please, as I say a few philosophical words about this idea of “moving on to a new beat”.

In a couple of weeks, I will indeed start writing about America’s West Coast generally–governance, economy, water and prisons, climate and immigration, Mexifornia and the Central Valley…. whatever strikes me as interesting. This will be my fourth beat in my twelve years at The Economist, for an average of three years in each beat. (And I do find it amusing that we journalists share the term beat with cops, hookers and drug dealers. There you go.)

As it happens, three years in a beat, give or take, is the unspoken and unwritten norm at The Economist. And isn’t that interesting? With a few notable exceptions that really prove the rule, we all move on every so often. I will go one step further: For over 160 years, our culture has been built upon moving on, thanks to an ingrained faith in generalism over specialization.

My former colleague Chris Anderson recently meditated on this tradition here. (I took over from Chris as Hong Kong correspondent in 2000, and Chris became editor of Wired Magazine soon after that.) Here, in Chris’s words, is roughly what happens to a journalist during a three-year period:

The first year after arriving to your new assignment was terrifying and exhilarating. It was a vertiginous learning curve, but you could ask dumb questions without fear and note that the emperor has no clothes.

In the second year, after the emperor had invited you in a few times to explain the subtle political dynamics that require him to go garbless for the ultimate good of the nation (but surely there were more important things to write about, such as his new elevated rail project), you would find yourself writing sophisticated analyses, traveling easily through the region, admiring your bulging rolodex and otherwise feeling very productive.

In the third year, you’d find yourself returning to stories with a certain cynicism and worldweary accounting of endless process. The elevated rail project has been delayed once again because of infighting within the opposition party. The emperor has no fiscal discipline. You understand everything all too well. It’s time to move on.

So let me offer a few stanzas in my own eulogy to generalism.

1) The avoidance of “capture”

What Chris described above is the subtle mechanism by which all sorts of professionals get “captured” by the wrong constituency.

To take a topical example, banking and insurance regulators get captured over time by the very bankers and insurers they are supposed to regulate, because they are going to fancy dinners with those types and their glamorous spouses, and not with the unglamorous account and policy holders who need regulators for protection.

I have never, personally, seen any journalist being unethical; instead, I see those journalists who consider themselves specialists being simply human. We all try to get close to our sources (politicians, CEOs, etc). And when we do get close to them, we tend to think of it as a scoop. We are flattered. Other journalists are jealous.

And lo, another specialist has been captured. Whom is such a journalist now visualizing as his audience when he or she sits down to write a piece? A reader who was not at the dinner/on the yacht/at the party? Nope. Although the specialist will deny it, he is now, ever so subtly, writing for the people he is supposed to be covering. After all, he needs to get invited back to more dinners/yachts/parties. He should have moved on long ago.

2) The freshness of fear

The wrong kind of fear leads to bad writing, as I have argued before, but the right kind of fear is a tonic for creativity. And believe me, a generalist knows fear. Taking a new beat is a terrifying experience. Each time I have done it, I felt as though I were stepping into a bee hive naked.

So you work extra-hard and you are always on edge (because, after all, you don’t know anything yet about the people you’re interviewing and the things you’re talking about).

And this is fantastic. You ask questions that make your interviewees gape. Bizarre questions, off-beat questions–questions that are either so illogical or so logical (as in obvious) that no specialist would ever dare ask them, even if he could conceive them to begin with. Now you know you’re in a good place!

3) New and unexpected associations

The generalist, if he is doing his job well, now makes unexpected lateral associations. As the specialists around him (still intimidatingly knowledgeable) stare at whatever fine print they’re staring at that week, the generalist connects things in other areas of life and the world and something new arises.

(This, by the way, is the definition of an idea or a thought: The brain does not create a new neuron; it hooks up existing neurons in a new synaptic pattern.)

4) Ability to “translate”

Specialists sooner or later start speaking the language of their specialization, to the point that they can no longer even tell that this language is foreign and must be translated.

While I was stationed in London, long ago, I was once sent off to Brussels to cover the European Union for three weeks. I showed up terrified and ignorant and wrote two good pieces in consecutive weeks. In the third week (week!) I felt excited because I thought that I now had a clue, and wrote a pompous article that mentioned a tension between the intergovernmental and supranational approaches to something or other. Everybody in Brussels uses those terms, and so I did too. My editor cut the piece to shreds, called me up and said ‘Thank God your three weeks are over. You’re coming home!”

Most specialists cannot talk intelligibly about their area of expertise. When they try to communicate with the rest of the world, it is a disaster. (The exceptions are rare, thus proving the rule, and easy to list: Paul Krugman in economics, Brian Greene in physics, Richard Dawkins in biology, etc.)

Coda: My three last beats and my book

In my own case, I now think I know why I did my past three beats (insurance, Asian business, technology) relatively well.

It was because I more than lacked expertise in each of these areas when I started: I was woefully, hopelessly and utterly unqualified! In 1997, I thought that insurance was unspeakably boring (which forced me to make it interesting.) In 2000, I thought that Asia was impossibly alien (which forced me to make it familiar). In 2003, I thought that technology was a curse on technophobes like me (which forced me to demystify and humanize it).

Put differently, all this was fantastic preparation for the book I’m now writing.

The idea is the result of a generalist’s lateral connections: A story about the ups and downs in all of our lives, told through historical characters.

Almost all of the characters in the book have their scholars and experts and specialists producing reams of expert biographies and histories at this very moment. My own qualification to write about any one of them amounts to zero.

A few of the publishers to whom I pitched the book idea noted this and asked, sensibly, ‘Why you, Andreas?’

I felt this was a very promising start.

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19 thoughts on “A generalist among generalists, I move on

  1. California is the sixth (+/-) largest economy in the world. No pressure.

    Every ‘news item’ with which I’ve ever been associated has been wrong. So I just assume that those with which I don’t have any personal experience are dubious. So really, there’s no pressure from me – just make sure the picture has a wry caption.

    There is an ‘office humor’ sign you’ll see posted in down-home places that says something like, “We do things fast, cheap, and right the first time – pick any two!” This might sound weird, but I get paid to do things right the first time (not cheap, not fast). Being a bear of very little brain, I have stuff on my desk that’s ten years old. Sometimes I wish someone would make me do something different every three years. [I’m punctual – that’s different from being fast].

    Another thing that specialists do (think Academics) is talk about things they shouldn’t. That is, they get used to being an expert in one thing and then start talking about something else as if they know what they’re talking about. This is the inverse of being educated beyond your intelligence (best case). Talking with neither education nor intelligence could be bullshit (or humour).

    Does this mean no new Kindles (gratis)?

  2. Good luck with your new assignment. I’m sure you’ll be as successful in it as you have in your previous ones.

    So that we, your faithful followers, can identify your regular pieces in the Economist, I hope you’ll insert links to them in your blogging pieces on this site.

    “…….Most specialists cannot talk intelligibly about their area of expertise. When they try to communicate with the rest of the world, it is a disaster…………”.

    In nearly all the stuff I’ve read about good writing, is the axiom which all writers, no matter what they write, should always remember, but too often forget, and which the above-mentioned specialists no doubt also forget: Imagine yourself in the place of your reader.

  3. So is it safe to say that you would be a great partner in Trivial Pursuit? That is, you know a little about a lot?

    Who would you all like to be stuck on a desert island with?

    One who knows a lot about a little? (Generalist)
    One who knows a little about a lot? (Specialist)

    And. Congrats on your new beat. The prison stories should be titillating.

  4. No more trial Kindles, Mr Crotchety.
    “….Talking with neither education nor intelligence could be bullshit (or humour)….” Oh no! For it to be humor it must be intelligent at the least, and ideally educated as well. Am I wrong?

    djorenstein: Of course. We do these things in internal rotations: I replace somebody, somebody replaces me, and so on. It’s a good friend and great writer. But I won’t out the person here. (The PR people will find him soon enough.)

    Christopher: “….So that we, your faithful followers, can identify your regular pieces in the Economist, I hope you’ll insert links to them in your blogging pieces on this site….”
    Actually, I was planning on not doing too much of that–unless there is something about a piece I’d like to say more casually. It gets annoying and narcissistic, doesn’t it? I figure, once a month tops. Otherwise you get annoyed.

    Cheri: The irony is that I personally might choose a couple of specialists for our desert island (only if I get to choose, of course). We generalists have a symbiotic relationship with them. They have a lot to say about some particular topic, if only they could say it; but it takes a curious generalist to draw it out of them and translate back.

  5. Hi John. Yes, of course I’ll keep the blog going. Right now it’s in a sort of holding pattern, as I await my book manuscript back from the publisher. But at some point, when I know the publication date, I actually plan to ramp the blog up to talk about the ideas and stories in the book. I would do that now, except, you know, I think it might be premature….

  6. Congrats Andreas and thanks for sharing your experience with changes. One of my favorite books is a must; you have probably read it; Two Years Before the Mast, by Richard Henry Dana. It contains vivid descriptions of California and it’s ports like San Diego, Santa Barbara, Monterey and San Franciso in 1834. It really broadened my view of the state-California history is so fascinating and elucidates the evolution of the state in its industry, politics and demographics

    The shooting at Crow’s Landing, General Mariano Vallejo’s surrender of Alta California and separation from Mexico, the Big Four and construction of the railroad, Artie Samish, the list goes on-and all have a connection to the state as it is today. California’s history is young. Today’s issues often direct the investigator to the historical record.

    Let me know if you want the king’s tour of Folsom Prison. (I am sure you can arrange that yourself with your credentials.) We can stop by the original assay office where most of the gold coming out of the foothills was recorded and weighed before being shipped by rail to SF. Notably, this office is just a few steps from the town brothel. I understand that the first notable black entreprenuer had vast holdings in Folsom and was a respected member of the community. We can conclude at the Powerhouse Pub where history meets the local music scene of just have a beer at the Folsom Hotel. (circa 1885).

    I will look forward to your fresh perspective on the state.

  7. Thanks for the question you posed on one of my other sites (the one shown below under “Trackbacks and Pingbacks”). I’ll leave you to guess the answer to it!!!

    As to the dream itself, yes I did last night dream it. The interpretation of it as laid out in the piece, like, felt right to me. I, like, feel, that my reading your piece about your new “beat” was the dream’s trigger.

    Dreams (or at last mine) are extremely literal, making connections between words, which, although ostensibly the same, mean different things, including that they can be in different contexts, which the literal dreaming mind can’t distinguish.

    My dream was as good an example as any of a “garbage” dream.

  8. I just visited Disney California (working. really.). No sign of a downturn there. I was thinking it would be ‘funny’ to see how long you could report from Disney before someone noticed. Then I thought, maybe you could say alot about California from Disney California.

  9. Generalization at the Economist:
    The State Department does the same thing, with three years also being the standard tour for mid and senior level employees. However what usually ends up happening is people become more regionally specialized as time goes on.

    It looks like you might be following the same track of ‘super-generalist’ to ‘semi-generalist’ or am I drawing too much meaning out of the coincidence that you’re staying in the west coast?

    Another question about generalistism:
    “To get on top of current politics and gossip, I am now reading…”
    How did you pick out the books worth reading?

    • The fact that the old and the new beat are both on the West Coast is a coincidence (although one that makes the transition logistically easier). It’s actually a big shift in another respect: from “the back half” (Biz, Fin, Sci) to the “front half” (Geographic) of the magazine.

      How I chose the books: Nothing scientific about it. I try to meet the most interesting people on various topics, then I ask them what the best books on their subjects are. Usually there is a lot of overlap. Those are the one I go for. Right now: Joan Didion: “Where I was from.” (about California).

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