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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