Editor's Choice

The Mosaic Principle: The Six Dimensions of a Remarkable Life and Career

November 03, 2016


Nick Lovegrove makes a compelling argument against specialization and for greater breadth of knowledge and understanding.

The Mosaic Principle: The Six Dimensions of a Remarkable Life and Career by Nick Lovegrove, PublicAffairs, 352 pages, $27.99, Hardcover, November 2016, ISBN 9781610395564

We live in a paradoxical time. A trend I’ve been following in business books is the idea that, as technology advances more intimately into our lives and takes over an increasing amount of the work we once did, the most important and valuable skills to acquire will be the most fundamentally human—things like empathy and social intelligence. Another idea I’ve come across with increasing frequency is that expertise can be a big impediment to innovation, because when you know how to do something well, you will always do it in the same way, stifling new and novel approaches to problems. And yet, as the world becomes more layered in complexity, we are encouraged into deeper specialization and expertise to manage it. In his new book, The Mosaic Principle, Nick Lovegrove counsels us strongly against that trend.

In fact, he tells us that a reliance on expertise and specialization is even putting us all at risk:


For instance, our financial system is built around the preeminence of technical specialists. But in 2008 those specialists almost brought the world economy to its knees, and we had to turn belatedly to people with more breadth of experience and perspective to know what was happening and how to fix it.


Our leaders left the financial system to the experts, those that knew what they were doing. And it turned out that they had no real idea what they were doing—how it connected to the rest of the economy and the “real” world.

Lovegrove argues that the breadth of our knowledge is more important than the depth of our expertise. He frames that argument in the opening of the book by contrasting two men who reached the pinnacle of their professions—Paul Farmer and Jeff Skilling. Farmer pursued degrees in both medicine and anthropology, co-founded the now worldwide health organization Partners In Health, and splits his time as a physician between Haiti and Boston. Skilling got his MBA from Harvard, moved on to McKinsey and Company as an energy consultant, and eventually became the CEO of the most innovative energy company in America (as Fortune declared it six years in a row). That company was Enron, and Skilling is now in jail.

The difference between them, Lovegrove argues, is one of breadth versus depth. Farmer is a polymath adherent of liberation theology focused on serving the poor, a “physician-anthropologist-professor-social entrepreneur-author-activist-philosopher-policy advisor” who has made it his life’s mission to do that work in whatever way possible. Skilling was a business consultant and energy expert, who as CEO was focused on “cornering the market in MIT and CalTech PhDs with sophisticated algorithms and mathematical models” and applying them to business.

And lest you think that Lovegrove is some hippy-dippy flower child with an inherent distaste for or distrust of consultants or corporations, you should know that he is a former partner at McKinsey & Company (the very same firm Skilling came from), where he spent more than 30 years, and is currently US managing partner at corporate advisory firm Brunswick.

But rather than focusing on “sophisticated algorithms and mathematical models” as Skilling did, he focuses on the broadly human aspects of business and business success. In The Mosaic Principle, he outlines six dimensions of a well-lived life and successful career: a developed moral compass, a prepared mind, an intellectual thread, an integrated network, contextual intelligence, and transferable skills. Developing these skills will add breadth to our understating and abilities and help us connect more dots, which is critical is today’s world, because:


[R]unning businesses, managing assets, and advising clients on professional issues are all activities whose primary demands are synthesis. Modern technology has made a great deal of specialist knowledge essentially a commodity—and it’s a mistake to focus exclusively on specialist skills that a changing world will render redundant in a few years.


We have decisions to make, as individuals and a society, about how specialized we become. When we focus our attention on a single tree, we miss the forest. We need to understand that context, the ecosystem that we make our decisions in. Narrow expertise not only limits the way we do things, it limits our understanding of how what we do ties into the wider world, and that lessens our ability to effectively tackle the complex challenges we face. We do have to make choices of what to do with our lives, what we study, and what field we go into. We can’t do everything…


But if we make all those choices in favor of greater and greater specialization, then one day we will wake up and realize that we are prisoners of our own depth—that our options have become very limited, our range of vision has narrowed, our capacity to change and adapt according to circumstances has diminished.


Just as computers are taking over most of our programmable tasks, they are also increasingly replacing many of our specialties, and relying on them may ultimately undermine our success individually. Our specialties also isolate us from others. Government is seen as anathema to business, business as antithetical to nonprofits. Yet, all are needed, and need to work together, to solve the world’s biggest challenges. Lovegrove tells the stories of courageous traitors who have left government to work in large corporations—and vice versa—all the while working to address the same important issues that concern them most and attempting to tackle problems in new ways. What he shows is that these institutions need not be so adversarial, that the so-called revolving door can actually be useful so long as it is transparent and those using that door maintain a strong moral compass, and sense of meaning and purpose in the work they’re doing.

The challenges we face today are interrelated, broad, and complex. We need people that can see the whole picture and connect the dots to help address them. We can all make the choice to become one of those people, and The Mosaic Principle can help us get there.

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