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The Mosaic Principle

 

 

 
 
   
   
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A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.1

Nick Lovegrove’s The Mosaic Principle2 makes a compelling argument that breadth is the secret to professional success and personal fulfillment. In a “world increasingly obsessed with the power of narrow specialist expertise,” Lovegrove encourages the reader to branch out, to make a conscious effort not to stay only in one’s lane, but to swim in the entire pool.3 Lovegrove’s book is full of stories about extraordinary polymaths who rose to the top of their fields and discovered deep personal satisfaction in the process; however, the book often feels long on anecdotes, but short on hard data. The author’s recommended framework for breadth also features an expert’s level of depth as a key ingredient, somewhat undercutting his thesis. The six principles he advances as the formula to leverage breadth are common-sensical and as amorphous as one might expect from a career corporate consultant; but, the blandness of Lovegrove’s prescription does not undercut the accuracy of his diagnosis: in our modern world, “specialist expertise is often necessary but certainly not sufficient.”4 This review will explore Lovegrove’s thesis that breadth trumps depth, and seeks to apply his framework to the judge advocate career model.

Diagnosis: The World of the One Trick Pony

Lovegrove argues that “in shaping our lives, each of us does have a choice: greater breadth or greater depth.”5 He identifies modern society’s preference for depth over breadth, as most people “want to put our fate in the hands of qualified specialists, because we know they have invested their careers and their lives in deep knowledge and specialist proficiency, and that matters to us.”6 This bias towards deep expertise seems, at first glance, imminently reasonable. If one is experiencing a problem with her knee, it is common sense and human nature to seek out an orthopedic surgeon with sufficient experience to diagnose and repair that particular joint, versus a general surgeon, a family practitioner, or a plumber. This reliance on professionals is particularly understandable in light of the popular notion that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master a simple task.7 However, Lovegrove worries that the modern world has drifted so far into a preference for hyper-specialization that “[m]ore of us are experts, but few of us have the coping skills to succeed in our ever-changing, more complex, and diverse society.”8

Lovegrove is not anti-expertise or anti-intellectual, but merely opposed to excessive specialization, the dangers of which he identifies as including “hubris, blinkered vision, unmerited credibility, and a lack of foresight.”9 Lovegrove illustrates the perils of excessive depth through the experiences of ex-Chief Executive Officer Jeffrey Skilling, the man who presided over the spectacular, scandalous collapse of Enron and earned a twenty-four year prison sentence for his role in the firm’s demise.10 Although the conventional wisdom is that avarice and outright fraud brought down the company, Lovegrove notes that “Enron under Skilling’s leadership exemplified the increasingly pervasive belief that highly talented people, working in narrowly defined specialist silos, can achieve miracles.”11 He explains how Enron’s culture of hubris caused employees to develop financial products of unfathomable complexity and opacity, and argues this unmerited faith in the power of narrow expertise ultimately brought the company down. The leaders at Enron lacked the breadth of experience to question their sinecure of experts, and the enterprise as a whole suffered from blinkered vision—a phenomenon whereby “[t]echnical specialists know only what they see and see only what they know.”12 The regulators and auditors who should have discovered Enron’s problems lacked a broad, holistic view of the company and thus accorded unmerited credibility to the experts who had created the financial instruments that caused Enron’s problems in the first place. The sight apertures of those who were supposed to provide oversight were too narrow to view the big picture because they lacked “the broad experience and perspective to address the challenge.”13

Lovegrove contrasts Enron’s perilous depth with mini-biographies of numerous luminaries in various fields, focusing particularly on the physician and philanthropist Dr. Paul Farmer, a man who “made broad and imaginative choices about how he wants to live his life and affect those of others—choices that have taken him well beyond the conventional tramlines of his chosen profession.”14 Dr. Farmer chose as an undergraduate to major in both medicine and anthropology, and sufficiently developed his interests in those fields to become a professor of both disciplines at Harvard. In addition, he splits his time between a medical practice in Boston and a public health charity he founded to provide healthcare, housing, education, and clean water for poor people in Haiti. Lovegrove chalks up Dr. Farmer’s success to his breadth, typified by a “practice of splitting his time across a broad and complex portfolio of interests.”15

Lovegrove organized the book well, with an explanation of the principle, a chapter dedicated to each of the six dimensions that he identifies as key to breadth, and a conclusion that discusses the ways people of different ages and at different points in their careers could apply the principle to their work and life. The author draws almost entirely from interviews and his own experience, and the anecdotes skew heavily toward the sorts of high-flyers he encountered during a career as a corporate consultant.16 The definition of breadth is also stretched to include people who are only broad in the sense that they have played multiple roles at investment banks. Lovegrove’s definition of breadth is also largely limited to people he identifies as “tri-sector athletes” who move between the worlds of business, government, and non-profits at an elite level.17 It makes sense that a book about crafting a remarkable life would focus on remarkably successful individuals, but the absence of more workaday people—who nonetheless embody the principle—is palpable. If the reader is curious as to how a nurse or a teacher could apply the principle, as opposed to a hedge fund manager, the book may leave her wondering. Despite these limitations, Lovegrove makes a compelling argument that breadth is not just good for the soul. It contributes to worldly success because “the evidence shows that the complex, multidimensional challenges we face in modern society are much better tackled with a broadly gauged approach.”18

Prescription: How to Broaden Yourself

The Mosaic Principle lays out six dimensions necessary to achieve a broad, integrated, remarkable life and career: applying a strong moral compass; building a robust intellectual thread; developing transferrable skills; investing in contextual intelligence; building an extended network; and having a prepared mind.19 None of these concepts standing alone is revolutionary, and all are consistent with (if not prerequisites for) military and legal leadership.

The construction of a robust intellectual thread is simultaneously the most interesting aspect of the theory, as well as the dimension that most feels as if the author is hedging his bets. Lovegrove asserts “you are more likely to be successful if your broader experience is underpinned and even enabled by a robust intellectual thread—a knowledge or skill that you can carry between different walks of life.”20 He describes this as a “T shaped approach,” where “[t]he T is a visual metaphor for a hybrid of breadth and depth—a broad generalist with a deep intellectual thread.”21 The crossbar of the letter T represents breadth of experience and an ability to work outside of one’s core discipline, while the vertical stroke of the letter T stands for a functional area, discipline, or specialty in which one cultivates a depth of specific experience and expertise.

This robust intellectual thread dimension suggests a person’s area of subject matter expertise can be the anchor point for a broad swath of diverse experiences, and the sum of breadth and depth will be far greater than the component parts.22 For example, an attorney might discover during an assignment as a prosecutor that he enjoys and has a talent for criminal litigation. The standard specialization model might have him refine his skills in advocacy and employing the rules of evidence by continued service as a defense counsel or in a senior prosecutorial position, perhaps ultimately rising to a judgeship. Rather than burrowing into the depths of criminal law to the exclusion of other opportunities, The Mosaic Principle advocates for that attorney to leverage the transferrable skills acquired prosecuting criminals to a wholly different area of expertise. Lovegrove would suggest the attorney try insurance defense, patent prosecution, or commercial litigation because the resultant diversity of experience will make him better able to solve complex, multidimensional problems. Lovegrove would also advise this barrister to employ the extended network of contacts he develops to be on the lookout for other opportunities to employ his skills in business, government, or the non-profit sector, achieving the vaunted tri-sector athlete designation.

The idea of developing a robust intellectual thread sounds suspiciously like developing expertise; it is an inescapable fact that The Mosaic Principle requires serious, expert-level depth as a condition precedent to achieving the vaunted breadth that unlocks a high functioning, happy life. Lovegrove deals head-on with the criticism that cultivating a robust intellectual thread is contrary to his larger thesis, arguing “[t]he real question is, How can I be a broad specialist or a deep generalist? How can I be a successful hybrid between breadth and depth?”23 Lovegrove’s rejoinder that success requires “a focused body of knowledge and experience that provides leverage and relevance to your breadth” is convincing.24 Without sufficient expertise, one is merely a dilettante, but “[i]f you have only...the deep subject-matter expertise...you will be imprisoned by the narrowness of your experience and perspective.”25

Judge Advocates: Utility Infielders or Designated Hitters?

The Mosaic Principle is applicable to professionals and leaders of all stripes and stations, but it is especially relevant to judge advocates. Judge advocates are members of dual professions: law and arms. As attorneys, judge advocates serve as “counselors, advocates, and trusted advisors to commanders and Soldiers...subject matter experts in all the core legal disciplines.”26 Judge advocates are also Army officers, and diversity of experience is an intrinsic aspect of officership, in that “[s]erving as an officer differs from other forms of Army leadership by the quality and breadth of expert knowledge required, in the measure of responsibility attached, and in the magnitude of the consequences of inaction or ineffectiveness.”27 The modern battlefield is a place where “the legal profession and the profession of arms meet, evolving as to how to most effectively work together.”28 To that end, the Judge Advocate General recently evolved from seeking to “develop, employ, and retain Broadly Skilled Judge Advocates”29 (BSJA) to creating a corps of professionals “who combine the versatility to practice in every legal function with the expertise to do so at the highest possible level in one or more particular functions.”30

The BSJA concept was not without critics, particularly those who argued that BSJAs lacked the expertise to provide top-notch representation within specific legal functions, most vociferously military justice.31 The current versatile and expert judge advocate (VEJA) framework, with an express desire for specialist-level expertise in at least one legal function, aligns solidly with Lovegrove’s ideal of a “jack-of-all-trades, master of some.”32 Lovegrove asserts that appropriate breadth can actually fuel increased, or at least increased quality, of depth because

[e]ach area you have mastered will stay with you—not to the same extent but rather like a language you once spoke well. You may not be as current or as fluent as you were when you were speaking it every day, but you will feel confident that after a quick refresher you could pick it up again.33

The VEJA framework is a welcome antidote to the BSJA concept’s perceived obsession with breadth at the expense of depth, but Lovegrove would probably advise our corps that the VEJA model must be carefully calibrated to allow officers to find their “breadth sweet spot—the ideal point that reflects [their] intrinsic capacity and character for breadth...where [they] can be most effective at addressing complex and multidimensional problems.”34 There is some danger VEJA could swing the pendulum too far toward depth, and leaders must be vigilant that the new openness to development of expertise does not compromise the breadth necessary to “anticipate the needs of your clients so that you’re able to bring our considerable abilities to bear in whatever operating environment you may find yourself.”35

Conclusion

The Mosaic Principle is an engaging book that contains useful, if axiomatic, advice for judge advocates at any stage of their career. Lovegrove’s concept of essential breadth fueled by a necessary depth is especially impactful for the Corps as we adjust our career model to foster the versatile expertise required to be ready for an uncertain future operating environment. Even beyond immediate professional development potential, this book is recommended reading for anybody with a desire to “overcome your external constraints and internal doubts to build a broader, more interesting, more impactful, more enjoyable, and fundamentally better life and career.”36 TAL

 


MAJ Montazzoli is a student at Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.



Notes

1. Robert A. Heinlein, Time Enough for Love 265–66 (Ace Books 1988) (1973).

2. Nick Lovegrove, The Mosaic Principle: The Six Dimensions of a Remarkable Life and Career (2016).

3. Id. at 1.

4. Id. at 22.

5. Id. at 1.

6. Id. at 19.

7. Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers 67 (Back Bay Books 2011) (2008). But see Brooke N. Macnamara et al., Deliberate Practice and Performance in Music, Games, Sports, Education, and Professions, 25 Psych. Sci. 1608, 1610 (2014) (concluding that Gladwell’s 10,000 rule is less applicable to professions and activities that are not rigidly structured).

8. Lovegrove, supra note 2, at 2; cf. Tom Nichols, The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters 3 (2017) (worrying that society is “witnessing the ‘death of expertise’: a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laymen, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers—in other words, between those of any achievement in an area and those with none at all.”).

9. Id. at 39.

10. Id. at 14–15. See also Press Release, U.S. Dep’t of Just., Former Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling Resentenced to 168 Months for Fraud, Conspiracy Charges (June 21, 2013), https:www.justice.gov/opa/pr/former-enron-ceo-jeffrey-skilling-resentenced-168-months-fraud-conspiracy-charges.

11. Lovegrove, supra note 2, at 17.

12. Id. at 40.

13. Id. at 44.

14. Id. at 16.

15. Id. at 11.

16. Id. at 303 (“McKinsey has shaped every dimension of my professional life and personality—and that is reflected throughout this book.”).

17. Id. at 49; see also Nick Lovegrove & Matthew Thomas, Why the World Needs Tri-Sector Leaders, Harv. Bus. Rev. (Feb. 13, 2013), https://hbr.org/2013/02/why-the-world-needs-tri-sector.

18. Lovegrove, supra note 2, at 22.

19. Id. at 24–29.

20. Id. at 26.

21. Id. at 111.

22. Id. at 109.

23. Id.

24. Id.

25. Id. at 113.

26. U.S. Dep’t of Army, Field Manual 1-04, Legal Support to the Operational Army para. 1-12 (18 Mar. 2013).

27. U.S. Dep’t of Army, Army Doctrine Reference Pub. 6-22, Army Leadership para. 2-8 (1 Aug. 2012).

28. A. Edward Major, Law and Ethics in Command Decision Making, 92 Mil. Rev. 61, 61 (May-June 2012).

29. U.S. Dep’t of Army, Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) Corps Pub. 1-1, Personnel Policies fig 1-2 (19 Sept. 2016) (superseded).

30. U.S. Dep’t of Army, Judge Advocate Legal Service Pub. 1-1, Personnel Policies para 5-1b (May 2019) (emphasis in original).

31. See Major Jeffrey A. Gilberg, The Secret to Military Justice Success: Maximizing Experience, 220 Mil. L. Rev. 1, 61 (2014) (advocating “a military justice career track...that both preserves the broadly skilled judge advocate model while also recognizing the need to maximize the Corps’ military justice experience.”) https://loc.gov/rr/frd/Military_Law/Military_Law_Review/pdf-files/220-summer-2014.pdf.

32. Lovegrove, supra note 2, at 267 (italics in original).

33. Id.

34. Id.

35. TJAG and DJAG Special Announcement 40-04: Announcement of Decisions on Strategic Initiatives, JAGCNet (20 Apr. 2018) (on file with author).

36. Lovegrove, supra note 2, at 109.