In Conversation with Nick Lovegrove

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

What, in a broad sense, is the Mosaic Principle?

The Mosaic Principle is that life – personally and professionally – can be lived to the fullest as a mosaic, encompassing a rich and complex set of diverse experiences that enhance each of us as individuals and strengthen the bonds of our society.

When we follow the Mosaic Principle, we choose breadth over depth and narrow focus; we give ourselves options in our life and career; we observe through a wider lens, better able to see the forest for the trees; we enhance whatever specialist skills we may have accumulated; and we are more likely to be truly broad-minded – tolerant, empathetic, and understanding of those who differ from us in experience and perspective. We consciously build our lives and careers to embody the colorful and multi-faceted unity of a mosaic.

What are the six dimensions that comprise it?

To make the Mosaic Principle work for us as individuals and society, each of us needs to develop a set of coping skills and capabilities – which I think of as the six dimensions of the Mosaic Principle. We need to:

Develop and apply a moral compass – the ability to focus our lives on a coherent purpose and set of motivations, and to resolve more complex moral and ethical conflicts.

Define an intellectual thread – so that our pursuit of breadth is not random or quixotic, but comes to life through substantive focus and insight.

Develop a set of transferrable skills, and build a common foundation for all walks of life – so that we can be relevant and effective in multiple different environments.

Invest in contextual intelligence – so that we are sensitive, responsive and adaptable to different contexts and operating conditions.

Build extended networks – so that we can leverage diverse and authentic relationships across different walks of life.

Develop a prepared mind – so that we are ready to accept more varied and challenging opportunities when they present themselves.

You write that in today’s world we have gone too far in our obsession with technical expertise. “Increasingly,” you write, “we have experts on top, rather than on tap.” What are some of the perils of depth at the expense of breadth?

The pressures of modern society seemingly do push us towards narrower and deeper specialization in our lives and careers. From our schools to our workplaces, the emphasis on specialization has become the central premise for how we organize and measure our society. We’re applying the assumption that depth is good to governments, large companies, universities, hospitals, and schools.

But there are perils of depth. Sometimes the technical specialists on whom we depend lead us into profound trouble – like the global financial crisis, created by technical experts who lacked breadth of experience or expertise; or environmental catastrophes like Deepwater Horizon; or corporate failures like Enron and Arthur Andersen; or lapses in ethical leadership like Valeant, Theranos and most recently Mylan (with its approach to Epipen pricing).

In the book, you offer several compelling examples of figures who illustrate your argument. What qualities do you believe – based on the arguments you make in The Mosaic Principle – should we consider in November at election time and why?

As it happens, both major-party candidates for the presidency have worked in different walks of life – Donald Trump as a businessman and real estate developer; Hillary Clinton as a lawyer, social activist, diplomat, and of course as First Lady. I guess the question is what have they learned from those experiences that they can best apply to the Presidency? I do think the Mosaic Principle is a useful framework in assessing them as presidential candidates – do they, for instance, have a strong moral compass, transferrable skills, contextual intelligence, and a prepared mind. View their platforms through the six dimensions I’ve outlined and see who would give us confidence that they could adapt to the very particular requirements of the presidency.

You suggest that the pressures on society have led us down a path of total specialization. How might we begin to build the foundations for a broader life without a total life-work overhaul?

Despite the pressure to specialize and focus, given the technical complexity and sophistication of the modern world, we can build the foundations of breadth through diverse experiences and responsibilities. Consider that most of us will work for more than 40 years – that’s more than seven times the 10,000 hours that Malcolm Gladwell says it takes to become a world-class expert in any field. And we will typically change jobs every four years or so – even if we stay with the same institution. Each of those job changes is an opportunity to broaden and extend our experience, to test ourselves in a different field, to create new options for ourselves.

Consider also the opportunities we each have to broaden our lives through what we might loosely call “voluntary activities” – what we do with our “spare time”. Numerous studies show that we can enhance our personal enjoyment and professional effectiveness through the activities that we undertake as an amateur – including, perhaps especially, cultural activities like music, art, dance and writing. We might think of these as the cultural equivalent of “cross-training” – they strengthen different muscles or different parts of the brain.

As a McKinsey consultant and partner for several decades, you are well suited to guiding individuals through the dilemma that many experience between the need to have an area of keen expertise and the value of diversifying. Would you say your goal with this book is not only to issue a clarion call for pursuing a broader life but to help readers achieve it? For whom did you write this book?

I think of this book as a call to action; and as an operational handbook for those who respond to the call. The call is to celebrate breadth as much as depth. Based upon my 35 years’ of professional experience – advising businesses with no government experience, and governments with no business experience, I have seen way too many people trapped by narrowly defined career paths and choosing to swim in their respective lanes, when the whole pool could be available to them.

In my view, we should reject the false preference for depth – for three main reasons. First, a lot of recent research has shown that we have consistently overestimated the value of specialist expertise and underestimated the significance of broad experience. Second, it’s increasingly apparent that the kind of complex, multi-dimensional challenges that we face in modern society – problems like terrorism, income inequality, climate change, education, healthcare and inner city crime – are much better tackled with a broadly gauged approach. Third, the evidence is that most of us would prefer to live a broad, well-rounded life if we would only allow ourselves the chance to do so.

Who’s the book for? It’s for students who can build the early foundations for a broader life; for mid-career professionals seeking to broaden their experience and diversify their options; for established leaders seeking to lead and select talent in a broad-minded way; and for those seeking to make the most of the “active retirement” phase which is such an important aspects of modern society.

In what ways have you applied the Mosaic Principle to your own life and work?

I realize now that my life has become a mosaic. First, for 35 years I have worked as a consultant and coach, providing advice to numerous businesses, non-profits and governments – including a spell working for the British prime minister. I have seen both the profound differences between sectors, and the value of transferring skills between them. Second, I’ve lived and worked around the world — born in New Zealand, grew up in the United Kingdom, educated partially in France, and moved to the United States a decade ago. Navigating and adapting to different cultural norms has made a profound impact on how I view the world.

Third, in my research for this book, I have met and learned from over 200 people who I think exemplify the Mosaic Principle – and they have certainly inspired me to think consciously and courageously about what I want to do with the rest of my life. And finally, I am a parent of four children, now young adults, who are confronting the challenges of breadth and the perils of depth as they build their own lives and careers.

How does one go about finding his “moral compass”? Isn’t a moral compass something you have or you don’t?

We all have a moral compass – the question is how well it’s working; does it have a robust true north; does it stand up under intense pressure in a variety of circumstances? And I think we only find out how well our moral compass is working when it is fully tested. In unfamiliar or extreme circumstances, we may find that it is broken all together and has to be rebuilt.

A particular test of your moral compass is when you switch between different walks of life. That was certainly my experience when I started working with the UK government and found myself accused by the British media of securing inappropriate influence through a lapse in ethical judgment. That was when I found that my moral compass was wanting. My colleagues and I at McKinsey thought that we were running a highly moral and ethical firm. But in the last decade or so, two of our senior partners – Jeff Skilling and Rajat Gupta – were convicted of serious federal crimes; and several other colleagues such as Mike Pearson at Valeant found themselves severely criticized for lapses of ethical judgment. So none of us can take this for granted.

You devote a chapter to being “T-shaped.” “You are much more likely to build a broad life and career,” you write, “if you also build a robust intellectual thread—a focused body of knowledge and experience that provides leverage and relevance to your breadth.” What do you mean by this?

The biggest risk of a broad and diverse life is that you will come to be seen as a “professional dilettante” – a “jack-of-all-trades, master of none”. The T-shaped model is a visual metaphor for a hybrid of breadth and depth – a broad generalist with a deep intellectual thread. The vertical stroke of the T represents a depth of skill or expertise, typically gained through years of study and practical experience. But this kind of specific depth is often not enough to solve complex problems and to enable people to flourish in their lives and career. That’s where the horizontal bar comes in – it represents the breadth and range of experience that enable and reinforce collaboration across different arenas.

Is there still a place for “practice makes perfect” in your view?

Absolutely – even to the extent of the so-called “10,000 hours rule”, which states that it takes that long to achieve world-class expertise in a given field. The question is once that level of expertise is attained – once practice has made perfect – is that it, or is there something else? The answer for some people is no – that’s not enough. They want to apply the expertise they have, that they have perfected, in a different arena; and they want to develop different types of expertise, more or less related to the one they have already developed.

You write about the importance of having a prepared mind, in order to recognize the role of chance in shaping our lives. What do you mean by this, how does one go about it?

It was Louis Pasteur who said: “In the fields of observation, chance favors the prepared mind”. He was thinking in terms of scientific discovery, but the same concept applies to building your life and career. There’s only so much planning you can do in your life and career – and only so much that is useful. What you do need is a rough sense of what you want to achieve, of the kind of breadth and variety that will enhance your life, and then a mind prepared to seize opportunities as they arise.

Can you give some guidance about how a person starting out in the workforce might plan their career using the Mosaic Principle?

I think there are three things I would say – including to my own kids, who are just starting to move into the workforce. First, in the early stages of your career, build some foundational skills – skills that will be transferrable across different walks of life in the future. Second, find your intellectual thread and commit to it – building meaningful knowledge and insight that you can leverage across different walks of life. Define your own version of the T-shaped model, and put it to the test. And third, prepare your mind for the opportunities you want down the line – so that you’re ready when they come along. If you do those three things, you’re much more likely to build your life according to the Mosaic Principle.