Beyond Category

Duke Ellington, one of the greatest jazz musicians and prolific composers with thousands of compositions, created a category for those individuals that were so exceptional they were, as he called them, “Beyond Category.”  Some musicians he referred to with this moniker include Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, and Billy Eckstein.

Duke used the term in another way as well. When referring to music which was labeled as one style or another, he said “it’s either agreeable to the ear or not. If it’s agreeable to the ear, why does it have to have a category?  Even the most trite songs given to a great performer can be extraordinary…it all depends on the performance anyway.”   Note that Ella Fitzgerald had her first hit from singing the nursery rhyme “A tisket and tasket.”

So who and what qualifies as “beyond category?”  Who are these exceptional people, and what does it mean to get there?  And what do we need to take out of a box and say it doesn’t fit in any category, it’s beyond category?

In the field of management thinking, the Oscars of management thought leaders is called the Top 50 management thinkers.   Marshall Goldsmith has been a Top 10 member of this list since it was created in 2011 and earlier this year, 2018,  the organization created “The Marshall Goldsmth Distinguished Achievement Award for Coaching and Mentoring.”  Is Marshall Beyond Category? They had to create an award in his name just to keep up!

In politics you think of leaders like Gandhi, Mandela, Havel, Walesa – all of whom brought about huge change – peacefully –  and freedom in their countries.   Beyond Category.

In science people who are beyond category are many of the greats – Einstein, Newton, Pasteur.  Currently Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who makes astronomy and astrophysics understandable and accessable to many, can be called beyond category as a person, and also for his work which is much broader than just astronomy.

In every field you can find those people that stand out, not just for who they are and  how they do it but for what takes them above and … beyond category.   And when I think of subjects and cross-functional thinking, I believe those are beyond category too.  How do you describe fields that combine several domains – neuropsychology and neurobiology, psychopharmacology – they don’t fit in just one box.   And then there’s people such as Leonardo Da Vinci, who was multi-talented in many fields including engineering, inventing, and art.

So what does that mean for you and me?  How does beyond category open up your thinking?  Who can you emulate and admire that you believe is beyond category?   What subjects, organizations, and fields of thought cannot be categorized in just one area? As I continue to explore this concept of beyond cateory, I welcome your thoughts on what this means to you and what we can all gain from it.


About hprager

Father, husband, brother and son. Delighted to be friends and mentor to so many wonderful people. Passionate about: leadership, learning and development, education, nature and the environment, youth, music, jazz, the tuba, Israeli dancing, networking and helping others, humor, laughter, swimming, hiking, the Cubs, Northwestern athletics, theater, musicals, concerts, traveling and making new friends wherever I go. Helping the world be a better place when I leave it.
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