The Renaissance man (or woman) can be loosely defined as an individual with a great number of talents, interests and areas of expertise. He’s not especially skilled in any one area in particular, instead casting his net wide to pursue a variety of endeavors. Leonardo da Vinci is perhaps one of the best examples.
We know da Vinci as the artist behind The Last Supper and Mona Lisa. We also know that he was fascinated with the human form and explored the complexities of anatomy. His inventions, even if many were only theoretical, were remarkably varied, including the bicycle, the tank and the helicopter. And let’s not forget about his writing, his sculpture, and his exploration of botany too.
Once Upon a Time in China
While nowhere near as well known or as successful as Leonardo, my grandfather grew up in a culture that celebrated the “Renaissance man” approach to life. I’ve been told by family that in early to mid-20th century in China (and likely for centuries before that too), despite relative poverty, adult men would pursue many vocations and hobbies, either concurrently or successively. My grandpa was an apothecary and herbalist, as well as an amateur ornithologist and naturalist. He also dabbled in literature and handicrafts.
The Industrial Revolution, as we know it, didn’t exactly reach the smaller towns and villages in China. It has since, of course, thanks to the continued expansion of the global economy. And with the rise of the Industrial Revolution and ongoing advances in technology, it feels like the Renaissance man has become an outdated concept.
The Allure of the Specialist
Specialization understandably leads to greater efficiency. The more you do something, the better you get at it.
And society rewards specialization. The brain surgeon renowned for his skills in one particular type of complex operation can understandably demand a much higher salary than a general practitioner. This can be richly rewarding both in a monetary sense and in the sense of life fulfillment. To be at the top of your field is a huge achievement. You dig deeper and deeper down that one path.
But it’s not for everyone. And I’m not sure it’s for me.
Weaving In and Out of Conversation
Maybe it’s because I really looked up to my grandpa when I was a kid and our relationship has had a long-lasting influence on how I view and approach life. I want to do what makes me happy, and what makes me happy is to try a bunch of different things. I’m a dad blogger, a weekly vlogger, an amateur photographer, a freelance writer, a professional gadget geek, a voracious foodie…
I think society would be better off if we encouraged the Renaissance man perspective a little more. Society benefits from having educated, well-rounded individuals. We want people to have a basic understanding of scientific principles and mathematics, just as we want those same people to have good language skills and some sense of world geography and the current political climate.
“Public education does not exist for the benefit of students or for the benefit of their parents. It exists for the benefit of the social order,” asserts author and YouTuber John Green. “I like to pay taxes for schools… because I don’t like living in a country with a bunch of stupid people.”
Everything, Anything, Nothing
If you’re like me, you like approaching a different kind of challenge each day. It’s the joy of multiplicity, pitted against the efficiency of specialization. There’s a balance to be struck.
There will never be enough time and effective prioritization will always be extremely difficult. I want to do all the things and I will assuredly fail in this pursuit of everything. But a singular life with a singular focus is not the life for me.