The Perks of Being a Renaissance Man (or Woman)

Renaissance Man (ren-uh-sahns man), n, also called polymath (Greek: πολυμαθής, polymathēs, “having learned much”)

    1. a person whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas. Such a person is known to draw on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems (Wikipedia)
    2. a person who has wide interests and is expert in several areas (Merriam-Webster)

I had a friend who was obsessed with the idea of the Renaissance Man (or Woman)—the ideal of gaining expertise in several different areas that you could then use to live a more well-rounded, versatile, and diverse life.  Meriwether Lewis, he insisted, was chosen to lead the Corps of Discovery across the Louisiana Purchase because he knew a little bit about everything and was more suited for dealing with the challenges the team would face along the way—challenges that make spilling coffee on your last clean work shirt look like nothing in comparison.

A lot’s changed since 1806, though, and the key for my friend was being able to use your knowledge in different real-world circumstances—say, knowing a different language would help you be a better traveler, and being more mechanical would help you fix your own lawnmower instead of having to take it to the mechanic.

The goal of being a Renaissance Man (or Woman) is to live a life that not only helps you be more successful, but a life that’s also more fulfilling because you can apply your skills naturally in different situations.  This ideal caters to a more traditional mindset about education helping people make their way in the world using a variety of skills (including being able to play a musical instrument, which was a big deal back in the day).  It also integrates Karl Marx’s thoughts on how the division of labor leads to worker alienation (quick rundown: mastering crafts like candlemaking and metalwork is great for a developing society, but our ability to feel satisfied doing this work goes WAY down when it gets too specialized and we all have to tighten widgets in huge, Industrial Revolution-era factories).


Specialization—A Good Idea for Some

The ideal of the Renaissance Man (or Woman) might seem antiquated in the age of modernization, when so much of our education and economic life is focused on gaining as much skill and knowledge as possible in ONE AREA and ONLY ONE AREA for your entire career.

Specialization makes sense in a lot of ways, since science, medicine, engineering, and even food preparation are a whole lot more advanced than they were a few centuries ago, meaning there’s an impossibly large amount of information to master regarding, say, particle physics or radiology, meaning that if you want to excel and actually get a job in any of these highly developed areas, you’re going to have to focus.

This also makes sense from an economic perspective: if you’ve attained master skills in radiology, then economic law of supply and demand says that you’re going to be able to get a higher paying job, since there aren’t as many people out there with radiology skills.  A better paying job means more money, which means you can pay people to do all the other things you don’t know how to do—paying specialized carpenters to build your house, specialized repairmen to fix your car, and specialized pastry chefs to make you delicious donuts.

In short, a more specialized world means more money changing hands, since people spend all of their time doing their specialized skill (in this case, radiology) and less time doing everything else (building houses, fixing cars, baking delicious cream-filled pastries).


But What About the Rest of Us?

It’s an expensive world, and not all of us can be radiologists.  In reality, the specialization path seems less suited to creative people than almost anyone else, since the specialization path assumes whatever skill you learn will be highly sought after and thus highly paid, at least enough for you to earn a living wage right from the get-go.

But as any emerging writer, artist, actor, musician, or filmmaker will tell you, getting paid for your art isn’t easy.

The specialization model breaks down for creative people because the skills we want to master don’t bring in enough cash to pay other people to build our houses, fix our cars, and bake our delicious pastries—at least not to the degree they do for our imaginary radiologist.  If you’re a creative person, this essentially leaves you with two choices:

  1. Develop a highly (or highly enough) paid primary skill in addition to your creative skill (e.g., John Grisham started off as a lawyer before he was a writer)
  2. Become a Renaissance Man (or Woman) able to apply knowledge in a variety of areas to both earn money and accomplish your goals.

There’s no doubt that the John Grisham path is going to be the better one for many, especially those who’ve already been to college to learn one highly marketable skill and started fine-tuning their creativity later on.

The John Grisham path, though, takes planning, since most specialized paths require setting out on that path early and sticking to it.  Or you might be lucky enough to find a specialized career that aligns closer to the skills you already have—Joseph Heller, for instance, wrote advertising copy and worked in ad agencies for years while writing Catch-22.

Again, however, a lot of us creative people don’t have that luxury in the age of the hyper-specialized economy, making the Renaissance Man (or Woman) ideal more attractive.


Making Up For Lost Cash…

I talked about this a lot in my Frugality = Freedom post a while back, and it still rings true: the more practical skills you have, the more money you can save by doing those skills yourself, which can then partially make up for your having a job that pays less than the imaginary radiologist’s.  This is also why I go on and on about having a budget and managing your money, since a little bit of financial literacy can take you a long way when you’ve got to stretch your Day Job money farther.

Knowing how to sew a button, fix a flat tire, or make your own tacos without one of those Old El Paso kits (this recipe works pretty well) can save you money, and hence make it easier for you to live on a lower Day Job wage.  This is because you’re not tied to an overspecialized economic world as much as the highly paid (and overworked!) radiologist, because in theory you’ll have more time and energy left over after working your lower-stress job to do more of your own stuff.

(This being said, Marx was right in that you’re always going to need money to live.  Living frugally and taking advantage of practical skills won’t ever free you from needing a job, but they will make it easier to live without being a slave to that job.)


Renaissance Men (and Women) in the Age of Creativity

The real value of Renaissance thinking for creative people lies in using a myriad of skills within your creative area—in the indie creative world, the most successful creative people are the ones who push their work into new realms themselves.

In traditional distribution models, a creator does the creating and leaves all the unpleasant marketing and promotional work to agents, publicists, distributors, book cover designers, etc.  But as Cory Doctorow talks about in his book about creativity in the digital age, Renaissance creators who are just starting out don’t have that luxury, and have to do all of the dealmaking, publicizing, distributing, and book cover designing themselves because the money to pay other people to do those things just isn’t there yet.

This is where a myriad of skills can really come in handy, where creators take to Youtube to promote their other work, start podcasts on topics they’re interested in to get their names out there, and build names for themselves across a variety of areas.  Writers become filmmakers, filmmakers become writers, and everyone branches out into new areas.  Financial literacy can helps you do your own taxes as an independent contractor, and being a better public speaker helps when you have to talk about your art with a crowd.  Today’s indie creators have to be more versatile in terms of doing more than just the art creation, which is where the Renaissance mindset really comes in handy.

I know I always say this, but every person’s different, with different creative interests, goals, and skills they can bring to the table to achieve those goals.  As a creative person, having skills in a lot of different areas is going to help you tremendously when you strike out on your own, and help you find avenues to success you never knew you had.

Because that’s what being a Renaissance Man (or Woman) is all about.