I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of Renaissance Man.[1] Wouldn’t it be cool to be good at, well, everything? I was one of those fortunate kids who had no issues learning new things, whether they required mental gymnastics or physical coordination. Maths, physics, philosophy, Latin, Greek? Gimme! Music? Sure, and a second instrument would be nice. In sports, I wasn’t all that great at things that required speed or explosiveness, but if it was about technique? Shot put, high jump, tennis – my form tended to be good enough to do reasonably well.

As you might imagine, with that mindset as a teen and early twen I was a quite insufferable know-it-all.[2] Fortunately, as you grow older you realize that you can’t do or know everything. You have to learn to pick your battles, not more than three or four things at a time. For me those are currently writing and sports (bodyweight training and tennis, the latter more on the teaching end, though). In September when the school year restarts, I’ll be adding singing back into the mix. In the wet season, it might be more woodworking again, who knows.

But can you really be a Renaissance person? Can you really do all things well at the same time, in the model of Leonardo da Vinci? 

That depends on the definition of “all things” and that of “well”.

Leonardo was certainly a genius who would have been successful in most, if not all eras. His time, i.e. the Renaissance, was uniquely suited to his talents in that humanism, i.e the study of the classical humanities, was on the rise. He apprenticed as a painter, so he studied many subjects like architecture, metallurgy and chemistry on top of the skills required of an artist. Leonardo learned “all things” connected to art and painting that were known at the time, and because of his dedication (and talent) he learned them as well as you could know them.[3]

As the world has moved on more than five centuries, learning all things is impossible, even within one field. I still think you can aspire to “do all things well”, though. For me, “well” means “to a degree where the results are pleasing”, as measured from feedback by others and my own feeling about the matter. The latter gets honed over time – think hearing relative pitch, seeing whether an angle is square or not, or exercising proprioception

Compared to the elite, I am still pretty bad at all things outside of my professional work. That shouldn’t be a surprise – for the elite, it IS their job, so they should be much better at it. But the drive to do everything to a certain level ensures that I don’t even start new things where I know I won’t ever live up to my own expectations.[4] To the world around me, that can look as though I was good at everything, which I’m really not, I’m just good enough…

Which brings me to the title of this post. I hinted at left and right brain activities on the About Me page, and IMO combining the two is the real essence of Renaissance Person. That’s why I enjoy my day job so much. Going into the weeds with analyzing data and crunching the statistics in SPSS (left brain), then sitting down and doing a free flowing brainstorming session that leads to a compelling narrative (right brain) that appeals to the needs of the KPI and ROI-focused CFO (left brain) and the strategically thinking CEO worried about brand image and their own legacy (right brain). What could be cooler and more Renaissance? 

Maybe my next story should be a SF one, combining hard science with a wide range of human emotion and mystery? Nah, too much research involved, I won’t be good enough at it…


[1] Yes, I know that term excludes half of the population at the time. I apologize, I’ll use “person” for the rest of the post. And it will likely be the topic of a separate post at some point.

[2] My wife might note that I still can be.

[3] The 10,000 hour rule, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in “Outliers”, comes to mind here. But research has shown that deliberate practice only accounts for a small percentage of performance outcomes  https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/Deliberate-Practice-and-Performance-in-Music%2C-and-A-Macnamara-Hambrick/de671b8ebba4329de9f2fc45b3c4faac297f7cfe 

[4] Ideally. Sometimes the realization comes a bit later, hopefully before I’ve spent money on equipment… (cough… golf clubs… cough…)

2 thoughts on “Renaissance Brain

  1. You’re making me think of John Grisham taking his legal knowledge and putting it to good use in his legal thrillers while adding enough human interest that he had millions of people hooked. I think you should try it!

  2. Interesting idea, Kristine. I think it’s a lot easier to spin a cool yarn around some law issues than around the topics in my professional background, though. Such as, let’s say, the future of insurance, … 😉
    But still, “write what you know” is always good advice to remember,

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