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How to Be a Renaissance Man (or Woman) in the 21st Century

Why being a polymath is vital for the future of work

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Photo by Ryan Young on Unsplash
Photo by Ryan Young on Unsplash

When I was young, I wanted to grow up to be like Leonardo Da Vinci.

Now as an adult, I’m still in awe of the wide-range of his pursuits and accomplishments. Leonardo pursued innovative endeavors and achieved excellence in so many fields, from anatomy and architecture to painting and applied physics.

Leonardo Da Vinci is the quintessential “Renaissance Man” or polymath — an individual who possessed life-long curiosity and pursued knowledge, skills, and achievements across multiple, seemingly diverse fields.

A polymath is still what I want to be when I grow up. Because a polymath is someone who never completely “grows up” — they just keep growing.

And if you too want to increase your wisdom, powers, and abilities as the years pass by while always retaining a child-like sense of wonder and appreciation for the universe and its possibilities, I recommend you pursue polymathy too.

The Renaissance Ideal

The ideal of the “Renaissance Man” goes back to that era of Italian history when men like Leonardo and Michelangelo served as models of human potential.  But it’s not just about history. Anyone — man or woman — who in any era aspires to, works toward, and achieves new and lasting success across multiple disciplines ought to be acknowledged as a “Renaissance Human.” 

And while the potential to be a “Renaissance Human” is timeless, I believe it has never been timelier to pursue creative, wide-ranging, integrated excellence across fields.

The Future of Work

As AI technology expands, the future of work will require us to think differently and adopt new paradigms about how we conceive and value what “work” is all about. 

I see a horizon of possibility where human beings will make the most of this technological opportunity by discarding the “work-life balance” ideal and instead adopting the polymath or “Renaissance Human” ideal.

In essence, I see 8 kinds of intersecting roles or spheres of endeavor that ought be present in some combination at some point in every person’s life to create a truly full, meaningful life.

(Not that every person would be doing all of these at any one time; rather, I think these different roles ought to be reflected in some combination over the course of a life well lived).

These are the 8 roles or types of projects I see making-up the new 21st century polymath or “Renaissance Human” ideal:

  1. Entrepreneur— taking an active role to start-up a long-term project, whether a business venture, a social organization, a community initiative, or a personal project; being mission-driven and results-oriented.
  2. Athlete — pursuing physical fitness and health regimens for strength, endurance, adaptation, longevity, and vitality.
  3. Financier — producing material values to generate income and planning and making investments for a future of greater abundance.
  4. Relationship Maker — investing in cultivating healthy relationships; building intimacy and sharing values as a partner, family member, and friend.
  5. Statesperson— being a conscientious citizen, taking a leadership role in politics, community affairs, cultural change, and/or economics.
  6. Artist — creating outlets for self-expression; being present and developing a refined enjoyment of sensory experiences; and/or ultimately projecting your unique world-model through a symbolic form.
  7. Scientist — developing skills in observationresearch, and experimentation and participating in endeavors that create new knowledge.
  8. Philosopher — asking the big questions about the nature of the universe, the good, and how you know; and formulating a code of principles to guide your actions.

The Paradox of “Work”

There’s a paradox in how most people currently think about work and leisure.  As psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has noted in his work on Flow:

“On the job people feel skillful and challenged, and therefore feel more happy, strong, creative, and satisfied. In their free time people feel that there is generally not much to do and their skills are not being used, and therefore they tend to feel more sad, weak, dull, and dissatisfied. Yet they would like to work less and spend more time in leisure. What does this contradictory pattern mean?”

I believe this contradictory pattern means we need to re-conceptualize work. We need to recognize that meaning and fulfillment come when we are most engaged, when we develop skills and then pursue challenges where those skills are tested and stretched. And to live-up to our full human potential, we ought to pursue endeavors across the new 21stcentury Renaissance Human model.

What do you think about the future of work? Is creative versatility a necessity? Do you pursue projects across multiple fields?

For a Deeper Dive…

If you’re interested in a deeper analysis of these ideas, I explore the “21st Century Renaissance Human Project” in the podcast / YouTube show Seeing I to I with my co-host, Ash Ryan.

Check it out here.

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