Being a Renaissance Person

“So what are you doing these days?” I recently caught up with someone I knew from my pre-kids national security job.

“Well, I’m a freelance writer for clients in different industries like security, technology, agriculture, financial services and stuff like that, and for a while last year I was working with a consulting company doing IT and infrastructure for a non-profit, and I also teach in a classical education co-op, and I homeschool my three kids.  And I’m writing a novel and attempting to teach myself Farsi.”

My former colleague looked dazed.  I felt uncomfortable.  Shouldn’t people in their 30s know what they want to be when they grow up?  Shouldn’t I have found my One Thing by now?  This has been an area of uncertainty and insecurity for me of late, so I was glad to stumble on two books that made me reconsider my position and think of the ways that being a person of many and divergent interests is actually a good thing.

In The Renaissance Soul: Life Design for People with Too Many Passions to Pick Just One, author Margaret Lobenstine identifies a continuum between people who have one life focus (like, for example, Mozart) and people who have tons of divergent interests (like, for example, Benjamin Franklin), and calls people who veer more toward the Ben Franklin side “Renaissance Souls.”  After defining the concept and reassuring readers that it’s ok to have more than one area of expertise in your lifetime, Lobenstine turns to strategies for being an effective Renaissance person.

One idea I found helpful was to pick three to five focal points to work on at any one time, so that you can make real progress on each activity every week.  Lobenstine advocates using a 168 hours model for thinking about your time, so that you can devote chunks of time to your interests, rather than being frustrated trying to squeeze everything into each 24 hour day.

Barbara Sher’s book Refuse to Choose!: Use All of Your Interests, Passions, and Hobbies to Create the Life and Career of Your Dreams also speaks to the idea of having multifaceted interests, but includes more diagnostics, practical exercises, and career suggestions.  I did several of the exercises and found them quite helpful, and I also appreciated her articulation of a work approach I find ideal (Learn, Try, Teach, Leave) but had never put into words.

Both books commented that our current culture tells us that we need to be experts in one big thing, and this gives many of us a sense that we need to find One Right Job For Life.  But the reality is, most of us need to be more flexible than that, and Renaissance people (or whatever you want to call them) should look for jobs that give them flexibility.  Again and again the books recommended careers like freelance writing and consulting for this purpose.

Y’all!  This is what I already do!  I’ve been sitting around thinking I should have a “bigger” career, but what if the job(s) I have already are the ideal for me and I should just power on and do bigger things within the framework I have?  This probably seems like a BFO (blinding flash of the obvious) to most of you, but it was kind of a breakthrough for me.

If you are a person of multiple interests or focus areas, I’d highly recommend both books to you, but if you only have time for one I think maybe Refuse to Choose is more practical.

Are you a Renaissance person?  If so, how do you balance your time among your interests?


Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.

5 thoughts on “Being a Renaissance Person

  1. I struggle with having interests in many areas. I’ve never been to college but once in awhile I try to think what I would have gone for or would go for in the future and I can’t figure it out because nailing myself down to one thing would be very frustrating for me. I’ll have to have a look at the book you recommended. And for now I’ll just take courage from your words. 🙂

    1. I think you can do college like a Mozart or like a Ben Franklin. I found college to be a great place to have many interests and I didn’t have a hard time convincing my department that classes in other departments really do have something to do with political science (because they do!). It may depend on the college though.

  2. As an undergrad I majored in Liberal Studies because it was the most eclectic degree offered. I got a Master’s degree in Library Science which is another program that values knowing a little about many different fields. Then I got a job in a museum collections department which also valued knowing a little about many many different topics. It was kind of an ideal situation in many ways. Despite that, career-wise I’ve always felt hampered because I don’t have one burning passion. I like so many different things, and would have quadruple majored if it had been at all practical.

    I’ll definitely add those books to my library list.

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