Renaissance Man

The Renaissance man is something widely misunderstood by today’s general population. It is often a boring topic for many people, until people find out what it actually means. So what is a Renaissance man? He/she is often described as a polymath or generalist. A genius among a wide array of fields of endeavour. One of the most notable examples is Leonardo da Vinci. He was an inventor, painter, philosopher, poet, architect, engineer, physician, writer, stage designer, theologist, astronomer, actor, singer, court jester and even more. He was a true generalist and was known as being a master of all the fields he was a part of.

The problem now days is over-specialisation. It is believed that you cannot master more than one sub-category in a lifetime and so most people go through life with narrow-minded knowledge of a single area of focus. My reason for writing this article is to open the minds of the reader into a world of understanding that spans more than a single area. I want people to understand that a certain amount of generalism is necessary, even in specialised fields.

Jack of all Trades, Master of None

The Renaissance man ideal was once highly regarded and universities all focused on a broad spectrum of knowledge, with partial specialisation but full understanding of wide and varied subject matter and practical experience. Now days this ideal is frowned upon. To have knowledge of a broad range of subjects is seen as a lack of focus. Polymaths and generalists today are referred to as a “jack of all trades, master of none”. But is there something to be said for generalism and universal understanding?

Common knowledge assumes that one cannot possess an encyclopaedic knowledge, meaning that it is impossible for a person to possess a masterful amount of knowledge, understanding and skill in more than one or two sub-categories. But is this true? I believe it’s not. So what of the ideals of the Renaissance man? Is it a hindrance to the mastery of one’s life and contribution to the world? Or could it be that it is the specialists who are following a limited approach?

The common modern mentality believes that being universal and having a broad spectrum of accomplishments is limiting because it does not allow the individual to develop fully in any one area. So a Renaissance man is said to be a dabbler and a theorist without any real workable skills or knowledge. That’s modern thinking.

Renaissance thinking is that it is over-specialisation that is limited. By specialising too narrowly one only has an understanding of the single area they are focused upon. That sounds fine at first but it limit’s a person’s thinking. By not understanding multiple areas there is a lack of comprehension of the relationship of things. Nothing stands alone, all fields are related in some way. Understanding only one area cuts off abstract thinking ability, analogical comprehension and cross-pollination of subjects that have non-apparent relationships. So being a polymath, a person is able to relate one thing to another where the specialist would be limited.

Sure a generalist may be limited if all they are is a dabbler. That’s a given. There is no way to master multiple areas without serious focus. However being a specialist allows only for the thinking, reasoning, accumulated knowledge and terminology of that single sub-category they are a master of. A true Renaissance man is one who gains a masterful understanding of one or two subjects and has at least a basic workable knowledge and skill-set of a wide array of others.

The Successful Renaissance Man

To be successful as a polymath you can’t just have broad, unfocused interests. This just spreads you thin and will turn you into the stereotype of a “jack of all trades, master of none”. You need to first have an interest in developing knowledge and skills in each area of focus, then the ability to connect the dots and logically interrelate various subjects. This is the mark of a true genius, a person who can really make sense of one subject through the understanding of another. The more subjects a person truly understands, the easier it is to master new ones.

Learning for most people is seen as memorisation and only applicable to the subject they are learning about at that time. but when a person learns they make new distinctions and neurological connections. The more things a person understands on an advanced level the easier it is for them to understand things in the future. Basically learning is cumulative; learn about science topics and you will generally have a better mathematical understanding, learning to speak another language may help to systemise your thinking in a way that you can more easily take in information about engineering and so on.

The successful Renaissance man is not a dabbler, he/she is a master, a genius in multiple areas. It’s easy to know a little about a lot, but if that’s all there is then you’re in big trouble. I can greet people formally or informally in about 20 different languages and count to ten in the same number of languages. However I don’t consider that particular skill to be of much use and therefore does not fit the qualities of the Renaissance man.

Everything you learn is useful in some way, provided it is complete, incomplete knowledge is useless. What I mean is that dabbling and understanding a small part of a lot of different things rarely results in any meaningful skill development.

Learn Then Forget

The human brain is capable of processing a finite amount of information at any one time. You cannot possibly comprehend everything you have ever been exposed to in one instant. This leaves only so much memory and focus to master skills. The reason being that consciousness is limited. If your brain could process every single piece of input that goes in all at the same time you would literally go mad. So your brain filters out anything it deems unnecessary and you are left with only a tiny fraction of what you could possibly process.

So where does all the filtered input go? It is picked up by the unconscious portion of your brain. The unconscious portion is the part of your brain that doesn’t actually think consciously, it is simply a storage place that provides instructions to your conscious brain. The unconscious does things like tells your heart to beat, regulates hormones, stores distant memories etc.

Now back to the point, learn then forget. What does that mean? It means that since you can’t consciously process infinite information you need to enlist the help of the unconscious. This is what the Renaissance man does. Do you think da Vinci had to consciously think through everything? Fat chance! That simply would not be possible. So what happens when you master something is it becomes an automated action. Take driving for instance, when you drive you don’t think about every single thing you have to do, it all becomes a single task rather than a collection of individual tasks. The same can be applied to multiple areas as in the Renaissance man ideal.

So here’s a few points on being a universal, polymath, generalist, Renaissance man…

  • Only set out to learn or master something if it is of interest to you and you know you will follow it through. Don’t just revise random information just for the sake of knowing a lot of stuff because that approach gives you no power. You need to complete your learning and mastery of each subject area you engage in.

  • Understand and look for inter-relationships from one thing to the next. Knowing information about one area will generally relate to another and help you to master it.

  • Learn how to learn. This is the most under-developed topic. Institutions are so focussed on the topics being learned but they never consider that maybe people aren’t learning optimally. Make learning how to learn effectively a priority and then a broader range of knowledge and skills will be available to you.

  • Learn and forget. When you learn something or master a skill it needs to be “uploaded” to your brain efficiently. Internalise and aim to understand as opposed to rote learning. There is enough evidence to suggest that rote learning is not the most efficient learning strategy. What is more efficient is comprehension and automation. The more automatic and unconscious something is the better able you are to put the skill to use.

Become a Renaissance man or woman. You will be much more valued and useful than super-specialised people. Ensure you are a true polymath, don’t just dabble, make use of everything you learn, don’t just learn it for the fun of it.

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