Thursday, March 18, 2010

Renaissance Man

One of the hardest questions that I've ever been asked is 'what do you want to be when you grow up?' Seriously, I have absolutely no idea. Still. And I'm getting a PhD. Not that that makes me smart, rather it makes me specialized an a really specific area. Really, is that a good idea?? ONE specific area? I dunno about this.

When I was a kid and people would as me that question, my response was 'a ballerina, a mom, a lion tamer, a doctor, a dentist, a pastor...' all at the same time. I would say this list in one big breath. I am sure whoever asked the question was like 'Oh what a lovely little girl. It wouldn't hurt to smack her every once in a while'. I wanted to do everything, and I wanted to do it ASAP.  Can't wait. There's too much to do! In college, I decided on psychology mainly because it allowed me to study people, which is just about the only thing I'm good at.

I asked Mike what he used to say to this question and he said a policeman then a businessman (like his dad), then a musician. In college he thought about psychology, religion, politics... all very different with a wide variety of practical applications. His desires had a more logical, reasonable progression. (This is one of my favorite things about Mike- he's very thoughtful about everything.) Even as a kid, he wanted to find a profession that involved things he liked doing and do things that people he admired did.

For both of us, as we've gotten older and despite the fact that we both have advanced degrees, the answers aren't much clearer. My answers have become 'an improviser, a researcher, a doctor, an actor, a writer, a psychologist, a political operative, a chef, a mom...' Mike's answer is 'Lets just say, work in progress.'

All of this has made me wonder about historical figures that have managed to excel in many different disciplines, specifically how were they able to become experts in so many different fields? Ben Franklin, Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Schweitzer, Leon Battista Alberti, Nikola Tesla. How did they do it? Were they insomniacs? Where did they get the money to learn for so long? How were they able to think so deeply about so many different things? What books were on their bedside tables? How did they become Rennaisance Men?

A Renaissance man is someone that excels in many different fields. Predictably, the idea comes from the Italian Renaissance, a time of open and extensive creative and scientific exploration.  During that time, people believed in Renaissance humanism, or the idea that humans are "empowered, limitless in their capacities for development, and led to the notion that people should embrace all knowledge and develop their capacities as fully as possible." (Wikipedia- I'm a little ashamed). People sought to develop skills in all areas of knowledge, in physical development, in social accomplishments, and in the arts.

But being a Renaissance man takes this idea one step further. You can't just be interested in lots of different things at a superficial level- that makes you a generalist. You have to be more thoughtful than that- proficient, accomplished etc. in many fields. You need to play an instrument, write non-fiction, be able to program a computer, speak German and Norwegian, and publish your poetry in a peer reviewed journal regularly. Oh yeah, and be athletic. So when you're done with that history on the origins of macadamia nuts, go run a marathon.

As a graduate and ongoing student of a liberal arts education, I think this is a great idea. I subscribe completely to the philosophy that humans are limitless in their capacity, the idea that it's not just your academic pursuits that are important. It's more than that- it's art, it's deep thought, it's physical. It's learned from more places than a classroom.

However, it occurs to me that this is incredibly difficult in this day and age. We are not interested in polymaths. Even the colloquial 'jack of all trades, master of none' is used in a self deprecating way. We want experts. Superspecialization is highly valued- you don't have doctors, you have orthopedic surgeons with an interest in 2nd knuckle breaks of the left index finger. And, I would bet, if you had a break in that pesky 2nd knuckle, you'd want the specialist, not a generalist. I would too. Our education system isn't built to accomodate a specialization in more than 3 subjects. And 3 is probably too generous. And as you get further and further into education, you get more and more specialized; my academic journey is a perfect example. First I studied lots of stuff, then psychology, then human factors, and now leadership. It's like an upward funnel. And as you go up through that funnel, you get more financial rewards, so there is implicit (or explicit) value associated with increased narrowing.

I looked and couldn't find a good example of 'today's renaissance man'. I wish we had one. Is there too much knowledge out there, too many particulars, for anyone to be an expert in more than one subset of one topic of one subject?

We'll just call this a work in progress.

1 comment:

  1. I can mow the lawn and drink beer at the same time. Does that count?