How to Become a Modern Day Renaissance Man (or Woman)
Last updated January 19, 2017
There are many benefits to becoming a modern day Renaissance man (or woman). The ancients were on to something when they determined the importance of having an always-learning attitude.
Thanks to Dos Equis marketing, there is a very romanticized notion of a man who can do just about anything. He can perform any number of tasks, from fighting a bear to playing croquet with a European prince.
He can win an arm wrestling championship, is an expert marksman, and can converse knowledgeably on such topics as foreign policy.
He never ceases to amaze, and that's what makes him interesting.
While this is a humorous look at a Renaissance man, the truth is that becoming one has more to do with what's between the ears than physical feats of strength, good looks, or any other quality.
What is a 'Renaissance man'?
A Renaissance man is a well-rounded individual, full of knowledge and skill across a board range of fields. This broad knowledge and expertise is used to solve any number of problems. (The term 'polymath' is also used when referring to a Renaissance man. We'll use the two interchangeably.)
These fields might include knowledge on education, cultures, the arts, sports and politics, and include physical skills as well.
It's an ever-increasing understanding of the world around you, and how you relate to it.
The term 'Renaissance man' was coined as a tip of the cap to great thinkers of the Renaissance and Enlightenment eras, where the emphasis was on acquiring knowledge. The prevailing thought among philosophers of the time was that man was capable of all things that he put his mind to, and that there was no higher pursuit than acquiring knowledge.
Over time, the concept of a polymath or Renaissance man has come to include physical knowledge too, which makes for an even more well-rounded person.
Leonardo da Vinci, the quintessential Renaissance man.
So, what does a polymath look like in the wild?
For starters, they love learning. It doesn't matter what they're learning about, they find nearly everything fascinating, and show a passion for discovering more.
They're able to take a situation, assess it, and find a solution. They're well-rounded, but not eclectic. ('Eclectic' is meandering, whereas 'well-rounded' is focused.) They can see patterns across different aspects of life, and use these patterns to accomplish whatever task is at hand.
And they usually have plenty of interesting stories.
A polymath is concerned about developing knowledge across a broad spectrum. It makes for a more-rounded individual, better able to handle the vast challenges that life throws at us every day.
There is an excellent quote by the Robert A. Heinlein that neatly sums up what it means to be a polymath:
"A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly.
Specialization is for insects."
~Robert A. Heinlein
Benefits of being a polymath
On the surface, becoming a polymath sounds like a lot of work. Why put forth the effort to have extra skills and knowledge that you can't immediately use?
It turns out that learning a wide array of skills and knowledge have a lot of helpful benefits that can improve just about every aspect of your life.
For starters, when studying a wide array of disciplines there tends to be overlap in the learning process. For example, learning a foreign language has many unrelated benefits, like being able to make better decisions or better memory.
When you have a vast knowledge across a slew of different topics, you become better at learning new things. You see patterns, and those patterns help you to retain and understand whatever new thing you're learning, from sewing to calculus.
Qualities of a polymath
The point of being a polymath is to be knowledgeable across a broad spectrum of disciplines. In short, it's about continual personal development. Physical, mental and social.
To be a polymath doesn't mean that all of these disciplines have to be mastered. That said, a Renaissance man shouldn't overcompensate in one aspect of development to ignore the other.
For example, if you devote all of your time to mental and cognitive learning but forego social development, you're doing it wrong. The point is not to become knowledgable in an area and ignore another proficiency completely; the point is to improve holistically.
Below is merely a guidepost to highlight some areas of expertise that could be studied on the way to becoming a polymath, or how to spot one in the wild.
1. Mental Development
First and foremost, a Renaissance man views learning above nearly every other pursuit. Mental development is key to a well-rounded life, and our Renaissance-aged brethren considered it the most important quality.
- Literature - Reading is the cornerstone of learning, and having a grasp of modern literature, ancient literature and everything between. A polymath reads constantly, and not just the newspaper.
- Languages - If you know someone who knows 2, 3 or more languages (or a polyglot), you might know a polymath.
- Puzzles - Problem solving is a key component to learning and succeeding at life. Polymaths are often challenging themselves with puzzles.
2. Cultural Development
Understanding and learning to appreciate culture is a good way to become well-rounded. This doesn't necessarily mean learning how to nae nae, but rather developing an appreciation for culture, especially culture that isn't yours.
- The Arts - Different types of music, artists, art history. Visit museums and art galleries. Appreciating theatre. Watch foreign films to get an understand of worldly cinema.
- Style - Understanding style (not fashion) allows you to dress yourself appropriately for your age and body type, for example.
- Etiquette - Etiquette is more than knowing when to sip tea with your pinky up. It's all about social graces, or knowing how to interact politely with people in a social setting.
- Food - Different types of cultural cuisine gives us appreciation for other cultures that we can't get from just looking at a map or reading a book.
- Religious literacy - A firm understanding of religions--not just your own, if you have one--helps better understand our world. Symbols, practices, founders and traditions all teach us about different cultures.
- Travel - Traveling allows us to understand people from different cultures up close. Traditionally traveling is reserved for people with more disposable income, but thanks to the Internet we can learn a lot about a culture without getting on a plane. That said, there is no substitute for traveling and immersing yourself into a different culture.
3. Physical development
- Fitness - Training your body allows you to learn about your body. Not just improving your mile time or max squat, but a deeper understanding of your body's limitations. Aside from a better physique, exercise is beneficial to our memory and other cognitive functions (source).
- Working with your hands - In an age when everything can be done, acquired or learned with a phone in your pocket, the ability to do things with our hands is important to cognitive and social development.
- DIY - There is nothing more telling of a polymath than constantly needing a DIY project to tackle. Being able to take a problem and solve it both physically and mentally is a high form of learning.
Examples of Renaissance Men and Women
Some of the most notable people in history were Renaissance men. It's no surprise that a thirst for learning and knowledge across a lot of diverse subjects is a common theme among highly-successful people.
We'll highlight some examples from historical times, modern times, and even polymaths in pop culture.
These are the prototypical Renaissance men of classical sense.
Michelangelo was considered one of the greatest artists of all-time. Aside from painting the iconic Sistine Chapel, he was also a prodigious sculptor (see: David), and a world-class architect. He also wrote a lot of poetry over the years.
Shakespeare is widely considered the father of modern storytelling. His plays have been translated into nearly every language, as well as his writings. Aside from his world-class poetry and playwriting, he was an actor as well.
Thomas Jefferson was a man of many interests. Aside from being one of America's founding fathers and principal author of the Declaration of Independence, he also was proficient in surveying, mathematics, architecture and mechanics. He also dabbled in horticulture, philosophy, spoke several languages, and was a prodigious brewer of beer.
Leonardo Da Vinci
Leonardo Da Vinci
Leonardo Da Vinci was the walking definition of a polymath. Not only was he alive during the Italian Renaissance, he had an avid interest in nearly every aspect of life. Aside from being considered the father of paleontology and architecture, he's generally considered on of the greatest painters of all time. His other interests (which he was proficient to excellent in nearly all) were: anatomy, literature, astronomy, cartography, sculpting, science, music, invention, geology, botany and more.
Galileo Galilei had a massive impact on modern Science. He's considered the Father of Modern Physics, the father of the scientific method, and the father of science. That is a lifetime of accomplishment right there. But Galileo had interests nearly everywhere: mathematics, science, astronomy, physics, engineering. He even invented the compass in his spare time.
Ben Franklin was another founder of the United States, and a renown polymath. His was an author, postmaster, inventor, civic activist, statesman and printer. He invented the lightning rod, bifocals, started the concept of the modern fire department, the Almanac, and studied Atlantic currents in his spare time.
Modern Day Polymaths
Some current examples of men and women who excel at more than one thing.
Stephen Wolfram is a pioneer in computer science, having built the revolutionary Wolfram Alpha search engine. But Wolfram is also an accomplished mathematician and theoretical physicist.
Douglas Hofstadter is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author for cognitive sciences. Hofstadter's Law was created based on his writing that states that tasks always take longer than expected. Outside of his ground-breaking cognitive science studies, Hofstadter is a composer, artist, calligrapher, physicist and programmer.
Marilyn vos Savant
Marilyn Vos Savant
Marilyn vos Savant holds the distinction for having the highest-ever recorded IQ. She's a columnist since 1986 with her column "Ask Marilyn", where she answers questions and solves puzzles. She's also a lecturer, playwright.
Temple Grandin is a world-renwown professor of animal science, but is most publicly known for being one of the first autistic people to share their personal experiences of autism. Outside of being a major name in the animal science and activism, she's also an autism spokesperson, consultant to the livestock industry and inventor. In 2010 she gave one of TED's most popular talks
Celebrity renaissance men and women
These examples of polymaths below are everyday names. The interesting thing is that their fame only increased once they became experts in other fields as well.
Brian May, lead guitarist for Queen.
Brian May is known for being one of the greatest rock guitarists of all-time because of his contributions to the band Queen. What most people don't know is that May also received his Ph. D in astrophysics. He published a book that in the title alone has words we don't understand.
Bruce Lee: Philosopher, martial artist, filmmaker, actor.
Many know Bruce Lee a world-famous filmmaker, actor and martial artist. But Lee was also a philosopher, poet and writer, which made him very quotable. His involvement in filmmaking and philosophy allowed him to transform how Asians were portrayed in American films.
Neil deGrasse Tyson
Neil deGrasse Tyson
Neil deGrasse Tyson is a world-renown astrophysicist, cosmologist and and author. Along with his many professional awards, Tyson has become a celebrity thanks to his appearances on popular TV shows like The Colbert Report , popular radio programs, and Tyson is also an advocate for NASA, animal rights, and is a wine-enthusiast.
Steve Martin is more than just a funny man.
Steve Martin is a world-renown comedian, thanks to his time doing standup comedy and acting in movies. Aside from his acting, Martin is also a two-time Grammy Award-winning banjo player. He's written plays, musicals, novellas, and books. In his spare time he collects art an organizes art shows.
Outside of being one of Hollywood's most iconic actors, Clint Eastwood is an award-winning director and filmmaker, a pub owner, restauranteur, golfer, a piano-playing composer, and licensed helicopter pilot.
Donald Glover, aka "Childish Gambino"
Donald Glover is known as an actor on the TV show Community, and will star as Lando Calrissian in the Han Solo Star Wars movie. But Glover does more than act; he's also a Grammy-nominated musician who performs under the name Childish Gambino. He is also an accomplished screenwriter, having written for shows for NBC like 30 Rock.
How to become a modern Renaissance man
Becoming a polymath is less about skill, and more about the mindset of continual learning. You don't have to have an incredibly high IQ to become knowledgeable and proficient across different fields of study.
This doesn't have to break the bank, either. Historically, to become cultured and learned required a certain amount of personal wealth. Previous generations had to pay to become cultured, buying books and other learning tools, traveling to learn about cultures, and other expensive things.
Thanks to the beauty of the Internet and your local library, becoming a polymath costs almost nothing.
The biggest cost will be of your time .
Here are some tips to start becoming a Renaissance man.
Develop a deep love for learning
Learning is a skill that can be honed and appreciated over time. In fact, continual learning will become habit with practice. Sure, some people are naturally more curious and inquisitive, but that doesn't mean that you can't be too.
By developing a thirst for knowledge, you start to see the world differently. Fortunately, with resources like the Internet, this means making a note of something that you don't understand, and simply looking it up.
Imagine what Renaissance men like Da Vinci would do with the Internet! You have access to the world's knowledge at your fingertips.
There are plenty of online courses to help you learn, and many are free. For example, HarvardX offers free course lectures taught by Harvard faculty. The online learning service edX also provides courses from MiT, University of Texas, , and many others. For free.
Read. Then read more.
Reading is the most efficient way to learn and retain new information. Not just articles on websites and in newspapers, but books.
If you're needing some direction on what to read next, here's a great list to start with the modern classics. Then you could always hop over to ancient philosophers like Marcus Aurelius, Plato and Aristotle.
The point isn't so much what to read, but rather to continually read.
Because you have a local library and the Internet, reading is hands-down the most affordable way to attain information. It's free (unless you return the book late).
Reading (especially print books) also provides many health benefits:
- Reading reduces stress levels up to 68% (with just 6 minutes of reading) (source)
- It keeps your brain functioning well into old age (source)
- You're less likely to develop Alzheimers (source)
- and you live up to almost 2 years longer than people who don't read (source)
As the famous philosopher Dr. Seuss once said:
"The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you'll go."
Develop a love for curiosity
While a menace to society and bird feeders alike, no one can deny that squirrels aren't curious.
"Curiosity is lying in wait for every secret." ~Ralph Waldo Emerson
Curiosity doesn't seem like a trait that you can learn. But like learning, becoming more curious is a trait that anyone can develop with some practice.
Curiosity is different than a love for learning because it's more of a reaction. When you see something that you don't know or understand, instead of accepting it at face value, you ask "why?".
Merely asking the question "why?" will bring you down a path of discovery, which leads to more learning. It's the spark that makes learning possible.
Some people are just more naturally curious than others, and humans will even act on curiosity when they know it will cause them pain. (Ever heard the expression "curiosity killed the cat"?)
But a healthy level of curiosity can be developed in just about any scenario. It's merely being mindful enough to ask the question "why?" when you don't understand.
Too often we're concerned only finding answers with immediate benefits. But curiosity means exploring something when the immediate benefits for doing so are unclear.
Why did we decide to fly to the moon? Why do we study migration patterns of animals?
Eventually the benefits will be made clear, if only to serve understanding a completely unrelated field better.
"The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing."
~ Albert Einstein
Brush up on social etiquette
In prior years, when you came across the word "etiquette" it meant manners, knowing when to use the right fork, and other such manners.
But in these modern times true etiquette is a much broader study. Modern etiquette has evolved largely into learning how to effectively communicate with people.
In these modern times there are many more ways to interact socially with people. In previous centuries you interacted in person or by letter correspondence.
Today, there are infinitely more ways to interact with humans.
- Via text
- Vocally over the phone
- Public social network messages
- Private messages, such as email, direct messages, etc.
Really, the best way to improve social etiquette is to understand how to respect the people around you and make them more comfortable. This might mean knowing when to use your cellphone or when to speak your turn in a group of people. Oh, and knowing when to use each fork.
Making those around you more comfortable can pay dividends. As people become more comfortable around you, you'll become more influential.
If you're needing something to read up on, there is no better resource than the original self-help book, Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People is a fantastic resource. If you're not wanting to purchase a book, the local library (which Carnegie was a huge champion of) should have a copy. You can use this chart to help you implement concepts from the book.
Try finding a signal out here.
Getting away from people is infinitely harder than it used to be. Even if you rent a cabin in the woods, there's a good chance that there is still cell coverage in the area, meaning that you're still connected to everyone.
There is a massive benefit to disconnecting from people, both physically and online or by phone. Youth have a lot of extra stress associated with cell and computer usage, our memory weakens, and just having a phone nearby can distract and hurt our mental performance.
Disconnecting (or "unplugging") allows our brain to take a breather. Cell phones are fantastic devices, but they also open us up to a condition of being "always on".
Learn a language (or two)
Learning a language comes easier for some than others, but the good news is that as you learn a new language, you start to see patterns in each subsequent language.
You can use services like Duolingo to learn a language for free. They currently offer 22 languages to pick from, and you learn with bite-sized lessons to make the learning more fun and manageable.
Improve social connections
There are some obvious benefits to improving your friendships and social connections.
Man was meant to live in community, and having fellowship with other humans is healthy. We're happier, we live better lifestyles, improve our self-confidence, and live longer when we improve friendships (source).
Aside from just general well-being, friendships and social connections allow us to learn from other people. It's not a stretch to say that everyone you come in contact with is an expert at something. Take advantage of this!
History is important because it allows us to have a deep understanding of how our society got to where we are. History allows us to learn from other's mistakes, and to see patterns for the future.
Visit museums and galleries
The Louvre in Paris, France.
Culture is important, even if you don't understand it or appreciate it. A great way to take in culture is to visit galleries and museums.
There are lots of free (or nearly free) exhibits of artwork and museums around you. A quick Google search for "free museums [your town]" will surely give you some results. The same thing for art galleries.
It should be noted that you don't have to like what you're looking at to appreciate it. Here's a primer on how to look at art.
Engage the senses
Often time we just associate learning with merely reading or watching something. This is massive oversight. Smells, tastes and sounds all help us understand what we're trying to comprehend.
For example, smells connect with emotion centers and help us remember feelings and recollections (source).
Use of our senses provide a richer learning experience, allowing us to deeply imprint the information on our mind.
Improve your physical development
While the original men of learning during the Italian Renaissance were chiefly interested in mental knowledge, the modern Renaissance man should incorporate physical development as something to improve upon.
There is real danger to our physical development as technology continually improves. As we perform less physical tasks, our hand-eye coordination weakens. Being active, not just with sports, but physical activity ensures that we don't lose this precious part of our abilities.
Studies show that regular exercise helps our bodies and our brains, improving memory and thinking skills. Resistance training improves memory, and increasing strength has a strong correlation to overall global cognition(source).
Oh, and you'll look good nekkid too.
If you're not ready to start pumping iron, just using your hands for manual labor or even simple tasks like going for walks or gardening can help greatly to keep that all-important hand-eye coordination intact.
Learn to tolerate discomfort
Humans are genetically predisposed to avoid discomfort. This helped us stay alive as we became more aware of of our surroundings. ("Touch fire... BAD.")
Yet as our society becomes more and more reliant on technology, there's something to be said for adding a little discomfort into our lives.
Take chopping firewood, for example. One could easily buy a pre-chopped cord of wood and have it delivered to your house, next to the fireplace.
Or, you could chop your own.
The temporary discomfort of muscle aches, sweat and exertion is quickly replaced with the endorphins released with exercise, the strength built doing physical labor, and the satisfaction of being self-reliant with one more aspect of your life.
One costs more money, the other allows you to grow your character.
Studies show that those who practice temporary discomfort are more likely to complete goals. As we push ourselves to our limits we learn more about our capacity, and we grow.
Becoming a polymath is a conscious choice. It's merely a matter of making learning a priority. Making a conscious effort to be curious is the first step.
There are endless skills and areas of expertise to become more knowledgeable about. Physical development, culture, languages, science... the world is your oyster.
Getting started won't be the hard part. The hard part is the daily habit of continually learning a little bit more, becoming a tiny bit stronger, bit by bit. But the good news is that habits are easier to keep the longer you keep them.
You'll notice changes slowly, but those small changes will snowball into bigger changes. Before long your mastery will grow and expand, and the rate that you learn will expand as well.
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