How To Be A Renaissance Man

by A Manly Guest Contributor on May 27, 2008 · 40 comments

in A Man's Life, Personal Development

Every man should strive to reach his full potential. The competitive world in which we live stresses hyper-specialization as the way to get ahead. University graduate degrees narrow down a student’s area of expertise to enable them fill a specific niche. Young boys are encouraged to choose a single sporting event in which they excel if they are to have any hope for a collegiate or professional career down the road. Sadly, this trend is slowly eliminating the once-popular aspiration of becoming a well-rounded man.

A gentleman should have a firm handle on not just one or two, but every aspect of his humanity, working to strengthen himself in every way possible. If he is blessed with the gift of intelligence, his academic pursuits should not be chased to the expense of his physical health. Similarly, a creative personality should not lead a man to isolate himself and ignore the social aspect of his being. Excellence in one of these areas does not take attention away from the pursuit of the others but rather serves only to increase competence in complimentary areas, giving man a greater understanding of himself and the world around him.

The ideal of the Renaissance Man originated in Italy, and is based on the belief that a man’s capacity for personal development is without limits; competence in a broad range of abilities and areas of knowledge should be every man’s goal and is within every man’s grasp. What follows is a breakdown of the areas you need to master in order to become a true Renaissance Man.

Knowledge

The attainment of knowledge is central to a man’s development. A look at notable Renaissance Men throughout history makes it clear that this aspect is the most common and most extensive of all their aspirations. A man must have a diverse knowledge of all academic fields in order to assure his competence. The traditional Renaissance Man was seen to possess not only a general understanding of many topics, but rather a display of expertise in at least two or more of these areas. Science, literature, mathematics, grammar, cultural history and politics are a good place to start.

Subscribe to periodicals that will stretch your scope of knowledge rather than limit it. Do not only peruse blogs that confirm what you already believe. If you must watch television, view programs that will sharpen your intelligence and wit while increasing your awareness of historical events and the current political landscape. Purchase a map of the world or globe and study it. Most men would be embarrassed by what they don’t know when put to the test. Make a list of classic books, which you have not yet read, and schedule a time each day to start working your way down the list. Nothing exposes a man’s ignorance and lack of culture quicker than faulty geography or a lack of literary knowledge.

Subject yourself to material that is yet unknown to you, or opposes your current ideas. A lack of time is no excuse. Borrow from the library audiobooks on non-partisan politics, scientific developments, and religious practices of which you are somewhat or completely unaware and listen to them on your daily commute. Or tune into National Public Radio. This is essential to broadening your personal viewpoints, and will increase both your competence and confidence.

Physical Development

Not every man possesses superb athleticism, but that is hardly an excuse to neglect the maintenance of one’s physical self. Exercise of the body is every bit as important as that of the mind, and research shows that the two are actually quite complimentary. Leonardo da Vinci, whom many consider to be the ideal model of the Renaissance Man, was known to have been a brilliant scientist, inventor, painter, and musician. He was also said to have maintained an impeccable physique throughout his life.

Most men are not involved in physical activity as part of their livelihood, so it is an area that must be maintained by personal discipline. Develop a proper diet and moderate your intake of unhealthy food and drink. This is an essential part of every man’s health. You must set aside time every week for an exercise routine, be it running, cycling, or lifting weights. Find activities that you enjoy and that will not seem like drudgery.

Establish personal goals for distance or duration of your workout, and increase these goals as they are met. Work with others who have similar objectives and abilities to hold each other accountable for the routine. If you are not self-motivated at first, participate in community races or marathons in order to keep yourself responsible. The physical changes you will witness and the discipline you establish will surely have positive manifestations in all other areas of your life.

Social Accomplishments

A well-adjusted social life is perhaps the most important factor for a man to maintain his personal sanity and mental health. Not to mention the fact that strong interpersonal skills make a man an appealing candidate for both friendship and relationship. It is also a man’s responsibility as a citizen to make a significant contribution to his community throughout the course of his life, whether it be through time or money or both.

A man’s social life begins with his own personality, an area that demands a great deal of attention and introspection. You must recognize what you have to offer to others and constantly work to increase your contribution. Hone your listening skills, for everyone wants to be heard. Become a strong conversationalist. This is a combination of taking interest in the lives of others while bringing something of interest to the table yourself. The former consists only of the realization of the intrinsic value of others. The latter is dependent on your knowledge of social issues and influences, as well as your ability to convey them in an appropriate manner by reading others’ reactions. You will find that this personal development of charismatic demeanor may benefit you more than any other pursuit in your life.

Contribution to your community is also a vital part of maintaining a healthy social life. Whether this is involvement in local government, enrollment in the military, or investment of time in social work, it is a responsibility that every man should take seriously. Make sure you are aware of the happenings in society, both locally and nationally. Assess your personal strengths and find a way to use them to benefit the greater good. Coach a Little League baseball team, become a Scoutmaster, lend a hand at a homeless shelter, or organize a community event. This contribution and interaction as part of a group is a great way of developing yourself as a multi-faceted individual.

Arts

In our society, some view artistic pursuits as effeminate or limited to the elite class who possess the free time to engage in such frivolity (or alternatively, to those who have opted out of mainstream society and do not work). The Renaissance ideal is in sharp contrast to this mentality. Galileo painted and played the lute alongside his mastery of science and philosophy. Thomas Jefferson was an accomplished architect and designed innovative furniture and fixtures for his personal home throughout his illustrious political career.

A modern man must recognize his creative self as an integral part of the whole. Knowledge of the Arts, as well as personal exercise of his own form of expression prove important in personal development. Many men overlook their personal talents in this area because they are seen as less valuable or profitable than other strengths. Find an area of the arts that you enjoy and give it a go. Having trouble getting started? Many community colleges offer inexpensive art classes for beginners.

Many of history’s greatest minds wrote poetry to express their visions that could not be conveyed in scientific findings or political theory. Pick up a pen and put it to paper, you may be surprised with the result. If you take particular interest in music or painting, use this as your means of expression. It will expand your mind and teach you more about yourself. The exercise of your creative side will likely prove an inspiration not only to yourself, but to others as well.

Jack of All Trades, Master of None OR True Renaissance Man?

As a result of the proliferation of knowledge and the creation of new fields and many subcategories within existing fields, it is impossible to have expert-level knowledge in all fields. And some may argue that those aspiring to extensive knowledge in a variety of fields do not ever master a field, and that only a few distinguished individuals can truly be polymathic Renaissance men. In truth, you may master that which you are passionate about, and yet aspire for competence in many areas. The true benefit comes in making the attempt, not in achieving perfection. By simply aspiring and seeking knowledge and wisdom in fields that impact all of our lives, you will become a better man, and certainly have a shot at being an indisputable Renaissance man.

Written by Ross Crooks and Jason Lankow

{ 38 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Neil May 27, 2008 at 1:08 pm

Yay for being well-rounded!

2 Corey - Simple Marriage Project May 27, 2008 at 1:21 pm

“The true benefit comes in making the attempt, not in achieving perfection.” Well said. This principle applies to marriage as well. There is no perfect relationship. But the attempt is worth it.

3 Mark May 27, 2008 at 1:50 pm

Great post. Roundedness is crucial. That does not forbid one to be a master in one particular field that one chooses to be of prime focus. It merely involves using your free time to venture into other endeavors to achieve diversity. No one sticks to their primary field 100% of the time. When you take breaks, don’t waste the time, much like the virtue of not being idle says, but use that time and consciously fill in empty sides of yourself.

It’s worth mentioning in fact that it is often found that someone who takes a bit more free time and uses that time in other fields ends up doing better in their field of mastery as a result. Taking restful breaks away from your primary focus to round out yourself ends up making you more efficient and productive during the times you are contributing to your field of mastery.

Again, great post, I feel the motivation tingling and rising in my chest to try out some new stuff and expand myself.

4 DSu May 27, 2008 at 3:24 pm

I am a college freshman who is extremely well-rounded. However, I have found this to be quite a problem. Although I am decent at many things, I am not particularly good at any one thing. For example, I enjoy dance, drawing, singing, biking, gymnastics, and martial arts. I also study biology and engineering. Unfortunately, my grades tend to line up with the class median, even if I study my hardest. Additionally, because I spend my time doing lots of different things, rather than concentrating on one, I don’t look so hot on a resume. While I guess I am satisfied with my personal development, I am also concerned about the reality of the job market–why would someone want to hire a well-rounded person who can’t get anything done as well as various specializers?

I think the best ‘renaissance man’ is a man who can get one thing done very well, and has at least a little bit of interest in other things.

5 Richard May 27, 2008 at 3:30 pm

My college professors would encourage us to become “t-shaped individuals”.

What they meant was that we should have something that we learned very indepth, and that we should have broad experiences outside of that area.

I just graduated and have the ‘deep’ part down now, and am working on the broad experience part. My blog entry for tomorrow is about how I’m trying to raise my sons to be men of broad experiences by having classic books available in the home.

6 onetamad May 27, 2008 at 4:27 pm

Very well said. This blog has become essential daily reading for me. Thanks, guys. :)

7 Jonathan Thomas May 27, 2008 at 8:05 pm

Well said guys. I really wish intellectualism and respect for knowledge, the arts and such was respected more in our society. Society seeks to destroy men who want to learn and educate themselves because our ‘inclusive’ society seeks to make everyone the same so that no one can excel and be better than anyone else. I’m glad to see that I’m not alone in believing that the pursuit of knowledge for the sake of knowledge is not a bad thing (not that being alone in this endeavor would change my goal to ‘know stuff’).

8 Joe May 27, 2008 at 8:47 pm

I think of the shape more like if you glued a golf ball to a tee

The physical part was also so that you could partake in duels, so you weren’t just a shit-talker, I believe. It would be so cool if duels hadn’t died and become illegal.

9 Charles Lumia May 27, 2008 at 10:04 pm

Wonderful article. This is truly an inspiration to read.

When I was younger I was a lot like this, interested in so many things, and actually quite good (comparably) at some of them. I was artistic, fairly intelligent, played several sports and was quite athletic overall, as well as being very social.

But over the years much of that has noticeably slipped away, as sad as that is for me to say. I rarely participate in sports, the only artistic thing that I do is write stories, I’ve become less and less social; while I have become more intelligent for sure, I have also become more specialized than I ever was before.

It’s almost as if our society is forcing us to be specialized. Many things are expected to take so much concentration and effort, that it is almost frowned upon when we expand our horizons and get involved in other things.

10 Marcel May 27, 2008 at 11:21 pm

Great article: tiny suggestion: if you don’t want to go out and buy some maps (because I’ve learned a knowledge of basic geography impresses a lot of people; just knowing where people are from gives you a good first impression), just study Google Maps. It’s the perfect tool for studying the globe!

11 mojo May 28, 2008 at 4:25 am

DSu; dont worry – i did exactly the same thing during my first degree, i came out with barley a pass in molecular biology, whilst simultaniously lecturing to international audiences on the history of video art.

I subsequently have a masters degree in molecular biology, and a masters in egyptology, both whilst working full time in television broadcast management.

i think the key is is that there are two classes of degree that employers are interested in 1) a first – meaning you studied very hard and got the job done 2) a third/pass – you had something better to do rather your degree, and it dam well better show on your CV

12 Zen Dad May 28, 2008 at 5:43 am

I too say hooray for well-roundedness. I sometimes feel as if I am trying too many different things and not mastering any one thing.
http://www.zendad.net

13 Will May 28, 2008 at 7:46 am

I think the renaissance man can be defined as knowing something about everything but everything about something.

14 Ali May 28, 2008 at 9:11 am

@DSu

Your like my exact counterpart.
I’m also a freshman in biological engineering who has trouble rising above the average scores even though I study really hard, harder than most others. I also love playing my violin and playing several sports.

I think that what really matters is your job performance. I mean as long as you pass the curriculum. Maybe you might not get the job you want in the first place but theres the chance that you can work up to it.

I joined a robotics design team working under the mechanical engineering side. There are several people who are seniors in it and have done well through school but their performance of actually building components is average. The leader told me that my performance when it comes to building and designing parts was much better than the others even though I just started.

So what I am trying to say is that you might not do well in the curriculum but your job performance can be better than others who have done well in the curriculum.

15 Richard Williams May 28, 2008 at 10:08 am

As always, an excellent piece sir – BRAVO!!

16 Adrian May 28, 2008 at 7:52 pm

I was a focused individual. I wanted to fly. And I could. I was a talented aviator. But they wouldn’t let me fly. Fat people in suits that I’ve never met decided that I must be “well rounded” so I couldn’t fly and earn certificates and gain skills. Instead I had to sit through years of shit that I would never. ever. use. And I snapped. I can’t fly anymore. Even if they’d let me I wouldn’t trust my mental state to command an aircraft. The demand for “well roundedness” took everything from me.

17 Dave May 29, 2008 at 12:57 am

Thanks for the post! I would also add it might be very interesting and educative to spend a year or so working for a carpenter or mason.

18 Neil Simpson May 29, 2008 at 3:00 am

I think the key to being well rounded is to stay curious.

If you fail to stay curious, it is very easy to become crystallised and brittle.

Curiousity is sometimes overlooked (admitting you dont know something but are willing to find out is not often respected in our “expert” focussed society) and helps you stay flexible mentally, open minded and interesting to talk to.

Loving the blog, more power to your elbow :)

19 Brent P. Newhall May 29, 2008 at 9:36 am

Excellent, excellent post. This is what I strive for.

20 Adam May 29, 2008 at 10:04 am

Great article! I would love to read more like this.

I would add “learn a foreign language” to the knowledge section. Not only will it allow you to communicate with more people, but it opens up libraries of books, websites, music, and more. By learning a foreign language, you also learn about the culture of the people that speak it. Once you start learning one, it’s easier to learn more because you learn to detect patterns.

It’s just another way to make yourself a more well-rounded man.

21 Michael May 30, 2008 at 1:16 am

This is first-class advice. When in formal education you should concentrate on your particular areas of study but after concluding your formal education you should still continue to develop your facilities. In the past these men and women who constantly pushed themselves to achieve more have often been the leaders of the community. Benjamin Franklin is an obvious example.

22 Dmitri May 30, 2008 at 4:57 pm

Nice post, shared it with many. I really think this should be applied to the more elderly citizens of our world, as well as those people who have so called “settled” – parents especially. With age people become less mentally flexible, less curious, and often not as energetic. I think this maxim/axiom has to be brought to everyone’s attention and a new paradigm must go in it’s place. I ask all people to pass this on and encourage the drive for being well rounded.
Too much focus is on earning money, that is probably the biggest thing I dislike about people. Please open up and engage yourself in existential affairs.
I’m a freshman doing Biomedical Science, the hardest thing about becoming a doctor is preventing oneself from becoming overwhelmed by one’s own multi-faceted passions. It’s good to feel pulled apart in all directions, it’s good to be uncomortable and always learning/moving.

23 Tron June 1, 2008 at 3:34 am

Not sure if this was addressed but DsU
i’m a recent college grad (in one week i’ll have been employed at my post college job for exactly one year, so yea been outta school for a year now).
and don’t worry about your marks, If you’re passing your classes and happy with your marks then enjoy life.
NO ONE besides you (and possibly your family) will ever see or care about your marks. No potential employer will ever see your transcript, all they want to know and all they will see is ‘hey this guy has a diploma/degree in ‘area X’ and if it’s what they’re looking for your in.
that being said a professional looking resume is a huge asset.

24 William Shears June 2, 2008 at 7:38 pm

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

25 Evert de Ruiter June 3, 2008 at 12:12 pm

I don’t know how you guys do it, but every single time I read a post on this blog it brings me such joy and guidance. You give me great inspiration to do the things that are most important in my life. And you did it again with this post. I read a lot about the Renaissance period and especially Leonarda Da Vinci and I always loved the thought of being a ‘well rounded’ man like him, but I simply didn’t know how to put that to practise. With this post you give me a sort guidance to take a shot at it.

Excellent post.

26 Gene Turnbow August 20, 2008 at 11:45 am

Being a renaissance man has its drawbacks as well. Because our entire social and economic system is designed around the vast majority of us who are not polymaths, when someone comes along who can function as an expert in any or all of several fields of endeavor, that person is pidgeon-holed and most of his talents are simply wasted. This is a great personal tragedy, and the number of jobs out there that really challenge a true polymath is very small indeed.

I have a job that uses about 30% of my skill set. Most polymaths are not so lucky – and if I wanted to change jobs, my options with respect to fulfilling employ are very very slim.

27 Ian September 22, 2008 at 12:05 am

Great post, agree entirely.
I can add that you should study at university not just for a job, but for your life. Learn a little about the world you live in. You will also find that general knowledge helps you in your job and career.

Again, great post.

28 Islam Sharabash September 22, 2008 at 8:35 pm

I believe there are greater economic opportunities for the well rounded man, simply because the application of various backgrounds on a single product leads to innovation.
Your talents are never wasted unless you consciously or unconsciously choose to waste them, teaching your kids an art is as noble an endeavor as researching quantum mechanics…

Blah blah blah.

29 Timothy Clark December 9, 2008 at 11:51 am

I’m interested in becoming a renaissance man. you can check my site out here: http://www.timothy-clark.com

30 Justin Grandfield January 27, 2010 at 2:32 pm

While I am jumping in on this quite late, I agree that every man, woman, and child should desire to unlock their true potential. It is sad that almost all universities stress specialization, but it can be said that many majors in college are just that: majors, a major area of specialization. However, beyond this, we can continue our education beyond what we realize. We can take classes just for fun (I have several times).

I also believe that a man must make the most out of his major. For example, I believe the study of political science is a very Renaissance Man-esque major. It encompasses politics, geography, mathematics, law, criminal justice, cultural anthropology, psychology, sociology, economics, history, philosophy, business, and public relations. I intend to glean as much as I can from my major, and I encourage all other college guys to do the same.

31 The Philosopher of the Future March 30, 2010 at 1:06 am

great blog. i consider myself without shame to be a renaissance man as well. check my site out; I’d like to exchange links with you. comment on one of my posts if you are interested. peace out.

THE PHILOSOPHER OF THE FUTURE

32 Jeff July 17, 2010 at 7:26 pm

Excellent article. The Renaissance Man is a model we should all strive to become. My only quibble with this piece is that in the same breath as advocating an education in “non-partisan politics”, which is a valuable possession, readers were steered toward National Public Radio, which is unabashedly liberal in its outlook.

Keep up the good work. This site enhances my life.

33 Charlie August 14, 2010 at 5:45 pm

Amazing thread..great comments
@William Shears Comment
Fantastic quote ,variety is the spice of life.

34 bingo November 4, 2013 at 12:46 am

To be a polymath, you should stop reading blogs and start reading books. When you start reading books, you should read them well. Never hold on to books too much! Create things depending on your readings. Those two tasks should be done simultaneously. Take notes, always. Write down your ideas. Don’t bother to organize them too much. Your brain and your notes should map. They must share similar content in a similar manner — mixed up yet distinguishable, all connected yet different. This is the way of the polymath.

35 Treathyl Fox January 20, 2014 at 10:39 am

Found this site several years back and then forgot about it. Was researching today for information links because I had written and article about being a Renaissance man and I found this site again. It’s still a great website!

36 loup March 9, 2014 at 8:07 pm

For good knowledge, thegreatcourses.com has many interesting subjects to study at home.

I swear I’m not a shill for them! (^_^)

37 Blaz March 17, 2014 at 4:47 pm

Thank you for another great article. I cannot overstate how much I love this webpage.

A great website offering free courses in very various fields from some of the best universities in the world I would highly recommend is http://www.coursera.org . Have a look. I am very satisfied with the courses I took so far and believe it is a great place to start learning about a new area.

Stay manly!

38 Austin April 16, 2014 at 2:37 am

The goal is NOT to be well rounded. That is too shallow of a goal. It is to be a master of many subjects, and to bring ourselves to our mental and physical maximum potential. A true renaissance man looks to become one out desire, not out of duty.

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