Why It’s Impossible to be a Renaissance Person, and Why That’s Okay
Galileo Galilei: astronomer, physicist, engineer, philosopher, and mathematician

Why It’s Impossible to be a Renaissance Person, and Why That’s Okay

Written by Neil Hughes

Topics: The Basics

Sometimes multipotentialites refer to themselves by other names: scanners, hummingbirds, generalists and even sometimes a “renaissance person.”

I like some of these names more than others. Which I use depends on who I’m talking to and how much effort I’m willing to put in explaining myself.

If I need to make myself easily understood and avoid too much baggage, I’ll say generalist.

If I want no baggage at all – and don’t mind explaining myself – I’ll use multipotentialite.

But two names I generally stay clear of are polymath and renaissance person. Here’s why.

Multipotentialites Have Existed Throughout History

In the multipotentialite community, a discussion arises from time to time about which historical figures might qualify as multipotentialites. Leonardo da Vinci is an obvious first candidate. Perhaps people will mention Galileo, or Thomas Young, or any of many, many others.

While I find these conversations interesting, I worry that we’re accidentally creating a problem for ourselves. These people are great, inspiring figures. Each of them revolutionized art, science, literature, or all of the above. But you don’t have to do that to be a multipotentialite!

For obvious reasons, the historical multipotentialites we hear about are usually the world-changing colossi like Galileo and Leonardo da Vinci

(It’s also worth mentioning that the historical figures which jump to mind tend to be disproportionately similar: usually white, male and European… which might give the mistaken impression that these attributes are – or worse, should be – requirements to join the Renaissance Person Club.)

Comparing ourselves to world-changers is always going to feel pressured. But it’s totally acceptable not to revolutionize anything at all. You don’t have to write a bestseller and a hit film, discover a new particle, or conduct a symphony orchestra with a baton you carved out of your own trophies. (Which you made yourself out of a new element you discovered.)

It’s cool to change the world if you want to, and if you can, but you don’t have to.

And—rightly or wrongly—the impression given by labels like polymath or renaissance person is that we consider ourselves to be in the company of a particular type of genius.

That’s a lot of pressure to put on ourselves.

The World Has Changed

It’s not just the pressure that’s a problem. The comparison between somebody born today and somebody making great achievements hundreds of years ago isn’t even fair.

Centuries ago, humanity passed the point where it was possible for one person to read every book in existence at the time. This excellent article by Edward Carr explains how the frontier of knowledge has expanded so much that even specializing in one very specific area is now the work of a lifetime. This makes it harder for a generalist to contribute at the leading edge of even one field, let alone many fields.

Generalists still have a huge role to play—often they excel at providing new perspective in a field that is perhaps growing stale—but the scale of what is required has grown dramatically since da Vinci’s day.

That’s not to diminish his achievements; he was undoubtedly a genius. But if he were born today could he have impacted the world at the same scale? Today he’d be competing against seven billion people, not the few hundred million that were around during the Renaissance…

Measure Input, Not Output

This might sound like I’m making pathetic excuses for why I’m not as good as Leonardo da Vinci. And, on one level, that’s exactly what I’m doing. But I also want to provide an alternative way of assessing ourselves.

When we think of great historical polymaths, we remember their great achievements, not their passions. Achievement is only one way to measure a life. And often, achievement is not within our control. We can work as hard as we like in a field we have talent in, but that doesn’t guarantee success. There are always factors beyond our control: external opposition, inherent difficulty, privilege or even simple luck.

I prefer to measure myself by how well I do at whatever is in my control. Instead of asking What am I achieving with my life? I prefer Am I following my passions?

Judging ourselves by our input (by something in our control) and not by output (which relies partly on external factors), gives us a truer picture of ourselves. It’s also useful for resisting the temptation to make unhelpful comparisons with historical figures who we could never ever live up to!

Ambition is still good

Naturally, we shouldn’t abandon our ambitions. It’s still mostly noble and good to aim to do everything, as best as we can. But we need to evaluate our success using different from when we set our goals.

Aim high, judge reasonably, to coin a phrase.

(You know who else coined a lot of phrases? Shakespeare. Just saying. Maybe the comparison isn’t entirely inaccurate…?)

So for now, I guess I’ll keep explaining what the word multipotentialite means. Perhaps next time I’ll try “like a Renaissance Person, but much more chilled.”

Your Turn.

Who’s your favorite historical multipod? Do you ever struggle with comparing yourself to great figures of the past? Share your thoughts in the comments!

neil_2017_2Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety. Along with writing more books, he puts his time into standup comedy, computer programming, public speaking and other things from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question “so, what do you do?” and is worried that the honest answer is probably “procrastinate.” He would like it if you found him at walkingoncustard.com and on Twitter as @enhughesiasm.

30 Comments

  1. Great article Neil. I guess if I told somebody I was a Renaissance Person like da Vinci or Michaelangelo, they might wonder if I have invented a human powered flying machine or painted the ceiling of a chapel. Who knows, I might well do one of those things, but I can certainly be a multipotentialite without it.

    One thing that gives great joy to my life is finding multipotentialites who have never heard the word, and watching their eyes light up as I explain. But if I use too many examples such as Shakespeare or Einstein, they could easily say, “Oh, I could never do that.” But we’re all changing the world in our own ways, whether we’re famous or not. Good job pointing that out to us.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Haha, that’s exactly right! It’s certainly easy to get demoralised if we’re constantly comparing ourselves to the likes of Einstein. Maybe we can start by painting a very small chapel and work our way up?! :D Or just explore our passions however we feel and not worry too much about it. Whatever works :)

  2. Cindy says:

    Great article and a joy to read. I am so glad I found puttylike.com as I can relate to so many of the things said here. I feel like there are actually other people out there like me and that is a great comfort and blessing to be able to view myself from a totally different perspective than I ever have. I’ve always felt like I hadn’t found my “passion” because I would be interested in a subject for awhile and then loose interest and want to do something else. But, that’s ok, because that’s just how I’m wired and there is a need for people like me in the world!

    • Neil Hughes says:

      You’re very welcome, Cindy! Glad you feel at home here, and thanks for sharing – you’re certainly not alone with all of that!

  3. Carol Christie says:

    Thank you SO much for this article. I struggle every day with the feeling that my output is not commensurate with my capability. Judgement is brutal. I’m working on it though and if it is an “excuse” to not be Leonardo da Vinci then rest assured I am happy to share the excuse with you. Perhaps if we let go of the need to achieve dramatic, life changing results, we will achieve life enhancing results for ourselves and others. You’re already on your way!

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Yeah, I often think there’s a paradoxical achievement that comes when we let go of the idea of achievement. Sometimes reducing the pressure helps us to live up to our capability a little more – though as you say, there’s no need for judgement: brutal or otherwise! Hope you enjoy today, whatever output comes – or doesn’t! :)

  4. Iraide says:

    I think you have hit a nail in this article, Neil.

    Neither are we obliged to excell at our interests, nor are we obliged to have an output, that is, to produce anything of value.

    For example, I think of the people who start learning a language but then turn their attention to another shiny one… That isn’t intrinsically bad! It’s their appreciation for what is new, the fact that they can be passionate about many things, that makes them like that! :) Of course, they can decide to delve into a specific language and stick to it, but that’s their decision!

    I like your idea of focusing on the “am I following my passions” question instead. That’s where we can derive lots of happiness from! :)

  5. Martin Hash says:

    Renaissance Myn (ambiguous spelling to remove gender) are alive today. I am a Renaissance Myn, and there are others. Whereas Multis are potential Renaissance Myn, few will achieve that designation because Renaissance Myn have proven their achievement, and deserve their due. For example, I am simultaneously a doctor, lawyer, professional engineer, CPA & U.S. Patent agent. I have written & produced 3 feature length movies, and written 10 books. I have been to 100+ countries & am involved in politics. Not to mention family, career, civic contributions, etc. Of course, I started out as a Multi decades ago with the desire, and can’t imagine why anyone would only want to do one thing forever? It’s refreshing & comforting to meet other people with the same outlook on life.

  6. Linet ANDREA says:

    Hi Neil

    Colette was an inspiring french multipotentialite. The only thing was, she looked back over her life and said ” what an amazing life I had….if only I could have enjoyed it at the time”. This to me is what I now strive not to do…that is to regret not living even somewhat banale moments to the full, persuing my loves (prefer them to passions).
    Not “out there” but “in there” as you so eloquently express in this article. Thanks for the reminder: achievement does not equal fulfillment. …

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Exactly! I love this attitude – enjoying our loves in the moment. Easy to say, difficult to do, but very worth it :) Thank you for sharing!

  7. Kevin says:

    My daily activities

    I’m a professional problem solver.

    I solve electrical, electronic, mechanical, software, firmware, communication issues with people and machines.

    I walk dogs and I teach spiritual insights to religiously ignorant people. I teach them how to transcend their ego driven mind.

    I’m a quantum farmer.
    I transform dead dirt into living soil.

    I see with the eyes of the blind.

    I am different than most people I meet, but I’m just a man, nothing more and nothing less.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Agreed, we’re all just people, regardless of what we do :) And it sounds like you’re doing some fascinating stuff!

  8. Vinay says:

    Very well said, Neil. I think we are surrounded by people who believe achievements measure our life, which you rightly stated, need not. I was a person believing in the same and lately started shaping my thoughts.

    This articles so resonates with the new thought process. :)

    • Neil Hughes says:

      So pleased to hear that, Vinay! Achievements are great, but there is far more to life :)

  9. Bart Lenselink says:

    Hi Neil,

    Thanks for your thoughts!

    If I use the term multipotentialite, I usually refer them to Emilie’s book telling them I’m one of the interviewees. As I show them the ebook version, most of the time the person interested in this subject takes a note or photograph to remind him/her of the title.

    Instead of using the term generalist, I prefer the Belgian term “creatieve generalist” (spoken with a Flemish accent).

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Fantastic, Bart! I’ll have to brush up on my Flemish accent and see how that works for me :D

  10. Ben Franklin is my inspirational multipotentialite mentor. I learned so much wisdom, humor and attitude from his life and writings.

    I just came across this quote: “The worst thing that one can do is not try, to be aware of what one wants and not give in to it, to spend years in silent hurt wondering if something could have materialized – and never knowing.” David Viscott

    My goal is to explore things I love and ignore my inner negative Nelly. I’ve improved at identifying things I love and don’t. That’s progress! Onward & Upward!

  11. Melissa B says:

    Hi Neil,

    I love the idea of thinking about what you “input” and not so much about what you “output”. People always comment on how much knowledge seems to float around inside my head on so many topics and that makes me feel good about myself. But like so many of my fellows getting things accomplished or becoming an expert in something always seems to escape me and I used to feel bad about myself because of it. It always seems it is those experts/specialists that get any attention or any accolades in this world today.

    I stance I have taken recently is instead of being an expert/specialist in something or producing a lot of some thing, I would rather know enough about many different things in order to guide others to the right path and to aid them in their own personal quests while following my own whims. Thanks again for another great article!

  12. Keri says:

    Thanks for this article. I agree that it is difficult to make an earth-sized impact when there are SO many people on earth now.

    But the thing I really wanted to share is this: a while back a friend of mine learned that I write books, make heirloom gifts, bake artisan bread, teach math, flip houses, and run a dog boarding business. She exclaimed, “That is so Jamaican! People do a little of everything down there!” Note: neither of us is Jamaican, and I later asked a Jamaican friend if this is true about Jamaicans in general, to which he smiled and shook his head no. But, it might be something to look into…

  13. Karen Joslin says:

    Hi, Neil. I understand what you’re saying, and I respect your opinion. For me, however, I much prefer the term Renaissance person or Renaissance soul. For one thing, it’s an easily understandable term to others. For another thing, while we certainly remember DaVinci and his other accomplished peers, they were not singular during their day in pursuing different interests. Pursuing different interests was the social norm, which makes plenty of sense given that people didn’t have the distractions of t.v., radio, video games, smart phones, etc. And let’s remember that the word “Renaissance” means “rebirth.” The spirit of the Renaissance was about exploration, curiosity, learning, and striving to improve oneself and the world. A person doesn’t need to make significant global achievements to embody those ideals.

    I don’t like the word “multipotentialite.” As both a writer and a former theater major, I find that it does not “fall trippingly off the tongue.” (Nod to Shakespeare.) Also, maybe this is a generational thing (I’m a GenX-er) or a (straight?) woman thing, but when I hear the word “potential,” it’s most often describing someone (usually a guy) with massive problems (like a heroin addiction) but who a friend wants to date anyway because s/he’s “got potential.” For instance, “Well, he’s living in an abandoned bus because his wife kicked him out even though she won’t sign the divorce papers, and he drinks a lot and has kind of a temper… but he’s got SO much potential!” Women use “potential” to pretend the person they know they should avoid is full of fabulousness only they can unleash, if they just try hard enough. But potential is not always fulfilled; sometimes it festers unused. So for me, all the negative baggage connected to the word “potential” carries over to “multipotentialite.” Because of this, when I hear “multipotentialite,” to me it implies a person who has lots of interests and maybe some talents, which maybe they’ll pursue – or maybe they won’t bother.

    And that’s why I prefer “Renaissance soul” – because it conveys not only the fact that I have many interests, but the ideology behind pursuing them.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      This is fascinating, Karen!

      I think the point-behind-the-point of the article is to use whatever term you’re most comfortable with, and to explore why one term might feel loaded to some. (As you say, Renaissance hints at a beautiful, exploratory spirit – but for some it also leads into a natural comparison trap.)

      It would never occur to me that “potential” could be so loaded via the dating scene (though your explanation of your experience of it makes a lot of sense!) – but if it does, I can see why you’d feel happier avoiding the word. Really interesting.

      Of course the main thing is to be happy pursuing your many interests and to be happy in however you describe that to other people :)

      Thanks so much for sharing, I really loved your insight!

  14. Felipe Cabral says:

    Great article Neil! I´ve found myself in this situation many times. And i realize the small changes are so important as the big ones, so, for me a multipotentialite rests in every action that show us that. So you can be, in a small scale, and not live as one.

  15. Sienna says:

    I can see both sides of this. On the one hand, you’re right in that using polymath or Renaissance person does invoke images of many of “the greats”, and that could be fuel for some pretty damaging comparison, as well as the obvious pressure to “live up”. But on the other hand, I find it inspiring to know that there IS a tie between me and those people – namely, our multipotentialism – and far from feeling like pressure, it feels like encouragement!

    Either way, I love the bit about measuring input VS output. I’ve had trouble with that for most of my life, and I’m really trying to get behind the idea of measuring success/proficiency based on my own personal measuring stick. Thanks for the reminder to keep on that!

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Absolutely! If it’s helpful, it’s helpful – I guess this post is intended as an antidote for anyone who finds comparing themselves to world-changers demotivating.

      Naturally, if it IS motivating then that’s awesome :) It’s only a problem if it’s a problem, and we’re all very different in what we find inspiring or demotivating.

      You’re right, though, the key is to measure yourself appropriately, whatever that means for you :)

  16. Teemu says:

    Hi Neil,

    and thanks for this great article! So nice insights. Your writings are always comforting to read. This was no exception.

    I tend to compare my achievements and skills almost all the time but these days those observations do not carry so much tension.

    Although I really liked your writing – there was one word that made me consciously grin a little (not much!). The word was “passion”. That single word, for some, is almost the Devil in disguise. I think it should be avoided at all costs. Almost passionately avoided. :)

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Thanks Teemu, I’m glad it was comforting for you. Interesting about the word “passion” – I wasn’t aware it had negative connotations for anybody! Can you explain why? I’m curious :)

  17. Wolf Halton says:

    I like the term multipotentialite, though it does not have a euphonious sound. It is directly descriptive of me and many of the rest of the people responding here. I have held 23 or 24 separate and distinct careers. Sometimes pursuing more than one simultaneously:
    1. I have done forensic osteology for an archaeology project in northern Illinois
    2. I have mapped federal properties for various federal and state entities
    3. I have run several different pet care services,
    4. I have been an executive of four corporations
    5. I have written or cowrote four titles about computer hacking
    6. I have learned how to play six or seven musical instruments adequately
    7. I played in a jazz band for 10 years
    8. I have designed medieval-style clothing
    9. I am creating and popularizing a new steam punk genre, or at least some clothes for it
    10. I have been a marketer for various verticals
    11. I have contributed strategy and code to several open source projects
    12. I taught college classes for seven years at various schools
    13. I co-pastored the church for nine years, have an honorary doctorate in the vanity, and cowrote a metaphysical book
    14. I have done leatherworking, jewelry-making, watchmaking, and locksmithing professionally
    15. I have degrees in anthropology with a focus on languages and philosophy of the continent of Africa, IT project management & leadership, and I’m currently working on a PhD dissertation for IT security business management
    There are a bunch of others. The point is I do what is of interest to me, while it is of interest. At the point where it is no longer of interest, I step off. I am currently developing a consulting package for business leaders who need an expert in their corner, so their networks are more secure, and their business processes are more streamlined. My intention is that my clients gain some peace of mind from understanding their own strategy for security, and that they gain profit margin because their business processes will be less wasteful. If you find this last bit resonating with you, click on my name to go to my website. Then you can make private comment to me and I will get back to you ASAP.

    I think people understand the terms Renaissance person, or polymath a slightly better and then they might understand multi-potentialite. Often I am paired with the epithet, “genius,” as I suspect many of the readers here are as well. In general, taking any such name to yourself may make the specialists of the world nervous. In most cases, I do not engage in this is descriptive categoriesation.

    I used to have fun with the categories of Hunter versus Farmer. The hunter personality having more of a project approach to the world, and a farmer personality having more of a process approach to the world. Hunters are more easily bored by routine, and farmers are terrified by novelty. Hunters develop theory and practice to make projects work quicker, cheaper, or more fun, and farmers develop theory and practice to smooth out the highs and lows in the processes they perform. I feel like most multipotentialites are more toward the hunter mindset, and are more interested in finding new and entertaining things or ideas to play with.

  18. Katy says:

    I think someone referred to me as a Polymath years ago and I felt very uncomfortable about it. Partially because I didn’t think I was ‘of that class of genius’ but also because it does add extra pressure (which I do enough as a reformed perfectionist, thanks).

    I am better than average at everything I do, but not over-the-moon brilliant (though my natural artistic skills are excellent). As a middle-aged woman, I have enough awareness and confidence to now say “I am good at everything” (mostly) when people ask “What are you good at?”, an answer that is often met with raised eyebrows and sometimes smirks at my apparent arrogance. Some just don’t believe me. That’s why I avoid terms like Polymath and Renaissance Person, because they just sound arrogant and too lofty to me, with the associated achievements, that I agree, in this day and age are not possible in the same way because of humanity’s now vast knowledge. The days of Rutherford, for example, with his privately funded lab and plenty of free time to experiment are gone now, as are the scientific achievements in such a small lab.