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May 14, 2011

Be a Renaissance (Wo)Man!

by alive

I recently had the great pleasure of speaking to a highly intelligent, 19-year old. Her English was impeccable, without any need for me to watch my words or restrict my vocabulary. As our conversation progressed, I found myself getting more and more impressed as the scope of her accomplishments and talents became clear. Here’s a partial list.

  • She speaks four languages: English, Mandarin, French and Japanese.
  • She scored 8As for her A level exams, and is awaiting the results of her application to med school. I have no doubt she’ll get in.
  • If she doesn’t get it, she’ll be trying a career in the diplomatic corps.
  • She plays both the piano and the violin, and is in the piano ensemble.
  • She fires the air rifle and is going into the air pistol.

At 19 she is more accomplished than many people twice her age. Imagine where she’d be in 5 years.

What is she?

A polymath.


The Renaissance (Wo)Man

What is a polymath? You may have heard it referred to as a “renaissance man”. Today we would have to include “renaissance woman” too.

This concept originated in Renaissance Italy, inspired by one of its prominent polymaths, Leon Battista Alberti, who said that  “a man can do all things if he will.” It gelded well with the ideals of Renaissance humanism, which held that humans had infinite potential, to learn and develop. One way this was manifested was by acquiring knowledge and achieving high accomplishment in different fields: mental, social, artistic, social, and physical.

The “different” fields part is important. Is someone who is a master user of Excel, Powerpoint, AND Word is a polymath? No. It’s still computer sciences. Is someone who scored As for his O levels in Biology, Physics and Chemistry a polymath? No, because at that level the depth of knowledge is so shallow many people could accomplish the same. But would you say that someone who was an accomplished scientist but also a notable theatre actor a polymath? Ah, a little closer.


I believe the fascination with the idea of the renaissance man comes from the fact that these days, we are all headed towards specialization. Centuries ago we had doctors. Then we had specialists like orthopaedic doctors. Nowadays we have professionals who specialize in just the foot, or the shoulder, or the knee.

Most of us are experts in our work. But frequently, we yearn to do something different. Doing something completely unrelated is but a dream for most, a hobby for a few luckier others. Ever noticed how our hobbies are often completely unrelated to our occupations?

So when we meet someone who excels not in just one, but several different fields, the respect, the admiration, and yes, perhaps the envy, goes up a few notches.


Think about CONTRASTS. The ancient Chinese used to admire a certain type of person with both physical and mental prowess. This is captured in the desirable label 文武雙全: Well-versed in both the cultural as well as the martial arts. The warrior-scholar.

A short list of polymaths should give you an idea of the concept in a flash.

Zhuge Liang (諸葛亮) : scholar, strategist, engineer, astrologer

Zhang Heng (張衡)     : historian, philosopher, mathematician, painter, sculptor, invented first seismometer

Aristotle                      : philosopher, poet, musician, politician, logician, physicist, biologist, teacher of
                                     Alexander the Great

Pythagoras                  : philosopher and mathematician

Frederick II                  : polyglot (nine languages), warrior, judge and lawyer, expert falconer

Desmond Morris         : zoologist, anthropologist, surrealist painter, author (best known for The Naked Ape)

Leonardo da Vinci       : The Renaissance man himself. The archetypal and most famous polymath of them
                                      all. Painter, sculptor, engineer, architect, anatomist, philosopher


Could We? After 35?

Is it possible to be a polymath today?

Some people say it was easier centuries ago because there was simply less total knowledge in the world. So da Vinci and Alberti had less to learn, more to discover, and could therefore accomplish great things in different fields.

More relevantly: is it possible to be one after 35? Consider this:

At age 35, many of us are at the peak of our careers. We sure didn’t get here by twiddling our thumbs, but at the same time we didn’t achieve what we have without making sacrifices. Some of us have families. Others are coping with the breakup of families. It sure doesn’t seem possible with so many commitments, does it? Perhaps the best time to try to be a polymath is when you’re schooling.

However, I prefer to ask these questions:

  1. Does even the IDEA of being a polymath inspire you, excite you?
  2. Is it possible for you to be a well-balanced, multi-talented person?
  3. Can you be, simply speaking, a MORE INTERESTING person?

I think the answer is a resounding YES for ANYBODY!


What Can We Do?

Here are some steps for you to take on your polymathic journey.


1. Ask: What Makes a Person Interesting?

More specifically, what makes a person interesting to YOU? Think back to a time when you met someone who really impressed you.

Interesting person

Are you interesting?

Ask: “WHY?” What made them interesting or fascinating? Chances are they had knowledge, accomplishments and experience in areas you wished you did too.

A list might be look like this:

  • Good current affairs knowledge
  • Accomplished athlete
  • Well-versed in arts and culture
  • Esoteric knowledge/ skill e.g. pottery, Roman history
  • Technical accomplishment or ability
  • Plays musical instrument



A polymath has a definition, but within that definition you have the freedom of choice. You can only do it if it appeals and excites you. For example, it does no good to decide to be a great philosopher simply because someone else is. You must WANT it! Otherwise you can’t sustain the effort necessary to accomplish that goal. That’s why this question is so important.


2. Lists Your Interests/ Accomplishments – Decide What You Lack

Now that you have your list of what you admire and aspire to be/do/know, list your own current interests.

Compare the two lists. In which areas are you lacking? Write them down, and then prioritize.

Choose one or two only.

For example, let’s say after comparing the two lists, I identify my own lacks are:

1.      Lack of current affairs general knowledge

2.      Know nothing about classical music

3.      Knows nothing about politics

4.      Conversational ability

I may decide that educating myself about what’s going on right now will make me more ‘worldly’.

Certainly, it would encourage me to have an opinion about major issues such as the environment, the war on terror, the aftermath of the Singapore general elections. It would help me understand multiple perspectives on issues like the situation in the Middle East and the arguments for and against euthanasia.

This would give me more than the spoon-fed opinions gained through the media, help clarify my thoughts and values, take a moral stand if I want to, and better define me as a person. All these make me a more interesting and knowledgeable person. So I focus on current affairs first.



3. Set High Standards – Then Study

It’s been said that the answer to the question “What is an expert?” is “Anyone who knows more about this subject than you.” That’s a real cop out. Can I say someone’s an expert on computers just because he knows how to turn it on and I don’t? Of course not!

Today, the exponential growth of knowledge in the world means that for any subject, there’s a trade-off between depth and breadth of knowledge. To be a polymath we must choose depth of knowledge, not breadth. We are not going to be a Jack-of-all-trades but a master of none.

This means that we can focus only on a few, but those few can be as diverse as possible. This is especially important since you have limited time.  Choose carefully, and then make a concerted effort to really study your subject.

Your ultimate aim is to become someone who knows your subject very well, even compared to other experts. A polymath is not someone with good “textbook knowledge”, something that is increasingly uncool these days. It’s someone who has gotten his hands dirty.

Think about TAKING ACTION, be it a course, self study or finding a partner. Ask: “What specific action can I take that will give me not just theory but practice?” Then stick to it. If you can’t, then you probably don’t have enough passion for it, and you’re better off choosing another goal.

So choose wisely!



4. Time Management

One key skill underlies all this: TIME MANAGEMENT. If you want to learn new skills and get new knowledge, you must put a premium on your time. This is even more essential when you’re over 35 with family and work commitments.

First, eliminate wasted time. By this I mean all those ‘time bleeds’ spent snacking, reading useless material, consoling emotional vampires, and bumming around. Could you be more productive at work or are you doing other people’s work? Are you delegating enough? Are you following the 80/20 rule? Are you using the 7 Habits quadrants?

Second, examine your leisure activities. I don’t mean cut them out! The purpose of becoming a polymath is not to have no fun. It’s to make your fun activity more useful! There’s a difference between using leisure time for watching TV or going to a buffet, and reading, exercising, and developing new skills.

To determine the best use of your time, use my Power Question:

Is this (activity) taking me NEARER my goal of ….. or FURTHER AWAY from it?



He Who Has a Strong Enough Why…

… can bear almost any how. Nietzsche said this, and he was right. If your motivation to achieve your goal is strong enough, you will be able to do what it takes to get there.

You’ve heard it said “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.” Nowhere is this more important than on this quest, especially if you’re over 35. You need to stay focused and motivated, and if you don’t like the road you’re taking to become a polymath, you won’t get very far.

Now, take that one small step for yourself, a giant leap for Renaissance (wo)mankind!



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