Why You Should Strive to Be a Modern-Day Renaissance Man

First, let’s discuss what a Renaissance man is not. He is not a jack of all trades who seems able to tackle any task, from grilling a perfect steak to swapping out a light fixture to changing the oil to building a piece of furniture. In fact, the actual phrase is “jack of all trades, master of none.” Hardly aspirational.

Neither is a Renaissance man one who seems to have an encyclopedic knowledge of all subjects. That we can term a polymath or, in the pejorative, a know-it-all. (Of course, know-it-alls tend to actually know very little, as they’re too busy talking to do any meaningful listening.)

renaissance man computer
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In the simplest terms, a Renaissance man is a person with genuine competence in and understanding of multiple different fields, all of which complement one another to make him a more talented and productive person.

A true Renaissance man will never claim he can accomplish everything, but he will accomplish anything to which he commits his time and energy.

What Is a Renaissance Man?

As you probably figured out, the term Renaissance man was coined in reference to some of the most talented artists, inventors, scientists, and thinkers who lived during (and were the drivers of) the Renaissance, a period of flourishing progress in the arts, sciences, learning, and philosophy generally accepted to have begun in the 14th century and lasting through the 16th. The first works accepted to be of the Renaissance era include the writings of Dante Alighieri and the paintings of Giotto di Bondone; by the end of the era, the world had the paintings of Caravaggio and the plays of William Shakespeare.

presumed Self-portrait
Presumed self-portrait of Leonardo da Vinci, located in the Royal Library of Turin.

Most emblematic of the Renaissance era, though, was Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci, a man who excelled in multiple fields. Born in 1452 (and alive until 1519), he was a painter, sculptor, botanist, mathematician, and so much more. He invented prototypes of flying machines, he studied human anatomy, and he achieved great (and clearly lasting) fame during his own lifetime.

What set da Vinci apart from the other men? One piece of the puzzle is that he was an absolute genius. But the fact that he tirelessly pursued his interests is what led to his many accomplishments in life and his legacy as a Renaissance man.

A true Renaissance man will never claim he can accomplish everything, but he will accomplish anything to which he commits his time and energy.

Who, for reference, might we call a modern-day Renaissance man? Elon Musk would be one perfect example. He has devoted years of his life to a handful of revolutionary projects, including the production of some of the world’s finest electric cars and a space-faring company, that make perfect use of the technologies of our time. He doesn’t try to do it all; he succeeds at his pursuits because he pursues them doggedly. Also, he’s really smart and stuff.

You don’t have to be as brilliant as da Vinci or Musk to be a Renaissance man, though; you just have to be ready to give your best effort to a range of undertakings that will add to your base of knowledge, give you skills you can use to better your life and the lives of others, and that will, as a natural byproduct, make you a more interesting man.

How to Become a Modern-Day Renaissance Man

You can’t hop into a time machine, zip back to 15th-century Florence, and gain mastery of fresco painting, ancient Greek philosophy, and civic scale architecture, can you? No.

But you know what you can do? Take a course on Renaissance artwork. Or take a class on biology. Or the history of China.

A Renaissance Man Never Stops Learning

Whether you go back to school full-time, enroll in a night school class, or take an online or audio course, learning is a critical aspect of building toward the ideal of the Renaissance man. Mere dabbling with a subject by reading an article or even reading a book won’t do — you need to study deeply enough to fully grasp the concepts within and the knowledge of the subject and be able to properly teach another its basics before you succeed here.

renaissance man reading book
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Once you have become learned in Renaissance art, biology, and/or Chinese history, learn some more. Maybe brush up on your physics? Or metaphysics? Or 19th-century American literature?

In short, a Renaissance man is interested in everything and never stops learning.

A Renaissance Man Acquires Practical Skills

You don’t have to be able to rebuild an engine or tie a perfect fly fishing knot to be a Renaissance man, but you should master the practical skills that are needed in daily life. These include handling basic household issues like minor plumbing repairs, the ability to cook a number of foods, and competence with the management of your budget, schedule, and so forth.

Beyond the basics of adulthood, you should practice the art of conversation. You should know the rules to games like chess and poker and understand the fundamentals of the major sports. And you should be competent with all common forms of technology, from mobile devices to phones to cameras.

A Renaissance Man Travels

You can’t gain a true appreciation of the richness and diversity of this planet we have here unless you put yourself on various parts of the planet outside of your usual haunts. You don’t need to jet off to Africa, Asia, and other continents that start with the letter “A,” nor do you have to embark on a Victorian-style grand tour of Europe to achieve Renaissance man-level travel, but you do need to get out of your comfort zone and meet new people and see new places.

road trip off road
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America is more than vast and varied enough for you to do this by car alone, though if it’s in your budget, you should really go overseas — and do it as often as possible.

A Renaissance Man Stays Informed

To be a Renaissance man, you must be a man of your times. That requires staying abreast of events, trends in the arts and culture, and knowing a bit about the latest in the sciences, too. What with all your travel, your study of Medieval literature and botany, and your time spent practicing chess and cribbage, you can’t be expected to read the The Washington Post every morning and listen to both hours of All Things Considered every afternoon, but you can always find ways to fit reliable news media into your day. Stream a podcast while you drive or work out, check the headlines during the day and read into any stories of clear import, and dive in more deeply on a few critical issues of the day at night.

As for culture and the arts, knowing what movies are coming out this weekend or who won what Oscar last year isn’t all that important. Knowing what directors are creating consistently important films is. And skip following which songs are in the top 40; instead, check the New York Times bestseller list.


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