Lessons From The Renaissance Men: How To Become A Jack Of All Trades

In recent years, our society has shifted away from promoting generalized knowledge and has increasingly pushed people to specialize in a single area. It’s said that specialization will help more in the long run, because a jack of all trades is a master of none. In order to pursue mastery and the supposed greatness that accompanies it, more and more people are outsourcing tasks that used to be common household chores. Society believes these tasks are outsourced due to time constraints. In reality, it’s the result of a widespread lack of general knowledge.

Compare Leonardo da Vinci with the majority modern men. Da Vinci was a polymath, excelling in art, science, music, mathematics, literature, astronomy, history, and cartography. He pushed the limits of several fields at the same time, not unlike Aristotle or Benjamin Franklin. These men mastered several crafts, invented more and then mastered them as well. They proved that mastering several fields is possible.

Now take a look at Imaginary Dave, the modern man and career accountant. Dave does his own taxes and the taxes of the masses. He buys lunch at the cafeteria every day, because he doesn’t know how to cook. He goes to Valvoline for oil changes, because he doesn’t know how to change his own oil. He takes the elevator to the 8th floor, because he spends so much time working at his desk and never goes to the gym. Don’t worry though, he pays for a gym membership even if he doesn’t use it. Unfortunately, Dave can really only do one thing. He overpays for everything else, because he has no idea how much time or skill is required to complete a task. Dave is a master of one and jack of none.

How is it possible that one man can push society forwards hundreds of years with his works in engineering, art, philosophy, and science, while another man is helpless, unable to make his own food and change his own tire? Men and women born at the start of the 20th century would laugh at the idea of a man unable to change a tire, yet that is the result of hiring servicemen to do our work for us and paying for technology to take all the skill out of completing a task.

The inherent problem growing in such a society is the lack of connections developed between similar topics. As a result, the people have more difficulty learning new skills. The world of sports provides a good example. If an athlete plays tennis, they’ll be able to use similar footwork in basketball, baseball, and soccer. Furthermore, if the same athlete plays basketball, they can take their court awareness and easily transition it to soccer. Subsequently, someone that regularly plays tennis and basketball will likely have an easier time learning to play soccer than someone who only plays tennis. This is because skills developed in different areas provide overlap even if it’s not visible at first.

Additionally, the chances to discover new things via serendipity also increase when one is versed in a variety of fields. In this instance, renaissance men are likely to connect two or more seemingly unconnected fields that further a third unrelated field. Such a discovery is unlikely when one is only participating in a single subject area.

To be fair, there is value in specialization. Vast amounts of money can be made by specialists if they are at the top of their fields. However, just because one specializes in a subject doesn’t mean that they can’t learn general knowledge about others. Specialization in a professional setting can be good. It allows companies to acquire the most accomplished engineers, accountants, and managers. However, generalization and the ability to tackle a variety of problems is part of humanity and it needs to be utilized outside of the office because it is better for the individual overall.

That prompts a question. How does one become a polymath when teachers, parents, and corporations are pushing for specialization? To older generations, the answer will seem laughably simple. For the younger generations suffering from learned helplessness, finding the answer is much more difficult.

To find the answer look to the men of the renaissance period. They practiced self-defense, played a variety of instruments, created various forms of art (paintings and sculptures), participated in politics, studied the sciences (biology, chemistry, physics, etc), and wrote both prose and poetry. While all of these play an important role in society, not all of them are integral to the modern renaissance man.

In today’s world, a truly balanced man should build his life around the 5 pillars: health, intelligence, finance, emotional, and technical.

The first, and arguably most important, pillar is health. People live in their body and they have no where to go should it break down. Subsequently, functional fitness seems to be the best solution, because it focuses on functionality. Big muscles are great, but they are less important that the ability to complete a job. Functional fitness helps someone complete tasks, which is the point behind fitness. It helps prepare someone to carry a grown man out of a burning building, lift a piece of debris of a trapped child, or outrun an angry dog. Since form follows function, participating in functional fitness will typically result in a lean,muscular posterior, which is an added bonus. Unfortunately, most gyms that support functional fitness (a.k.a. CrossFit) are extremely expensive. Different people place different levels on importance on fitness. The community provides accountability and encouragement, making a good place for learning and growing in your health, nutrition (this is as important as exercising), and fitness. These gyms can be intimidating for those that are not in great shape, but they also provide the most holistic view of fitness (in my opinion).

The second category is intelligence. Intelligence should be looked at as a skill instead of a talent. Intelligent people practice prioritizing information, enabling them to remember important facts and discard irrelevant extras. They generalize information, build mental models, and apply the models to multiple situations. They also compare models and combine them to create newer, more versatile models. In this instance, intelligence in not defined by the knowledge one has but by the way they retain new information and use the information they already posses.

The intellectual category applies to most of the remaining categories in some form. The next category, finances, is directly affected by ones ability to synthesize information and make models that help them reach their goals. Effectively processing information will help one understand the difference between price and value. It will make it possible to consider long term consequences for present decisions. To be balanced financially, one should gain a general understanding for multiple forms of investing in both practice and theory. Finally, financially balanced individuals will be able to make their own budget, do their own taxes, and balance their own checkbook. It is expected that some people will not enjoy doing these tasks, in which case they can be outsourced. Nonetheless, one should understand how to do these tasks in order to understand what they are paying someone to do.

It is impossible to exist in the world without others. For that reason, social and emotional intelligence also makes the list. First and foremost, one needs integrity. Doing the right thing regardless of the circumstance will build social capital faster than anything else. One should show kindness and compassion through empathy. Life presents many complexities that are unique to an individual. No one can place themselves into someone else’s shoes with 100% accuracy. It is important to understand this when interacting with others. Finally, someone with emotional balance is open to the idea of negotiation and compromise. It’s okay to move a bit towards the middle if it means reaching an effective solution rather than facing gridlock.

The final category is one of the most neglected. Technical skills are extremely undervalued in today’s society. One should know how to change their own oil, replace their own tires, fix a leaky faucet, and take care of other household maintenance. This knowledge can be applied across several categories as well. These skills will gradually expand, allowing one to take on larger tasks. In some cases, maintenance costs on a primary residence can be nearly eliminated, should one choose to do most of the work by themselves. These activities, like taxes, may not be enjoyable for some people, in which case they can be outsourced. However, it is important to know how to do these tasks, in order to complete an appropriate price to value comparison. One may often find a task they thought took several hours and hundreds of dollars actually takes 15 minutes and 75 cents. This will become more true as one improves their DIY and technical skills. In the beginning, it will take longer to identify a problem and fixing it will be a trial and error process.

The process of developing one’s self in all of these areas will not happen over night. Gradually skills build upon one another and things that were once challenging will be quite easy.

As mentioned before, grandparents will likely laugh at this list. They walked a couple miles to and from school. They cooked all their meals at home. They fixed any problems around the house and managed their own finances. They worked with their neighbors to borrow tools they didn’t have instead of buying a new one that they will only use once. They did their own taxes, managed their own investments, and did their own taxes.

To be fair, its unlikely that any of our grandparents were perfect at all 5 categories, but they were likely better off than most of us. Typically, success breeds success. Thus, the goal should be to achieve and maintain a high level in all five categories. Excellence in all things. That is the mark of the renaissance man.

This is much easier said than done and I, myself, have yet to achieve this goal. However, it is possible and those that strive for it will find themselves living a rewarding lifestyle. The biggest obstacles today are video games and Netflix. When one considers that the average adult watches 6 hours of video per day, it’s no wonder why people feel like they don’t have time to learn new things, take on new challenges, or hit the gym. Reducing these tasks will result in an abundance of time for building new skills in several fields.

The real challenge is making the choice to be unconventional.

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