From Dilettante to… Renaissance Soul!

Twenty-five years ago, I was a bright kid just finishing high school. My teachers were full of recommendations about what I should study in university. I should go into computers. I should study English. I should get a degree in physics.

I was interested in all those things but nothing really grabbed me. So they asked me “What do you want to be?” I didn’t know.

I started off in biology (???) but quickly grew bored… although superheating glass beakers with a Bunsen burner and then pouring cold water in them was kind of fun. I eventually gravitated to an interdisciplinary program where I could more or less make up my own course of study, a combination of psychology, philosophy, and art history.

As for choosing a career, I was Moses wandering in the desert searching for the promised land.

Apparently I wasn’t the only one, according to Margaret Lobenstine, author of the upcoming book Secrets of the Renaissance Soul: How to Make “Too Many Interests” Work For You.

Lobenstine talks about two very different personality types.

On one hand are those who nurture a single abiding passion or talent for their whole lives. Mozart was consumed by music almost from birth. Bill Clinton knew he wanted to be president when he was eight years old. Earl Nightingale called these individuals “river people” because they spend their lives being swept along in a rich river of interest.

On the other hand are individuals like Ben Franklin or Leonardo da Vinci, those infinitely curious people whose interests are constantly changing, and whose achievements span multiple fields of endeavor. Lobenstine calls these people renaissance souls!

During the renaissance, having a wide range of skills and interests was highly honored. Now, however, the specialist rules. Find you niche and stick to it.

Those with wide-ranging interests are considered dilettantes and face some common problems as they go through life:

  • They pursue a career and become successful but find themselves feeling trapped by their own success.
  • They bounce around, working in low-paying jobs while avoiding making a commitment to a particular career.
  • They pursue a variety of jobs, but eventually run into employers who hold their broad range of skills against them.

Are you a renaissance soul?

  • Do you prefer variety to concentrating on just one thing?
  • Do you prefer widening your options rather than narrowing your choices?
  • Do you go more by what your energy feels like than by what your schedule says you should be doing?
  • After you succeed at something, do you prefer to move on to something new rather than expanding on your success?

Career coach Barbara Sher in her book Wishcraft talks about how to manage multiple interests and dreams. Some of her approaches include:

  • Sequential careers.
  • Moonlighting. Pursuing two very different careers at the same time. For example, an accountant who trains horses on the weekend.
  • The patchwork quilt. Alternating your time between different careers. For example, a teacher who spends her summers on archaeological digs.

If you want to explore this more, Margaret has a quiz to help you determine if this is a choice that’s right for you.

Margaret Lobenstine’s Renaissance Soul quiz

I’d offer one more option. Let’s call it the Quest approach. This is where everything you do, while often seemingly unconnected, ultimately leads you to a place where you can use all the abilities you’ve picked up along the way. Call it life as a scavenger hunt. You embark upon an adventure and pick up tools and clues along the way that hint at your final destination.

In some way, everything I’ve done and studied has prepared me for what I’m doing now, running the magazine. When I look back on notes I wrote more than 20 years ago, I see the clues. There is a remarkable consistency that wasn’t apparent back then.