Embracing a Renaissance Lifestyle, Part 1

Renaissance-man“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” ~Mark Twain

The aftermath of Hurricane Sandy has been truly eye-opening to me and my family. Our community has been without power for one week, and gas is truly at a premium; there is not a station around with electricity to run their pumps. In comparison to friends of mine in NYC and Southern NJ, this is nothing. Plenty of areas have been devastated beyond belief, so I consider ourselves very lucky. More than that, I think that this has been a wake up call for a ton of reasons and, again, the timing of my blog and the themes that go with it has been interesting!

My neighbors (and some friends) have been thrown into a tizzy now that they have either

  1. Lost electricity (thus the ability to have wifi and TV) or
  2. Been limited as to how far they can drive (thus having to walk or even bike 1 mile to our village to buy groceries).

Now, I pride myself on having some perspective. Folks near us have lost floors of their homes, a car (tree falling on it), or even (God forbid) a loved one. Who the hell am I to complain that I can’t grind coffee beans because electric is out?

These are first world problems for sure, and this natural disaster has me thinking more about how we got to this point where we lose lights and feel like we are about to die. The idea of a “Renaissance Lifestyle” is something that I aspire to; I don’t pretend to have it figured out. However, by keeping the learning curve alive I am in a way better place than I was a year ago. If we all think about ways to incorporate this idea into our own lives, we will all surely be better for it.

While applying for one of my current jobs, my (then future) boss told me that she was intrigued that one of my references referred to me as a “Renaissance man”. I was very flattered, but also embarrassed that I was not quite sure what that meant! As I normally do, I got on Wikipedia to check it out.

I found that a Renaissance person excels in a wide range of subjects. While this title can mean a “jack of all trades”, this derisive term in our modern world implies a master of none; the traditional Renaissance person mastered one and often more subjects while being competent in many others.

Some people now will argue that hundreds of years ago, when the term first came about, the amount of human knowledge was rather small and thus a person could master many fields of knowledge. I believe a modern Renaissance person doesn’t necessarily need to “master” all subjects, but in our age of “specialization” (more on that later), we can strive to be very competent in a range of important subjects.

Don’t you sometimes feel that many of us know something about a very limited number of things in our culture, such as our job training (remember accidentally joining a bunch of computer programmers talking at a party? Awkward!) . The only thing we seem to share in common are our opinions about TV shows, local restaurants, and the weather.

Which skills should we focus on in life? I learned that Renaissance men in the 17th century strove to do a few things:

-defend themselves with a variety of weapons
-immerse themselves in the arts (instruments and painting)
-debate politics and philosophy
-advance knowledge and the sciences
-practice as an author and poet

21st Century Goals for our Renaissance person lifestyle should be:

  • Never Stop Learning.  Every day is an opportunity to learn something new or hone an existing skill set.  Don’t let a day pass without learning something new.
  • Learn An Art.  Art comes in many forms; Music, painting, writing, poetry.  Learn to express yourself through an artistic medium somehow.
  • Learn To Build Things.   Learn how things are constructed and how things work mechanically.  If something breaks, try to fix it yourself.  Learn how to use a hammer, drill, and screwdriver.  Build your own bench..start there.
  • Reach High Levels of Physical Ability.  Renaissance men of old were not only great minds, but great bodies as well.  You can simply get out and keep your body in relatively good shape.  How you do that is completely up to you.  Hit the gym on a somewhat regular basis.  Take up hiking or climbing.  s someone who has not taken care of my body appropriately (especially since college!), this one has hit home with me. Upon looking around I notice that people, as they get older, are simply out of shape (I was one of those). While children have to constantly be on the move (I have 2 of them), adults want to become more sedentary. I have learned, though, that it is possible to never be out of breath walking up stairs, cycling 10 miles, or carrying a large package. It’s possible to never be sore after an activity. It is possible for 60 and 70 year olds to have fun engaging in strenuous physical activity. I want to be one of those! The reason people get weak is not age; it is a history of disuse; a process many of us start right out of college.  For some reason, I gave up entirely on physical activity 15 years ago (golf doesn’t count) and began my slow physical decline. Over the past 2 months I have slowly reversed that process.
  • Learn To Speak Really Well.  While you are at it, learn to speak another language, too.  Learn to be a great communicator and orator.  This is a skill that is quickly becoming extinct.  Learn how to be persuasive and humorous with language.  Learn to write in complete, grammatically correct sentences.  Also, learn to spell, or at least become proficient with the spell-check.  You might have the most interesting and profound things to say, but if they are misspelled or written like a grade-schooler, you will not be taken seriously (I am always trying to keep up with this; every post of mine ends up having a problem here and there!).
  • Read.  Just read.  Read everything.  Keep reading.  Feed your mind.
  • Learn About The World.  Not just geography.  Learn about the rest of the people in the world.  Learn about the religions and cultural practices in countries other than your own.  While you’re at it, learn about your own country and the religions and cultural practices in it.  Learn to be respectful of and even admire the differences between yourself and the rest of the world.
  • Learn History.   Learn it in a different way than you were taught in school.  Try Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.  One of the more important books ever written.
  • Learn About Politics.  Learn about the different political systems. Read some information written by the founders of other systems as well as your own.  If you think you live within the greatest political system ever created, and that there will never be a better one, you are very likely not thinking broadly enough.
  • Learn To Appreciate Fine Things.   Fine art, fine food, great literature, superb athleticism, a brilliant equation are all examples toward which the renaissance man endeavors.  How will you know how to be great without knowing and appreciating what greatness is?  Learn and appreciate all things excellent, and strive to achieve excellence yourself.

So, when a natural disaster hits, a 2 mile walk or bike to get groceries should be no big deal for the Renaissance person. Carrying heavy sticks and branches from outside to their fireplace should not tire them out. Having to read books as opposed to logging into Facebook should be a happy reprieve, ESPECIALLY for young kids, not a stressor.

What would you add to the above? What are thoughts on how most members of our society are now “specialists”?  Is being a “generalist” a bad thing?


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