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Become a Renaissance Man or Woman - The Best Books

Updated on June 26, 2012
Vitruvian Man - a drawing by Leonardo da Vinci, the ultimate Renaissance Man.
Vitruvian Man - a drawing by Leonardo da Vinci, the ultimate Renaissance Man. | Source

If you've ever been admonished with "you'll never get anywhere unless you learn to stick with something" or "it's time to grow up and decide what you want to do with your life", you may be a Renaissance Person.

Unlike those lucky people who know exactly what they want to do with their lives, and are able to throw themselves into it, heart and soul, some people want to do so many things that choosing just one thing to "be" is impossible.

Unfortunately, modern society isn't geared for such thinking. Some will even see it as a character flaw, a sign of self-indulgence or immaturity. I disagree. I don't have a degree in Psychology, but I do know from first-hand experience that for some people, trying to fit into "the way things are" is a sure-fire path to unhappiness, clinical depression, or worse

"A man can do all things"

Renaissance architect Leon Battista Alberti said "a man can do all things if he will", and during his time people were actually encouraged to become well-educated in a number of different areas, and develop all of their capabilities to the fullest. The term "Renaissance Man" was coined to describe such a person.

The Renaissance has passed, but we can still embrace those ideals. Rather than choosing to "be" just one thing, we can strive to be Renaissance People.

Here's a review of four books that I've found particularly helpful in my own quest to become a Renaissance Man.

Refuse to Choose! by Barbara Sher

Barbara Sher refers to Renaissance People as "Scanners", and has identified two main types:

  1. Cyclical Scanners: have a finite list of passions, and move from one to the next, but often cycle back to activities on the list which they've enjoyed in the past.
  2. Sequential Scanners: never return to something once they've done it, but instead move on to another item on their ever-growing list of interests.

Each type is divided further, and for each type, Sher discusses effective tools, career options, and what she calls "Life Design Models", which are suggestions for time management, organization, and lifestyle options that best suit each Scanner type.

Sher describes about a dozen tools and techniques to help Scanners manage their multiple passions, the most important of which is the Scanner Daybook, which is used by all Scanner types. The use of other tools is determined by a person's Scanner type.

Refuse to Choose! can help you better understand what type of Scanner/Renaissance Person you are, and will open your eyes to many new possibilities for your life.

The Renaissance Soul by Margaret Lobenstine

Lobenstine doesn't identify different categories of "Renaissance Souls", as Sher did with Scanners. She focuses instead on the characteristics they all have in common:

  1. Variety brings them greater satisfaction than a constant focus on a single activity or goal.
  2. Flexible plans and goals are preferred over commitment to a rigid, definite long-term plan.
  3. Success is measured in term of the challenges one has met, rather than how high one has climbed on the traditional "success ladder".

The Renaissance Soul, with its section on clarifying your values and interests, and its many suggestions for acquiring knowledge and experience in new areas without going back to school, nicely complements Sher's Refuse to Choose!

Like Sher, Lobenstine also discusses career planning, and describes many tools and techniques for the Renaissance Person. The Renaissance Soul and Refuse to Choose! may awaken dreams and passions you'd given up on long ago, and give you the tools to help make them a part of your reality.

Lateral Thinking by Edward de Bono

Creativity goes to the heart of what being a Renaissance Person is all about: seeing (or, if necessary, creating) new possibilities. Lateral Thinking is a book that can take your creativity to the next level.

The logical, sequential thinking encouraged in our society ("vertical thinking") is an important tool, but it's impossible to generate breakthrough ideas with this type of thinking. To come up with truly original ideas, you need to go places that can't be reached via logic. This is where lateral thinking comes in.

Lateral thinking doesn't care about logic, or about being right. Its goal is to break through old patterns and make new connections. The best way to do that is by being illogical or "wrong", at least for a little while, and the book contains a number of effective techniques for doing just that. Although the writing itself is a little dry, Lateral Thinking is the best practical book I've found on the subject of creative thinking.

What Makes Your Brain Happy, and Why You Should Do the Opposite, by David DiSalvo

Being a Renaissance Person doesn't mean giving in to every whim. Quite to the contrary, discipline, motivation and good decision-making may be even more important to the Renaissance Person, who has to constantly manage multiple priorities.

DiSalvo's book is about thinking rationally and making better decisions. It is, in some ways, yin to the yang of de Bono's Lateral Thinking. Each way of thinking has its advantages, and a Renaissance Person should try to become proficient at both.

What Makes Your Brain Happy discusses the reasons why we do things that aren't in our best interests. The human brain, while magnificent, has some tendencies that don't always work in our favor:

  1. the need to be "right", which we do by bending information to make it consistent with our preexisting beliefs and biases, and by finding connections and causes even when none exist.
  2. the need to be "comfortable", which makes us avoid uncomfortable and anxiety-provoking situations, and act impulsivity on things that bring short-term comfort.

The second half of the book, in which DiSalvo moves out of the theoretical to describe 50 concrete steps we can take to deal with these issues, is what makes the book worthwhile.

DiSalvo is critical of much of the self-help industry, and says some things about mind-body duality that not everyone will agree with. Look past those statements if you need to, and you'll find that this book really can help you think more clearly, make better decisions, and focus on what you need to do to make your dreams a reality.

The Next da Vinci?

I give all of these books my highest recommendation. They won't turn you into another da Vinci, but if you're a Renaissance Person, they can definitely help you to become a better and happier you.


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    • Doc Sonic profile imageAUTHOR

      Glen Nunes 

      8 years ago from Cape Cod, Massachusetts

      Lesley T, I'm glad you enjoyed the hub. Thanks for stopping by.

    • Lesley T profile image

      Lesley T 

      8 years ago from Australia

      Interesting hub. So pleased to find I'm a Sequential Scanner as it explains a lot...I actually avoid things I have done before and love spending my day flitting from one thing to another. So now I can release all those old projects happily, no guilt no more!

    • Doc Sonic profile imageAUTHOR

      Glen Nunes 

      8 years ago from Cape Cod, Massachusetts

      Rice Girl, it's interesting how you were sequential in your career, but cyclical with your interests and hobbies. I guess a career change can be a bigger change than taking up a new hobby, and maybe it's harder to go back. Thanks for the votes and the comments.

    • Rice Girl 2011 profile image

      Rice Girl 2011 

      8 years ago from Southeastern United States

      Doc Sonic, good hub. Thank you for clearing up some things for me. As I was reading this hub, I thought about both of my careers. I believe I was a sequential scanner. First I worked as a professional advocate for institutionalized adults for 22 years and after I retired from that field, I then worked for 5 years as a part time commodities seller at a rice product mill - we sold everything from the hulls to the ash while our sister company sold the actual rice. My intention is to never return to either of these fields again.

      However, in my interests and hobbies, I am definitely a cyclical scanner. Many topics interest me and I enjoy learning new things all the time.

      Voted up, useful, and interesting.

    • Doc Sonic profile imageAUTHOR

      Glen Nunes 

      8 years ago from Cape Cod, Massachusetts

      suzettenaples, thanks for reading and taking the time to comment. I know how the criticism can feel. I hope you find these books as helpful as I have.

    • suzettenaples profile image

      Suzette Walker 

      8 years ago from Taos, NM

      Great review of these books. I am going to read them. I've always known I was a Renaissance woman but it is difficult to be one in today's world . I have been stung by the usual criticism. These books are interesting and this hub is well written.

    • Doc Sonic profile imageAUTHOR

      Glen Nunes 

      8 years ago from Cape Cod, Massachusetts

      Patrice, I'm a cyclical scanner also. I'm not sure, but my guess would be that it's the most common type. Most people eventually return to doing things they enjoyed in the past.

      As far as something being "wrong" with us, that's like saying there's something wrong with left-handed people. Some people are just that way. You can fight it, or you can accept it and work with it.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Oh my goodness! I'm a Renaissance woman! I always thought the fact that I couldn't settle on one thing meant that something was wrong with me, that, for example, I lacked focus. I'd classify myself as a clinical scanner; I have a number of interests (e.g., fiber arts; writing; reading several genres of fiction; metaphysics, including astrology, tarot, and dreams; alternative health; quantum physics), each of which I focus on for a while before moving to the next. But I always cycle back to each one over and over again. It keeps life interesting; otherwise, I'd be bored.

      I agree that having multiple interests requires a need for organization. For me, a "to do" list is critical. But I'm going to have to check out Refuse to Choose to see if there are other tools that will help me be a more effective scanner :-).

      Thanks so much for validating this way of being in the world. Voted up and across!


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