The Renaissance Holds the Simple Key to Thriving in the 21st Century
What do you know about the Renaissance?
If I’m being completely honest with you, I actually didn’t know much about it until recently. Growing up in a small farm town on the outskirts of Montreal, we didn’t learn much about the world’s history.
And frankly, I couldn’t care less at the time anyway.
It turns out, however, that the Renaissance is full of great lessons to learn, which are surprisingly adaptable in today’s world.
Here are two key passages on the Renaissance from the biography of Leonardo Da Vinci, by Walter Isaacson:
“The mixing of ideas from different disciplines became the norm as people of diverse talents intermingled.”
“The culture rewarded, above all, those who mastered and mixed different disciplines.”
How has the world changed since then!
We favour people who can only do one thing and do it well. We don’t encourage people to explore other avenues, instead pigeonholing them into what they can currently do instead of what they are and what they can be.
And I’m taking a stance here in saying that this is wrong, at least if our purpose is the thrive in this day and age.
The “successful” people we know today are not successful because they can only do one thing well. And that’s true across many disciplines.
That’s one reason I love reading biographies across all generations. You learn that 1. just like us, they are not perfect, and 2. they are indeed multi-skilled individuals even though we know them for one thing.
They are successful, in part, because they have mastered and mixed different disciplines.
Did you know that Terry Crews is an artist/footballer/comedian/actor?
Now that’s a great and original set of skills to thrive!
Leonardo Da Vinci was a painter/sculpter/architect/engineer/inventor.
While that may sound impressive, he was far from being the only one at that time. Not that this makes him any less important, on the contrary. Many with varied sets of skills from the Renaissance became famous in one way or another.
Yet somehow, after the Renaissance, the world decided that specialization and over-specialization was the way to go. The difference during the periods that ensued was that thriving was not anyone’s objective. It was to fit in, to be part of an organized system.
This is not a complaint, just an observation.
What this means for us today is that there’s tons of room to get creative and thrive, just like people did during the Renaissance.
We live in a society where people follow the norm, yet it is the misfits, just like during Renaissance time, that thrive and push our society forward.
Not everyone has to push society forward like Steve Jobs, Nelson Mandala, Oprah or Elon Musk, but everyone should seek to thrive one way or another. It’s not about fame and fortune but about having a sense of worth.
We all live to die. While that may seem like a sad truth, it’s not. It’s a realistic deadline pushing us to action.
“It is not death a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.” — Marcus Aurelius
I used to be scared of death. And even though I still dread my own mortality, there’s a certain sense of beauty in it.
Thriving means nothing without an end.
By no means do I want to waste this gift of life I was given.
And if you’re with me on that, please read on.
Thriving in the 21st Century
A little backstory
I grew up on a farm not really ever thinking about what my future would be. I knew I wanted to be a game programmer, if only because I loved playing video games. When I became one, I realized that the main reason I loved doing it was that I was making people happy, just like previous game developers made me happy growing up.
When I took a job outside the gaming industry to work on backend software for a data company selling tools and data to banks, I realized that I didn’t find purpose in what I did, even though I loved the team and the technical challenges.
Do you feel that way too?
For me, helping banks make higher profits just wasn’t appealing. I started my own video game company to get back to entertaining people and making them happy.
I was mostly satisfied.
But 14 months ago, I decided I should vary my skillset and learn many skills from different areas of my brain. From that point on, I deliberately started learning 3 new skills every month. I describe my process here.
It turns out, one particular skill I practiced in January changed my life forever: writing short-form non-fiction.
In writing, I realized that I had a voice. That I had something to say that was actually useful for some people. The early success I had writing was mostly due to the varied skillset I had learned previously, including storytelling, public speaking, time management, and more.
In less than 14 months, I became what some people refer to as a Renaissance Man or polymath. While the idea of becoming a polymath was accidental, the process by which I became one was far from accidental.
The purpose for me was a selfish one. I just wanted to be better. I didn’t know why at the time. And I certainly didn’t know what the impact would be. I was curious how far I could push my limits.
It turns out, I still don’t know where my limits are!
Once you break free on the mental block you have that you can’t do something, it’s incredible the things you can accomplish!
Lessons from the Renaissance
That’s partly what the Renaissance was about, experimenting and figuring out just how far you could go.
Why don’t we do that anymore in the 21st century?
That is a deeply satisfying feeling, knowing that we are more capable than we think.
You don’t have to go bananas like me and try to learn 3 new skills every month, but dare take the time to experiment and do things outside your comfort zone.
In this age of “busy-ness”, we think we don’t have time. That’s wrong. We just don’t have the right priorities.
The key to thriving in the 21st century is the same set of lessons Leonardo Da Vinci left us with. It worked great then, it works great now. These lessons were replicated by other Renaissance Men and successful people throughout the centuries.
*Most of the following lessons are inspired by the conclusion of Leonardo Da Vinci’s biography by Walter Isaacson.
Key Lesson #1: Always be relentlessly curious
I actually don’t know a single deeply “successful” person who’s not passionately curious about at least one thing.
What is that thing for you?
Why are you seeking more knowledge and experience on it?
Can you replicate that curiosity to other things you do? Why? Why not?
Think Leonardo Da Vinci, Thomas Edison, Benjamin Franklin, and in the more recent years, Elon Musk.
Key Lesson #2: Seek knowledge, just ‘cause
One critic I get about my 3 skills-a-month approach is that I typically don’t follow up with them and rarely become a master at what I learn. So what? Can’t I just try things just out of sheer enjoyment?
When Leonardo applied for an engineering or architect position, he didn’t even know anything about the subjects, he was just interested in knowing more about them.
What are the top 3 things you’d like to learn? Why?
When will you start learning them?
How are you going to learn them?
Are they useful? Are they just for your own enjoyment?
Key Lesson #3: Observe the world around you
It’s mind-boggling the number of things we take for granted and don’t pay attention to. When’s the last time you took the time to just sit and observe every little detail of what’s happening around you?
Be aware of the greatness surrounding you.
What “ordinary” thing fascinates you?
What have you observed about it?
Where can you go to observe the world around you?
When will you go?
Key Lesson #4: Dig deeper
It’s incredible how we barely scratch the surface on anything. While it may seem that, by practicing a skill for only 15 hours, I only scratch the surface, that’s not the case. I dare do extensive research on how best to approach each skill and go deep into the details. I break everything down to their smallest component.
When is the last time you dug really deep into a subject?
What was the subject about?
How much time did you spend on it?
Why did you dig deeper with that, but not on other things?
Key Lesson #5: Don’t rush things
Leonardo Da Vinci took years to finish anything if he finished them at all.
“Men of lofty genius accomplish the most when they work least, for their minds are occupied with their ideas and the perfection of their conceptions, to which they afterward give form.” — Leonardo Da Vinci
Most great ideas come from not thinking about the idea at all. We’re all familiar with the “Eureka” moment(s).
Have you ever jumped on a perfect opportunity to realize later it wasn’t as great as you thought it would be?
How long had you thought about it before jumping on it?
Would you have benefited from not rushing it?
Warning: do not let this be a source of inaction!
Key Lesson #6: Don’t be a one-trick pony
Skills you learn in one area creates mental chunks in your brain that helps create connections towards other skills. The more skills you learn, the more creative you become when solving solutions. It’s no wonder then that “geniuses” are also polymaths.
What is your “main” skill?
What are some other skills you’re good at?
What other skills would you like to learn? Why?
Key Lesson #7: Don’t believe that “impossible” is impossible
I love these two quotes by Henry Ford (not from the Renaissance period):
“If you think you can do a thing or think you can’t do a thing, you’re right.”
“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
It’s thanks to people crazy enough to think we could go to the moon that we actually went to the moon.
It was unthinkable, in a very recent past, that we would today be able to communicate face-to-face in real-time.
What do you think is impossible to achieve?
What makes you think that?
What would it take to turn the impossible into the possible?
Key Lesson #8: Create for yourself
This is something we don’t do in today’s world. We work for someone and entertain ourselves afterward. We rarely do things for ourselves. Leonardo Da Vinci only did paintings or work he was interested in. Not because he could, but because he wanted to.
Dare do that.
What’s the last thing you created for yourself?
How did it feel?
Why don’t you do it more often?
Key Lesson #9: Collaborate
It’s no secret that one of my favourite quotes of all times is this one:
“You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” — Jim Rohn
Leonardo Da Vinci constantly surrounded himself and collaborated with people he admired. Nothing he accomplished did he do alone. If history’s “greatest genius” collaborated, why do we think we can do everything on our own?
What’s a project you’re working on that could benefit from extra help?
Who can help you with it?
Have you reached out to them? Why? Why not?
Key Lesson #10: Document everything
Make lists. Document things you’ve learned. Things you want to learn. Record your small wins. Just let your brain run free and dump ideas on paper.
Note taking is something not enough people do nowadays, but all Renaissance geniuses did it. Today’s geniuses also do it.
Do you have a journal or notebook? Why? Why not?
What do you document or want to document?
How frequently do you (want to) write in it?
While you and I most likely won’t thrive as much as Leonardo Da Vinci or other geniuses from the Renaissance, nothing should stop us from learning about key characteristics they had.
Thriving is not about becoming the next genius, it’s about becoming a better person, for yourself and the people you care about.
I personally don’t see any reason why we wouldn’t want to be better. We only have one life, might as well make it count. And the above lessons will help you do just that, as they did for others throughout generations.
So learn these key lessons. Refer to them frequently. Do the little reflections I added for each one. Do your own reflection. Practice each one every day. Little by little, you’ll see yourself thriving more and more.
Are you ready to change your life for the better? Not only temporarily, but for the rest of your life?
You can do this!