Did you know that specialization is a relatively recent compulsion?
During the Middle Ages, you could only study law, medicine, or religion.
The Renaissance resurrected what we now call the humanities—classics, languages, literature, philosophy, arts of all types.
This “rebirth” lauded well-rounded individuals—those who painted, sculpted, wrote poetry, mastered a weapon, studied the cosmos, spoke several languages, and played a musical instrument.
Michaelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci epitomized this movement. But so did Queen Elizabeth I. She played the lute, rode into battle, spoke fluent Latin, and ruled for 44 years. The Renaissance tradition continued for centuries.
For instance, Benjamin Franklin, drafter of the U.S. Constitution, was also a writer, printer, soldier, politician, and diplomat. He invented bifocals, the lightning rod, and the Franklin stove. Peter Roget, compiler of the famous Thesaurus, was a doctor, teacher, and designer. He might have created a movie camera prototype.
Some people starve without a daily dose of novelty and wonder.
Margaret Lobenstine, in The Renaissance Soul, writes that these people
…much prefer variety and combination over focusing all their energies on one thing. They prefer widening options by opening more and more doors, to narrowing choices by specializing and sub-specializing.
After succeeding in one field, the Renaissance Soul will seek a new adventure instead of climbing the corporate ladder or job hopping to a higher salary.
Today society denigrates Renaissance Souls, so they often wait until adulthood to explore their gifts. Perhaps that’s why many late bloomers become writers. It’s the perfect multi-passion chariot.
James Michener, for example, published Tales of the South Pacific at age 40. He penned over forty historical novels before his death at age 90. But he also wrote on The Modern Japanese Print, Sports in America, and A Century of Sonnets.
Before becoming an author, Michener peddled chestnuts, toured America by boxcar, joined a carnival, enlisted in the Army, taught English, and edited textbooks.
Madeleine L’Engle penned her beloved children’s book, A Wrinkle In Time, at age 44, after careers in acting, teaching, and shopkeeping. She also wrote plays, prayer books, poetry, and nonfiction. The parallels between magic, science, and religion intrigued her.
At age 74, against her family’s wishes, she trekked across Antarctica. The journey resulted in a spiritual memoir titled Penguins and Golden Calves.
In many ways, we’re back in the Middle Ages. We still privilege an education in law or medicine. The business degree has replaced the theology degree. Some people thrive in law, medicine, or business, but many feel societal or parental pressure to enter those fields.
Where does this leave the modern Renaissance Soul?
If you still long to write a book, speak Latin, study astrophysics, learn to tango, and design your green dream home, consider this:
1. You’ve got more time than you realize. The average U.S. life expectancy will shortly reach 80. Let’s say, like Michener, you’re 40 and want to write books on a dozen subjects.
You still have 67% of your productive life ahead (40 productive years if you reach 80, divided by 60 productive years total if you’d started working at 20) — ample time to explore.
2. You don’t need a map, but you do need a sketchbook. Of course, not everyone will reach 80, but we all need to embrace the prospect. Increasing life expectancy will usher in the next Renaissance era. How can you be a part of it?
Start a journal. Record infinite possibilities. Make diet and exercise adjustments. Read Barbara Sher, Ben Franklin, Margaret Lobenstine, Joseph Campbell, and J.R.R. Tolkien for instruction and inspiration.
It’s Tolkien—poet, professor, philologist, cryptographer, fantasy and children’s author—who wrote:
All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
Here’s to your late-blooming Renaissance. Happy trails!
How do you relate to that verse from The Fellowship of the Ring? Bilbo, of course, embarked on his greatest adventure after his 111th birthday (should that we all)! Let me know here.
(A version of this article first appeared in Jennings Wire: The World of Success.)