The Rise of the Renaissance Man: Why People with Multiple Passions Will Lead Tomorrow’s World

This post is by Kirsten from Multi-Passionate Productivity.

When I was growing up, I wanted to be a ballerina. Then I had major plans for a life as a rock star. For a while, the idea of being a model sparred with my desire to become a Methodist pastor. While debating my eventual career path, I took classes in drawing and painting, designed a few of my own clothes, invented a largely impractical personal heater, wrote a novel and plotted out an itinerary to backpack across Europe after graduating high school. (My parents put the kibosh on that one, unfortunately, so I did it on my own dime a few years later.)

I went off to college to study animal science with the intention of going to vet school, but then I tossed in another major in Spanish language and literature, just because it sounded fun. Let’s all pause for a moment to make the inevitable joke about specializing in veterinary medicine for Chihuahuas. Done now? Let’s go on.

We’re trained to believe that one passion is all you need. That’s what the guidance counselors, the college admissions brochures and 99% of the personal development literature tells you, right? Find your passion and find a job in that field, and you’ll be happy until you retire. For a large segment of the population, this is great advice. But for a lot of people, myself among them, it blows chunks. Why? Because we don’t have just one passion. We have five, or ten, or more.

Enter: the Renaissance Man

We are polymaths, Renaissance Men, multi-passionate people. We are not flaky or unsettled. We do not have attention deficit disorder and we are not doomed to work an endless stream of entry level jobs. In fact, we are going to lead tomorrow’s world.

Society used to exalt multi-passionate people. To quote Pride and Prejudice, “A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing and the modern languages…” But sometime in the twenties or thirties we began to embrace the image of the specialist, the person who knows everything there is to know within a tightly defined niche. We have this vision of a scientist drilling deeper and deeper into their specialty and pushing the frontiers of knowledge. By encouraging our students to pick a specialty early we’re pushing them toward those distant frontiers. There’s just one problem—frontiers are, by definition, a long way from home.

Exploring the wild blue yonder doesn’t leave much time for understanding how your work relates to anything else in the general human experience. Rosalind Franklin couldn’t discover the structure of DNA because her specialty in biophysics and x-ray technology didn’t leave room to understand all the other pieces of the puzzle—biochemistry, genetics, information theory and mathematics. Conversely, Watson and Crick couldn’t have put the pieces together without Franklin’s x-ray images. (This idea comes from a most excellent book by Steven Johnson, titled Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation (aff).) Society needs people who create the pieces and people who put them together. The latter are our Renaissance Men.

Having multiple passions means that, by default, our store of experiences and general knowledge is wider than most of the population. This means that when we approach a problem, we weave our experiences into our potential solutions. That ability to borrow from other fields vastly increases the chances that we’ll come up with a potentially world changing combination, whether it be the mix of Flash, Java and the internet which created YouTube or the mixing of blues, R&B and 1-4-5 chord progressions which catapulted the Beatles to fame. That potential makes us extremely valuable, and even if conventional wisdom doesn’t recognize it, smart employers do. Why do you think Google allows their workers to spend two out of every ten hours on their own projects?

How do I find a Google to hire me?

I’m sure some of my fellow multi-passionates out there are probably scoffing after that last paragraph, remembering the times they’ve been rejected for jobs or internships because their resume was “too scattered” or “lacked focus.” While that is a danger of following multiple passions, there are ways to present yourself as valuable and innovative contributor rather than the derogatory jack of all trades, master of none.

  1. Do not apologize for areas of your resume that you perceive to be lacking. Instead, highlight your wide variety of experience as evidence that you enjoy learning and can pick up new skills quickly.
  2. Don’t put emphasis on your technical skills, unless you’ve truly put in the time to hone them to expert level. Instead, focus on the broad skills that your experiences have given you—skills like problem solving, information acquisition, organization or interpersonal communication.
  3. Be targeted in who you choose to work with. Don’t send your resume to every job that remotely complies with your interests and skills. Instead, take the time to do some research on the company and decide whether you think you’d be a good fit. You’ll have a much better chance of getting called in for an interview, plus you’ll have the background knowledge on the company to use in tailoring your resume, cover letter and questions for your interviewers.

So stand tall, my fellow multi-passionates! We play an essential role in society, and sooner or later conventional wisdom will recognize that we solve almost all of the thorny problems in the world. Since we’ll be leaders, you might want start brainstorming a good honorific. Then when some uninformed sod accuses you of being a flake, you can point them to this post and inform them that the title is the Supreme Most Excellent Flake, and you’d thank them to use it properly.

Kirsten is the polymath behind Multi-Passionate Productivity, and she’s also a full time graduate student working with two research groups and running two and a half businesses in addition to MPP. Go here to check out her blog on productivity and organization for multi-passionate people, or join the crowd following the Interactive Novel project over at Written Insight.

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  1. This is great stuff! I have been thinking a lot about the fact that just ONE thing is not enough for me.

    Can’t wait to start leading tomorrow’s world…let’s start today!

  2. Hurrah, what a great article. I just pulled together a blog post last re: what I’m currently working on (across many different fields:, and always good to hear good news stories that our time is coming 🙂

    • Thank you! And that’s a brilliant work schedule. I’d love to talk more with you, particularly how you’ve gotten on faculty at two different universities (if I’m reading that right?)

  3. This really resonated for me. Once upon a time it used to really bother me that I was a “jack of all trades, master of none” and it took a while for me to realize the advantages that such a background produces.

    Thanks for a great read and for making me feel good about my scattered brain, err, multiple passions. 🙂

  4. I agree that the Renaissance Man will have a good chance of becoming the leader—of organizations, change, innovation. Yet, we will need the specialist, too.

    The Renaissance Man may find new ways of solving problems at a general level, but if the solution requires, say, in-depth knowledge of computer systems, that’s when he’ll have to call in the specialist.

    What we need is some kind of symbiosis between the generalist and the specialist. This means teamwork. As the teams will need to be composed differently for different tasks, it also means networking.

    • Oh, we definitely need the specialist as well – as I said in the post, Watson and Crick wouldn’t have come close to the structure of DNA without Franklin’s x-ray photos. Thank you for bringing up networking as well – that’s probably the subject of a whole other post!

  5. Well said Kirstin.

    Worth remembering as well that Renaissance Men will often find that their best employment route involves working for themselves.

    • Very true. That’s something I’ve been working on myself, but I haven’t gotten far enough to feel qualified to talk much about it yet. Hopefully someday soon!

  6. Got here from Twitter. Love it. Read the last bit to my 13 yr old son, whom this post describes to a T. Will retweet.

    Sitting here staring at the red line under “retweet” left by my auto-spell checker … makes me wonder when they are going to become hip to the new twittercabulary!

  7. What a great article! I’ve often thought the same. When and why did we come to the belief that being an expert in one field of knowledge to the exclusion of all others was the path to ultimate success?

    How can one understand say Politics, without understanding Economics, Psychology, and Philosophy?

    How deeply can I know say, my own country, without having been outside it and gained knowledge of many others?

    I am down for the Polymath revolution! Thanks so much for sharing.


  8. Great to see recognition for us “Scanners”. Agree that there is a big need for people like us with varied perspectives.

    One thing that was helpful to me was to realize that “I am not my job” – meaning, I can explore all of my other passions by finding ways to experiment with them outside of work. (I call them Life Experiments).

    Look forward to seeing what develops here…

    – Allan Bacon

  9. Great post! I too, am a multi-passionate. What a beautiful reminder to embrace this gift. And you’re right – it does make us good leaders.

    Really liking the new site!


  10. So long as you aspire to being a virtuoso at whatever you do, I think you will come out alright. So if you’re a virtuoso at connecting all the various and sundry loose ends of the world, have at it. We will all applaud.

  11. I dont know where you put the camera in my apartment or the probe in my brain or if you’re secretly my Mother who knew I needed a bit of reminding, but either way I ‘like’.
    It bothers me that people turn their nose up because I’ve got many skills, spread over more than a decade of increasing responsibility in a global (but not flighty I hasten to add) career. It seems they would rather I had stayed in the same area, becoming my boss every 4 years… Crazy Town!
    Thanks Darren & Kirsten!

  12. I am definitely a multiple-passionate! I wear many hats and lead a varied life and this article really makes me feel gooder about that! Thanks:)

  13. I feel less alone! I work so hard at lots of different things but doing just one makes me want to poke my eyes out with a stick (I have a food blog, a blog where I make silly faces, teach, dance and sing, for example). I’m definitely sick of being seen as flightly, Renaissance peeps of the world, unite!

  14. Most employers say they would like to see a college degree is because it demonstrates the candidate is well-rounded, able to pick up skills easily and think on their feet. When presented with a multi-talented person, they often react that the candidate lacks focus.

    I love that you said to be choosy about which jobs to apply. I agree! Also sad that some are discouraged when they follow their natural talents.

  15. Great article, especially the point about standing tall about your multiple passions. I used to downplay that on my resume (I work as a web producer but also wrote a novel and am a photographer) but then I discovered that employers were really interested in those extra skills. They demonstrate creativity and initiative, which any good employer would like.

  16. You had me at “to quote Pride and Prejudice…” Although, I almost didn’t read this because going by the title I thought it was about men. Glad I didn’t let that stop me. I feel validated for having multiple passions and a tad “special.”

  17. Wow. A little shocked that you would make a comment like “We do not have attention deficit disorder” as if those that do have it have a choice. People with ADD can be successful too.

    • I don’t believe I indicated that people with ADD couldn’t be successful. My intent was to point out that there is a difference between having ADD and having multiple passions, and that people with multiple passions are often labeled as having ADD. My apologies for not being clear enough and causing offense.

      • I knew what you were saying and wasn’t offended. Of course, I don’t have ADD either…

      • xanaxnation says:

        and some of us were medicated (wrongly?) because our interests wander… i agree that it was a good point to make and written in a manner that isnt disrespectful or implying that people with ADD arent capable of being successful.

      • EXACTLY.

        How many times I’ve been told I might have ADD – I’ve lost count. But I’m a:
        Musician (performance and composition)
        Artist and designer
        Game designer

        And I do all these things well enough to TEACH them. Don’t @#[email protected]# even GO to the ADD place. I’m a specialist on steroids!

  18. Ahh, I absolutely love it. People ask me constantly, “so, what do you do?” And I hate that question. I do a lot of stuff. I don’t have any specific label to put my career/work decisions under.

    Great article. 🙂

  19. I have always been multi-passionate and never apologised for it, but it’s wonderful to be vindicated. I think it’s easier for younger people in today’s world which seems to be much more open to constant change and varied interests, perhaps the world is evolving to catch up to us?

  20. YAY. After reading so many things about the need to “find my niche” and “become an expert” I can finally feel a little bit better about being a jack of all trades, master of none. I LIKE the fact that I can talk about pretty much everything… for a few minutes at least. Great article.

  21. Oh this so speaks to me! I am definitely a multi-facted woman with many passions 🙂

    Thanks for this great timely post for this time in my life!

  22. Awesome article! I think this plays in to a topic that Darren talks about on Problogger frequently: diversification. All of the bloggers are constantly talking about diversification of the income streams on their blogs, and many bloggers (Darren included) have multiple blogs, each on a different topic… and he’s achieved a lot of success! I don’t think this would have happened if he wasn’t a multipassioned guy.

  23. Sometimes I feel exactly like I’m a “Jack of all trades, master of none”, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. This is who I am! There’s advantages and disadvantages but I think the advantages definitely outweigh the disadvantages. I’m glad to be a Renaissance (wo)man!

  24. Oh my god, have we met? This is so right on, it was scary! I love what I do but also love learning about other things and finding ways to integrate it into what I do. I so believe in the passion that people have but also believe it can (and usually does) change. Go with it, and let life lead you in the direction you are suppose to go in. I really feel that the state of our environment today is forcing people to do some of this as they had become too comfortable where they were before. It’s exciting to see people taking healthy risk and doing what they have always wanted to do! Great post!

  25. love the thought of being Rennaisance People (men and women that is). Sometimes we’ve gotta go through the multiples and jobs etc to realise what our passion is, or passions are – and as leaders isn’t it about creating the jobs that don’t exist for ourselves? this really excites me.

    As a lone mother of two (one with a disability) two BA degrees behind me, and now doing my MA, plus running my own on-line business, teaching and being an artist, takes so many skills and passions from basic pyschologist, & nurturer, to planning and prepping materials, to business admin, and marketing and when that’s all said and done, making my own art – and I’m passionate about them all!

    I have 10 years of being a CV writer too, and when applying for jobs it’s about selective writing for specific jobs. Eventually I realised the job I wanted and needed had to be created by myself!

    Thanks for the passion, off to lead 🙂


    • “Eventually I realised the job I wanted and needed had to be created by myself!”

      This is true of a lot of multi-passionate people, and our backgrounds make us uniquely suited to entrepreneurship. That’s not to say we don’t occasionally fall flat on our faces, but we have the advantage of being suited to jump into learning about the myriad of subjects that come with being a business owner.

  26. I often think people discount the modern version of the Renaissance Wo/Man as scattered and un-focused. Rather, to be successful in this ever-changing world we need to be adaptable to change and what better way than to be flexible and learn new things. Renaissance men and women of the 17th and 18th Century were not savants who were prodigious in everything they did. Instead, they had mastery of a few things but opened their minds to learn more so they could be more self-reliant as well as helpful.

    Your post is a reminder of that. It’s not about flitting from thing to thing like a hummingbird looking for nectar. It’s about mindfulness and trusting in our ability to do many things well, not just one thing expertly.

  27. what an inspiring post for those of us with interests that span many genres.

    it’s so fun to find other multi-passionates, as you refer to us, and thanks for embracing our magic and speaking out about it.

    here’s to our daily renaissance!

    ~ julie

  28. Yes! Renaissance souls (men & women) should rejoice in their layered talents and interests. We are Idea Makers. I agree–we see interconnections that specialists might overlook or not even be aware of at all. Polymathic people create, dissect and intertwine ideas into fascinating possibilities. Revel in the abundance; don’t fear it! Be fabulous. Create ideas, take risks…and if necessary, hand it over to a specialist to work out the details.

  29. Great article!

    I think daily about how my varied interests might lead me down a path of wanderlusty tumult, or down many paths of moderate success that combine to form a mosaic of accomplishment.

    It both scares me and excites me that my decisions about what to do next will never lead me to a life of complacent nine to five work. A consistent paycheck pales in comparison to the peaks and troughs of a diversified life, and I’m so inspired to see that others are following the same initiative.

    Onward into the void. Together we question, and together we shall succeed.


  30. Knowledge is more than the sum of its parts. It’s very hard to gain inner wisdom if your job involves a narrow specialty and you don’t enjoy research, because you need broad experiences to become an old wise man.

    However, most people either specialize too much or generalize too much. Dabbling in different professions is very bad ― it costs a lot of money and leads nowhere. Most people just give up on programming, or music, or writing when the going gets rough. Then, they claim to be a programmer-musician-writer extraordinaire when in fact they suck at ALL of them.

  31. Thank you for this!

    Awesome comment thread, too. Like many of those above me, I bounce around plenty: swim-instructor, couch-surfing host, painter, writer, small-business manager, marketing strategist, inventor, children’s museum craft coordinator….

    I finally stopped fighting my scattered interests and wove them into a one-of-a-kind job. Renaissance-people are natural entrepreneurs if we can earn the support and trust of our customers/audiences.

    By the way, my job tapestry includes editing, managing The Monterey County Youth Museum, and founding an art education and awareness initiative: The Paint America Project (

    Keep up the great work, everyone!


  32. Sometimes I feel I have too many interests and hobbies that I’m passionate about. Can be a bit overwhelming at times.

  33. Da Vinci is a personal hero of mine…
    I’m currently reading “A Whole New Mind- Why right-brainers will rule the future” by Daniel H. Pink, and the whole book is an in-depth look (and case) for embracing your right brain talents. Totally plays into this article and if you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it.

  34. I once heard the saying, “I still find each day too short for all the thoughts I want to think, all the walks I want to take, all the books I want to read and all the friends I want to see.”

    I couldn’t believe how true it was. I was just asking myself today if my desire to know everything about everything I’m interested in is a bad thing or a good one.

    Guess I found my answer. Great post, Kirsten

  35. This describes me to a tee. Thank you for recognizing the value in having multiple passions!

  36. Well, Kirsten, right after this I am going over to your blog. This was perfect. Not so much that I am looking for an employer but the focus of my blog is always on my mind at some level because I am having the darndest time trying to eliminate any of my major passions. It seems I may be fiddling with it forever!

    But I love your “stand tall”. I needed that tonight! Thanks much.

  37. Kirsten, what a well written and researched article. It spoke to me and excited me in similar ways to the other contributors here. A major question throughout most of my adult life has been ‘what will I do when I grow up’. Of course I now recognise myself as a multi-passionate person – not sure I feel able to call myself a Rennaisance Man.

    Thanks again for an inspiring article.

  38. Oh my god, this post describes me perfectly. I’ve been calling myself a Renaissance Woman for years, and have always been frustrated by the way college pushed me to focus in just one area. If I had it to do all over again, I would have pushed back and made them give me a degree in Liberal Studies, which means I could have taken that Econ class, and that Religion class, and delved a little further in to 19th century history.

    Ah well, I guess that’s what books are for.

    I can’t tell you the number of employers who have take one look at my resume (11 jobs in 4 years, mostly two at a time) and dismissed me. 🙁 But I’ll find a “Google” or a “Zappos” to hire me, one of these days.

    Right now I’m thinking the solution may just be to work for myself, and solve people’s problems that way.

    Anyway, thanks for the encouragement.

    • Multi-passionate people are often uniquely suited for entrepreneurship. That’s not to say we don’t fall flat on our faces during the process, but we’re ahead of the game in the sense that we’re familiar with the jack of all trades requirement of starting a business. If one of your passions intersects with something of value to others, you may find that working for yourself is rewarding in ways that traditional employment can’t possibly be.

  39. I feel so much better about who I am after reading that! Thank you multiple times!

    Photographer/musician/writer/educator and one or two more!

    I will now proudly put “Renaissance Man” into any bios!

  40. xanaxnation says:

    im SO glad that people are starting to understand that just because i am good at a dozen crafty things, and enjoy 3 dozen other things doesnt mean im a space cadet…. or worse, need medication.

  41. Kirsten, this was a well presented, well reasoned post. However, the US does NOT value the Renaissance man or woman, especially in this economy. As a late-50’s Renaissance Woman married to a RM with a master’s in Liberal Studies, mother of several RKs (Renaissance Kids), I can tell you that all the optimism in the world won’t change our value to employers.

    Our only chance is to put our many skills, talents and interests to work for ourselves. If your Renaissance Person skill set doesn’t include an entrepreneurial one, best resign yourself to the series of entry-level jobs or move to another country where brains and creativity are more valued.

    • I have to respectfully disagree, Susanna. I’ve worked several jobs, even in this current economy, where my passions were a key part of the reason I was hired. In one of my current positions, I couldn’t conduct the research without a multi-passionate background, because it requires an understanding of two separate fields and an ability to draw comparisons between the two. Employers who have a need for intelligent workers are always going to value people with multiple passions; it’s just up to us to portray ourselves in the best light and make an extra effort to find the positions that fit our interests and strengths.

  42. Wow! I’m not alone. Lets push this up the ladder. Your post is so timely for me… I’ve been struggling with my own multi-passionate skill set for years. Thanks for the motivation!

  43. I had no idea that there were so many of us. I have the largest collection of jobs of anyone I know… never mind my pass times! I had so many interests when I was young that I took a short aptitude class to try and get focused. In the end my results showed that I’d be good at a huge variety of things. It frustrated me at the time but I’ve since come to learn that variety is truly the spice of life. I’ve done more and seen more than most everyone I know. The best part is that there’s still SO much to do!

  44. I too have had numerous jobs in different areas… raising and showing Quarter horses, operating room tech, controller, stewardess, retail Western wear store co-owner, legal secretary, caterer, real estate broker, etc. Love to learn and ‘master’ new things. I am now concentrating on my life-long passion… horses, Western wear, cowboys, etc. Nice to see there are many others who are interested, at one point or another, in many different things. Nice post. 😉

  45. Great post to kick off what I’m sure will be an excellent new blog!
    I love the notion of focusing more on being well rounded.

    I think the goal for people at any age should be never stop exploring, because often you don’t know where a passion might lie, until you dabble in it a bit.

    Also, you often referred to breakthroughs because people understood the overall puzzle for that topic. That’s critical. It’s not like they knew a lot about 15 areas that didn’t at all tie together. But they were well rounded in a bunch of areas that are connected together in some way.

  46. I’m an elementary teacher – one of the last of the great generalists in education. Our field is changing, though, and the Renaissance men and women are no longer valued as much as the specialists. It may be time to move on to another career – and do my part to lead the world.

  47. Thanks for your post,

    Didn’t Charlie Chaplin in ‘Modern Times’
    warn us for

    ‘The ‘Non-Multi Passionates…?!!’

    All the Best,
    To your Happy Inspiration,

  48. April Thompson says:

    This so summarizes me perfectly! I love it when I find people who can relate and understand my multiple interests and talents! Barbara Sher also writes about it and refers to us as scanners.

  49. blah blah blah

  50. I play about 10 musical instruments and my teacher discourages me.. I love writing, I’m into technicals and I also want to be d best student in my faculty. Is that too much?

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