Renaissance Souls: Who You Are--and Who You're Not
When my sister told me about Renaissance Souls, I got so excited. But when I tried telling my partner this was why I don't finish all the projects I start, he just laughed and said I was lazy. And when I tried to tell my realtor friend Janet this was why I hadn't picked one field and stayed with it like she had, she said I didn't need a new name for myself, I just needed discipline. Are they right? How do I know I really am a Renaissance Soul?
Even if you've taken the quiz in the introduction and identified yourself as a Renaissance Soul, you probably still have some questions. Can I be a Renaissance Soul even though I'm not a genius like Leonardo da Vinci? What if I've successfully climbed one career ladder but still feel like a Renaissance Soul? You may also long to hear more about the characteristics you share with so many others, especially if you've experienced a lifetime of feeling different. Why do I have so many interests? you may wonder. Or even: Why do I still feel so alone? In this chapter, I'll take you on a journey deeper into the Renaissance Soul.
Amadeus Mozart . . . or Ben Franklin?
The Continuum of Interests
One Passionate Lifelong Interest
A Great Many Varied Interests
Picture a line representing the continuum of human interests. At one end, you have people like Mozart. To say that Mozart chose one interest and stuck with it is an understatement. He made his career choice at age three, when he begged for piano lessons and spent his playtime performing on make-believe musical instruments. And he continued to eat, breathe, and sleep music, playing for royal courts as a youngster and then composing his masterpieces practically up until the minute he died. Mozart would never have needed a self-help book or career workshop to pinpoint his interests and help him figure out what to do with his life. (He could have used one of my money-management workshops, but that's another story. . . .)
Now look at the other end of the spectrum. There, with his multitude of changing interests, stands Ben Franklin. (I warned you he was my favorite example!) Just for fun, let's imagine that Ben is alive today. How might his friends and family react to his revolving-door approach to careers? Having played his key role in the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, they might expect him to head for a tenured position at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. But what about his strange fascination with kite and key experiments? Fine, his wife might say. Why don't you go to MIT and pursue a nice stable career in science? But no, it turns out that Ben also wants to go abroad to study French culture and language! Okay, his friends suggest, he can work for the United Nations or Berlitz. But wait--he also has plans to design a post office, invent bifocals, and print his Poor Richard's Almanac! Looking at Ben's life this way reminds us that a life can look scattered and fragmented while it's unfolding but still go down in history as a smashing success. (This viewpoint can also help keep complaints from family and friends in perspective.)
In my workshops, I often use "Ben Franklin" as a kind of shorthand for the Renaissance Soul, because most people immediately understand him as a kind of goodwill ambassador for the multitalented. Afterward, people will often tell me of the moment during the workshop when they realized, "I'm not a weirdo--I'm a Ben Franklin." Their relief and pride are written on their faces.
Not every Renaissance Soul takes the concept of versatility quite as far as Ben Franklin did, though. Those people who are closer to the middle of the continuum often have a foot in both camps. Some, like my client Matt, may even have one foot on Mozart's side of the line. A brilliant Harvard Medical School graduate, Matt turned down the opportunity to work in one of Boston's high-pressured teaching hospitals for a far less remunerative rural family practice, because it allows him time to pursue his other passions. While Matt will be happy being a doctor all his life, he can't live without time for his horses, his softball team, his oboe playing, and his million different fix-it projects. Matt, too, is a Renaissance Soul.
THREE CHARACTERISTICS OF THE RENAISSANCE SOUL
You may find yourself more toward the middle of the continuum, or you might be jostling Ben Franklin for elbow room toward the end of the line. But what all Renaissance Souls have in common are the following three characteristics. Some Renaissance Souls demonstrate them more than others, but most will feel a warm sense of recognition and belonging upon reading this list.
A Preference for Variety over Single-Minded Focus
The most obvious trait shared by Renaissance Souls is our love for variety over concentrating on just one thing. This doesn't mean that we can't concentrate on what we're doing! Quite the contrary--when we're working at peak performance, we are as absorbed and detail-oriented as neurosurgeons. (Which is a good thing for those Renaissance Souls who happen to be neurosurgeons.) But we do love variety, and there are many ways in which Renaissance Souls express that love.
Many Renaissance Souls pursue several interests simultaneously. Caroline, a client of mine, is both a professional clown and a Holocaust educator who gives talks on the lessons of Auschwitz. Mark, a college student, is majoring in economics and English with a minor in piano performance. Guess how my client Ellen combines her passions for urban history, commerce, textiles, and women's issues? She spends part of her time showing visitors from Europe the hidden joys of Atlanta and the rest of her time importing and selling handmade rugs from women's cooperatives in Turkey.
One particularly dynamic way to practice several interests at once is to combine them under one title--what I call an umbrella. Take Dan. When Dan set out to create a second career after running a successful restaurant, his wife suggested he get trained as a social worker. After all, she knew that Dan wanted to help troubled kids. When his friends heard that Dan dreamed of finally spending time rock climbing and white-water rafting, they suggested he start a business to take outdoor enthusiasts on wilderness trips. Did Dan choose between these two career tracks? No! Instead, he is now the happy owner of a beautiful camp in wild northern Maine, where he can share the outdoor activities he loves with paying customers and inner-city kids. (I'll come back to the subject of umbrellas later in the book, when you're ready for specific life-design strategies.)
Others pursue their varied interests on a rotating basis. Betsy, with her love of gardening and quilting and helping others, changes her activities with the seasons. During the winter she makes unusual baby quilts to sell over the Internet. In early spring she offers quilting workshops for seniors, using materials specially adapted with Velcro for arthritic hands. From late spring through early fall she has a position developing outdoor gardening and landscaping projects with prisoners. Come late fall she again gives quilting workshops for seniors.
Then there are Renaissance Souls who do just one thing at a time . . . until they move on to their next interest, so that each distinct passion reads like a chapter in a fascinating book. A Renaissance Soul I interviewed, Bob Lodie, is a great example. What are the chapters in his life? After seven years as an Air Force aviator, he became a sales executive for a Fortune 50 company. After about a decade, that lost its charm. So Bob spent the 1980s chasing sweat equity in the personal computing industry, moving from company to company. Currently, he's engaging his new love of speaking and writing as an executive at a corporation that provides planning and training tools to businesses worldwide.
As a Renaissance Soul, it doesn't matter much whether we engage in our multitude of interests simultaneously, on a rotating basis, or sequentially. What's important is that we honor our delight in variety, rather than forcing ourselves to choose just one thing. Our multi-interest way of life is the one we prefer, and it's one to which we're entitled.
Characteristic #2: A Working Style
That Emphasizes Growth and Evolution Insteadof Rigid Adherence to a Plan
Renaissance Souls tend to enjoy a working style that doesn't follow a linear, predictable process. We're not like career academics, for example, who relish the process of starting out in the college of liberal arts, then choosing an English major, narrowing that down to Elizabethan literature, narrowing that down to Shakespeare, narrowing that down to tragedy, narrowing that down to Romeo and Juliet, then narrowing that down to dialogue within Romeo and Juliet, until they can clearly define their doctoral thesis topic. What to them feels like a satisfying sense of narrowing in on one clear choice can feel to us like a straitjacket.
This don't-fence-me-in feeling can confuse friends and family, especially those who are smitten with a favorite technique of college advisors and career counselors: the five-year plan. In the five-year plan, you describe exactly where you'd like to be in five years and then outline specific actions you'll take to get there and a timetable for taking them. Now, Renaissance Souls are certainly capable of creating and executing a long-range plan, if one of our current enterprises requires it. But in general the Renaissance Soul chafes at being strapped down to a rigid set of long-term goals and actions.
Renaissance Souls much prefer a work process that's less restrictive, one that allows us to grow and evolve. We need lives and--yes--flexible plans that allow us to change direction and to respond eagerly to new possibilities. We enjoy stretching in directions we had no idea we'd turn. My client Katherine, for example, was growing a business that helped individuals and corporations record their histories. Then the tragic events of September 11, 2001, occurred, and like so many of us, Katherine felt a new call to help the victims. What is Katherine doing now? She's following that call by heading a national organization of volunteers who document the life stories of 9/11 victims. Instead of riding her first business down a fixed path for life, she let that experience evolve into an entirely new option when circumstances changed.
If I were to envision the Renaissance approach to life, the traditional career metaphors of a highway to follow or a mountain to climb wouldn't come to mind. The Renaissance approach to life looks more like a tree branching out in myriad directions, some branches overlapping, some intertwining, and some just finding their own merry ways to the sunlight.
This organic process applies to our daily activities as well. When given the choice, Renaissance Souls prefer to be governed by our own energy rather than by a schedule, calendar, or "to do" list. We may write down an activity in our planner, such as going to the library or doing research on Thursday morning. When Thursday comes, if we feel like doing research, we'll be dynamite at it. But should we not feel that energy, in two seconds flat we'll be out chatting up clients, developing a new system for our files, walking the dog, or doing any one of the other million and one things we find interesting and worthwhile. Even we may find this go-with-the-flow process frustrating at times. Nevertheless, it's a plain truth about how many Renaissance Souls operate.
Characteristic #3: A Sense of Success That's Defined by the Challenges We've Mastered, Instead of How Far Up the Ladder We've Climbed
You are probably already familiar with the learning curve, the graph that demonstrates how long it takes to master the new information and challenges that arise in any given situation. As you begin learning a task, you push your way up the learning curve's steep incline. Eventually, as you understand this new environment or task, the path begins to level. It's easier going now that you're over the hump, and you become more efficient and productive.
Most people dread the difficult time spent moving up the front end of the learning curve. Not the Renaissance Soul! We are most fully engaged when learning something new and discovering how it works. Because we love a good challenge, we tend to define success and completion differently from other people. Once we've mastered a particular problem, we're done--and ready for a different set of problems to solve. Jim, the construction-company owner from the Introduction, is an example of a Renaissance Soul who felt trapped by other people's definitions of success. Jim's family and peers felt that he should have been intoxicated by the rarefied air at the top of the business ladder, especially since those first few rungs had been difficult to climb. But to Jim, it was those first years of business that he looked back on most fondly, as a time when all his faculties were fully absorbed.
It's this love of new challenges that causes Renaissance Souls to opt for change--not continuation--in the face of success. What would most people do if they had a shoe store that, after years of grunt work and staff turnover and inventory mistakes, finally became highly profitable? They'd carry on. Maybe they'd relax into a routine with their current store, or perhaps develop a chain, with each new outlet looking much like the previous ones. But what about Renaissance Souls? The instantaneous response from my Renaissance Soul workshop participants is inevitably: "Sell! Do something else!" I often think that "been there, done that" is an expression we could have invented.
Some lucky Renaissance Souls come to this understanding early in their lives, before spending years in a career that has lost its luster. When my client Annie had her first session with me, she was a caterer with a stellar reputation and a profitably packed schedule. Her colleagues were encouraging her to cater bigger and bigger parties, or maybe open a carryout restaurant that sold her most popular dishes. To them, success was defined by continuity and expansion. But these scenarios left Annie feeling flat. Having figured out what to her were the hardest parts of the business (logistics, staffing, menu planning, and so on), she felt, well, done. The last thing she wanted was more of the same! What Annie craved now was the fresh adventure of travel, so she happily left the catering field to work internationally as a representative for a major dictionary publisher.
Not everyone will understand your desire to move on to new challenges. You can always remind these people of Leonardo da Vinci. Nowadays, he'd probably be considered a failure because he left the The Last Supper unfinished, or because he was satisfied simply with having designed a helicopter instead of having his flying machine mocked up, market tested, and sold to the public at a fifty percent markup. It takes a brave person to redefine success, especially in a time when money and status seem to be prized above all else.
WHAT THE RENAISSANCE SOUL IS NOT
My Renaissance Soul client Robert shuffled into his second session with me, his mouth in a tight line of tension. I was concerned, because Robert had nearly bounded out of his first appointment, eagerly looking forward to telling his wife that all his "eccentricities"--his leap from architecture school to a master's program in business, his penchant for inventing new gadgets on paper with no intent to manufacture them--could be mined as a source of both profit and pride.
As it turned out, Robert explained to me, he did go home and enthusiastically describe Renaissance Souls to his wife, Sarah. "Oh," Sarah said, "I get it. You have ADD." And now here Robert sat, deflated and worried.