“Eureka – I have found it!”
A renaissance person or polymath is a one who is skilled in multiple fields or multiple disciplines, and who has a broad base of knowledge. In short a multi-dimensional person.
I have always admired those renaissance people who were accomplished at many tasks, those with an hidden skill such as music, painting, poetry, or cabinet making. Unfortunately I am not one of those people. Embarrassingly I am not even a jack-of-all-trades. But secretly I want to be a polymath.
I have been blessed in my lifetime to serve with many incredibly talented leaders. And for the life of me, I can’t point to any specific group of skills that make a great leader. But one of the characteristics I see in most of the truly high achievers is what I call the renaissance person.
During my Pentagon days, I was privileged to observe the work of then Chairman of the Joint Chief’s of Staff, General Colin Powell. Suffice to say I would have walked over the proverbial cliff for that man. Despite his schedule Gen Powell, projected a uniquely human approach to life. In short, while being a master of generalship, strategy and politics, Gen Powell was a guy you just wanted to be around. It was widely known during his limited “free time,” he could often be found in his garage working on old Volvo cars. For him this hobby provided an outlet, an escape and perhaps a means of balance and grounding. Gen Powell has said, “Surround yourself with those who take their work seriously but not themselves….”
There are countless other examples: Condoleezza Rice is a classic pianist, Winston Churchill and George W. Bush share oil painting, and of course, Bill Clinton is famous for his saxophone. High achievers range from shade tree mechanics, garage band musicians, artists and passionate weekend athletes. While the chronic workaholic types rise into leadership positions on pure effort and demonstrated merit, these one-dimensional wonders, tend to create staffs of drones, limited in creativity, innovation and initiative. But nearly all of the truly great leaders display renaissance characteristics. They have external outlets to temporarily reset their brains, and stimulate their creativity.
Gen Powell has said, “Surround yourself with those who take their work seriously but not themselves….”
Often removing oneself from an immediate problem, however briefly, can allow another part of our brains to enter a creative environment, and lead to what Archimedes would call his “Eureka Moment.”
But we are all incredibly busy, arguably, too busy. After factoring in long workweeks, seemingly bottomless email inboxes, and the pressures of family, children, school, soccer, homework, we barely have enough time for sleep.
“Hobby”, you say, “I don’t have time for a hobby.” So what’s a person to do? Here are a few brief suggestions that I have tried to use that seem to be working for me.
- Take five minutes a day for meditation or centering prayer depending on your personal faith tradition. I would highly recommend Mark Devine’s book, “The Way of the Seal”, for its great instructions on box breathing and mind clearing meditation. We all have 5 minutes. Set your smart phone to count down the minutes. The purpose is to totally clear your mind of all thoughts. Let it go blank. When a thought pops up relax, breathe deeply and start again. With practice you can clear your head for a brief time. The effect of this activity is like emptying the trash bin in your email files…. it clears space in your brain for creative thinking.
- Start a hobby that allows your brain to fully focus on something other than work. Give yourself a limit commensurate with your amount of free time. Practice a musical instrument for 30 minutes a day, study a foreign language, read a book that takes you somewhere else, but challenges your thinking. My experience tells me that while “Candy Crush” may take you out of your present circumstances and provide relaxation, my creativity is more stimulated by something that requires mental concentration and fires off some new synapses. . Again guard your time, don’t go overboard…set a timer and control your escape. The absolute key is that this activity needs to be totally absorbing, and pull you away from your primary job. If you can’t immerse yourself in this task, than this may not be the right outlet. The genuine polymath seeks hobbies that challenge them to concentrate and think deeply about another field of endeavor. Just as exercise stimulates endorphins mental exercise help reset your brain.
- Rethink your exercise scenarios. There is abundant evidence proving that exercise is a critical component of mental and physical wellness. But I have found that while exercise on the treadmill or elliptical trainer serves its purpose for cardio training, it rarely helps me reset my focus, rather it is just another task on my daily to do list. Find an exercise that you enjoy and practice those skills. If your favorite physical activity requires larger blocks of time i.e. training for a marathon, golfing, lengthy bike rides. But you can break those physical activities into time managing blocks. For example, a round of golf may take a whole morning, but a trip to the driving range, chipping or putting green with intense concentration hones your skills and relaxes the mind as you fall into a zone. In short, have fun with your exercise. If you see exercise as drudgery, it may serve your physiological needs but not your psychological needs.
- Try to view that weekend “Honey Do” list with a sense of accomplishment. Some people view housecleaning tasks as a stimulating event. To my partner’s great dismay I don’t take any pleasure from housework. However I find tasks like hanging ceiling fans, or doing plumbing repairs challenges me mentally and physically. CAUTION, should plumbing be your chosen outlet remember the Plumber’s Three Basic rules: Crap flows down hill; payday is on Friday; and never bite your fingernails.
Sadly I will never be a true renaissance man, and may remain in the “middle ages.” But I would encourage all of us to develop a multi-dimensional approach to life. It may actually lead to increased productivity and clearer strategic thinking.