Well-rounded. That was the phrase my mother used when I was growing up to indicate her ultimate goal in raising a son. This was a person whose enjoyment and grasp of the world was broad and interconnected, creating a capable, confident, and stable individual. Her hand moved in my life by encouraging me to pursue a range of diverse interests: guitar lessons, ice hockey, gardening, and many others, all balanced by a commitment to hard work—mowing lawns, raking leaves, and walking a paper route through many an upstate NY winter.
I bounced off the wall of my potential plenty of times in the process, such as when I nearly bombed my trigonometry class in high school, but hey, there are limits to everything, including being broad-based. And furthermore, we need specialists—the type of people who know their main subject so well (to the exclusion of other things) that they can compose timeless music, engineer launch vehicles for space ships, and perform delicate maneuvers in neurosurgery. That some of them may not be able to comprehend a poem effectively or cook food beyond nuking a hot dog, well, so it goes.
My mother did a heck of a job conveying the value of roundedness and in the ultimate compliment to her parenting, I strived to encourage my own kids along the same paths. We'll see if the lesson takes in the next generation.
The concept finds an expanded definition in the term Renaissance man. I recall a high school teacher who articulated the concept by describing an idealized Renaissance-era fellow who could play a smashing round of tennis, woo a lady with poetry, and then easily dispose of an opponent in a swordfight before retiring to his chambers to paint a lovely landscape and check on the progress of a scientific experiment he was conducting.
About that time, I visited Monticello, the Virginia mountain-top home of Thomas Jefferson. There, on display, were the artifacts of just such a man. I was stunned. It actually was possible, in real terms, to cultivate a life like this. Jefferson's wasn't perfect or seamless, but it was a clear manifestation of broad excellence across a range of challenging fields. It bears noting that Jefferson was truly human, and he failed at a number of very human challenges. It's a grounding fact that failure is an equal and even necessary part of being well rounded.
So I went on to adulthood carrying in mind both the idealized and real versions of the Renaissance man, informed by the insight that nothing can completely erase our flawed nature, which must also find expression. "What a piece of work is man," Hamlet says, and goes on to exalt humans as "the paragon of animals." Yet in present parlance we are more likely to hear someone say, tongue in cheek, "Yeah, he's a real piece of work." Clearly, an overachiever may, despite his many and diverse accomplishments, turn out to be an insufferable prick whose flaws loom as large as his skills.
Amid these projections of the ideal and real, I remain fascinated by the concept. This was brought home to me again when I happened upon a summarized account of Michael Gelb's How to Think Like Leonardo DaVinci: Seven Steps to Genius Every Day. It's that last phrase that gets me: genius every day, and conveniently, in seven steps! Well dang, let's get after that.
Gelb presents the applicable path to "an open mind that allows you to broaden your universe and increase your ability to explore it" in the Italian, as follows:
- CURIOUSITA: Let curiousity open your mind to a state of continuous learning, one that always asks the next good question, and the next, in a quest for truth and beauty.
- DIMOSTRAZIONE: consistently test your knowledge through experience, in a state of humility that allows you to learn from errors.
- SENSAZIONE: closely linked to #2 above, refine your senses as a means to enliven experience and gain the best, most reliable knowledge; as a Buddhist might put it, practice mindfulness.
- SFUMATO: rather than fight mystery and ambiguity, learn to embrace paradox and uncertainty, as aligned with Keats' concept of negative capability.
- ARTE/SCIENZA: balance art and science, logic and imagination, so that your whole brain is in play on all the challenges that pass before you.
- CORPORALITA: relish the body, study it and care for it fully so that you possess grace, flexibility, and poise.
- CONNESSIONE: actively recognize and appreciate the interconnectedness of all things, and practice a sensitivity to new patterns of understanding.
That's as practical a list as I've seen in all my time considering the matter of how to be a Renaissance man. Sure, it's a post-postmodern world, and so the landscape is different than it was in the Renaissance. Or is it? It seems to me that each of those seven steps is realizable—as much today as it was in Leonardo's time.