A year or two ago I went to an event at the excellent Five Leaves Bookshop and got chatting to one of my fellow attendees who set something alight in my head. I don’t remember the context – just that this person mentioned ‘Renaissance Man’ or ‘Renaissance Woman’ and I thought Aha! This is of interest…
My brain filed it away under ‘inspirational bits and bobs’ and then forgot all about it. Then, a week ago I was talking to my daughter about school. And how it seemed like there was always some kid who was brilliant at science and some kid who was brilliant at art and some kid who was a maths whizz and some kid who could run the cross-country race in, like, two seconds flat. Yet my daughter bemoaned the fact that she wasn’t brilliant at any one thing. She was merely all right at most things. I tried my best to listen and empathise. For I, too, was the kid who was all right at most things. If I studied really hard and put in the effort I could even be good. Good enough to have the option to study either the humanities (I was particularly fond of English) or the sciences. But brilliance in one subject always evaded me.
Then I remembered Renaissance Woman, and sought out a dictionary definition. Basically, it is the term for a woman who is a polymath i.e. a multi-talented woman who excels in a number of different areas. (Leonardo da Vinci was the quintessential Renaissance Man, Queen Elizabeth I the Renaissance Woman.) But nowadays, polymaths seem to be a rarity. (Well, Stephen Fry immediately pops into my head as being a modern-day polymath but who else…?) Perhaps they seem to be a rarity because we don’t grant them polymath status until they are famous in at least two, if not three, of their endeavours (which often takes decades to achieve). Then I considered many of the creative men and women I know. Sometimes they’re writers, sometimes they’re scientists, or artists, or crafters, or musicians, or designers, or bloggers, or publishers (sometimes all these things), and they’re, all of them, busy plugging away at their many creative endeavours alongside day jobs or part-time jobs or freelance jobs, or running the household and looking after their families, as well as taking part in a sport and community clubs/charities. What of these talented individuals? Surely they qualify for polymaths status?
Again, I would suggest, that polymath status is only conferred when a certain level of success/fame is achieved. And until then we might label them with the rather less charitable status of ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’. I can see the distinction, particularly when someone repeatedly dabbles in one area only to give it up shortly afterwards to dabble in another area. But what does an emerging polymath look like? Mightn’t they look like the curious child who is all right at most things? Or the imaginative twenty-something who likes to do lots of things but can’t make up their mind which one thing to do? Or the older man or woman who is finally making some progress in their various creative endeavours after years of continual effort?
Of course, if one day I had enough of a body of high quality creative work to have critics look upon it and say, Aha, the work of a Renaissance Woman! that would be wonderful, but it’s really not the be-all-and-end-all. Because through the years I’ve spent working on my various creative projects the one incredibly important thing I’ve learnt is that this kind of multi-endeavour work is slow. Incredibly slow. Tediously slow. Because you continuously need to practise in each area every day. You don’t focus on just the one thing over and over, you pull each project along, making only a tiny amount of progress each day. Sometimes it feels like a painfully stupid way of working (particularly when financial remuneration for the work is negligible), but that’s why you have to love the work, love doing the work. Because the work itself is the reward. And occasionally you’ll feel that yes, you’re getter better at the work, you’re making progress. And that feeling is incredibly good.
So, to all the emerging polymaths out there, some encouragement: keep going, keep doing your thing. Continue to be curious about the world, continue to feed your vast, expansive and technicoloured imaginations. Just keep going. There are many of us out there who can’t wait to see what you’ll create next.