In Praise of the Renaissance Man

The concept of a Renaissance Man (these days perhaps a Renaissance Person) alludes to individuals such as Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Galileo, Akbar the Great, or Benjamin Franklin, who excelled in multiple different fields. Dictionaries define the Renaissance Man as:

  • A person with many talents or areas of knowledge
  • An outstandingly versatile, well-rounded person
  • Anyone who is very clever at many different things

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Taysom Hill, a Renaissance Man

I read an article a while back that caused me to reflect on this concept of a Renaissance Man a bit more. The article was about Taysom Hill. Taysom is a football player who played at my Alma Mater, Brigham Young University. He was a lot of fun to watch and even had some Heisman Trophy talk about him, but he ended four of his five seasons with an injury. He was one of those dual-threat quarterbacks; it was like always having an extra running back on the field. Sometimes he would rush for more yards than he threw for.

Despite a rather lackluster college career due to those injuries, he eventually busted his butt (cut originally from the Green Bay Packers but didn’t give up) and made it into the NFL where he plays for the New Orleans Saints, who were one bogus penalty away from the Super Bowl this year.

The thing that is unique about Taysom in the now hyper-specialized NFL is that he plays everything. If you ask him, he still considers himself a quarterback. And indeed, he is the third-string quarterback on the team. But late in 2017, the Saints needed someone to cover kickoff returns. This “quarterback” on his first play on special teams in the NFL (and probably since Pop Warner football) split a two-man wedge and tackled the returner. Hill did it again later in the same game.

In high school, he was a receiver, a quarterback, a cornerback, a safety, a linebacker, a punter, and a kicker. He lettered in basketball and track too. He is also an excellent golfer and horseshoe player. From the article:

His combination of strength and speed would be outstanding for a running back. It’s unheard of for a quarterback. Saints coaches shake their heads and smile recalling him squatting 625 pounds, which would be impressive for an offensive lineman. His 40-yard dash time was faster than Marcus Mariota’s (4.52), Russell Wilson’s (4.55), Cam Newton’s (4.59), and Tim Tebow’s (4.71). It also was faster than the 40 times of teammates Alvin Kamara (4.56) and Michael Thomas (4.57).

Taysom Hill

Taysom Hill

After Taysom Hill did such a good job covering kickoffs, the Saints tried him as a blocker on the kick off return team, where he was also excellent. They made him the personal protector on the punt team too. He became a kick returner. Then Taysom was put on the field goal block team. He is also the back-up holder and the back-up long snapper. Again from the article:

In a 24-23 Saints victory over the Ravens, Hill plays every skill position offensively—three receiver spots, two tight end positions, halfback and quarterback, as well as having a full plate on special teams. He ran the ball six times for 35 yards, including once on a fake punt in which he takes a direct snap from his personal protector position and rushes for a first down. Among his responsibilities are blocking pass-rusher Terrell Suggs and Ravens defensive ends on some plays….

Defenses have no idea how to play Hill. He can start at one position and motion to another. Safety up, or safety back? Some have tried to play nickel when he’s in the game. Others have remained in base. Hill almost always creates some kind of defensive concession.

After Hill broke his fibula in 2014, Jim Harbaugh called [and talked about an injury he had]. “What I found is I needed to find something else to compete at, because I couldn’t do it on the football field. Go compete in life, go compete in the classroom.” Hill took his advice and committed himself to the finance curriculum at BYU. He subsequently became one of the top students in the rigorous program. What he accomplished gave him great satisfaction, even though he missed football.

Become a Renaissance Person

I read that article and thought, “What’s to keep me from being awesome at multiple different things? Why I can’t I be the best doc, best blogger, best podcaster, best investor, best father, best skier, or best hockey player?”

As I have mentioned on this blog before, like many emergency docs I have a bit of an ADHD personality. Somewhere in the medical training pipeline, I discovered that there is actually nothing in my life that I want to do more than 20 hours a week. Not seeing patients. Not blogging. Not going climbing. Not skiing. Not even spending time with my kids.

But there are TONS of things I’d like to do for twenty hours a week. I had far more hobbies and interests than I have life with which to do them. Hill is a great example to me that it is still possible to be a Renaissance Man. That those of us who can’t fit ourselves into one little niche can still be successful.

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More importantly, I think that in modern times, and perhaps especially in medicine, we put the hyper specialist on a pedestal. We are encouraged to find our niche. To learn more about something than anybody else in the world. A popular Twitter account, @naval, says it like this:

Become the best in the world at what you do. Keep redefining what you do until this is true.

Maybe it is just because I am in a specialty that is more a specialty of breadth than a specialty of depth (“I like to joke that I know how to manage the first four hours of every medical condition.”) But my experience is that there are an awful lot of people out there who are very smart at one thing (such as their medical specialty) and absolute idiots about everything else. At the intersection of my two favored fields, medicine and finance, this often results in people with USMLE scores in the 270s who can’t invest their way out of a paper bag.

The Benefits of Outside Interests

So what I want to encourage you to do today is to become a Renaissance Person by adding some new skills and interests to your life. This is a bit of a Do It Yourself (DIY) mentality in many ways. Sure, it might be true that financially speaking, the very best use of your time is to spend 90 hours a week doing CABGs or replacing hips and you should outsource everything else in your life. However, there are real advantages to being a Renaissance Person and developing other interests.

renaissance man

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Imagine if I had told myself in 2010 that the best use of my time was just to work ED shifts and there was no point to doing anything else? Tens of thousands of doctors (including me) would be a lot poorer and I would have missed out on a ton of great opportunities I’ve had in the last 8 years.

Let’s list a few benefits of developing outside interests as a Renaissance Person:

# 1 Reduces Burnout

We have an epidemic of burnout among physicians and many other high paying jobs. Too many of them are wealthy, successful, and miserable. You know what helps burnout? I mean besides financial independence — since it’s really hard to be burned out for long at a job you don’t need. Other interests. You’ve always got something to look forward to and be excited about.

# 2 Can Change Fields

When you are an expert in more than one thing, you can go do something else. Many of the skills I use to run The White Coat Investor, LLC are the result of learning from others, reading, and just trying stuff out and failing. Those skills, however, have real value in the marketplace. If I wanted to step away from The White Coat Investor and medicine, I could go consult with other online companies and make pretty decent money doing so. But if all you know how to do is dialyze left-handed infants, your employment (and even living) opportunities are going to be very limited.

# 3 Save Time Required to Hire Things Out

While it is nice to be able to just hire out tasks you don’t want to do, it does require time and effort to find and hire them. Then you have to manage the person you hired. And maybe rearrange your life to line up with their schedule. Then you usually have to pay them and pay them well. With post-tax dollars.

Sometimes it is easier to just take the chainsaw out back and cut the darn tree down yourself. Or put in new spark plugs yourself. Or file your taxes yourself. Often you learn more about whatever you are working on that can be applied elsewhere. You gain confidence in your ability to figure stuff out.

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As a general rule, the people I meet who FIRE are “do it yourselfers”. Not just in their finances (although that likely provides the biggest bang for your buck when it comings to DIYing), but in all kinds of things. Take a look at arguably the most famous–Mr. Money Mustache. He’s an IT guy who builds houses and runs a successful online empire teaching others to DIY all kinds of things in their life, saving money and the planet at the same time.

# 4 Learn to Understand and Recognize Value

You have to play a little basketball to recognize just how good Michael Jordan or Lebron James is. You can’t really understand how impressive a concert pianist is until you try to pound out a few easy tunes yourself. Likewise, when you know a little bit about a field, you are much more likely to be able to recognize expertise. Finding a good financial advisor is tricky because by the time you know enough to recognize what good advice looks like, you probably know enough to do it yourself. When you know how to do something yourself, you can properly assess what paying someone else to do it for you is worth to you. You simply become a smarter consumer. You can better recognize a good deal.

# 5 Become More Interesting

Somebody who only does one thing can only be interesting to a limited number of people for a limited period of time. The more you expand your knowledge and abilities, the more connections you will make with other people that will expand your life, knowledge, and happiness.

# 6 Find Connections Between Fields

Too many times we find ourselves in silos where we don’t talk to anyone outside of our fields. Renaissance People can make connections between fields that allow for new insights, developments, and advances that a hyper specialist never could. They also recognize opportunities that no one else sees. Many successful entrepreneurs have interests in multiple fields, for instance.

So today I want to encourage you to commit to develop some expertise in something else. Something you don’t really know much about right now, but would like to. You might be surprised how much value it adds to your life.

What do you think? Is becoming a Renaissance Person worthwhile? What are the advantages of developing a breadth of knowledge? Comment below!

(Photo Credit: GrabitMike on Wikimedia)