How To Avoid The Renaissance Man Trap

This is the problem with being a jack of all trades

John P. Weiss
Mar 4, 2020 · 8 min read
Illustrations by John P. Weiss

The Leonardo da Vinci curse

Leonardo da Vinci was a remarkable polymath. Painter, sculptor, anatomist, architect. Talk about a multi-talented individual! He was born in the right era, as the Renaissance rewarded such men of varied talents and dimensions. But would Leonardo have fared well today?

“The noblest pleasure is the joy of understanding.” — Leonardo da Vinci

Increasingly, we rely on specialists rather than generalists. For example, you wouldn’t use a general practitioner for open-heart surgery. You’d seek out a cardiac surgeon. Similarly, most college students today declare a major to ensure a solid career path.

Depth versus knowledge

As a teenager, I juggled many creative pursuits. I played the piano and sang. I liked to paint and draw. I became a cartoonist for my high school newspaper. I enjoyed writing short stories. Beyond these creative hobbies, I also played chess, competitive tennis and studied martial arts.

“The jack-of-all-trades is seldom good at any. Concentrate all of your efforts on one definite chief aim.” — Napoleon Hill

Friends often referred to me as the “Renaissance man” because of all my creative pursuits. The problem was, I wasn’t progressing very fast in any of my interests. I was spread too thin and had fallen into the Renaissance man trap.

The power of simplifying

Simplicity played a big part in helping me avoid the Renaissance man trap. Early in my law enforcement career, I was dabbling in several hobbies, from music and martial arts to writing and cartooning. With a family and full-time job, I often grew frustrated trying to squeeze my hobbies into very little free time.

“Our life is frittered away by detail…simplify, simplify.” — Henry David Thoreau

So, I quit training in jujitsu (despite being a brown belt on the cusp of my black belt). I also gave up my dream of forming another rock band. I was content to play the piano and sing at home. I put these pursuits on the back-burner and focused intently on my cartooning.

Jack of all trades, master of none

There are exceptions and anomalies to every rule. For example, consider the case of Jacob M. Appel. Here’s how Wikipedia describes him:

Routines trump goals

The late author David Foster Wallace wrote:

“Everything I ever let go of has claw marks on it.”

Our interest in many passions often sabotages our achievement in any one of them. It’s not easy to give things up that we enjoy. It was difficult for me to walk away from the martial arts and performing in rock bands. But as a result, my artwork and writing took off.

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John P. Weiss

Written by

Writer & Artist

Personal Growth

Sharing our ideas and experiences.

John P. Weiss

Written by

Writer & Artist

Personal Growth

Sharing our ideas and experiences.

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