When I was a boy my mother enrolled me in classical piano lessons. Every Friday after school Mom dropped me off at the home of my piano teacher, Irma Hincenbergs.
Mrs. Hincenbergs was a Latvian refugee who lived in a beautiful Victorian house in downtown Los Gatos, California.
On the wall beside Mrs. Hincenbergs’ grand piano were several pencil drawings of famous composers, including Chopin and Beethoven. I often admired the drawings as I butchered my way through Debussy’s “Clair de Lune.”
Mrs. Hincenbergs knew that I loved to draw cartoons. Every Friday after my lesson she presented me with a stack of editorial cartoons cut out of her daily newspapers. She was a kind and thoughtful woman.
Despite my grumbling about lost Friday afternoons, I grew to appreciate classical piano. It created the foundation for my later experiences playing keyboards and singing in both high school and college rock bands.
I didn’t realize at the time how much my interactions with Mrs. Hincenbergs were shaping my creative predilections for music, drawing and cartooning. Further, I had no inkling of how much these diverse interests would complicate my life.
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?
According to author Leonardo Lospennato, who wrote “The Da Vinci Curse- Life Design for People With Too Many Interests and Talents,” Leonardo da Vinci might have struggled in our modern age. Why? Because our knowledge base has increased exponentially from the days of the Renaissance.
In this age of vast information, a multi-faceted guy like Leonardo da Vinci would have a field day indulging his many interests. However, he may have struggled to make a good living due to all his intellectual curiosities.
“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.
I became what the author Leonardo Lospennato calls a “Da Vinci person.” Da Vinci people dabble in many areas. They tend to jump around from field to field, acquiring a lot of knowledge but not necessarily a lot of depth. Jack of all trades, but master of none.
“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 book “The Da Vinci Curse,” recommends finding a single pursuit that is “complex” enough to integrate many of your talents. One way to figure this out is by using a pre-selection strategy. Examine your creative interests and look for three criteria:
1. Is it fun?
2. Do you have a talent for it?
3. Can you earn money doing it?
A lot of artists and creative people dabble in many areas but never achieve mastery in any one of them. They become frustrated because they aren’t getting anywhere.
This was my story for a long time. Only when I gave up all the hobbies and focused exclusively on my artwork and writing did I see progress.
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.
I asked myself which hobbies I enjoyed the most and had a talent for. The answer was my cartooning. I was a decent martial artist and musician, but my cartooning was already at a professional level.
“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.
Guess what happened? My cartooning blossomed. I ended up moonlighting as a staff editorial cartoonist for both my city and county newspapers. I began selling my work and found deeper creative satisfaction. All because I simplified and set aside the other hobbies.
In recent years, I stepped away from editorial cartooning to focus on my writing. I studied with a top blogger, hired a copywriter to coach me, and set a regular writing schedule.
As a result, I now have thousands of newsletter subscribers and over 37K followers. I draw cartoons for my articles, but it was the intense focus on improving my writing that made the difference.
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:
“Jacob M. Appel (born February 21, 1973) is an American author, poet, bioethicist, physician, lawyer and social critic. He is best known for his short stories, his work as a playwright, and his writing in the fields of reproductive ethics, organ donation, neuroethics and euthanasia. Appel’s novel The Man Who Wouldn’t Stand Up won the Dundee International Book Prize in 2012. He is Director of Ethics Education in Psychiatry at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. Appel is the subject of the 2019 documentary film Jacob by director Jon Stahl.”
Talk about a renaissance man! I watched the documentary film about Jacob and was fascinated by the scope of this man’s interests and accomplishments. And yet, before the documentary, I had never heard of him.
Despite his many degrees and accomplishments, I ended the documentary wondering if perhaps Jacob Appel spread himself too thin? What if he had narrowed his focus, putting more energy into the passion he most enjoyed?
One person in the documentary said that Jacob most wanted to be a playwright. Interestingly, Jacob gives his plays away for free on his website. Had Jacob devoted more focus to his plays, maybe his work would have been on Broadway?
The website lifehacker.com ran an article titled “Knowing a Little of Everything is Often Better Than Having One Expert Skill.” The article notes:
“Creativity often requires drawing analogies between one body of knowledge and another. Pablo Picasso merged Western art techniques with elements of African art. He was struck by the way African artists combined multiple perspectives into a single work, and that helped lead to the development of cubism. Similarly, great scientists often draw parallels between different areas to create new ideas. In the history of science, Johannes Kepler struggled to understand how the planets could move around the sun, and drew on his knowledge of light and magnetism to try to understand the force that moved the planets.”
No doubt reading widely and acquiring diverse knowledge can broaden your perspectives, enrich your life and quite possibly improve your work and creativity.
But if every pursuit of yours is given equal time, then you run the risk of falling into the Renaissance man trap. You risk becoming a jack of all trades, master of none.
Focusing primarily on one area of expertise will enable you to acquire greater depth and ability. It will keep you out of the Renaissance man trap. However, this doesn’t mean you should abandon your intellectual curiosity.
Read broadly and feed your mind. Synthesize ideas, borrow what works, and funnel the best of what you learn into your one, primary pursuit. Yes, you can try and fuel all your passions and creative projects, but doing so will slow the development of your primary pursuit.
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.
Another reason my writing and artwork succeeded is because I set up regular habits and routines.
Blogger James Clear has written that routines trump goals. You may have the goal of becoming a top artist, but it’s the routines and habits you adopt that will ultimately matter most.
Let go or scale back the hobbies and passions you’re less talented with. Set up a regular schedule and focus on deep work in the passion you love most.
Put as much time into that passion as you can and you’ll avoid the Renaissance man trap, quickly hone your skills, and achieve greater joy and success.
(Adapted from and originally published at FineArtViews.com)
Before you go
I’m John P. Weiss. I draw cartoons, paint, and write about life. Get on my free email list here for the latest cartoons and writing.