Updated on 06.29.08

Review: The Renaissance Soul

Trent Hamm

Each Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal productivity, personal development, or business/entrepreneurship book of interest.

The Renaissance SoulWhen I was in college, I switched majors three different times, bouncing around the hard sciences and the humanities like a rubber ball and finally settling on multiple majors that balanced my interests. I started down the path of a hard science career, then quit to become a writer, and someday I dream of following other passions, too. I read voraciously, tackling complex books on everything from nature to history and philosophy, with lots of literature mixed inside. One day, you might find me digging in the garden – the next, I’ll be tinkering with something electronic.

When I picked up The Renaissance Soul and read the subtitle Life Design for People with Too Many Passions to Pick Just One, I knew I had to pick it up. The phrase “Too Many Passions to Pick Just One” struck a real chord with me, as it’s something I’ve felt throughout my life. I’ll bury myself deep into a project – what one of my friends calls “woodshedding” – and emerge feeling as though I’ve accomplished something interesting and real. But then I’ll feel wanderlust and I’ll want to move onto something else – a new passion.

Margaret Lobenstine’s book seems to address this head on, and I was eager to dive in and see if it had any advice directly applicable to me. Does it? Let’s find out.

Examining The Renaissance Soul

One – Renaissance Souls: Who You Are – and Who You’re Not
The Renaissance Soul opens by clearly defining what a “renaissance soul” is: a person who thrives on a variety of interests and redefines the accepted meaning of success. That’s a pretty broad definition of the term, but it makes sense – if you’re a person who is deeply engaged in a wide variety of subjects all at once, you’re probably a renaissance soul. If you’re skillful in one area, but you have a lot of other interests and resent being pigeonholed by your one known skill, you’re probably a renaissance soul. Take me, for instance: I’m passionate about writing, literature, politics, history, food, the sciences, economics, and mathematics, just to name a few things, and I could see myself following any of them for a career path if I saw a strong potential to support my family in that area. They all burn inside me, some more brightly than others on occasion.

Two – Yes, but …: Common Doubts of the Renaissance Soul
But it’s too late to start something new! But I really want to be an expert at something! But I can’t earn a living unless I stick to one thing! But I don’t want to be a renaissance soul! Lobenstine addresses all of these concerns here, mostly reflecting on the idea that a diversified skill set is often a useful thing in an increasingly complex economy, focused passion can make up a lot of ground against expertise especially when combined with diverse skills, and stressing something vital that I’ve come to discover over the last few years: you can make big career leaps if you prepare yourself financially. Frugal living pays off again and again… I love it.

Three – Panning for Golden Values
Lobenstine argues that many renaissance souls are made to feel guilty because of the choices they make, because the choices of a person with many interests and passions would seem to indicate a lack of commitment to a central goal. In truth, most renaissance souls are deeply committed – but not to specific goals. Instead, their commitments are all about values – aspects of life that they find important. Their passions flow through these values like water through a channel. For example, a person who values spirituality might be seen as “flaky” and uncommitted if they bounce from church to church and religious experience to religious experience, but in fact the person is deeply committed to finding their spiritual path.

Four – The Power of Renaissance Focal Points
Most renaissance souls tend to have a flood of things they want to be working on, and thus it’s easy to simply feel overwhelmed by interests. This can make it particularly difficult to focus in on any one thing and do it well, so quite often renaissance souls either make jittery jumps from thing to thing, slide through life unenthusiastic about anything, or bury themselves in one thing and lament the things they’re missing (I was the latter for a long time). Lebenstine’s solution? Pick a set of four focal points (for now) and focus on them to the exclusion of others. In other words, list out all of the things that interest you and keep four of them for focus right now, with the recognition that at a later date, you can change to other focal points. This can often give you the push you need to dig into something that excites you without feeling overwhelmed by choices and options.

Five – Your J-O-B: No More Day Jobs
Lobenstine tackles the difficult issue of a need for income balanced with a need to focus on your focal points – in other words, how does a renaissance soul balance the need for income with the driving desire to follow one’s passions? Ideally, a renaissance soul seeks to find opportunities where their passions actually pay the bills, but many people aren’t in that situation. She suggests re-evaluating what a job actually is. From Lowenstine’s perspective, a job can provide five things: income or benefits, energy (meaning it leaves you with the kind of energy you need to focus on your passions elsewhere), time (meaning it’s not a giant time vacuum and that there’s some flexibility in terms of schedule), training and equipment, and networking and publicity opportunities. Your full time job should be providing as many of these as possible – if they’re only providing income, your job is likely stifling any opportunity you have to dig into your passions. I know that for me, I had a job that provided good income and benefits and ample time, but it left me completely drained in terms of energy and there were little resources to utilize or opportunities to network in the other areas I was passionate in, so I chose to use my spare time to focus on one other passion (writing) until it became profitable enough to allow me to walk away and explore many other passions to a deeper extent (my family, politics, cooking, etc.).

Six – Getting Paid for Your Passions
As hinted at in the previous chapter, the real goal is to find a way to translate your myriad of passions into income sources. Lobenstine suggests spending your free time building real, demonstrable skills in the areas you’re passionate about, then hunting for jobs that incorporate both skills from your current career along with the demonstrable skills from your area of passion. For example, let’s say you have a job as a researcher, but you’re passionate about writing. You could spend your spare time honing your writing skills, working on getting published in a few places, and creating a writing portfolio. Then you could fuse the two – start writing on the topics you’re researching, using your leverage from both areas to get pieces into print. Perhaps you could even grow into being a staff writer on a publication that focused on your research area.

Seven – But I Don’t Want to Go Back to School!: Alternative Resources for Renaissance Souls
Instead of going back to school for your passion, use the fact that you already have financial security (that steady job of yours) to open up opportunities to get the experience you need for free. You can do this by volunteering, for example – if you’re passionate about design, you could try to get an unpaid part-time position at a design firm just to get some real-world experience under your belt. Another option is to find a mentor in your area of interest and let that mentor guide you towards opportunities where you can really grow in your passion – good volunteer slots, low-end jobs, and methods to grow specific useful skills for your area of interest. In other words, let experience be your guide, not schooling.

Eight – What If I’ve Got My Whole Life Ahead of Me?: Renaissance Soul Strategies for Young People
The biggest step you can take as a young person with diverse interests is to major in a field that intensely works to develop your critical thinking and reasoning skills – fields such as philosophy and mathematics. You can also double major in another area and add some minors in specific areas. Learn skills that can translate to any career – for example, a strong minor in a foreign language can open a wide variety of doors for you. Also, when you’re in college, get involved in a number of organizations that touch on your various interests and dig in to your heart’s content. When you do move on to a real job, don’t start living to match your paycheck – live cheap and sock away as much as you possibly can so that you have the freedom to follow other passions, and don’t let your job become all-consuming – give yourself plenty of free time to follow interesting pursuits.

Nine – Committing Yourself to Action the Renaissance Soul Way
This chapter is a primer on goal setting. Lobenstine breaks it down into a nice mnemonic: PRISM, which stands for Price, Reality, Integrity, Specificity, and Measurability. What sort of expense does your goal have? Is it actually realistic, or are you hoping for something out of the realm of reasonable possibility? Is your goal something that’s in line with our most deeply-held values? What exactly is your goal – what markers are there to tell you when you’ve achieved it? What’s your timeline for approaching this goal, and when will you have achieved what you want to achieve? Asking these questions honestly can help mold a nebulous goal into something you can start taking realistic action on immediately.

Ten – Time-Management Magic for Renaissance Souls
Lobenstine’s approach to time management is basically the “rocks and sand” approach described by Stephen Covey in his worthwhile First Things First: basically, schedule blocks of time each week for the things truly important to you and don’t let the trivial things interrupt them – let them fill the leftover time like sand fills the space around rocks. She also offers up a litany of solid basic time management tactics: don’t multitask, block out interruptions when you need to focus, have a daily routine, and so forth.

Eleven – Staying the Course: Overcoming Momentum Blockers
Lobenstine covers several potential momentum blockers here, but the one that really stood out to me was perfectionism – a need to continually polish and make things better. Lowenstein’s solution is to limit yourself – agree to a certain timeframe that you’ll give yourself to polish the thing you’re working on and when that time is up, it’s good enough – turn it in and move on with life. This issue strikes at home for me and it’s something I constantly battle. I’d love to just sit around and polish my writing over and over again, but I’ve come to realize that it’s often more important to just get the thoughts out there than to worry about repeating the same words too often or perfectly polishing the grammar. This is particularly true when it comes to The Simple Dollar – this site thrives on ideas, not on exact use of the pluperfect. I’ve learned to put away my perfectionism when it comes to this site and instead use it to polish other things I work on – if I hadn’t done that, this site would be much more boring.

Twelve – If It’s Still Hard to Get Going…
Fear. Anxiety. Failed expectations. These things often hold us back, even when we’re ready to make a leap. We all fear the unknown. We’re all anxious about the potential for failure. We all worry sometimes about disappointing the ones we love. It’s very difficult to walk away from what’s safe and unknown, but allowing that fear to control your decision just means that you’re keeping yourself from living the life you’ve dreamed of. My philosophy is this: it’s your life, and you’re the one that will be left alone with the regret of having not taken the road less traveled. So take it and don’t look back.

Be a Role Model
The book closes with an avenue of thought that really inspired me: the idea that by having the courage to follow your passions, you might become a role model for others and convince them to do the same. I know at least one person who was simply amazed that I had the courage to walk away from a job and do something I dreamed about – and I used that opportunity to tell her that she could do that, too. In fact, I’ve already recommended this book to her.

Some Thoughts on The Renaissance Soul

I had a flood of thoughts when reading The Renaissance Soul. Here are a few of the more interesting ones.

This book captured my thought patterns very well. Lobenstine gets it, on a very deep level. I love reading literature because it gives me the opportunity to understand aspects of the human existence of others, but rarely do I read a book that seems to get a fundamental aspect of my own life. That’s a truly enjoyable experience – it allows me to directly, intimately relate with someone else and realize I’m not alone in some aspect of the way that I think and live.

You can be a role model by making the hard choice. When deciding to make the leap to become a writer, I mostly saw things through the lens of disappointment. Would others think I was making a foolish choice? I hadn’t really considered that making a hard choice could actually inspire others, and I think that’s important.

Good goals rest on top of good values. The goals you are most likely to achieve are ones that are tied into your core values and passions. They will drive you on to success. Figure out what really drives you on a fundamental level, establish some goals to reach related to that fundamental drive, and hold on tight – the results will probably amaze you.

Is The Renaissance Soul Worth Reading?

You should know right off the bat whether this book is compelling to you or not. Just look at the cover again:


Are you a person that has “too many passions to pick just one”? If you are, then you’ll get some intense value out of reading this book. More than anything, you’ll realize that you’re not alone in feeling this way at all. For me, at least, it felt quite good to see this – to realize that I wasn’t just a person who couldn’t commit to a single lifelong direction.

This was a very powerful book for me. For others, it might not be so powerful. You’ll probably quickly be able to figure out which group you’re in, and if you’re in the group that’s somehow seized by the concept, read this book right away. You’ll be very glad you did, even if you don’t get a single piece of actionable advice out of it. Why? Because so much of what’s being said will feel innately familiar to you in a way that few books really do.

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  1. Kate says:

    This one sounds like me! I will have to look for it when I visit the bookstore again.
    Thanks for a great in-depth review!

  2. Johanna says:

    “Lobenstine suggests spending your free time building real, demonstrable skills in the areas you’re passionate about, then hunting for jobs that incorporate both skills from your current career along with the demonstrable skills from your area of passion. For example, let’s say you have a job as a researcher, but you’re passionate about writing. You could spend your spare time honing your writing skills, working on getting published in a few places, and creating a writing portfolio. Then you could fuse the two – start writing on the topics you’re researching, using your leverage from both areas to get pieces into print. Perhaps you could even grow into being a staff writer on a publication that focused on your research area.”

    I can tell you from experience that it’s easier than that, actually. If you’re already a good writer, and you’re specifically interested in writing about your (former) research area, go ahead and apply for the staff writer positions right away. Having a portfolio of published work is often not necessary (although it can’t hurt). “Demonstrable skills” are not the same as “demonstrated skills.” People who hire staff writers for highly specialized publications (at least the ones I’ve applied to) have tests to determine whether you have the skills that they’re looking for.

  3. Brett McKay says:

    Thanks for sharing this one with us. This book sounds just like me. I have passions everywhere and have had a hard time settling on one. What makes it hard for me is I really think I can turn my site into a career and it’s something I’m passionate about, but I just have one year of law school left. It’s going to be hard to decide to walk away from a stable career especially after investing three years of my life to it. I’m also afraid of disappointing lots of people. I’m going to the library tomorrow to check this one out.

  4. Alisa says:


    If this book does not describe me to a “T” I do not know what does! This is almost scary! What do I take away from this… I’m O.K., I am going to work on my 4 focus areas and have even more fun with them knowing that I am just full of vibrant energy and ideas that just need to be expressed.

    I just started “My Stock Market Journey” as an outlet for one of my areas of focus. I recently found investing so interesting that a friend who (I think got tired of me talking about it) suggested that I start a blog (probably so he would not have to listen to me anymore)!

    Anywho – I am enjoying the journey and you are welcome to stop by anytime. I will have to add this book to my site as a “must read.”


    Thanks for making my day 2day!

    Be well!

  5. Andy says:

    Sounds like a perfect book for me. I think starting a website has really helped me because it gave me something to do that is not school but still productive.

  6. Shanel Yang says:

    @Brett — You have a great website! Your passion really shines through it. I just have to say, if you aren’t 100% excited about your legal career while you’re still in law school, it’ll be all downhill from here. Trust me. Been there. Done that. Got the shirt. The only person you have to worry about disappointing is yourself. Everyone else will understand. But, the one you’ll find hardest to forgive is yourself for ignoring your instincts the longer you put off your big dreams.

    Allow me to recommend a couple of excellent books that I wish I’d read before I finished law school: (1) Proceed with Caution: A Diary of the First Year at One of America’s Largest, Most Prestigious Law Firms; and, (2) What Law School Doesn’t Teach You: But You Really Need to Know.

    @Trent — Thanks for another excellent book review! I have no idea how you get through so many books in so little time! E-mazing!

  7. Jeni says:

    Wow this book is exactly me – I’m a jack of all trades, master of none.

  8. That Saddity Chic says:

    I read this book a few months ago and I loved it. I still re-read chapters from time to time. It really helped me be ok with having a need to focus on alot of things instead of just one. I am no longer ashamed of “not knowing exactly what I want to do” and loving everything that is a culmination of what make me who I am. I highly reccommend this book :)

  9. Kim says:

    Trent – thanks for the (well-written) review!

    I’ve ordered the book from the interlibrary loan and can’t wait to read it.

    I’m one of these people for sure and have been my entire – sometimes difficult – life. My renaissance personality struggles even more these days since turning 50 this year. Sounds like this book may contain some relevant instruction.

  10. L says:

    I borrowed this book from the library a few months ago after a commenter on this site recommended it- I thought it was excellent. This review has inspired me to look at it again.

  11. Jen K. says:

    This book sounds really good and I’ll definately have to check it out soon.

    I think it’s funny but today I was reflecting on my life and where it has gone since college and I can honestly say I am WAY more interested in learning now than I ever was 5 years ago. Like you, I read a vast array of subjects now and I’ve got a list of things that I would love to start pursuing, but are just in the preliminary stages of discovery. Foreign languages being one, sewing another. Two areas that have absolutely nothing to do with what I currently do (help run the family restaurant) and what I went to school for (Criminology).

    So much to read, so little time . . .

  12. Ann says:

    My husband somehow found this book when he was in the middle of a (horrible!) career change crisis. I’m glad he did. It gave him some needed validation–that he’s not a freak, not lazy or uncommitted, but that he’s just not willing to limit himself to a narrow career that would merely pay the bills and do nothing else for him. The book also helped give him courage to go after a career that I think is perfect for many renaissance souls–a librarian. He gets to help people (something he deeply values) while learning a little bit about what each library patron needs help with–from birds to cheese-making to European politics. He’s so much happier now. And the churn through different passions continues– mosaics, chess, gardening. And so on. He wants to do it all. Maybe he can!

  13. Ryan McLean says:

    I also write a financial blog and I am just trying to work out how you can do a book review EVERY WEEK. Do you read that much?
    I struggle to read one whole book per month.

    Also just a tip, why don’t you great your picture of the book you are reviewing to be an amazon.com affiliate link. Not only will this serve your readers as it means that if they like the review they can instantly go and purchase the book, but it will also make you a couple of dollars too.

    This book sounds great by the way and you have done a great reveiw

  14. JasonY says:

    Sounds a lot like Barbara Sher’s book about “scanners”. Not that it’s bad to come at it from a slightly different direction, but Sher’s stuff is much better.

  15. Sara says:

    You know, I think most people are Renaissance souls and only a few lucky (unlucky?) birds have just one or two dedicated passions.

    It seems the current job market is much friendlier to this persuasion than in the past. Instead of thinking that switching fields a few times has set back my career, I think that the time spent in each field is preparing for a bigger job.

    And I wonder if there is a connection between library users and Renaissance souls: it seems like everyone who’s interested in this one is going to ILL it instead of buying!

  16. mbkonef says:

    I also read this book a few months ago after a reader mentioned it in the comments. I definitely found it to be useful but I am still struggling with my many passions. I think this is a book I will need to refer to and re-read occasionally so I have put it on my list of books I am willing to buy (but it will be thru e-bay, half.com, paperbackswap, or gifted). I also recommend “The Passion Test” by Janet and Chris Attwood. It is a little more like “The Secret” but I think the main message is still valid.

  17. I’ve borrowed The Renaissance Soul from my local library about 3 times over the past couple of years and it’s done a lot to help me sort out not only my many interests and passions but also to see ways that I can combine what seem to be very different interests into a satisfying career or hobby. I recommend The Renaissance Soul to anyone who’s been accused of flitting around from career to career and interest to interest.

    As it says in the book… not everyone is a Mozart with one driving passion. Many of us are Ben Franklins with many diverse interests and passions and we shouldn’t be ashamed of it.

    Great review, Trent!

  18. Jules says:

    That sounds like me, but I’m just not sure I could get it to pay off. I’d love to write science articles for a living (while working on my fiction), but alas, not having gone to school for writing really puts a damper in those plans…

  19. Gabriela says:

    I found this book and the author’s website years ago. When I took her online quiz and read her book it felt that someone finally understood me. It validated who I am and how diverse my interests are. I finally took the plunge… I’ve left the workforce and I am starting my own business in which I can do what I love to do on my own terms while being able to do other things that I love. I re-read sections of this book often, especially when I start doubts over how I am and the direction that my life is taking.

  20. Beck says:

    WOW, this book is awesome. I went right out to buy one. After I read the review, I looked around my office/sewing room/library/study/gardening center, and realized that I had at least eleven different interests going at one time. Finally, a book that understands me. Now I can prove to my family that I DO NOT have adult ADD!!!!! Thanks.

  21. Another Marie says:

    I’ve always called myself a generalist, but the book definitely fits me and I’m not even done with the intro – I saw your review last night and my husband picked it up at the library this morning.

    I have found a great occupation – I’m homeschooling my kids. I get to teach math and science and Latin and history (lots of history) and literature and writing and it’s always something new (few textbooks, lots of real books) – even if I use the same book several years later, it’s with a different mix of kids.

    At some point I will need to do something that makes some money. (What’s worse than 13 years of diapers averaging 2 in diapers at at time? 14 years of college tuition, averaging 2 in college at a time.) I’m hoping the book will help me start generating some ideas.

    Thanks for the review, I never would have found the book without it.

  22. NED says:

    Good read. Your reviews are really engaging, you will make a damned good book salesman. :P

    1 question: How highly will you rate this book as compared to the other similar books you have reviewed? I understand how this book is not for everyone, but I’m curious how you as a renaissance man feel. Will it be the 9th book that you buy to keep on shelf?

  23. billybob says:

    Two words: Barbara Sher.

  24. Careerwise, I do think there is some merit to honing one’s focus to one or two areas or skills at a particular time. Because I do want my favourite skills/interests to be the ones I use to earn a decent living. The author suggests four,I’m aiming for not more than three at any one time. Currently I’m interested/have profesional experience in: writing – articles, my website, novels…research, developing communication strategies, media relations,investing in property, creating a spa hotel, travel, international and sustainable development, CSR, working for the UN …phew that’s some list and I could probably add a whole lot more. I could probably do a couple of these in my spare time (the novel, travelling), but in order to actually work for a living, I’ve had to say: OK I’m going to stick with looking for freelance contracts that’ll use my writing and research skills, preferably in the areas of international and sustainable development, as well as my travel website on the side. My only fear is that if I narrow myself to a particular area, or insist on going after the work I really want to do, I’ll find it harder to build a successful ‘career’ because we don’t always get what we want – I’ve just finished writing a novella which isn’t exactly going to earn me JK Rowling’s salary, or make me the next Joseph Conrad (not at the moment anyway) or even pay my basic bills. Anyway ‘The Renaissance Soul’ is now on my must read list. In fact Trent, I’m going to post this review on my website: http://www.morethanoxfordstreet.com
    (with a link to this site of course-don’t worry, I won’t make a habit of it)

  25. Daisy says:

    I’ve been bookmarking this review until my exams are over, and let me just say that it’s a good review.

    And it sounds exactly like me! :D Off to find the book now.

  26. David says:

    Trent: Just finished the book on the way to CVG, and can’t thank you enough. (Though I hope to show you a little thanks and hit that “Donate” icon on the top left of this page.) Don’t know if I would have found this on my own; however, you pointed me to it first. Look forwared to recieving your e-mails every day. Peace.

  27. Carol says:

    Based on your review, I ordered the book. Many thanks to you as it has changed my life and I’ve only read the intro and the first chapter. Had a great cry releasing all the frustration of a lifetime of feeling like there was something wrong with me. I’m reading it with my Renaissance Soulmate who could well have written the book but I couldn’t believe her all these years. Thanks again.

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