Review: The Renaissance Soul

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:

renaissance

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.