Renaissance Soul or Honeybee Brain?

If you’ve been following my little expedition into the world of Renaissance souls (or multiple potentialites or gifted adults or whatever), you’ve already recognized whether you are one of the lucky folks that can be happy doing one or two things your whole life or one of the tortured souls who struggle with legions of interests and a finite lifespan.

Barbara Sher has authored numerous books as variations on this theme. I explored two of her volumes, Refuse To Choose! and It’s Only Too Late If You Don’t Start Now. I’ve already stated that I don’t care for her frequent references to a mid-life crisis when what we are talking about are gifted adults. And I absolutely hate her term “scanners” for people who collect a variety of interests. It implies that we are simply scanning the horizon for new experiences (true) but that we can’t settle on anything; scanning is merely observing, and discounts the dedication and joy involved with this lifestyle. Seeing the word on the page stumbled my reading every. single. time.

BUT, she has some great points and personal anecdotes that were really helpful. For those who want to delve deep into the psychology of the subject, Sher has a lot to offer. She breaks down what I call Gifted Specialist and Gifted Generalist into at least ten sub-categories, which may be helpful if you are trying to identify yourself and your learning method. I thought some of these overlapped. For instance, according to Sher, I would be a Serial Specialist, A Serial Master, and a Jack-Of-All-Trades. But the way she breaks down the motivations for each of these and provides possible career paths is really helpful.

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Here’s a few sections I highlighted as especially good:

I didn’t get a job with my education, and I never did anything practical with the other things I loved, either. I didn’t write about or teach what I had learned. I never earned a nickel from any of it…I’ve come to believe you don’t always have to use things you love, and it’s not always so practical to be so practical…Our society frowns on this apparent self-indulgence. Of course, it’s not self-indulgence at all; it’s the way [we] are designed, and there’s nothing they can or should do about it. – Barbara Sher

 

There is no academic path to train you in the best use of your irrepressible curiosity or to direct your fast mind into a multidirectional specialty. In business, no career tracks or job titles exist for the multitalented, can-do-anything [person]. – Barbara Sher

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When it comes to passion, I think we’d all agree that a bee seems very dedicated to its task – but it’s not passionate about any one flower; it’s passionate about gathering nectar. If you missed that point, you’d really misunderstand a honeybee…as a culture, we’re not in the habit of thinking about people the same way. We simply assume he has a problem if he doesn’t stay at one interest as long as we believe he should stay – usually for his whole adult lifetime… –Barbara Sher

 

A house painter leaves when he’s through painting the house; he doesn’t move in and live there…When you lose interest in something, you must always consider the possibility that you’ve gotten what you came for; you have completed your mission. – Barbara Sher

And this is my very favorite passage, because I think it is how we should be teaching our gifted children and supporting our gifted adults:

By definition, no one has as many interests…This makes their comings and goings very noticeable to the eyes of others. But the main reason they are different from others, and the reason they get noticed for not sticking to anything, is because they learn faster than almost anybody…she has a big hungry brain and her favorite food is learning. [They] love learning more than anything else. And learning is what they’re most talented at. – Barbara Sher

The parting shot from Sher, for me, is to not be too busy. Don’t make yourself so taken up with busy work that you fail to accomplish the real work of your life. She warns against the danger because “You lose your memory of the luxury of doing less than your full capacity.”

This is a huge reminder for those who grew up hearing how they had to live up to their potential. How it was a waste to not use their gifts to the fullest. We don’t have to run at full capacity all the time. We can listen to the radio on the way to work, instead of returning phone calls or making a grocery list. We can hire other people to do mundane tasks so we can devote our energy to what we do best. Learning. And being ourselves.

Let me know if this has touched a chord with you. I want to hear from you!

Mid-Life Crisis or Awakening?

I recently compared a couple of books on a similar topic. The Renaissance Soul by Margaret Lobenstine and Refuse To Choose! by Barbara Sher. I was revisiting an old question that comes around from time to time. Why can’t I settle on doing one thing?

The short answer is because I don’t like to do one thing, and I don’t have to. But there are several good bits from these books I want to share with you anyway.

Lobenstine’s book is packed with practical information on understanding yourself and how to focus your interests for personal success through smart decision-making and time management. Sher’s book is more detailed with the nuances of how various people can be classified and her tips are heavily dependent on writing as self-discovery. Basically, if you want to navel gaze about your own psyche, read Sher’s book first. If you want to have an a-ha moment and get busy, go with Lobenstine.

My main problem with Sher’s writing is that she seems to address the questions of the Gifted Generalist as if they are a mid-life crisis. For those who have struggled with these educational and societal expectations their whole life, a “mid-life crisis” is both erroneous and insulting.

But don’t count out Sher just yet. She’s got some real zingers I’ll share later. For now, here’s my favorite points from Lobenstine’s The Renaissance Soul:

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We are most fully engaged when learning something new and discovering how it works. Because we love a good challenge, we tend to define success and completion differently from other people. Once we’ve mastered a particular problem, we’re done – and ready for a different set of problems to solve. – Margaret Lobenstine

This is a key concept for Renaissance souls, and particularly gifted generalists. We are not extrinsically motivated. The roar of the crowd, the picture in the paper, and the bonus in the paycheck are not our primary motivation or definition of success. We like learning for the sake of learning, for the thrill of understanding. Once it’s gone, we’re bored and ready for something new.

Another facet of the prism of “success” is the idea that one must be an expert in the their field.

…the idea that expertise is achieved only through exclusivity; that in order to commit to any of our own strong passions, we will have to give up all the other things we love. – Margaret Lobenstine

I like Lobenstine’s comparison of two persons who are both interested in martial arts. One dives into it, devoting hours each day to earning his black belt within months. (I would call this a Gifted Specialist.) The other person dedicates some hours each week to his study of karate, but is also learning French and developing his own business. He, too, earns his black belt, but on a different timetable. Does this make him any less of an expert? Of course not.

Lobenstine goes on to outline how to organize your time to pursue your multiple interests, who to ask for help, and how to overcome questions about being too old or too young to still do what you want. She helps the gifted adult have a re-awakening to their talents and rekindles the fires of their youthful learning passions.

Next up, Barbara Sher’s Refuse To Choose! and a few tidbits from her other book, It’s Only Too Late If You Don’t Start Now.

A Renaissance Problem

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I’ve been circling around a problem for most of my life. At least, other people think it’s a problem. I’m interested in things. Lots of things. At the same time. And I tend to be pretty good at most of them. (Except for sports. I stink at all athletics.)

When I was a kid, it was called “being gifted” and we were given an entire HALF DAY once a week to be ourselves and answer all the questions and read three books at once while we made a King Tut sarcophagus replica. It was awesome.

Leonardo da Vinci got to do this all the time, and nobody cared. In fact, it was pretty normal for all people of his day to dabble in a variety of things. Leo was just extra good at it, and now we call him the Renaissance Man.

Somewhere in the transition between gifted classes and AP English, the chains started to come on. Don’t be too smart. Don’t be too fast. You’ll want to fit in at college/work/life so try to make others comfortable by being “average”. Those were the messages we got – at least in the 90s. “Gifted” is pretty much a dirty word now, if it is recognized at all. Having studied for years in this area, I can assure you that gifted education is necessary and being gifted has as many unique challenges as any other learning diagnosis.

But the problem is, you don’t grow out of being gifted anymore than you grow out of being autistic or ADHD or dyslexic. You just lose the label. As my sister likes to say, we only become more of who we are. So apparently there are a bunch of gifted adults wandering around feeling stifled because they have to hide their multiple talents or extreme proficiency in certain fields. This is as much of a mental handicap for gifted minds as demanding that the sensory processing disordered child wear itchy clothes and listen to death metal.

I came across The Gifted Adult by Mary-Elaine Jacobsen years ago. It was a good start (and probably the only resource at the time) for the adult who left school and lost their tribe. Now that a generation of children identified as gifted has grown up, we’re seeing more about “multi-potentialities” as Emilie Wapnick describes in her TED Talk HERE. Others call it being a “scanner” (Barbara Sher) or a “Renaissance soul” (Margaret Lobenstine). There are more names for it, but nobody seems to call it what it is – Gifted.

There’s nothing wrong or condescending or belittling for us to recognize that some in our midst operate at a different frequency than we do. We aren’t uncomfortable because Michael Phelps is faster in the pool than we are. It doesn’t hurt our feelings for Usain Bolt to blow by us on the track. We’re quite cheerful about Albert Einstein being smarter than us. But our culture resents people who don’t pick one thing and stick with it. It seems frivolous. Extravagant. Immature.

What we need to recognize is that our previous belief in One Job/One Life is no longer viable. The economy doesn’t support our having one occupation our whole lives, even if we wanted to. Science doesn’t support that model, since we’ve only scratched the surface of the brain’s capabilities. Psychology doesn’t support it because it recognizes that every individual is made up of countless bits of knowledge and experience and interests. The whole idea is based on an industrial model that views human beings as cogs in a giant machine. Most of us don’t want to be cogs.

Personally, I think there’s a lot more gifted individuals out there than we are aware of. Not everyone is gifted. But we all have gifts. And for those who feel frustrated that they are not fitting in, or that their dreams are slipping away, I’m going to point you to a couple of resources that may help. Just keep in mind that the labels may change, but the challenge is the same. If you are a gifted specialist, your path is easier and more universally accepted. But if you are a gifted generalist you’re going to need to understand yourself a little better and get some tools to help you navigate through our post-Renaissance society.

Stay tuned for my reviews of The Renaissance Soul by Margaret Lobenstine and Refuse To Choose by Barbara Sher.