April 10, 2015

Are you a Renaissance Soul?

the great multitasker

I’m a designer.

No, I’m a bookseller and lifelong learner.

Hang on a minute, I’m a mom, crocheter and an illustrator.

No wait, wait! I ‘m a content developer and a marketer.

Welcome to my life. Pick a musical chair and take a seat.

Who am I?

Well, that’s the same question I’ve been asking myself for the last 37 years, without any definitive answers. I’m passionately curious about almost everything, unable to finish anything and always running off with some new project. My husband likes to joke that I can’t even finish a cup of coffee, never mind anything else.

Okay, it’s not really a joke, it’s completely true I’ve never drunk all the way to the bottom in my life.

This aspect of my self has always been a little embarrassing and I’ve felt genuine shame about it on more than one occasion. The worst part is, I’ve always held a deep-seated belief that finding my vocation or purpose in life is the key to happiness. In the past I’ve tried desperately to “will” myself different.

I kept thinking, one day, when I find my “thing,” when I stumble across my one true purpose I will finally be happy.

Recently I was listening to a TED talk by Elizabeth Gilbert, one of my all-time creative heroes.

She was talking about the drive to keep creating and one of the things she said was, “no matter what happens, success, failure, disaster—always return to your purpose, your “home.”

She went on to say that her home, had always been and would always be writing. After hearing this, my own, all-too familiar feelings of despair settled in, as I thought to myself, “Well then, I’m creatively, intellectually and spiritually homeless it seems. I have no one place that I habitually return to. No singular purpose for existing. What the hell is wrong with me?”

Watching another interview by Gilbert, she spoke about how writing was and is the only thing she believes she’s “good at.” She then spoke about some of her friends, whom she believes are “cursed, by being multi-talented.”

Gilbert says, “And I do feel like that is a curse. Or if you’re not cursed by being multi-talented, I know people who are cursed by having many different interests, so their attention is kinda fragmented across many fields.”

This twanged a chord so deep in me, I felt like I had been struck by lightning. She was talking about me. That’s exactly how I felt, fundamentally cursed with far too many interests and abilities in a kaleidoscope of diverse creative areas. After endlessly seeking and failing to find my place in this world for decades, I was still utterly lost.

In this way, Elizabeth Gilbert had given me the big questions and allowed me to confront my demons—but at the same time, she didn’t have the answers because this wasn’t her experience. I set out to discover how others coped with this terrible affliction and if there was perhaps a cure for what ailed us.

After trawling through dozens of articles on attention deficit disorder, and research papers with titles like, “The Multidisciplinary Dilemma” and “Lack of Focus: The Modern Epidemic,” I started to lose hope that any workable solutions existed. Was that it? Did I just have attention deficit disorder, was the cure going to turn out to be pills and a therapist?

Maybe I just had to accept that I was broken or incomplete in some way and there was no fixing me.

Then I happened upon a book that stuck out like a defiant, magnificent bramble amongst the neatly organised, well-tended roses. Even the title yelled rebellion, Refuse To Choose! by Barbara Sher.

In this book Sher talks about people she refers to as “Scanners,” referred to by some as “renaissance” people, thinkers or souls. Here is a excerpt from the book:

“Scanners are victims of a fashion change in history, and a recent one at that. No longer described as ‘well-rounded’, “renaissance people” or “erudite”—almost overnight they were seen as irrelevant, silly, irresponsible.

The conventional wisdom was overwhelming and indisputable: If you’re a jack-of-all-trades, you’ll always be a master of none. You’ll become a dilettante, a dabbler, a superficial person—and you’ll never have a decent career. Suddenly, a Scanner who all through school might have been seen as an enthusiastic learner had now become a failure.

But one thought wouldn’t leave my mind: If the world had just continued to accept them as they were, Scanners wouldn’t have had any problems. With the exception of learning project management techniques, the only thing Scanners needed to do was reject conventional wisdom that said they were doing something wrong and claim their true identity. Almost every case of low self-esteem, shame, frustration, feelings of inadequacy, indecisiveness and inability to get into action simply disappeared the moment they understood that they were Scanners and stopped trying to be something else.”

I read this—and cried.

I cried ugly.

I held the book to my chest and I sobbed so hard I thought my ribs would break.

It’s only when we find your ultimate truths that you realize just how long we’ve been living a complete lie.

As with many other things, a lack of understanding leads to suffering. I had been at war with myself nearly my whole adult life because I was convinced that there was something “wrong” with me. I had labeled myself a disappointment, berated myself for “wasting” my talents and despised myself for failing to succeed (whatever that means).

Wonderfully, magically, amazingly different.

How ironic and universally true that what we often call a ‘curse’ is actually a gift, if we could only see it.

Barbara Sher goes on to say that even she was surprised at the overwhelming reactions experienced by those who identified with her description of Scanners.

The elation these individuals described at simply having a name for the way they interacted with the world was off the charts. I know exactly what she means because that’s just how I felt. I read ‘Refuse To Choose’ in one sitting but with continuous pauses to put it down just because I was overcome with recognition and relief and a feeling of “finally, finally, someone understands. I’m not crazy, I’m just me.’’

It didn’t stop there, I found a number of books, videos and articles that spoke about people who were passionately curious and chose to express themselves in more than one way.

Many individuals throughout history fit this description. Leonardo Da Vinci is by far one of the most famous. A polymath genius, Da Vinci could and did turn his hand to a spectacular range of different disciplines.

Others names of famous multi-disciplinary people include Benjamin Franklin, Jacque Cousteau and more recently, Maya Angelou, Viggo Mortenson and Emma Watson.

I especially loved Viggo Mortenson’s words on the matter. The actor most famous for his role as Aragorn in Lord of The Rings is also an accomplished photographer, poet, artist and musician. When asked which artform is his favorite, he responded with:

“You know, I don’t really separate them. I don’t think children separate different artistic [expressions], they don’t separate themselves. They don’t say, as adults do, “Well, there are artists and then there are other people. Kids, if they want to draw, they draw. If they want to sing they sing. If they want to pretend they’re the Lone Ranger or Aragorn or an elf or a monster, they just do it. It’s only adults who make that distinction.”

I went on to watch a video featuring illustrator and author Yuyi Morales and her amazing process of creating ‘Viva Frida’, her children’s book celebrating the life of artist Frida Kahlo. Her techniques included, armature, doll-making, sculpting, writing, painting, metalwork, embroidery and more. It was awe-inspiring to watch her incredible array of abilities bringing this literary work of art to life.

Unsurprisingly her work has just won the Caldecott Award, one of the world’s most prestigious children’s book prizes.

These individuals are uplifting role models who are testament to the fact that there is more than one way to experience and approach world.

My creative angst all at once had lifted.

I felt more grounded and at peace than I ever had before. The war within me was finally over.

Of course there was still work to be done.

Project management skills, remember?

As a group we have to learn to capture and channel the creative lightning as it strikes otherwise we can all too easily be swept away in the maelstrom of our own wild thoughts. It just meant I could stop the endless, fruitless search for that one thing, that label that suited me. I will learn to roll with the waves as they wash in and see where they take me. Because that’s who I am—A scanner, a renaissance person, a generalist.

Of course specialists are equally important, there’s no disputing this.

I want a brain surgeon who has dedicated his life to the grey matter between my ears should I ever need one! But both specialists and generalists can live equally rich lives and make a meaningful contribution.

So, why should we have to choose?

I for one, refuse to choose.


Relephant Reads:

Elizabeth Gilbert tells a Simple Story about the Key to Happiness. {Video}


Author: Helga Pearson

Editor: Ashleigh Hitchcock

Photo: flickr, flickr


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Helga Pearson