There was a time, not that long ago, when the term Renaissance man was invoked in admiration. The generalist genius was recognized as an innovator, a problem solver, a—dare I say it?—game changer. No longer; this is the era of the specialist. The catchword of the day is branding. Whether you are selling a product, pursuing academic research, creating art, or hunting for a job, the message is the same: “Do one thing,” they say, “and do it well.”
There is an advantage to this. If a task is within your area of specialty, others can feel confident you’ll accomplish it; if it’s not, they’ll ask somebody else. No surprises. Everybody knows what to expect. Many humans are by nature risk-averse, and tough times like those we’re currently experiencing make them even more so. The fewer surprises you offer, the more comfortable they’ll be.
However, this kind of hyper-specialization has costs. There is the personal cost when we deprive ourselves of the richness of experience which makes us interesting, creative, self-fulfilled individuals. There is also the cultural cost of depriving our society of so many potentially interesting, creative and self-fulfilled individuals. It creates an intellectual impoverishment, a diminishment of who we are as a people: it produces a film industry where a potential filmmaker practically has to guarantee a franchise and product tie-ins in order to secure studio funding; it produces a consumer goods market where even a manufacturer which built its reputation on thinking differently—you know who you are—now simply waits for a technology to mature and then polishes, repackages and markets the hell out of it.
I’ve always agreed with Robert Heinlein when he wrote that, “specialization is for insects.” Flexibility and creativity are characteristics which have set humans apart from many of our fellow travelers on this spaceship Earth. It’s what allows us to develop new tools—both physical and cognitive—which help us to thrive in an ever-changing environment. It’s what gives us the gift of serendipity—the talent for taking advantage of random chance—which allows us to make our own luck.
I’m a generalist and proud of it, but I no longer call myself a Renaissance man. Rather than take ownership of this now pejorative term and attempt to return it to its former glory, I have decided to adopt another label. I am a dilettante. The term is no less defamed but I find it more descriptive, and so more worth the effort of reclamation. It has come to conjure images of the idle rich, tinkering away out of casual interest with no real training, talent or commitment; I think the word could mean so much more.
Dilettante is a conjugation of the Italian verb diletari, “to delight.” It’s the perfect word for me; I do what I do out of delight, out of the joy I attain through the endeavor. There are many pursuits which give me such joy. In all of these, I have always remained an outsider in the sense that I haven’t spent my life committed to that one passion—I’m not part of the “club”—but I have in every case worked alongside those who are members of the club—the passionate and committed specialists—and I’ve earned their respect and admiration. I manage this because I share their passion for the work—be it sculpture, research, writing—and I pour enormous intellectual and creative energy into it. When I write, my characters take over my consciousness, always there in the background, chatting, quibbling… growing. The work is not what I do; it’s what I am. Likewise, when I sculpt I am in constant motion, constant interaction with the stone. I rise from chiseling every few seconds to sweep around the piece, orbiting it, stroking it, absorbing it from all perspectives before I return to carving. I bring the same passion to research—immersing myself in a problem; poking, prodding, exploring data—and to teaching. In all these cases the sheer ecstasy of participating in a work’s becoming is, for those few moments (or days, or weeks, or…), a constant fixture in my reality.
These are not casual interests. Every one of these activities is an essential part of who I am; but no one of these interests is the entirety of my world. If I show talent in all of these pursuits—if I produce work valued by myself and by others—why should I choose just one for my “career?”
So dilettante I shall remain, and proudly so. When the dark ages lift and the renaissance returns, I’ll be ready. In the meantime, I will work when and where I can. I’ll do many things. I’ll enjoy them. And I’ll do them well.