Polymaths, Multitasking, and Renaissance Men (and Women)

On weekends, the clinic where I work closes when all of our patients are discharged. Sometimes we work a full eight-hour shift, but today, it means that we closed shop around lunchtime. This gift of a weekend afternoon causes mild distress, however, because I have to decide whether to spend it plinking out a new post for this blog, or playing hooky. Getting home without window shopping, and staying home instead of going for a run along the river doesn’t solve the problem. Once home, I avoid picking up one of the three books I’m reading, or the magazine articles next to my favorite chair, or the knitting project and completing “just a few rows”, until suddenly all the free time has evaporated.

Sergei. jparadisi

Today, I am writing about polymaths, multitasking, and Renaissance men (and women).

My daughter gave me the book A Left-Handed History of the World, by Ed Wright, because I am left-handed. It contains chapter-length biographies of left-handed people who shaped world history. It was published in 2007, so President Barack Obama isn’t included, but I’d look for him in future editions. Interestingly, of the twenty-nine biographies, only four are of women: Joan of Arc, Queen Victoria, Marie Curie, and Martina Navratilova, who shares her chapter with John McEnroe. Hmmmmmm. I’ll save that thought for another post.

Anyway, I read the chapters about the lefties Leonardo DaVinci and Michelangelo, because I wanted to understand the differences between a polymath, multitasking, and a Renaissance man (woman). Leonardo, according to Wright, was a polymath (a person of wide ranging knowledge and learning), but not very good at multitasking. According to Ed Wright, “His (DaVinci’s) low completion rate demonstrates the risks of divergent thinking. It’s unlikely that he completed more than 20 paintings in a 46-year career-in a way he had too much genius for one person to be able to effectively manage.” Maybe, but those 20 paintings are masterpieces Ed. And don’t forget about the wooden parachute that works, and the helicopter.

Michelangelo was more disciplined, able to multitask (simultaneous execution of more than one program or task by a single computer processor) and complete the work to which he commissioned himself. However, his drive and perfectionism came with a price. Wright says,

“Whereas Leonardo was known as a genial man, prone to procrastination and getting sidetracked, Michelangelo soon developed a reputation for a terrifying, obsessive perfectionism…The Florentines referred to his terribilitas, meaning ‘fearsome willpower’.”

I’m not well educated enough to claim to be a polymath. While I can multitask, I am happy to report that I am a nurse, and not a computer processor, which is a machine. The definition of Renaissance man is “a person with many talents or interests, esp. in the humanities,” and that is a description I will own.

I don’t believe in a balanced life.  A well-lived life is a dynamic organism, constantly changing. I live life as if it’s a juggling act, and as I’ve said before, the trick is knowing which balls in the air make you happy, and which ones make you frantic.

So, today I’m going to write for an hour or so. Then I’m going to read that article on feminism I’ve meant to get at all week. Afterward, I’ll pour something cold to drink and sit on the deck for what’s left of this beautiful afternoon, waiting for David to get home from work. Poor guy, he had to work his entire shift today.


  1. I’m gonna have to get that book. I, too, am left-handed. And easily distracted…which is why I am currently reading 6 books and 2 magazines when I’m not writing, painting, knitting, gardening, cooking or building something on the chicken coop! 🙂 There’s just too many things to fit into a day. It’s hard to pick. (I actually find that I do well if I can do a bit of something in 1-3 hour segments. Unfortunately, it makes me, as they say, a ‘Jack of all trades and a master of none’, but I’m having fun.)

    PS YES, I did do all of those things today, except I’ve only cracked open two of the books so far. The building of the hay loft in the chicken shed took up too much time, so now I”m kinda behind. But there’s always tomorrow….after my bike ride.


    1. You are a woman after my own heart; I didn’t know you are left-handed too! BTW I LOVE your blog, and especially
      the recent post about Harriett.


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