The New Renaissance Professional: Professor, Writer, Actor, Theater Director, Lawyer, Marketer

I’m a lot like Thomas Jefferson and Leonardo Da Vinci. I am a Renaissance Man Person. Does that make me a genius? Don’t make me blush. What was genius during the Renaissance is a standard professional career in a lot of places today and most everywhere tomorrow. The world needs generalists, polymaths, hybrids and hyphenated pros of all stripes (and checks).

Thomas Jefferson was a scholar, inventor, naturalist, architect, archaeologist, founder of the University of Virginia and the entity that became the Library of Congress, writer (of the Declaration of Independence among other things) and of course a politician who rose to the American Presidency.

Leonardo Da Vinci was a painter, sculptor, architect, musician, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist, and writer. I am sure that I am leaving  a lot out.

I am a professor, writer, actor, theater director, lawyer and marketer (this last of my many hats listed here is by necessity and reality. We all have to reach out and bring our wares to market.) I may not come up with the Declaration of Independence or the Mona Lisa, but I get my licks in.

I teach a class in presentation, critical thinking, ethics and strategic management skills to MBA students at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Many of my students are engineers—who see the wisdom in studying the skills of actors and lawyers.

I take the ideals of these Renaissance Men Persons as my own.  The main characteristics of a Renaissance Person are curiosity and imagination. Curiosity leads to knowledge; imagination leads to innovation.

The 85-year-old active actor (Renaissance persons have no time for ageism. Of course we start new things and take on new assignments all the time and need all the years of our lives to do everything we want to do. It is interesting to me that the most popular pictures of Da Vinci portray him as an old man.), Robert Duvall, said recently, “Someone once told me, ‘Don’t just be a farmer. Be a man on a farm. You’re a human being first.’ The point is that what you do is [merely] your profession. It is only enhancing who you are as a human being. So, I’m a human being first. Actor second.” The best answers to all questions of job searching, soul searching and career development can be found in our individual and common humanity. My varied career choices are expressions of my transforming spirit. There is a unity and consistency within the variety of career activities that I engage in because there is a unity and consistency within me. What came first, the human or the egg (job)? The human! The tasks that we choose to undertake are expressions of who we are, as is the way that we do them.

It is well-documented that the average American changes his or her career several times in a lifetime. Many of us walk on a high-tension wire drawn tightly on the poles of a yearning for constancy, familiarity and security and a desire for growth and transformation. The world, or market if you will, is always asking for new applications of our knowledge and skill. This situation has caused stress for even the most accomplished people. Benjamin Franklin said, “It’s hard work to live–getting a job is too much to add.” In spite of that trepidation, Franklin found things to do, including the roles of politician, writer, musician, diplomat, printer, scientist and inventor.

The idea of the Renaissance Man/Woman, which Franklin and other founding fathers exemplified, embraced the values of reason, learning and variety-of-interests. John F. Kennedy, the President of the New Frontier, famously praised a group of lawyers, politicians, businessmen, artists, scientists and intellectuals as the greatest assemblage the White House had ever seen, save when, “…Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”

Old labor economy attitudes favored specialization. It used to be considered preferable to work in one field for an extended period of time. A person who did so gave his clients and employers a secure sense that they were dealing with an authoritative colleague who knew how to get the job done. Kennedy recognized a valid alternative. He understood that the ability to learn many disparate disciplines, and make connections between those disciplines could be more valuable than the tunnel vision of extensive knowledge of one area without understanding the context in which the area existed. He understood that those abilities often came from pursuing many interests and performing many seemingly unrelated but actually related tasks. Those pursuits can occur on one career path or on several—it really doesn’t matter. What is important is the broad perspective. Today the world spins much faster than it did in Kennedy’s time. Our technology, law, economy, culture, and society sprint towards changes that Kennedy’s 1960’s tentatively walked towards. The modern worker is often called to be a generalist who can quickly adapt to changing circumstances and make connections. For example,  Steve Jobs  understood technology (science) and how people desired to use that technology (art and culture). The ability to adapt and connect is a hallmark of the best and the brightest.

Much of today’s legal industry labor market is still guided by the values of the old labor economy. Associate Wanted, 3-5 years experience in the area of Family Law. What experience is this typical ad asking for? Is it the experience of working with the controlling statutes, judicial decisions, courts and agencies that a family law practice routinely deals with? Is it skill in counseling clients and advocating and negotiating for them? Could a lawyer with experience outside of the area of family law and an understanding or deep interest in family law issues within a broader social context be able to do the job well and perhaps invigorate the practice with new ideas and approaches? Could a lawyer who worked exclusively in the area of family law do the same? Yes and yes, and all depends on the lawyer’s perspective.

The values of the old labor economy when applied to the Illinois legal labor market are not consistent with the spirit of Illinois law. The Illinois Supreme Court does not allow attorneys to hold themselves out as specialists except in a few practice areas such as patent law. Lawyers are licensed by the Court to be generalists—renaissance men and women. The Illinois Rules of Professional Conduct say a lawyer is required to make him or herself competent to handle a specific client’s matter. What does the lawyer need to be competent to handle each situation that he or she faces? Knowledge, of course, and other equally important attributes. Knowledge is an ever changing commodity and must be constantly refreshed. Justice Antonin Scalia said that he did not learn the law in law school, because the law changes far too rapidly to be captured in a snapshot of time. He said that he learned from his professors modalities of thinking about the law, and that learning helped him to engage the new laws and societal changes that he encountered as a lawyer and a judge. Judgment, character, sense of context, an understanding of practical reality and the creative ability to apply that knowledge are harder to come by. Those modalities can be learned or acquired in many places and through many experiences within the law, within specific practice areas within the law, and outside of the law in different pursuits entirely. Scalia acknowledges that his Catholic faith and certain social and political philosophers influence his work as a judge. We cannot separate who we are, in all of our diversity, from what we do.

Most of us often (several times a lifetime) ask ourselves what we should do. The answer is in who we and others are. The fictional hero and lawyer Atticus Finch knew the law. He knew the type of world he wished for his children. And he knew empathy, how to imagine what it was to walk around in another’s shoes. Atticus Finch (who was based on a real person, the author Harper Lee’s father) was a human being first. Lawyer second. His extraordinary competency in the first role led him to great competency in the second.

Who should the writer of our typical ad be looking to hire? Who should apply? True work is found in interdependent connections with people and in places where we can express the fullness of our varied and independent humanity. Walt Whitman wrote, “I am large, I contain multitudes.” Aren’t we all?

When we deny the diversity and complexity of our inner and outer worlds and work as functionaries in dead approaches that ignore the realities of ourselves and others, what do we actually accomplish?

When Benjamin Franklin helped shepherd the Declaration of Independence in 1776, he surely drew on his experience as a businessman, printer and the writer of Poor Richard’s Almanac. But more importantly he drew on the experience of being Benjamin Franklin, a specific human being born with paradoxical but not contradictory practical and esoteric predilections. There is often a false dichotomy made between dreamy theoreticians in ivory towers and hard men and women of action who shape the “real” world. But we all dream, whether we remember those dreams or not. And we all eat, wear clothing and seek shelter—the stuff of life. We are the stuff that dreams are made of

The machinery of finding work and working can seem cold—a mean Darwinian death machine where only the fit survive. But happy results in working and seeking work mirror happy results in love. The way to a lover’s heart is through their stomach. Passion and eating aren’t mutually exclusive. The right job looks less like glass and steel industrial parks and more like flesh and blood humanity. Finding the appropriate work situation can be a lot like dating. It’s usually exhausting. (A fortunate few are love-at-first-sight-lucky.) First you decide you want to go out. Then you become self aware as to what you present to the world as a first impression. Next, the education begins. You kiss frogs that don’t turn into young royalty. You wonder, what’s wrong with them. You wonder, what’s wrong with me. You learn about the world in general, about specific people and places, and about yourself. It’s an arduous journey that most people embark upon several times in their lives. Once found, the right work is a lot like marriage. It changes you. It makes you, as Jack Nicholson’s character says in the movie As Good As It Gets, want to be a better person.

I worked as an actor and learned that acting, real acting, is not about make-believe dress up and telling stories. Acting, like all art, is about exploring and learning the possibilities of being human. See Robert Duvall above.

I worked in marketing for legal-related businesses and learned that marketing is not about getting everyone to use your goods or services, but rather is about informing those who can really use what you have to offer that it is available.

I worked as a lawyer and I learned that the law is ultimately about peace and democracy. As aggressive as advocates are, and should be, we work in system that in most cases settles our differences non-violently with the intention of equal access for all. This is a simple, homely reality that is easy to forget. The greats don’t forget. Benjamin Franklin related the soaring language of the First Continental Congress to the print shop and the inventor’s studio.

The Renaissance Person’s pursuits of reason, learning, and variety-of-interests bring joy, growth and passion to that person’s life, and mysteriously transform into the highest value of all, service.

Copyright 2015 Richard Thomas

Leonardo Da Vinci


3 thoughts on “The New Renaissance Professional: Professor, Writer, Actor, Theater Director, Lawyer, Marketer

  1. Reblogged this on The Rick Blog and commented:

    I am proud of my varied career. All the areas of my activity complement each other. We are entering an age of art, a time of generalists and a time when hybrid professionals who can understand many perspectives of situations are needed, in demand and positioned to lead.


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