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The Renaissance Mind

Posted on Sunday, Dec 30th 2007

Here is an article from the New York Times that gives me a perfect segue into a topic that I have been pondering a great deal over the last few months. It discusses the nature of innovation and its relationship to knowledge, and it concludes with:

In her 2006 book, “Innovation Killer: How What We Know Limits What We Can Imagine — and What Smart Companies Are Doing About It,” Cynthia Barton Rabe proposes bringing in outsiders whom she calls zero-gravity thinkers to keep creativity and innovation on track.

“Look for people with renaissance-thinker tendencies, who’ve done work in a related area but not in your specific field,” she says. “Make it possible for someone who doesn’t report directly to that area to come in and say the emperor has no clothes.”

This begs the question, what is the nature of the renaissance mind?

The term Renaissance Man describes a person who excels in a wide variety of fields, especially showing an ability to cross-over between the Arts and the Sciences.

Leonardo Da Vinci is often used as the archetype of the “Renaissance man”. He is considered to be one of the greatest painters of all time and also a rather significant scientist and engineer.

Amongst more recent examples, a notable Renaissance Man is Alan Greenspan, who not only chaired the Federal Reserve for over two decades, but is also an accomplished musician. Greenspan studied Clarinet at Juilliard, and is also a saxophone player of serious distinction.

You could say, also, that Steve Jobs has a Renaissance mind, in that he has both the technical vision and the aesthetic vision to conceive products that are truly original.

My personal observation is that we are losing some of the Renaissance style thinking in this age of hyper-specialization and nerd-dom. Our industry is so hung up on “domain expertise”, that it loses sight of the fact that innovation, often, requires going back to the fundamentals, asking a few very simple questions, and a willingness to look foolish.

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Domain expertise might be big in the job market, but there are a lot of entrepreneurs who are really ‘Renaissance Men’.

To give you an example. A certain Mr Satya was a great cricketer in school and college. He was so good that he played in Ranjhi and almost made it to the indian cricket team.

Unluckily he had an accident, and had a bad knee injury. So he had to give up the dream of playing cricket, at least professionally.

This is why he did the next best thing. He got a job, and after about a year quit, and started teaching students for CAT, GMAT and the like. Today, he is the founding director of Career Launcher. One of the biggest coaching institutes in India…

The people never die, it’s just that we stop keeping track of them. I’m sure every reader here can give you a story like that 🙂

Sudhanshu Sunday, December 30, 2007 at 6:02 PM PT

Aren’t you forgetting Burtrand Russell?

Sumedh Monday, December 31, 2007 at 12:16 AM PT

have you heard the phrase, “knowing that by which all things are known”? it is from the mystical traditions of south asia, and is of immense, inestimable, practical value.

it is not wooly theory, not anti-intellectual nonsense, it is an extremely sophisticated means of knowledge based on the nature of the mind and consciousness. it is so far advanced, that state-of-the-art neurophysiology research taking place under huge budgets in western institutions are just barely scratching the surface of things that yogis have know “forever”.

you have to be smart enough to know the meditation is something real, that subtle energy is something real, and it is best if you are not over-educated to the point of blindness to reality.

there is such a thing as enlightenment, and if you have ever been around an enlightened person, you will have witnessed many many instances of that person solving problems in areas in which they had no training at all, and often with very little education.

i could go on, and give a reference or two, but i am not sure how this will be received.

enjoy, gregory

gregory Monday, December 31, 2007 at 12:36 AM PT


I did not list every renaissance man that has ever lived in this article, so of course, there are many that are not discussed. If you want to discuss a specific one, discuss him/her with some depth. Not by asking me whom I am forgetting.


I am personally quite experienced in meditation, and the study of consciousness in Hinduism, Buddhism, etc. You are very welcome to discuss the subject in a great deal of detail on this forum.

I agree with you, that the superior intelligence of consciousness in a zone beyond thought and intellect is an important source to tap into.

The Western interpretation of that is effectively chance and randomness. (I just started reading Taleb’s The Black Swan which discusses this in great detail.)


Sramana Mitra Monday, December 31, 2007 at 10:57 AM PT

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i once heard the developer of the param 10000 at c-dca pune talk at length about being stumped towards the end of the supercomputer development process, and his conversation with mata amritanandamayi, who has a fourth grade education but is a saint of amazing power, and how she basically told him how to solve his technical problems…

he was fully sincere, still astounded months later, and presented her engineering college in coimbatore with the first param 10000 in any educational institution in india…

there is a name in sanskrit for this ability of the mind to know everything, in its seed form…. ritam bhara pragya….

renaissance mind indeed

gregory Tuesday, January 1, 2008 at 1:23 AM PT

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Excellent article. I think you are right on the money. Although there are several examples that can be pointed to as Renaissance men in highly public positions, try finding work when you are one. No company seems to want anyone capable of seeing outside the box they plan to slot you into.

Brian Clarke Friday, October 2, 2009 at 12:31 PM PT