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Be a Renaissance Man, even though it's not the Renaissance.


People usually confine “diversification” to dealing with stocks.  But when it comes to most major decisions (such as jobs), people don’t diversify at all.  When it comes to making and taking opportunities, people don’t diversify at all because they just focus on one area.

What do I mean?

Be introspective here for a second.  Do you:

1. Enjoy a lot of different things, or just a few?

2. Know a lot of things in different areas, or is your focus rather narrow?

3. Spend your time doing lots of interesting things, or just a few?

Do you see what I’m getting at?  I think most people would answer all of these questions saying “I enjoy a few specific things, I’m quite knowledgeable in a few distinct areas, and I spend my time doing those things, thank you very much.”

Most folks:

  • Only build knowledge in one area.
  • Only look for certain types of opportunities, and ignore others.
  • Don’t really understand things from other fields, areas and cultures.

Should we be like that?  Does that make sense?

Some people say “yes”.  I’ve heard many times “you should try to specialize in one hyper-technical area; that way, you will always have a job”.  Some people think that spending all of their time on one thing will make them the best at that one thing, and therefore intrinsically more valuable.

I think there’s actually merit to that.  I know plenty of people who have led comfortable lives by specializing in one thing that they did exceptionally well.

But I think there’s still a much better case to be made for diversity.

I call it “The Diversity Mindset”.

The Diversity Mindset is trying to be a modern-day Renaissance Man (or Woman).  Just like with picking stocks, you try to become good at lots of different things, rather than just one or two.

Then, you use your diversified skillset as a synergy.  You use your skills together in a unique way to create unusual and exceptional value, and to give you insight in ways that most people would be unable to.

Having The Diversity Mindset:

  • Eliminates narrow-mindedness that causes you to miss opportunities.

If you know more, shouldn’t you know about more opportunities?

  • Keeps you from taking unnecessary risks.
  • Removes bias that causes you to misunderstand the world.

Rather than having stereotyped opinions about others or other things, you can actually understand them for what they are.

  • Enhanced perspective from which to make decisions, in terms of understanding of others, and personal experience that will help you make a decision.

Think back to Branding, Part 2, where I talked about demonstrating your acumen in unique areas, rather than just trying to be the best at a general area.  For example: most people who apply to a public accounting firm will emphasize their grades, the classes they’ve taken, the projects they’ve done, etc.  The problem is that, unless they’re really the best at those things (have the best grades, took the hardest classes, done the coolest projects), it’s really hard to compete.  So a smart person looking to enhance their brand will emphasize their unique attributes, and point out how the way in which those unique attributes are a strong value-added not easily found somewhere else.

The same reasoning goes for having The Diversity Mindset.  For example, some of my attributes:

  1.  Chinese language
  2.  Accounting
  3. Sales and Marketing

Consider my options in life if I only had one of these attributes:

  1. Chinese language = I could go teach English in China or translate documents for a living.
  2. Accounting = I could work in a large public accounting firm, or do industry accounting.
  3. Sales and Marketing = I could work as a salesman, or doing business development for a company.

But look what happens when we start making some combinations:

1. Chinese language + accounting = work in an accounting job in China, or with Chinese businesses or individuals.

2. Chinese language + sales and marketing = I could work with a start-up company in China that wanted to make sales to expats, and could bring a “fresh” American perspective to the company.

3. Chinese language + accounting + sales and marketing =  My knowledge of business (accounting) plus language and sales would allow me to start my own business in China, either for Chinese or for expats; and would lend me the sales and marketing knowledge necessary to actually make it successful.

Do you see how none of those attributes–by themselves–is overly useful or interesting?  But what happens when I combine them?  I am suddenly qualified for all sorts of new, exciting, and interesting niche opportunities! 

You too should pursue The Diversity Mindset, because doing so gives you more interesting an unique opportunities.  It’s also important in fields–such as entrepreneurship–that require a “jack of all trades”.

Important Elements of The Diversity Mindset:

Having The Diversity Mindset means taking distinct steps to increase the diversity in your life.  It means focusing on having diversity in these areas:

  • Diversity of people.

It’s important to have people in your life who:

-Come from different backgrounds

-Have different interests than yours

-Can expose you to new and unique things

This can be people:

-From different countries

-From different vocational backgrounds

-Who see the world in different ways than you do.

This is a huge part of surrounding yourself with people who will help you grow and improve.  As I pointed out there (and as I’m sure you have heard before), we are largely a product of our surroundings.  And having unique and diverse people around lends unique viewpoints that may have been difficult to acquire otherwise.


  • Diversity of knowledge, experience and interests

polymath is someone that has expertise in many areas.  In a sense, being a polymath is exactly what I would recommend to you.  Look back to my example above.  My qualifications for those unique and interesting roles are because of my diversity in experience.

How to Acquire The Diversity Mindset:

Your goal is to get to the point where longing for diversity is a habit.  There’s a couple different way to approach this: a gradual approach, or a “shock and awe” approach.  Personally, I’d recommend a combination of both (that’s what I did):

1. Graduate approach: make increasing diversity part of your daily routine.

Such as:

a.) Actively learn about a topic in a field that interests you, especially those that are not “direct” topics you work with on a daily basis.  A great way to do this is by just reading online; an even more pro-status way is to take a free online course, like one at Coursera, which offers free courses from schools such as U Penn and Princeton.  I’m taking their Computer Science 101 course.

b.)Spend time with new people on a daily basis.  Are there people in class or at work that you usually don’t spend time with?  Why not go talk to them?  Learn more about them, and see if there’s anything interesting.  If you want to start a business, do you see anything there that makes you think “hey, this guy could be a good business partner!”?

2. “Shock and awe” yourself into diversity.

Go do something that you would never, ever think about doing, such as:

-Study abroad
-Go to a foreign country and just spend some time there.
-Try doing something you’ve never considered doing before (such as a new hobby, for example).

That’s what happened to me when I studied abroad in Shanghai, China: it was total shock and awe.  But it worked really, really well.  In fact, my studying there is probably the impetus for my ideas about The Diversity Mindset.

Image Credit from Wikimedia Commons,