How to Be a Well Rounded Person | Inspirational Podcasts

Podcast Transcript: Welcome to the Inspirational Living podcast, brought to you in part by Book of Zen, makers of inspirational fashion and gift ideas. Visit them online at BookofZen.com. Today’s podcast has been edited and adapted from Essays On Work and Culture by Hamilton Wright Mabie, published in 1898.

A complete, well-rounded, person is so uncommon that when they appear, they are looked upon with suspicion, as if there must be something wrong with them. If a person is content to deal vigorously with business affairs, and leave art, religion, and science to the enjoyment or enlightenment of others, they are accepted as strong, sound, and wise.

But let them add to practical knowledge, a love of poetry and some skill in the practice of it; let them be not only honest and trustworthy, but genuinely spiritual; let them be not only keenly observant of financial markets, but devoted to the study of some science, and we are left with the impression that they’re interests are somehow superficial.

It is written (apparently), in the modern, and especially in the American, consciousness, that a person can do but one thing well. If he or she attempts more than one thing, they betray the weakness of versatility.

If this view of life is sound, then we are born to imperfect development and must not struggle with fate. We may have natural aptitudes of many kinds; we may have a passionate desire to try three or four musical instruments; we may have a force of vitality which is equal to the demands of several vocations. But we must disregard the most powerful impulses of our nature. We must select one tool, and with that tool, we must do all the work appointed to us.

If you are a business professional, you must turn a deaf ear to the voices of art. If you are a journalist, you must not permit yourself the delight of writing verse. If you cultivate the earth, then you must not seek the stars. If you venture to employ two languages for your thought, to pour your energy into two channels, the awful judgment of superficiality falls upon you like a decree of fate.

So fixed has become the habit of confusing the use of manifold gifts with mere dexterity that individuals of quality and power often question the promptings which drive them to use different forms of expression—as if a person were born to use only one limb and enjoy only one resource in this many-sided universe.

Specialization has been carried out so far that it has become an organized tyranny, creating a curiously perverted view of life. We are permitted these days to cultivate one faculty or master one field of knowledge, but we must not try to live a whole life, or work our nature out on all sides, under penalty of public suspicion and disapproval.

If a Pericles were to appear among us, he would be discredited by the very qualities which made him the foremost public philosopher of his time, one of the most intelligent and gifted people who have yet striven to solve the problems of life. If Michelangelo came among us, he would be compelled to repress his tremendous energy or face the suspicion of the critical mind of the age—for it is not permitted these days to excel in painting, sculpture, architecture, and sonnet-writing.

If, in addition, such a person were to exhibit superior moral qualities, they would deepen the suspicion that they were not playing the game of life fairly—for there are those who have so completely broken life into fragments that they not only deny the possibility of being able to do more than one thing well, but the existence of any kind of connection between character and achievement.

Many people view the world as a mass of unrelated parts: religion, science, morals, and art moving in little spheres of their own, without the possibility of contact. The arts were born at the foot of the altar, as we are sometimes reminded; but let the artist beware how they entertain spiritual ideas today; to suggest that art and morals have any interior relation is, in certain circles, to awaken pity that one’s knowledge of these things is still so rudimentary.

The religious or spiritual teacher may master the principles of their faith, but let them beware how they apply these thoughts to the economic or social conditions of society. If they venture to make this dangerous experiment, they are promptly warned that they are encroaching on the territory of the economist and sociologist.

The visual artist must not permit themselves to care for truth, because it has come to be understood in some quarters that they are concerned with aesthetics, and with aesthetics alone.

To assume that there is any unity in life, any connection between character and achievement, any laws of growth which operate in all departments and in all people, is to discredit one’s intelligence and jeopardize one’s influence.

One field and one tool to each person seems to be the maxim of this divisive philosophy—if that can be called a philosophy which discards unity as a worn-out metaphysical conception, and separates not only people but the arts, occupations, and skills from each other by impassable gulfs.

Versatility is often a treacherous path, which leads the person who possesses it into fields where they have no sure footing because they have no first-hand knowledge, and therefore no real power. But the danger which besets many people ought not to be made a limitation for those of superior strength. It ought not to be used as a barrier to keep back those whose inward impulse drives them forward, not in one but in many directions.

Above all, the limitations of an underprivileged class ought not to be made the basis of a conception of life which divides its activities by hard and fast lines, and tends to make people tools and machines instead of free, creative forces in society.

A person of original power can never be confined within the limits of a single field of interest, nor can they ever be content to use the skills of a single occupation. They cannot pour their whole force into one channel; there is always a reserve of power beyond the demands of the work which they have in hand at the moment.

If you wish to become a person of such power, remember this. Wherever you may find your place and whatever work may come to your hand, you must always be aware of the larger movement of life which encloses your special task. You must have the consciousness of that central power from which all activities are inadequate manifestations.

You must remain open to the whole range of human interests, and never escape the conviction that life is a unity under all its complexities; that all activities stand vitally related to each other; that truth, beauty, knowledge, and character must be harmonized and blended in every real and adequate development of the human spirit. To the growth of every flower, the earth, sun, and atmosphere must contribute. In the making of an individual, all the rich forces of nature and civilization must have place.

The higher the kind and quality of your work, the more completely does it express your personality. There are forms of work so rudimentary that the touch of individuality is almost entirely absent, and there are forms of work so distinctive and spiritual that they are instantly and finally associated with one person.

The degree in which you individualize your work and give it the quality of your own mind and spirit is, therefore, the measure of your success in giving your nature free and full expression. For work, in this large sense, is the expression of the individual; and as the range and significance of all kinds of expression depend upon the scope and meaning of the ideas, forces, skills, and qualities expressed, so the dignity and permanence of work depend upon the power and insight of the worker.

All sound work is true and genuine self-expression, but work has as many gradations of quality and significance as has character or ability. Dealing with essentially the same materials, each person in each generation has the opportunity of adding to the common material that touch of originality in temperament, insight, or skill which is their only possible contribution to civilization.

In a broad sense, work is inclusive of every force and aspect of life, since every real worker puts into it all that is most distinctive in their nature. The moral quality contributes sincerity, veracity, solidity of structure; the intellectual quality is disclosed in order, lucidity, and grasp of thought; the artistic quality is seen in symmetry of proportion, beauty of construction and of detail; the spiritual quality is revealed in depth of insight and the scope of relationships brought into view between the specific work and the world in which it is done.

In work of the finer order, dealing with the more impressionable material, we can discover not only the character and quality of the worker, but the conditions under which they live; the stage of civilization, the vigor or languor of vital energy, the richness or poverty of social life, the character of the soil and of the landscape, the pallor or the bloom of vegetation, the shining or the veiling of the skies.

So genuinely and deeply does a person put themselves into the things they do that whatever affects them affects it, and all that flows into them of spiritual, human, and natural influence flows into and is conserved by it. A bit of work of the highest quality is a key to a person’s life, because it is the product of that life, and it brings to light that which is hidden in the person, as truly as the flower lays bare to the sun that which was folded in the seed.

What you do is, therefore, an authentic revelation of what you are. And by your works, you will be fairly and rightly judged.

For this reason no one can live in any real sense who fails to express their unique personality through some form of activity. For action in some field is the final stage of development; and to stop short of action, to rest in emotion or thought, is to miss the higher fruits of living and to evade your responsibility to yourself as well as to society.

The individual whose artistic instinct is deep cannot be content simply with those visions which rise out of the depth of the imagination; for a way must be found that will give such visions an objective reality; the vision brings with it a moral necessity which cannot be evaded without serious loss.

Indeed, the vitality of the imagination depends largely upon the fidelity with which its images are first realized in thought and then embodied by the hand. To comprehend what life means in the way of truth and power, one must act, as well as think and feel.

For action itself, is a process of revelation, and the sincerity and power that you invest in your work determines the scope of the disclosure of truth which you receive. To comprehend all that life involves of experience, or offers of power, you must give full play to all the force that is within you.

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