What is a well-rounded person?

Is it good to be well-rounded, or is better to get really good at one thing? Do you believe that getting really good at one thing will guarantee everything in your life will go well? Keep reading to find out if that's true.

What if there was something you could learn that would equip you for success in the widest range of potential situations? Based on careful research, I've found six fundamental areas that make a person well-rounded. Strengthening these six areas will give you a foundation for success in all areas of life. 

Not only will being well-rounded help make worth living, your self-esteem depends on it.

First, let's talk about what's involved in being well-rounded, some different ways of describing people's skill sets, and finally, let's discuss the six fundamental things that describe a well-rounded person.

The definition of well-rounded, in 1000 words

Two graphs showing distribution of acquired knowledge

Picture these two graphs as representing the knowledge of two individuals.I "borrowed" this concept from Olle Linge's post The Illusion of Advanced Learning at Hacking Chinese.  If you are currently learning Chinese or thinking about it, his web site is one of the most useful resources you will find. These two (fictitious) individuals are roughly the same age and both have accumulated roughly the same amount of knowledge, but there is a difference in the way the knowledge is distributed. The one on the left has accumulated an advanced level of knowledge in some field, while the one on the right has focused on the essentials. While it's unlikely that any of us will ever look exactly like the graph on the right, the illustration on the left should provide a warning. This person's knowledge and experience are so skewed that he knows little to nothing of certain core knowledge that isn't related to his field of expertise. So if he is ever put into a position that requires basic knowledge in this area, how will he look? Obviously, others will see him as the opposite of well-rounded and he will have reason to feel distressed about it.

Very few people would want to look exactly like the graph on the right either. While having a well-rounded view of the world is useful for avoiding distressing situations, the world usually offers greater rewards for specialized knowledge. This is generally thought of as deep knowledge of a subject. Since depth is most commonly visualized as being vertical it came to be represented by the letter "I", picturing knowledge that extends downwards. In recent decades people have increasingly recognized that deep, specialized knowledge in one field or subject isn't enough to make a person really useful. David Guest wrote the earliest known reference to "T-shaped People" in The Independent (London) on September 17, 1991. "The hunt for a new breed of computer manager is on. The British Computer Society, in a controversial report published last year, described the quarry as a 'hybrid' manager who would combine business expertise with IT skills. The hybrid manager, it said, would be distinguished by his or her ability to relate to 'the broad picture' and to people, understanding their motivation and aspirations; he or she would also be energetic, intuitive, a good listener, and (cryptically) would have 'an unusual set of interests'. This type of rounded personality is also sought in other branches of the same theory, which prizes individuals known as T-shaped People. These are a variation on Renaissance Man, equally comfortable with information systems, modern management techniques and the 12-tone scale." Source

What are "T-shaped people"?

"T-shaped people" have specialized knowledge in a field but also work on broadening their knowledge of related fields so they can interface more effectively with those in related fields. There are many pages of information available describing this concept. It's interesting that David Guest also described such individuals as variations of Renaissance Man. The Renaissance Man (or Woman) concept best fits the well-rounded graph on the right above, and yet the "T-shape" is still closely associated with specialization in one field. Not to say that this is the only idea people are passing around on this concept. Some talk of pi-shaped knowledge, that is, shaped like the letter pi (Π/π), where the person pursues knowledge of two specialties. There are other letters in use as well, and a thorough discussion of this subject goes beyond the scope of this article. However, one final letter shape is worth mentioning: the letter E. This one is more of a hybrid between using the letter shape to describe a concept and using a letter to summarize concepts that start with that letter. E-types (also called "E-Shaped People", but this is a stretch) are known for a combination of ‘4-E’s’: experience, expertise, exploration, and execution. Although advocates of this idea like to build on the letter metaphor by labeling each line of the capital E with one of the words it stands for, it has become less useful as a physical metaphor and more of a mnemonic. But it proves to be very useful for our current purpose.

A closer look: Am I well-rounded?

Now that we've described the concept of knowledge as a physical metaphor, let's get down to actually describing what makes a person well-rounded. As a start we can look at the list compiled by the U.S. Department of Labor on its CareerOneStop.org web site. Since I'm learning in public I'll admit that I just discovered this site as part of my research for this post. They provide a list of Personal Effectiveness Competencies which they describe as:

...Essential for all life roles—roles as a member of a family, a community, and a larger society.... These competencies, sometimes referred to as "soft skills," are also valued in the labor market. Personal effectiveness competencies are generally learned in the home or community and reinforced and honed at school and in the workplace. They represent personal attributes that may be challenging to teach or assess.

These sound like good candidates for the inner circle of our knowledge graph. What are these "personal effectiveness competencies"?

  • Interpersonal Skills
  • Integrity
  • Professionalism
  • Initiative
  • Dependability and Reliability
  • Adaptability and Flexibility
  • Lifelong Learning

Incidentally Tier 2 of CareerOneStop's Foundational Competencies include: Reading, Writing, Mathematics, Science and Technology, Communication, Critical and Analytic Thinking, and Basic Computer Skills.  If you've read my article on literacy you'll recognize that each one of them can be found there.

While I agree that USDOL have chosen good candidates for their "personal effectiveness competencies", a thorough analysis of what it means to be well-rounded goes beyond these things. Most of the items on DOL's list are qualities that are essential to long-term success. I've compiled my own list, and while there's some overlap with theirs I believe these six areas are the most fundamental to building a truly well-rounded, solid foundation to success in one's career and life in general. Fundamental to having a bright outlook.

Six fundamentals

  1. Values and Principles (including Integrity, Professionalism, Dependability, and Reliability)
  2. Balance (including Adaptability and Flexibility)
  3. Curiosity (aka Lifelong Learning)
  4. Emotional intelligence (aka Interpersonal Skills)
  5. Care for others
  6. Willingness to take risks (including Initiative)

Let's look at each in more depth:

Values and principles

  • A sound value system is fundamental to living a life with real direction, not just following whatever path seems to offer the most perks.
  • A well-rounded person has a strong sense of ethics. They value integrity, honesty, dignity, and respect for all. They are reliable and dependable.
  • A person with a strong sense of value recognizes that producing quality work is more important than being rewarded. They are professional and confident that they bring value to everything they do. 


  • A well-rounded person understands the importance of intellectual, emotional, and physical health, and is involved in a variety of activities.
  • They are confident, but not arrogant.
  • They learn how to manage all the demands on their time and energy without sacrificing what's most important.  They are flexible and adaptable.


  • This is where the lifelong learning part comes in. A curious person loves to discover new information and develop new skills. (Which in turn contribute to two of the ‘4-E’s’ mentioned above: exploration and expertise)
  • A well-rounded person acquires a broad base of knowledge by learning about the world across multiple disciplines.
  • Rather than merely memorizing facts, they seek to make deep connections among concepts, ideas, and issues.
  • A well-rounded person sees interacting with other cultures as an opportunity to broaden their perspective. They enjoy seeking and understanding different points of view as a way to greater compassion and personal growth.

Emotional intelligence

  • Well rounded people learn to communicate effectively, to show empathy, to listen rather than judge, and to understand others' point of view.
  • They adapt to different environments.
  • They strive to understand the global context in which their work is done.
  • They practice patience and take responsibility for their actions.

Care for others

  • Well rounded individuals learn to think about others, not just themselves.
  • They strive to be compassionate and focus on service rather than profits.  
  • They are considerate of the feelings of others and they endeavor to maintain a cooperative attitude.
  • They know what true love means.  (They probably read this article.)

Willingness to take risks

  • Well rounded people have the confidence to approach new situations courageously, applying what they have already learned.
  • They are self-motivated. They explore new ideas and roles with determination and resilience.  
  • I would place the other two ‘E’s,’ experience and execution, in this category.

I hope you will agree that being well-rounded, or 'personally effective,' involves much more than can be represented by a T, an E, or any other letter.

As we've looked at each of these areas no doubt you've recognized that none are easy to attain. No wonder USDOL describes them as "personal attributes that may be challenging to teach or assess"! It's likely that all of us, myself included, are lacking in some way in these most fundamental areas of knowledge. But fear not! We will be considering each of them in depth, and as we do, we will ensure that every day our outlook will get brighter.