When we think of geniuses, perhaps several names come to your mind. For me, one stands out above the rest – Leonardo da Vinci.
I agree with Michael J. Gelb, who posits in his book, How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci, “I feel very strongly that the genius of Leonardo resides not just in what he created but in what he can inspire us to create. Beyond all his stellar achievements, Leonardo da Vinci serves as a global archetype of human potential, giving us intimations of what we ourselves may be capable of doing.”
While Leonardo never published most of his writings, exploring his voluminous notebooks and insights from Gelb and the excellent biography Leonardo Da Vinci by Walter Isaacson, we can glean the attributes that Leonardo attributed to his unique approach to life. Embracing them can help us realize our full potential too.
#1. An insatiably curious approach to life and continuous learning. (Am I asking the right questions?)
- Be relentlessly curious — “I have no special talents,” Einstein once wrote to a friend. “I am just passionately curious.” Leonardo actually did have special talents, as did Einstein, but his distinguishing and most inspiring trait was his intense curiosity in a wide variety of subjects.
- Seek knowledge for its own sake — Not all knowledge needs to be useful – sometimes it should be pursued for pure pleasure. By allowing himself to be driven by pure curiosity, he got to explore more horizons and see more connections than anyone else of his era.
- Retain a childlike sense of wonder — At a certain point in life, most of us quit puzzling over every day phenomena. Never outgrow your wonder years.
#2. Test knowledge through experience, persistence and learning from mistakes. (How can I improve my ability to learn from mistakes and experiences? How can I develop my independence of thought?)
- Respect facts — Leonardo was a forerunner of the age of observational experiments and critical thinking. When he came up with an idea, he devised an experiment to test it. If we want to be more like Leonardo, we have to be fearless about changing our minds based on new information.
- Start with the details — In his notebooks, Leonardo shares a trick for observing something carefully: “If you wish to have sound knowledge of the forms of objects, begin with the details of them, and do not go onto the second step until you have the first well fixed in memory.”
- Collaborate — Genius starts with individual brilliance. It requires singular vision. But executing it often entails working with others. Innovation is a team sport and creativity is a collaborative endeavor.
#3. Continual refinement of the senses as the means to enliven experience. (What is my plan for sharpening my senses?)
- Observe — Leonardo’s greatest skill was his acute ability to observe things. It was the talent that empowered his curiosity, and vice versa. It wasn’t a magical gift but a product of his own effort.
- Go down rabbit holes — His notebooks are filled with hundreds of explorations of a variety of topics. He drilled down for the pure joy of geeking out.
#4. A willingness to embrace ambiguity, paradox and uncertainty. How can I strengthen my ability to hold creative tension to embrace the major paradoxes of life?
- See things unseen — Leonardo’s primary activity in many of his formative years was conjuring up pageants, performances and plays. He mixed theatrical ingenuity with fantasy. This gave him a combinatory creativity. He could create birds in flight, angels, lions roaring and dragons.
- Get distracted — Leonardo’s willingness to pursue whatever shiny object caught his eye made his mind richer and filled with more connections.
- Procrastinate — Creativity requires time for ideas to marinate and institutions to gel. “Men of lofty genius sometimes accomplish the most when they work least,” he explained, “for their minds are occupied with their ideas and the perfection of their conceptions, to which they afterwards give form.” Procrastinating effectively involves gathering all the possible facts and ideas and allowing the collection to simmer.
- Let your reach exceed your grasp — There are some things we may never understand or solve. Learn why.
- Create for yourself — No matter how hard rich and powerful patrons begged, Leonardo would not paint their portraits. But he did begin one of a silk-merchant’s wife named Lisa (the Mona Lisa) that struck his fancy and he kept perfecting the portrait until the day he died.
#5. Developing the balance between science and art, logic and imagination. (Am I balancing art and science at home and at work?)
- Avoid silos — Leonardo had a free-range mind that merrily wandered across all disciplines of the arts, sciences, engineering and humanities. He knew that art was a science and science was an art.
- Indulge fantasy — Just as Leonard blurred the lines between science and art, he did so between reality and fantasy. It may not have produced flying machines, but it allowed his imagination to soar.
- Let the perfect be the enemy of the good — When Leonardo couldn’t make the perspective or interaction in his paintings work perfectly, he abandoned them rather than produce a work that was merely good enough. He knew that real artists care about the beauty of even the parts unseen. (While I appreciate Leonardo’s commitment to excellence, realistically most of us can’t labor endlessly on initiatives. Always strive to do your very best, but be mindful of actually getting projects completed – even if they’re less than “perfect.” There’s nobility in accomplishment as well.)
#6. Appreciation for the interconnectedness of all things. (How do all the above elements fit together? How does everything connect to everything else?)
- Think visually — Too often, when we learn a formula or a rule – even one so simple as the method for multiplying numbers or mixing paint colors – we no longer visualize how it works. As a result, we lose appreciation for the underlying beauty of nature’s laws.
- Make lists — And be sure to put odd things on them. Leonardo’s to-do lists may have been the greatest testaments to pure curiosity the world has ever seen.
- Take notes on paper — Five hundred years later, Leonardo’s notebooks are available to astonish and inspire us. Your own notebooks may do the same for later generations too.
- Be open to mystery — Not everything needs sharp lines. Subtlety can be very powerful.