Leonardo da Vinci is a renaissance man. Literally. He’s succeeded in a variety of areas in life, from art to science to invention.
After hearing how this man was a once-in-a-century genius, I had to learn about him because I wanted to see if there’s anything I could take into my own life.
I choose a biography written by a well-respected biographer, Walter Isaacson. And I was glad I did. Even though you and I aren’t prodigies, I believe we can still take and apply some things he did in his own life to better our lives.
Here’s my book summary…
He was obsessive about understanding human physiology and nerves, dissecting bodies to discover more in a time when that wasn’t commonplace.
He was a perfectionist, which kept him from completing any paintings. He kept paintings for decades to improve. He would add strokes years later to paintings after learning about new musculature.
Though having tremendous painting talent and skill, he had nothing to show for his career at age 30. He had a bunch of unfinished paintings. He borrowed money to buy paint and was contracted to be rewarded with firewood.
He was never ashamed of his homosexuality. He found it amusing, He never flaunted it but never hid it.
His imagination brought creative ideas that were far from practical and ones he tested with reality. Many of his flying machine concepts were devised for entertainment in the theatre and never tested or ironed out in real world practicality. That said, this impractical creativity likely spurred inventions that were useful in real life.
He had trouble finding work the first few years moving into Milan so he sketched a ton of ideas for military inventions and new architecture, including a helicopter blade to prevent people from climbing up ladders in sieges and a utopian city that would prevent unsanitary conditions from spreading disease.
He would pursue new interests and topics when he hit a stumbling block on his current topic. His interest in military inventions was partially to appease the ruler of Milan to find work but also due to hitting road blocks with his paintings.
Around the age of 35, Leonardo was in much demand because entertainment through the form of plays and jousting were in high demand, which attracted military engineers, artists, inventors, architects, and more. He was as enthralled with devising behind-the-scene machinery that would excite the crowd as devising concepts in the spotlight.
He journaled a lot. He had thousands of pages and used up every bit of a paper because paper was scarce and expensive at the time.
He was skeptical of astrology and reading palms. He reasoned there was no science behind them. He did argue that there was science behind reading someone’s personalities by the wrinkles (or lack thereof) on parts of their face. If they were cheerful, they would smile a lot and have wrinkles there. If they had a lot of regrets, there were wrinkles on the forehead.
Leonardo had many close friends. He was attractive, muscular, and charming. He went through a period of depression, writing that while he thought he was learn to live, he found out he was learning to die.
Some people think Leonardos weakness was not grounding his fantasies in reality. But many of his ideas were paths to real inventions centuries later, including scuba gear, airplanes, and swamp drains.
WHY the MONA LISA SO COOL and FAMOUS:
-Leonardo’s deep understanding of science, light, perspective, 2d vs 3d, and physiology affected the Mona Lisa:
-the smile changes depending on where you view it from (from no smile to a distinct smile)
-the eyes follow you around wherever you are in the room
-it implies how every human emotion is veiled with mystery and you never know what someone is truly thinking
-there’s emotional engagement, and it engages a complex set of emotions in viewers
-Leo spent his entire life perfecting it, adding strokes every now and then for 60 years
He was mortal. Many of his works were unfinished, from flying machines to diverting river water through infrastructure to a horse sculpture turned to rubble from war.
What separates him from natural geniuses was his creativity. His work experience in plays and pageants helped him see fantastical creatures and ideas.
Be relentlessly curious. Like Einstein, he was extremely curious about tiny things we take for granted – what makes an eye move, the light of moon, how shadows interact with light, how a heart works, why the sky is blue, etc. (he got fairly far in many of these, correctly identifying that it was water vapor in the sky that made it blue). *retain a child-like sense of wonder.
Seek knowledge, even just for pleasure. Leonardo never published most of his discoveries and seemed more motivated of knowledge for its own sake than to make a name for himself in the scientific community. Many of his discoveries had to be rediscovered decades or centuries later because he didn’t disseminate it. An example is his theories on how a heart valve uses vortex fluid motion to prevent liquid from flowing backwards, which scientists confirmed in the 1960’s. He constructed ingenious tests to learn about light, fluid dynamics, the blood system, anatomy, and more.
Observe things acutely. (He was able to identify near indistinguishable differences in how different species of birds beat their wings, like how the downward flap is less forceful than the upper, through tons of observation). It wasn’t a gift but a product of his own effort. He observed how facial expressions relate to emotion and why water swirls.
Begin with the details. If you want to understand an object, begin with the details. He noted: A page cannot be absorbed in one stare. Go word by word. Don’t go onto the second step until you have the first firmly fixed in memory.
See things unseen. He mixed theater with fantasy.
Go down rabbit holes. He listed 67 descriptive words for water. He geeked out. He pursued his interests and went on deep tangents.
Respect facts. Be fearless of changing your beliefs based on new information. He revised his theories on how springs and rivers were replenished like blood when new evidence refuted it. His willingness to drop theories based on tests was key to his creativity.
Be a perfectionist. He procrastinated on delivering paintings for decades to perfect them. Men often accomplish the most by working the least, allowing creativity simmer. He carried his paintings for years, knowing there was always a stroke he can add. He would stare at a painting for an hour and add one stroke. As a parallel, Steve Jobs delayed on releasing a computer to make the insides pretty even though no one would see them. That said, he later took on a different perspective, “Real artists ship.” Sometimes, you deliver in daily life even if it isn’t perfect. But sometimes, you let it simmer.
Avoid silos. Steve Jobs drew a sign of intersection of liberal arts and technology as the intersection of creativity. Leo’s knowledge of different domains helped him be creative. Art was science, and science was art.
Let your reach exceed your grasp. Adopt fantasy. He sought answers to questions we may never answer: flying machines, perpetual energy machines, making a square circle with a ruler, water fuel cities, etc.
Create for yourself, not just for patrons. Leo didn’t paint certain portraits no matter how much some rich patrons offered and begged, but he painted a portrait of the wife of a soap merchant but never delivered the painting because he wanted to.
Executing your vision requires a team. Leo had a whole team to execute his ideas. Innovation requires collaboration.
Take notes on paper. His notes have allowed us to see his brilliance even though they went unpublished. His to-do lists were the greatest records of creativity and curiosity.
His most consistent work was in anatomy. He dissected many humans, and argued that the act was honoring the beauty of creation when religious people said dissection was heresy. He discovered many things about the body that weren’t acknowledged until centuries later. He measured an extreme amount of ratios of the body.
He was obsessive. He documented 730 findings about the flow of water on eight pages of his notebook. He filled his opening pages with 169 attempts to square a circle.
For most of his later life, he rejected commissioned art work in Milan, even from the Pope, because he was more interested in science.
Use Leonardo’s Lesson in Your Life
The author ends wonderfully by defining some of the lessons he learned from Leonardo, mentioned above, in concrete terms. You may choose to use different lessons than I, but we can all improve our performance in life with a couple of his behaviors and mindsets.
I particularly marveled at his childlike sense of wonder, pursuit of knowledge for passion rather than income, and his considerable effort to learn about things. I’m uplifted by the fact that the biographer discovered that he didn’t have any exceptional talent in spotting subtle thing; he just put in a lot more effort and practice to do so, which honed his skill. That means all of us can improve if we put in the effort. We’re not barred from excellence in certain areas because of genetics.
It’s amazing how he could detect how certain animals flap their wings harder when moving up than down. I may not have interest in figuring that out in particular, but I do have an interest in becoming more socially attentive and aware, so I could apply that in better understanding other’s body language.