Lessons from the Life of Leonardo Da Vinci

Walter Isaacson has written biographies and books on some of the most innovative people in history, and he recently published a biography on Leonardo Da Vinci. I feel compelled to admit that I wasn’t as interested to read about Da Vinci as much as Isaacson’s other biographies. To my uncultured mind, Da Vinci was a painter, and I had an insufficient understanding of art to know of his contributions to the field. I ultimately read the book based on Isaacson’s name, not Da Vinci’s, but Isaacson’s admiration of the ultimate renaisasance man is contagious. Da Vinci was not only a brilliant painter, he was a brilliant scientist, engineer, and entertainer. Like Isaacson’s biographies of Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, and Steve Jobs, the biography of Da Vinci chronicles a life of immense innovation. Da Vinci’s life of curiosity and creativity left me with a few lessons applicable to this age of boundless access to information and unprecedented ability to create.

To Be the Noun, You Must Do the Verb

Da Vinci was the definition of a “Renaissance Man.” This distinction isn’t something he stumbled into. His vast education and skill set was one he procured over the entirety of his life. One of the most interesting pieces of Da Vinci’s life is the clear and seemingly unending motivation to learn. Da Vinci was incredibly curious, yes. But he was also such a perfectionist that he was constantly seeking ways to become better at whatever it is he wanted to be at the time.

Reading this book in my late 20s, I was particularly struck by one story in Da Vinci’s life. Some time shortly before his own 30th birthday, Da Vinci wrote a letter to the Duke of Milan seeking employment. Da Vinci had been trained as a painter, and had so far found success in that profession. However, in his letter, Da Vinci made little mention of his skill as a painter. Instead, Da Vinci portrayed himself as a skilled military engineer, a space where he had no practical experience.  He mentioned his painting once, at the very end of the letter.

We’re all familiar with the overly ambitious 20-something who thinks they can fake it until they make it. But Da Vinci’s engineering pitch doesn’t read as charlatany — Da Vinci was sincerely intent on transforming himself into an engineer. At almost 30 years old, an age in which we’re supposed to know who we are, one of the most brilliant and creative minds in human history was still figuring himself out and attempting to recast his identity. Da Vinci decided he would be an engineer and studied avidly for the rest of his life to achieve that. Prior to reading this book, the fame of The Mona Lisa and The Last Supper made me think of Da Vinci as a painter. This book left me more impressed with his scientific inquiry and engineering talent than with any of his paintings.

Connect the Dots, Then Blur the Lines

One of the more wondrous themes in Da Vinci’s life is that of continua. Da Vinci did not see the world as consisting of discrete parts. To him, the universe exists on continuous, non-discrete gradients. Everything was connected, and he did not perceive distinctions where the rest of us would.

Reminiscent of Einstein’s search for a unified field theory, Da Vinci sought the universal connections that bound various concepts to a whole. In his painting, Da Vinci did not follow the conventional practice of outlining objects. In his studies of optics, he determined that the eye does not see discrete points. Light on one object influenced the shadows on another. The most beautiful people in his life and his art displayed some element of androgyny.

This ability to perceive continuities may have contributed to Da Vinci’s ability to see connections. To Da Vinci, the circulatory system of the body was composed of little rivers, and served as a model for the circulatory system of the Earth. Rivers and streams were just like arteries and veins, and vice versa. It was by studying eddies and swirls in rivers that Da Vinci was able to comprehend certain elements of fluid dynamics, and this understanding led to his discovery of the functioning of aortic valves, four centuries before it was rediscovered by modern science. Not all of his analogies were accurate, but his ability to blur distinctions gave him an impressive ability to discover truths in his interconnected universe.

Great Artists Ship

One of the most frustrating aspects of Da Vinci’s life is his inability to drive some of his projects to completion and distribution. The breadth of unfinished works is almost painful: an incomplete Adoration of the Magi which could have been a masterpiece on perspective; an unfinished Battle of Anghari highlighted the brutality of war for both man and beast and drew anatomical connections between the two; an unpublished treatise on anatomy based on dozens of autopsies and that beautifully detailed the human body; several observations of the properties of fluid dynamics based on his studies of rivers and flight; and countless other studies on light, civil engineering, architecture, and physics. Because of some combination of perfectionism, procrastination, or lack of discipline, Da Vinci simply didn’t finish many of his projects.

Had he been any other artist, there may have been no impact from him finishing some of these works. But Da Vinci was not just an artist, he was a renowned scientist who could have advanced scientific thought by centuries had he only shared his works more liberally. Instead, Da Vinci made complete, impressive discoveries and left them hidden away from the public. In 1510, Da Vinci correcly deduced how the heart’s aortic valve works and made note of his discoveries in his unpublished notebooks. His discovery was not independently validated and made part of common knowledge until 1960.  Da Vinci even created his own controlled methods for scientific inquiry more than 100 years before Galileo.

Had Da Vinci simply shared his discoveries as imperfectly packaged insights and disseminated his knowledge, he would have advanced several fields of scientific inquiry by centuries. Perhaps he did not feel it was his duty to push the sciences forward and that’s why he didn’t publish, but one can’t help but wonder where society would be if we had learned some of these things a few hundred years earlier. Isaacson argues that this lack of dissemination wasn’t all bad because Da Vinci sought to find natural truths for their own sake. I cannot bring myself to agree.

This lesson raises an interesting question: how many other Da Vinci’s have there been in human history, making incredible insights or discoveries, only to have those ideas die with the individual? How many secretly-kept ideas do each of us have that might shape an industry or deeply impact another individual? 

Execute or Find Someone Who Will

Da Vinci was significantly more interested in inquiry than he was in execution. He was incredibly curious and enjoyed making discoveries, but once he was done discovering and imagining, he lost interest in the matter. The times that saw Da Vinci consistently complete projects were when he had collaborators who were better at execution than he was. The lesson is clear. For imaginative people who have more fun dreaming up new ideas than they do creating tangible works, it pays to have partners. Humanity may have seen more of Da Vinci’s discoveries come to light if he had found a trusted Wozniak to help him execute on his various visions.

Avoid the Traps of Boredom

Although Da Vinci’s inability to finish some of his works is frustrating to people like me who care about the advancement of scientific inquiry, it may have led to his ability to generate so many brilliant ideas. If Da Vinci got bored with a project, he moved on to more interesting things. If he couldn’t perfect a project, he didn’t frustrate himself with its completion. One of the more entertaining events covered in Isaacson’s book involves a wealthy patron and dutchess, Isabella d’Eeste, who wanted the famous Da Vinci to paint her portrait. The dude was not having it, and he successfully evaded her years-long campaign to convince him to paint her. Da Vinci didn’t force his work, often to the chagrin of his patrons, but anything he spent time on was a passion project which he took on with productive excitement.

Da Vinci had the liberty to keep his interests broad and to work on a multitude of projects, which led him to generate countless ideas. Not all of his ideas were brilliant — his military designs were the sorts of ideas you’d get out of an imaginative child who watches too many violent movies — but the sheer amount of work he created guaranteed that he would come across brilliance several times in his life.


Leonardo Da Vinci  by Walter Isaacson

Leonardo Da Vinci by Walter Isaacson