When you think of Leonardo Da Vinci, you probably think of the Mona Lisa or the Last Supper. Even though Vinci’s fame rests on his paintings, he was many things besides being an artist. With a passion that was both playful and obsessive, he pursued innovative studies of anatomy, fossils, birds, the heart, flying machines, optics, botany geology, water flows, and weaponry.
So vast were his achievements that today some argue that he should be regarded as a scientist first. From parachute designs to a cardiovascular disease called Atherosclerosis, his discoveries cared for no academic boundaries.
He was a true genius, a Renaissance-era polymath.
Life wasn’t easy for young Leo. He had no real place in the world, no future. Being born as an illegitimate son of a respected lawyer and a poor farmer’s daughter created many hurdles for him. He used to live with his father while his mother was allowed to marry a man of her class. He was disqualified to inherit his father’s wealth and profession. Some professions were closed to him. All because of his bastard1 status.
Yet, he was ambitious. He created his legacy from the very bottoms of the social hierarchy.
There’s a lot we can learn from a man who started with so little and accomplished so much. And that’s what this essay is about — to observe specific patterns in his lifestyle, and derive practical mental tools from them. Without further ado, let’s discuss five lessons from the legacy of Leonardo da Vinci.
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1. Be Realistically Ambitious
Leonardo, as we discussed earlier, was unqualified for many professions due to his illegitimacy. To break free of his bastard status and earn a respectable position in society, he knew he had to join a Guild.
The Guilds are professional trade unions. They essentially controlled the government of Florence at that time as they controlled the price of most goods by acting as regulatory bodies for businesses. The greatest guilds included the wealthiest and most powerful men of the city. Being a member of the Guild literally meant something in Renaissance Italy.
However, most guilds were closed to a bastard like Leonardo. He did not even have any formal education. For Leonardo, it was difficult to gain entry to even a lower non-professional guild.
He knew that his illegitimate status limited him from many opportunities and that he wasn’t powerful enough to fight the social norms of that time. But he wasn’t the kind of guy who’d give up on his ambitions. So instead of deciding to topple the social structure of Florence like the protagonist of a political drama movie, he utilized his father’s connections.
His father after realizing that his son’s talents were extraordinary, took some of his drawings to show his friend, Andrea del Verrocchio, who ran the largest artists’ workshop in Florence. He was also a member of the Guild of St. Luke. Leonardo eventually became a paid employee of Verrocchio’s studio in 1468 and this is when his journey to fame began.
Leonardo thrived despite his social limitations. He accepted them as a part of his identity, and always considered them while starting his professional career.
It is okay to look at the horizon, but make sure to watch your step while walking. Construct a plan that is ambitious while being weaved into your reality as well. Make sure to consider where you are, because if you don’t, you will have no clue about the direction you should move in to get to your goal. And in order to have a clear understanding of your present, you need to analyze your past.
Let’s move ahead with our next takeaway from Leonardo’s life.
2. The T-shaped Genius
When I first led my eyes to Leonardo’s masterpiece, Mona Lisa, I felt nothing. At that time it seemed to be a perfectly normal portrait of a lady with a smile. However, there is something creepy about Mona Lisa’s smile that you’d only notice if you observe it closely.
When you look into her eyes, first she is smiling, and then she is not. Her smile comes and goes as we scan her face. But when we look away the smile lingers. This is what makes Monalisa the greatest psychological portrait of all time.
When Leonardo was perfecting Lisa’s smile he was spending nights in morgues, peeling the flesh off the corpses, studying the muscles and nerves underneath. He became fascinated by how a smile works and analyzed every possible movement of each part of the face.
What appears to be a very dull painting, is in reality a work of genius. Mona Lisa is an amalgamation of psychology, optics, anatomy, and oil paint layered on a poplar canvas. This brings us to the highlight of this section — the superpower of being a generalist.
T-shaped persons is a metaphor for generalists who are experts in at least one thing. Leonardo is the perfect case study of a T-shaped person. From anatomy to art, he was an expert at switching contexts while working on a specific project. For him, the boundaries between art, science, and engineering were extremely blurred.
— Walter Isaacson in his biography of Leonardo da Vinci
There are countless instances where Leo used his expertise in one field to innovate the other. All of his flying machines were inspired by the anatomy of birds. He even had an analogy between the circulation of blood in the human body and the way water flowed in rivers5.
3. Scientific Thinking
“Describe the tongue of the woodpecker”, read one of Leonardo’s entries in his notebook — which is filled with random questions and instructions like this.
A scientist, at first, is an observer. Questioning the fundamentally absurd facts about the state of nature. Leonardo mastered this art.
He was a passionate observer of nature (from animals to trees to naked men) and questioned everything that met his curious eyes. Here are a few questions from his notebook to give you an idea of the vastness of Leonardo’s imagination:
Why is the fish in the water swifter than the bird in the air when it ought to be the contrary since the water is heavier and thicker than air?
Observe the Goose’s foot: if it were always open or always closed, the creature would not be able to make any kind of movement.
Go every Sunday to the hot bath where you will see naked men.
Inflate the lungs of a pig and observe whether they increase in width and in length, or only in width.
The reason he wanted to know all of this was because he was Leonardo: curious, passionate, and always filled with wonder.
With his scientific spirit and childlike curiosity, Leonardo conceptually invented the parachute, the helicopter, an armored fighting vehicle, the use of concentrated solar power, a calculator, a rudimentary theory of plate tectonics, and the double hull.
Related: Think Like A Scientist
4. Death of Your Passion
Even though Leonardo is profoundly known as a painter, there came a point in his life where he started to hate even the sight of a paintbrush. He never finished his first most important art assignment — The Adoration of the Magi. After devoting an extraordinary amount of time to the underpainting6, he abandoned it.
Here’s what historian Bert S. Hall said in a documentary about Leonardo’s losing interest in painting:
“He was much more interested in the natural world, in the mechanical world, and only painted occasional paintings when he seems to have cashflow problems.”
As the word of his talent started to spread, he lost interest in his career. Important commissions were left unfinished. Clients grew angry. He found himself in lawsuits several times because he couldn’t meet the deadline, or he either abandoned the work.
However, at the time when he started to lose interest in art, he became more invested in weaponry. His notebooks are filled with all sorts of weapons and war machinery — from gigantic cannons to human-sized catapults. He created the earliest known designs of a military tank7 which was inspired by a turtle’s shell.
The takeaway from this phase of his life is that it’s okay to lose interest in something. With time your hobbies and passion will change, and there is nothing you can do about it. Acknowledge the death of your passion and move ahead. There is always something exciting to do.
Related: The Death of Passion
5. Land of adversities = Land of opportunities
After abandoning the profession of painting and discovering his interest in weaponry, Leonardo moved to the city of Milan. He left his modest and respectable life as an artist and nosedived into the land of adversities.
Milan was the most vulnerable to foreign invasion, and so it was heavily militarized. For the same reasons, it was also the biggest market for weapons production in 15th century Italy. Leonardo discovered an overlap between his passion and a place that needs it the most, so he went ahead with it.
He wrote a letter to the duke of Milan boastful in tone8, with 11 ideas to empower the military of Milan with his technical expertise9. Leonardo hoped that the duke will commission him to build these war machines.
Unfortunately, da Vinci had to put aside all his excitement about military designs as the duke needs a portrait of his mistress. Despite Leonardo’s disappointment, the painting became his most famous and important work — The Lady With an Ermine.
Even though he didn’t get what he desired, he still got hired by the duke. What’s important here is Leonardo’s mindset and his ability to find opportunities in the land of adversities. Chaos yearns for order the most.
NOTE: This is the first episode in the Think Like A Genius series. In the coming months, we will talk about more brilliant people and see what made them great.