5 Life Lessons from Leonardo da Vinci
Updated: Mar 25, 2022
Leonardo da Vinci is the most famous polymath of all time. Notice how I said polymath, not painter. Leonardo was an extraordinary painter who created works like the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper. He had other varying interests. He loved learning. He studied all types of disciplines. From science and math, to art and history.
Critics over the years claimed Leonardo wasted too much time studying other subjects. They thought anything unrelated to paintings wasn't worthy of his time. His love of learning wasn't a waste of time. His study of optics gave The Last Supper it's unique perspective. It also helped him achieve the Mona Lisa effect. No matter where you look at the painting it feels like she is gazing on you.
His dissection of human bodies and research about the skeleton and muscles, made his paintings feel more alive. They were not stiff but had movement in them.
The brilliance of Leonardo was his thirst for knowledge across all the disciplines. It helped him see patterns. This cross-disciplinary thinking and pattern-seeking was his "hallmark as the quintessential Renaissance Man".
These lessons are based on book Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson.
Seek knowledge for its own sake
Avoid boxing yourself in
One of his most distinguishing and inspiring traits wasn't his painting ability. It was his intense curiosity. He wanted to know anything he could. Whether that be how a woodpecker's tongue works, or methods for squaring a circle, or even how light is processed in the eye; and more. Leonardo let his curiosity drive his life. If he wasn't interested or curious in it. He didn't do it. He refused to paint a portrait of Isabella d'Este which would've gotten him a hefty stipend. Instead painted a merchant's wife (The Mona Lisa). He was unwilling to paint her because it bored him. Through this curiosity Leonardo got to see more connections than anyone else of his era.
Let your curiosity guide you. While we all have tasks we aren't interested in life it shouldn't be the focus of our life.
Not all knowledge needs to be useful. Too often we are focused on making every minute of our day productive. A hobby it needs to be a "productive" hobby or something we can monetize. We always think we should be learning about something with utility. It needs to be useful. This isn't always the case. Sometimes it should be pursued for pure pleasure. Leonardo didn't need to know about a woodpecker's tongue to paint The Last Supper. But it made his life more fulfilling. He pursued knowledge for the sake of knowledge not because it benefited his life.
Not everything needs to have a purpose, sometimes we can do or learn things for fun.
Another one of his greatest skills was his ability to observe things. It wasn't a natural talent but a product of his own effort. Any opportunity he had to observe in intense detail he did. He did this while walking around town, to observe people's facial expressions. Or observed a nearby moat to look at dragonflies and how their wings enable them to fly. He not only observed but he recorded in intense details in his notebooks. Begin with the details, start step-by-step.
Next time you're out and about, take a minute to observe the world around you. Carefully, don't gloss over the details.
Leonardo is a genius by most definitions but he had a difficult time formulating math equations and abstract concepts. This wasn't because of a lack of intelligence, it was how his brain worked. Instead of working out complex problems on paper he visualized him. He was a fan of geometry which let him study proportions, perspectives, and more. He visualized how ideas worked, even if his initial start was wrong he was able to see how an idea worked.
I do this with my Python code. I write it out by hand and work through it. I remember during my first and only computer science course for our midterm we wrote code out on paper. I didn't get it back then since coding used a computer but now I understand. It's easy to copy and paste an answer from Stack Overflow. If you can write out code by hand (simple code) it focuses on concepts and understanding.
Next time you're stuck on a problem try drawing it out on paper. Visualize the idea.
Avoid boxing yourself in
In Leonardo's day the intersection of several disciplines was normal, even sought after. In our modern times we are encouraged to specialize. We take pride in specialization. It's not enough to be a doctor, you must specialize in a field, the rarer the better. Leonardo went against this idea of specialization. He wasn't concerned with whether he was an artist or engineer. He wanted to be seen as an artist and an engineer, along with a mathematician, a lover of plays and more.
Leonardo knew that at crossroads of disciplines lay creativity. He had a mind that wandered across all the disciplines of the arts, sciences, engineering and humanities. His anatomical drawings depicting the dissection of the lips helped draw the smile that would reappear in the Mona Lisa. He blurred the distinction between liberal arts and technology.
I'm not saying don't specialize. I'm advocating for pursuing your interests and focus less on specialization. I wrote a similar idea in my article, Building Range.
Leonardo da Vinci was a genius. One of the few people in history who we can agree on that deserves that title. What set him apart from people who are merely smart, was the creativity, the ability to apply imagination to intellect. He often combined observation with fantasy. This made him see related things seen to things unseen.
"“Talent hits a target that no one else can hit,” wrote the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. “Genius hits a target no one else can see.”"
There have been other thinkers who are more profound, logical, and more practical. Those who were geniuses in a particular field. But none who were creative in so many different fields. Leonardo's brilliance spanned multiple disciplines. He wanted to know all there was to know about everything that could be known.
We don't need to go back to school to learn. We have the internet to research about anything we can think about. Leonardo also did not learn in a formal setting, he was self-taught. Formal education is useful but it shouldn't be a barrier for learning.
While most of use may never be able to match his talent, we can learn from him. And the lessons his life offers us.