How To Think Like Leonardo da Vinci (According To His 7,000 Journal Pages)
Personal note: The initial vision for this newsletter was to do the following for each post:
Curate one video lesson from a great thought leader
Expand on it with context and how-to advice
While I love the idea of this vision, in practice, I haven’t. Rather, I have been attracted to sharing multi-thousand word posts that contain multiple video clips.
The downside is that I’m working an unsustainable number of nights and weekends, and I’m still not hitting my 5am EST ship goal. The upside is that these posts are more interesting and nuanced, and they appear to resonate more. Not only that, I’m shipping more than I thought was possible.
With that said…
I’m proud to share today’s post. I think you’ll like it!
I’ll be taking tomorrow off as a personal day in order to get caught up. For your reference, you can see my posting schedule, which includes personal days, holidays, and my vacation calendar.
I’m going to continue iterating on the newsletter’s format until I find a model that is sustainable for me and produces high-quality, high-frequency ideas on a consistent schedule for you. I’ll share what I learn along the way.
As a teenager, Leonardo da Vinci was frustrated creatively.
In his journal, he lamented growing up in an era where everything worth discovering had already been discovered.
Five decades later, he was one of the most creative people in the history of human civilization.
How did an unschooled teenager turn into a master of art and science?
Fortunately, we don’t have to wonder.
Leonardo kept 7,000+ journal pages, which scholars have poured through over the centuries.
Through these journals, we can see da Vinci’s most private thoughts on everything:
His to do lists and to learn lists
The step-by-step evolution of his thinking
His doodles and schematics
His system for mastery
And much more.
In this post, I break down Leonardo’s universal process for cultivating creativity and mastery that we can all learn from as thought leaders.
Furthermore, I contextualize da Vinci’s process with those of other greats and the research of other creativity scholars…
Books that were particularly helpful for this post include…
Understanding the value of knowledge, I have spent 3-4 hours per day for the last 10 years on deliberate learning. Furthermore, I developed an elaborate note system that has made it easy for me to never forget, quickly recall, and cite what I’ve read.
With that said, this article is a synthesis of the following books that I’ve read over the years—all of which have been life-changing…
How To Think Like Leonardo da Vinci by Michael Gelb
Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson
The Diversity Bonus by researcher Scott Page
Sparks of Genius: The Thirteen Thinking Tools of the World's Most Creative People by researchers Robert & Michele Root-Bernstein
Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned by AI researchers Kenneth Stanley and Joel Lehman
Before we jump in, it’s important to get some context on what researchers know about the creative process that is surprising…
Big Idea #1: Creativity Starts With Unique And Useful Inputs
In Tutorial: How To Package Other People's Video Clips So They Go Viral And People Pay For Them, I present the academic research of Robert Weisberg who studied the journal of many of history’s greatest artists and scientists like Picasso and Thomas Edison.
Weisberg’s contention is simple. Creativity is about having extra-ordinary inputs combined with ordinary thinking. In other words, the accumulation of research leads to small leaps of insight, which add up to a big insight over time.
This flies in the face of mainstream notions of creativity, which make the opposite case: that insights come from extra-ordinary thinking that lead to huge, creative leaps that seemingly come out of nowhere. In other words, big ideas don’t just come out of nowhere like a lightning bolt from the sky.
Weisberg succinctly with this quote:
The basic assumption that it is possible for a truly creative person to produce something that completely breaks with the past is fiction.
Put differently, we need past knowledge to create new knowledge. No one invents something new from scratch. A person with no knowledge of computers could never invent a computer. A person with no knowledge of rockets could never invent a rocket.
In Become An Idea Machine With The "Idea Evolution" Mental Model, I expand upon Weisberg’s idea by synthesizing the work of other creativity researchers. More specifically, I make the case that:
Ideas are fractal. Ideas are combinations of sub-ideas, which are combinations of sub-ideas.
Every knowledge block is a whole and a part. Every knowledge lego piece can stand on its own as a whole, and it can be part of multiple larger ideas.
Ideas have sex. Ideas evolve through combining with each other.
Ideas compete for limited attention in a survival of the fittest manner.
To develop profound ideas, we need to have more, better, and diverse building blocks compared to other people.
Said differently, if we have the same exact knowledge as other people, then it’s hard for us to be more creative than them. If we have more, better, and diverse knowledge, it’s easy for us to be more creative.
With this groundwork laid, the question becomes…
How do we pick the right things to learn so that we maximize our creativity over time?
Now that we have context, we can begin to answer this question…
Big Idea #2: Creativity Is About Observation, Not Recognition
The average person looks without seeing, hears without listening, touches without feeling, breathes in, without awareness of aroma or fragrance, eats without tasting and talks without thinking.
—Leonardo da Vinci
As we get older, we learn how to see and navigate the world more efficiently…
We learn to ignore almost everything we sense except what’s needed
We have expectations of what we expect to see, which shapes what we actually see
We become habituated to our environment
In our rush to drive our kids to school or show up on time for meetings, we enter a mode of experiencing reality that is more akin to recognition than it is to observation.
In other words, we’re interacting with our map of reality just as much as we are interacting with reality (see also Your brain hallucinates your conscious reality video via brain researcher Anil Seth).
Seeing the general details of an object
Labeling the object or phenomenon based on a known category
Recognition is extremely powerful for daily living, because it’s so efficient. It’s what allows us to read quickly without pattern-matching every pixel on every letter. It’s what allows us to recognize our friends without closely observing the details of their faces.
Observation is fundamentally different. It is:
Cataloging details as if one has never seen the object or phenomenon before
Attempting to remove our distorting filters (i.e., theory blindness, confirmation bias) in order to observe as directly and clearly as possible
Hypothesizing and synthesizing potential new categories for the object or phenomenon.
Observing is used by the world’s most creative people to discover new and useful patterns.
For example, Leonardo Da Vinci, Jasper Johns (artist), Georgia O’keeffe (artist), Karl von Frisch (scientist), Konrad Lorenz (scientist), and creatives in general all were creative in large part based on their ability to observe what others overlooked.
If you wish to have a sound knowledge of the forms of objects, begin with the details of them, and do not go on to the second step until you have the first well fixed in memory.
― Leonardo da Vinci
What interested me was this. At a certain point I realized that certain things that were around me were things that I did not look at, but recognized. And recognized without looking at. So you recognize a flag is a flag, and it’s very rare that you actually look at the surface of it to see what it is. This aspect of things interested me and I began to work with it, to see how I could look at things that I was accustomed to looking at, but not seeing.
—Jasper Johns, famous painter
Still—in a way—nobody sees a flower—really—it is so small—we haven’t the time—and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.
—Georgia O’Keeffe, famous painter and draftswoman
For hours between the cliffs, motionless, watching living things I could see on and between the slimy green stones just below the surface of the water. I discovered that miraculous worlds may reveal themselves to a patient observer where the casual passer-by sees nothing at all.
—Karl von Frisch (decoded the dance language of bees, wrote that his ability to observe came from simply lying)
It is a pleasant urge. Those who have it want to look at animals, want to own them, to breed them. To really understand animals and their behavior you must have an esthetic appreciation of an animal’s beauty. This endows you with the patience to look at them long enough to see something.
—Konrad Lorenz, Zoologist
Bottom line: Recognition is efficient. It helps us live everyday life. But, it’s terrible for creativity—for connecting the dots in new ways.
Observation is critical for creativity, but energy-intensive. It requires so much interest in something that you’ll happily and patiently observe it in meticulous detail.
The questions now become…
How do we cultivate the skill of observation?
How do we see what others miss?
That’s what the rest of this post is about…
5 Ways to Think Like Leonard da Vinci (Quick Summary)
Let your curiosity guide what you observe
Cultivate your curiosity by listening to its subtle signals
Explore everything you’re curious about
Compare and contrast what you observe in order to distill key patterns
Keep a notebook of all your curiosities
For each takeaway, I provide relevant quotes, research, and exercises to help you cultivate each ability.
With that said, let’s jump in…