Throughout his life, Leonardo consistently came to insights that wouldn't be re-created for another three centuries.
He had almost no schooling and could barely read Latin or do long division. How the heck did he do it? According to his biographer Walter Isaacson "His genius was of the type we can understand, even take lessons from. It was based on skills we can aspire to improve in ourselves, such as curiosity and intense observation. He had an imagination so excitable that it flirted with the edges of fantasy."
He was the ultimate Renaissance person. An artist and scientist. A child's curiosity in an adult's body. A polymath to the comical degree.
During his 67 years of life, he cannonballed into art, sculpture, anatomy, physics, engineering, architecture, botany, music, mathematics, geology, cartography, optics, and more. Leonardo is my hero. Curiosity, learning, and open-mindedness are three of my most important values. For the last three years, I have created consistently on my YT channel, newsletter, and podcast, not because I have to but because I want to. But I'm not in the norm.
The students around me at Cornell see learning as a necessary evil for getting a cheap hit from the drug colloquially called, grades. Many adults zombie through their 9-5s and "going through the motions." And all of us, at some point in our lives, drift off into the blissful unconsciousness of sleep thinking--when did life lose its zest?
In this dark void, Leonardo's attitude toward life stands as a bastion of light.
Let's explore the insights he can give us into productivity, creativity, and learning so we can aspire to be more like him.
Use Distraction As A Superpower
Leonardo was notoriously distractable.
He often wandered off on tangents--literally in the case of his math inquiries. His to-do lists exemplify his distractibility. They include items such as measuring Milan and its suburbs and drawing the city, walking on ice in Flanders and repairing locks and mills, drawing the movement of a goose's foot, and perhaps most peculiarly, observing the tongue of the woodpecker. Sometimes, Leonardo would stare at a painting for an hour before doing one brush stroke and leaving for the day. If you define productivity as output over time, he went against all modern productivity advice.
It was Leonardo's distractibility that fueled a different kind of productivity: time spent doing meaningful work.
While he was horrible at finishing projects, his distractable nature led him to work only on projects that excited him. He didn't care about money. He learned for the love of learning in itself.
Leonardo embodied the question which forms the foundation of Ali Abdaal's fantastic book Feel Good Productivity, how can I make this fun? Abdaal's essential insight into productivity is making something fun is vastly more effective than using discipline--and Leonardo shows us that can mean being distractable.
This goes against the modern method of "learning" in school or the workspace.
Students are forced down rigid learning curriculums with little room for exploration. Distraction is demonized. When I ask students why they are taking a class all too often, I get the response, "It was a requirement."
Let's make things more fun. Some easy ways you can do this are:
- Tie it to something you care about
- Define a breakthrough moment
- Create a challenge
- Listen to music
- Do it with others
- Do cocaine
I'm joking about that last one by the way.
Procrastination Can Be A Good Thing
Leonardo was a chronic procrastinator and perfectionist.
Think of the time management quality of a hunter-gatherer with no access to watches or even the conception of linear time. Now double it. There's Leonardo. He would consistently miss contract deadlines and spend most of his life persistently questioned by his patrons about when he would finish something. Until his death he kept three of his masterpieces--The Virgin With Saint Anne, Saint John The Baptist, and The Mona Lisa--by his side at all times just in case he thought of another minor touch to perfect them.
In modern society, we tend to look down upon procrastination as a bad thing. In Leonardo's case it did often border on the comical.
But his procrastination was a creativity superpower.
He once told Duke Ludovico that creativity requires time for ideas to marinate and intuitions to gel. With this statement, Leondaro was uncovering a critical insight about the brain: it operates in focused and diffused thinking. In her book, A Mind for Numbers, Dr. Oakley differentiates between these two modes of thinking:
- Focused mode thinking is the mode of thinking we use when we use analytical, sequential, rational approaches towards one problem.
- Diffused thinking is the type of thinking we use when we spread our awareness outward instead of focusing it on one problem.
Leonardo understood one of the secret sauces to creativity is switching between focused and diffused mode thinking.
This is because your brain works on problems subconsciously. That's why you often get the most creative ideas while shopping for groceries, in the shower, or eating peanut butter.
"The harder you push your brain to come up with something creative the less creative it will be." - Dr. Oakely
The rule of thumb is to give your brain a rest from a problem for at least a few hours but not for more than a day if it's the first time you have attacked that problem. This is exactly what Leonardo was doing by procrastinating on his works for so long.
While it might have hurt his productivity, it allowed him to leverage the most powerful tool of creative thinking: the subconscious.
Work Like A Lion, Not Like A Cow.
You have likely heard the platitude, "consistency is king" many times.
This is horrible advice for some people--and Leonardo was one of them.
Cows "work" by grazing grass all day--they are the caricature of consistency. Most people work like cows. They get a little done daily and bump up their cadence once a deadline approaches. But lions, lions work in bursts of intensity with long rest periods.
Leonardo was definitely a lion.
When some new project didn't absorb him, he would take his version of "rest," working on old hobbies or projects. But once inspiration struck, he would set aside everything else and "chase his prey."
Leonardo understood inspiration is a luxury in the creative field, and once it hits, you should ride it like a tidal wave.
Modern productivity advice says you should work slowly and consciously so as to not burn yourself out. This definitely has value. But you miss the power of inspiration. We can all take inspiration from Leonardo and work more like lions. If you prefer working like a cow, that's fine, but recognize when inspiration strikes.
And hit the wave before it's too late.
Find Connections Between Disparate Ideas
Steve Jobs is famous for saying, "Creativity is just connecting things," and no one was better at connecting than Leonardo.
Leonardo was into art, sculpture, anatomy, physics, engineering, architecture, botany, music, mathematics, geology, cartography, optics, and more. In modern-day education, we separate these disciplines. Leonardo purposefully blurred the line. Looking at his notebook pages, you can find a drawing of a horse, next to an attempt to square a circle, alongside an idea for a new piece of military technology--his notebooks are perfect example of why I think linked notetaking apps like Obsidian are the future of creativity. He understood new learnings through analogies to other disciplines. When studying earth science, he compared the earth's oceans to the blood of the human body, a fetus to the seedling of a tree, an old man to a shriveled orange, interesting.
I have taken inspiration from Leonardo by trying to connect my own interests, and you can too.
I'm fascinated by a number of things: Personal Knowledge Management, gamification, meta-learning, stand-up comedy, public speaking, debate, psychology, spirituality, goal setting, resistance training, nutrition science, language learning, non-fiction and fiction writing, film, and much much more. In my writing, I try to combine these interests to come up with ideas nobody else has ever had. In this way, I want to make myself the niche.
Someone else could write about the same thing, but because they don't have my unique set of interests and writer's voice, it won't be the same.
Blur The Line Between Imagination And Fantasy.
Leonardo wasn't one for practicality.
Many of his ideas were incredibly innovative but way ahead of his time. His giant crossbow? The turtle-like tanks? His plan for an ideal city? The man-powered mechanisms to flap a flying machine? Just as Leonardo blurred the lines between science and art, he did so between reality and fantasy. It may not have produced flying machines, but it allowed his imagination to soar.
Looking at other geniuses in history, vivid imagination is a recurring theme.
Newton famously discovered gravity by imagining an apple falling from a tree. Einstein came up with the theory of relativity by imagining what would happen if a train sped at light speed away from a clock tower. Archimedes discovered the volume of a submerged object is proportional to how much fluid it displaces by imagining what would happen if you placed various objects in fluid.
Yet, in modern society, we often crush imagination.
That's for kids, people say. We lose our sense of play. We look down upon those that break the rules.
Leonardo and other geniuses show us we should never lose our childlike ability to imagine.
It's this imagination that lets us break the bounds of reality. To literally think outside of the box. To surge through our normal patterning of the world and transcend into new planes of knowing.
Creativity Comes From Collaboration
Many people falsely believe genius is a lone phenomenon.
The perception is geniuses sit in their room, tap on their desk a few times, and BOOM, an incredible idea comes out of nowhere. But in the real world, genius isn't like Tony Stark.
Genius is a combination of lone contemplation and collaboration.
Benjamin Franklin founded the Junto comprised of young working men of similar social status in Philadelphia; its primary purpose was to debate questions of morals, politics, and natural philosophy, and to exchange knowledge of business affairs. Steve Jobs liked his buildings to have a central atrium so people from different parts of the workplace would have to gather and talk to each other, sparking novel insights. Leonardo Da Vinci got his best ideas from conversing with others in the Florence coffee shops and court of one of his best patrons, Ludovico Sforza.
You can actualize this by finding your own group of geniuses.
I've done it by setting up a weekly writing club with one of my good friends Chris, weekly meetings with my best friend John, and adopting a rule for my life: I always try and tell an idea I learn ASAP to the next person I see.
Seek Knowledge For It's Own Sake
Leonardo didn't care about money.
Except for the very end of his life, he was constantly in financial trouble. Despite this, he routinely turned down prominent patrons if their assignments didn't intrigue him. He sought knowledge for its own sake. In the words of his biographer Walter Isaacson "Leonardo did not need to know how heart valves work to paint the Mona Lisa, nor did he need to figure out how fossils got to the top of mountains to produce Virgin of the Rocks. By allowing himself to be driven by pure curiosity, he got to explore more horizons and see more connections than anyone else of his era."
Leonardo understood a critical insight: if you learn what everyone else is learning you will think what everyone else is thinking.
He looked for knowledge in the spaces nobody else was searching--you wouldn't have wanted to play him in hide and seek. He didn't follow the clear paths socialization was pushing him towards. He created an information diet that was completely unique to him. He knew what can be prescribed, can be replaced, and it's better to know the principles yourself so you can create your own prescriptions that nobody else has.
As a result, he discovered things nobody else could discover.
Prioritize Direct Observation And Experience Over Book Learning
I love books, I read 100+ of them in 2023.
But a deeper type of knowing comes only through experience. Leonardo understood this. Throughout his life, he read books but always preferred direct observation and experimentation. He crafted an empirical approach for understanding nature that foreshadowed the scientific method developed more than a century later by Bacon and Galileo. His method was rooted in experiment, curiosity, and the ability to marvel at phenomena that the rest of us rarely pause to ponder after we’ve outgrown our wonder years. Using it, he dissected over 30 bodies to study anatomy, built his own architecture projects, and even made the first scuba diving gear.
We can take this into our own lives by prioritizing application over consumption.
Leonardo always had a self-directed project he could apply his learnings to. Unfortunately, the modern school system and workplace don't always give us projects, and if they do, we often have little autonomy over how we do them. So we have to make the projects ourselves.
For me, this often comes in the form of writing.
Writing about things I'm learning is my favorite way to solidify and teach. When I started my 6 month Spanish learning journey, I wrote a blog post, as did I when I supercharged my resistance training and summarized my learnings about the art and business of online writing after writing every day for 3 years.
Find your own project.
Become Radically Open Minded
Leonardo understood the Universe is infinite.
Notice I write Universe with a capital U. I'm not talking about the universe--the thing humans have broken down into nebulas, galaxies, stars, and more. The Universe is the universe without ideas. The Universe in infinite. The Universe exists pre-conceptually. Humans have labelled the Universe different things over different periods. Many call it "God," the Aztecs referred to it as "Ilhuicatl," Buddhists as "Brahman," and so on and so forth.
To attempt to understand the Universe, humans bind it by creating ideas.
We create ideas like chair, tree, Republican and more. This does help us communicate and function in the world. But these labels also constrain our creativity. Like using a template for writing, labels enslave us to the bounds of the label, stopping us from breaking out of an old frame and creating a new.
The solution to this problem is to become radically open-minded like Leonardo.
In many ways this means taking a Dr. Who time machine back to being a kid. As kids, we see the world purely. We look at the world through an untainted window. But as we age, we form our sense of self through habits of feeling, thinking, conceptualizing, and behaving. Our window becomes cloudier until we only see what we want to see. Through remaining radically open-minded, Leonardo kept his window clean throughout adulthood.
Leonardo's love for the fluidity of ideas is embodied in his work.
In the words of Walter Isaacson, "When he spoke of the infinite variety in nature, and especially of phenomena such as flowing water, he was making a distinction based on his preference for analog over digital systems. In an analog system, there are infinite gradations. That applies to most of the things that fascinated him: sfumato shadows, colors, movement, waves, the passage of time, the flow of fluids. That is why he believed that geometry was better than arithmetic at describing nature, and even though calculus had not yet been invented, he seemed to sense the need for such a mathematics of continuous quantities."
Ideas help us navigate the world. We need ideas.
But like Leonardo, we must know when to clean our windows and see things anew.
The Tragedy Of Leonardo
While we can learn from what Leonardo did right, we can also learn from his greatest failure.
As he approached his thirtieth birthday, Leonardo had established his genius but had remarkably little to show for it publicly. His only known artistic accomplishments were some brilliant but peripheral contributions to two Verrocchio paintings, a couple of devotional Madonnas, a portrait of a young woman that he had not delivered, and two unfinished would-be masterpieces.
The tragedy of Leonardo is his insights had much less of an effect on society than they could have because he didn't learn publically.
As has become clear, he was horrible at finishing things he started. But on top of this, he rarely published any of his half-finished works for someone else to pick up. He wrote dozens of treatises on anatomy, fluid dynamics, painting, and more that weren't found until decades later. To make matters worse, because he was left handed, he wrote his notes in a mirror script making it difficult for others to interpret them.
One can only imagine how different the world might be if some of his ideas had entered society earlier. We might have better-tasting peanut butter! (I'll admit, maybe that's not the most important invention we could have gotten). In this way, Leonardo sheds one last lesson on productivity, creativity, and learning:
Do it in public.
If you enjoyed this article, check out The Only Article On Learning Gamers Will Ever Need To Learn More In Less Time, Supercharge Memory, And Have More Fun. You'll learn to become an expert learner like that of Leonardo.
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