I awoke, only to find out that the rest of the world was still asleep.
— Leonardo da Vinci
What does it mean to be a genius? Is genius born or made — or both? How do you practice brilliancy? How do you cultivate aliveness? How do you develop your multiple talents, loves and abilities and how can you evolve in every aspect that amounts to the complex equation of You?
When IQ becomes just a number on a made-up scale, perception changes with fashion, and an excess of information doesn’t equal deeper knowledge and cannot replace experience… is there a more solid, whole and deliberate way to identify and cultivate true brilliance? A model to follow — general enough to include all our multiple types of intelligence, yet practical and particular enough for any one of us to embrace it and work our genius every day?
There might be…
A while back, I wrote about my fascination with Leonardo da Vinci, and why I wanted to have (or be) his baby.
In this article, I’d like to focus on the seven wonders of his creativity — the dimensions in which his genius could be synthesized, and proactively cultivated by any of us, self-proclaimed wannabe Renaissance people.
In his inspiring classic How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci: Seven Steps to Genius Every Day, on which this article is based, Michael Gelb, asks:
Can the fundamentals of Leonardo’s approach to learning and the cultivation of intelligence be abstracted and applied to inspire and guide us toward the realization of our own full potential?
He goes on to brilliantly identify these principles and teach us how to incorporate them into our modus operandi on a daily basis.
Renaissance means “Rebirth.” And the only way to change your life is by the integrated use of your creative (super)powers.
Reality, as you perceive it, is not the norm. In the quantum field of creative possibilities, there is no norm, other than the fact that you are a creator and as such, only you have the ultimate power to re-shape your life and take yourself to the next level.
You can’t live any other life than the one you are currently creating through your thoughts, dreams, feelings, emotions and overall “life practice.”
You are what you do. But not just what you do for a living. Your life is the sum of everything that you, as a conscious (or unconscious creator) practice with your body, mind, heart and actions. Every second of this life is an act of creation that leads to a specific result, and these results compose your life’s masterpiece.
In order to alter your results, you must first understand the deeper motives and beliefs that lead you to create what you are creating, and secondly, tweak your modus operandi — the way you think, dream, act and ultimately, exist in the world — in order to match your creative purpose.
So how about we co-create a School of Genius where we can collect all the timeless bits and pieces of truth that will help us evolve into a new version of ourselves and experience our own personalized Renaissance?
Here are the seven Da Vincian steps to genius that, according to Michael Gelb, will unblock your creative aorta and unleash your genius. I highly recommend you read the entire book (if you haven’t yet) and slowly chew on it until you become so familiar with the brilliant, holistic and multi-layered Renaissance archetype that Leonardo has set, that you can’t help but to become it. In Gelb’s words,
The seven principles I eventually identified were simply my attempt to write the how-to guide that Leonardo never put down on paper, to codify the principles implicit in Leonardo’s work so that they can be used by others. I feel very strongly that the genius of Leonardo resides not just in what he created by in what he can inspire us to create. Beyond all his stellar achievements, Leonardo da Vinci serves as a global archetype of human potential, giving us intimations of what we ourselves may be capable of doing.
Clear throat. Make more tea. Ready, set, go… Where is that fake Italian accent when you most need it?
1. CURIOSITÀ (CURIOSITY) — “An insatiably curious approach to life and an unrelenting quest for continuous learning.”
Leonardo’s intense catlike curiosity and desire to understand all things lead him to develop an investigative detective-esque lifestyle, in a constant quest to discover and absorb the world inside and outside him. He relentlessly believed that “the knowledge of all things is possible.”
Curiosity is a state of mind and a way of living. “Great minds go on asking confounding questions with the same intensity throughout their lives,” says Gelb. Just a taste of Leonardo’s to-do list gives an extra pair of wings to our twenty-first century, tired imagination:
One of the exercises Michael Gelb suggests, in order to cultivate your curiosity is to carry a journal or notebook with you at all times, like Da Vinci did, so you can jot down your ideas as soon as they happen. (A recorder is another option, but nothing beats the written word).
Leonardo’s notebooks amount to over 7,000 pages containing,
jokes and fables, the observations and thoughts of scholars he admired, personal financial records, letters, reflections on domestic problems, philosophical musings and prophecies, plans for inventions, and treatises on anatomy, botany, geology, flight, water, and painting.
18 sheets of Leonardo’s notebooks were purchased by Bill Gates for 30.8 million dollars in November, 1994.
Our education system has slowly replaced our most burning questions for pre-made answers and thus, eliminated curiosity from our heart’s organic dictionary. It’s time to get it back.
As Michael Gelb’s remarks: “If the young Leonardo were alive today and attending grade school, he would probably be on medication.”
Of course he would, with notes like this one scribbled (in reverse) on his examination papers:
Why is the sky blue? I say that the azure that the air makes us see is not its proper color, but this color comes from warm, damp air, evaporated into minuscule and imperceptible particles, which, being struck by the light of the sun, becomes luminous below the obscurity of the mighty darkness which covers them like a lid.
Here is a practice Gelb suggests, to help you strengthen your curiosity muscle:
You can increase your problem-solving skills at work and at home, by honing your question-asking ability. For most people this requires shifting the initial emphasis away from focusing ‘on the right answer’ and toward asking ‘Is this the right question?’ and ‘What are some different ways of looking at this problem?’ Successful problem-solving often requires replacing or reframing the initial question. Questions can be framed in a wide variety of ways, and the ‘framing’ will dramatically influence your ability to find solutions…
Some people like to muse on the philosophical conundrum ‘What is the meaning of life?’ But more practical philosophers ask, ‘How can I make my life meaningful?’
Another golden suggestion to practice curiositá at work, via Gelb — one that as an entrepreneur or creator you can’t miss:
Consider any product or service you might offer and ask, what if I: shrunk it; enlarged it; made it lighter; made it heavier; changed its shape; reversed it; tightened it; loosened it; added something; subtracted something; interchanged parts; stayed open twenty-four hours; guaranteed it; changed its name; made it recyclable, stronger, weaker, softer, harder, portable, immovable, doubled the price; or paid customers to take it?
The happiest people in the world ask, ‘What if I could find some way to get paid for doing what I love?
2. DIMONSTRATZIONE (INDEPENDENT THINKING) — “A commitment to test knowledge through experience, persistence, and a willingness to learn from mistakes.”
Leonardo was a thorough and critical examiner of his own work and he constantly refined his understanding. As he mentioned in his Treatise on Painting:
We know well that mistakes are more easily detected in the works of others than in one’s own. When you are painting you should take a flat mirror and often look at your work within it, and it will then be seen in reverse, and will appear to be by the hand of some other master, and you will be better able to judge of its faults than in any other way.
Leonardo’s notes are written backwards and intended to be read in a mirror.
Some scholars suggest that this was done to protect his privacy, while others argue it is due to the fact that he was left-handed. But either way, c’mon!
(I don’t know about you, but it took me half an hour to decipher this, and I still needed a mirror.)
Leonardo often referred to himself as “uomo senza lettere” (man without letters) and “discepolo della esperienza” (disciple of experience). His practical approach to learning led him to question the authority and dogma of his time and propagate independence of thought as well as learning derived from experience:
No one should imitate the manner of another, for he would then deserve to be called a grandson of nature, not her son. Given the abundance of natural forms, it is important to go straight to nature.
Although he was critical of the academic dogma of this time, he didn’t discard the scholastic tradition. He kept his own library and he taught himself latin at the age of 42, to gain a deeper knowledge of the classics.
He realized that “the greatest deception men suffer is from their own opinions.” And that, as Michael Gelb points out, “One challenges the world view by first challenging one’s view.”
“Learning to think like Leonardo,” Gelb continues, “requires the eye-opening work of questioning our own opinions, assumptions, and beliefs.”
An exercise to help you practice dimonstrazione:
Long-term studies by Dr. Martin Seligman and many others show that the critical determinant of success in business and life is resilience in the face of adversity. Awareness, deep contemplation, and a sense of humor are your best friends in attempting to learn from difficult experiences. You can also, like Leonardo, strengthen your resilience by creating your own affirmations. In your notebook, write out at least one affirmation to inspire you in dealing with each of your greatest challenges.
Gelb goes on to suggest different affirmations intended to change not just the way you think (your state of mind, cognitive understanding) but the way you feel (state of being), for it is only when our mind and feelings are aligned that true transformation can take place.
When you create your affirmations, start with the words, “I Feel” rather than “I Am.” This forces you to not just acknowledge the thought but to internalize it and align it with your emotions.
Example: I feel like I am channeling Leonardo da Vinci’s Renaissance spirit right this second.
3. SENSAZIONE (REFINE YOUR SENSES) — “The continual refinement of the senses, especially sight, as the means to clarify experience.”
Saper Vedere (knowing how to see) was one of Leonardo’s mottoes and it defined the whole of his artistic contribution to humanity. He believed that experience was delivered through the senses: sight, sound, touch, taste and smell.
In a sad remark he noted that the average person,
looks without seeing, listens without hearing, touches without feeling, eats without tasting, moves without physical awareness, inhales without awareness of odor or fragrance, and talks without thinking.
According to Gelb, “Da Vinci’s sovereignty stemmed from the combination of his open, questioning mind, his reliance on actual experience, and his uncanny visual acuity.”
Here are two exercises among the many options contained in the book, to help you make each of your senses come alive:
And then, get inspired:
4. SFUMATO (EMBRACE UNCERTAINTY) — Literally translated as ‘Going up in Smoke’ — “A willingness to embrace ambiguity, paradox, and uncertainty.
We can’t make use of our full creative potential without the ability to embrace uncertainty. The more illuminated it all becomes, the more we realize the little we know, and like Da Vinci, we accept our fate as eternal students of life. An open, always questioning mind is our creativity’s best ally.
Leonardo’s remarkable ability to welcome sfumato and embrace his paradoxes and ambiguity, prepared the terrain for the extraordinary to be manifested through his life and work, and led the way to inventions and discoveries that were centuries ahead of his time. This openness is even more remarkable if you consider that the medieval average mind preceding Leonardo, did not even contemplate the possibility of doubt.
Da Vinci’s master representation of paradox is without a doubt, the Mona Lisa (La Gioconda). Many consider her as the Western equivalent of the Chinese yin and yang. Sigmund Freud said that she is “the most perfect representations of the contrasts dominating the love-life of the woman,” while many other scholars argue that she is Leonardo’s unconventional and paradoxical self-portrait.
With precise and sophisticated computer modelling techniques, Dr. Lillian Schwartz, author of The Computer Artists Handbook, juxtaposed the Mona Lisa with Da Vinci’s only existent self-portrait, drawn in red chalk in 1518. She observes,
Juxtaposing the images was all that was needed to fuse them: the relative locations of the nose, mouth, chin, eyes and forehead in one precisely matched the other. Merely flipping up the corner of the mouth would produce the mysterious smile.
What makes the Mona Lisa mystery even more intriguing is that although it took Leonardo four years to officially finish her (age 51-55), he kept on adding to it obsessively through the remaining 12 years of his life. Furthermore, he did not hand his work to his patron — Lisa del Gioconda, the official model depicted in it — but he kept it in his possession until his death and brought it along on all his travels.
Perhaps she represented his alter ego, or became a visual representation of his feminine soul.
Here is an exercise that Gelb suggests, to help you embrace ambiguity and trust your gut:
5. ARTE/SCIENZA (ART & SCIENCE, WHOLE-BRAIN THINKING) — “The development of the balance between science and art, logic and imagination.”
Perhaps one of the most genius aspects of the Da Vincian modus operandi is embracing whole-brain thinking. We have been educated and nurtured by a society that reinforces an illogical separation between our left-brain and right-brain dominant profiles, and often discriminates against the right-hemisphere driven individuals (the “artistic types”), by favoriting the left-hemisphere (the “practical, scientific types”).
But the truth is that we are whole. We have one full brain, not half a brain, and we won’t be able to experience the full capacity and power of our super-computer mind unless we embrace and start using our entire head — and not just the limited half we are more comfortable with or socially defined by.
Who would you be without your other half?
So, was Leonardo a scientist who studied art, or an artist who studied science? Clearly, he was both. His scientific studies of rocks, plants, flight, flowing water, and human anatomy, for example, are expressed in beautiful, evocative, expressive works of art, not dry technical drawings. At the same time, the plans for his paintings and sculptures are exquisitely detailed, painstakingly analytical, and mathematically precise. (Gelb)
Da Vinci proved that the pursuit of art (beauty) and science (truth) were not just compatible but the best way to get a richer, fuller grasp of our complicated existence. As he advised throughout his life:
To make his point into practice, he was ambidextrous and would often switch between his right and left hand while painting, drawing or writing. His embrace and practice of whole-brain thinking led to another gift he left for the modern intellect — the concept of “brainstorming.” Creative thinking as we now know it, did not exist at the time. Thanks, Leo.
Richard Feynman, one of Da Vinci’s most modern embodiments, finds the blind spot in the narrow, one-sided hemisphere supremacy:
Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars — mere globs of gas atoms. I too can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more? The vastness of the heavens stretches my imagination – stuck on this carousel my little eye can catch one-million-year-old light. A vast pattern — of which I am a part…
Hello Wholeness! Where have you been all my life? I’m tired of so much cutting.
To practice whole-brain thinking, Gelb suggests a mind-altering exercise that deserves an article of its own. But since you’re a curious and impatient cat, here’s a preview:
Mind Mapping is a whole-brain practice originated in the 1960’s by Tony Buzan and inspired by Da Vinci’s note-taking style. It is intended to restore balance between your two always-fighting hemispheres. You can use it to organize your ideas on any subject: from personal goal setting, to daily planning, problem-solving or any other thought-processing.
Here is how it works:
Instead of generating your ideas by outlining them in order: 1, 2, 3, 4… (rational, left-brain Grinch) and then getting distracted or stuck after #1 and doodling on the side of your notes (artistic, right-brain Grinch), which will considerably slow you down, consider doing it all, at the same time:
It is just plain illogical to try to organize your ideas before you’ve generated them,” says Gelb. “Moreover, outlining and other linear note-making systems exclude your brain’s capacity for color, dimension, synthesis, rhythm, and image…Outlining uses only half your mind and half a mind is a terrible thing to waste.”
Mind-mapping frees you from the constraints of your control-freak left hemisphere and enriches your learning experience by allowing you to design concepts at the full capacity of your full-brain power. It is a method for transcribing the spontaneous, simultaneous ideas, thoughts, impressions, feelings that float harmoniously in the mind, on paper.
7 Quick Steps to Mind Mapping to help you make your own:
1. Begin your mind map with a symbol or a picture (representing your topic) at the center of your page. Starting at the center opens your mind to a full 360 degrees of association. Pictures and symbols are much easier to remember than words and enhance your ability to think creatively about your subject.
2. Write down key words — information-rich ‘nuggets’ of recall and creative association.
3. Connect the key words with lines radiating from your central image. By linking words with lines (‘branches’), you’ll show clearly how one key word relates to another.
4. Print your key words. Printing is easier to read and remember than writing.
5. Print one key word per line. By doing this, you free yourself to discover the maximum number of creative associations for each key word. [It also] enhances your precision and minimizes clutter.
6. Print your key words on the lines and make the length of the word the same as the line it is on. This maximizes clarity of association and encourages economy of space.
7. Use colors, pictures, dimension and codes for greater association and emphasis. Highlight important points and use pictures and images whenever possible [to] stimulate your creative association and enhance your memory.
6. CORPORALITA (MIND-BODY CARE) — “The cultivation of grace, ambidexterity, fitness, and poise.”
It is also a very good plan every now and then to go away and have a little relaxation; for when you come back to the work your judgement will be surer, since to remain constantly at work will cause you to lose the power of judgement. (Da Vinci)
Intelligence is often erroneously associated with physical ineptitude or poor health habits. But most of the greatest geniuses in history — headed by Da Vinci — did not just cultivate their mind but also enjoyed a splendid physique and cared for their body.
Goethe said it best,
Take care of your body with steadfast fidelity. The soul must see through these eyes alone, and if they are dim, the whole world is clouded.
And, on Da Vinci, the same Goethe:
Handsome and with a splendid physique, he seemed a model for human perfection.
If the previous point advocated whole brain thinking, this one is about whole-body thinking. The mind — mind you — lives inside your body. The blood running through your veins carries nutrients to your brain.
Your brain occupies 3% of your total body weight, yet it consumes more than 30% of your oxygen intake. More aerobic exercise = more oxygen to feed your brilliant brain; and more oxygen = a higher capacity to function, process thought and increase your problem-solving ability. You are one indivisible, whole phenomenon.
Leo got the idea:
Walking, riding, swimming and fencing were the maestro’s preferred forms of regular exercise… A vegetarian and accomplished chef, Da Vinci believed that a thoughtful diet was a key to health and well-being… He believed that we should accept personal responsibility for our health and well-being. He recognized the effect of attitudes and emotions on physiology… and counseled independence from doctors and medicines. His philosophy of medicine was holistic. He viewed sickness as ‘the discord of the elements infused into the living body’ and viewed healing as ‘the restoration of discordant elements.’ (Gelb)
500 years before the Wellness Revolution of our day, Da Vinci offered the following timeless pieces of advice on holistic health and healthy living:
To keep in health these rules are wise:
One of the exercises proposed by Michel Gelb I found especially valuable to asses your body and embrace your vulnerability, was the Mirror “Test:”
7. CONNESSIONE (INTERCONNECTEDNESS) — “A recognition and appreciation for the connectedness of all things and phenomena. Systems thinking.”
Whole is the new black. It’s always been the black, but we got severed from ourselves along the way. Fragmentation and specialization have cut our Renaissance heart into little pieces and split our inherent multiplicity.
In this reductionist Matrix, we’ve been trained to pay more attention to the immediate and particular, the pixel rather than the whole picture, and we often forget that nothing (no man) is an island, but everything and everyone is interconnected beyond our limited perception and domesticated logic.
Five centuries before our modern butterfly flapping its wings in Tokio, and causing a hurricane on the other side of the world, Leonardo observed, “The earth is moved from its position by the weight of a tiny bird resting upon it.”
Da Vinci’s sense of wholeness and interconnectedness could not be less relevant and urgent to adopt, had he lived today.
A mind-blowing comparison made by Gelb:
Foreshadowing by five hundred years physicist David Bohm‘s theory of the holographic universe (which posits that the ‘genetic code’ of the universe is held in every atom just as a strand of DNA holds the entire genetic code of an individual), Leonardo wrote,
‘Every body placed in the luminous air spreads out in circles and fills the surrounding space with infinite likeness of itself and appears all in all and all in every part.’ He added, ‘This is the real miracle, that all shapes, all colors, all images of every part of the universe are concentrated in a single point.'”
Bohm’s thesis includes the concept of an ‘implicate order’ a ‘deep structure’ of connectedness that links the universe together. In 1980 Bohm wrote, ‘Everything is enfolded into everything.’ Five centuries earlier Leonardo had noted,
‘Everything comes from everything, and everything is made out of everything, and everything returns into everything…’
How do you practice wholeness in your life? Do you ever experience the totality of the universe inside your own veins? Do you hear your heartbeats in the rhythms of nature and the rest of life around you?
William Blake just texted me one of his most quoted stanzas:
To see the world in a grain of sand,
and to see heaven in a wild flower,
hold infinity in the palm of your hands,
and eternity in an hour.
A few suggested questions worth asking yourself:
Among several exercises Michael Gelb proposes to help you re-experience wholeness and interconnectedness, is the SMART method — achievement of goals with the end in mind — something that became more obvious to Leonardo toward the end of his life.
Make your goals SMART.
S — Specific: Define exactly what you want to accomplish, in detail.
M — Measurable: Decide how you will measure your progress and, most important, how you will know that you have achieved your goal.
A — Accountability: Make a full commitment to be personally responsible for achieving your goal.
R — Realistic and Relevant: Set goals that are ambitious but achievable…Check that your goals are relevant to your overall sense of purpose and values.
T — Time Line: Create a clear time line for the achievement of your goals.
Finally, if you don’t believe you can think and feel and live like Leonardo da Vinci yet, the 7-day exercise detailed at the end of the book — guiding you into creating a Master Mind Map of Your Life in a week — will convince you.
Artist biographer Giorgio Vasari (Lives of the Artists) recalls that in his final days, Leonardo apologized to “God and man for leaving so much undone.” But he also claims to have said: “I shall continue,” and “I never tired of being useful.”
A true revolutionary in thought and action, the Maestro could not be content with one-thing, when his soul called out for every-thing.
But wholeness goes both ways. If you attempt and demand it all from life, you also have to offer it your all. Leonardo understood that the way you do one thing is the way you do anything. So he became a master of himself and this translated into the masterpiece that was his life.
In Michael Gelb’s words,
One of Leonardo da Vinci’s favorite images was the rippling, repeating circles of water emanating from the point where a stone is dropped into a pond or a lake. I see Leonardo’s own life as a gem tossed into the pool of time that became known as the Renaissance, with his genius rippling on and on into eternity.”
Are we the ripples?
Additional Recommended Reading:
– Michael Gelb’s website is packed with resources & inspiration.
– And, of course, How to Think like Leonardo da Vinci by Michael Gelb (read this one first):
– Leonardo da Vinci: Private Life of a Masterpiece (BBC Documentary).
– Leonardo da Vinci’s Ideas (Documentary focusing on the first half of Leonardo’s life).
- Join me on Facebook, Instagram & Twitter & let’s do epic things.
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*All image quotes via Michael Gelb in How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci (unless credited otherwise).