Lessons from the genius of Leonardo da Vinci

by Michael Haberman on March 8, 2018 · 0 comments

Lessons can be learned from the life of a genius.

Fair warning. This post has nothing to do with HR. It is all about personal improvement. I  just finished reading Walter Isaacson’s biography, Leonardo Da Vinci. This is a well-written book about a fascinating man. I knew he was a master and was considered a genius both in his time and especially in the present view. He was also a man with flaws. He was a notorious procrastinator, perhaps due to his perfectionism. His interests were so varied he had a hard time carrying through on tasks, yet he could look at a painting for hours and then only complete one brush stroke. He was a renowned painter who at times hated painting. He enjoyed partying and, in fact, made a name for himself initially as a designer of parties and pageants. At the end of the book, Isaacson has a concluding section called Learning from Leonardo. I have selected a few of these lessons that I think everyone could apply to improve themselves.

Be curious, relentlessly curious

I consider myself to be a pretty curious person, that is why I read as widely as I do and watch the science shows, animal shows, and other such fare on television. I don’t think I could hold a candle to da Vinci. I have to admit I have never wondered about how a woodpecker’s tongue works. Isaacson says “Being relentlessly and randomly curious about everything around us is something that each of us can push ourselves to do, every waking hour, just as he did.” I think the lesson in this is that curiosity can expand your mind and the possibilities you can encounter as a result.

Seek knowledge for its own sake

Isaacson said that da Vinci demonstrates that not all knowledge needs to be useful. Sometimes there is value in just knowing. My wife occasionally says to me “How did you know that?” and that to me is the value in knowing that. Being driven by curiosity allowed Leonardo to explore more horizons and see more connections than anyone else in his era.


Don’t just look at things. Really see them. Leonardo had an acute ability to observe things. He worked at it. Leonardo when he looked at a bird paid attention to how the wings flapped. When water was flowing he paid attention to how eddies formed. When walking down the street he noticed the expressions on faces and tried to identify the emotions attached to them. How many times have you walked through your office and paid attention to the looks on people’s faces?

Start with the details

Leonardo always had a notebook with him, where he made notes and made drawings about what he saw. These notebooks have become some of the most valuable artifacts from da Vinci’s time. Bill gates bought one called the Codex Leicester, for $30.8 million in 1994. Don’t you wish your notebooks could bring that much? I try to carry a notebook, but often fail to use it properly to record the kinds of observations on life or my thoughts. When I have I have found them to be valuable insights. Some people are incredible at keeping these kinds of notebooks, others are not, and some of us are somewhere in the middle. All of us could probably improve by doing so. As an old Chinses proverb says, the palest ink is better than the best memory.

Respect facts

Isaacson says “Leonardo was a forerunner of the age of observational experiments and critical thinking.” In this day and age where it is easy to be exposed to “fake news,” we have to be diligent in testing our knowledge and be willing to abandon our ideas and theories if they are found to be false. As Isaacson says “If we want to be more like Leonardo, we have to be fearless about changing our minds based on new information.”


Leonardo was very much a procrastinator. Did you know he never gave the Mona Lisa to the woman or her family? He was never done with it. I too procrastinate on things. I, unfortunately, do not have the genius of da Vinci, I just have the habit. Leonardo once told a duke that ideas and intuitions need to marinate for them to gel. He said, “Men of lofty genius sometimes accomplish the most when they work the least.” I do find it helpful to walk away from projects or writing and mull things over before I return to them. Perhaps we would all benefit from such a habit. Perhaps bosses would get better work if they allowed employees to engage in this habit.

Avoid silos

Isaacson has written about da Vinci and Steve Jobs. He said Jobs would use a slide that showed a picture of a sign at the crossroad of liberal arts and technology because he knew that creativity lay at such a crossroads. Leonardo also found that creativity at the crossroads of art, science, engineering, and humanities. In an age when we are wondering how to fend off robots from taking our jobs, perhaps we would be better off if we remembered this.


Unlike the stereotypical picture of the genius artist, such as with Michelangelo, da Vinci was not a tortured loner. To the contrary, he loved groups and parties. He worked in workshops that featured a lot of collaboration and later ran his studio in such a manner. One of the challenges of trying to determine if a piece of newly discovered art is a da Vinci or not is determining if he had a hand in creating it, or was just teaching someone.  As Isaacson says, “Genius starts with individual brilliance. It requires singular vision. Ut executing it often entails working with other. Innovation is a team sport. Creativity is a collaborative endeavor.” Don’t eschew working with others just because you are the one that came up with the idea.

There are many other practices that Leonardo engaged in that I will not mention here. I do encourage you to think about your personal practices and see what you might be able to improve. Read Isaacson’s excellent book and learn how you too can improve following the example of a genius.

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