Lessons from Leonardo da Vinci

It took me months to finish this biography, and I needed more time to process it. It’s not one of those biography books that you can read in a few days to know the better days of interesting people and to appreciate the colorful lives they’ve led.

Some parts of the book felt like that. Some chapters will leave you smiling over the humanity of Leonardo, how his genius was a product of curiosity, childlike wonder, stubbornness, and procrastination. Some chapters were harder to gnaw, especially on the accounts of his properties, patrons, and other seemingly over-the-top research on the author’s part. I was careful not to miss a single page. I was careful not to let boredom stop me from reading this book cover to cover. That was what Leonardo would have done.

My favorite chapters were pried into how his mind worked, or fleeted from one subject to another. How he changed course having only his relentless curiosity to guide him. How he pursued knowledge, even the seemingly non-pragmatic ones just for the hell of it.

While reading how he pitched his ideas to prospective patrons — his flying machines, military machinery, urban plans — I wonder how they reacted. Did they believe him? More importantly, how did Leonardo react to rejections, to dismissal? Obviously, he kept on learning, on creating, leaving us one of the most brilliant products of the human mind.

Being a student of both Science and Arts (and many others), it’s always as if I’m being pulled in several directions. It’s always as if there’s not enough time to learn everything I want to pursue, as if there’s no way to be a true expert in one field if I don’t give up one or the other. Whenever I try to, whenever someone tells me to, I mourn about the other thing.

I’ve always believed that learning something, anything, is always good. If it’s for the sake of knowledge, of learning, why not do it? What sets Arts and Sciences apart anyway? At my previous university, those two are in the same college — College of Arts and Sciences (CAS). I don’t know how one can pursue one field without the other.

Many years of discouragement and lack of support made me doubt that belief. If I won’t be using the knowledge in the future, why bother? Besides, I only have limited time, right? Why should I “waste” my time on these many things. It’s the same thing Sherlock Holmes believed in, the same thing Kobe Bryant and the books preaching about the Japanese mantra tell us. Choose a simple goal and stick to it.

They fail to realize that fields can eventually merge if you study hard enough if you wait long enough. In the meantime, you can focus on what tickles your fancy. Only the future will determine if it’s useful or not.

If I wanted to learn more about each field, it only makes sense to learn from the masters.

I cannot distill all the contents of this book in one blog post, but Walter Isaacson summarized the best things we can learn from Leonardo in his conclusion.

  1. Be curious, relentlessly curious.
  2. Seek knowledge for its own sake.
  3. Retain a childlike sense of wonder.
  4. Observe.
  5. Start with the details.
  6. See things unseen.
  7. Go down rabbit holes.
  8. Get distracted.
  9. Respect facts.
  10. Procrastinate.
  11. Let perfect be the enemy of the good.
  12. Think visually.
  13. Avoid silos.
  14. Let your reach exceed your grasp.
  15. Indulge fantasy.
  16. Create for yourself, not just for patrons.
  17. Collaborate.
  18. Make lists, and be sure to put odd things on them.
  19. Take notes, on paper.
  20. Be open to mystery.

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