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5 Ways to Be More Like Leonardo

Charlotte Ashlock Posted by Charlotte Ashlock, Executive Editor, Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc.

Charlotte Ashlock is a crazy idealist trying to make the world a better place! 

5 Ways to Be More Like Leonardo

With Downloadable Self-Improvement Plan

Are geniuses born, or are they made?

The word genius (like the word genie) comes from the Latin word for guardian spirit. The Romans believed that if you were chosen by a powerful guardian spirit, you would become a person of great achievement. Even though we no longer believe in guardian spirits, people still hang on to the belief that you can’t just make yourself a genius. Either you’re possessed by the spirit of inspiration, or you aren’t.

I don’t think this belief is helpful. Rather than waiting for the spirit of inspiration to find me, I prefer to work hard and chase after it. A genius can be something you are. But a genius can also be something you choose to be, over the course of millions of tiny choices. With the right knowledge, and sufficient force of will, we can bring out the genius side in all of us.

Discovering the secrets of genius with Fritjof Capra

Fritjof Capra is a distinguished professor of physics, a bestselling author, and a founder of a nonprofit called “The Center for Eco-literacy.” After our CEO had his first long conversation with Fritjof, he told us, “This man’s a genius.” As a publisher, our CEO interacts regularly with talented and famous authors, and is hard to impress. But publishing Fritjof Capra’s book, "Learning from Leonardo," filled him with the excitement of a small child on Christmas morning.

In the prologue to "Learning From Leonardo," Fritjof Capra lists the traits that made Leonardo da Vinci a genius. I think Capra’s conscientious pursuit of these traits in his own life, does a lot to explain his incredible achievements. It’s the secret of how he was able to dazzle our CEO. Like Capra, I would like to unlock my most impressive abilities, by modeling my character off da Vinci’s.

A plan for self improvement

Beneath, I’ve summarized the major points from Capra’s analysis of Leonardo’s genius. (To read about these in more detail, you can check out an excerpt from Learning from Leonardo here .) For each trait, I’ve written my own plan for strengthening that trait within myself.

I urge you to do the same. Click here to download a blank worksheet listing each of the traits, and fill out your own self-improvement plan.

1. Relentless Curiosity and Intellectual Fearlessness

Art historian Kenneth Clark called Leonardo “the most relentlessly curious man in history.” "His curiosity was the reason he made so many important discoveries in widely different areas of the scientific field."

How can I become more fearless in my curiosity?

I’m a voracious reader, but I tend to stick with the things I know I will like: Young Adult fantasy and science fiction, plus the nonfiction books we publish here at Berrett-Koehler. To cultivate a more fearless intellect, I need to branch out. I should read books with political viewpoints opposite from my own, more classics, more bestsellers, and more books from other cultures.

2. Intense Concentration and Attention to Detail

“Leonardo combined his powers of concentration with tremendous patience. He might let weeks pass between putting successive layers of paint on an oil painting, and would rework and refine his panels for years, reflecting on every detail of their conception.”

How can I concentrate harder and become more attentive to detail?

We’ve all experienced that feeling of being “in the zone,” where your concentration on a task is so perfect the rest of the world falls away. But when people drop by to chat, when a new email message bings on my computer, when link after link leads me on a chain of distraction through the internet, I fall out of the zone. How can I spend more time living in my paradise, my oasis of concentration? The answer is, I need to spend less time opening windows in my computer and more time opening windows in my mind. I need to stake out periods of quiet time in my day where my mind is free to fly.

3. Holistic Memory

“Leonardo would follow people with striking facial features for hours, memorize their appearance, and then draw them, reportedly with complete accuracy, when he was back in his studio.” Most of us, when we remember something, remember only some small aspect of that thing. Geniuses remember the whole thing- they see through their mind’s eye not just tiny pieces, but broad swathes of the whole.

How can I start holding bigger and bigger pieces of the world in my mind?

My job is to make people love and understand Berrett-Koehler books. We’ve published about 600 books, which is quite a large number of books to hold in your mind at one time. However, I think there’s a technique I can use for noticing the connections between them and keeping them all inside of me. In this New York Times article about “memory athletes,” (who win competitions designed to test your memory), we learn that “even average memories are remarkably powerful if used properly.” The athletes use a mental construct called a “memory palace” to hold onto everything they need to know for their competition. (Learn more about memory palaces.) Basically, you imagine a room (or multiple rooms strung together in a palace) and associate each object in the room with a fact you want to remember. In this way, a single visual image can be connected to and remind you of dozens of facts.

4. Leonardo’s Empirical Method

“Like modern scientists, Leonardo was always ready to revise his models when he felt that new observations or insights required him to do so. In his art as in his science, he always seemed to be more interested in the process of exploration than in the completed work or final results. “

How can I use empirical evidence to divest myself of prejudices and false beliefs?

Google Analytics is my favorite tool in the world, because it’s a never-ending fountain of empirical evidence. It used to be that writers had to guess whether or not people liked their writing. Now, if I want to know how much you like my writing, I can just go on Google Analytics and check the hit count for this article, and how much time people spent on this page (I assume they’ll leave after a few seconds if they don’t like what they’re reading.) Will I be sad if it’s a low hit count? Yes!- but that’s the wrong attitude. After all, it’s all a process of exploration, and a low hit count is nothing more than a signal that I should try another approach. Right now, I probably have a lot of prejudices and false beliefs about what people enjoy reading. If I monitor our website’s Google Analytics over time, I’ll learn what people really like.

5. Systemic Thinking

“Nature as a whole was alive for Leonardo. He saw the patterns and processes in the microcosm as being similar to those in the macrocosm.” Leonardo’s recognition that everything was connected, interacting, and in flux, gave him extra insight into our complex world.

How can I use systemic thinking to help me do my work?

We publish books at Berrett-Koehler with the mission of making the world a better place. But it’s hard to predict and measure which books are making a difference. We often sign books because we agree with the policies they advocate, or because we’re inspired by their vision for the future. Sometimes, those books just fail to make a splash. I want to make systems thinking a bigger part of my editorial judgment. I should think less about whether I agree with the books, and think more about how those books will interact with the political and organizational systems they are trying to change.

Now go forth and capture your own genius!

I didn’t have an easy time answering these questions about how to become more like Leonardo. I’ll have an even harder time living up to the resolutions I’ve so ambitiously made. Thomas Edison famously said that genius is one percent inspiration and ninety nine percent perspiration (or good, hard-working SWEAT!)

Because it’s such hard work to be a genius, I think you have to be highly motivated. And it has to be the right kind of motivation. Most people are motivated by fear in their daily lives. They get out of bed in the morning because they’re afraid of failing their classes, or being fired from their job. Their fear keeps them going, but it does not inspire them to be great.

I’m not sure what motivated Leonardo da Vinci, but I suspect it was love. He just loved discovering the beauty of the world and why it worked, and every morning he leaped out of bed because he couldn’t wait to find out more.

That’s the biggest challenge of all for me: sustaining that profound love, that profound curiosity, that makes every day an adventure. If I have to pick up laundry from the dry cleaners or do four hours of data entry, what’s the adventure in that? It’s tempting to say there isn’t any adventure, and simply look at my feet, focusing on the dull plodding that keeps me moving ahead.

But being like Leonardo, means that I don’t watch my shoes on the way to the dry cleaner. On the way there, I look up at the sky and notice the poetry of the pigeons’ wings against the clouds. And when I’m entering the “boring” data into my spreadsheet, I try to keep my mind awake, watching for patterns weaving through the data and through the universe. A genius knows there is always more and more to discover, world without end.