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Creativity Lessons from Leo…the Greatest Innovator Ever

da Vinci’s genius can teach us a few things

parachute against blue sky

Who is the greatest genius, ever?

A couple of guys, Tony Buzan and Raymond Keene, got together to apply mathematical calculations to a list of renowned men in an attempt to determine the greatest genius of all time. I thought my history-crush, Ben Franklin, might win the prize. Instead, in The Book of Genius, Buzan and Keene declared that based on the categories of “Originality,” “Versatility,” “Dominance-in-Field,” “Universality-of-Vision,” and “Strength and Energy,” it wasn’t Ben Franklin who was one of the greatest geniuses who had ever lived. In fact, old Ben didn’t even make the top ten.

Albert Einstein was number ten. Sir Isaac Newton, number six; William Shakespeare, number two. And — drumroll, please…The greatest genius EVER was Leonardo da Vinci.

Leonardo da Vinci won, hands-down, not just because he was an artist who created masterpieces but because he was also a designer, an architect, a musician, a sculptor, a machinist, a military engineer, a botanist, a physicist, and an astronomer.

He wasn’t good at ONE thing. Leonardo da Vinci was phenomenal at MANY things, and he left over 7000 pages of handwritten notes to show us the way. If we want to be more creative, we can learn from Leo, a role model extraordinaire.

1) Be a Fearless, Forward-Thinker

Why would a man living in the late 1400s, centuries before man’s ability to fly, invent a parachute?

Good question.

You can understand why a guy who lived in Italy five hundred years ago would design an olive press. Or why an avid lover of music like Leonardo da Vinci would envision automated instruments.

But a parachute?

That’s right.

Leonardo’s brain was always in overdrive, imagining stuff. Playing with ideas. His thoughts didn’t come with a timestamp, so he didn’t worry about what era his visions belonged to. He thought far into the future, unencumbered by the idea of time.

His brain ranged so far into the future that he designed a parachute before there were airplanes. Long before there was a reason to fall from the sky. Yet da Vinci didn’t stop himself from designing what was in his head or calculating about how it would work.

“If a man has a tent made of linen, of which the apertures have all been stopped up, and it be twelve cubits across and twelve in depth, he will be able to throw himself down from any great height without sustaining injury.”

Leonardo’s parachute was tested in 2000 by a British balloonist named Adrian Nicholas, and it worked.

The parachute wasn’t Leonardo’s only far-flung idea. He also designed a helicopter, a flying machine, a bicycle, a three-speed gear shift, a lock system for canals, folding furniture, and all kinds of mechanical inventions including a machine for cutting threads into screws, hydraulic jacks, a horizontal waterwheel, a water-powered alarm clock, an adjustable monkey wrench, and an extendable ladder, still in use by fire departments today.

2) Be a Polymath

Leonardo didn’t limit himself to one field of study. He was a polymath, someone who had great knowledge in multiple fields of study. His unlimited creativity came from being interested in everything around him and learning as much as possible about everything he could. He even scrawled in his notebook:

“The knowledge of all things is possible.”

We can emulate his behavior.

Nancy Andreasen, a neuroscientist who has done extensive studies on creative people and the activities in their brains. The author of the article, “Secrets of the Creative Brain,” published in The Atlantic, Andreasen notes that often creative people are interested in multiple subjects.

Many creative people are polymaths, as historic geniuses including Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci were. George Lucas was awarded not only the National Medal of Arts in 2012 but also the National Medal of Technology in 2004. Lucas’s interests include anthropology, history, sociology, neuroscience, digital technology, architecture, and interior design.

Leonardo’s genius shows that true thinking is not separated into two separate pathways of knowledge. He knew about art AND science. If we want to encourage creativity in students, we should encourage simultaneous study in both areas instead of separating them into distinct tracts. If we want to be more creative ourselves, we should study as many fields of interest as we like without pigeonholing ourselves into the two tracts used in education: logical-analytical-science-oriented versus artsy-feely-language-lovers.

“Study the science of art and the art of science,” da Vinci said.

He understood that the two were inextricably linked.

3) Be an autodidact

Leonardo da Vinci was an autodidact, which means “self-teacher.” He taught himself vocabulary words. One of his notebooks contained a list of over 9000 new vocabulary words. When he saw a word he didn’t know, he wrote it down and learned it.

When he was forty-two years old, da Vinci taught himself Latin so he could have a better understanding of the classics.

Nancy Andreasen points out that like Leo, many creative people are autodidacts:

“They like to teach themselves, rather than be spoon-fed information or knowledge in standard educational settings. Famously, three Silicon Valley creative geniuses have been college dropouts: Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg. Steve Jobs — for many, the archetype of the creative person — popularized the motto “Think different.” Because their thinking is different, my subjects often express the idea that standard ways of learning and teaching are not always helpful and may even be distracting, and that they prefer to learn on their own.”

4) Be persistent

Creative people don’t give up. Leo certainly didn’t. Even in the midst of lost patrons, political banishment, and inventive debacles, (like how his design for diverting the Arno River canals backed water into the farmlands required to feed the population of the city and nearly starved a population), da Vinci persisted. He never stopped learning, thinking, and experimenting.

In his journals, Leonardo wrote statements like, “Every obstacle is destroyed through rigor,” “Obstacles do not bend me,” and “I shall continue.”

We, too, should persist.

5) Experience the Joy

Leonardo and other geniuses have commented on the indescribable joy and love felt in their creative pursuits.

“For in truth, great love is born of great knowledge of the thing loved.” Leo said.

He was amazed and overjoyed at what he could learn by watching and listening.

“The eye encompasses the beauty of the whole world.”

One common element found in creative people is the excitement of ideas. In the words of the musical composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky,

It would be vain to try to put into words that immeasurable sense of bliss which comes over me directly a new idea awakens in me and begins to assume a different form. I forget everything and behave like a madman. Everything within me starts pulsing and quivering; hardly have I begun the sketch ere one thought follows another.

Pulse and quiver with abandon. Let your creativity soar — and don’t forget to enjoy the ride.

paint smears and silhouette of man


Much of the research for this article came from a fascinating book called How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci. Buy it from here.

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