I recently read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Lenoardo Da Vinci. If you don’t know Isaacson, he’s the author of a number of interesting biographies, most notably the Steve Jobs biography that was released shortly after Jobs’ death. I think the Da Vinci book is far better written – I suspect the Jobs bio was rushed to market before the editors had really finished their job – and there are several lessons I learned from Da Vinci.
#1 Perfect Is The Enemy Of Done
Da Vinci is perhaps the most famous polymath in history. But he was a notoriously bad finisher when it came to delivering for his clients. While he is famous for several works, there are only a handful that are universally accepted to be his complete art work.
Da Vinci was still working on the Mona Lisa when he died although most of the work was completed a few years earlier. But he famously left works either partially complete or barely started because he wasn’t happy with some element or other.
#2 He Observed The World With Focus
Our world is fast paced. But stopping to really look at something, not just stare but look and examine for understanding, is rarely practised.
Da Vinci spent many hours observing dragonflies in motion. He spent so much time, concentrating and looking intently that he could see the when the dragonfly lifted the front pair of wings that the rear ones lowered and vice-versa. Imagine the focus and patience it would take to do that.
He did the same with bodies of water and other naturally occurring phenomena.
When you’re trying to understand something, really focus.
#3 Insatiable Curiousity
Da Vinci wanted to know about everything. Biology, geology, engineering, comedy (he used to write plays that were performed in royal courts), art, music – he didn’t just dabble in those fields. He dedicated himself to learning about them. He made copious notes, many of which survive today in museums and private collections, and continued to refine his thinking, coming back to things years later as he learned more.
That curiosity led in many directions. For example, his study of how water flowed in rivers and streams informed his paintings and drawings of hair. And he played with different oils and pigments to create paints.
Of course, not everything worked. His fresco of The last Supper began to flake just 20 years after it was created because the pigments and paints he used didn’t adhere to the plaster wall.
But he didn’t see learning a short term activity. He was committed to lifelong education.
#4 Don’t Get Bullied
Da Vinci was an outlier in the social circles he was a part of. He dressed flamboyantly, was gay and didn’t try to curry favour with potential benefactors by being a sycophant.
He was courageous in sticking up for himself and his companions many times. When someone tried to bully him he stepped up and took them on.
#5 He Made Sure He Got Paid
The renaissance was a volatile time. While there was lots of activity going on and a number of wealthy families like the Medicis it was also a time of war with cities that are now part of Italy threatened by the French and other areas trying to acquire lucrative lands.
That means some of the people commissioning his works were occasionally unable (or perhaps unwilling) to pay him. But he stayed on their case, sometimes employing legal representation to ensure he received the compensation he was promised.
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