Learning from one of mankind’s greatest geniuses

What did the inventor of the helicopter, the inventor of scuba diving gear, the first man to design a parachute, and the first person to correctly describe the blood flows in the heart have in common?

They all painted a little bit on the side.

…and they were all the same guy.

And maybe we should go further than saying he painted a little bit. Because he painted the most famous painting of all time.

Leonardo da Vinci, a left-handed homosexual vegetarian pacifist who liked to dress in colorful clothes, would‘ve probably had the time of his life in the Berlin techno scene, but it turned out that 15th century Florence wasn’t too terrible either. At the beginning of what was later to be known as the Renaissance, Italian cities like Florence, Milan, and Venice were brimming with life and creativity, and wealthy patrons like the Medici clan provided sufficient funds for artists to pursue their interests comfortably.

Photo by Nicole Ferzoco on Unsplash

This environment became the Petri dish for some of mankind’s greatest genius. The art of Michelangelo, Raphael, or Leonardo keeps on inspiring us to this day.

The power of curiosity

Describe the tongue of a woodpecker.
Leonardo da Vinci

Unlike his contemporary Michelangelo, Leonardo wasn’t an aloof genius. He was social, charming, flamboyant, but most important of all: ravenously curious. As Walter Isaacson writes in his great biography on Leonardo, there is something to be learned from his genius, from the way he saw the world, from the way he was constantly driven and drove himself to explore, to learn and challenge what he knew. And from the way he observed carefully (describe the tongue of a woodpecker, reads one of his diary entries) and combined observations in one area to come to creative breakthroughs in other areas.

His observational skill, first and foremost of all, turned him both into the greatest scientist and the greatest artist of his age.

His ambitious curiosity made him get involved in a huge amount of seemingly unrelated projects: he dissected human bodies and horses, made important discoveries about fossils, figured out how birds fly, studied optics, built instruments and was able to improvise on them proficiently, staged theatrical production at the court, constructed an enormous horse statue for the Duke of Milan, planned the diversion of a river, made sketches for tanks, fortresses, cathedrals. The list is almost endless and never stops to impress.

“The noblest pleasure is the joy of understanding.”
Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo is the Renaissance man par excellence, a man that mastered every endeavor he could lay his hands on.

Many might argue that the days of the Renaissance man, of the great jacks of all trades, has been over for at least 200 years (Albert Einstein believed that Goethe was “the last man in the world to know everything”). We think that in our day and age, ever more narrow specialization has become the rule of the game.

A great divide sits in between art and science that would have bewildered Leonardo.

But as it turns out, there is a big difference between not knowing everything and knowing just one thing. Many of our ideas about how specialization is paramount in our knowledge industry, about how modern scientists and artists are supposed to operate and modern careers are supposed to look like, are deeply flawed. As David Epstein shows in his book Range, in many cases breadth trumps narrowness. And it would help all of us immensely if everyone tried to be a little more like Leonardo.

The advantages of range

We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.
Albert Einstein

We tend to believe that modern science is so overspecialized that it is necessary for children to pick a field they want to pursue (like ten-year-olds picking a certain protein folding mechanism they want to study for the rest of their lives), and that if you want to make it big anywhere, you need to focus early and hard.

But there is no formula for coming up with a groundbreaking idea. Indeed, a lot of times good ideas come from unexpected places. Hyperspecialized people don’t revolutionize fields, and as Einstein already noted, breakthroughs are usually not grounded in domain-specific expertise, but rather arise from creative combinations of insights from one field to another.

Many innovators experience frustration with school because they are too broad to fit into neat categories. Head starts are more and more useless if goals become less rigid. Exploring the world at the boundary of knowledge certainly is not a rigid process with a clear goal.

Many people that switch fields actually experience big growth rates in the new fields. Successful people often change and explore. As David Epstein points out in Range, A study with highly successful people in science and business showed that pretty much every single one of them thinks they followed an “unusual path”, that they are in truth an outsider and just got lucky.

If all the successful people don’t think they fit the norm of what it takes to be successful, maybe that norm is flawed, to begin with?

The power of analogy

“The greatest scientists are artists as well.”
Albert Einstein

Einstein quotes are always nice and I will never tire of using them, but luckily there is evidence to back up his claims.

A study by Root et al. shows that Nobel laureates are three times more likely than the average scientist to pursue artistic interests on the side, and twenty-two times more likely to act, sing or perform in their free time, while those that lack aesthetic interests outside their areas tend not to make many creative contributions to their field. As Cajal, the father of modern neuroscience, puts it: “it appears they are scattering their energies, while, in reality, they are challenging them.”

Cognitive entrenchment describes a type of rigid thinking that arises if certain thoughts and behaviors become ingrained too deeply within an individual. Experts tend to become less and less creative the longer they stay in a narrow field because there is no fresh input of ideas coming in from anywhere.

“I write poetry to penetrate the world around me and to comprehend my reactions to it… The language of science is inherently poetic.”
Roald Hoffmann, winner of the 1981 Nobel prize for chemistry

In Leonardo’s case, his studies of optics and anatomy allowed him to paint realistic lighting and ambiguous smiles. He was captivated by water eddies and the flow of water. Not only did this improve the way he painted water, but it also allowed him to understand how blood flows in the heart create eddies that close the heart valves, a conjecture that was completely novel at the time and only empirically confirmed late in the 20th century.

Analogies are the bread and butter of problem-solving. Johannes Kepler loved analogies and actively employed them when he revolutionized astronomy. Charles Darwin was extremely open-minded and widely read, with a pronounced interest in art. Reading about economics in his free-time helped spark his key insights into the evolutionary process:

“I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population, and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence (…), it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved and unfavourable ones to be destroyed.”
Charles Darwin

Darwin even had a picture of Leonardo hanging in his study if that tells you anything.

Analogies allowed Kepler, Darwin, and Leonardo to consider unrelated theories and find commonalities in their structures that could be exploited when explaining new observations. Diverse backgrounds, be they in other art or social sciences, offer diverse analogies and therefore tend to increase the odds of fruitful synergies between ideas to arise.

Learning from Leonardo

Leonardo da Vinci / Public domain

Flexibility and range were celebrated during the Renaissance. But they remain equally valuable to this day, and their importance is only going to grow in an age when AI is on the rise, challenging a narrow skill set that is easily replaced by the knowledge bases of the internet. Boundary-dissolving thinking is becoming ever-more important, and humans are needed to creatively combine ideas from different fields. Looking at the future of the job market, having fixed dreams and pursuing a narrow career path is looking more and more like a bad idea.

The Vitruvian man. Leonardo da Vinci / Public domain

Leonardo didn’t treat his hobbies as marginal objects of interest confined to his free time. He wasn’t exclusively a scientist or an artist. Leonardo was a genius at keeping multiple career paths open. He could have made his fortune as a painter, architect, engineer, doctor, singer, actor. He didn’t distinguish between art and science, because as Root et al. state in the results of their study, “for these scientists, science is only part of being human, not the end-all and be-all of their existence”. For Leonardo, the painter of the Vitruvian Man, a holistic humanitarian approach always remained at the center of all of his striving.

Now of course not everyone is as gifted as he was, but his example can continue to inspire, and the lessons to be drawn from his deep curiosity and willingness to challenge old ideas and creatively combine them with new ones remain relevant as ever.