One unforgettable afternoon, as I was walking the streets of Rome in Springtime—as I so love to do—I ducked into the tiny museum that sits at the edge of Piazza del Popolo that had a simple sign outside it advertising an exhibit of the works of Leonardo Da Vinci.
A master of range, this remarkably creative soul produced work in the fields of architecture, painting, anatomy, sculpture, engineering, aeronautics, and architecture.
Da Vinci clearly was special. His biographer Giorgio Vasari once wrote: “Sometimes in supernatural fashion, a single person is marvelously endowed by heaven with beauty, grace, and talent in such abundance that his every act is divine and everything he does comes from God rather than from human art.” And yet, as I walked through the museum that day, looking at the instruments he had developed, diagrams of the insides of various creatures and studying—for a few hours—the etchings, markings, and words within the private notebooks he would carefully keep, one insight became strikingly clear……his so-called genius was less a genetic blessing and more the result of self-teaching.
Great artists, architects, and inventors are not born into their legendary prowess. They are made. This creative luminary would spend day after day obsessively [and passionately] studying the seemingly smallest of subjects that would contribute to the advanced perception and mastery of craft that he would later offer to our world. He taught himself about the way the jaw of a crocodile worked, the nature of the placenta of a calf, the anatomy of a woodpecker’s tongue, and the finest details on how moonlight radiates on a crisp winter’s night. He understood that fantastic creative leadership requires careful focus, unusual effort, and uncommon tenacity.
In one of his notebooks, he wrote 730 of his hard-won understandings on the way water flows. Another page revealed 169 precise versions of him trying to square a circle. A scribbling showed his messy list of 67 words that he had discovered to describe running water. Da Vinci worked absolutely tirelessly when he worked [he also wasted a ton of time as all creatives do; I’ve learned this isn’t a waste—it’s incubation]. The more I considered the body of work of this so-called genius, the more inspired I grew.
The more I observed this great man’s courageous output, it became clearer that we each have amazing talents within us—abilities that if developed daily and relentlessly, would allow us too to release works into the world that unwise eyes would label as divinely guided magic. Let’s have a look at 6 of the habits that made Leonardo the genius he’s now considered to be:
#1. He wrote things down. That which you write down rises in mental clarity. Keeping various journals on the subjects that you are pursuing mastery within is a powerful way to refine your thinking, capture your creativity, images on paper, and record your increasing knowledge.
#2. He mined his holy curiosity. I’ll never forget the day my daughter Bianca and I was driving home from a visit with my brother. She was five years old at the time and sat quietly in the back seat, looking up at the vast blue sky as I drove along the highway. Spotting a group of clouds she enthusiastically shared, “Look, Dad—it’s a lion in the sky!” As kids, we were deeply intimate with our creativity. It’s just the way we rolled. As we leave our wonder years, too many of us lose that inherent access. Because we become serious.
#3. He was ridiculously patient. Extended patience is one of the behaviors of all great artists. When Leonardo was creating The Last Supper, his habit was to sit in front of the work for long periods of time, simply looking at the painting—noticing the whole piece along with the intricate nuances. Then, he would get up, make a single stroke, and walk away. Sometimes for weeks.
#4. He blended multiple disciplines. Da Vinci married his learning in aeronautics with his love of the arts, his studies of engineering with his dedication to sculpture. His supposed giftedness was actually in large part the result of deep concentration and radical innovation in many different fields of interest. Studying many disciplines will allow you to connect dots that few others can see.
#5. He took time off. “Men of lofty genius sometimes accomplish the most when they work the least,” this awesome creator once wrote. Making time for dreaming, playing, and living life was a key to Da Vinci’s prodigious productivity. Disruptive and history-making insights rarely show up when you’re at the office. So travel, have fun and rest.
#6. He adored natural beauty. Many of our civilization’s top Imagineers spent a lot of time in nature. Long walks in the woods. Extended hours in a cottage by the sea. Quiet evenings staring up at the stars. In one documentary I watched on Greek tycoon Aristotle Onassis, I learned that after the stylish guests that he would entertain on his yacht would retire to sleep, he would remain on the deck, sipping cognac and simply staring up at the heavens. Being near nature is a time-honored way to relax your mind. So your primal genius flows.
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