November 8, 2023

The Renaissance Mindset: Lessons from Leonardo da Vinci's Life

The Renaissance Mindset: Lessons from Leonardo da Vinci's Life

“Learning never exhausts the mind.” – Leonardo da Vinci

This portrait attributed to Francesco Melzi, c. 1515–1518, is the only certain contemporary depiction of Leonardo.

In an age of unparalleled discovery and artistic brilliance, Leonardo da Vinci emerged as the archetype of the Renaissance man — an individual whose unquenchable thirst for knowledge was matched only by his extraordinary creative genius. 

Today, Leonardo’s life stands not merely as a historical account but as a lesson for anyone seeking to blend creativity with intellectual exploration. One might think that a man who lived in the late 15th and early 16th century, would not have much to teach us about modern life, but I would argue that, in fact, the opposite is true: the life lessons derived from his life are more important than ever before. 

Curiosity Is the Engine of Achievement

Leonardo's curiosity was boundless. Everything he encountered, from the swirls of water to the curls of hair, became a question to ponder. He didn't just observe the world; he questioned it. Each observation spurred a cascade of questions, leading him down paths of discovery that often intersected art, science, and nature. Modern life often encourages specialization, but Leonardo’s example invites us to broaden our interests and inquire deeply. 

Saint John the Baptist c. 1507–1516,[d 3] Louvre. Leonardo is thought to have used Salaì as the model

In today's fast-paced, technologically-driven society, there's an ever-increasing emphasis on niche specialization. Experts dig deep into specific subjects, often losing sight of the broader landscape. While deep expertise has its merits, it’s important to cast a wide net of curiosity and interest, which can then cross-pollinate with other skill sets. 

Observation Leads to Innovation

Da Vinci's acute power of observation was the foundation of his art and science. He noticed things others didn't and asked why—why did the work that way?  The secret to his innovative thinking? He observed intensely and recorded faithfully. To walk in his footsteps, practice really seeing the world around you. Whether it's the structure of a flower or the dynamics of a conversation, be present and attentive.

A design for a flying machine (c. 1488), first presented in the Codex on the Flight of Birds
An aerial screw (c. 1489), suggestive of a helicopter, from the Codex Atlanticus

Aspiring innovators can adopt da Vinci's observational prowess in everyday life. Start with deliberate pauses: take moments to study the intricacies of a raindrop on a window or the colours in a sunset. Listen intently to conversations, not just for words, but for underlying emotions and unspoken narratives. Maintain a journal, much like Leonardo's famed notebooks, to record thoughts, sketches, and questions.

Interdisciplinary Learning Enriches Thinking

For Leonardo, art and science were two sides of the same coin, seamlessly intertwined. His meticulous anatomical studies were not just pursuits of scientific understanding; they breathed life into his art, allowing him to portray the human form with unparalleled accuracy. Similarly, his deep dives into engineering and mechanics provided him with the tools to render landscapes and architectural features in his paintings with an innovative perspective.

Leonardo's genius lay in his ability to draw connections between seemingly unrelated fields. He recognized that in the confluence of disciplines, there exists a fertile ground for innovation. His notebooks, filled with sketches, observations, and musings, bear testimony to this interdisciplinary mindset. They are a testament to a brain that was constantly drawing links, probing, and experimenting.

Procrastination Can Be Productive

In the modern hustle and urgency of the 21st century, 'procrastination' has become something of a forbidden word, often synonymous with laziness or lack of discipline. However, the life and works of Leonardo da Vinci suggest a different perspective on this often-maligned trait. Known to leave some of his most celebrated masterpieces unfinished, Da Vinci's seeming procrastination was, in fact, a manifestation of his deep contemplative nature.

Leonardo believed in the power of gestation – the slow brewing of ideas over time. He understood that creativity was not always a force that surged forward with unbridled momentum; sometimes, it needed space to meander, explore, and find its own rhythm. By putting a project on hold, he allowed his subconscious mind to mull over complexities, refine details, and view challenges from fresh angles. This is evident in the layers of sketches, revisions, and studies he left behind, showcasing the evolution of his thought processes.

Da Vinci was notorious for leaving works unfinished, yet this wasn't always a failing. While he could have made a lot more money if he had stuck to his guns and finished his commissions, his procrastination often allowed ideas to marinate and evolve. Sometimes, stepping away from a problem can lead to a burst of insight when you return. So, when you're stuck, give yourself permission to procrastinate — productively. Let your ideas breathe.

Saint Jerome in the Wilderness (unfinished) c. 1480–1490,[d 5]Vatican

Perfection Is a Journey, Not a Destination

The "Mona Lisa" was a work in progress for Leonardo until his last days. Perfection, for him, was an elusive goal, yet the pursuit was paramount. Instead of being discouraged by imperfection, see your endeavors as lifelong projects. Strive for excellence, but don't be paralyzed by the pursuit of an unreachable ideal.

Perfection Is a Journey, Not a Destination
The Mona Lisa - by Leonardo Da Vinci

To adopt this Leonardo-esque perspective, one must first reframe how we view 'perfection.' Instead of visualizing it as a static endpoint, see it as a horizon — always in sight but forever receding. This mindset shift is liberating. It alleviates the weight of attaining a fixed, often intimidating standard and replaces it with the joy of continuous learning and adaptation.

Furthermore, while aiming for excellence is commendable, it's essential to avoid the trap of perfectionism — the obsessive need to achieve flawlessness. Such a mindset can hinder creativity, fuel anxiety, and even lead to paralysis by analysis. Instead, embrace the imperfections, the unfinished sketches, and the works in progress. They are markers of growth, reflections of an ever-evolving vision, and tangible evidence of one's commitment to the craft.

Embrace the Power of Imagination

Leonardo da Vinci's notebook pages, brimming with sketches of groundbreaking ideas such as his flying machines, stand as a beacon of human potential. These designs, often seen as centuries ahead of their time, are the perfect amalgamation of uninhibited fantasy and methodical observation. They exemplify how Leonardo seamlessly danced between the realms of dreamer and doer.

Embrace the Power of Imagination
Leonardo's physiological sketch of the human brain and skull

For those seeking to innovate and create, this balance between imagination and grounded reality is paramount. While it's tempting to lose oneself in the vast expanse of one's mind, it's the synthesis of these dreams with actionable knowledge and study that births innovation. It's about letting your mind wander the skies while ensuring you have the tools and understanding to build the ladder to reach those heights.

Embrace the Power of Imagination
Anatomical study of the arm (c. 1510)

In essence, Leonardo’s life implores us to let our imaginations soar but to always tether those dreams to the bedrock of reality and practical understanding. It's in this harmonious blend that the seeds of astounding creations and advancements truly lie.

The Importance of Recording Your Thoughts

While Leonardo is known as a brilliant painter and artist, perhaps his true genius can be seen in his notebooks. Leonardo's notebooks contain detailed drawings and notes on various subjects, such as his engineering projects, some of which were commissioned, such as canal systems and architectural structures. He also conceptualized ideas for bridges and civil engineering projects. By jotting down ideas, he not only remembered them but also developed them further. Keep a notebook — digital or paper — and make it a storehouse for your musings, sketches, and flashes of insight. It’s a practice that can turn thoughts into tangible achievements.

An apocalyptic deluge drawn in black chalk by Leonardo near the end of his life (part of a series of 10, paired with written description in his notebooks)

Resilience in the Face of Adversity

Resilience, as epitomized by Leonardo, is more than just the ability to bounce back; it's a nuanced dance of grit, adaptability, and perspective. It's the ability to view challenges not as insurmountable walls, but as puzzles to be deciphered. In the face of criticism, rather than being deterred, Leonardo used it as a compass, guiding him towards introspection and refinement.

Resilience in the Face of Adversity
Statue outside the Uffizi, Florence, by Luigi Pampaloni (1791–1847)

For us, living in an age of rapid change and uncertainty, there is profound wisdom to be gleaned from Leonardo's life. When we encounter setbacks, it's tempting to succumb to frustration or defeat. However, if we adopt the Leonardo approach, we begin to see adversity not as a roadblock but as an opportunity — a chance to grow, learn, and further hone our craft.

Last Thoughts

The Death of Leonardo da Vinci, by Ingres, 1818[t]

Leonardo da Vinci’s life is a canvas from which we can draw profound lessons. By adopting his boundless curiosity, keen observation, interdisciplinary approach, measured procrastination, relentless pursuit of perfection, imaginative thinking, diligent recording, and unwavering resilience, we can nurture a renaissance mindset in ourselves.

Dare to learn, to observe, to dream, and to create. Let the spirit of Leonardo’s life inspire not just an appreciation for his genius but an active engagement with the world — a world that is, once again, in a renaissance of its own making.