Thursday, May 15, 2008

"How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci" by Michael J. Gelb, Part 1 of 3

Seven Steps to Genius
Part one of a three-part series on the book How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci by Michael J. Gelb

Leonardo da Vinci and Superman were author Michael J. Gelb's two greatest childhood heroes. Around the same time Gelb realized that Superman didn't in fact exist, he also started to become aware that Leonardo da Vinci had actually been a real person. He began to study his life. The more he studied, the greater his fascination became. His study increasingly revealed da Vinci as what Gelb considered a global archetype of human potential. After years of study it became just a natural extension to focus on his lifelong interest and write the book, How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci. We spoke to Gelb and asked him to share some of the insights about da Vincian thinking that his book reveals.

What is your definition of the modern Renaissance man or woman?

The classic ideal of the Renaissance person is someone who is well-rounded in art, history, language and science. The curriculums of liberal arts universities around the world are actually based on that Renaissance ideal of a broad knowledge in a variety of areas. That has always been very much part of being a Renaissance person, having that liberal arts education. In today's world, however, there are a few other qualifications. One is to be computer-literate and Internet savvy. Another is to be able to let go of racism, sexism and nationalism, which link us to a more restrictive way of thinking. Being globally aware -- to understand that world economies, the environment and other parts of life on our planet are all linked together -- is also important. The final qualification is to be aware of and understand in a practical way your own potential. I call this mental literacy.

Do you think that everyone can be more like Leonardo da Vinci?

Yes I do. All of us can learn from and be inspired by this great genius. If you approach it that way, instead of comparing yourself -- and the completely different and unique set of talents you possess -- to da Vinci, you can use the inspiration to spur your own growth.

Why do you feel that people can benefit from being more like Leonardo da Vinci?

Many people have written to let me know how the book has changed their lives. There have been many accounts by people who are now writing books, painting, playing music and making great strides in other creative areas that they hadn't tried before. The book gave them not only the inspiration but also the practical tools to accelerate their own learning ability.

Your book outlines seven da Vincian principles, which you refer to as "the seven steps to genius." They are curiosita, dimostrazione, sensazione, sfumato, arte/scienza, corporalita and connessione. In this issue, we will discuss the first principle: curiosita. Please explain it.

Curiosita is the never-ending quest for learning. You can call it the "Fountain of Youth" because it hails from childlike curiosity and keeps us young as we continue to openly question everything. Leonardo was probably the most curious person who ever lived. He was so curious that he wouldn't take "yes" for an answer. Truth and beauty fascinated him and he wanted nothing less than to know the mind of God. This curiosity and unwillingness to settle for the obvious drove his creativity.

Will you please give us some exercises from the book that will help our readers develop curiosita?

One of the most powerful methods you can use to develop curiosita is to keep a journal, in the manner of Leonardo. Although scholars have criticized his notebooks as being disorganized because the subjects appear in random order and there are no tables of contents or indexes, they demonstrate his genius. As an example, on one page you'll see notes about birds in flight and water flowing, a shopping list and some jokes he liked. This was because his mind was completely free. He simply recorded the free association of his thoughts and observations. This process is quite liberating to our creative thinking. It stimulates further questioning -- or curiosita.

Most of us have to write at least occasionally for work, school or other reasons. When we do, in most cases the writing must have a beginning, middle and end. While this kind of structure is important for effective communication, it doesn't promote "out of the box" thinking. A journal is a simple and practical tool for allowing freer expression and waking up your curiosita.

Another great tool is to follow Leonardo's example and strengthen your vocabulary. He ultimately had over 9,000 vocabulary words written in his notebooks. Every time he heard a new word he would write it down and use it in a sentence -- just like we were always told to do in school! Having a large vocabulary is a great way to underscore your love of knowledge and learning.

See the next post for part 2.

How to Think like Leonardo da Vinci and the How to Think Like Leonardo Workbook by Michael J. Gelb are available from

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