Monday, May 19, 2008

"How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci" by Michael J. Gelb, Part 2 of 3

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

In this second installment of our three-part series on the book How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci, we investigate two more of the seven Da Vincian principles identified by Michael Gelb as "the seven steps to genius." The two principles we will address below -- sfumato and arte/scienza -- help us to find the balance between the creative and the practical. We asked Michael Gelb to discuss these two principles and give examples of exercises anyone can use to develop these qualities.


Sfumato is a term that art critics coined to refer to the hazy, mysterious quality in Leonardo's paintings. This effect was achieved through the gossamer-thin application of hundreds of layers of paint that made light seem to suffuse from behind the canvas. The term sfumato represents perhaps the most distinguishing characteristic of highly creative people -- their openness to the unknown.

One simple and fun exercise from the book to cultivate sfumato is to imitate the famous smile of Mona Lisa. Ask yourself how you feel when you smile this way -- close your eyes for a moment and conjure up the image -- explore how it feels. A lot of people who have done this exercise say they feel as if they have a secret -- that they know something that other people don't. If you can summon up this smile in the face of stress, you'll expand your perspective. When a group of gifted children were asked how it felt to emulate the Mona Lisa's smile, one child responded that it was as if Mona Lisa knew everything had an opposite. Other children expanded on that by naming opposites -- black and white, night and day, light and dark, boys and girls and finally, life and death. When the same question was asked of a group of corporate executives, one spoke of something he that he had read in the Wall Street Journal about Mona Lisa having a dental problem that affected her smile. The children gave answers that were much more powerful because they weren't afraid to access their spontaneous creativity to answer the question. This is what we need to nurture in ourselves.

Another exercise is to contemplate paradoxes. A number of central life paradoxes are listed in the book, for example--independence/intimacy in relationships. The principle of sfumato guides you to integrate the two seeming opposites that form this paradox. Both aspects are necessary. You find the balance by embracing the creative tension and contemplating the interdependence of the opposites.


Arte/scienza is the balance between art and science. One reason Leonardo is considered such a genius is that his remarkable abilities were not restricted to the field of art. He was also a genius as a scientist and inventor. He anticipated discoveries by Copernicus and Galileo and invented, among other things, the parachute, the bicycle and scissors. In modern terms, we'd say that the left and right hemisphere of his cerebral cortex had an extraordinary degree of synergy. The challenge for us is to find that same balance. The tendency for most people is to be stronger in one area than another. To be a Da Vincian thinker, however, you need to develop both. To find this balance, you must first assess your own tendencies. The checklist below is abbreviated from the book. It gives you an idea of the type of questions you can ask yourself to determine if you are a right-hemisphere/arte or left-hemisphere/scienza thinker. Although people are more complex than the tendencies the chart indicates and you may have inclinations toward both sides of the brain, it gives you a basis for thinking about balance.

Scienza tendencies
* I like details.
* I am usually on time.
* I rely on logic.

Arte tendencies
* I am highly imaginative.
* I often lose track of time.
* I rely on intuition.

Whether the choices you make from the above chart or the expanded version in the book reveal you have predominantly either arte or scienza tendencies, the key to fulfilling your potential is the continuing discovery of balance between the two types of thinking.

See the next post for part three.

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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