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How to think like Leonardo da Vinci

BY Michael Gelb

29th Feb 2024 Art & Theatre

16 min read

How to think like Leonardo da Vinci
According to Michael Gelb, the author behind the self-help book ‘Think Like Da Vinci’, any living person can bring out their inner Da Vinci by dedicating themselves to seven ‘Da Vincian’ principles.
Michael Gelb found the inspiration to write after he received an invitation to visit Florence in order to speak to “a prestigious and notoriously demanding association of company presidents.” According to Gelb, although not everyone is born with the gifts and the capacities of Leonardo Da Vinci, it is possible for any person to use the fundamentals of Da Vinci’s approach to learning to guide us to toward the realization of our own full potential. Think Like Da Vinci, through the use of exercises, drawing and honesty, helps us to guide us to be the people we truly are in a word of unprecedented fog, noise and traffic. This is a guidebook that we need now, in the 21st century, more than ever.

Curiosita – “The desire to know is natural to good men.” – Leonardo Da Vinci

Curiosita is described as “An Insatiably Curious Approach to Life and an Unrelenting Quest for Continuous Learning”. Leonardo possessed an intense curiosity about the world around him. It was this undeterred curiosity that began in childhood and continued throughout his life that drove Leonardo into becoming one of the greatest thinker’s humanity has known. But don’t be deterred into thinking Leonardo was a sedentary man of thought alone, quite the contrary. Leonardo was a man of action, possessing an unstoppable Terminator like determination in an unquenchable pursuit for knowledge.
The young Leonardo loved being in nature, showed an early gift for drawing and was fascinated by mathematics. Young Leonardo’s Curiosita regarding education and mathematics especially often raised constant unsureness and difficulties for the teachers who taught him and continuously confounded them. Most children have in them insatiable amounts of curiosity and sense of wonder, unfortunately for multiple reasons these traits are lost as children reach adulthood, not Leonardo though. Perhaps one of his greatest attributes, of which there are too many to tell, was his willingness to question accepted knowledge. Leonardo’s Curriosita never abated and fuelled the lake of his genius for his entire life. Leonardo’s motives were not money, women or loyalty to any church or person. His pursuits were pure: the quest for beauty and above all; truth.
"For in truth great love is born of great knowledge of the thing loved"
Leonardo would wonder around the Tuscany countryside asking questions he did not himself yet understand. Questions such as: Why shells exist on the tops of mountains alongside seaweed usually found in the sea. Why lightning is visible whereas thunder is not and takes a longer time to travel. Leonardo was expectant and reliant only upon himself to answer his own questions himself. His questions took him under the water (he designed a snorkel as well as diving equipment and even a submarine) and into the sky (he also invented flying machines and a parachute).
Curiosita can be developed. Gelb recommends a series of exercises which include:
  • Keeping a journal or notebook – Leonardo always carried a notebook with him so that he could jot down ideas, thoughts, impressions and observations as they occurred.
  • 100 questions - Making a list of a hundred questions in your notebook on any given topic that comes into your head before reviewing and then choosing the 10 most significant of your initial 100 questions.
  • Stream of consciousness exercise – Using your notebook, choose any of your questions and write your thoughts on the question as they occur in your head. Write down all of your thoughts without editing. Keep your pen moving, do not worry about grammar.
  • Have humility and be willing to make lots of mistakes – Leonardo was not afraid to make mistakes and appear foolish. Leonardo embraced the feelings of unfamiliarity and foolishness.

Dimostrazione – “A commitment to test knowledge through experience, persistence and a willingness to learn from mistakes.” – Leonardo Da Vinci

Leonardo Da Vinci possible self-portrait
Dimostrazione is about making the most of your experiences; both good and bad. Leonardo knew that he would gain wisdom through experience alone and never shied away from experience. Leonardo is most widely known for his artist wizardry and magnum opus - the Mona Lisa. But it was through years of learning and experience that enabled Leonardo to paint what would become the most well-known and perhaps most valuable painting in existence.
The young Leonardo was an apprentice to master painter and sculptor Andrea del Verrocchio known as “a one-man university of the arts.” The training Leonardo received was that more of experience than theory. Leonardo was taught how to prepare a canvas and paints. Was introduced to perspective. The technical aspects of sculpture, bronze casting and goldsmithing were part of the agenda too. Leonardo was also encouraged to directly observe and study animals and plants as well as the anatomy of humans. Everything revolved around practical experience; there was no endless reading and studying from old books under del Verrocchio.
It was during his geological investigations where Leonardo was able to answer his question of why shells exist upon mountain tops. After discovering fossils and shells on a mountain peak in the Lombardy region of Italy, Leonardo argued against the prevailing view that they were the deposits of a biblical flood and instead concluded that: “such an opinion cannot exist in the brains of any extensive powers of reasoning.”

Leonardo described himself as a discepolo della esperienza (“disciple of experience”)

Whenever Leonardo wanted to learn something, he would do everything in his power to learn directly. At the age of 42 Leonardo taught himself Latin to gain a deeper understand of the classics. He had an extensive library and viewed the works of others as “experience by proxy” to be studied carefully and ultimately to then be tested through his own experience.
Do not be fooled into thinking that Leonardo did not make any mistakes. He made numerous colossal mistakes including disastrous attempts at fixing paint for The Last Supper, a wasteful and tremendously expensive effort to divert the Arno River which failed; as well as his invention of a costly flying machine which never got off the ground. “Obstacles do not bend me” Leonardo wrote after one particular blunder and “Every obstacle is destroyed through rigor”.
Dimostrazione can be strengthened. Gelb recommends exercises which can develop your dimostrazione, these include:
  • Evaluating your own independence: Asking yourself if you are ever deceived by your own opinions and whether you are able to change a deeply held belief. Deep thinking as to whether you can learn from your successes or failures, from good times or bad. Questioning whether you make the most of your mistakes or whether you beat yourself up after making mistakes to the point you are afraid to try new things.
  • Asking yourself what the single most influential experience in your life has been and whether you can rethink some of the conclusions you have drawn from experiences.
  • Examining and considering the role the media and people have on your beliefs compared to what your own experiences have given you.
  • Attempt self-defence exercises against advertising from your favourite magazines and television shows.
  • Learn from the mistakes of others: discriminate between people and things you want to emulate and what you want to avoid.

Sensazione – “The continual refinement of the senses, especially sight, as the means to enliven experience.” – Leonardo Da Vinci

Statue of Da Vinci
Sensazione was vital to Leonardo as he believed that the secrets to the second Da Vincian principle, Dimostrazione, are revealed through the senses. Knowing how to see (saper vedere) was one of Leonardo’s mottos. For Leonardo, sight was the most important sense of all. Leonardo’s teacher Verrocchio was sometimes known as “the true eye”, studying under Verrocchio mixed with his childhood spent in the Tuscan countryside meant that Leonardo gained astonishing powers of sight. Leonardo would record intricate and scientific details of the feathers and wings of birds in flight that were not fully appreciated until the deployment of slow-moving images. His “Codex on the Flight of Birds is testament to his knowledge and his incredible gift for sight.
Leonardo primarily used his gaze in order to capture subtleties of human expression in his paintings. Leonardo would often spend his time walking through whatever city he was living in at the time in order to study real people. Leonardo was particularly fascinated with faces, he would often draw people’s faces in his notebook, seemingly unattractive people were a particular favourite of his.
"Who would believe that so small a space could contain the images of the whole universe"
Painting was the supreme form of art for Leonardo but second only to painting came music. The sense of hearing was of great importance to the artist and he was a brilliant musician. His playing of the flute and lyre has been noted and he was also said to have been able to sing ‘divinely’. For Leonardo music was sensual and spiritual nourishment. Although vision and hearing were valued most by Leonardo, the maestro valued and practiced all of the senses. He would wear the very finest garments in order to saviour the feel of the best silk clothes against his skin. His home was always filled with the scent of fresh flowers and perfumes.
Sensazione is perhaps the easiest of Leonardo’s seven principles to refine but it does take discipline. The 21st century is very different to the world Leonardo saw. However, Leonardo trained his mind like an athlete trains his muscles. Leonardo trained his mind by developing his sense and you can do the same.
Here are two fun and easy exercises you can do to improve your sensazione.
  1. Watch and describe a sunrise or a sunset – Use your calendar or a simple internet search to discover the exact time of a sunrise or a sunset. Find a quiet place where you know you will get a good view. Arrive around 10 minutes before the official time so you can relax and settle yourself down with some easy breathing exercises. Relax your eyes and take in the horizon. After the event, write down your experience in your notebook.
  2. Write down your top five favourite artists or classical musicians – Once you have done this, try to then make a sub-list of your favourite paintings or scores by your favourite musicians and artists. For example, Leonardo: The Mona Lisa, The Last Supper, Salvator Mundi.
  3. Bonus exercise – Set time aside to listen to your favourite classical musicians and visit museums which contain the artwork of your favourite artists.
The above exercises will help strengthen your sensazione and according to Gelb, there are further exercises you can partake which help to strengthen your senses further:
  • Try to picture your favourite scene (fictional or from your real life) in your mind’s eye and imagine that you are there. Let yourself hear all the sounds from your scene, if you are near a beach, you might hear the sounds of the water, the noises of the seabirds and the rays of sun on your back.
  • Take advantage of silence. Listen, seek out and practice silence. Try to find a quiet place just to sit, perhaps somewhere in the woods or even in your back garden. The silence does not need to be absolute. Try to appreciate the silence in between a bird’s song. Make a note of how it feels to be in a place of quiet. If you can, go a whole day without speaking. Try to seek out nature and go for a walk and use your other senses that don’t require spoken word.
  • Make a note of how listening to your favourite piece of music or viewing your favourite painting has an impact on your mood and your thoughts. Ask yourself why and how your perceptions of your life and the world change when this happens.
  • Make smells a theme for a day. Go out of your way to seek out unusual aromas. Perhaps try to go out into the countryside or buy some particularly aromatic cheeses. Inhale the aromas and make a note of how it affects your mood.

Sfumato – “The painter who has no doubts will achieve little.” – Leonardo Da Vinci

Sfumato touches the essence of simply being – living in the now and without worries. We have already discussed how Leonardo was undoubtedly one of the most curious human beings to have ever been born but at the same time, he was never afraid of appearing a fool if it meant trying something new or different. A huge aspect of Leonardo’s personality was how comfortable he was with ambiguity – Leonardo was secure in uncertain situations and venturing out into the unknown.
In 2021, the majority of the western population face greater uncertainty and anxiety than ever. The Covid-19 crisis was of course an event unparalleled in the West since World War Two. However, even before the pandemic, the modern world, with political correctness and health and safety abound, people are struggling more than ever to come to terms with uncertainty. To be able to thrive in life, one must be able to embrace ambiguity and the unknown as it is only in the unknown where we can experience new things and truly challenge ourselves.
Firstly, it is important to understand whether you are comfortable with ambiguity or not. In his book, Gelb recommends rating yourself on a scale of 1-10 on your tolerance for ambiguity. If you feel that you to struggle to deal with uncertainty in your life, there are several exercises you can do to help raise you level. However, like overcoming a fear, you need to be willing to jump into the deep end if you wish to one day be able to thrive with ambiguity and overcome anxiety – Gelb calls it ‘making friends with ambiguity.’
The exercises below will help you embrace ambiguity and uncertainty.
  • List three situations from your life where ambiguity has been present. Describe the feeling of ambiguity in your body and how it made you feel. If you can describe some situations from your past and recent past, can you confirm whether your battles with ambiguity have become worse or better? After that can you describe whether your ambiguity equals anxiety for you?
  • Think of the saddest moments in your life and the moments that have filled you with most joy, what is the relationship between these two states? Leonardo once wrote that ‘the highest happiness becomes unhappiness,’ do you agree with this statement? Do you believe any person can be 100% happy 100% of the time?
  • List your strengths and weaknesses, moments of humility and pride, are there any similarities between them? Are they related in anyway?
  • Note three of the most significant changes you have observed in your lifetime, did these changes change your life in a positive or negative way?
  • Many of us spend our days working hard in an office or in front of a computer, try to take a little relaxation every single day. If you can try to take 10-minute breaks every hour or so as you will come back to your work as a much better judge.
  • Trust your gut and be confident in yourself. Start by writing your gut feelings down in your notebook, you will quickly realise that by trusting your gut, you will be following your conscience which is an important aspect of becoming the best and most confident person you can be.

Arte/Scienza – “Study the science of art and the art of science.” – Leonardo Da Vinci

Whilst many of us are labelled as right of left orientated thinkers, Da Vinci was very much a “whole-brain” thinker. The cerebral cortex of the brain is divided into two hemispheres, the right and left. According to Nobel prize winning scientist Professor Roger Sperry, the left hemisphere processes logical and analytical thinking whereas the right hemisphere processes imaginative, creative and bigger picture thinking. Gelb instructs us to balance our hemispheres by using a process known as mind mapping.
Originated by Tony Buzan, mind mapping allows us to generate (right hemisphere) and organise (left hemisphere) ideas. Mind mapping will help you with personal goal setting, daily planning and problem solving and through regular practice, it should train you to become a more well-rounded and balanced thinker. First of all though, it is helpful to learn whether you are more predominantly left or right brained. In his book, Gelb details a self-assessment which you can complete in order to work out whether you are a more logical or creative thinker. Although, most people can already state which side of the brain they generally use more often.
There are five common rules to mind mapping:
  1. Begin your mind map with a symbol or a picture at the centre of your article. The symbol or picture should represent your topic.
  2. Write down the key words associated with your topic.
  3. Connect your keywords with lines aka branches from your central image.
  4. Use colours, pictures and codes for greater association with each keyword and emphasis.
  5. Create more branches from your initial keywords.
You can mind map about any given life situation. For example, if you have trouble relaxing on your days off, you could create a mind map specifically for what you could do on your next day off. Alternatively, you could mind map your dream vacation. Or, you could create a mind map on where you would like to be in five years’ time.

Corporalita – “Handsome and with a splendid physique, he seemed a model of human perfection.” – Goethe on Leonardo Da Vinci

Da Vinci Vitruve Luc Viatour
The stereotypical genius that many of us have been brought up with consist of a skinny, four-eyed nerd with thin hair and bad dress sense. However, in reality and with few exceptions, the great geniuses in history were gifted with great physical prowess, energy and brilliant poise—Da Vinci included.
Certainly, in the 21st century, with many of us working in officed in front of computers, we have never been further away from our hunter gatherer ancestors who prioritised physical fitness, health and well-being over everything. Gelb gives his readers some important rules to keep us in health which we have outlined for you below:
  • Avoid grievous moods and be aware of anger.
  • Rest well and stay cheerful.
  • Exercise moderately.
  • Pay attention to your diet.
  • Eat only when you are hungry and not when you are simply bored.
  • Do not walk around with your head lowered, physical stature is important.
  • Eat simple.
  • If you are not visiting the toilet regularly, then you should be!
In the 21st century, it is all too easy for a doctor to prescribe their patient with a ‘magic cure’ for either their diet or their health. Too often, people in our time look for a medial reason for their unhappiness or unhealthy lifestyle, whereas in fact, they should be looking to make changes in themselves in order to improve themselves. Even in Da Vinci’s day, people would look to physicians to cure their souls, he wrote: “Every man wishes to make money to give to the doctors, destroyers of life: they therefore ought to be rich… Shun physicians because their drugs are a kind of alchemy, he who takes medicine is ill-advised.” Both Gelb and Da Vinci see the importance in fitness and physical exercise to ones overall physical and mental health.
Gelb highlights strength training, aerobic conditioning and flexibility exercises as key areas. “A healthy diet and aerobic, strength and flexibility training are key elements in achieving and maintaining well-being. In his book, Gelb also showcases the Leonardo Da Vinci diet and discusses key exercises and mind techniques you can practice which will help you to improve your posture too. Body awareness, Gelb states, plays a key role in determining self-image and awareness.

Connessione – “He discovered God in the miraculous beauty of light, in the harmonious movement of the planets and in the arrangement of muscles and nerves inside the human body.” – Serge Bramly on Leonardo’s spirituality.

Early on in life, Leonardo Da Vinci discovered how the world around him created frequent patterns which were interconnected with one-another. “Swimming in water teaches men how birds fly upon the air,” Da Vinci wrote. “Swimming illustrates the method of flying and shows that the largest weight finds most resistance in the air.” Leonardo’s notebooks contained no contents, no outlines nor indexes which led many scholars to criticise Leonardo. However, in recent years, others have leapt to the maestro’s defence stating that Leonardo did not need to create categories for his notebooks because for Leonardo, he automatically saw how everything was already connected to everything else.
Many of us sometimes declare that we are missing something in ourselves, i.e. we are lacking wholeness. Connessione asks you to contemplate wholeness in relation to yourself in an honest way. It is often stated that many of us are the cause of our own misery, so it is important to be first and foremost honest with yourself before you are able to become whole. Gelb asks his readers to contemplate themselves in relation to their families:
  • What role does each person play?
  • How are the roles interdependent?
  • What are the benefits of the distribution of family roles? What are costs?
  • What happens to the dynamics under stress?
  • What patterns have been handed down over generations?
  • What outside forces effect the dynamics?
  • How do the patters you have formed in your family affect the way you participate in other groups?
On his deathbed, Da Vinci apologised to God for “leaving so much undone.” Despite his undeniable genius and the scope of his legacy, Da Vinci died with regrets. To help you fulfil your own potential, Gelb introduces an acronym – make all of your goals SMART.
  1. S – Specific: Define exactly what you would like to accomplish, in detail.
  2. M – Measurable: Decide on how you will measure your progress and how you will know that your goal(s) have been achieved.
  3. A – Accountability: Be fully responsible for committing to your goal.
  4. R – Realistic and Relevant: Set yourself goals which are ambitious but achievable and are relevant to your overall purpose and values.
  5. T – Timeline: Create a clear timeline for the achievement of your goals.
To fulfil your own desires and potential, it is vitally important that you do not deceive yourself. It is all too easy to blame others for our own failings, but that will achieve the opposite of fulfilment. Only be helping yourself can you help others, and you will be surprised by how others, including your friends and family, will react to you once you begin becoming the best person you can possibly be.

Leonardo’s legacy

Since Leonardo, philosophers such as Friedrich Nietzsche, geniuses of literature such as Fyodor Dostoevsky and clinical psychologists such as Jordan Peterson, have been searching for the inspiration of how wisdom, truth and light can triumph over fear, deception and darkness. Da Vinci’s quest for truth and beauty and art and science and wholeness has left a long legacy reminding us of what it can be mean to be created in the image of God.
"In the 21st century, Leonardo Da Vinci is considered one of the greatest geniuses in human history"
In the 21st century, Leonardo Da Vinci is considered one of the greatest geniuses in human history. There are now museums across the world which are devoted to Leonardo, Da Vinci cuddly toys and even some of the best paying slot games are based on the maestro himself, (Da Vinci Diamonds being the most popular).
In1994, Bill Gates bought The Codex Leicester (a collection of writing by Da Vinci) for over $30million. Why? Because he was fascinated with Da Vinci’s way of thinking. Gates admitted that heroes inspire us to be our best and there’s perhaps no greater non mythological hero, than Leonardo Da Vinci.
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