I discovered a book a few years ago that quickly became one of my favorites:  How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci, The Seven Steps of Genius, by Michael J. Gelb. The book attempts to bring to life the principles underlying Leonardo da Vinci’s boundless creativity. He was a painter, sculptor, architect, scientist, musician, mathematician, and engineer.

Among his inventions are the parachute, helicopter, diving suit and tank (developed in the 1500’s!). His interests also included literature, anatomy, geology, astronomy, botany, writing, history and cartography.

In Florence with friends walking on the same streets Leonardo walked

In Florence with friends walking on the same streets Leonardo walked

He’s been named the originator of paleontology and architecture, and one of the world’s greatest painters with masterpieces such as Mona Lisa and The Last Supper.

But even more than this incredible resume, for me, is the transcendent sense of elegance and logical beauty he expressed throughout his work. The symmetry of his Vitruvian Man is an iconic example. His sketches and ideas expressed the grace that’s possible for the human body, reflecting an effortless efficiency and strength we so admire in athletes today.

And Leonardo was born at the perfect time – the Renaissance – when the ideal of expanding human potential was reborn after centuries of medieval close-minded superstition and constant lawlessness. He apprenticed and worked in Italy’s Florence and Milan, the heart of this expanding cultural movement.  

So naturally an aspirational guidebook on the “seven steps of genius” made perfect sense to me. It’s a 21st century approach for sure (we like to break things down into lists, don’t we?!) Like a roadmap, the book neatly points out pathways to learning and creativity navigated by a master.

Check out what it takes to be the master’s apprentice.

How to Be a Genius
First of all, I can’t do the book justice in a blog, but here is a brief summary of Gelb’s seven steps. He describes Leonardo’s genius as separated into seven qualities. In honor of Leonardo, Gelb uses Italian words to name the characteristics:

Curiosita – An insatiably curious approach to life and an unrelenting quest for continuous learning.

Dimonstrazione – A commitment to test knowledge through experience, persistence, and a willingness to learn from mistakes.

Sensazione – The continual refinement of the senses, especially sight, as the means to enliven experience.

Sfumato (literally “Going Up in Smoke”) - A willingness to embrace ambiguity, paradox and uncertainty.

Arte/Scienze – The development of the balance between science and art, logic and imagination. “Whole brain” thinking.

Corporalita – The cultivation of grace, ambidexterity, fitness, and poise.

Connessione – A recognition of and appreciation for the interconnectedness of all things and phenomena. Systems thinking.

It’s a lot to take in! Notice that Curiosita, or the cultivation of curiosity and continuous learning, comes first. That makes sense. The opposite of Curiosita, being close-minded or fearful of the new, wouldn’t lead to many inventions. Yet, what seems out-of-sync with popular theory is that while Leonardo was curious and studied many things, he still managed to become an expert.  

Usually we think of people that do many things without settling on a skill as a generalist or a “jack of all trades, master of none.”

What’s the difference?

Perhaps there are clues from the 20th century. I remember reading that Albert Einstein made an effort to “rewire” his thinking in order to figure out ways to think differently by learning to play the violin. His wife Elsa claimed it helped him think through his theories. Winston Churchill took up painting landscapes in order to exercise thinking from a different perspective. Both men said these activities helped them develop their abilities to think in new ways.

So perhaps if we’re open not just to doing something new, but to thinking in a new way, the result is a “rewiring” of our thought that spills into elevating many abilities, not just the skill we’re learning in that moment.

I think we can all think of examples of this. Here’s one of mine and it’s a follow-up from a week ago.

How to be Coachable
In last week’s email I only gave you half the story about my son Eric. Here’s the first part I wrote:

When my son Eric first started playing basketball, he was about 10 years old and he was a little rusty with his ball skills. He was new on the team and didn’t know the other kids. But his coach told me Eric would be fine if he decided to be coachable -- instead of being satisfied with catching a ball thrown directly to him -- to respond to the coaching direction and leap forward in order to learn how to anticipate and snag a pass thrown out of reach.

It was hard to get Eric to respond. He was tired; he didn’t know what to do. In frustration one afternoon before a game I told him, “I want you to foul out. Be in their face! Open up a can of whoop-ass!” He told me later he jogged on court thinking, “Mom said a swear word!” but didn’t foul out.

Let me tell you what happened the next year.

In between basketball seasons Eric took up cross-country and track, and found that he had a talent for running, but more important, a desire to win. During those two running seasons he began to learn what it meant to be competitive. His will to compete, his desire to win, his trust in his coaches grew and schooled him in the skill of listening to strategy and the patience to follow it.   

11-year-old Eric battling it out in a cross-country race.

11-year-old Eric battling it out in a cross-country race.

Even at their young ages, the kids were taught to think on the cross-country course. “Charge forward and pop the hill!” “Don’t slow on a downhill, accelerate and pass another runner!” Natural talent was less important than the willingness to try, to be coachable.

This openness got Eric through a rain-soaked course in Indiana so muddy the coaches duct-taped the kids’ shoes on their feet. Through an Iowa course so cold that icicles clung to his sweat-soaked hair. Through a St. Louis race so close in competition that he had to run hip-to-hip with another runner the entire race, hurting so much his face was contorted with tears when he ran by us, willing himself forward. To a win.*

No excuses.   

Fast forward to the basketball court the next year. When I arrived to pick up Eric after the first practice, the coach startled me, “What happened? What a difference! He’s intense.”

Open up a can of whoop-ass and it spills everywhere. 

Reality Check
According to Gelb, in the Book of Genius, authors Tony Buzan and Raymond Keene make an attempt to rank an objective list of the greatest geniuses in history. They created categories such as Originality, Versatility, Universality of Vision, Strength and Energy, and more. Who topped the “top ten” genius list as the Greatest Genius of All Time? Leonardo da Vinci.

Somehow I can’t imagine Leonardo ever thinking, “I’m not good at this” or “It’s too late to start something new” or “I’m too old” or “I don’t have time.” No excuses. No fear. We have the ability to continuously learn, to have Curiosita, and in so doing, improve our abilities in many directions.

I have a final note to end this blog. I have to confess I’ve been fascinated by the Renaissance for a long time. I love how it represents the cultural pursuit of many artistic things and the higher achievement of human potential.

In fact, one summer when the kids were old enough to be home alone I created a routine called “Renaissance Summer” for them. Each morning before work I wrote down an eclectic list for them to do that day: practice the piano for 30 minutes, write a journal entry, shoot 10 free throws, do a few chores and some silly stuff like sing to the parakeet and pet the cat.

Idealistically, I imagined my children gradually building a repertoire of artistic and practical ability. These would complement the trips to the swimming pool and hanging out with friends, I reasoned. Each day they’d call me at work, “Mom, we’re doing great!” Then solicitously, “When will you be home?”

It was years later they confessed that most of the day was spent luxuriously hanging out and watching TV. The last 30 minutes before I came home was a mad dash to finish the chores.

So they became skilled in efficiency instead.

Thanks for reading!


*By the way, Eric is still running. See his website ericrunning.com