“It had long since come to my attention that people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things.”
— Leonardo da Vinci
A few years ago, my son and I were discussing geniuses. We decided to play a game where I would come up with my Top 10 list and he would do likewise.
Almost all the names we wrote were different (as our definition of genius may have differed), but one name we both had was Leonardo da Vinci. If ever the term “genius” was meant for one figure in history, it is most justifiably might well have been applied to the life and accomplishments of the famous Italian.
When we think of da Vinci (1452-1519), most of us recall the painter whose timeless works include the Mona Lisa, The Last Supper, The Vitruvian Man, and Virgin of the Rocks.
These works truly speak to the genius mind behind their creation, but the prolific Italian master was much more than a painter.
A quality that permeated the soul of da Vinci was an incessant curiosity that compelled him to learn as much as possible about as many subjects as possible.
To this end, he is recognised as an architect, musician, mathematician, engineer, inventor, expert in anatomy, geologist, cartographer, and botanist, as well as a sculptor and painter of masterpieces.
For me, da Vinci shows us that it is possible for someone to be good at many things. It takes a lot of hard work and effort, but if we keep learning and pushing ourselves, anything is possible.
Born as an illegitimate son to a local lawyer near the Tuscan town of Vinci, he later became the apprentice of the prominent painter Andrea del Verrocchio in Florence, where he honed his craft as a painter and sculptor, and soon became a master in his own right.
In his early 30s, he travelled to Milan to work for the ruling Sforza family as a sculptor, painter, engineer and architect. In 1499, the French invasion of Milan forced the family to flee and, after a few years passed, da Vinci returned to Florence where his most famous work, the Mona Lisa, was painted between 1503 and 1506.
Da Vinci returned to Milan in 1506 and stayed there for the next seven years before spending a period of three years in Rome.
In 1517, he was invited to live in France by King Francis I, where he remained until his death in the Château of Cloux near Amboise in 1519. Some years after his death, it was reported that King Francis said of da Vinci: “There has never been another man born in the world who knew as much as Leonardo, not so much about painting, sculpture and architecture, as that he was a very great philosopher.”
What made da Vinci so great that he has remained revered in the minds of many throughout the centuries? A fundamental quality to his genius was undoubtedly his thirst for knowledge.
He received a basic education in reading, writing and mathematics, but soon developed an intense passion for the natural world and studied as much as he could while growing up in Tuscany.
The acquisition of knowledge and pushing the boundaries of his abilities led da Vinci to master a wide range of subjects including geology, anatomy, flight, and gravity. As an inventor, he conceptualised the bicycle, airplane, helicopter, and parachute centuries ahead of their time, which further testified to his brilliance.
Which begs the questions for each of us: Do we thirst for knowledge? Are we intensely curious?
To become great and make a difference in the world, we must start with ourselves. We must equip ourselves with knowledge and wisdom so that we can impart those to the world.
And this starts with our hunger for growth and our determination to keep learning and discovering new insights. Ask yourself: Am I really hungry for growth?
The Italian master was a true pioneer and innovator, and spent much of his time learning forward – rather than focusing on what had already gone before, da Vinci was driven to think about and solve problems that had yet to occur to anyone.
He was a real visionary who understood the importance of exponential thinking in those who sought to truly change the world and realise achievements that most would view as being impossible.
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While some of us would describe ourselves as either being inclined more towards an artistic or a scientific bent, da Vinci was able to make use of both approaches and bring them together to inspire much of his work. For example, his paintings were underpinned by his in-depth study of anatomy and, at the same time, he could endow his subjects on the canvas with great soul and character.
Conversely, da Vinci’s science was expressed through drawings and diagrams, which he kept in notebooks that totalled around 13,000 pages of ideas.
The Vitruvian Man
These gave a fascinating insight into the mind of the great Renaissance man who displayed a keen understanding of the world around him and how it worked.
Da Vinci’s lifelong love of learning is one that speaks to us all in our own pursuits of personal growth and development.
He sought to learn as much about the world around him as he could, and understood the nature of curiosity to be vital to the human desire to continually progress beyond its current levels of knowledge. As a remarkable and brilliant figure, the fascination of da Vinci is rooted in the realisation that, with curiosity, learning and passion, there is nothing that can’t be achieved if we choose to set our minds on something, and that the only limitations that hold us back are those that are self-created.
The big question
Many of us aspire to “change the world” and leave a legacy. Yet, this will never happen if we are not competent nor have the deep insights on how to make a difference.
The way to kickstart our journey is to start with ourselves. We need to be learning leaders.
We need to always be looking for insights, opportunities to learn and be curious about the world around us. When we, like da Vinci, start to read, study and explore the world around us, we start to find problems to solve and opportunities to truly make this world a better place.
So, start with being hungry to learn. The rest will fall in place in due time.