Review: How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci

A few months ago, Luciano Passuello from Litemind suggested me to read the book How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci by Michael J. Gelb. Having heard about da Vinci’s reputation as one of the greatest geniuses in history, I gladly did.

The author of the book examined the life and work of Leonardo da Vinci and tried to figure out the secret of his genius. The result is something he called “seven steps to genius every day” which consist of Curiosita, Dimostrazione, Sensazione, Sfumato, Arte/scienza, Corporalita, and Connessione.

How to Think Like Leonardo da VinciThe core of the book explains these seven steps in details. Let’s look at each of them.

1. Curiosita

Curiosita is an insatiably curious approach to life and unrelenting quest for continuous learning. One characteristic of the great minds is they go on asking confounding questions with the same intensity throughout their lives. In da Vinci’s case, his loyalty, devotion, and passion were directed to the pure quest for truth and beauty.

Great minds ask great questions. You can increase your problem-solving skills by honing your question-asking ability. By cultivating a da Vinci-like open, questing frame of mind, we broaden our universe and improve our ability to travel through it.

Here are some ways to apply Curiosita:

  • Keep a journal or “notebook”
    Carry a journal with you everywhere and write in it regularly. You can write your thoughts or do thinking exercises there.
  • Theme observation
    Choose a theme for the day and record the observations in your notebook.
  • Stream of consciousness exercise
    Choose any question, and write your thoughts and associations as they occur, without editing. The secret of effective stream of consciousness writing is to keep writing.

2. Dimostrazione

Dimostrazione is a commitment to test knowledge through experience, persistence, and a willingness to learn from mistake. The finest teachers know that experience is the source of wisdom. And the principle of Dimostrazione is the key to making the most of your experience.

Here are some ways to apply Dimostrazione:

  • Check your belief and sources
    Determine the dominant source of your information. See if you hold any beliefs for which you have no experiential verification.
  • Three points of view
    Try making the strongest possible argument against your belief. Try reviewing your belief “from a distance” (for instance, as if you lived in a different country). Seek out friends who might offer different perspectives.
  • Practice internal anticommercial martial arts
    Go through your favorite magazine and analyze the strategy and tactics of each advertisement. Note which advertisements affect you most strongly and why.
  • Learn from “anti-role models”
    Make a list of at least three people who have made mistakes that you would like to avoid. How can you learn from their mistakes?

3. Sensazione

Sensazione is the continual refinement of the senses, especially sight, as the means to enliven experience. Da Vinci believed that the secrets of Dimostrazione are revealed through the senses, especially sight. Saper vedere (knowing how to see) was one of Leonardo’s mottoes, and the cornerstone of his artistic and scientific work.

Here are some ways to apply Sensazione:

  • Describe an experience in detail
    For example, you can watch sunrise or sunset and describe the details of the experience in your notebook.
  • Study the lives and work of your favorite artists
  • Learn to draw
  • Listen to the sounds around you
    Learn to listen from the loudest (e.g. traffic) to the softest (e.g. your breathing) sounds.

4. Sfumato

Sfumato is a willingness to embrace ambiguity, paradox, and uncertainty. Leonardo’s phenomenal ability to hold the tension of opposites, to embrace uncertainty, ambiguity, and paradox, was a critical characteristic of his genius.

Here are two ways to apply Sfumato:

  • Make friends with ambiguity
    List some situations from your life where ambiguity reigns (e.g. waiting to hear if you were accepted at the college of your choice) and describe the feeling.
  • Cultivate confusion endurance
    Sharpen your senses in the face of paradox. You can do it by asking questions like “How are my strengths and weaknesses related?” or “What is the relationships between my saddest moments and the most joyful ones?”

5. Arte/scienza

Arte/scienza is the development of the balance between science and art, logic and imagination. It is “whole-brain” thinking.

You can use one simple but powerful method for cultivating a synergy between logic and imagination in your everyday thinking, planning, and problem solving. The method is mind mapping. Through regular practice mind mapping trains you to be a more balanced thinker.

Here are ways to apply Arte/scienza:

  • Learn the rules of mind mapping
  • Practice your mind-mapping skills
    It is probably best to make your first few mind maps on relatively simple, light-hearted subjects.

6. Corporalita

Corporalita is the cultivation of grace, ambidexterity, fitness, and poise. Leonardo’s extraordinary physical gifts complemented his intellectual and artistic genius.

Here are some ways to apply Corporalita:

  • Develop a fitness program
    It should include aerobic conditioning, strength training, and flexibility exercises.
  • Develop body awareness
    You can develop body awareness by studying practical anatomy. Explore your body map.
  • Cultivate ambidexterity
    Leonardo and Michaelangelo regularly switched hands as they worked. You can try to use your nondominant hand for things like brushing your teeth or eating your breakfast. Then you can try to use your nondominant hand for writing.

7. Connessione

Connessione is a recognition of and appreciation for the interconnectedness of all things and phenomena. It’s systems thinking. One secret of Leonardo’s unparalleled creativity is his lifelong practice of combining and connecting disparate elements to form new patterns.

Here are some ways to apply Connessione:

  • Look at things that at first glance seem unrelated, and find different ways to link them
    For example, you can try to find connections between a bullfrog and the Internet, or mathematics and The Last Supper.
  • Imaginary dialogues
    “Talking” with an imaginary role model is a time-honored and very effective way to gain insight and perspective. You can also imagine discussions on your problem between different characters.
  • Origin-all thinking
    Think about the origin of things. Choose an object and consider all the elements involved in its creation.

Conclusion

How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci is a good book to learn about mind development with holistic approach. It talks about improving our thinking through imagination, logic, and even body. The advice to cultivate ambidexterity, for instance, is something I rarely find anywhere else.

The approach is not surprising since the model is Leonardo da Vinci. Just look at how Wikipedia describes him: a scientist, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, painter, sculptor, architect, botanist, musician and writer. That’s a long list! This book gives us insights on how someone with such diverse talents thought.

This article is part of May 2008 theme: Mind

16 Comments

  1. This post includes some really inventive ways to look at problems and situations from a different perspective that I have not seen before. Thanks.

  2. The final steps interest me most. Their success completely depends on Saper Vedere / knowing how to see. What paradigm or theory dit Leonardo have and use? Normally our perceptions are trained and only once every Hailey’s Comet we reach a higher level of functional structuring in that perception. That must have been the case with Leo. Better understanding is boosted by science and the Renaissance was the discovery of science. Yet I do believe that the steps mentioned here indeed can be applied by us mere mortals, however we do need proper tools in addition to proper scientific education.

  3. Thanks for the summary – I’ve been wanting to read this book but it’s down around the #30 slot on the “books I want to read this year” list.
    It seems that the ambiguity mentioned as part of sfumato coincides with the concept of connessione: both mean being comfortable with things not in black-and-white absolutes, learning to accept the conflict and the complement.
    I had to laugh when I read the suggest under curiosita to “have a theme” – as a writer, I always have a theme and it is whatever big project I’m working on. It just lasts longer than a day!

  4. This is a great book and I always reference back to it. I had the opportunity to see the Da Vinci exhibit in Chicago a couple years ago and it was profoundly inspirational.

  5. Hi, Donald. I’m really glad you enjoyed the book!

    The book “Discover Your Genius” by the same author is in my queue now. It seems similar to How to Think Leonardo da Vinci, but it taps on 10 different geniuses.
    As soon as I read it, I’ll let you if its worth reading.

    Best regards!

  6. Jon,
    I’m glad you find it useful like I do!

    Ron,
    Interesting thoughts. Reaching “a higher level of functional structuring” in perception is certainly difficult. You are right that our perceptions are normally trained. I can see that in my own life.

    Annie,
    Yes, I agree that we can see the connection between sfumato and connessione that way. It will be difficult to see the interconnectedness of things if we see them as black-and-white absolutes.
    That’s one good thing about being a writer: there is always a theme to work on.

    Brad (etavitom),
    You’re lucky to see and be inspired by the da Vinci exhibit. Da Vinci has unique capabilities we rarely see in anyone else in history.

    Luciano,
    Thanks for the recommendations! It seems like the more I learn about mind the more interesting it becomes 🙂

  7. Great summary. This has jumped to the top of my list of books to read.

    I’ve been in a biography run lately, and I need to break out of it. Reading Daniel Silva’s The Secret Servant as escapism.

    How To Think LIke da Vinci sounds like it is just what I need.

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  9. Sam,
    I’m glad you like it. I agree that there are times when we need to read something different than what we usually read. That refreshes our mind.

  10. That sounds like an amazing book. Leonardo Da Vinci will never stop amazing me. I have a book (a gift from my grandfather) that contains letters written by Da Vinci to his niece (or daughter? It has been a few years since I read it) and the return letters to him from her. I have to admit that it is amazing seeing a glimpse into his personality and genius. I wish I could remember the name of the book, I will have to look when I get home tonight.

    In any case, I particularly love the advise that your book, Learn to Think Like Da Vinci, states: Learn to Draw. People who do not draw will never realize just how much drawing changes your perspective on everything. Once you begin drawing, you look at angles, proportions, depth. You begin seeing these things in everything, even while you are speaking to friends.

    I will have to see about getting that book now, it has captured my interest.

  11. Artist,
    I’ll be glad if you can share the book’s title with us when you’ve found it. It must be interesting.
    I must admit that learning to draw is something I lack, but I agree with you about its importance. It helps us see things with different perspectives.

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  15. Wow,I really learnt something entirely new today;from the logger,the books and even the great comments from my learned friends.Thanks a lot.

  16. This pretty much sums the core of the book. Great article. Thanks.

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