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How to Be a Creative Genius

Walter Isaacson, the author of the great biography of Steve Jobs, is coming out with his newest bio this week.

This time, the subject is Leonardo DaVinci. If the book is anything like the Jobs book, it will be a great read. (Although I must admit that I started to read Isaacson’s biography of Einstein, and I just couldn’t get into it, and never finished it.) Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal featured an essay from Isaacson based on the book, and most of the following is from that essay.

DaVinci has fascinated many people, including Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and me (yes, I just included myself in the same sentence as Jobs and Gates). He created perhaps the two most famous paintings in history, the “Mona Lisa” and “The Last Supper.” But he was also a man of science and engineering, pursuing studies of anatomy, flying machines, fossils, birds, optics, geology and weaponry. His ability to combine art and science is why so many consider him history’s most creative genius.

Isaacson believes that DaVinci’s genius came from being wildly imaginative, quirkily curious, and willfully observant. It was a product of his own will and effort, which makes his example more inspiring for us mere mortals and also more possible to emulate, as compared to what he considers natural geniuses such as Newton or Einstein.

Isaacson writes that we can try to cultivate, in ourselves and in our children, the skills that DaVinci used to put imagination to productive use. All of us have something to learn from him about how to lead a more creative and intellectually satisfying life.

In particular, Isaacson listed three particular traits:

  • Be curious about everything. Leonardo’s most distinctive trait was his passionate, playful and occasionally obsessive curiosity. He wanted to know everything there was to know about everything that could be known.
  • Observe attentively. His simple method for truly observing a scene: Look separately at each detail. while also having the patience to process observations and patterns. While painting “The Last Supper,” he would sometimes stare at the work for an hour, finally make one small stroke, and then leave.
  • Indulge fantasy. Isaacson believes that DaVinci’s ability to blur the line between reality and imagination also contributed to his genius. True innovators tend to be those like Leonardo who make no distinction between the beauties of the arts and the beauties of the sciences.

So while there is much to be learned from studying DaVinci, my favorite line in the essay was the following:

The best reason to learn from Leonardo, however, is not to get a better job but to live a better life.

I’m looking forward to reading the book, which will be available around October 17

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Jim Borden

Accounting Prof. at Villanova; happily married for 30+ years; father of 3 outstanding young men; vegan; interests: fitness, creativity, education, blogging, social media.

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