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March 22, 2018
Thinking Like da Vinci: How To Approach Problems As A Genius Would

One of the more fascinating books I’ve been reading is Walter Isaacson’s latest about Leonardo da Vinci.

Most of us know Leonardo as a painter and sculptor. However, beyond that, Leonardo's notebooks show us that he also had an incredible level of curiosity and an exceptional ability to represent visually what his eyes would perceive. He was able to discover things on his own that scientists wouldn't discover for hundreds of years. Perhaps the most extreme example of this was when he figured out how the valve of the human heart closes, because a vortex is created when the blood rushes past it.

Only recently, in 2014, doctors and scientists believed that there were different mechanisms by which the human heart was operating. And only recently, using the most sophisticated imaging technology, were they able to demonstrate that, indeed, when the blood goes past the valve, it creates a vacuum right behind the valve, which causes it to flip and close perfectly.

Modern medical science arrived at a conclusion that Leonardo was writing about 500 years ago!

Is it possible for any of us to approach our challenges by thinking like such a genius as da Vinci? Based on Isaacson’s book, here are some of the elements that I believe are mandatory, at least as a foundation.

Step Out Of Your World
And Be Curious About Everything

Some people can be intensely curious about things within their own industry but we’re talking about a much broader perspective than that.


Leonardo didn’t gravitate to studying the circulatory system in a human being, for example, without being infinitely curious of all kinds of things.

In a previous blog post, I spoke about Hollywood producer Brian Grazer’s book, “A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life” and the power of stepping out of your silo. Grazer, for all his success in the movie business, constantly sought out conversations with people who may or may not have been in his field but were deeply interesting for him to listen to and learn from.

When you are curious about different types of industries and technologies – some of which may not seem like they'd be related to you at first – you might be surprised at how having that sort of curiosity can be extraordinarily beneficial to your career. It may even open your mind to options you might have never considered.

Challenge The Status Quo And Find A Better Way

In Leonardo’s time, a great number of artists would paint on wet plaster and, due to the nature of that surface, would paint everything they needed to paint within that day.

Well, Leonardo knew that he couldn’t paint anything close to a masterpiece in one day – the process was much too fast for him. So he arrived at a solution for how to create paints that would stick to dry plaster. The result? One of his most famous works that we know as “The Last Supper.”

Many of us have encountered work environments in which we hear, “Well, that’s the way we’ve always done it.” Deep down, the people who say such things know that the status quo might not be the best way yet they can’t break out of traditional thinking long enough to come at the problem in a different way. Some will complain about the state of things, but that typically only gets them so far.

Real disruption and change comes from looking at the challenge and saying, “Is this really the only way I can solve this? What have I not thought of? Who else in the company can I enlist to help me solve it? And when we do arrive at a better way, what key influencers do we need to connect with to ensure we move forward with our proposed solution?”

Keep Returning And Adding To Your Masterpiece

As incredibly intelligent as he was, Leonardo was not a perfect person. He would start many things but finish very few, partly because he couldn't figure out how to finish things to his satisfaction. This may explain why he was painting Mona Lisa for as many years as he did – he kept coming back to it and adding more.

Some might consider this “starting but never finishing” pattern of Leonardo’s to be a flaw. He would constantly design marvelous things but they would rarely be completed. He would plan to sculpt a tremendous horse for a patron in Milan, for example, but just as he was about to do so, the materials he needed to use had to be used for an impending war instead. So the sculpture never happened.

Yet, in the case of one of the most famous paintings in history – Mona Lisa - we can say that there are times when the relentless drive to achieve something better, even when it doesn’t all happen in one or two sittings, is well worth the effort.

Case in point: Your career is a constant work in progress – an evolution of skills that is continually being added to a collection of experiences. Keep finding ways to add to the masterpiece that is your life’s work. One title, one stop on the career path and even one outstanding achievement doesn’t likely provide the complete picture of all that you are. What does the comprehensive collection up to this point communicate to potential employers and is it telling the story as accurately as you’d like? If not, what modifications might need to be made from here so that it aligns with your purpose and passion?

Create Your Own Labels – Don’t Let Others Create Them For You

Leonardo was very much set against being described as a painter. Instead, he perceived himself as an engineer, military advisor and scientist.

You could also call him an amazing anatomist, because he had a passion for dissecting (in fact, he would dissect over 30 cadavers on the path to making discoveries that were far ahead of their time). Leonardo’s attitude was that in order to create the proper picture or the proper statue, you need to understand all the things that are underneath the skin – in order to learn just that, he dissected a variety of people. This intensive learning would ultimately influence another area of his work, his unbelievably beautiful atlases of the human body.

A military advisor? Leonardo da Vinci? In a way, absolutely. Despite the fact that some of da Vinci’s self-descriptions – like being a military advisor – were accompanied with a bit of bluster, we can say that he did invent one tool that we often take for granted: A map that represented a city from above. This could certainly be viewed as a military document, which may explain his self-perception as a military strategist. Until da Vinci, there were no maps quite like that. He had the eye and hand of a genius artist to realize what a given city looked like with all of its fortifications, buildings and so on – from above and accurately.

A scientist? Most definitely. From a scientific standpoint, da Vinci discovered a variety of laws that we would eventually know by name, such as the laws of friction – about 200 years before Sir Isaac Newton defined force. At one point, he created a list of 87 different measurement relationships of a human face, such as how far the chin goes to the nose. He was also the first person to discover that the human tooth has three roots.

In the modern day, it is far too easy to classify someone else based on initial observations of certain parts of their work or even a resume. In some cases, that might be perfectly fine. But be careful. You don’t want others, including those in a position to hire, to make assumptions about you that may only tell part of the story when it comes to your career achievements, skill set and goals from here.

That’s where connecting with a highly experienced recruiter such as Roy Talman & Associates can be very helpful to communicating the complete picture of where you’ve been in your career, what you’ve accomplished thus far and the ideal culture you’d like to join for maximum impact. Positioning you correctly and preparing you for the moment when you’re in front of these hiring authorities is key, so let’s make a point to connect to see that you tell your own story in the most favorable light and define your own path forward in the best way possible.

Will that approach make you feel as much of a genius as da Vinci? Let’s just say in our 30 years of experience at Roy Talman, we believe it’s a far more intelligent path that just works better.