Perhaps the most curious person in history was the universal genius Leonardo da Vinci, who embodied the Renaissance ideal. da Vinci was not only one of the best artists of his time but probably also the greatest inventor ever. He was also a scientist, anatomist, mathematician, sculptor, botanist, musician, author and much more.
As he had a very short formal schooling, he was largely an autodidact. He was hugely curious and gained inspiration from both nature and the world surrounding him. To paint persons as accurately as possible, he performed anatomical studies that also helped him to understand some of the mechanics behind many of his machines. da Vinci was never satisfied to look at something from one single angle. He turned and rotated, disassembled and dissected to get the utmost understanding of the problems he was wrestling with.
Michael J Gelb has tried to explore what made da Vinci so big in his book “How to think like Leonardo da Vinci: Seven steps to genious every day“. Gelb has identified seven different principles that summarize da Vinci’s versatility. The first and most important of these are curiosity (curiosita).
Da Vinci always carried a notebook in which he jotted down everything he saw around him, thoughts passing through his head, impressions, drawings, jokes, observations and information from people he admired, reflections on current problems, philosophical thoughts and much more. About 7,000 pages are preserved, probably about half of what he left behind. Everything is written with his very special mirrored hand writing.
A classic excerpt from his preserved notes is a to-do list with the following items:
- Calculate the measurement of Milan and Suburbs
- Find a book that treats of Milan and its churches, which is to be had at the stationer’s on the way to Cordusio
- Discover the measurement of Corte Vecchio (the courtyard in the duke’s palace).
- Discover the measurement of the castello (the duke’s palace itself)
- Get the master of arithmetic to show you how to square a triangle.
- Get Messer Fazio (a professor of medicine and law in Pavia) to show you about proportion.
- Get the Brera Friar (at the Benedictine Monastery to Milan) to show you De Ponderibus (a medieval text on mechanics)
- Talk to Giannino, the Bombardier, re. the means by which the tower of Ferrara is walled without loopholes (no one really knows what Da Vinci meant by this)
- Ask Benedetto Potinari (A Florentine Merchant) by what means they go on ice in Flanders
- Draw Milan
- Ask Maestro Antonio how mortars are positioned on bastions by day or night.
- Examine the Crossbow of Mastro Giannetto
- Find a master of hydraulics and get him to tell you how to repair a lock, canal and mill in the Lombard manner
- Ask about the measurement of the sun promised me by Maestro Giovanni Francese
- Try to get Vitolone (the medieval author of a text on optics), which is in the Library at Pavia, which deals with the mathematic.
The points are going in all different directions and are also a mix of things that Leonardo needed to do, information from books, but above all to ask people with specialised knowledge. Leonardo was apparently not afraid to ask, which highlights one of the cornerstones of curiosity, which is the art of listening.
Listening and hearing are two completely different things. Hearing requires ears that can convert sound waves to sensory nerve impulses that go to our brain’s hearing centre. But listening also requires a focused attention – to put all other thoughts aside and focus entirely on the speaker.
In employment interviews, the ability to speak and express yourself is often appreciated, but for the creative person, a developed ability to listen is much more valuable than the ability to speak. By listening to others, we learn new things, discover new trends and find out what’s really happening in our professional area and on top, we forge strong trust bands because few actions are more important to people than anyone listening to them with genuine interest. If we are constantly talking, we miss both the opportunities to learn and get to know the people around us.
We can naturally learn much more from da Vinci. Besides the curiosity, his other principles were dimostrazione (experimenting to see how things work), sensazione (the constant refinement of the senses, primarily the sight, as a way to enhance the experience), sfumato (the willingness to accept uncertainty, ambiguity and paradoxes), arte / scienza (finding the balance between art and science), corporalita (to develop bodily grace, adaptation and posture) and connessione (to find a connection between or unite different concepts or objects). Most of these principles come back in different prints in this book.
One of da Vinci’s mottos was Saper vedere (to know how to see). He claimed that there are three different kinds of people; Those who see by themselves, those who see when someone has shown them and those who do not see.