Three Lessons from the Life of Leonardo Da Vinci

I’ve been listening to Walter Isaacson’s Biography of the polymath Leonardo Da Vinci. A few anecdotes from his life struck me as worth sharing here.

Leonardo The Reluctant

In 1504, both Leonardo and his rival Michelangelo were commissioned to create paintings that would face each other at The Hall of the Five Hundred in Florence. The intention of this dual commission was to spark a competition between the two greatest artists in Italy.

So it is ironic that both Leonardo and Michelangelo hated painting. Of Leonardo, many contemporaries noted that “He couldn’t stand to look at a brush.” What he really wanted to spend time on was science and engineering.

Michelangelo also hated painting. He thought of himself as a sculptor. While working on the commission in Florence, he wrote in his journal, “I am not in the right place and I am not a painter.”

The lesson I take is that it doesn’t matter how good you are, sometimes you just have to work on things that aren’t that interesting to you. Even geniuses sometimes have to take what the market is offering.

The Anatomy of Failure

Leonardo is famous for the way he was able to blend his love for science and discovery with art. Among the most famous of these pairings is the anatomical drawings he created based on his dissection of cadavers.

His keen mind allowed him to discover things that wouldn’t be known for another 100 years (such as how blood flows through the human heart) and his abilities as an artist lead to renderings of the human body that to this day stand unmatched for their accuracy and aesthetics.

Yet his achievements languished undiscovered in his notebooks until the modern era. This is because Leonardo never published his work. His partner in his anatomical studies died of plague and Leonardo did not have the discipline or inclination to bring the project to term.

The lesson is that insight and output do not necessarily correspond. Without a clear vision, discipline and perhaps a good partner, even the brightest minds can achieve less than their potential. As Walter Isaacson notes,

“One of the things that would have most benefited Leonardo in his career was a partner who could push him to follow through and publish his work.”

Leonardo Da Vinci The Original Consultant

As Europe awoke to the fact that there was a new world laying across the ocean, Leonardo’s home city-state of Florence realized that it would need to acquire a port to get in on the action. This meant conquering a nearby city and Pisa was chosen as the most attractive option.

Pisa was vulnerable if the Florentines could divert the river Arno from its course, effectively cutting it off from supplies. Leonardo was put in charge of figuring out how to do this.

Leonardo knew he had to dig a massive channel in order to divert the river. He calculated that it would entail the movement of over one million tons of earth. Knowing this, he had to determine how many men and how much time it would take. But instead of blindly estimating, Leonardo conducted the first of what has now come to be known as a time in motion study.

Using a watch he studied how long it took a man to fill a bucket of dirt and move it to a machine he’d designed to carry it away. Based on his measurements, Leonardo calculated that it would require over fifty thousand worker-days to complete his project.

After making his designs and calculations, Leonardo left instructions for the project and returned to Florence. Unfortunately, the person who was selected to oversee the actual operation went against his wishes and started digging two canals, instead of one.

Leonardo and his compatriot Machiavelli tried to pressure the engineer into sticking with the original plan but failed. In the end, despite heavy rains, the two half as deep canals failed to divert the river and the plan was abandoned.

The lesson in this is that you can have the most brilliant strategists but if the actors don’t play their part, the plan will fail.

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