Historical recruitment mistakes, from Leonardo to Einstein

Ana Vargas Santos
4 min readApr 23, 2018


Leonardo da Vinci’s application letter, from Letters of Note

Having worked as a recruiter, I know most people dread recruitment processes. What should I write in my application letter? or What should I answer if they ask about my weaknesses? are some of the most frequent questions I get. It is also pretty common for people to dwell on their mistakes — I think I said too much, I probably should have kept that to myself.

If you’re struggling with one of these experiences, you might find consolation in knowing that even the widely successful have had their share of recruitment fears and failures. Take Leonardo da Vinci and Einstein. Geniuses as they were, Leonardo wrote an application letter that is hardly a model to be followed, while Einstein had an impressive record of nine years of failed attempts to get the job he wanted. So, if you’re in the process of applying for a new job, it might be worth it to learn from these great masters’ mistakes.

Let’s start with Leonardo, in the early 1480s

“Around the time that he reached the unnerving milestone of turning thirty, Leonardo da Vinci wrote a letter to the ruler of Milan listing the reasons he should be given a job.” — Walter Isaacson

The document is in some ways a great example of what a cover letter should be, even nowadays:

Perfectly structured

Starting with an enticing opening paragraph, where Leonardo promises to “unfold his secrets”, he then proceeds to describe his added value in 10 concise points, and ends with a closing paragraph showing availability to put his skills to the test:

And if any of the above-mentioned things seem impossible or impracticable to anyone, I am most readily disposed to demonstrate them in your park or in whatsoever place shall please Your Excellency (…)

Focused on the needs of the employer

Knowing that Ludovico Sforza, his prospective patron, was faced with the threat of war, Leonardo carefully explained how he could help “instill a great fear in the enemy” and be of service in “destroying every fortress”.

Able to illustrate competencies with concrete examples

Instead of writing that he could draw, paint, design artillery and create machines, Leonardo specified how his skills could address future needs:

“(…) if one cannot, when besieging a terrain, proceed by bombardment either because of the height of the glacis or the strength of its situation and location, I have methods for destroying every fortress or other stranglehold unless it has been founded upon a rock or so forth.”

But if there is a lot to be learned from what he did right, there’s also a plenty of hidden lessons in what he did wrong:

He overstated his competencies

Leonardo portrayed himself as a knowledgeable and experienced engineer, which, apparently, he was not.

“He had never been to a battle nor actually built any of the weapons he described. His letter to Ludovico is this best regarded not as a reliable catalogue of his actual engineering accomplishments but instead as a glimpse into his hopes and ambitions.” — Walter Isaacson

He didn’t mention his most notable skill

Leonardo was sent to Milan due to his ability to create and play musical instruments. Alluding to that in his application letter would have made it easier for Ludovico to recognize his abilities, but he forgot to do so.

He didn’t provide examples of accomplished work

Although he briefly referred that he was able to paint, he did not support this claim with evidence, even though he had some paintings he could have mentioned.

Over to Einstein, 400 years later

After graduating from the Zurich Polytechnic in 1900, Einstein started looking for a job as a junior professor. He had his share of recruitment mistakes too.

He showed disdain for the employer’s area of expertise

In his first application to a former professor:

“He readily conceded that he did not show up at Hurwitz’s calculus classes and was more interested in physics than math.” — Walter Isaacson

He was too focused on his own needs

Still in his letter to professor Hurwitz:

“Rather presumptuously, he said he as eager for an answer because ‘the granting of citizenship in Zurich, for which I have applied, has been made conditional upon my proving that I have a permanent job.’ — Walter Isaacson

In 1901 he was — not surprisingly — still looking for a job and sending application letters. He wrote to Professor Wilhelm Ostwald, but then again he was too focused on himself:

“Einstein concluded by pleading: ‘I am without money, and only a position of this kind would enable me to continue my studies’. — Walter Isaacson

He was unable to follow up on his applications

He never received a reply, but he didn’t seek feedback either. The one time he did it, the format wasn’t brilliant:

“Einstein wrote again two weeks later using the pretext “I am not sure whether I included my address” in the earlier letter. ‘Your judgment of my paper matters very much to me’. There was still no answer.” — Walter Isaacson

Finally, over to you

Leonardo and Einstein didn’t get the jobs they were applying for, and yet one of them revolutionised anatomy and painted the most famous portrait in history; the other revolutionised physics with the power of his imagination. As Tim Ferriss said recently, “Sometimes you need life to save you from what you want, so you can get what you need”.

Their lives would probably have been very different, had they been selected. Or not. You can ponder on life’s mysterious ways or you can take these lessons and improve your odds at getting the job you’re aiming for.

Have you been making any of these mistakes yourself?

What can you learn from these experiences to improve your odds?

This post was based on Walter Isaacson’s books, Leonardo da Vinci and Einstein, His Life and Universe.



Ana Vargas Santos

HR Research Partner. I write about learning and career management.