The Expert Generalist: 2 Secrets From Leonardo da Vinci That Can Help You Become a Polymath
How to accelerate your learning and master new skills
“The noblest pleasure is the joy of understanding”. Leonardo da Vinci said that. It’s profound. He knew the difference between learning and understanding. Leonardo da Vinci made it his life purpose to understand and apply as many fields of study as humanly possible.
Humans are seekers. We pursue knowledge to fulfil our needs, wants and desires. In the process, we have evolved, transformed how we live and continue to accelerate progress.
A few of us who are digging deeper to understand things better or master their crafts are changing how we live and work. They are practically creating the modern world.
Born in 1452 in the Tuscan village of Vinci, Leonardo da Vinci was a prolific inventor who contributed to many disciples and sought to solve problems in many areas of life — his mind wandered across the arts, sciences, engineering, and humanities.
He was a polymath — a person who excels across a diverse range of disciplines. What makes him one of the greatest polymath’s is that he never received formal education beyond basic reading, writing, and arithmetic. He received instruction at home in reading, writing, Latin, geometry and mathematics. The secret to Leonardo da Vinci’s genius is a practice anyone can learn.
Train your brain to question everything
From a young age, more than any talent, what drove Leonardo da Vinci was his endless curiosity. Everything he achieved can be traced back to this habit.
He simple wanted to know. Zat Rana explains, “He imagined, he asked, he learned, and he did very ordinary things in an extraordinary way. While his work may be unreplicable, his method isn’t, and it shows how we can nurture similar curiosity in our own lives.”
In his book, Leonardo da Vinci: The Biography, Walter Isaacson, says Da Vinci was “more interested in pursuing knowledge than in publishing it.”
“He wanted to accumulate knowledge for its own sake, and for his own personal joy, rather than out of a desire to make a public name for himself as a scholar or to be part of the progress of history,” writes Isaacson.
Polymaths are not motivation by the need to impress — they simply want to learn about everything that interests them. Einstein once said he had no special talent but was rather passionately curious. He said:
“Don’t think about why you question, simply don’t stop questioning. Don’t worry about what you can’t answer, and don’t try to explain what you can’t know. Curiosity is its own reason…”
Curiosity is not something that must be “taught.” Rather, it is a trait, a skill, you can master once you learn to respect your curiosity. To get better as following your curiosity, learn to ask beautiful questions and follow up with even more more better questions. Asking the right questions takes as much skill as giving the right answers. Assume nothing but question everything.
Leonardo came close to understanding almost all areas of study. “He studied, in meticulous detail, everything from the flow of water and the rise of smoke to the muscles you use when you smile, notes Bill Gates.
A naturally curious mind takes interest in a wide range of subjects to find connections to help solve everyday problems. Curiosity prepares the brain for learning, and skill acquisition.
Learn to look for and appreciate the interconnectedness of things
Solving problems better means actively looking for patterns in ideas and innovative products and finding similarities that link contrasting concepts rather than differences.
Leonardo da Vinci’s observation and belief that “everything connects” informed most of his work. He didn’t differentiate so much between subjects because he believed that they were all inter-related. In his own words:
“I roamed the countryside searching for answers to things I did not understand. Why shells existed on the tops of mountains along with the imprints of coral and plants and seaweed usually found in the sea. Why the thunder lasts a longer time than that which causes it, and why immediately on its creation the lightning becomes visible to the eye while thunder requires time to travel. How the various circles of water form around the spot which has been struck by a stone, and why a bird sustains itself in the air. These questions and other strange phenomena engage my thought throughout my life.”
There is a whole world of things, topics, and subjects worth your exploration, find what interests you and dig deeper. Making connections between seemingly unimportant things is perhaps one of the most crucial thinking skills you can ever master.
Maria Konnikova, a Harvard psychologist and author of Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes says a mind that can connect the seemingly unconnected can make the most of brain. She explains:
“A mind that can find connections between the seemingly unconnected can access its vast network of ideas and impressions and detect even faint links that can then be amplified to recognize a broader significance, if such a significance exists. Insight may seem to come from nowhere, but really, it comes from somewhere quite specific: from the attic and the processing that has been taking place while you’ve been busy doing other things.
Your instinct to explore should grow into an instinct find what connects better and solve problems in a whole new and improved way.
“A classic example is Steve Jobs’ curiosity for typefaces which led him to attend a seemingly useless class on typography and to develop his design sensibility. Later, this sensibility became an essential part of Apple computers and Apple’s core differentiator in the marketplace,” writes Deena Varshavskaya, CEO of Wanelo.
Many polymaths including Isaac Newton and Rene Descartes were consistently curious throughout their careers to make better sense of the world around them. They didn't just sit on better questions; they sought answers.
To become a modern day polymath, push yourself to see everything else left to be seen outside your domain. Expose yourself to industries that get your attention. Open yourself up to the universe, which will create endless possibilities for you.
“Learning never exhausts the mind, ” says Leonardo.
By pushing yourself into different disciplines, you will have a chance to authentically define who you are, what you can potentially achieve and break free of the limitations of what others think you should be.
One of the secrets of human ingenuity is the unique ability to connect, combine or match different fields, perspectives, and people.
Leonardo was great at observing, noting and contextualising things as he saw fit. To him things like science and art were one and the same thing — they can fit and work together when when crossed creatively. Da Vinci’s work paved the path for artists, scientists, and philosophers alike.
Michael J. Gelb explains Leonardo’s life and career principles in his book, How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci: Seven Steps to Genius Every Day:
“The Seven Da Vincian Principles are: Curiosità — An insatiably curious approach to life and an unrelenting quest for continuous learning. Dimostrazione — A commitment to test knowledge through experience, persistence, and a willingness to learn from mistakes. Sensazione — The continual refinement of the senses, especially sight, as the means to enliven experience. Sfumato (literally “Going up in Smoke”) — A willingness to embrace ambiguity, paradox, and uncertainty. Arte/Scienza — The development of the balance between science and art, logic and imagination. “Whole-brain” thinking. Corporalità — The cultivation of grace, ambidexterity, fitness, and poise. Connessione — A recognition of and appreciation for the interconnectedness of all things and phenomena. Systems thinking.”
To summarise, you can learn and think like Leonardo da Vinci if you keep an open mind, nurture the natural human need to know and understand and strive to make better connections across different disciplines.
Train your brain to question everything, experiment boldly, and always question the obvious. Your drive to learn, explore and question the obvious should have the same status as your drive to survive.