Lessons from Leonardo

Is it silly to draw life lessons from a biography of a singular genius from a different era? Ok, let’s get silly:

  1. To-do lists don’t just have to be the things you have to do. They can include the things you want to do, nudges to your future self to remind you not to drop a promising thought. What do you want to learn about or attempt? If you’re interested in how the muscles of the tongue work, think nothing of listing “Describe the tongue of the woodpecker” alongside “Pick up milk.” (See a picture of one of Leonardo’s lists.)
  2. Even geniuses fake it till they make it. When Leonardo wrote his famous job application listing his numerous and diverse skills, he emphasized his engineering ability, despite the fact that he hadn’t actually done any engineering. He was confident that he could—sometimes that’s enough.
  3. Surround yourself with the right people. If you find your hometown stifling, move to a different town. If your family doesn’t approve of you, form your own motley household. When you’re interested in something, find an expert and team up. It’s rare to see genius without scenius.
  4. Make money a servant, not a master. Don’t ignore the necessity, but feel free to ignore opportunities that are lucrative but boring.
  5. Publish what you write. This is something Leonardo illustrates by counter-example: He kept so many of his discoveries to himself, writing them down for himself but never publishing them, and science and art are poorer for it. Thankfully many of his journals have been made available in the modern era, but many things he discovered had to be rediscovered later rather than serving as a foundation for new knowledge. Show your work, even when it’s as modest as a list on your blog.

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