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Happy Birthday Leonardo!

April 15, 2013

Leonardo da Vinci was born on 15 April, 1452, making today his 561st birthday. Before he was famous, before he painted the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, before he invented the helicopter, before he drew the most famous image of man – the Vitruvian Man – before he was all of these things, Leonardo da Vinci was an armorer, a weapons guy, a maker of things that go boom! But more of that later.

Michael Gelb’s book, How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci: Seven Steps to Genius Every Day has been one of my favourite books for sometime, with insights in applying lessons from Da Vinci’s genius to improve our thinking. 

Da Vinci cited seven principles to improve our thinking. All of the principles are important, each one sets the stage for the one that follows, and together they form a system for thinking like Leonardo.

The seven Da Vinci principles, and their relevance to business, are:

  • Curiosità An insatiable quest for knowledge and continuous improvement.  Curiosity for learning is one of Da Vinci’s key insights, you can never ask enough questions when seeking to improve your business.
  • Dimostrazione Learning from experience and independent thinking.  Often too many people follow the herd rather than thinking independently. In your business you need fresh, disruptive thinking.
  • Sensazione Sharpening the senses. We all need to be alert, sharp and to pay attention! It’s critically important to listen carefully and see what’s actually going on around you. 
  • Sfumato Managing ambiguity and change. The ability to maintain composure in the face of uncertainty maybe the most important quality for success of your business.
  • Arte/Scienza Whole-brain thinking. Too many of us use only half our brains.  Left-brainers crunch the numbers and do it all by charts and graphs, Right-brainers go by feeling but aren’t rigorous quantitatively.  Whole-brain thinkers analyse data comprehensively and then consult their intuition.
  • Corporalità Body-mind fitness. Psycho-physical fitness allows you to manage the stress associated with risk and pressure of business.
  • Connessione Systems thinking. Leonardo makes connections that other people don’t see. He invented the parachute before anyone could fly – that’s thinking ahead!  This type of thinking is especially important in today’s uncertain world – What if?

Despite his genius, just like me and you, he had to put together a resume to get his next gig. So in 1482, at the age of 30, he wrote out a letter and a list of his capabilities and sent it off to Ludovico il Moro, Duke of Milan. Click on the link below to see a copy of this letter:

The translation of this letter is quite remarkable. It’s a tough read, but bear with it:

Most Illustrious Lord, Having now sufficiently considered the specimens of all those who proclaim themselves skilled contrivers of instruments of war, and that the invention and operation of the said instruments are nothing different from those in common use: I shall endeavour, without prejudice to any one else, to explain myself to your Excellency, showing your Lordship my secret, and then offering them to your best pleasure and approbation to work with effect at opportune moments on all those things which, in part, shall be briefly noted below.

1. I have a sort of extremely light and strong bridges, adapted to be most easily carried, and with them you may pursue, and at any time flee from the enemy; and others, secure and indestructible by fire and battle, easy and convenient to lift and place. Also methods of burning and destroying those of the enemy.

2. I know how, when a place is besieged, to take the water out of the trenches, and make endless variety of bridges, and covered ways and ladders, and other machines pertaining to such expeditions.

3. If, by reason of the height of the banks, or the strength of the place and its position, it is impossible, when besieging a place, to avail oneself of the plan of bombardment, I have methods for destroying every rock or other fortress, even if it were founded on a rock, etc.

4. Again, I have kinds of mortars; most convenient and easy to carry; and with these I can fling small stones almost resembling a storm; and with the smoke of these cause great terror to the enemy, to his great detriment and confusion.

5. And if the fight should be at sea I have kinds of many machines most efficient for offense and defence; and vessels which will resist the attack of the largest guns and powder and fumes.

6. I have means by secret and tortuous mines and ways, made without noise, to reach a designated spot, even if it were needed to pass under a trench or a river.

7. I will make covered chariots, safe and unattackable, which, entering among the enemy with their artillery, there is no body of men so great but they would break them. And behind these, infantry could follow quite unhurt and without any hindrance.

8. In case of need I will make big guns, mortars, and light ordnance of fine and useful forms, out of the common type.

9. Where the operation of bombardment might fail, I would contrive catapults, mangonels, trabocchi, and other machines of marvellous efficacy and not in common use. And in short, according to the variety of cases, I can contrive various and endless means of offense and defense.

10. In times of peace I believe I can give perfect satisfaction and to the equal of any other in architecture and the composition of buildings public and private; and in guiding water from one place to another.

11. I can carry out sculpture in marble, bronze, or clay, and also I can do in painting whatever may be done, as well as any other, be he who he may.

Again, the bronze horse may be taken in hand, which is to be to the immortal glory and eternal honour of the prince your father of happy memory, and of the illustrious house of Sforza.

And if any of the above-named things seem to anyone to be impossible or not feasible, I am most ready to make the experiment in your park, or in whatever place may please your Excellency — to whom I comment myself with the utmost humility, etc.”

What a fantastic piece of personal marketing! There’s none of his famous backwards-mirror writing here, this letter was intended to be read and to persuade. Here’s what I think we can learn from Leonardo’s resume.

You’ll notice he doesn’t recite past achievements. He doesn’t mention the painting of the altarpiece for the Chapel of St Bernard; he doesn’t provide a laundry list of past bombs he’s built; he doesn’t cite his prior employment in artist Andrea di Cione’s studio.

He does none of these things, because those would be about his achievements, not the Duke’s needs. Instead, he sells his prospective employer on what Leonardo can do for him.

Now imagine being the Duke of Milan and receiving this magnificent letter from the young prodigy of Florence. The specific descriptives paint a vivid picture of siege engines and bombardments and mortars and trench-draining and bridges to defeat the enemy. You can imagine the scenes that ran through the Duke’s head as he held this letter in his hands and read through Leonardo’s bold statements of capabilities.

What Renaissance Duke wouldn’t want kinds of mortars; most convenient and easy to carry; that can fling small stones almost resembling a storm? Sounds pretty enticing.

And that’s exactly what your personal marketing needs to do, too. Not the laundry list or standard bio that talks about you, but the marketing piece that talks about the benefits you can bring to your next employer, or next project or client, and how you fit into their needs and desires. So it turns out that even on his 561st birthday, this remarkable fellow Leonardo da Vinci is teaching us about the future. What a genius!

So, to celebrate the life of da Vinci – painter, sculptor, musician, architect, writer, botanist, inventor, engineer, and anatomist par excellence – here are quotes from the Renaissance man himself, which I always have with me, from his various Notebooks:

Progress: Poor is the pupil that does not surpass his master. – Notebook I

Mental waste: Iron rusts from disuse; stagnant water loses its purity and in cold weather becomes frozen; so does inaction sap the vigour of the mind. – Notebook I

Perception: All objects transmit their image to the eye in pyramids, and the nearer to the eye these pyramids are intersected the smaller will the image appear of the objects which cause them. – Notebook II

Truth endures: Truth at last cannot be hidden. Dissimulation is of no avail. Dissimulation is to no purpose before so great a judge. Falsehood puts on a mask. Nothing is hidden under the sun. – Notebook X

Be reasonable: The senses are of the earth; Reason, stands apart in contemplation. – Notebook XIX

The fallacy of opinion: The greatest deception men suffer is from their own opinions. – Notebook XIX

Keep your eyes on the road: He who walks straight rarely falls. – Notebook XIX

Humility: We see the most striking example of humility in the lamb which will submit to any animal; and when they are given for food to imprisoned lions they are as gentle to them as to their own mother, so that very often it has been seen that the lions forbear to kill them. – Notebook XIX 

The artist’s dilemma: It vexes me greatly that having to earn my living has forced me to interrupt the work and to attend to small matters. – Notebook XXI

Put it in perspective: Perspective is to painting what the bridle is to a horse, and the rudder to a ship. – “A Treatise on Painting”

Many of da Vinvci’s most interesting and prescient imaginings were scribbled down in his notebooks, and never saw the light of day during his lifetime. We’re talking about sketches of submarines in C15th.  These notebooks were filled with amazing content, but because most of his ideas never got in front of the right eyes, nothing came of it.

If we apply his seven principles to our business thinking, if we approach our next project or client with his attitude, and learn from his words, we won’t go far wrong today, and in the future, so Happy Birthday Leonardo!

Parts of this blog are taken from research published in The Christian Science Monitor and Marc Cenedella’s blog.

One Comment leave one →
  1. April 15, 2013 11:47 am

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