Leonardo da Vinci is history’s best case for wasting time

Leonardo Da Vinci did a lot of what we might today label as “wasting time.”
Leonardo Da Vinci did a lot of what we might today label as “wasting time.”
Image: REUTERS/Phil Noble
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A few years ago, Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn, wrote: “Differentiate or die.” So-called “spanners,” people who work across boundaries or genres, cause cognitive dissonance in others, according to Michael Hannan, StrataCom Professor of Management Emeritus at Stanford Graduate School of Business. And signs of this are everywhere: Actors who work across genres have a lower probability of gaining additional roles and contractors operating in more than one market have lower odds of winning a bid for work. Cross-genre feature films—can a horror movie be a bromance?—tend to have less favorable reviews.

But there is an argument against focus, a case for following a different career path: the serially obsessive, genre-spanning, boundary-crossing route of a polymath. Some of history’s most influential innovators, including Steve Jobs and Albert Einstein, had deep passions in more than one area, and followed them. Leonardo da Vinci is one of the most notable: The consummate Renaissance man, an inventor, engineer, sculptor, architect, and, of course, painter.

If you aspire to be an innovator, or merely to be more creative, or to live a richer life, you have something to learn from Leonardo, says Walter Isaacson, CEO of the Aspen Institute, a history professor at Tulane University, and a Leonardo biographer.

Da Vinci’s creativity came from a wild imagination, but also from a relentless curiosity that led him to almost obsessive observation, Isaacson says. He designed a utopian city, but also  obsessed over skills like how to represent a boundary using light and shadow instead of lines. “Vision without execution is hallucination,” Isaacson writes. “But I also came to believe that [Leonardo’s] ability to blur the line between reality and fantasy, just like his sfumato techniques for blurring the lines of a painting, was a key to his creativity. Skill without imagination is barren. Leonardo knew how to marry observation and imagination, which made him history’s consummate innovator.”

Of course, the fundamental problem with becoming a polymath is that, practically speaking, it is easily available only to those who can afford to take time off to pursue passions that don’t have a fast or certain payoff. People with less time are more apt to worry about spending it studying the tongue of a woodpecker, which is one of the things Leonardo did.

But even if you don’t have unlimited time to spend studying, if you’re going to try to tap into the wellspring of creativity, it’s probably wisest to let go of such zero-sum thinking. It’s a safe bet that Leonardo never thought of himself as less of a painter because he was an engineer. Everything he did made him more of what he was.

Blurring the lines between work and holiday, Quartz at Work interviewed Isaacson between Christmas and New Year’s Day about the risks and rewards of being a polymath, and what you can learn from Leonardo and other innovators about the roots of creativity.

Quartz at Work: What is the advantage of working across genres?

Isaacson: If you love all sorts of different disciplines, you see patterns across creation. .

The ability to see those patterns is where creativity comes from. It allows you to see outside the box. If you like seeing spiral patterns in rivers and air, you could also see them in curls of hair. You have a sort of feel for the marvelous underlying beauty of creation. Even Einstein, when he got stumped by the law of relativity, would pull out his violin. It helped connect him to the harmonies of the spheres.

You wrote Leonardo da Vinci by looking at the 7,200 pages of notebooks “crammed with … sawed apart skulls, tips for painters, notes on the eye and optics, weapons of war, fables, riddles and studies for paintings.” What surprised you most looking at the pages?

His curiosity about everything. There wasn’t anything he wasn’t curious about. He was curious about how the tongue of a woodpecker works. That curiosity helped him be creative.The Mona Lisa comes as the culmination of somebody who tries to understand everything that we need to know about creation.

That’s reflected both in his art and science.

In his notebooks, he jotted down all the questions he wanted to answer. Why is the sky blue? He was very observant. He would pause to observe whether a birds’ wings flapped up faster or down faster. [The lesson is that] it’s sometimes useful to pause, to put down the iPhone and think about a bird’s wings.

It was interesting to read about Florence, and the market stalls where the trades worked side by side. It seems that place, in that era, supported polymaths. Does our own era do that?

In the 20th century, C.P. Snow wrote about how science and the arts became two different cultures. In the age of Einstein, science became more intimidating. People specialized in either science or the humanities or the arts.

For much of the 20th century, we had that two-culture divide. We went through a few decades where the sciences and the humanities felt disconnected … I think we started to see the need to bridge that divide when the digital revolution began in the 1970s. People like Steve Jobs who could connect engineering to beautiful design and could understand human emotions, but also technology, were able to create great products. Creative people of my daughter’s generation feel the need, correctly, to understand the arts, engineering and technology.

Research suggests, though, that there’s a cost to your career for trying to do too much. There’s a “jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none” perception. We’re told that we need to have a personal brand.

I think people who can cross disciplines will have an advantage when technology disrupts different jobs. It’ll be the creative people who will be the ones who will be flexible enough to adapt.

That’s what Steve Jobs stood for. He ended every meeting with a street sign showing the intersection of the liberal arts and technology … that’s where creativity occurs.

The good trend you’re seeing in great universities, like Harvard or Tulane, is cross-disciplinary studies.

What would you study, then?

I would say to do a dual major but make it something that crosses the divide between humanities and the sciences, like music and math … or romance languages and physics.

You’ve written about Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein and now Leonardo da Vinci. This is something that interests you. Where did this recognition of the value of working across disciplines come from, in you?

I was a journalist. I was a general assignment journalist in New Orleans, and when I first went to Time magazine, I was a floater. You became interested in everything. Nowadays, sometimes journalists decide they have to be specialists of some kind, in business, or in physics, for instance.

We discourage [working across disciplines] some because we tell people they have to specialize. Even in school we’re told, “you have to become some kind of specialist.”

But I always admire the people who are interested in everything. … [When I hire], I look for people who are curious about many things. After I figure out if the person has expertise, I figure out whether they’re interesting and have a wide-ranging curiosity. I just ask them what are they interested in.

What effect does technology have on the possibility of becoming a polymath?

You can use the Internet to chase your various curiosities. If I’m interested in the Fibonacci equation to help describe a spiral, I can find articles about it online. When anything strikes your fancy, you can look it up.

All technologies can be used to enrich our lives or distract us. I would suspect that TV is far worse than the Internet, which is interactive. I grew up in an era when people watched TV every night.

Leonardo was disciplined, to a certain extent, about his curiosity. He made lists of the questions he wanted to explore each week.

There is a criticism of Leonardo. If he had not squandered so much of his time, he could have finished more painting. But had he done that, he would not have been Leonardo da Vinci. He was easily distracted but in some ways more interesting because of that. He is the patron saint of distracted kids. We sometimes worry about our kids getting too distracted or daydreaming. That’s what Leonardo da Vinci did.

Have you changed how you live after [writing] these biographies?

I try to be curious about everything … as somebody who initially studied literature and history, I tried very hard when I was young to study engineering, math physics and science. … I find that it’s not only useful to be curious about different subjects. It’s enriching. It’s not just something that makes you more successful. It makes you live a more enriched life.