The Path of Genius


The tease line on the back of Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo da Vinci reads, “He was history’s most creative genius. What secrets can he teach us?” Isaacson applies the same rigorous research to Leonardo’s life that he has to other historic innovators like Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, and Steve Jobs. When he concludes that Leonardo was one of the few in history to rightfully earn the title of genius, there is little for the reader to dispute as we learn he was so much more just than the creator of the Mona Lisa.


However, Isaacson’s goal is not to present a historic figure who operated from a place the rest of us can never attain. He provides a list of skills we can all learn and as well as carefully cataloguing the common weaknesses many of us share with Leonardo. However, he does quote the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer who distinguished the difference between talent and genius this way, “Talent hits a target no one else can hit; Genius hits a target no one else can see.” This raises the question, “how do we not only see a target no one else can but then achieve it?”


Many of us wake up each morning, hopeful we will have the opportunity to use our talents to make progress on our goals and even perform at an outstanding level. We know that using our talents to the fullest can lead us to make unique contributions to our team and perform at a higher level than others. But how often do we start the day in pursuit of hitting a target that team members, our leaders, and even customers don’t even know is out there?


To achieve something that is “genius” requires playing a game that no one else is even aware they could or should be playing. Interestingly, Leonardo possessed that ability to act practically and rationally and still operate independently from traditional paths to success. From the outside, it appears he often worked against optimizing his chances for success and recognition. He lived in a world that required patrons and social networks and he pursued those relationships. Yet he followed his own passions in determining who he would work for and how he would invest his time. He diligently captured the results of his practical and thought experiments in his notebooks but never published his findings. He did not sell most of his greatest artworks as he continued to perfect them until his death. He also left behind an impressive list of unfinished assignments and unhappy clients. In other words, he lived a very disciplined, intentional life of learning but didn’t seem to keep score the way most people would. He was playing a different game with different rules which created frustrations for everyone else but himself.


Whether discovering the mysteries of human anatomy, pioneering and perfecting a painting technique, or revealing the science of motion, Leonardo exhibited two critical but rather ordinary approaches. First, he was curious. Not in a “let me google that to find the answer” way but in a prolonged, intense exploration for maximum understanding. We marvel at the breadth of his accomplishments from the worlds of science, engineering and art but we also must marvel at his depth. He relentlessly pursued knowledge and application in those fields that most stirred his passions but also provided the most value. Value sometimes meant satisfying an internal desire to know the “why” and the “how” but often value meant using knowledge in one discipline to achieve a breakthrough in another. For example, his deep study of optics, motions, and human anatomy combined to elevate the Last Supper and the Mona Lisa to unparalleled works of art.


Leonardo’s second critical approach, his power of observation, certainly benefitted from his passionate curiosity. He noticed what everyone else missed and experienced the virtuous cycle that with greater observation, there was more for him to see. Isaacson emphasizes Leonardo possessed no supernatural ability but rather a willingness to exert great effort as with his observation on the motion of dragonflies, water flows, and the human heart. Through his observations in one area, he developed analogies that helped him understand and apply principles in multiple disciplines. This was especially true in his observation and appreciation for nature. He wrote, “Though human ingenuity may make various inventions, it will never devise an invention more beautiful, more simple, more direct than nature; because in her inventions nothing is lacking and nothing is superfluous.”


Leonardo also possessed the gift of combining a fascination about the reality of nature with a fertile imagination. Perhaps it is this combination of a curious mind constantly collecting information with a willingness to “see the unseen” that enables the genius to make the leap that ordinary people do not.


While it is tempting to construct a formula to Leonardo’s genius that we can all follow, it doesn’t seem that is how Leonardo approached it. He was clearly motivated to create great works and desired to be recognized for them, but he understood he had to be true to his own process. Though it is possible he didn’t always know how his various intellectual and relational investments would directly contribute to achieving his deepest desires. Like so much in life, genius seems less about the destination and so much more about the journey.