Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson

(New York: Simon and Schuster, 2017), 624


  1. Leonardo's genius was not superhuman. It came from intense observation and practice, and can therefore be replicated
  • curiosity and intense observation (3)
  • he was largely self-taught (17)
  • "The acuteness of his observational skill was not some superpower he possessed. Instead, it was a product of his own effort. That's important, because it means that we can, if we wish, not just marvel at him but try to learn from him by pushing ourselves to look at things more curiously and intensely" (179)
  1. Leonardo pursued knowledge from intense curiosity
  • woodpecker tongue (525)
  • "Leonardo was interested in so many things that he got easily distracted" (31) and "Leonardo was easily distracted by related topics" (162): sounds familiar...
  • "Leonardo was a pioneer in propounding the laws of proportion: how one quantity, such as force ,rises in proportion to another, such as the length of a lever." (100) This reminded me of the discussion of animal scaling in The Pleasures of Counting by T. W. Körner (~109)
  • "His curiosity impelled him to become among the handful of people in history who tried to know all there was to know about everything that could be known...he was the epitome of the universal mind" (519)
  1. Leonardo saw all forms of knowledge as unified and equally beautiful
  • Leonardo looked at science and art together: he saw knowledge as universal (2) and making connections across disciplines is key to innovation (3), saw art and science interwoven in anatomy (213)
  • he also often thought in analogies between related phenomena in different domains, such as fluid transfer in cities vs. organisms (103)
  • he appreciated the interplay between theory and experiment (173, 175)
  1. This biography focuses on Leonardo's notebooks:
  • left handed hatching is one key signature on his drawings, and his mirror script was not an attempt to keep others from reading him but a common practice with the practical benefit of keeping from streaking the ink since he was left handed
  • his to-do lists and day-to-day notes are sometimes the most interesting, and renewed my interest in note taking (5)
  • Leonardo quotes Dante in his notebook (89)
  • keeping a commonplace book and sketch book was popular in Renaissance Italy (106)
  • he used drawing as a way of thinking (190)
  1. Leonardo was an independent thinker
  • he was freethinking and not tied to traditional thinking, and lacked reverence for authority (17)
  1. Leonardo didn't care about money
  • multiple examples of him not delivering commissioned works because his interests shifted (including 382)
  • Leonardo: "men who desire nothing but material riches and are absolutely devoid of the desire for wisdom, which is the sustenance and truly dependable wealth of the mind" (130)
  • interesting that Leonardo did not have a competitive personality (378)


  • Leonardo spent so much time studying outside of "work" which is what made him so good (273 and others)
  • Leonardo's notebook: "When you are alone you are entirely your own master" (24)
  • "His closest friendships were intellectual ones" (158): how do you best build intellectual friendships? Also "...these interests, he believed, could be better pursued amid the intellectual ferment of Milan" (390) indicating the importance of a vibrant intellectual community
  • Leonardo benefitted from the recent proliferation of books and his collection included 40 titles, then 110 titles (172) and he collected them and brought them with him throughout his life
  • Leonardo was analog rather than digital: he thought in continuous shapes and change, had thoughts toward calculus (268 and elsewhere), "he was better at using visualizations than equations" (459)
  • Sometimes he stared at his painting for hours and painted just one stroke "Men of lofty genius sometimes accomplish the most when they work least, for their minds are occupied with their ideas and the perfection of their conceptions, to which they afterwards give form" (280)
  • "One mark of a great mind is the willingness to change it." (435)
  • "creativity is the ability to apply imagination to intellect" (518)

Learning from Leonardo

Isaacson provides some notes on learning from Leonardo in the conclusion:

  • Be curious, relentlessly curious
  • Seek knowledge for its own sake
  • Retain a childlike sense of wonder
  • Observe
  • Start with the details
  • See things unseen
  • Go down rabbit holes
  • Get distracted
  • Respect facts
  • Procrastinate
  • Let the perfect be the enemy of the good
  • Think visually
  • Avoid silos
  • Let your reach exceed your grasp
  • Indulge fantasy
  • Create for yourself, not just for patrons
  • Collaborate
  • Make lists
  • Take notes, on paper
  • Be open to mystery

Topic: Biography


Created: 2018-01-15
Updated: 2024-01-02-Tue