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Meet Leonardo da Vinci, the world's first super-techie

IT pros could learn a great deal about creativity by studying the life of Renaissance man Leonardo da Vinci. Bob Weinstein interviews Michael Gelb, author of <I>How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci: Seven Steps to Genius Every Day</I>.

I’ll bet you didn't know Leonardo da Vinci was the world's first techie. Calling him the first geek would be insulting. So said Michael J. Gelb, author of How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci: Seven Steps to Genius Every Day (Delacorte Press).

In case you can’t remember your history lessons, da Vinci lived 500 years ago (1452-1519) and, Gelb asserted, was "the greatest genius who ever lived." Reason? "The breadth and depth of his accomplishments," he explained. “Most people only know him as the painter of the ‘Mona Lisa’ and ‘The Last Supper.’"

But da Vinci also designed the bicycle, ball bearings, scissors, extended ladders, and a bridge that spanned the Bosphorus. That's for starters. He designed a flying machine, helicopter, submarine, snorkel tank, and parachute; pioneered modern anatomy, botany, and geology; and anticipated discoveries by Galileo and Darwin. For relaxation, da Vinci played several instruments, told stories, and was a decent athlete. Maybe da Vinci was also hyperkinetic.

Gelb has been intensely studying da Vinci since 1979. In probing the depths of creativity, Gelb used da Vinci as a reference point to find out what’s possible. “If you want to teach people to be creative, why not use the most creative person who ever lived?” he explained.
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With emphasis on the importance of the accelerated learning process, techies would do well to follow da Vinci’s example. “In Silicon Valley, there’s an expression: ‘If it works, it’s obsolete,’” Gelb said. “There is a premium on the ability to learn quickly and think creatively.”

Given the reality, what can we learn from one of the smartest men who ever lived? Gelb has condensed da Vinci’s teachings into seven principles:
  1. Be curious. “An accurate description of da Vinci would be ‘the most curious person who ever lived,’” Gelb said. “He was so curious; one critic said he wouldn’t take ‘yes’ for an answer.” At a time when no one questioned anything, da Vinci questioned everything. As we speed into a networked information age, you’d be wise to do the same thing, Gelb advised.
  2. Think for yourself. Da Vinci was not afraid to make mistakes and learn from them. Test knowledge through experience.
  3. Sharpen your senses. “According to da Vinci, the five senses are the ministers of the soul,” Gelb said. “He trained his sensory awareness the same way Olympic athletes train their bodies. He warned against being locked and blocked by the same thought processes.”
  4. Embrace ambiguity, paradox, and uncertainty. One of the most significant characteristics of highly creative people is their openness to the unknown and willingness to use their intuition. “As a leading thinker, da Vinci learned to translate imagination into a technical language,” Gelb stated. “Major breakthroughs are experienced through intuition. Einstein, for example, imagined what it would be like to surf out into the universe on a sunbeam.”
  5. Balance art and science, logic, and imagination with intuition. “The approach da Vinci followed was based on the thinking that if you hope to innovate you’re going to have to cut loose from conventional grooves,” Gelb said. “The problem is people are either stuck in a right- or left-brained world. The techie of the new millennium will have to be a balanced thinker—creative, analytical, rigorous, playful, and imaginative.
  6. Balance body and mind. In addition to being mentally sharp, da Vinci was a fitness freak who said, ”Avoid grievous moods and keep your mind cheerful.” He also insisted that attitude affects well being and stressed the importance of keeping mind and body lean and active. (And you thought your trainer was smart.)
  7. Try to see how everything connects to everything else. “That’s systems thinking,” Gelb explained. “He said you have to see patterns, relationships, and processes and how they all fit together.”

If Leonardo da Vinci were alive today and working at Microsoft, what advice would he pass on? “Be curious, think for yourself, wake up your senses, be open to uncertainty, balance logic, imagination, art, and science, and see how everything connects to everything else,” Gelb said.

Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to apply da Vinci’s principles.
Gelb’s book, which lists for $24.95, is available at for $17.45.

Bob Weinstein's weekly syndicated column, Tech Watch, is the first career column covering the exploding technology marketplace. It appears in major daily newspapers throughout the U.S.

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