3 Lessons for Young People from Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo’s successes and failures are more relatable than you believe
Leonardo da Vinci considered himself a failure in his 20s. Who knew genius could be so relatable?
He also painted the most famous painting of all time, drew blueprints for 15th-century flying machines, and hung out with Machiavelli. Leonardo was an artist; he painted, drew, and sculpted. He was a scientist; he studied optics, engineering, and anatomy. Perhaps genius isn’t that relatable.
But the word “genius” can mislead and discourage those that wish to follow in his footsteps of mastery in any field or craft. The reality is that Leonardo’s life followed some familiar struggles on his way to incredible success.
Leonardo’s genius was in his curiosity, and the most obvious lesson from his life is to pursue your own curiosities aggressively. But his otherworldly curiosity is difficult to relate to. Have you ever pondered the qualities of a woodpecker tongue? Didn’t think so.
A deeper dive into his life reveals 3 more relatable lessons, and you don’t need to be a genius to understand and apply them to your own life.
1. Be Patient in Search of Success in Your Craft
Leonardo had limited success in his 20s. The brilliant biographer Walter Isaacson explains he “had established his genius but had remarkably little to show for it publicly.” According to Isaacson, his accomplishments included “peripheral contributions to two Verrocchio paintings, a couple of devotional Madonnas that were hard to distinguish from others being produced in the workshop, a portrait of a young woman that he had not delivered, and two unfinished would-be masterpieces.”
Furthermore, Leonardo’s rival Botticelli had found success in the same field. Botticelli was diligent and entrepreneurial in his pursuits. He received commissions from the Medici and others, and he completed and delivered the finished products on time. There was no doubt that Leonardo had talent, but he didn’t deliver on opportunities to prove himself as a professional. He lamented his shortcomings in his journal, stating his regret that his days were “frittered away without leaving behind any memory of ourselves in the mind of men.”
Despite these shortcomings, Leonardo’s 20s were productive. He developed his habit of self-education, practiced painting techniques that would later become his trademarks, and found work in stage-design that allowed him to combine his passion for art and engineering. He had not received the attention and material rewards that his peer had received, but he laid the groundwork that enabled his success later in life.
Of his three most famous works of art, he completed his first, the Vitruvian Man, around the age of 38. It wasn’t discovered until after his death. He completed The Last Supper in 1498 at the age of 46. He started his magnum opus, the Mona Lisa, in 1503 at the age of 51. His last touches were added when he was 65, 2 years before his death. His works are now more famous today than at any point during his life.
Nowadays, we live in a world where everyone’s accomplishments are on display. The Botticellis of the world will continue to pop up on your social media feeds on “Forbes 30 Under 30” lists, but the majority of people will not find the success they are looking for in their 20s or 30s. Hell, most people, present company included, spend their 20s trying to decide what they should pursue, let alone finding success in that field.
Have patience and enjoy the pursuit. View progress as a success. Look at your 20s and 30s in this way, and you’ll feel rewarded no matter how much material success and recognition you find.
2. Collaborate for Creativity and Education
Remember the Vitruvian Man? It’s the masterpiece that sat in Leonardo’s personal notebook for years after completion, but the process of its conception was far from personal. Like much of Leonardo’s output, the Vitruvian Man was inspired by other great artists and thinkers, including one that lived 1500 years earlier.
The Vitruvian Man was the brain-child of Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, an architect and war engineer that worked and served under Caesar around 80 BC. Vitruvius’ book De Architecto examined the proportions of the human body and argued that these proportions should be reflected in architecture. This book was so treasured by the architects and engineers in Leonardo’s circle that one of them, Giacomo Andrea, assembled a group of the best creatives in Milan for a dinner to discuss the inspiring ideas held within.
Andrea made attempts at his own Vitruvian Man, but Leonardo’s precise geometry and knowledge of the human body put him in a unique position to create something that transcended the inspiration. His notebook cites Vitruvius’s notes on the proper dimensions for this proportional man, but Leonardo corrected many of these dimensions and created an illustration that improved on those that came before. The outcome is one of the most recognizable pieces of art in the history of mankind.
Outside of the arts, Leonardo was also skilled at collaborating for learning. When he had questions about a topic, he approached those with relevant knowledge. He wasn’t shy about appearing uneducated on any topic, as his journal is full of to-dos like “get the master of arithmetic to show you how to square a triangle.” He understood that the best way to learn is from a good teacher, and he sought out teachers relentlessly.
Leonardo’s ability to collaborate can teach us a lot about how to work well with others. Perhaps the most important lesson is on collaboration in art and science, and the fallacy of true originality in those two fields. It’s easy to get caught up in the importance of originality, but the reality is that breakthroughs in art and science are often dependent on the work of those that have come before.
Don’t worry if your work resembles the work of those you admire, especially early on in your creative life. With that in mind, give credit to your inspirations. Also, accept that your best ideas will not come from isolation and eureka moments. More will come from bouncing your ideas off of others and developing ideas over time.
The other lesson to draw from Leonardo’s collaborations is a willingness to admit what we do not know, and a commitment to learning from those who do. Information is accessible nowadays, so much so that good teachers have become underrated learning tools to those that are satisfied with what they can get from the first page of a Google search. Don’t get me wrong: Google is an incredible tool, but those who rely on Google will repeat the mistakes of those who went before, many of whom are willing teachers.
3. Be Aware of Your Passions Ability to Influence your Output
Diligence was never one of Leonardo’s strong suits. In 2019, we know of perhaps twenty paintings that Leonardo painted and completed himself. While his paintings are generally used to exemplify his inability to follow through, he completed countless great works in other mediums. Leonardo’s notebooks include thousands of pages of drawings that can be considered works of art in their own right.
Leonardo loved painting, but it wasn’t his sole passion. He had a reputation for leaving painting projects unfinished or even unstarted. Sometimes this was due to his perfectionism, but other times he was commissioned to create a painting that didn’t excite him. He had lucrative offers to paint portraits that he knew would bore him to death, so he refused or avoided the commissioner.
Leonardo left great-works unfinished, including “The Adoration of the Magi” and “Saint Jerome”, both of which are hauntingly beautiful in unfinished form. The unfinished masterpieces didn’t hold Leonardo back from taking on other ambitious works. The commission portraits seem to have meant nothing to him. He was content with moving on to pursuits that aligned more with his passions at that time.
People are constantly told to follow their passion, but many people struggle their entire lives to find a career that they are enthusiastic about. For some people, this isn’t a problem. They are comfortable working any decent job to pay the bills if it gives them the freedom to pursue a passion outside of work. For others, they are unable to get out of bed in the morning without feeling depressed and anxious about the prospect of working in a passionless job for another day.
Whether you’re the former or the latter or somewhere between, it’s important to understand how you are personally affected by your passion. If passion is your main driver then be extra careful of the assignments and clients that you take on. If you do accept assignments that you’re less enthusiastic about, then be sure that it’s of a manageable scale. Spending two weeks on something you don’t care about isn’t fun, but compared to spending two years on the same project it is manageable.
Whether at work or outside of it, pursue your passions relentlessly. The success and fulfillment found in that pursuit will energize you in other areas. Accept that passion isn’t a constant. Expect fluctuations and plan accordingly, whether that means shifting your goals or the means of achieving them.
One Final Lesson
In the end, it’s nice to know that it wasn’t always easy for someone of Leonardo’s reputation and magnitude. He went through the same struggles and doubts that everyone goes through. He wasn’t an isolated creative mastermind, as some people picture “genius” artists. Some of his best ideas were products of collaboration. He struggled to follow through when he didn’t feel passionate about a project.
The final lesson to take from Leonardo is to define success on your own terms. The lessons above are useless if you’re chasing someone else’s version of success. Success doesn’t need to be contained in one field, or in a collection of related fields. It doesn’t need to be monetized.
No matter how you define it, though, the above lessons will help you get there.
If you’re interested in learning more about the life of Leonardo da Vinci then check out his biography written by Walter Isaacson.