How to Think like
Leonardo da Vinci
by Michael Gelb
Dell Publishing, 1998
Leonardo da Vinci is recognized as one of the greatest geniuses of
all time. He excelled in many areas such as the creation of the Mona
Lisa, The Last Supper and other classic works. Besides art, Leonardo
was an architect, mathematician, philosopher, and military planner.
Michael Gelb reviews and explains Leonardo’s notebooks, inventions,
and works of art. He introduces readers to the Seven da
Vincian Principles, essential elements of genius that can be developed.
The book is a collection of illustrations, passages and exercises
designed to stimulate anyones’s awareness of their own creativity.
This summary will briefly explain the seven principles and provide
several of the sample creative exercises.
1. Curiosita- an insatiably curious approach to life and an unrelenting
quest for continuous learning.
Talented people go on asking questions throughout their lives.
Leonardo’s childlike sense of wonder and insatiable curiosity, his
depth of interest, and his willingness to question accepted knowledge
never ceased. Curiosita is the first of Leonardo’s characteristicics
that Gelb attributes to his genius.
Make a list of 100 questions that are important to you: How can you
save more money? Have more fun? Purpose of your existence? When
are you most naturally yourself? What is your greatest talent? What
legacy would you like to leave? How are you perceived by a close
friend, worst enemy, boss, etc. Review the list and choose the ten
that seem most significant. Then rank them in importance (You can
add or rearrange questions at any time). This exercise can help you
focus on your priorities and learn to think more creatively.
Find a topic such as a bird in flight, and ask ten questions about it.
Why does it have two wings? How does it take off? Slow down?
When does it sleep? Do the same for your career, relationship,
health. No answers yet, just questions.
Pick one question and contemplate on it. For example, you could
print it in large letters, find a quiet, private place and just sit with
the question. Eventually the mind will incubate. Keep the pen moving.
Take a break and go back and read aloud. Hilight words or
phrases that speak to you most strongly. Look for themes, questions,
The results can originate by extending a question. For example,
Alexander Bell developed the telephone by modeling the ear and
asking how it could be applied to other areas.
Who cares about it? Affected by it? Can solve it?
How does it happen? Can you look it from unfamiliar perspective?
Where does it happen? Did it begin? Where else has this happened?
Why is it important? Why did it start? Continue?
2. Dimostrazione- a commitment to test knowledge through experience,
persistence, and a willingness to learn from mistakes.
As mentioned in the overview, Leonardo is recognized as one of the
greatest genius of all time, but he also made some colossal mistakes.
For example, he attempted to divert a river, created an unsuccessful
flying machine, etc. In spite of this, he never stopped learning,
exploring and experimenting. He used continuous questioning of his
own opinions, assumptions and beliefs, and was able to build on his
Examining experience- what are the most influential experiences of
your life? What did you learn and how do (or could you) apply what
you have learned from them?How have these experiences colored by
attitudes and perceptions? Can you rethink some of the conclusions
drawn at the time?
Pick a topic, such as human nature, politics, art, religion, sexuality,
etc. Write down at least three ideas, opinions, assumptions or beliefs
that you have about the topic, such as: It is human nature to resist
change. Then ask yourself: How did you form this idea? How firmly
do you believe it? What would it take for you to change the belief?
Which beliefs inspire the strongest emotions?
Possible sources of your belief include, media, other people, your
experiences, etc. Try making the strongest possible argument against
your belief. Would your views change if you were in another country?
20 years older? from a different race? opposite gender? etc.
Be aware of the various influences: go through a magazine and analyze
the strategy and tactics of each ad, which ones effect you the
most? What is the editorial slant?
Learning from mistakes- what did you learn in school or from your
parents about mistakes? Which ones do you repeat? What role does
fear of making mistakes play at work, at home? Leonardo faced false
accusations, exile, destruction of his works, etc.
Learning from anti-role models. Make a list of three people who
have made mistakes that you would like to avoid. How can you learn
from their mistakes? What did you learn from your worst teacher?
3. Sensazione- the continual refinement of the senses, especially
sight as the means to enliven experience.
Sight, sound, touch, taste and smell are the keys to opening the
doors of experience. Leonardo had uncanny visual acuity, nurtured
by a boyhood spent observing the natural beauty of the Tuscan countryside.
Da Vinci’s gaze allowed him to capture exquisite and
unprecedented subtleties of human expression in his paintings. He
also developed his hearing and was a brilliant musician.
1. Focus near and far, soften your eyes by relaxing the muscles of
your forehead, face and jaw. Allow a receptivity to the broadest possible
expanse of vision. Make a list of your favorite painters and
immerse yourself in their work- study their lives, hang reproductions.
Spend one day concentrating on each artist.
2. Visualizations- picture events in your mind. Make them multisensory-
imagine the sights, sounds, feel smell and taste of success.
Post imagine- see past event as it should have gone. Preimagineimagining
of things to be.
3. Layered listening- once or twice each day pause and listen to the
sounds around you. Listen for the loudest and softest and find the
layers of sounds.
Listen for silence- listen for the spaces between sounds.
Listen for patterns of tension and release in music. Listen for emotion:
tragedy, sadness, gloom, jubilation. Why do these sounds affect
you as they do?
Think of your various daily activities and the ideal musical accompaniment.
Aroma: we take about 23,000 breaths per day. We can smell one molecule
of odor-causing substance in one part per trillion of air.
Expanding your olfactory vocabulary- perfumeries categorize smells
as floral (roses), ethereal (pears), resinous (camphor), foul (rotten
eggs), and acrid (vinegar).
Taste: reflect on the origins of the meal you are eating and try to be
100 percent present as you taste the first bite of the food. Wine tasting-
organize around a theme: compare California Chardonnay with
a similar French wine. Or taste three different vintages of Chianti.
Touch- touch the objects around you as though you are experiencing
them for the first time. Try touching several objects while blindfolded.
Describe the texture, weight, temperature and other sensations.
Other- vocalize the sounds inspired by the colors, shapes and textures
on the canvas. Sculpt a piece of music, how would the music
smell? Taste like?
Transforming a work space- add favorite paintings, full-spectrum
bulbs, fresh flowers, coffee lounge becomes the ‘creative break
room’ filled with colored pens, flip charts, erector sets, stickers, etc.
4. Sfumato- a willingness to embrace ambiguity, paradox and
The Mona Lisa’s smile lies on the cusp of good and evil, compassion
and cruelty, seduction and innocence. She is the Western equivalent
of the yin/yang, and is very similar to his self-portrait. Expression
rests on the corners of the mouth and eyes.
Making friends with ambiguity- describe three situations from your
life, past or present, where ambiguity was a factor. Examples: layoffs
at work, the future of a relationship, etc.
Anxiety- describe the feeling of anxiety. Are there different types?
Where in your body do you experience it? If it had a shape, color,
sound, taste, what would they be?
Confusion endurance- can you see the relationship and connection
between happiest and saddest moments of your life, intimacy an
independence? Strength and weakness? Good and evil? Change and
consistency? Humility and pride? Life and death?
Neuroscientists estimate that the unconscious database outweighs
the conscious on an order of ten million to one. Learn to consult this
unconscious database. Reminiscence Effect- working for an hour and
taking a ten minute break to assimilate the information.
5. Arte/Scienza- the development of the balance between science
and art, logic and imagination. Whole brain thinking.
For Leonardo, art and science were indivisible. He believed that the
ability of the artist to express the beauty of the human form is predicated
on a profound study of the science of anatomy. Gelb believes
that mind mapping is a simple yet powerful way to cultivate a synergy
between art and science in your everyday thinking, planning, and
Mind mapping is a whole-brain method for generating and organizing
ideas, largely inspired by Da Vinci’s approach to note taking.
Use pictures, images, color coding, highlighting to stimulate the creative
association and enhance the memory. Write the main idea in
the middle of a page and connect other ideas with pictures, images
and keywords (Gelb has also published a book on mind mapping).
Mind map your next day off- smiling sun with branches for what
you want to do.
Mind map of a mind map- generate at least twenty specific possible
applications of mind mapping for your personal and professional
Memory mind map- think of something you want to remember and
create a map with vivid images of the most important points. Take a
break, and try to re-create it from memory.
6. Corporalita- the cultivation of grace, ambidexterity, fitness
Leonardo’s extraordinary physical gifts complemented his intellectual
and artistic genius. He was well-known for his poise, grace,
strength and athletic ability. Walking, horse riding, swimming, and
fencing were Leonardo’s favorite forms of exercise. He believed that
a thoughtful diet was the key to health and well-being and believed
that we should accept personal responsibility for our own health.
A few of his tips to maintain health include: beware of anger and
avoid grievous moods, rest your head and keep your mind cheerful,
be covered well at night, exercise moderately, eat simple, chew well,
etc. Leonardo emphasized the balanced use of both sides of your
body for painting, drawing, and writing.
Practice exercises- for flexibility, bring your full awareness to the
process, and allow easy release of the muscle groups in harmony
with extended exhalations. Never bounce or try to force a stretch.
Mirror observations- watch yourself in a mirror, Does your head tilt?
Is one shoulder higher? Does the pelvis rock forward? Weight distributed
evenly? Any parts appear tense? Balanced alignment?
Make a drawing of your body- color in red the places where you feel
the most tension and stress. Black for any areas where your energy is
blocked or the parts where you feel the least. Green for parts that
feel the most alive.
Record the appropriateness of effort in your daily activities such as
sitting, bending, lifting, driving, talking. Am you stiffening your
neck? Raising your shoulders? Holding your breath? When you
work at the computer, meet someone new, talk on the phone, tie your
shoes, eat dinner, hit a tennis ball.
Develop ambidexterity- try using non-dominant hand for specific
activities, write with both hands simultaneously. Comb your hair or
stir your coffee with your non-dominant hand. Juggle. Try making
five different movements at once.
7. Connessione- a recognition of and appreciation for the interconnectedness
of all things and phenomena. Systems thinking.
One secret of Leonard’s creativity was his lifelong practice of combining
and connecting disparate elements to form new patterns.
Many of his inventions and designs arose from the playful, imaginary
combinations he made of different natural forms.
1. Notice patterns in nature, such as water rippling, and how it is
similar to other objects. Combine and connect disparate elements to
form new patterns.
2. Use of imaginary dialogues- Hillary Clinton and Eleanor
Roosevelt. Imagine discussions on your problem or issue between
different characters: Donny Osmond and Timothy Leary, Bill Gates
and Steve Jobs, Christ and Buddha.
3. Origins- think of the origins of things in your life. Where did
they come from and what process has shaped them? Look at the origins
of things, such as food, a book, clothes you are wearing, your
4. Micro/Macro contemplation- appreciate the coordinated workings
of your digestive, circulatory and immune system, the harmonious
activity of the tissues and organs, move down to the cellular level,
deeper to the molecular level. Then think of yourself as part of a
subsystem- family professional, economic network. Your connection
with systems of information- cables, satellites, and computer chips
that link you with millions of other minds. See earth though the
eyes of the astronauts.
5. Visualize your life as a river, sketch a timeline of your life and
describe the dams, levees, whirlpools, rapids, and waterfalls of life
so far. Use your power of choice to direct the course and duality of
the river of your life.
6. Create a mind map of your life from the perspective of the seven
da Vincian Principles:
Curiosita- are you asking the right questions?
Dimostrazione- how can you improve your ability to learn from your
mistakes and experiences? How can you develop your independence
Sensazione- what is your plan for sharpening your senses as you
Sfumato- how can you strengthen your ability to hold creative tension,
to embrace the major paradoxes of life?
Arte/Scienza- are you balancing art and science at home and work?
Corporalita- how can you nurture the balance of body and mind?
Connceeione- how do all the above elements fit together? How does
everything connect to everything else?
How to Think like