INVENTING

7 Things Leonardo da Vinci Can Teach You About Creativity

The Italian master had skill and great ideas, but he also had something else: the ability to look at the world around him differently.
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I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that since his death, the world has never really had another Leonardo da Vinci. While his name might conjure up images of famous works of art such as the Mona Lisa, The Last Supper or Vitruvian Man, he was much more than an artist. In fact, he was an architect, musician, mathematician, engineer, inventor, expert in anatomy, geologist, map-maker, and botanist. In short, he was a genius.

Genius and creativity are closely linked. How does one make connections that have never been made before? Doing so is the essence of originality.

Michael Gelb--someone who makes his living teaching companies how to innovate--has written 13 books on creativity and innovation. His most famous, "How to Think Like Leonardo Da Vinci: Seven Steps to Genius Every Day," has sold more than a half million copies and has been translated into 25 languages.

Gelb says the fodder for his book came from studying Leonardo's notebooks. In addition to all his other talents Leonardo wrote copiously and put to paper 13,000 pages of notes and drawings, much of it in mirror-image cursive.

Here's what Gelb learned from the Italian master about what you need to be most creative.

Curiosity

By nature children are curious, but as we grow up much of our inquisitiveness ebbs.

"Almost all children in their natural state ask lots of questions. That's how they learn so much in the first five years of life. But then we send them to school where they learn that answers are more important than questions," Gelb says.

Geniuses like da Vinci, however, maintain a passionate curiosity throughout life.

"When you work with an organization you can often tell, especially when you come in from the outside as I do as a consultant, whether the spirit of curiosity is really alive, whether people actually have a questing open mind or whether they're a bunch of stuffy know-it-alls."

Independent Thinking

Diversity is critical for creativity and innovation, which is why it's important to seek out points of view different from your own.

"The problem is the more senior someone becomes the more likely they're going to believe their own publicity and surround themselves with people who always agree with them. So the more senior you become, the more concerted effort you must make to seek out different opinions. Then you have a chance to think independently," Gelb says.

Sharpen Your Senses

In business this translates into listening well and being observant, simple advice that's difficult to heed in an increasingly distracted world.

"The Italians have la dolce vita, the sweet soulful life. The French have joie de vivre, the joy of living and in the States all we have is happy hour," Gelb says.

He's really talking about mindfulness, paying close attention to what's happening right now. Not only can it help you be more creative, it's the key to enjoying life, he says.

Gelb helps business people get better in tune with their senses by training them to appreciate beauty. He does this by having them listen to music, appreciate art, thoughtfully taste wine or chocolate, as well as write poetry.

Embrace Uncertainty

The ability to project confidence in the face of the unknown is a critical leadership principle because if it's going to be new it means you don't know it. You need to get comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity in order for a creative idea to emerge. It's not easy to do since you've likely been trained to believe that if you don't know the answer there's something wrong with you, Gelb says.

"But the essence of creativity is to be surprised, to come up with something you really didn't know. That's the nova in innovation. It's the newness. And if you keep doing the same old thing you won't do the new thing. But when you suspend the old thing the new thing doesn't always automatically emerge," Gelb says. "So there's a big gap and the more you're able to embrace that gap of knowing and uncertainty the greater the likelihood that you'll be really creative."

Balance Logic and Imagination

You used to be able to get by with saying you're a right-brain (creative, imaginative, intuitive) or left-brain (logical, analytical, and linear) thinker. Today you have to be both.

To show people how to use both hemispheres of their brain in harmony Gelb teaches them mind mapping, a way of organizing ideas that integrates logic and imagination and helps people generate more ideas in less time.

To do it, you start by drawing something that represents the topic you're thinking about. From there you use free association to branch words and more pictures from the center image. For example, a doodle of an onion might make you think of vegetables, so you draw a carrot, which makes you draw a rabbit, which leads to you sketch a cat, since it's another small furry animal.

What if you can't draw? Gelb says "fake it 'til you make it" and overcome your adult judgment of your drawing ability.

"You start to access that more childlike quality where you just drew without worrying about it. What's happening when you do that is you're waking up parts of your brain that have been dormant since you were in nursery school. And those are exactly the parts of your brain that are going to help you be more creative," he says.

Balance Body and Mind

You might not know that Leonardo was an exceptional athlete, widely known as the strongest man in Florence and an accomplished athlete, fencer, and horseman.

"We think of creativity as an intellectual exercise but it requires tremendous energy. Learning to cultivate your life force, your life energy is a very important part of this," Gelb says.

For businesses it means healthier organizations are better equipped to innovate.

Make New Connections

Logical and linear-thinking types--engineers, analysts, and scientists, for example--can have a hard time looking for patterns and new connections, but doing so is the key to creativity.

Again, Gelb likes to use mind mapping, although it take a while to train these kinds of folks since they're used to doing things in a formal order.

"At first it feels very messy... thinking through association and letting the mind go free and generating lots of key words and other images in different directions," he says.

Other Tips

Not convinced you can start banging out killer ideas? While creativity may come easier to some people, everyone has the potential to be creative.

A couple of things to keep in mind, though.

It's not uncreative to get ideas from other people, in fact that's where most come from.

"It's a myth to think that you have to spontaneously create something that's entirely original and no one ever thought of it before. That very rarely, if ever, happens. Almost all ideas are inspired by somebody else's idea," Gelb says. "One of the big principles of creativity is you don't have to reinvent the wheel you just give it a new spin. So if you can give a new spin to somebody else's idea you've done something creative."

Also, some people who have a hard time with creativity censor themselves too early in the idea generation process. Your goal should be lots of ideas, so don't shoot them down before they make it on a list. Generating a high volume of ideas stimulates the associative process of your mind and even if you don't get a breakthrough right away, it will likely come when you're not expecting it, like at 4 a.m. or when you're driving or in the shower. And when it does, write it down, Gelb says. Leonardo certainly did.

Last updated: Aug 16, 2013




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