Apple co-founder Steve Jobs makes several appearances in Walter Isaacson's new biography of Leonardo da Vinci. The two creative geniuses have a lot in common, chief among them is their ability to marry art and science to create world-changing innovations.
Steve Jobs once said that the secret to Apple's success could be found at the intersection of technology and liberal arts. I think the original Macintosh is one of best examples of his approach. Jobs famously assembled a team made up of "musicians, poets, and artists, and zoologists and historians who also happened to know computer science."
Jobs was a genius at creating innovative products because he connected ideas from different fields.
In Isaacson's 620-page book on Leonardo, we see the same approach. For example, the Mona Lisa is "the culmination of a life spent perfecting an ability to stand at the intersection of art and nature," writes Isaacson. Leonardo studied science, math, optics, light, shade, movement, engineering, and anatomy to create the Mona Lisa. He also had to invent new oils and new painting styles to give the Mona Lisa her enigmatic smile.
According to Isaacson, Leonardo was "insatiably curious" and restlessly leapt from subject to subject. If he was passionate about a subject, he'd follow his heart, not knowing where his interest might lead or where it would intersect in the future.
Steve Jobs made similar decisions in his life. For example, he followed his passion for studying calligraphy in college, and not realizing that he would apply it years later to build the first computer with beautiful font and typography. It's what Jobs called "connecting the dots."
Interestingly, we learn in Isaacson's book that Leonardo was Steve Jobs' hero. In fact, the Apple slide showing two street signs intersecting at the corner of "liberal arts and technology" was directly inspired by Leonardo. Jobs "saw the beauty in both art and engineering, and his ability to combine them was what made him a genius," writes Isaacson.
Isaacson's big takeaway
Isaacson learned from writing books about both Jobs and Leonardo that mixing ideas from different disciplines is a fundamental key to unleashing our creativity. Both men realized that "art is a science and science is an art." And both Jobs and Leonardo would create the conditions for art and science to intermingle.
According to Isaacson:
"Ideas are often generated in physical gathering places where people with diverse interests encounter one another serendipitously. That is why Steve Jobs liked his buildings to have a central atrium...At the court of Ludovico Sforza, Leonardo found friends who could spark new ideas by rubbing together their diverse passions."
Are you "rubbing together" your own diverse passions or creating the conditions for diverse passions to rub together?
When I wrote a book on Steve Jobs (titled, fittingly, The Innovation Secrets of Steve Jobs), I interviewed Harvard psychologists who said that connecting ideas from different disciplines is, indeed, the secret to creativity.
According to the three-year Harvard research, the number one skill that separates innovators from noncreative professionals is "associating": the ability to successfully connect seemingly unrelated questions, problems, or ideas from different fields and apply them to the problem at hand. Unfortunately, say the researchers, far too few people have enough diverse experiences to make powerful associations.
Wandering off on tangents isn't a prized attribute in an increasingly specialized society. Yet Isaacson makes the case that it should be. "Leonardo's willingness to pursue whatever shiny object caught his eye made his mind richer and filled with more connections."
Entrepreneurs, break out of your comfort zone and pursue shiny objects from time to time. If it makes your heart sing, a creative spark might be in your future.