If there's one person in history that stands out as a great genius, it's arguably Leonardo da Vinci. A true Renaissance man and polymath in every sense, he was not only a master painter and musician, but also an avid inventor, sculptor and architect with insatiable curiosity in virtually every science. Looking at what da Vinci left behind, however, reveals an issue that would make any modern business leader shudder.
Leonardo da Vinci absolutely stunk at finishing work.
Despite being hailed as a master, da Vinci completed only about 15 paintings. He left thousands of pages of writings and invention concepts in notebooks, but none of the writings ever were published, and none of the inventions were ever built in his lifetime.
Why da Vinci had such a horrible time saying "done"
Some of da Vinci's completion problem was social and logistical. As the illegitimate son of a notary, for example, he never enjoyed a grand inheritance, and he had to depend to a large degree on his patrons. If those patrons weren't interested in one of his ideas, it struggled to get off the ground or didn't at all. (Maybe you know how that feels if an investor or bank has ever turned you down.) When patrons did work with da Vinci, it was often on projects they wanted done--commissions--rather than what da Vinci was itching to do.
Da Vinci also would experiment with new techniques. If those new techniques didn't work or didn't quite reach the level da Vinci wanted, he'd often just move on to something else with the intention of finishing when he'd learned more or had more resources.
Other traits caused trouble, too. He wasn't a fast painter, for instance, and despite the concepts surging in his head, like most of us do, he fought self-doubt.
But the single biggest reason da Vinci left so much incomplete was simply that his genius got in the way. Certain puzzles stayed with da Vinci over many years, and he tried to stay prepared for moments of epiphany with them. But as he worked on one thing, another question would come to him and distract him. And as a polymath, he usually had the skills that allowed him to hop from one project to another without much difficulty. There simply wasn't time to come back to everything, and because da Vinci was interested and capable in everything, he didn't particularly care which answers he got, as long as he was getting them.
Keep the process at the fore
Today, people generally take not finishing as a sign of lower intelligence or sloth, a signal that a person won't amount to much. With all the amazing tools we have at our disposal, we reason, it can only be an insufficient brain or flawed personality that keeps someone from reaching goals. But da Vinci shows that this isn't always true. He wasn't obsessed with finishing because, even though he had targets in mind, finishing wasn't the objective--learning was. Put another way, it was about the process, not the end result. As long as you have a drive to learn, you might just be far more of a genius than you give yourself credit for.