James Dyson and Leonardo da Vinci

Rapid Idea Generation: Practical Everyday Creativity for Idea Generation, New Perspectives, and Innovative Thinking By Peter Hollins

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Episode Transcript

James Dyson had a real problem with vacuum cleaners.
Back in the 20th century, a household vacuum cleaner worked by rolling over the carpet, grabbing dust with brushes attached to a cylindrical mechanism, and then sucking up that dust and storing it in a bag that was connected to a pipe. When the bag filled up, you had to take it out and replace it with a new one. In many ways, it seems crude, especially when you consider that we will soon have self-driving cars on the road.

Leonardo da Vinci, born in 1452 in Tuscany, Italy, is arguably the most famous and accomplished polymath in the history of the world, as well as someone recognized for massive creativity. A polymath, sometimes colloquially referred to as a “Renaissance” man or woman, is a person with deep expertise across an impossibly wide range of subjects and disciplines. Science, math, the arts, politics, culture, history—you name it and he cultivated an interest in it and likely gained a level of proficiency.
Polymaths have deep and ongoing interests in multiple areas. When a problem comes along, polymaths solve it by tapping into their knowledge in different subjects. They’re relentless about gaining knowledge and putting it into application. Galileo (1564–1642) was a polymath who explored astronomy, mathematics, physics, and engineering and who basically gave us the modern scientific method. Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790) was an expert in politics, science, and philosophy who, between inventing bifocals and discovering electricity, helped found the United States of America. It seems that there is a clear pattern between a mastery of multiple disciplines and creativity.
Da Vinci, though, is the model from which all subsequent polymaths are borne. His list of accomplishments is staggering, and the variety of fields he mastered is beyond belief.
Anatomy. Da Vinci reshaped what human beings knew about themselves. He was the first person to create detailed views of the internal organs of the human body. He made casts of the brain and ventricles from a deceased ox, paving the way for such models of human organs. He was the first to describe the S-shaped structure of the human spine. He completed numerous dissections of both human and animal bodies, meticulously documenting and drawing everything he saw. Imagine how valuable those diagrams were, coming from someone so artistically skilled. Even today, da Vinci’s many illustrations of human anatomy are still necessary studies.
Innovation and invention. Da Vinci’s foresight was incredible. He came up with drafts of several inventions that were finally brought to life almost five hundred years after he lived—the helicopter, the parachute, the military tank, the robot, and scuba gear all sprang from ideas first put forth by da Vinci. And that’s just a partial list. He had a particular interest in military and defense inventions, and biographers have speculated that his various artistic endeavors were only meant as stopgaps so he could find more work in warfare.
Architecture. Da Vinci was fascinated with large-scale construction projects and served as a consultant to builders of his time. He designed a system for canal locks that wound up being extremely close to the types that are used today. He even dove into urban planning with his conception of “the ideal city.”
Art. Da Vinci painted a couple of masterpieces you may have heard of: the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper. His iconic Vitruvian Man drawing of the human body is as much a piece of art as a scientific explanation. Da Vinci also revolutionized the use of landscapes in his art and was an early innovator in the use of oil paint. He was a sculptor as well.
Science. Da Vinci’s expertise made him a key figure in the development of studies in several different sciences. He was the first to speculate that fossils would prove that earth was far older than those of his time believed. He made detailed depictions of plants that influenced how botany was studied. He made intensive studies on the motion of water. He designed mills, machines and engines that were powered by water. He even designed a musical keyboard that played bowed strings.
Occasionally he slept, we can assume. But how did da Vinci accomplish everything he did? What made him so influential in so many different disciplines that continue to be a part of our everyday lives?
Was it truly a level of creative genius that few have been able to aspire to ever since? Yes and no.
Author Michael Gelb explored possible reasons in his book How to Think Like da Vinci. Gelb examined a multitude of da Vinci’s achievements and notebooks and speculated on a few facets of the polymath’s character and traits that could explain why the Renaissance man was so prolific and visionary.
What’s inspirational about Gelb’s list is that the traits that defined da Vinci’s genius are all inborn human elements each of us can improve with just a little more awareness. Even if we can’t conceptualize a flying machine or an iconic piece of art as da Vinci did, we can easily emulate his approach to improve the quality of our minds and what we produce. Thus, it can be said that we can indeed think like da Vinci and learn the fundamental mindsets he possessed, albeit perhaps not as effectively or intensely.
Gelb identified a few traits in particular that he felt were responsible for da Vinci’s creative prolific habits (I’ll present my own in the following chapter).
Insatiable curiosity. Da Vinci was driven to know the truth in all its aspects. He was curious about scientific principles. He was intent on finding out what worked. He would ask “why” until he truly comprehended. Indulging his own interest led him to visualize solutions to problems that generations in the far-off future would encounter. When you are curious about something, you will attack it from every angle and never cease trying to solve it, and that can lead to spectacular creativity and resourcefulness.
Seek knowledge through experience. People in da Vinci’s time weren’t used to challenging long-held beliefs through their own investigation; governmental and religious forces discouraged the population from questioning anything they decreed. After all, Galileo Galilei, not quite a contemporary of da Vinci’s being born in 1564 while da Vinci died in 1519, came into great conflict with the church over his concept of heliocentrism, the notion that the earth revolved around the sun and was not the center of the universe.
Da Vinci wouldn’t have that restriction. He sought to answer his questions through firsthand experience and wanted to get as many perspectives on a situation as he possibly could. It’s only when you are able to challenge the so-called rules and conventional ways of thinking that, like da Vinci, you can be creative.
Embracing the unknown. Da Vinci didn’t seek quick certainty; he sought truth. In doing so, he had to deal with ambiguity and uncertainty—which is just how he liked it. He went into situations and lines of thought without feeling he needed a definite answer. He knew that adhering to a strict code of safety and belief would keep him from exploring the world, so he circumvented the rules and accepted the unfamiliar.
Balancing art and science. More than anyone, da Vinci held logic and imagination in equal importance. He balanced the two apparent opposites and saw how both approaches were important in decoding truth. By holding art and science in equal esteem, da Vinci obtained a more complete overview of the world that fascinated him. It’s likely this mixture of interests that was in part responsible for his degree of insight and genius.
His imagination was so powerful that inventors born centuries after da Vinci used his notes and observations to build their own creations. For us, this could mean looking for answers to practical questions through the arts—using drawings to explain complex functions, or music to describe the functions of a beating heart.
Da Vinci’s motivations were so broad and all-encompassing that his ability to channel them into focused work and results almost makes him superhuman. But the factors that drove da Vinci are ones that almost all other humans on earth can emulate, and they serve as a kind of blueprint for creative thinking.