Cultivating Intense Curiosity Like Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci was an engineer, chef, writer, artist, inventor, humourist, musician, painter, architect, political advisor, designer, botanist and civil planner.
His most famous paintings include the Mona Lisa, The Last Supper and Virgin of the Rocks.
His most famous sculptures include da Vinci’s Horse in Bronze, and his most famous inventions and drawings include the helicopter and the parachute.
This was a man who believed “learning never exhausts the mind.”
So how did da Vinci learn so many skills and achieve so much in 70 years?
The power of difficult questions
While he was a genius, da Vinci cultivated intense curiosity about everyone he met and everything he came across.
Da Vinci asked difficult questions and used the answers to inform his inventions, ideas and creations.
He kept dozens of notebooks and journals throughout his life, many of which still exist. In these, he recorded how he spent days roaming the countryside searching for answers to things he didn’t understand.
He wanted to know why shells existed on top of mountains, why lightning is visible immediately, but the sound of thunder takes longer to travel; how a bird sustains itself up in the air and so much more.
This was a man who knew how to interrogate a book.
Da Vinci wandered the streets of Florence and often bought caged birds from the Italian merchants, opened the cages and watched the birds fly into the sky so he could understand these creatures.
He studied and drew flowers and plants from multiple angles to better understand their anatomy. According to scholar Michael Gelb, da Vinci wrote in a journal,
Do you not see how many and how varied are the actions which are performed by men alone? Do you not see how many different kinds of animals there are, and also of trees and plants and flowers? What variety of hilly and level places, of springs, rivers, cities, public and private buildings; of instruments fitted for man’s use; of diverse costumes, ornaments and arts?”
Da Vinci didn’t confine his intense curiosity to botany and nature either. He interrogated his paintings by placing them against a mirror so he could better judge their strengths and weaknesses.
He even dissected human bodies to understand how our bags of flesh and bones work. He wrote about his intense curiosity.
“These questions and other strange phenomena engage my thought throughout my life.”
Da Vinci’s approach is exhausting, and I’m not advocating dissecting human bodies. However, you can develop a da Vincian kind of intense curiosity if you can:
- Question your assumptions
- Challenge your beliefs
- Reconsider prevailing wisdow
- Ask “Why?”
- Ask “Why not?”
As Da Vinci’s life shows, cultivating intense curiosity is a life-long practice.