Better Writing: Learning from Leonardo

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Leonardo da Vinci was one of the great creative geniuses of all time. In his excellent biography of Leonardo, Walter Isaacson characterizes him as a genius that we can learn from. One of the most important things that we can learn is to get the most from our natural ability to come up with ideas.

Leonardo may have been one of history’s all-time great creative souls, but every human being is endowed with the ability to come up with good ideas. Leonardo offers us a model of how to use that natural ability more effectively.

Capture Those Ideas

If you want to make something of the ideas you get naturally, you must capture them. Otherwise, you forget them way too fast. Wherever he went, Leonardo carried a small notebook with him. He used it to capture his ideas.

You don’t necessarily need a notebook, anything that works for you is fine. You do need some way to capture the ideas you get. A notebook works. So do index cards. My personal tool of choice is a small digital voice recorder. Make sure you have one or two idea-capture tools with you all the time so that when an idea pops out of your head, you can grab hold of it.

Sharpen Your Observation Skills

Leonardo was one of the most acute observers in history. The good news for us is that observation is a skill. That means you can develop it.

Give yourself little observation exercises to help you get better. Observe a situation or a scene for a bit, then try to recall all the details. You may want to follow Leonardo’s example here and develop a shorthand that will help you turn your observations into more detailed thoughts later.

If you decide to observe something specific, like a woodpecker’s tongue for Leonardo, do a little planning first. That’s what he did. Leonardo made notes of specific things he wanted to observe and, sometimes, how to observe most effectively.

Learning to be a good observer will help you find even more ideas. Not only that, they’ll give you much more material to work with when you choose to develop an idea.

Play with Your Ideas

Whatever Leonardo was working on, either for a project or just out of curiosity, he spent time playing with his ideas. He made multiple sketches of the same scene and wrote his changing thoughts about various subjects. Getting an idea and capturing it is only the beginning. To get the most value you can from your ideas, you must develop them. Mostly, you do that by playing with them, tweaking them, changing them, and then doing it again.

Bottom Line

There’s no magic formula that will quickly turn you into Leonardo. In fact, there’s no magic formula that will slowly turn you into Leonardo. But you can get more out of the ideas you get if you follow the same process that he used. It won’t make you a genius, but it will make you a more effective leader and writer.

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