Imagine how different our lives would be if there was no "norm" to be measured against. For just a moment, pretend you are Leonardo da Vinci, a child living in 15th century Florence, who loves to draw and is good at it. You're fortunate to be apprenticed to the greatest artist of your region, a man named Andrea del Verrocchio. Soon you surpass the skill of this tough taskmaster and become one of the great painters of the Italian Renaissance. But because you’re also intrigued by science, engineering, music, and philosophy, people criticize you in a hurtful way. They say you suffer from an attention disorder because rather than just focusing on art, you flit from topic to topic.
You also write backwards. Others can only understand your notes by reading them in a mirror. People recognize your artistic talent, but they judge your idiosyncrasies. The criticism is personal and harsh. How does it feel to be surrounded by this oppressive chatter? If you take them personally, negative judgments can inhibit you and keep you from fulfilling your potential. How can you trust your own internal momentum?
In your own words, you defend your way of being as a dedication to action:
"As iron rusts from disuse,
and still water becomes stagnant,
so does inaction sap the vigor of the mind.”
"Vigor of the mind" is what makes you, Leonardo, a Renaissance man. Your curiosity compels you to investigate every aspect of life and overrides society's judgment of what’s normal.
Now let’s shift our perspective. We’ve walked in Leonardo's shoes. Let’s step back into our own bodies and our own time. How does history judge Da Vinci today? We still know him best as a brilliant artist. Sadly only seventeen of his paintings have survived, but they include two of the world's most famous: Mona Lisa, and The Last Supper. In his painting of Mona Lisa we can't help but wonder about the meaning of her enigmatic smile. In The Last Supper we can take a seat at the table of that momentous dinner and see how Leonardo imagined the personalities and their relationships.
Da Vinci was also the ultimate doodler, filling more than 5000 pages of notebooks. Many of his sketches were of things that at the time, existed only in his imagination: helicopters, military tanks, parachutes, assault battleships, deep-sea diving suits, revolving bridges, and construction cranes. Many of his sketches reflect his interest in anatomy. An attempt to publish his notebooks in the 1700s failed because the translators and editors faced enormous challenges. Da Vinci wrote them in his backward writing style that requires a mirror to read, and the pages were filled with spelling and punctuation mistakes.
In 1994, Bill Gates purchased a huge portion of the notebooks, called the Codex Leicester, for 30 million dollars. Here's a sketch and some quotes that have been extracted from this massive mess. They give us insight into Leonardo’s way of thinking:
“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”
"The greatest deception men suffer is from their own opinions.”
“Learning never exhausts the mind.”
"It is easier to resist at the beginning than at the end.”
"He who possesses most must be most afraid of loss.”
"While I thought I have been learning how to live, I have been learning how to die.”
"Learning acquired in youth arrests the evil of old age. And if you understand that old age has wisdom for its food, you will conduct yourself in youth so that your old age will not lack for nourishment."
We're fortunate to have access to Da Vinci’s art and his perspectives. He tells us he was a vegetarian who loved animals and despised war, yet he worked as a military engineer and invented advanced and deadly weapons. More to his liking, he made groundbreaking contributions as an architect, musician, inventor, anatomist, biologist, mathematician, philosopher, and scientist.
His art, inventions, and the 5000 pages of doodles, notes, and quotes are inspiring. We learn about a wise and talented individual bombarded with painful criticism of his idiosyncrasies and lack of focus. He rose above it. Today history is fascinated by the breadth and depth of his passions.
It's a mistake to measure and judge people according to a norm or average. Each of us suffers in this comparison. We are all beyond the norm.
Rather than being inhibited by criticisms of our distinctions, let's follow Leonardo’s example and celebrate them.
Sources: mos.org, historynet.com