Leonardo da Vinci wrote backward (mirror writing) because he didn’t want others stealing his ideas. Writes Da Vinci biographer Rachel A. Koestler-Grack:
“The observations in his notebooks were written in such a way that they could be read only by holding the books up to a mirror.”
But did a genius who combined art and science so brilliantly really need to hide his work? Perhaps it was practical: as a lefty, he didn’t want to smudge the ink. As a contrarian, Da Vinci also strived to be different. As blogger Walker’s Chapters writes:
“Do you really think that a man as clever as Leonardo thought it was a good way to prevent people from reading his notes? This man, this genius, if he truly wanted to make his notes readable only to himself, he would’ve invented an entirely new language for this purpose. We’re talking about a dude who conceptualized parachutes even before helicopters were a thing.”
“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication,” wrote Leonardo Da Vinci. He would paint over work that didn’t meet up with his expectations. Not surprisingly, Steve Jobs adopted da Vinci’s maxim in designing Apple computers.
Simplicity is the reduction of complexity. It unclutters the multiplicity of crayons and fence-sitting gray space in the middle and replaces objects with mere black and white.
Simplicity comes from revision
Simplicity retains the essence and deletes the rest. Take a look at the sequence of Picasso’s drawing of a bull. He pairs down the bull from full detail down to its fundamental shape.
The simplicity of design directly relates to the clarity of design — retained and kept implicit is the main thing that gets featured in the work.
Only when we remove the excess can we appreciate the beauty of simplicity. What results only appears natural because all the explaining was wiped our during reduction.
“Keep it simple and stupid.” That was the acronym coined by aircraft engineer Clarence Johnson during the early 1930s. He proposed the “H” style tail for airplanes which helped stabilize flight.
Keeping it simple is always easier said than done. What may appear visually simple, took a deduction of complex details.
We don’t get to simplicity without amassing a pile of disparate parts first and then building shitty first drafts.
Complexity is often hidden within the design — such as the case with Apple products and apps like Instagram which appear simple on the outside but contain convoluted architecture and code on the inside.
“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication,” said Leonardo da Vinci, who painted over pieces that didn’t meet expectations. Artists like Pablo Picasso and writers like Ernest Hemingway edited down their pieces, again and again, to reduce their craft into the most practicable and understood forms.
Erasing difficulties requires patience of experimentation. It takes both head and heart work to minimize the unnecessary while maximizing utility in powerfully simple ways.
With a bit more curiosity and execution, we can turn less into more.
The Codex Huygens is a Renaissance manuscript for a treatise on painting closely related to Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519). Its author has been identified as the North Italian artist Carlo Urbino (ca. 1510/20–after 1585), who must have been familiar with Leonardo’s notes before they were dispersed. Some of the drawings are faithful copies of now lost originals by Leonardo. Others, like the Vitruvian Man, are related to Leonardo but independent interpretations in their own right. The extant manuscript, which appears to be only a fragment, includes five sections (books or regole).
Leonardo was a true Renaissance man, fascinated with everything — the mechanics of flight, architecture, engineering, botany, artillery and human anatomy — but one of his favorite private pastimes was to draw faces, either as scribbles in the margins of his notebooks or as fully conceived sketches later used for paintings.
More than any other Leonardo book I’ve read, this one helps you see him as a complete human being and understand just how special he was. He came close to understanding almost all of what was known on the planet at the time. That’s partly because scientific knowledge was relatively limited back then, partly because he had a high IQ, but mostly because he was insatiably curious about pretty much every area of natural science and the human experience. He studied, in meticulous detail, everything from the flow of water and the rise of smoke to the muscles you use when you smile.
No artist contained an extra wrinkle in their brain as big as Leonardo Da Vinci. He was a creative genius who combined the disciplines of both art and science to make something new.
Leonardo’s formula: see, contemplate, emulate, remix, and recast.
His undivided mind drove his imagination which led him toward discovery and innovation. He was also a tinkerer, even a procrastinator. Below are some sketches from his notebooks where he noodled on concepts and ideas.
“Learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.”
“I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do.”
We need doctors who specialize in heart surgery and spend 100% of their time helping other people. But we also need polymaths (Newton, Darwin, Leonardo da Vinci, etc.) to combine ideas to push society forward.
As Dilbert’s creator Scott Adam points out, achieving excellence is rare.
If you want something extraordinary [in life], you have two paths:
1. Become the best at one specific thing.
2. Become very good (top 25%) at two or more things.
The first strategy is difficult to the point of near impossibility. Few people will ever play in the NBA or make a platinum album. I don’t recommend anyone even try.
The second strategy is fairly easy. Everyone has at least a few areas in which they could be in the top 25% with some effort. In my case, I can draw better than most people, but I’m hardly an artist. And I’m not any funnier than the average standup comedian who never makes it big, but I’m funnier than most people. The magic is that few people can draw well and write jokes. It’s the combination of the two that makes what I do so rare. And when you add in my business background, suddenly I had a topic that few cartoonists could hope to understand without living it.
The fox and the hedgehog
Said the Greek poet Archilochus: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” When it comes to survival, all the hedgehog has to do is protect itself with the skill of its spines. But the fox is more versatile. It can adapt against a multitude of predators and different scenarios.
Furthermore, our success may hinge on what two or more things we can combine. We should think about our life experiences and how we can merge them with preexisting skills. We have the responsibility to create our own vocation if it doesn’t yet exist.
Both experts and practicians make the world a better place. One can’t exist without the other.
Upon winning the MacArthur Fellow award for creating unconventional, immersive opera experiences, Yuval Sharon didn’t feel like he was a ‘genius’ in any sense of the word.
The fellowship is also known as “the genius grant” although the organization steers clear of using the term in its to describe MacArthur Fellows ““because it connotes a singular characteristic of intellectual prowess.” Yuval Sharon felt the same way.
The Foundation probably takes pains to say this because so many people find something deeply uncomfortable about the concept of “genius” — its exclusionary implications and air of elitism; a Romanticism that seems out of step with contemporary (let alone everyday) life; the affirmation of canonical standards set by … who exactly? Any person mature enough to strive for self-awareness finds the moniker embarrassing, and only an unstable narcissist could ever self-apply the title without shame.
But no genius is truly original, as Brian Eno alludes to. A genius is merely part of what he calls a ‘scenius,’ a community of fellow artists who share similar interests and collaborate, helping prop up the most notable. Says Yuval:
Moments, ideas, a single poem in a collection — a work of genius, no matter how individually wrought — is never the product of a single individual. We should stop thinking of genius as an attribute and instead start to think of it as a condition, a circumstance.
Genius is social and participatory
This notion of a sole genius reduces the collective nature of people. The world participates in the process of creation no matter how one artist tries to individuate their craft. Yuval sums it up nicely:
I spent part of the day reading about the other Fellows in my class and found myself feeling so inspired by their dedication and accomplishments in fields far removed from my own. The world seemed bigger. This may be where the “genius” moniker is still useful: by calling out examples of how and where the endlessly searching attendant spirit still visits the world. Because anyone, anywhere, can participate in it.