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Da Vinci's Real Secret
Mental Models, Performance, Business & Entrepreneurship | newsletter.scottdclary.com
Here is my weekly email discussing mental models, performance, business and entrepreneurship.
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What’s in today’s newsletter?
How da Vinci systematically built expertise across art, engineering, science, and more.
Why developing "T-shaped" skill sets beats hyper-specialization in today's world.
How to adopt a da Vincian approach to expanding your knowledge and connecting ideas.
Real-world examples of innovators who blended insights from different fields.
Actionable tips for building your own "personal renaissance" mindset and skill set.
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Da Vinci's Real Secret
Imagine if Leonardo da Vinci had only chosen to be a painter, leaving his curiosity for science, anatomy, and engineering unexplored.
We wouldn't have had his helical air screw, a sketch that laid the groundwork for the modern helicopter.
His exploration of the human body led to pioneering insights into the circulatory system and the detailed structure of muscles and bones would have never been done.
The Vitruvian Man would have remained uncreated, depriving us of an iconic fusion of art and scientific study in human proportions.
His early tank design and the visionary concept of concentrated solar power would have remained undiscovered.
This hit me. Leonardo da Vinci. He was really the ultimate Renaissance Man.
Now, 500 years later, Da Vinci's curiosity still inspires me. He shows why expanding our perspectives unlocks creativity.
Most artists back then focused on painting all day, every day. Not Da Vinci.
His interests were like a messy spiderweb, spanning art, anatomy, flight, botany, geology and more.
He just followed his obsession du jour.
At the core was an insatiable hunger to understand the world and push boundaries.
Da Vinci didn't just paint the Mona Lisa and call it a day. He crossed disciplines like a mad scientist.
For example, he mixed optics, biology, and art to pioneer new techniques with light and perspective. He studied bird flight to inspire his own fantastical flying machines.
Like you and me, Da Vinci lived in a world of intense specialization. But he knew creativity compounds when worlds collide.
Today, we're forced into these narrow niches. But Da Vinci's cross-pollinating methods show another way.
What if spanning diverse fields is the key to rising above them?
After all, innovation thrives on serendipitous collisions. When we silo knowledge into sub-fields, we choke it.
Today let’s discuss Da Vinci's boundary-blurring approach, some of my research, tests, personal experience and historical insights.
You’ll learn how he teaches us to expand our perspectives, synthesize ideas, and make the most of our limited time.
We’re going to dive deeper into the polymath's world...
Mastering Multiple Domains
Most Renaissance artists holed up in their studios all day honing a single craft. Not Da Vinci.
While peers focused on a single specialty, da Vinci fluidly bridged art, science, and engineering.
For example, he:
Visualized flying machines and designed musical instruments
Studied optics and drew connections to painting with light and shadow
Sketched biological systems like the human embryo and cardiovascular anatomy
Analyzed systems like turbulent water flows and principles of friction
Designed functional machines and prototypes from armored vehicles to calculators
He overcame the specialist-generalist paradox noted by management scholar Ikujiro Nonaka: “The specialist without some kind of general contextual knowledge falls prey to the narrowness and sterility of the ivory tower. And the generalist without specialized knowledge readily falls into dilettantism.”
Da Vinci avoided both pitfalls by pursuing expertise across diverse fields while also connecting the dots between them.
He studied art representing the human form, then learned anatomy itself through dissection.
He brought an engineer’s mindset to painting by pioneering scientific methods for mixing pigments and creative use of perspective.
Renaissance historian Morris Bishop noted that “no man has ever united so many aspects of human endeavor or worked so perseveringly upon the deeper problems of science, art and thought.”
Art alone would never have birthed his groundbreaking inventions and ideas. He had to trespass across other domains. Da Vinci knew that if you blend enough puzzle pieces, you can finally perceive the big picture.
But there’s an actual process to this, it’s not just ad hoc.
It’s called Combinatorial Creativity.
Combinatorial Creativity: Where Do Breakthroughs Come From?
We credit genius "eureka" moments to innate creative gifts. But the truth is more interesting.
Big breakthroughs often spring from combining existing ideas from different fields. This is what creativity scholars call "combinatorial creativity."
Intuitively, Da Vinci was brilliant at synthesizing insights across disciplines:
He wove together anatomy and art to draw influential anatomical sketches revealing muscles and organs.
He blended optics with painting to pioneer new artistic methods like chiaroscuro shading and atmospheric perspective.
And he crossed his artistic training with engineering to envision inventions like the bicycle and helicopter.
Unlike other artists with laser focus, Da Vinci let his mind wander across fields collecting dot after dot. He connected dots others missed, forming new creative constellations.
Innovation scholars say these unlikely collisions between diverse concepts and skills are key to creative leaps. Just like Picasso merged African sculpture styles with Western painting to pioneer Cubism.
As astrophysicist Adam Frank writes, insights often “come from the combination of multiple ideas molded together in just the right way. The mixing of ideas from different disciplines and quarters is exactly what generates new insights.”
Increasingly, scholars trace legendary “eureka” moments back to these kinds of combinatorial creative leaps.
Da Vinci made these leaps intuitively. But research shows we can cultivate this ability systematically.
Harvard innovation experts Karim Lakhani and Efosa Ojomo advocate developing Cellular Network Thinking - linking ideas across “cells” of knowledge that may appear disconnected.
Programs like machine learning can also uncover surprising connections between ideas and data points across fields.
By applying methods like these, we can actually replicate and practice da Vincian combinatorial creativity.
I’ll give you a few more practical tips on how to implement this thinking style, starting tomorrow, in your own life - a little bit later on in the newsletter.
Standing on the Shoulders of Polymaths
Da Vinci clearly wasn't alone in dissolving boundaries between fields.
Here’s a few other polymaths fused insights across disciplines:
PS. It’s starting to seem like we’re on to something here… and this type of thinking really does work.
Johannes Kepler was an astronomer that crossed physics and optics to revolutionize understanding of planetary motion. He discovered planets move in ellipses rather than perfect circles.
Benjamin Franklin brought an inventor's curiosity equally to politics, physics, and more. He experimented with electricity and invented the lightning rod while helping draft the Declaration of Independence.
Buckminster Fuller combined engineering and architectural design to create the geodesic dome and other futuristic inventions.
Maria Gaetana Agnesi mastered both higher math and classical languages, forging new connections between the fields.
Marie Curie drew insights from her side hobbies like playing piano to make creative leaps in her pioneering physics and chemistry research.
Each of these great minds stepped outside their core expertise to gather more mosaic pieces. Together, the fragments formed new creative wholes.
Their interdisciplinary creativity still illuminates the path forward today. No matter how deep our expertise, crossing into new worlds expands our perspectives.
Developing T-Shaped Thinkers
Da Vinci learned by intuitively connecting insights across engineering, art, anatomy, botany, geology and other fields.
But what does it take to cultivate these cross-disciplinary skills intentionally?
Well… have you heard that expression “T-shaped thinker”?
It's become popular as jobs get more complex and multidisciplinary.
The vertical line of the “T” represents depth in one field. The horizontal line symbolizes synthesizing knowledge across many fields.
Da Vinci didn’t just master fine art. He also cultivated universal thinking skills like systems thinking and visual communication.
That’s what made him so creatively adaptable.
Here are some habits I’m stealing from Da Vinci that have worked for me:
Make learning across diverse fields a lifelong endeavor rather than something to end after formal education. Let curiosity be your compass.
Look for underlying universal patterns and principles across disciplines. For instance, understand commonalities in design thinking, systems, cycles, storytelling.
Learn by doing alongside studying. Take up hobbies very different from your day job. Piano taught me just as much as books.
Observe how systems work across fields. Study diverse phenomena in nature, business, society, technology to discern patterns.
Have open-ended conversations with modern polymaths. Ask how they avoid silos.
Turn personal interests into useful data points. Let a passion like painting or music inform your perspective.
Build mental flexibility to switch between different modes. Cultivate ability to zoom out for big picture and dive into details fluidly.
Host sessions to debate ideas from vastly different worlds. Get thoughts colliding.
Continuously expand your knowledge network. New people bring new mental models.
A “T-shape” keeps you agile as the world changes. Combine depth with interdisciplinary breadth. Together they unlock creativity.
Here are a few other practical ideas to take home with you.
Maintain an “antilibrary” of books on unfamiliar topics to browse.
Make “connection days” to visualize links between different projects and ideas.
Have cross-functional teams periodically exchange progress and insights.
Attend conferences in different industries to gather fresh perspectives.
Do occasional quick experiments in new skills like programming or electronics.
Subscribe to feeds from diverse thought leaders about their mental models.
When problem solving, use lateral thinking techniques to generate ideas without constraints.
Sketch out concept maps showing how ideas relate across domains.
Cultivate friendships and reading groups with polymaths.
Keep an “ideas inspiration” note file to harvest cross-disciplinary dots.
By regularly cross-training these interdisciplinary muscles, you’ll expand your creative capabilities over time.
You’ll perceive more dots and better connect them.
Stay perpetually curious.
A Quick Idea
Remember, combinatorial thinking is the art of mixing and matching different elements to create something new and useful.
It helps us to solve problems, generate insights, and unleash creativity.
But how can we improve and measure it?
Here is a concept: the combination score.
The idea is that we have a score that reflects how diverse and effective our combinations are.
Some factors are beyond our control, but much of our score depends on us.
Our habits can lower or raise our score.
You can raise your score by:
Increasing Variety — Explore elements from different domains.
Improving Effectiveness — Evaluate your combinations for originality, usefulness, value.
You lower your score by:
Reducing Variety — Stick to elements from the same domain.
Lowering Effectiveness — Ignore your combinations for originality, usefulness, value.
Those who master combinatorial thinking do this:
They seek variety in elements.
They select relevant and interesting elements.
They produce effective and creative combinations.
They have a high combination score.
Remember the Combination Score Rule.
When making a combination, choose the one with the highest score.
Ask yourself: Where is my variety and effectiveness greatest? Go there.
The Next Renaissance
The winds of change are blowing.
We're entering a new renaissance, fusing tech's exponential rise with humanity's ancient creative spirit.
AI, gene editing, quantum science - these wild frontiers are unfolding as we speak.
We're no longer constrained by what's merely possible.
And even though you’ll read this article and hopefully many of us will try and start to adopt some of these principles, true trailblazers are truly rare. Breaking free of overspecialization means swimming against the tide.
But I would argue that in the future, combinatorial thinking will be more of a need to have than a nice to have. And as more minds expand, mental walls will crumble, and we will have another renaissance.
Like Da Vinci, they will connect arts and sciences. They’ll blur cognitive boundaries and let new ideas flourish.
Because great collaboration and ideas await if we break siloed thinking.
Da Vinci showed us how knowledge across disciplines amplifies creativity.
Connecting different domains breeds revelation. His genius drew from exploring broadly.
Let’s do the same and expand our perspectives.
The changing world calls those ready to cross-learn.
If you enjoyed this article, I’d love to hear from you.
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