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Thoughts on Da Vinci's Biography

[Update 6/21/20: This post was originally titled 'Da Vinci - Overrated?' but I changed it to more accurately reflect the content]

I just finished reading Walter Isaacson’s towering biography of Leonardo da Vinci last week. Throughout the book, I kept thinking to myself that there’s one word to describe Leonardo: curious. He let no detail of the world escape his interest, pursuing everything from painting and perspective to hydrodynamics and human physiology. There was another theme throughout the book too – Isaacson made sure to point it out multiple times – da Vinci had no follow through.

I also read Isaacson’s Jobs biography last summer and couldn’t help comparing them. For two geniuses, Jobs and da Vinci could not have been more different. Jobs put his work out into the world, da Vinci mostly cared about pursuing knowledge for his own sake. Jobs’ mantra was “real artists ship!” while da Vinci struggled to ship anything at all. “Tell me if I ever did a thing”, he once scribbled in his notes.

Da Vinci left dozens of works incomplete simply because he lost interest. It’s not that he didn’t have the resources – in fact he had the patronage of several of Italy’s most influential leaders, and even the king of France. Isaacson points out that da Vinci was more interested in the act of ideation than the completion of his ideas. He might’ve had the most severe case of ADD of all time. I’m glad that Isaacson doesn’t hold back this side of his persona, but he still finds a way to romanticize it. Isaacson writes:

“The inability to ground his fantasies in reality has generally been regarded as one of Leonardo’s major failings. Yet in order to be a true visionary, one has to be willing to overreach and to fail some of the time. Innovation requires a reality distortion field. The things he envisioned for the future often came to pass, even if it took a few centuries. Scuba gear, flying machines, and helicopters now exist”

I really don’t understand this. The Reality Distortion Field was a term originally used to describe how Steve Jobs could convince anyone of his ideas. Leonardo had no trouble distorting reality either, the only difference is that Jobs could actually make these ideas happen. Did scuba gear, flying machines, and helicopters come to pass because of him? Or was it due to other inventors who actually dedicated their time to finishing the work? I have no doubt that Leonardo could have built his inventions, but Isaacson often just overlooks the fact that he never did.

It’s so commonly said that Leonardo was “ahead of his time” but that’s only because he didn’t let the world catch up to his mind. Leonardo never built the future, but we still exaggerate as if he did. Sure, his ideas had significant influence over future inventors, but there’s much more to innovation than sketches on paper.

I value execution, not only because it leaves a more lasting impact than fluffy ideas, but because the act of executing an idea is just as much of a challenge. You can’t just make a plan of exactly what you want to create, then implement it – just look at what’s happening to Quibi.

Da Vinci was at times obsessed with weapons engineering. He filled pages of sketchbooks with crazy catapults, cannons, and tanks. Below is one of his most gruesome inventions: a horse-drawn chariot that swings sharp scythes, killing any soldier in its path.

None of these inventions were ever executed. In recent years, various teams tried to turn his sketches into real prototypes and had limited success. Some inventions didn’t work at all, and some worked with modifications. One of Leonardo’s sketches, depicting an armored tank, had a glaring flaw: the gearbox turned the wheels in opposite directions. If Leonardo had built out this tank himself, I’m certain he would have seen the issue quickly and made adjustments. But he never had the follow through.

Maybe I’m thinking too much like an engineer, since da Vinci was more renowned as a painter, but engineering is a process more than anything else. Everybody knows that the process doesn’t stop after a detailed sketch. No one, not even da Vinci, can foresee the problems of the ideas they think up.

I’m not denying Leonardo da Vinci’s genius. But he could have been so much more prolific. Imagine if he actually built his contraptions, or published his Codices, his Treatises, his half-finished paintings that were only discovered in his workshop after he died. Instead, he moved from one shiny new project to the next.

Real artists ship.


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