The da Vinci career code: exercises for creative geniuses

Mathematician, musician, engineer, painter, inventor, sculptor, anatomist, geologist, writer: the list of fields in which Leonardo da Vinci excelled has earned him the moniker ‘genius of geniuses’.

Helpfully, Leonardo didn’t just leave behind an impressive body of work; he also left a blueprint for how he created, and the techniques that can induce the powerful and creative thinker in you.

In her webinar ‘Get The Thinking Right’ (log in to listen back), Sara Parsons introduced the da Vinci principles of creative thought. Below we delve deeper into these, and present these quick and quirky da Vinci-esque exercises you can incorporate into your morning routine, daily commute or lunchtime stroll.

1. CURIOSITY: Channel your inner toddler

If you’ve ever been around a tot at the height of the ‘why?’ phase, you’ll know that children have an ‘insatiable curious approach to life and an unrelenting quest for continual learning’ (Michael Gelb in ‘How To Think Like Leonardo Da Vinci’ – see recommended reading). Da Vinci embraced this childlike approach to learning (asking ‘Why is the sky blue? Why do birds fly?’), ignoring the accepted wisdoms of his day to present new scientific and philosophical theories about the world and everything in it.

Strengthen the curiosity muscle you flexed in your formative years - spend 15 minutes examining a topic you feel strongly about or believe you know well. This can relate to current thinking in your work situation (e.g. ‘My business should recruit more marketing specialists’), personal beliefs (e.g. ‘I don’t believe in ghosts’) or anything else at all. Ask ‘why?’ to every subsequent statement you put forward to support your thinking. Next, flip it on its head; make as convincing an argument as possible for why the opposite is true. This entirely different perspective can open your mind to a new world of possibilities.

Increase your curiosity factor further by learning to ask better questions. Most of us ask questions which enable us to identify ‘the right answer’ rather than to explore all the options. On the everywomanNetwork, 75% of members admit they’ve ‘wasted time trying to find the answer to the wrong question’. ‘Some people like to muse on the philosophical conundrum “What is the meaning of life?” But more practical philosophers ask, “How can I make my life meaningful?”’ says Andrea Balt of Creative Rehab. Think about a problem you’ve recently tried to solve. Was the question as open as possible to allow a breadth of thinking? If not, how can it be rephrased?

2. INDEPENDENT THINKING: Find the extraordinary in everyday life

‘I love those who can smile in trouble, who can gather strength from distress, and grow brave by reflection,’ wrote Leonardo da Vinci. Regular visitors to the everywomanNetwork will recognise one of our key topic areas in his words - resilience.

Leonardo’s personal resilience can be attributed in part to his prolific ‘notebooking’; he drew strength from his painstaking recording of affirmations, details of successes, and observations that could benefit his future thinking and work. Start your own notebook, noting mantras, inspirations big and small, great feedback you’ve elicited, and on-going achievements.

Build on your power of observation, by taking a page at a time to describe all you can muster on a particular topic – anything from religion, the arts and technology, to the personalities in your team or your office’s environment. Describe it in language you tend not to use every day; indulge in metaphors, analogies, similes and colourful vocabulary. A great example of seeing the unusual in the everyday is found in Charles Simic’s poem ‘Fork’.

3. REFINE YOUR SENSES: See, hear, feel, taste and smell like you’ve never done before

In his progressive way, da Vinci was one of the earliest practisers of mindfulness, diarising - rather sadly - that the average person ‘looks without seeing, listens without hearing, touches without feeling, eats without tasting, moves without physical awareness, inhales without awareness of odour or fragrance, and talks without thinking’.

Select one task each day to perform ‘in the moment’, whether its savouring each mouthful of food, listening intently during a conversation, or noticing the landscape you see on your rail commute.

Da Vinci documented his use of specific techniques to hone his senses in order to stimulate his intelligence and most creative thinking. Proving that he was also a master of efficient time management, many of these took the form of quick daily exercises. He tested his brain by writing letters backwards from right to left (mirror writing), and maintained his ambidextrousness by practising with his non-dominant hand. A few minutes spent doing either can be a mind-bending challenge that requires your complete focus.

4. EMBRACE UNCERTAINTY: Figure out what scares you the most, and then do it

As well as contributing to a wealth of scientific thought that enabled our greater understanding of the world today, da Vinci was also an enthusiastic studier of many facets of academia which have since been invalidated. Was he wrong to do so or is it more useful to see these ‘mistakes’ as stepping stones along the way of collective human learning?

Creative thinkers and highly successful businesspeople must make mistakes in order to learn and progress. Take time to think about something you fear, or something you’d like to do but are afraid to attempt. Use your newfound sensory skills to examine what that fear tastes, smells and sounds like. On the flip side, what might success look or feel like? Next, think of three events from your past where you did something without knowing what the outcome would be. Was it successful? If there was a failure, what was learnt? Being comfortable with ambiguity and forging ahead regardless is another key quality of resilience.

5. WHOLE-BRAIN THINKING: Open your mind by using all of it!

Whereas today’s workplace often emphasises the importance of knowledge experts in particular fields, Leonardo was a Renaissance man who encouraged us to see ‘the science in art’ and ‘the art in science’. Take his polymath approach to work by using both right brain functions (creativity, imagination, intuition, perception and musicality) and left-brain functions (analysis, reasoning, language, logic and numbers) in your daily lives. Both sides are, after all, two parts of the whole, and ‘half a mind is a terrible thing to waste’ (Gelb).

Making a mind map is a great way to put both sets of skills to use in order to produce broad ideas and solutions.

6. MIND-BODY CARE: Prioritise your wellbeing

It is a very good plan every now and then to go away and have a little relaxation; for when you come back to the work your judgement will be surer,’ wrote da Vinci, long before the notion of ‘wellbeing’ became common in the workplace. Moderate exercise, he advised, creates the nutrients your mind requires to thrive (your brain, notes Andrea Balt, occupies 3% of your total body weight, yet consumes more than 30% of your oxygen intake, which can be drastically increased by aerobic exercise). Riding, walking and swimming were da Vinci’s favourite sports.

In his book, Gelb advocates taking the ‘mirror test’ – standing before a full-length mirror (the very brave can do so naked!), noticing things about your appearance without judgement or focusing on ‘looks’. ‘Does your head tend to tilt to one side or another? Is your shoulder higher than the other? Is your weight distributed evenly on your feet?’ If this test isn’t for you, simply taking a moment to note how your body and all its small nuances are feeling can help you tune into what’s going on, sharpening your observation skills in the process.

7. INTERCONNECTEDNESS: Finding patterns in the randomness of your world

Da Vinci is perhaps best known for one particular technique he used for inspiring his creativity. That was his habit of staring at the embers in his fireplace, attempting to find recognisable patterns and images in their ashes – ‘everything is connected’, he wrote, and it was this belief that drove him to look for and make connections in the world around him. In the absence of coal fires, experts encourage da Vinci followers to search out objects, faces or scenes in everything from clouds and tree bark, to patterned wallpaper and shadows on the ceiling.

This method enabled da Vinci to see more clearly the connections in his many interests; he recognised that gaining wisdom and expertise in one area could aid his quest for knowledge in other disciplines. By searching for the connections in the seemingly unconnected, you begin to strengthen you own ability to see the bigger picture.

Sources and further reading:

On the everywomanNetwork:


  • ‘Crash Course in Creativity’, Brian Clegg, Paul Birch (Kogan Page, 2002)
  • ‘How To Think Like Leonardo Da Vinci’, Michael Gelb (Dell, 1998)