Building for the Long Term: Lessons from Leonardo da Vinci

da Vinci sketch

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Walter Isaacson discusses his latest book, which is about Leonardo da Vinci.

DaVinciThe works of Leonardo da Vinci were so transformative, they still hold influence more than 500 years after his death. His painting, Salvator Mundi, an iconic image of Jesus Christ giving a blessing, broke all records for any piece of art when it was sold at auction in November for more than $450 million. Walter Isaacson, former chairman of CNN as well as managing editor of Time magazine, has chronicled the life of the greatest figure of the Italian Renaissance in a book simply titled Leonardo da Vinci. Isaacson, a professor of history at Tulane University, visited the Knowledge@Wharton show on Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM channel 111 to explain what businesses can learn by embracing da Vinci’s kind of intense creativity and curiosity. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.)

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Knowledge@Wharton: What attracts you so much to da Vinci?

Walter Isaacson: For me, it was the creativity. I’ve written about a lot of smart people. I’ve done biographies of Ben Franklin and Steve Jobs and Albert Einstein. What I came to see was a certain pattern. It wasn’t just that they were smart, because smart people are a dime a dozen and often don’t amount to much, they were creative and especially so because they crossed disciplines. They were interested in everything and that’s what Leonardo stood for. He was curious about everything you could possibly know. He doesn’t think of himself just as a painter, he thinks he’s an engineer, an anatomist, a scientist. We all have to learn not to silo ourselves if we want to be creative.

Knowledge@Wharton: We are inundated with information in this digital age, so maybe we aren’t as curious as we should be. But da Vinci was insatiably curious.

Isaacson: Yeah, and the cool thing about Leonardo da Vinci is that he’s not like Albert Einstein. I daresay you or I are never going to figure out how to apply tensor calculus to the curvature of space-time in order to update the theory of general relativity. But Leonardo da Vinci made a list every week of things he was curious about. Why is the sky blue? Do birds’ wings flap up faster or down faster when they take off? Describe the tongue of the woodpecker. There were just weird things he was curious about, but that curiosity about everything led him to anatomy, led him to try to build flying machines. And it’s what distinguishes his art, because he connects us to nature. Every piece of art, including the Salvator Mundi, has unbelievably interesting pieces of science and optics included in it.

Knowledge@Wharton: Is it fair to say all the avenues he was interested in led him to the art? Was art the final piece of the puzzle for him?

“I’ve learned more from Leonardo da Vinci than any person I’ve written about because he makes me pause 20, 30, 40 times a day.”

Isaacson: He would not have thought of it that way. To me, yes. His art is what is remembered 500 years later. But if you asked him, he would say that he didn’t make much of a distinction between art and engineering and design and the brushstrokes of nature and mathematics and everything else. When he turned 30, he wrote a job application letter to the Duke of Milan that was 11 paragraphs. The first 10 paragraphs were all about engineering and science. “I can divert rivers. I can build great buildings. I can do weapons of war.” It’s only in the last paragraph that he said, “I can also paint and sculpt as well as anyone.” Even though we would say that he’s an artist who also did engineering and science, he would say, “I was just interested in the whole of creation.”

Knowledge@Wharton: He wrote down so much of what he thought about on a daily basis. His notebooks are legendary for all of the ideas that he envisioned in the course of his life.

Isaacson: Right. He saw the patterns of nature, like how water swirls and curls when it hits an obstacle in a river, and he applies that when he dissects the human heart. He draws the human heart and says, this is actually how the heart valve opens and shuts. It’s from the swirl of blood, not the pressure of the blood coming up.

It’s so cool to have his notebooks because we have more than 7,200 pages that are still existent of his notebooks. I daresay our tweets and our Facebook posts 500 years from now are not going to be accessible. A tiny lesson in the book is that paper is a good technology for the storage and retrieval of information. Whether you’re a business person, or a student, you should always have a notebook. Put some stuff in it, and when the notebook gets filled up, put it in a drawer. Your grandchildren will someday say, “Look how curious and interesting grandpa was.”

Knowledge@Wharton: What have you taken from da Vinci’s life and incorporated into your own?

Isaacson: I’ve learned more from Leonardo da Vinci than any person I’ve written about because he makes me pause 20, 30, 40 times a day. I’m trying to be observant and curious the way Leonardo was. Why do the ripples on the river catch the light the way they do? And why are they not going exactly with the wind? What causes the water to ripple? Why does the water reflect the way it does? How does light hit a curved leaf? Or I look at the sky and say, “Why is the sky blue?” It’s something Leonardo kept going back to over and over again. In our daily lives, if we can look up from our iPhones, look up from our work occasionally and just marvel at not some miracle of nature, but something rather ordinary, like a blue sky or light hitting a leaf.

Knowledge@Wharton: When you read this book and learn more about him, you realize he was truly one of the greatest minds that we have had on this planet.

Isaacson: And he was a self-taught mind, which also makes him inspiring. Like Benjamin Franklin, he didn’t go to college. He hung around colleges in order to teach himself. The mind was great because it saw patterns across different disciplines in nature.

Just like Ben Franklin, he loved to look at the whirls of air when he was riding along a road, and he compared it to the Gulf Stream, which he had seen going across the ocean, and also nor’easters and storms that come up the coast. He saw the patterns of nature. To me, that’s where the creativity comes from.

Knowledge@Wharton: When the Salvator Mundi was going to auction, the expectations were $100 million to $150 million. It went for an unprecedented $450 million, even though the painting had been altered over time.

Isaacson: It was restored, so it wasn’t fully the original. I think the fact that it went for almost a half-billion dollars shows the continuing allure of Leonardo da Vinci through the ages. In Salvator Mundi, you see the blessing hand of Jesus. It’s reaching out and very sharply delineated, meaning the lines were rather sharp, which is unusual for da Vinci because he liked what’s called sfumato, the blurred lines like around the face of Jesus.

You wonder why is the hand is so sharp? I was reading his notebooks that he was doing at the time, 1503 or so, and he’s talking about visual perspective and mathematics. But then he talks about sharpness perspective. That when something comes pretty close, like arm’s length from your eyes, it gets into sharp focus and looks more delineated than other things. That makes it so that the hand in that picture looks like it’s coming out of the panel and blessing you. That’s a combination of science and optics with art and with beauty. I say all of that because it almost is a metaphor, which is you kind of feel every now and then Leonardo da Vinci’s hand coming out of the mist of five centuries ago and being very clear to us and blessing us.

“In places where you don’t have that tolerance for a person like Leonardo da Vinci, you’re not going to get any Leonardo da Vincis.”

Knowledge@Wharton: We still see that influence of da Vinci today.

Isaacson: I flew here for this interview. Because I’m a bit more curious than I used to be, I’m looking at how the wing of the American Airlines plane is curved. It’s curved on top the way certain bird wings are, and it’s because Leonardo discovered what we now call Bernoulli’s principle, which is when air has to go over a longer distance over the top of a wing as opposed to the bottom, the air pressure is lower, and it helps lift. That’s something we probably learned in ninth or 10th grade, and we forgot by 11th grade. But with Leonardo, you try to make yourself look at all of these beautiful things. You realize, “Oh yeah, he’s reaching me 500 years later.”

Knowledge@Wharton: He also had his share of problems in his lifetime. He was born out of wedlock to a peasant woman. It is widely believed that he was gay. How did he deal with these hardships?

Isaacson: He was very comfortable with who he was, and he was a bit of a misfit. He was illegitimate, gay, left-handed, a vegetarian for a while, somewhat of a heretic. But when he arrives in Florence at about 12 years old, he’s already that way, and everybody loves him in town. He’s good looking, charming, able to solder copper balls for the top of the dome of the cathedral as well as paint the ripples past Jesus’ ankles in The Baptism of Christ. He is a talented kid.

That’s a key that we’ve got to learn in business and universities and everything else, which is at certain times when you have a diverse group of people, you have a live-and-let-live mentality. You saw that in 1470 in Florence. You saw it exactly 500 years later in the 1970s, in the Bay Area of California, when all of a sudden you have everybody from the hippie movement to the Silicon Valley engineers creating the home brew computer club, and people like Steve Jobs.

You see it here in Philadelphia, which is a very creative city because it’s got such a mix of people who are both interested in art and music as well as science and engineering. In other places where you don’t have that tolerance for a person like Leonardo da Vinci, you’re not going to get any Leonardo da Vincis.

Knowledge@Wharton: Do you think we are still capable of that mindset in this fast-paced, live-by-the-second mentality we’re in today?

Isaacson: Yes, it’s in the DNA of our nation. When Ben Franklin came to Philadelphia, he was a misfit, a rebel, a runaway. There are Moravians and Jews and Anglicans and Presbyterians and freed slaves and people of all different religions. It’s called the “city of brotherly love.” He fits right in, and it becomes a creative city.

We are looking at that happening now in America, not just in Silicon Valley but city by city. Leave aside our national politics, which is kind of poisoned and broken at times. There’s too much bitterness in our debate. But you go to Chattanooga, Tennessee, you go to Detroit, Michigan, you go to Cleveland, Ohio, you go to New Orleans, Louisiana, or Austin, Texas, or Philadelphia  — I could name a dozen other cities where people have come in. There is a burst of business, entrepreneurship and startup mentality that comes from creative people saying, “Hey, this is a cool place, I want to be here.”

“America is astonishingly creative, and creative in ways that connects it to commerce.”

Knowledge@Wharton: Is it surprising that da Vinci was involved in so many disciplines?

Isaacson: No, because that was a talent that Florence had developed in the 1470s. He goes to work for Andrea Verrocchio’s workshop. Sometimes people call it an art studio, but it wasn’t an art studio. It did everything. It made beautiful cloth for the new merchants of Florence.

They had just discovered the Medici family, Lorenzo de Medici, and a mathematician who becomes Leonardo’s friend, and how to do bookkeeping with debits and credits. That doesn’t sound like a huge invention, but it’s huge. It makes Florence the banking capital of the world, and there’s venture capital. They’re doing things like that. And these workshops, like Verrocchio’s workshop, there are about six or seven of them doing things like architecture with Filippo Brunelleschi and Leon Batista Alberti, figuring out architectural perspective.

Knowledge@Wharton: Vitruvian Man, which is a drawing of man inside a circle with arms and legs outstretched, is one of da Vinci’s most recognizable works. I didn’t realize there had been another version of that drawing by another person whom da Vinci was associated with. You show both drawings in your book, and you can see the differences and similarities.

Isaacson: There are three or four people with him when they go to Pavia, this town near Milan, and they decide to look at how a church should reflect the proportions of a man. They read the manuscript of Vitruvius, the ancient Roman architect, and the lesson of that story is something I’m sure Wharton is great at teaching, which is that creativity is a team sport. Innovation comes in collaboration.

So you have these three or four friends and other people there, including a mathematician who is trying to square the circle. They are all looking at ways to grab this concept of Vitruvius, of the proportions of a man are reflected in the proportions of the world and the proportions of the spirit.

They draw a man in a circle in a square, and it’s supposed to look like how you would proportion a simple church. All of his friends have done it, but Leonardo takes it up one huge notch because it’s a work of great science with the body exactly proportioned right. It’s also a work of great art where the circle is on the base of the square, but goes above the square so that, as Vitruvius says, the navel is at the center of the earth and the genitals are at the center of creation, or the center of the square in this case.

It also is a work of almost unnecessary beauty. You look at it, and Leonardo has just made it with the shadings and the intense stare of the man in the circle and the square, standing spread eagle. Then you look at pictures of Leonardo da Vinci when he was young. Curly, blond hair, chiseled jaw, muscular chest. You realize it’s a self portrait. Here he is, standing naked in the earth, in the cosmos and in all of creation, asking “how do I fit in?”

Knowledge@Wharton: You mention in your book that the right foot is pointed forward and the left foot is pointed out so you can get the perspective on both sides.

Isaacson: The foot becomes a measurement guide. He did 230 measurements on his students and assistants to get every proportion of the human body right. When you look at Vitruvian Man, you can’t ask whether it was a piece of art or a piece of science. You look at it and realize Leonardo is making no distinction between the beauty of art and the beauty of science.

“We have to make sure that this rise of entrepreneurial creativity hits every part of America and doesn’t leave people behind.”

You look at The Fetus and the Womb, one of the great anatomical drawings, which is in the flyleaf of my book, and you think it is a stunning piece of art. But it’s also an almost perfect piece of anatomy because he actually had to dissect a human and a cow. He is once again in everything, including in the smile of the Mona Lisa, which is 16 years of tiny brushstrokes to get the optics of the corner of the lips right so that the lips flicker in a way. The smile turns on and off depending on your angle of view. All of that is combining art and science, technology and the humanities.

Knowledge@Wharton: It seems da Vinci’s influence will not be going away anytime soon.

Isaacson: Exactly. He did theatrical design, but then he made sort of aerial screws to bring the angels down from the ceiling. And because he combined his fantasies with reality, he’s trying to do flying machines. That’s what makes him so relevant to the present. In that period of time, the late 1400s, you have Gutenberg, Columbus, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Amerigo Vespucci, and you have places like Florence that are so nurturing of creativity. Those don’t happen often in history. But in the goal of wondering why this still affects us, we should ask how we can create that sort of atmosphere, that ecosystem that leads to connecting commerce and business to creativity and art and engineering.

I see that happening in this country. It happened in the 1970s when we created the microchip and transistor, the package switch network, the personal computer, and then all of those merged together to become the digital revolution. We’re doing that now with big data, health and other things that have a health technology as well. We’re doing data analytics, machine learning, artificial intelligence.

America is astonishingly creative, and creative in ways that connects it to commerce. Whether it’s life sciences technology being done at the University of Pennsylvania or energy technology being done in Houston, the good thing about it is that it’s no longer just a Silicon Valley engineering phenomenon. It’s connecting information technology engineering to other industries. Energy, health, music, whatever it may be.

Knowledge@Wharton: As you said, there are so many cities that are trying to nurture that creativity and innovation.

Isaacson: Steve Case, an old colleague of mine who helped create AOL, is going around the country on a bus tour called The Rise of the Rest, where he’s stopping in places like Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and Chattanooga and Detroit to say, you can be entrepreneurial centers.

The one thing I worry about is there is a divide in this country between places that have become very creative and entrepreneurial, and then a few counties away they’re a little bit left out. There’s a bit of a divide that’s happened between the entrepreneurial startup creativity of some counties and parishes in this country, usually in creative cities that have things like music and food and art, and creative people want to come.

You see that in our politics, too. Our politics is not divided necessarily between red states and blue states, it’s divided between red counties and blue counties in which you can be in Austin, and it goes Democrat overwhelmingly. You go to King County or something a little further away, and it’s overwhelmingly Republican. I think we have to make sure that this rise of entrepreneurial creativity hits every part of America and doesn’t leave people behind.

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