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Think Like Da Vinci - Book summary

Leonardo da Vinci is considered by many to be the greatest genius of all time. He was simultaneously a world-class artist, architect, scientist, inventor, engineer, accomplished cook and also played musical instruments at a professional level. In this book, Micheal J. Gelb presents 7 principles to help you model Leonardo’s creativity and learning skills, so you can think creatively, sharpen your mind, expand your self-expression, liberate your intelligence, and fulfil your true potential. In this free Think Like Da Vinci summary, you’ll get a synopsis of the 7 Da Vincian principles to think like Leonardo da Vinci himself.

Think like Da Vinci: An Overview

Michael Gelb starts by introducing the power of our brain, the life of Da Vinci, and the Renaissance period characterized by creativity and innovations. He then explains the 7 Da Vincian principles derived from studying Leonardo’s life and work, with checklists and exercises to help you to nurture and apply the genius that’s already in you.

Think like Da Vinci summary_overview

Leonardo’s genius is not beyond our reach:

  • Your Brain is Much Better than you Think. All of us are using only a fraction of our brains. By purposefully developing and applying our brains, we can release our genius and true potential, like what Da Vinci did.
  • The Renaissance period was characterized by creativity and inventions, e.g. printing press, pencils, the magnetic compass, the long-range cannon, the mechanical clock… One of the catalysts of the revolution was “independent thinking”, or the ability to question the dogma/conventions of the time. This ability to think and learn creatively and independently will become more and more valuable in our fast-changing world.

The 7 Da Vincian Principles

Here’s an overview of the 7 Da Vincian principles:

Think like Da Vinci summary_7 da vincian principles
We’ll now zoom in to the first 2 principles:

1. Curiosita (The Quest for Continuous Learning)

Leonardo had an insatiable curiosity and was unrelenting in his quest to keep learning, knowing and growing. He focused his life singularly on the search for truth and beauty, and had an intense desire to understand how everything worked, from why a bird could fly, to why we see lightning before we hear thunder.

Curiosita requires that you constantly ask great questions at the heart of important quality-of-life issues, then search intensely for answers.

Think like Da Vinci summary_curiosita

Nurturing Curiosita

To nurture Curiosita, try these exercises/ tips:

  •  Keep a journal or notebook. Leonardo recorded at least 7,000 pages of notes during his lifetime, jotting down ideas, thoughts, sketches and impressions whenever they came to him. His notes included original plans for a helicopter, a parachute, the extendible ladder, the bicycle, adjustable spanners, the snorkel, hydraulic jacks, folding furniture, a water-powered alarm clock, a revolving stage etc.
  • Use questions to guide and structure your thinking. Check out our full 15-page summary for details on how to brainstorm 100 questions, pick your top 10 questions, or use the 10 power questions by Gelb.
  • Solve problems with the right questions. Problem solving is about asking the right questions, not finding the right answers. The simplest questions are often the most profound. For example, instead of asking “How do we get to water?”, success nomadic societies asked, “How can we get the water to come to us?”.
  • Work on a theme. Choose a theme for the day (e.g. emotions, aesthetics, animals), and write in your notebook everything you observe that day – including your thoughts – related to the theme.
  • Contemplation. Many of us are so busy doing that we fail to stop and think about what we should be doing. Set aside uninterrupted time (just you and your notebook) to contemplate. Set a goal for how much time you will allocate to this activity each day.
  • Stream of consciousness writing. For 10 minutes, write down every thought that comes to you on a subject. Don’t stop to censor or edit; just keep writing whatever comes to mind. You will likely find both gibberish and profound insights. Review this after a break, looking for themes and asking more questions.
  • Continuous learning. The book details several other exercises e.g. pursuing your ideal hobby, learning a new language, building your own lexicon etc. The main idea is to rediscover and apply the insatiable curiosity that we were born with.

2. Dimostrazione (Test Knowledge via Practical Experience)

First-hand experience (including disasters, failures and mistakes) is the best way to test and improve on existing practices, and to develop new wisdom, know-how and independent thinking. Leonardo’s brilliance came from how he questioned (and tested) much of the accepted theory and dogma of his time to find his own insights.

  • He was constantly exploring and experimenting, e.g. dissecting human bodies and animal corpses to learn anatomy, trying out new innovations and automations (with many failed attempts).
  • He also rigorously challenged his own beliefs, assumptions, preconceptions and knowledge, and constantly examined his own work, e.g. scrutinizing his paintings against a mirror to see them in reverse, taking breaks to refresh his judgement, and studying his work from a distance to see things from a broader perspective.

Think like Da Vinci summary_dimostrazione

Developing Originality & Independent Thinking

To develop originality and independent thinking:

  • Examine your experiences. Become aware of how your past experience has molded your perceptions. For example, list 5-7 most influential experiences in your life, summarize what you learned from each one, and how you’ve been applying the lessons in everyday life. Select the 1 most influential experience and consider how it has shaped your attitudes and worldview.
  • Analyze your beliefs & their sources; test them in the real-world. Choose 2-3 general topics (e.g. humanity, religion, marriage), and list your 3 main ideas, assumptions or beliefs for each topic. Ask yourself where these beliefs come from (e.g. media, books, parents), if you have any experiential verification and what’s required to change those beliefs.
  • Explore different viewpoints. Ask if your beliefs would differ if you had been of the opposite gender, were of a different race, religion or country etc. Interview 3 friends who may have different views.
  • Build mental self-defence. Analyze how advertisers try to shape your buying habits, so you can stay impartial to their influence. For instance, list 3-5 advertisements that you like (from TV, magazines etc.) and why you like them. Then, look at 10 recent purchases you’ve made and if/how you were influenced by advertising.
  • Learn from mistakes and adversity. Mistakes are chances for us to learn, yet most of us have been conditioned to condemn mistakes. Contemplate and record what you’ve been taught about mistakes (e.g. in school, by your parents), the biggest mistakes you’ve made, and how the fear of mistakes affects your career and life.
  • Create positive affirmations. Leonardo persisted through many challenges, including exile, invasions, loss of his works etc. He used affirmations to keep himself going, e.g. “obstacles do not bend me”, “I do not depart from my furrow”. In your notebook, write down at least 1 affirmation for each of your greatest challenges.

The 5 Remaining Da Vician Principles

You can get our full Think like Da Vinci summary for more tips and exercises for each of the ideas above, as well as the rest of the principles.  Here’s a quick outline of the 5 remaining Da Vindian principles:

Think like Da Vinci summary_remaining principles

Sensazione (Constantly Sharpen the Senses)

Our five senses – sight, sound, touch, taste and smell – are the doorways to our daily experiences. By increasing the amount and quality of sensory information you take in each day, you increase both your intelligence and your ability to learn from the world around you. The book details how we can nurture each of our senses and merge them for enhanced results (Synesthesia).

Sfumato (Be Comfortable With Ambiguity)

As you apply the first 3 principles, you’ll inevitably face the unknown. With a high tolerance for ambiguity, you can remain calm, effective and creative in face of uncertainty, instead of being flustered and fearful. For tips on how to increase your tolerance for uncertainty, check out our complete book summary.

Arte/Scienza (Balance Science & Art, Logic & Imagination)

Leonardo was concurrently a learner of the sciences and the arts. He shows what can be achieved when both the left brain (logical) and right-brain (artistic) are harnessed. He also gave birth to the modern ideas of “brainstorming” and “creative thinking”, and developed “mind mapping” – a problem solving method that combines left- and right- brain thinking. Learn how to create and use mindmaps in our full Think like Da Vinci summary.

Corporalita (Develop Poise: the Balance of Body & Mind)

Besides nurturing his ability to think clearly, logically and creatively, Leonardo could perform at his peak due to superb physical health. He exercised regularly (e.g. walking, riding, swimming, fencing), was a vegetarian, and cultivated the balanced use of both sides of his body. Our complete 15-page summary gives practical ideas on how you can develop both sides of your mind and body.

Connessione (Maintain a Big Picture Perspective)

Although we live in an age of specialization, the greatest success in business (and innermost happiness) comes to those who understand that all actions, patterns and relationships are interrelated. The book outlines numerous exercises you can use to develop a healthy, big picture perspective.

Getting the Most from Think like Da Vinci

The best tools will be useless if they’re not applied. This book provides the inspiration, motivation, and techniques to start rediscovering your own genius and independent thinking. The rest is up to you. If you’re ready to start honing your creativity, thinking and innovation skills, do get our complete book summary bundle which includes an infographic, a 15-page text summary, and a 23-minute audio summary.Think like Da Vinci summary - book summary bundle

The book provides useful background on our brain, the Renaissance, and Leonardo’s life, with numerous stories to help us “know” him. Each chapter comes with checklists and detailed exercises for you to reflect upon, understand and apply the 7 principles in the book. The book also ends with an entire chapter to introduce Da Vinci’s Drawing Course – this is the best way to start sharpening your ability to see and create. For more details you can purchase the book here or visit for details.

For more powerful techniques for problem solving and creative thinking, do check out our Six Thinking Hats summary and Think Again summary.

About the Author of Think like Da Vinci

Think like Da Vinci: 7 Easy Steps to Boosting your Everyday Genius is written by Micheal J. Gelban author, executive coach and professional speaker specializing in creativity and innovation. Michael co-directs the Leading Innovation Seminar at the University of Virginia’s Darden Graduate School of Business and is on the faculty of the Institute for Management Studies. Michael is the author of 14 books including this book and other titles like Creativity On Demand, Innovate Like Edison, Discover Your Genius and Thinking for a Change.

Think like Da Vinci Quotes

“Immersing yourself in the life and work of great artists, leaders, scholars, and spiritual teachers provides rich nourishment for the mind and heart.”

“We owe it to ourselves to ask if we can afford to let the authorities of our time – whether church, government, or corporation – think for us.”

“In an age of sound bites, contemplation is becoming a lost art. Attention spans grow shorter and the soul suffers.”

“What makes a teacher great? More than anything else, it is the ability to help the student learn for himself.”

“Learning to think like Leonardo requires the eye-opening work of questioning our own opinions, assumptions, and beliefs.”

“In addition to being the conduits of pleasure and pain, your senses are the midwives of intelligence.”

“Keeping your mind open in the face of uncertainty is the single most powerful secret of unleashing your creative potential.”

Click here to download Think like Da Vinci book summary and infographic

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