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7 Steps to Genius

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What do geniuses do differently?

Do they have a unique morning routine? Interesting daily rituals?

To answer these questions, let us turn to one of the most brilliant minds in history: Leonardo da Vinci.

You might know Da Vinci as an artist, but he was also an architect, scientist, musician, mathematician, inventor, anatomist, geologist, astronomer, cartographer, botanist, historian and writer. He didn’t just excel in one area, but rather he flourished across disciplines and created concepts that have lasted for centuries. Da Vinci had a very specific approach to life that anyone can learn. In this post, I will show you how:

You can develop your essential elements of genius.

Michael J. Gelb excavated Da Vinci’s notebooks, writings and creations to figure out how he thought and lived differently. He found:

The 7 Da Vincian Principles

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I chose How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci for our Science of People book club because I thought it was a fascinating look into the daily habits of a genius. Gelb explores how Da Vinci approached life and, most importantly, lays it out for readers in a practical framework for self-improvement.

If you didn’t get a chance to read the book–which I highly recommend since it is filled with Da Vinci’s original drawings and illustrations, I have outlined the 7 Da Vincian Principles for you here:

#1: Curiosità

Curiosita is an insatiably curious approach to life and unrelenting quest for continuous learning.

Da Vinci is not the only one who embodied a seemingly infinite supply of curiosity. Many of history’s great inventors and leaders had the desire to unlock the mysteries of life. If you’re like me, this one seems fairly obvious and something you already know is important. So, I think about curiosity in 2 basic questions:

  1. What if?
  2. How come?

I know I am embracing curiosity if I ask myself these 2 questions multiple times each day.

What If: Asks your brain to project into the future. It helps you see opportunities where you might have missed them, it helps you make connections and it is a sneaky way to get your brain more goal-oriented. What if I started a conversation with this person? What if I tried this new activity? What if I started that new workout program? What comes after ‘what if…’ is typically magical.

How Come: How come gets you into ‘why’. Instead of passively observing the world or going into automatic responses, ‘how come’ helps you question both your actions and other’s motives. I believe this question keeps me honest and alert. It forces me to live more purposefully. Da Vinci didn’t waste a second of his life. He was always creating and guessing and tinkering. ‘How come’ helps you use every second of your life with a mission.

Here are some ways you can capture more Curiosita:

  • A Hundred Questions: Write down 100 questions that are important to you. These could be questions you wish to answer yourself such as, “What is my purpose?” or “What is the meaning of life?” or questions you want to know about everyone you meet like, “What is your passion? or “What makes you happy?” This is the ultimate ‘what if’ and ‘how come’ exercise.
  • Ten Power Questions: After you have brainstormed a list of 100 questions, select the 10 that have the most powerful impact when you read them. Which ones spark a feeling of motivation or achievement? These are your catalyst questions. For example:
    • When am I most naturally myself?
    • What is my greatest talent?
    • What is my heart’s deepest desire?
  • Daily Themes: Da Vinci was an avid writer and note taker. He had a journal everywhere he went. I have a journal at my desk AND at my bed to take notes when all kinds of ideas pop into my head. Carry a journal with you everywhere and write down your ideas and observations. Each day, choose a theme or word. You can do this at the beginning of the day to set the intention or at the end of the day as a cool down or wrap-up.

#2: Dimostrazione

Dimostrazione is a commitment to test knowledge through experience, persistence and a willingness to learn from mistakes.

I love this principle, because it is empowering. Dimostrazione is the embodiment of taking your life into your own hands. This principle tells us:

Test every idea.

Don’t take anything for granted.

Experience life first hand.

I believe life should be an experiment. That we should have a series of amazing hypotheses every day, and we should be testing them. A hypothesis consists of a 2 part statement:

If…, then…

For example, if I take this personal development class, then I hope to be happier. Or as small as if I reorganize my closet, then it will be easier to get ready in the morning. The ‘If…, then…’ exercise puts you into opportunity-hunting mindset, so you are always looking for and testing solutions.

Here are some ways you can capture more Dimostrazione:

  • Find Your Greats: You have probably heard of all the most popular artists and authors, but who are your favorites? Set out to find your greats. Don’t take anyone else’s word for it. Start your own search for the artists, classical musicians or writers that inspire you. Go to a museum and look at the paintings without glancing at the names.
  • Be Devil’s Advocate: Try playing devil’s advocate against yourself. Try making the strongest possible argument against one of your own beliefs just for the mental exercise. Write at least 3 points against yourself.

#3: Sensazione

Sensazione is the continual refinement of the senses, especially sight, as the means to enliven experience.

Fill in the blank:

  • ___is so beautiful.
  • I love the way _____ smells.
  • What a lovely _____.
  • I adore the feeling of ____ on my skin.
  • The sound of ____ is music to my ears.

We forget to savor and sensualize our experiences. We have all heard ‘stop and smell the roses,’ but when was the last time you actually stopped and smelled the roses? Sure, literal roses, but also metaphorical roses. When was the last time you stopped to savor an experience? Da Vinci was incredibly inspired by the world around him and the more he honed his senses, the more heightened his genius became.

Here are some ways you can capture more Sensazione:

A Sense a Day: Plan out 5 experiences in the next few months where you practice honoring each of your senses.

  • For smell, go to the local botanical gardens, make your own perfume or cologne and learn to recognize herbs by their scent at the local grocery store.
  • For taste, (this one is easy!) eat a bunch of your favorite foods and try one new cuisine. Figure out your favorite spice.
  • For sight, go to your local museum, then hike to a vista or view point and learn some new photography techniques.
  • For touch, go to your local animal shelter and volunteer petting pups and kitties. Go through your closet and organize it by fabric. Go shopping and try to buy one new fabric you have never owned before — suede? Velvet? Flannel?
  • For hearing, go to a concert, stop by your local music store and try to play an instrument you have never heard before. If you are really ambitious, try to learn bird mating calls or spend some time trying to draw sound. For example, if you had to draw the sound of a trumpet, how would you do it? (mine looks like a messy swirl).

#4: Sfumato

Sfumato is a willingness to embrace ambiguity, paradox, and uncertainty. Da Vinci had a very unique ability to understand the extreme opposites of opinions and phenomenon. He was also able to explore unknowns and revel in the uncertainty. Most of us are uncomfortable with not knowing or unanswerable questions, so we avoid anything out of our control. We stick to what we know and immediately do a Google search the moment we don’t know something.

A Story:

The other day, I was hiking with some friends in Columbia Gorge (one of the most beautiful places in the world) and we began passing all of these old wagons–like really, really old wagons. Now, I live in Oregon very close to the end of the Oregon Trail where Lewis and Clark explored, so we started to wonder if the wagons were somehow connected to the Oregon Trail. The more wagons we passed, the more perplexed we got. We had no service where we were hiking, so we couldn’t just whip out our phones and consult Google. This began to drive us crazy. We are so used to knowing things or being able to figure things out almost instantly, that it was driving us nuts to not know. But a cool thing happened. We started to brainstorm all of the different reasons that all of these wagons were on the trail–a massive flood carried them across the plains, a wagon cult lived in the woods nearby, etc. And that was a really hilarious and fun exercise. It reminded me of the Sfumato principle that not knowing is actually the best mental activity. You search, you think, you create.

*We eventually Googled it and found out we had stumbled upon a 1900 wagon trail that used to transport apples.

Here are some ways you can capture more Sfumato:

  • Stop Googling: For the next week, anytime you need to look up a word or trivia fact, try to guess the answer instead. You can phone a friend for help as well, as long as they brainstorm with you too!
  • Embrace Your Ambiguity: List some situations from your life where you are confused or feel ambiguous about an outcome and explore the feelings that come up.
  • Cultivate Confusion Endurance: Tap into your own paradoxes by asking questions like, “How are my strengths and weaknesses related?” or “What is the relationship between my saddest moments and the most joyful ones?”

#5: Arte/Scienza

Arte/scienza is the development of the balance between science and art, logic and imagination.

Although Da Vinci wasn’t around for the research on right and left brain thinking, this concept speaks directly to the idea of whole brain thinking. Mark the statements that sound like you:

Right Brained:

  • ___ I like details
  • ___ I am almost always on time
  • ___ I rely on logic
  • ___ I am skilled at math
  • ___ I am organized and disciplined
  • ___ I like lists

Left Brained:

  • ___  I am highly imaginative
  • ___ I am good at brainstorming
  • ___ I love to doodle
  • ___ I often say or do the unexpected
  • ___ I rely on intuition
  • ___I often lose track of time

Which one had more statements that you agreed with? Were you balanced? Da Vinci was a big believer in using both parts of your brain. He did this in his notebooks by tying ideas with drawings. Specifically, he was the original mind-mapper. Here is a cool overview on mindmapping:

YouTube video

Here are some ways you can capture more Arte/scienza:

Warm-up by mind-mapping the main ideas in your favorite TED Talk. Here is one of my favorites:

Cameron Russel:

YouTube video

Create a mind map of your life: Have you ever thought about how the different parts of your life are connected? Make a mind map of your major life moments and how they are connected.

Here is a pretty cool mind map of the book:

Leonardo Da Vinci Mind Map

#6: Corporalitá

Corporalita is the cultivation of grace, ambidexterity, fitness and poise. Da Vinci was incredibly athletic in addition to his mental prowess. From early on, he realized that if he wanted his mind to perform at optimal levels, his body also had to be in top shape.

I couldn’t agree with this more. If I have a bad night’s sleep, my work suffers. If I don’t eat well, my energy slows. If I don’t get enough movement, my back kills me.

Here are some ways you can capture more Corporalita:

  • Learn the Science of Eating: I did a whole post on the science of eating on some really easy ways to make your food intake more purposeful.
  • Get on a Sleep Schedule: Everyone has different sleep needs and different sleep rhythms. For the next week, track your sleep times and hours and see which days you have the most energy. Are you a night worker? A morning person? Learn your cycles and then honor them by building a sleep routine.
  • Cultivate Ambidexterity: Da Vinci used both his right and left hands as he worked. You can do this by trying to brush your teeth with your non dominant hand or get a really patient person to play a game of pool, tennis or catch where you switch hands!

#7: Connessione

Connessione is a recognition of and appreciation for the interconnectedness of all things and phenomena.

I think this is one of the most complex and interesting Da Vincian principles. It has to do with something called ‘systems thinking’. Systems thinking is when you are able to take vast amounts of information and create routines, lists and organization. It also has to do with pattern recognition. I LOVE connessione. As many of you know, I have a number of courses and books–my favorite part of the curriculum creation process is taking huge amounts of research and condensing it down into an outline. I also love hunting for patterns. In our human behavior research lab, I am constantly looking for patterns in body language, thinking and relationships. For example:

  • In my School of Happiness course, I had 128 pages of research and notes to condense into a 10 week program.
  • For my Master Your People Skills course, we had over 7,000 people take our body language and personality surveys. We had to pore over the data to find patterns to make the course.
  • For our next book, I will be using 9 years of research, over 2,400 studies and 356 in-depth interviews!

When you can create systems and recognize patterns in your life, you are able to cultivate true genius.

Here are some ways you can capture more Connessione:

  • What’s Your Book Outline? If you had to create a table of contents for a book about your life, what would it be if you couldn’t make it chronological?
  • 3 Objects: Pick 3 random objects in your house. If you had to find connections between them, what would they be? For example, I chose my blender, my garage clicker and a bottle of nail polish. Can you think of three connections? I thought: With all three of these things, the faster they work, the better. The faster the blender, the better the smoothie, the faster the garage door opens, the faster I get home and the faster my polish dries, the less risk there is of my mushing up my toe nails. This is a great one to play with kids!

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