Disclaimer: This is a review, and as such will contain opinions, spoilers and (often) general shit talking. (If you talk about what you don’t like about a work, you learn a lot. When you think through a work with the stakes presented to you by the creator, by the context of the work, you learn a lot. I review things, not because I love to dislike things, but because dislike contains rich and vital information for the process of experiencing something, but I cannot access it without interrogating it.) So, if you don’t want to have this thing spoiled for you, or don’t know how to behave when a person on the internet, that you don’t know, has opinions that don’t line up with yours, this review is not for you. It’s also not for the author/creator of the work. Please and thank you.

I’ve loved Da Vinci’s work since I was young. We used to have a book with his sketches that I would sit and look at for hours and hours.

So, How To Think Like Leonardo Da Vinci by Michael Gelb intrigued me because I have always enjoyed and appreciated Da Vinci’s work and his thinking (who doesn’t, right?).

However, this book feels like a good idea that go lost in some very self-indulgent writing, packaged as corporate self-help.

In the book, Gelb discusses the 7 principles of thinking like Da Vinci that he says he discovered when he studied Da Vinci’s notebooks (and visited the places he lived and worked and painted and slept in, often literally walking in Da Vinci’s footsteps, as the author will tell you many, many times).

At first, the author goes on a tangent answering a question no one asked about why there are 7 principles: not 6, not 8, but 7 principles.

And the Goldilocks answer he provides, after a long story that goes nowhere, is so reductive: because there were 7 principles, no more, no less.

And rather than providing us with the principles in English, he’s got them in Italian. I found this irritating and unnecessary, not in the least because in the audio book he keeps urging you to “say it with me” which is incredibly annoying.

The 7 principles mentioned are:

  • Curiosità (curiosity)- Am I asking the right questions?
  • Dimostrazione (demonstration) – How can I improve my ability to learn from my mistakes and experiences?
  • Sensazione (sensations) – What is my plan for sharpening my senses as I age?
  • Sfumato (nuance) – How can I strengthen my ability to hold creative tension to embrace the major paradoxes of life?
  • Arte/Scienza (art/science)- Am I balancing art and science at home and at work?
  • Corporalita (corporality) – How can I nurture the balance of body and mind?
  • Connessione (connection) – How do all the above elements fit together? How does everything connect to everything else?

There was no need to have them in Italian.

Another thing there was no need for was the consultant laugh, this obviously only available for your irritation in the audiobook.

The consultant’s laugh is that dry, almost a bad parody of Dracula, kind of laugh that makes it clear the speaker is too enamoured with their own jokes.

Of which he had many.

But none of them were funny.

Some of them weren’t even jokes, and still he laughed that dry, annoying, consultant laugh.

It’s evident from the way he reads (speaks) that he has corporate overlords that he has to keep happy.

Corporate overlords who need their workshoppers to be just the right amount of professorial-to-bland as cardboard so that they don’t offend anyone, but still leave the participants feeling inspired when they walk out of the workshop.

In all fairness, Gelb does start the book by saying that much of what he’s about to get into, we’re already going to be familiar with.

Mostly, because a lot of it is common sense. (He doesn’t say that.)

And what Gelb offers is more like a bunch of exercises to develop your common sense.

I can’t decide if that’s redundant or not, but I supposed that depends on your view on the state of common sense today.

If most of us have it, this is superfluous.

If most of us don’t have it, we need to practise anything that’ll give us more of it.

But as the exercises pile up, I think you’ll become even more busy than Da Vinci, spending the hours in your day doing them.

When Da Vinci partook in these same types of exercises, I suspect it was always with a higher purpose in mind, focusing on being of help to others.

It does feel like Gelb gets a little pretentious.

Being able to travel around “following in Da Vinci’s footsteps” and sitting and meditating on the musings of the master in the places he inhabited while alive is a privilege in and of itself.

While I agree with Gelb that the work Da Vinci did was exceptional, both in terms of personal commitment and in the ideas and conclusions he came to, I can only refer to what Da Vinci himself wrote.

All our knowledge hast its origins in our perceptions … In nature there is no effect without a cause … Experience never errs; it is only your judgments that err by promising themselves effects such as are not caused by your experiments … Science is the observation of things possible, whether present or past; prescience is the knowledge of things which may come to pass.

—Leonardo Da Vinci

Yes, he invented the parachute before air planes were a reality. Yes, he invented a diving suit. Yes, he had a remarkable way of thinking.

What Da Vinci did was study physics 200 years before the science of physics and calculus were invented.

He studied anatomy before modern medicine was established.

And he observed the world around him with a keen eye for detail, seeing it with multiple perspectives and in a way that many of us never will.

He urges us (himself) to study the art of science, and the science of art, because in learning how to see the world, you realise that everything connects to everything else.

The human foot is a masterpiece of engineering and a work of art.

—Leonardo Da Vinci

It’s not for nothing that so many modern inventions harken back to Da Vinci’s observations.

Leonardo Da Vinci was a genius, and we can learn from his methods of insatiable curiosity, testing knowledge through experience, refining the senses, embracing ambiguity, balancing science and art, cultivating grace and fitness, and recognising the interconnectedness of all things.

But read a well written biography instead.

This book filters Da Vinci’s work through Gelb’s adoration-bordering-on-obsession of Da Vinci (as well as a love of hearing himself speak).

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