Leonardo da Vinci is best remembered as one of the world’s foremost artists, but what many may not realize is the key to his creative genius was likely his obsessive curiosity in things other than art.
That’s my read on da Vinci as presented in Walter Isaacson’s recent tome on the historic Italian artist. And in learning about da Vinci’s interest in things outside of art — human anatomy, fossils, birds, flying machines, botany and geology, to name a few — I’ve come to realize that most of us in the business world would benefit from approaching the art of learning similarly.
For the most part, learning for professional purposes in the modern economy has grown more specific, not more general. We’re now taught in school to find our niche and become good at a very specific thing, whether it be a trade like welding or a skill like coding or computer programming. People are hired these days because they have a specific technical acumen. For me, that acumen was writing and reporting; it has since evolved over the course of my young career to include other things. For others it might be something different — but it’s something very specific.
Such was not the case in da Vinci’s day. The artist best known for creating works of art including “The Last Supper” and the “Mona Lisa” — not to mention the lesser-known painting that recently sold for about $450 million at an art auction, “Salvator Mundi” — loved to paint and developed very specific skills that made him better at his craft over time. But what Isaacson’s book uncovered was what ultimately propelled him to improve as an artist and painter was the knowledge he gained studying a myriad of other subjects, many completely unrelated to painting and art.
For instance, not only is the “Mona Lisa” considered a great work of art because of da Vinci’s technical ability to paint, but also because his intense study of optics helped him create what ultimately became the painting’s most distinct feature — her smile.
Over the course of da Vinci’s life, not only did he spend his professional career as a painter and artist, but he also staged plays and advised governments on military strategy and defense, among other things. The former came especially in hand when painting “The Last Supper,” according to Isaacson.
Today’s workers would be well served to learn from da Vinci’s expansive curiosity. While much of a person’s professional development should be focused on improving themselves on a set of specific technical skills and abilities, it’s equally important for people to immerse themselves in learning subjects that are completely unrelated. A journalist by trade, this is something I’ve come to covet, and it’s something that journalists tend to be good at — since we often have to learn about many new subjects before we write about them.
But in addition to keeping up on the latest writing, reporting, editing and digital publishing skills and trends, I spend a lot of time reading about things completely unrelated to the field. My reading of the world of da Vinci and art is a prime example, considering I have very little interest in art otherwise.
To be sure, I’m no Renaissance Man, like da Vinci was, but I try to take in and learn as much as I can about as many different subjects, whether it’s in business or otherwise. Most of the time it doesn’t come full circle in helping me in my professional life, but sometimes it does. And when it does, it often does so in unexpected but hugely beneficial ways.
Keep in mind that da Vinci isn’t the only historic and successful person to employ this learning tactic. Consider anyone who’s been successful in their careers, and it’s likely they spend a significant amount of time learning about subjects that have little direct relevance to their specific industries or jobs. Look no further than the suggested reading list of Bill Gates, the billionaire founder of Microsoft and current day philanthropic; the subjects of most of these books diverge considerably from one another, and many have little to do directly with business or computers, Gates’ specialty.
Learning isn’t just for things that are directly related to your professional skill development. Learning is to expand your mind in ways that you never imagined. It’s about learning things that may not seemingly benefit your career or job performance tomorrow, but something that helps expand how you think and your perspective on how the world works.
As da Vinci showed, doing so is highly beneficial.
Frank Kalman is Talent Economy’s managing editor. To comment, email firstname.lastname@example.org.