The Saturday Read ‘Leonardo da Vinci’ by Walter Isaacson

The Saturday Read returns! The first selection of 2018 is the biography, ‘Leonardo da Vinci‘ by Walter Isaacson. This is a life story disguised as an art book translating the fifteenth century wisdom of a genius into the language of our present day innovation canon.

What is it about Leonardo that resonates with us over five hundred years later?

“The fifteenth century of Leonardo and Columbus and Gutenberg was a time of invention, exploration, and the spread of knowledge by new technologies. In short, it was a time like our own. That is why we have so much to learn from Leonardo. His ability to combine art, science, technology, the humanities and imagination remains an enduring recipe for creativity.”

The narrative of the polymath has captivated Isaacson in all his previous work. In ‘da Vinci’ he has found the origin story and he’s the perfect narrator to introduce a twenty-first century audience to the man “who never outgrew his wonder years.”

If you are a person who is intimidated by a 500+ page doorstop of a book, don’t be. Leonardo’s fifteenth century artwork, notebook transcripts, sketches and drawings engage with the text to guide the reader through the history, culture and political upheaval of Milan, Florence, Rome and France.

If you are one of the thousands who have traveled to the Louvre… IMG_5851.jpg

to catch a brief glimpse of the Mona Lisa…mona lisa

this is the backstory. Isaacson devotes a chapter near the end of the book to the portrait, describing Leonardo’s work process. “He began working on it in 1503, when he returned to Florence after serving Cesare Borgia. But he had not finished it when he moved back to Milan in 1506. In fact, he carried it with him, and continued to work on it, throughout his second period in Milan and then during his three years in Rome. He would even take it to France on the final leg of his life journey, adding tiny strokes and light layers through 1517. It would be in his studio there when he died.”

I read the biography over four weeks, one chapter at a time, alternating with other reading. It gave me time to reflect on the multiple aspects of his genius and connect Leonardo’s behavior with what I have read over the years in hundreds of Harvard Business Review articles on the topic of innovation.

My non-fiction book club had selected ‘da Vinci’ as the January choice. The discussion centered on the aspects of math, science and art; each member commenting from their frame of reference. Finally, I added my view through the lens of @workthoughts. This is a book that advocates for the generalist vs. the specialist. In many aspects it’s a career guide. Imagine an extended conversation with a mentor tracing their work/life trajectory.

Isaacson concludes with ‘Learning from Leonardo’, beginning with some familiar basics of twenty-first century theories of creativity. A sampling: “Be curious, relentlessly curious”. “Seek knowledge for its own sake.” “Observe.”Get distracted.” “Avoid silos.” “Take notes, on paper.” “Be open to mystery.” There’s more. Shadowing each of these ‘lessons’ is the story of Leonardo and his exploration of man and nature; his evolution, still tinkering with the Mona Lisa at the time of his death.

‘Leonardo da Vinci’ is your ‘professional development book’ of the year. It will break you out of your ‘career specialization rut’, opening your eyes to the ‘dots’ you didn’t even know you could connect.

If you make one bookstore purchase, continue your life-long learning with this one. “Let your reach exceed your grasp.”

Leonardo’s most important lesson for our times – “Respect facts.” Never stop asking questions.

“Above all, Leonardo’s relentless curiosity and experimentation should remind us of the importance of instilling, in both ourselves and our children, not just received knowledge but a willingness to question it – to be imaginative and, like talented misfits and rebels in any era, to think different.”



The Saturday Read – Biography

If we read biographies will be be better leaders?

A quick review of President Obama’s reading list includes the life stories of former presidents: Adams, Lincoln and FDR. The number two book this week on The New York Times Business Best Seller list is the new bio, ‘Becoming Steve Jobs’. Last week the Wall Street Journal reviewed ‘Hannibal: A Hellenistic Life’.

“It is not histories I am writing, but lives; the most glorious deeds do not always indicate virtue or vice, but a small thing like a phrase or a jest often reveals more of a character than the bloodiest battles.”  Plutarch, ‘Parallel Lives’

We read biographies to extract the wisdom of others. Biographies offer a portal into understanding the larger world where these lives were lived. Read closely they offer proof that history repeats itself.

“We live – at least in the Western world – in a golden age for biography. The depiction of real lives in every medium from print to film, from radio to television and the Internet is more popular than ever…Biography, today, remains as it has always been, the record and interpretation of real lives – the lives of others and ourselves.”  Nigel Hamilton, ‘How To Do Biography’

The ‘Saturday Read’ this week is not a recommendation of a single title, but a suggestion of a genre.

Despite a well publicized ‘biography kerfuffle’ over a new, ‘unauthorized’ biography of Steve Jobs written by Fast Company reporters, Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli, it has been the ‘year of biography’, offering a variety of choices, spanning centuries.

The 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Biography was awarded to ‘The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe’ by David I. Kertzer. Also nominated as finalists in this category were: ‘Louis Armstrong: Master of Modernism’ by Thomas Brothers and ‘Stalin: Volume I: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928’ by Stephen Kotkin.

The LA Times Book Prizes includes a standalone category for biography. This year Andrew Roberts‘Napoleon: A Life’ received the award in a roster of respected nominees including Pulitzer finalist Steve Kotkin along with:

Adam Begley, ‘Updike’

Robert M. Dowling, ‘Eugene O’Neill: A Life in Four Acts’

Kirstin Downey, ‘Isabella: The Warrior Queen’

On the Saturday morning of the LA Times Festival of Books I attended a panel moderated by Eisenhower biographer, Jim Newton. Biographers Downey and Kotkin revealed their subjects were very unlikely historical figures. Looking back at their early years, Isabella of Spain and Stalin showed little promise for the lives they would eventually lead. Yet all of these writers crafted stories of actors who emerged onto the global stage amid success, controversy and failure.  A. Scott Berg who published a hefty bio of Woodrow Wilson last year closed the discussion describing the role of biography as “a way to illuminate the times”.

This weekend, select a book from those suggested here or find one about someone you admire and perhaps would like to emulate. Discover a mentor in the pages of biography.