Book Summary: How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci by Michael J. Gelb

Book notes on How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci by Michael J. Gelb

Intelligence is not a static, one size fits all quality. There are several different types of intelligence—mathematical, verbal, mechanical, musical, bodily, social, and intrapersonal. Intelligence can also be improved with time. The brain is in many ways still a mystery, and we usually only begin to tap into it’s true potential.

Learning by imitation is a fundamental survival trait for many species, and we can apply it to our lives by choosing the role models we should emulate. ***

The seven principles of da Vincian thinking

1. Curiositá – insatiable curiosity and thirst for learning

2. Dimostrazione – learn from mistakes, test knowledge through experiences

3. Sensazione – continual refinement of the senses, especially sight

4. Sfumato – embrace ambiguity, paradox, and uncertainty

5. Arte/Scienza – develop a balance between logical and creative thinking

6. Corporalita – cultivation of fitness and poise

7. Connessione – an appreciation for the interconnectedness of things—systems thinking

The Information Age has made it extremely easy to access information and knowledge, but paradoxically it has also led to a glut of cynicism, mediocrity, and junk to sift through. Studying a great independent thinker such as Da Vinci is a great way to bypass the nonsense.

Today’s renaissance man or woman not only has education in the liberal arts, but is also familiar and comfortable with technology, how intelligence and the brain works, and has a global mindset free from racism, elitism, etc.

“As a day well spent brings blessed sleep, so a life well lived brings a blessed death.”


We all have an innate sense of curiosity that we can cultivate. It starts with asking questions. The most brilliant minds spend their entire lives asking questions about confounding issues. Leonardo’s mission in life was a pursuit of truth and beauty, which led to his own inquisitiveness. Try looking at things from various angles, and don’t take “yes” for an answer. At the same time, take time off occasionally to relax and refresh your perspective.


  • ask yourself how curious you are. Identify some people that are more curious than you are, and how they are better off as a result.
  • keep a journal or notebook: record questions, observations, insights, jokes, and dreams—anything that interests you. Don’t worry about organization, let your thoughts free-flow.
  • 100 questions: write down 100 questions about anything you deem significant. Do it in one sitting. Afterward go through and look for themes that emerge. Choose the top ten most important questions and rank them. Ask yourself these powerful questions:
  • when do I feel most naturally myself? What activities, people and places make me feel myself?
  • what is the one thing I can start/stop doing today that will improve my life the most?
  • what is my greatest talent?
  • how can I get paid to do what I love?
  • who are my most inspiring role models?
  • how can I best be of service to others?
  • what is my hearts deepest desire?
  • how am I perceived by others?
  • what are the blessings of my life?
  • what legacy do I want to leave?
  • write down 10 questions about one of da Vinci’s subjects, then again for an area of your own life
  • choose a daily theme and record simple observations on that theme throughout the day.
  • contemplate one of your questions for a full 10 minutes.
  • stream of consciousness: write nonstop for 10 minutes on of your favorite questions. Read it afterwards, highlight your favorite parts, and look for themes.
  • You can become a better problem solver by asking better questions. Rather than looking for the right answer, take time to look for the right question instead. Don’t be afraid to ask simple or naive questions. Most business innovations start with someone asking “what if?”.
  • make a list of your ideal hobbies and the advantages of pursing each one.
  • ask for feedback regularly, and develop your emotional intelligence


Test your ideas and those of others through experience and original thought. Never stop learning, exploring, or experimenting, even if it results in failure.

“the greatest deception men suffer is from their own opinions.”


  • ask yourself if your deeply held beliefs are truly your own. Are you an independent thinker? When was the last time you changed a deeply held belief? Who is the most original independent thinker you know? What makes them original? Do you make the most of your mistakes?
  • journal about 5-10 of the most influential experiences in your life. What did you learn from each? How do you apply this experience? Which is most important, and how did that experience color your perceptions? Can you rethink any of these perceptions?
  • check your sources: choose three opinions, beliefs, or ideas you have about human nature, religion, cultures, ethnicity, life, art, etc. ask yourself how you formed each idea, how firmly you hold it, and what it would take to change it. Look for themes—what are you influenced by?
  • three points of view: for your strongest held opinion, ask what is the best argument against your opinion. Ask also how your view would change if you were a different nationality, gender, race, etc.
  • practice anti-commercial martial arts: analyze strategy and tactics used by advertisements on the internet and in magazines, ask which affect you the most, what makes ads good, and how they have influenced you in the past.
  • reflect on past mistakes and what you learned from them. What would you do differently without any fear of making mistakes?
  • create affirmations: write out at least one affirmation to help you deal with each of your greatest weaknesses. Try starting with “I feel…” rather than “I am…”.
  • learn from anti-role models: think of people with qualities or behaviors you dislike, and use them to discover what not to do. How can you learn from their mistakes?


Our senses are the only means by which we can experience the world around us. According to Leonardo, the average man “looks without seeing, listens without hearing, touches without feeling, eats without tasting, moves without physical awareness, inhales without awareness of odor or fragrance, and talks without thinking.” In order to truly appreciate life and take in the beauty around us, we need to develop and refine our senses, especially that of sight.


  • what is the most beautiful thing you have ever seen? The sweetest sound you have ever heard? The best thing you’ve ever tasted?
  • rub your palms together and place them carefully over your closed eyes for 3-5 minutes. Open your eyes and observe how colors look brighter and more vivid after doing this.
  • focus near and far: alternate your focus between objects close to you and far on the horizon every few seconds.
  • soft eyes: with your fingers together 12 inches from your face, move them slowly apart horizontally and notice when you can no longer notice them in your periphery. Repeat vertically as well. Soften your eyes and face and try again.
  • journal a detailed description of a sunrise or sunset
  • study the lives and work of your favorite artists
  • study art at a museum
  • visualize: find a time when you are relaxed, and close your eyes while you imagine and visualize whatever you want to work on. It could be basically anything. Make it as realistic as possible in your mind. Keep it positive and avoid anxious thoughts.
  • picture your favorite scene: close your eyes and imagine in great detail your favorite place and the things you would see, hear, smell, and feel.
  • visualize your favorite art pieces in detail and “put” yourself in the scene
  • learn how to draw
  • layered listening: close your eyes and listen to all the sounds around you. Take time and go through each “layer” of sound, noticing each detail as you dive deeper into the phonic landscape.
  • practice listening for silence
  • practice silence: try spending a day in nature without talking, working on your listening abilities.
  • study the lives and work of your favorite musical artists and composers (try Bach’s Mass in B Minor, Beethoven’s Symphony #9, and Mozart’s Requiem)
  • develop active listening: listen for tension and release, and try to think of music in terms of earth, air, fire, and water
  • learn to discriminate different styles and sounds in music. Listen for emotion—which pieces affect you the most profoundly and why?
  • use music throughout your day to enliven you and improve your mood
  • expand your vocabulary when it comes to smells—ask yourself what you smell right now. Learn to appreciate different smells and how they affect you. Practice smelling a variety of aromatic things.
  • make your own perfume/cologne using combinations of essential oils
  • explore wine tasting: uses all of your senses if done right
  • touch the world around you like you are experiencing it for the first time

Synesthesia is the merging of the senses. It is common among great artists. To practice, try drawing sounds, describing the sound of colors, and what music would look and taste like.

Make your work environment a more sensory rich place to be a part of. Use natural light, plants, artwork, and music to enliven your work area and stimulate your senses.


Sfumato translates to “going up in smoke.” Leonardo applied this principle in his paintings by creating hazy, ambiguous scenes with gossamer-thin layers of paint. Learn to confront the unknown (and unknowable) and embrace mystery, paradox, and uncertainty to let them fuel your creative genius. In an ever-changing world, having poise in the face of paradox is key to being effective and also retaining your sanity.


  • ask yourself how comfortable you are with ambiguity and change, at seeing humor in everyday life, and at spending sufficient time alone.
  • pick a question from the 100 questions exercise and draw an abstract picture of how it makes you feel. Try doing an abstract dance about it too (lol).
  • describe situations in your life in which ambiguity was dominant (e.g. college admissions, a dubious relationship, or layoffs at your company). How did you respond? What does that feeling feel/taste/smell/look? How does ambiguity relate to anxiety?
  • become more aware of anxiety and when it creeps into your life.
  • monitor your conversations for use of absolute wording and use of statements vs. questions.
  • sorrow makes joy more meaningful, just as death gives meaning to life. Think of times in your life when you felt the most joy and the most sorrow. How do they relate? Do the same with good and evil, strengths and weaknesses, humility and pride, life and death, etc.
  • spend time observing the Mona Lisa. Try to make her facial expression and note how it makes you feel.

Remember that the most beautiful music often occurs in between the notes. Allow ideas and feelings to incubate by pausing and taking breaks periodically. Alternate between intensely focused periods of work and periodic breaks. Breakthroughs often come when you are relaxed and by yourself, so take time for solitude. Take a ten minute break every hour to improve memory recall on your work. In addition, take a weekly sabbath and a yearly vacation.

Monitor your hunches and intuition to improve their accuracy and effectiveness.


One of Da Vinci’s most unique qualities was to see the art in science and science in the arts. You can learn to connect the right and left brains through a powerful exercise called mind mapping. Leonardo suggested going “straight into nature” to find understanding and clarity. Everything in nature is made up of networks of sinuous, branched, and nonlinear paths. Mind mapping is a way to link ideas and information naturally without immediate need for sequential organization.

Mind mapping process

  • start by drawing a picture of your topic in the middle of the page
  • write down key words and connect them with lines radiating from the middle picture (don’t worry about your ideas being off the wall)
  • branch off your categories into new sub-keywords
  • use pictures and colors whenever possible
  • keep your ideas flowing and don’t worry about finding the perfect words
  • look for patterns and themes among your work
  • connect your ideas with colors and arrows
  • eliminate extraneous elements
  • number your main themes, if necessary

Make a memory mind map

  • pick something you want to commit to memory
  • make a comprehensive mind map on the subject
  • once finished, attempt to recreate it from memory
  • repeat this until you can recreate it
  • practice visualizing the mind map in detail while you lie in bed at night


Da Vinci was strong, handsome, and graceful in addition to his artistic and scientific genius. He placed emphasis on eating well (he was a vegetarian) and being physically active.


  • Develop a fitness program. Incorporate aerobic exercises, strength training, and stretching in your routine to maximize energy and mental function. Eat healthy, unprocessed foods. Limit sugar and excess meat consumption. Make dining a pleasurable experience. Enjoy wine in moderation with food.
  • Work on standing more often and maintaining good upright posture. Check out the Alexander Technique for greater poise and posture, and try the Balanced Resting State exercise. Avoid abrupt transitions from standing to sitting, walking, etc.
  • Cultivate ambidexterity to further balance your body and even leverage the two sides of the brain more effectively. Try writing and drawing with both hands simultaneously. Learn to juggle.


Leonardo had a deep appreciation for the connectedness of things—drawing correlations between hair and flowing water, the human body and the earth, and the oneness of nature. He found order in chaos, and had a profound appreciation for the mysteries of life and nature.

The interconnectedness of things is most evident during extreme times, e.g. financial crises, epidemics, weddings, etc.


  • contemplate wholeness and disconnectedness, and whether or not your mind and emotions ever disagree with one another. Write about the Maestro’s idea that every part is eventually disposed of to become part of the whole.
  • contemplate the dynamics of your family. The roles each member plays, how those have changed over time, etc. pretend your family is a human body, and assess who is what part, and the health of the body.
  • practice making connections and metaphors between seemingly unrelated things, e.g. an oak leaf and human hand, the USA and a bowl of soup, a frog and the internet, etc.
  • imagine a dialogue between any two people from fiction, the past, or the present (e.g. Christ and Buddha)
  • before enjoying a meal, take a moment to think about where each of the origins of each ingredient, with gratitude and reflection. Do the same for your clothes and any other possessions.
  • microcosm and macrocosm: contemplate the systems that make up your body, and the molecules and matter that make up those systems, going down to the atomic and subatomic levels. Then, think about your place in the world, and how you are connected to everyone else in subtle, disparate ways. Also try to practice mindfulness/meditation for 10-20 minutes per day where you focus on your breathing. Remember that you share the air around you with the entire world. On busy days just pause once or twice for seven focused breaths.
  • imagine your life as a river. Map out the tortuous path you have taken through metaphorical mountains, dams, eddies, rapids, and waterfalls, and what will take you to your ocean.
  • write out your goals and make your goals SMART
  • write your own eulogy—ask yourself, “how do I want to be remembered?”

“Consider first the end.”  – Leonardo da Vinci

Try to live your life as a work of art.***

The final exercise—make a mind map of your life

This is a key moment in the book. The author recommends taking at least one hour per day over seven days to complete it. Doing this will give you clarity on what to do with your life and a sense of connection among the various aspects of your life and the lives of others.

Day 1: sketch the big picture of your dreams

  • make your own personal logo to serve as the center of your mind map
  • on lines radiating outward from your logo, write out several main categories of your life (relationships, career, financial, spiritual, fun, physical, learning, etc.)

Day 2: explore your goals

write words that express your goals for each category

Day 3: clarify your core values

Now that you know what you want, dig deeper by asking yourself why you want what you want. Choose 10 core values (e.g. relationships, money, power, adventure, fun, creativity, status, and growth). By getting clarity on what is really important to you and why, you can prioritize areas of your life that will fulfill your core values. Create an image/symbol for each of your top values.

Day 4: contemplate your purpose

  • journal about what your purpose is not to point you in the right direction
  • try writing a statement of purpose in 25 words or less. Then rewrite it every month until you feel excited or scared enough by it.

Day 5: assess current reality

take inventory and ask yourself how you are doing in each area of your life

Day 6: look for connections

  • make a new mind map that includes your goals, and branches for your values and purpose.
  • look for patterns: do your goals align with your values and purpose? What are your priorities? Does your current lifestyle support your goals?
  • what adjustments need to be made for you to meet your goals and fulfill your purpose?

Day 7: strategize for change

  • for each goal, ask yourself, “how will I get it?” Work backward from your ideal eulogy.
  • create a one year and a five year plan to achieve your goals. Decide on your next steps today and this week.
  • create an affirmation for each area of your life based on your goals.
  • at the beginning of each week, create a mind map for your weekly goals and priorities. Make a quick daily mind map to connect your daily tasks to your greater purpose.

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