Learning from Leonardo

Da Vinci's Genius Habits

Leonardo da Vinci's Sfumato: Being Open to Experience

By Linda Dessau | Posted 2/6/06 | Updated 4/6/23

Da Vinci's Genius Habits

Da vinci's genius was enhanced by his willingness to be open to anything and embracing ambiguity, paradox and uncertainty.

Have you ever attended a surprise party where the guest of honour was truly surprised? Did they look delighted? Or did they look horrified?

Open to uncertainty

A couple of days before I began writing this, I was rushing around like a mad woman trying to get things prepared for a chain of events scheduled the next day.

I spent more time worrying about it and measuring out the exact timing of things, than I did actually carrying out my planned actions. I also sacrificed my self-care. For what? Nothing turned out the way it was supposed to. A meeting I had planned was cancelled, a friend I was making dinner for got stuck in snowy weather and couldn't make it, and on it went.

A-ha, I thought, there must be a lesson here.

And then I read this section of Michael Gelb's How To Think Like Leonardo da Vinci, and I got it. The section is called, “Sfumato: A willingness to embrace ambiguity, paradox and uncertainty.”

There was no room for uncertainty in the day that I was planning. I had concocted a tight schedule of events and preparations and everything depended on everything else going just perfectly.

Of course, by the time the day arrived, if everything HAD gone on as planned, I was far too exhausted to enjoy or fully take part in any of it.

If I'd been open to uncertainty and willing to trust that events would unfold as they were meant to (not how I expected them to), I wouldn't have been so concerned about timing everything so perfectly.

Having a sense of humour is hugely important when it comes to being tolerant of uncertainty. Luckily I was able to quickly see the irony of how the day was unfolding, and I just focused in on how grateful I was — I was already prepared for whenever the meeting got rescheduled, my friend made it home safely, and I now had time to take a nap to catch up on my sleep.

Open to ambiguity

“If you're not sure what to do, then you have got the idea (152).”

Gelb discusses the connection between ambiguity and anxiety. Anxiety builds when we don't know how things will turn out, when we don't know exactly what path or actions to take or how it's all going to fit together in the end.

Then he points out that most of us don't know when we're anxious about something. Instead, we immediately cover up our anxiety by reaching for unhealthy substances or habits, or distract ourselves through other means.

He suggests we work on tuning in more regularly when we think we might be feeling it. Looking more closely at what's blocking you from creating your art can help you pinpoint your specific sources of anxiety, and recognize them when they come up.

Gelb also talks about “tuning in.” When we're attached to certainty and sameness we feel unsettled when we don't have them. It's easy to forget that if we would just stop and tune our attention inwards, we can find the most certain path to wisdom there is.

Gelb names a state called, “creative incubation.” A time of rest and solitude, interspersed between times of intense work, where you rest and open yourself up to musings and reflections about your work.

“The muses demand attention to the delicate nuances of thought, listening for the faint whispers of shy inner voices (160).”

Be receptive to the voice of your intuition and what your inner wisdom reveals to you. Gelb suggests that you jot down these thoughts and check their accuracy. Then, in time, you'll trust in it more and more. As well, you'll be more rehearsed at listening for it; you'll be able to “call it up” when you need to slow down and choose your next immediate action.

Open to paradox

When we run into people or situations that challenge us — ideas we don't understand, people we “can't” understand, and other concepts that are foreign, inconceivable or counter-intuitive to our accepted “norm”, we have a choice.

We can stand our ground firmly and work to eliminate the challenge by re-shaping it to fit into our world. OR we can embrace it as an opportunity for learning.

Many creativity experts encourage you to put yourself in front of people who have very different ideas from your own. This conflict inspires new pathways of thought for you and adds new perspectives from which to approach your creative work.

A nice, juicy challenge can spark you into working to solve it. And whether or not you do, new ideas and possibilities will be revealed to you in the process of trying.

Soul portrait

There was a lot of discussion about the Mona Lisa in this chapter (her smile embodies ambiguity), including the theory that it was actually a self-portrait, a “soul portrait” of da Vinci himself.

I loved that phrase when I read it.

Early in my coach training, I received a very personal assignment — to write a song about the ME I wanted to be, the me I was growing into, my “future self.” I wrote it in one night, definitely tapping into my intuition and inner wisdom, and I consider it my “soul song.”

I love when I can reach a state of complete willingness to embrace the uncertainty in my life. I don't always get there, but when I do, it's like the whole world is my own surprise party. And I'm delighted to be there.

Copyright ©2006 Linda Dessau. All rights reserved.

How To Think Like Leonardo da Vinci: Seven Steps to Genius Every Day

Da Vinci's Art and Science

Using both sides of your brain.

Da Vinci's Sfumato

Opening to experience.

Da Vinci's Dimostrazione

Learning from your mistakes.

Da Vinci's Corporalita

Taking care of your body

Da Vinci's Sensazione

Awakening your senses.

Da Vinci's Connessione

Seeing the connection in everything.

Da Vinci's Curiosity

Being curious about everything.