5 tips from Leonardo on fostering your creativity

Robert Krulwich (co-host of the Greatest Science Podcast Ever: RadioLab) writes in his NPR blog of a new book by Toby Lester on the life of Leonardo da Vinci. It never hurts to study the live’s of the great thinkers. All it takes is one good idea, one new habit, to change your life, incrementally, for the better. Here are a few things to think about.


  1. Always keep your notebook on your person.   “Lester says Leonardo used to travel with a small notebook hanging from his belt, and “whenever something caught his eye,” he would make a note, or begin “sketching furiously.” “. One sure way to recognize a creative person is her ability to quickly record an idea.
  2. Occasionally confront a blank page with a pen.  Sip a coffee, listen to some music, sit on a park bench. Just let your mind wander while your hand doodles. Words, phrases, lists, arrows, pictures. No rules. Just write.
  3. Ask experts. While poring through one of Leonardo’s notebooks, Lester found a to do list for a week or month in 1490. Check out Krulwich’s post for the complete list, but what struck me was how many items on the list involved finding a local expert and asking his advice and counsel on a thorny issue. This was Leonardo, mind you. You get better by seeking the help of folks more adept than you. Be humble; be polite; but ask.
  4. A little ADHD is good for you.  You can’t come up with a new idea unless you make connections, and you can’t make connections unless you think broadly, skipping from subject to subject. When you are having trouble focusing, perhaps that’s a good time to take out your notebook, brew a cup of coffee, and scribble for a while. A restless mind is a good thing.
  5. But also be tenacious. You knew this was coming, didn’t you?  We see in Leonardo’s notebooks things that might have been– unfinished sketches, helicopters, and scary-ass weapons. But Leonardo has also seen through to completion canonical works of art and architecture. Leonardo finished things. One of the great personal challenges for any scientist is balancing 4 and 5, free association and knuckling down.

Speaking of which, time to knuckle down on a manuscript…

4 Responses to 5 tips from Leonardo on fostering your creativity

  1. Andrew Zahn says:

    It’s reassuring to hear ‘a restless mind is a good thing.’

    Sometimes we, as creatives, think we’re crazy. We’re crazy sane.

    Also reassuring to be in the company of a Da Vinci by following some of these suggestions.

  2. jesse says:

    Dr. Kaspari,

    How do you go about stimulating creativity in colleagues? For example, in a previous post (9.IX.2011; South Park) you mention the importance of brainstorming:
    “…They use a huge whiteboard to jot down scenes and situations they think would be funny. At this point its all about getting down the ideas. Structure comes later.”

    However, if you’re trying to work with colleagues to identify productive research directions, is this similar to the route you take? Or do you wait until there is more structure in your mind and writing before sharing your thoughts?

    For example, last spring, I attempted, as a first-year graduate student, to initiate an email brainstorming session with a labmate who had just defended his dissertation. I sent him a sweeping email of unconnected ideas, fragments, and bullet points. He wrote back:

    “Lots of good ideas here. My advice is to condense all of this into one short paragraph of not more than 6 sentences. Do this and I’ll give more focused comments. I’m attaching an old school paper that reminds me of some of your ideas.

    Another useful exercise may be to break this hypothesis down into a set of about 4 assumptions and a couple of resulting predictions. This may help you clarify exactly which pieces of information are critical, and which methodological tests are necessary to test the assumptions and falsify the hypothesis.”

    Unfortunately for him, another labmate of ours was cc’d on the email, and the two of us proceded to make fun of the newly graduated student for attempting to emulate what he perceived our advisor would say in a situation like this.

    But back to the point: how do you harness the creative energy of brainstorming without deafening your colleagues with your creative thunder and drowning them in your verbal drizzle? How do you balance the need for tight reasoning with the need to get others excited about helping to tighten it with you?

    • pheidole says:

      Interesting question.

      My guess is the big difference between Matt and Trey at the whiteboard, and your emailed braindump, is that the first occurs as a social interaction, with the participants watching and contributing as the ideas accrue. The second occurs as a kind of one-sided intellectual barrage, experienced ias a whole n the time it takes to read it. That’s a lot to take in. Moreover, the expected response, as per email, is a point by point answer/rebuttal. Again, not very conducive to brainstorming.

      My guess is that if you want to brainstorm it would be best to present one of your tastier ideas in a rather rounded out form in person or by email, concluding with “Coffee and a whiteboard? I’m buying.”

  3. Ben Nachman says:

    Generating Ideas, ideas, ideas.

    Creating the right attitude is important.
    You can do it by using various “tools”, for example:
    * to force potential participants to act within a specific frame of time – a week or several days.

    Dr. Ben Nachman
    Innovation and Entrepreneurship

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