EXPIRI – The one thing Da Vinci was dead wrong about (and why)

How did Leonardo Da Vinci become a master of fields so diverse as anatomy, physics, dentistry, art, music, astronomy, engineering, and many, many more?


It’s a question worth asking. If we can capture just a percentile of his brilliance, we can contribute and accomplish a lot in our lives.


Da Vinci made discoveries that were centuries ahead of his time, despite lacking a formal education. Some accounts of history suggest, however, that his brilliance might be because of the lack of formal education.




So let’s start with something that he was surprisingly wrong about. That’s weird to say isn’t it? In Walter Isaacson’s biography of Da Vinci, he emphasises that given the many things Da Vinci figured out centuries ahead of his time, from blood flow in the heart to friction and some of Newton’s Laws, he was, surprisingly, unable to figure out circulation.


He dissected some 30 corpses in his time, but he did not figure out that a particle of blood migrates around the body like Jackie Chan traveling Around the World in 80 Days. He seemed to think that particles of blood shuffled back and forth on the spot, like an iron smoothing over a crinkled shirt.


He should not have overlooked this. He should have figured it out. So why didn’t he?


Isaacson has a suggestion.


Did Da Vinci find too many textbooks on this subject?


Da Vinci was critical of ‘received wisdom’


Da Vinci was a master experimenter. He scoffed at those who relied on received wisdom — ideas and notions that came from others. He turned his nose up at people who read lots of books but were not willing to go out in the world and test things. Nothing, in his mind, was more foolish.


From creating a glass model of a bull’s heart to studying the woodpecker’s tongue and all sorts of whacky and genius experiments, it was this more than anything else that elevated Da Vinci’s powers of discovery.


Isaacson suggests that for circulation, Da Vinci became over-reliant on textbooks and received wisdom, based on his investigation into Da Vinci’s notes and reading lists. It was the one time he strayed from his powerful model for learning and discovery through experimentation. It was the one time he relied too heavily on received wisdom.


A lot of people read a lot of books…


I’ve been grappling with this dilemma for a short while now. I started reading books aggressively this time last year when COVID-19 hit, and have noticed the powerful impact this has had on my learning and thinking. It is easy to think that the moral of the story is to just read tons of books.


There are a lot of people who read a lot of books, but not all of them display Without-The-Box Thinking (by your standards or mine). To circulate this lesson from Da Vinci, we might have a picture as to why.


When I’m reading something and encoding new information, I’m making connections and references to my own experiences. When I read, for example, about how curious both Albert Einstein and Leonardo Da Vinci were from young ages, I mentally check this against the other driven people I know. Are they deeply curious to? Was this the spark in their journey?


I like to think that I get better and better over time at applying the blue unicorn principle, rather than falling into the trap of blindly believing everything I read and hear. This makes sense, because I can only read and hear existing information. No one can provide me with a truly novel idea, because if they have provided it to me it means it is theirs, and not mine.


Whilst it might be novel to me and a great idea in general, what will serve both society and myself well would be to create novel ideas myself by combining, collating, connecting and testing two or more ideas.


That is a practice of creativity.


Ray Croc, who turned McDonald’s into a global brand, did not create the first McDonald’s store. He found it, but recognised its potential to scale. In other words, he found a great idea and took it further. If Croc had been limited to receiving wisdom, he would not have made this important leap.


Think about science as a discipline. How does it work? Hypotheses go through an evolution of being formed and tested repeatedly over time. Isaac Newtown, who is famous for his quote on ‘standing on the shoulder of giants’ to see further, was born the same year that Galileo Galilei died — a phenomenal pioneer himself. We would not have the same contributions from Newtown if Galileo had not preceded him.


It is with the experiments that we find and do more. But if you’re not a scientist, and not as imaginative as Leonardo Da Vinci, how does this apply to you?


‘Experi’ments. ‘Experi’ences. EXPERI


I thought of this when I was comparing Da Vinci’s learning equation to my own life. I don’t run scientific experiments persay, but I do experiment — by opening Doors and investing in the right experiences.


Have you ever noticed that root word? The ‘experi’? I did a bit of etymology background and found something interesting.


Experience dates back to the 14th century and means “observation as the source of knowledge; actual observation; an event which has affected one,” from Old French esperience “experiment, proof, experience” (13c.).


Leonardo Da Vinci was the master of observation. He noted hundreds of ratios of the human body alone, constantly ‘read’ nature, and it is this power of observation you can thank for the incredible detail in his artworks and drawings.


Experiment is defined as the “action of observing or testing; an observation, test, or trial;”. Again there is that powerful word, ‘observing’.


If we look at the common Latin root experientia this meant “a trial, proof, experiment; knowledge gained by repeated trials,” and if we keep going, we trace things back to a present participle of expiri which means, “to try, test,”.


Fascinating right? (Note: etymology is ALWAYS fun) – as a last treat, I found that expiri can be broken in two, into ex-, which means ‘out of’ and per- which means, ‘to try, risk’.


To Try, Risk.


Linking experimentation and experience is this root of trying and risking. Relying on received wisdom alone is not a pathway to real learning and creativity — the process of making new discoveries of some form.


For Einstein it was thought experiments. He never did much in a lab. For Da Vinci, it was practical experiments and observations. For you it might be some combination of these plus your own experiences, where you try and experience new things.


Where you open Doors.


The equation for real learning, at this point in time is I believe…


And, of course, real learning can be substituted for creativity. With this equation, creativity is not a divine gift, but a function of the right style and method of learning.


Leonardo Da Vinci lacked a formal education. The slingshot (from, the Slingshot Principle) of this was that he did not grow up relying on received wisdom. Lots of people read lots of books, but without the ability to synthesise ideas together and test them, the real value of this reading is lost.


Don’t limit yourself to the received wisdom. Stand on the shoulders of giants, not in their shadows.

Try. Risk.


Would this open a Door For Someone You Know?

Remember to share it with them, after all, the best way to Open a Thousand Doors for you is to concentrate on Opening Doors for Others.

With Joe Wehbe – The Podcast

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