Are You Learning Every Day? Take a Page from Leonardo

I could easily be a dinosaur.

That’s because I earned my MBA in 1981 from Dartmouth’s Tuck School. I looked at the course catalog recently, and realized that I’m like the doctor who went to medical school before the invention of penicillin and the discovery of DNA. Most of what MBA students study today was not on the curriculum 32 years ago.

The point is this: the half life of knowledge is incredibly short, and what we learn in school is dwarfed by what we should and must learn outside of school. As so-called “educated” professionals, the ability to rapidly learn and flex our minds is the key to occupational longevity. We must be, as Einstein said to a friend, “passionately curious.”

Look no further than Leonardo for one of history’s most prolific and motivated learners.

In 1481, at the age of thirty, the Italian artist Leonardo da Vinci left Florence in search of a patron or client. He drafted a letter offering his services to the Milanese ruler Ludovico Sforza: “I offer to execute, at your convenience, all of the items briefly noted below.” The extraordinary list consists almost entirely of descriptions of innovative military inventions that could be put at Sforza’s service. “I have a model of very strong but light bridges, extremely easy to carry. . . .  During a siege, I know how to dry up the water of the moats . . . I will make covered vehicles, safe and unassailable, which will penetrate enemy ranks . . .” and so on.  Interestingly, only at the very end of this letter does Leonardo mention putting his prodigious artistic talents to work for the Milanese leader.

Great client advisors have both depth and breadth, and Leonardo da Vinci was an example of a consummate deep generalist who was constantly learning new things. An illegitimate child who grew up in a small town in Tuscany, Leonardo had virtually no formal education. When he was brought to Florence and apprenticed at age 15, he knew nothing of Latin and probably could barely read. Although he lacked education, Leonardo rarely failed to master whatever discipline or task he set himself to.

While Leonardo was highly trained as a master artist, he branched out into many other disciplines. He constantly went to the source for his learning, studying the ripples in a pond with the same intensity he had for subjects of his paintings. He took nothing for granted, and constantly questioned why things were done a certain way, whether it was the traditional technique of applying paint to a canvas or the accepted way of swaddling newborn infants. When he painted the famous Last Supper, he completely broke with convention, and instead of placing Judas off to the side without a halo (the custom among Renaissance painters), he placed him close to Christ and on the right, differentiating him with nuances of expression and shadow.

At his death, he had become one of the most accomplished artists in history. He had designed hundreds of inventions, including a water-powered alarm clock, a parachute and a helicopter – all of them well before their time. Moreover, he created anatomical studies that were unequaled for nearly three hundred years. Leonardo was simply fascinated by everything around him, writing, “The desire to know is natural to good men.

Leonardo da Vinci passed away nearly 500 years ago, but he’s still an inspirational role model for twenty-first century learners.

What are you doing, this year, to deepen and broaden your skills? 

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