What Mona Lisa's Smile Says About History's Most Prolific Creators

If you’ve had the chance to travel to Paris, you likely paid a visit to the Louvre Museum, home to Leonardo da Vinci’s iconic painting, the Mona Lisa. Consult the museum’s Yelp page and you might be surprised to learn that many reviewers call the painting overrated. One even called it “a painting of status and nothing more.”

I’m no art critic, but learning more about what goes into an artwork helps me appreciate it. According to historian and author Walter Isaacson, Da Vinci spent 16 years painting the tiny brushstrokes to perfect the optics of the lips so they flicker the right way.

With all of the work that went into Mona Lisa’s smile, it’s hard to wrap your head around the fact that Da Vinci was simultaneously working on a multitude of projects. After all, in addition to being a painter, he was an engineer, scientist, theorist, sculptor, and architect — the ultimate polymath.

As CEO of Jotform, a role that requires wearing many hats, I’ve found it helpful to understand the habits of prolific Renaissance thinkers like Da Vinci and Michelangelo. The latter spent four years hand-painting the Sistine Ceiling. Johann Goethe once said about the famed Vatican City masterpiece, “Until you have seen the Sistine Ceiling, you have no idea what human kind is capable of accomplishing.”

Studying their daily routines has informed my habits — for not doing more, but for producing more meaningful work that can move the needle for my career and my business. Taking a page from Renaissance thinkers, here are some helpful tips.

Journal religiously and clarify your goals

Da Vinci once wrote, “It is useful to constantly observe, note, and consider.” He was a religious journaler — today, we have more than 7,200 pages of his notebooks, the pages crammed with notes, sketches, and fascinating to-do lists.

Writing for NPR, Robert Krulwich offered a translated version of one of Da Vinci’s to-do lists (with Krulwich’s amendments for clarity in brackets). The list has at least 15 items, with diverse things like:

  • [Calculate] the measurement of Milan and Suburbs
  • Get the master of arithmetic to show you how to square a triangle.
  • Ask Benedetto Potinari (A Florentine Merchant) by what means they go on ice in Flanders
  • Draw Milan
  • [Examine] the Crossbow of Mastro Giannetto
  • Find a master of hydraulics and get him to tell you how to repair a lock, canal and mill in the Lombard manner

You’ll notice that there’s no clear timeline or adherence to any one subject. Da Vinci seemed to list everything he was curious about, no limitations, and every question he wanted to explore. It’s conducive to the spirit of curiosity that today’s entrepreneurs urgently need, and as it happens, many of us lose as we continue down the funnel of our businesses and careers.

Daily journaling is a great way to continue to cultivate that spirit of curiosity. I’ve written before about morning pages, a term that Julia Cameron first coined in her classic book, The Artist’s Way. My routine entails opening up a Google document as soon as I sit at my desk every day, turning off all of my device notifications, and free-writing for 15 minutes or so. This practice has helped me significantly in my founder journey, to explore whatever ideas are rattling around in my head and to clarify my larger goals. As I wrote in my book, to minimize busywork and make as much time and mental space as possible for the big stuff, it’s critical to continually reassess your goals. For me, journaling has been key to accomplishing that.

Embrace your interdisciplinary interests

When I think back to my college years, it’s hard to believe the variety of courses I took. Some mornings were spent learning to code. Others, I was parsing apart the structure of a sonnet. As we progress on our career tracks, we often become siloed in our field. Exploring interests unrelated to our day-to-day job starts to seem indulgent; the kind of thing we can only do once we finish our real work.

Great Renaissance thinkers didn’t keep their interests in separate lanes. As Isaacson, the Da Vinci biographer, explains, Da Vinci may have painted more masterpieces if he wasn’t studying anatomy or trying to square the circle.

“[B]ut he would not have painted ‘The Last Supper’ or the ‘Mona Lisa’ had he not been deeply interested in all of the patterns across all of the arts and humanities and sciences and engineering..”

Studying anatomy actually made Da Vinci a better painter.

Likewise, Michelangelo’s historian, William Wallace, found tangible proof that the painter allowed his interests to mingle. Wallace describes discovering a piece of paper from when Michelangelo was designing and building sections of San Lorenzo church in Florence. On it, there were drawings of moldings and columns, but also poems. It seems that Michelangelo was at one moment, designing a major building (with a roomful of workers, no less) and the next, composing poetry.

The takeaway? Exploring your interests may seem superfluous, but it can enrich your work and your thinking in ways that aren’t immediately obvious. At the very least, carving out time for hobbies will leave you refreshed for when you return to work and maybe even creatively inspired.

Surround yourself with diverse thinkers

One of the salient aspects of Da Vinci’s life in Florence was his very active social life. Isaacson explained that he loved socializing with people across disciplines.

“Leonardo loved to be around such enlivening and stimulating diversity.”

Surrounding yourself with diverse thinkers forces you to think more critically and can lead to better, more innovative ideas. Experts chalk it up to cognitive elaboration, which is essentially the way that people share, challenge, and expand each other’s thinking by compelling each other to think more deeply about their reasoning and interrogate facts more objectively

Not only that: companies that embrace diversity of thought perform better financially, just another reason to cultivate a rich social circle, both inside and outside of the office.

We have an endless number of productivity technologies and tools at our fingertips, and yet, it seems more challenging than ever to focus on work and get things done. Examining the habits of the great minds of the 15th century can provide surprisingly fresh insight into managing your time, staying curious about the world around you, and keeping your thinking razor-sharp.

Aytekin Tank is the founder and CEO of Jotform and the bestselling author of Automate Your Busywork. A developer by trade but a storyteller by heart, he writes about his journey as an entrepreneur and shares advice for other startups. He loves to hear from Jotform users. You can reach Aytekin from his official website aytekintank.com.

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