Lesson 1

Yes, You’re a Genius

Introductory lesson by Michael Gelb: Discover your own genius and creativity thorough the seven
da Vincian principles.

Welcome to the Course!

I’m Michael Gelb, the author of How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci and the How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci Workbook. I’d like to hear what it was about the possibility of thinking like Leonardo that resonated in you enough to join us here at Barnes and Noble University. Please take a few moments to log on to the Message Board and share your thoughts with your fellow students and me. And enjoy the course!

image008Listening to Genius

What makes a work of art truly great?

Great art “speaks” to us. Take Leonardo’s Mona Lisa or Last Supper, for example. Every time you look at those paintings, another nuance, a new connection, or an unexpected question arises. Great art enriches our lives by bringing forth universal truths in fresh, yet eternally compelling ways. How many of us look at our own lives as creative expressions?

The Mona Lisa is Leonardo’s supreme symbol of wisdom in the face of the unknown. Her mysterious smile is a Western version of the ancient Chinese symbol of yin and yang. It reminds us to use intuition and humor when meeting change and uncertainty.

Most of us are familiar with Leonardo’s art, but few realize just how great da Vinci’s contributions were to science and society, and how many of his inventions are still in wide use today. Beyond his magnificent paintings, the method and example of Leonardo da Vinci himself should inspire us to discover and explore our own capacity for genius in the art of living. Each of us is born with tremendous potential for creative expression, and Leonardo is the supreme role model for accessing and actualizing that gift.

What Does Leonardo’s Genius Have to Do With You?

This course is designed to help awaken the same traits Leonardo celebrated within himself in you. Learning and practicing the seven da Vinci principles can open up new channels of creativity, intellect, and passion in your life. You’ll discover that “genius” is a term you should feel comfortable applying to yourself, and that the chief requirement for its existence is its careful cultivation.

The idea of “genius thinking” can seem somewhat daunting, but you’ll be delighted to discover that it’s easier than you imagined — and a lot more fun. I think you’ll find that Leonardo’s approach will confirm many of your own strongest intuitions about how to access your own potential. Each lesson will unveil a concept and explore its role in our lives, how we can be conscious of it, and how to encourage its development. By the end of the course, you should be vividly aware of the role each principle plays in your life, which areas need more “tending,” and of exciting changes occurring as you cultivate your own creative genius.

The text and the workbook, How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci, will be your constant companions throughout the course. The text offers much more background information than the course allows for, and the workbook will help you learn to apply the seven da Vincian principles to your everyday life.

So, Welcome! Let’s discover just how much you have in common with one of the most incredible humans of all time.

The Demand for da Vinci

Christie’s recently sold a small da Vinci equestrian sketch for almost 12 million dollars, and in 1994 Bill Gates paid more than 30 million dollars for 18 pages of Leonardo’s notebooks. What do you think it is about da Vinci’s work that continues to fascinate and captivate hundreds of years after his death?

Meet the Maestro

In addition to his Mona Lisa, Adoration of the Magi, and Last Supper, which are universally acclaimed as among the greatest paintings ever created, Leonardo’s anatomical, botanical, and geological sketches are masterpieces of both art and science.

image009 Self-portrait of Leonardo Da Vinci.

Leonardo’s imagination took him up into the sky; he conceived a remarkable flying machine, a prototypical helicopter, and a parachute to return safely from the air. Modern engineers confirm that Leonardo’s proportions for the parachute are functionally accurate, a truly marvelous example of thinking ahead. He designed ball bearings, the three-speed gearshift, automated looms, scissors, a bicycle, and the extendable ladder that fire departments still use today. His work in anatomy, hydraulics, botany, geology, and physics makes him a pioneer of modern science.

In addition to his contributions in art, science, and invention, Leonardo was also renowned for his musical talent, athleticism, good looks, sense of humor and personal charm. Giorgio Vasari, the man credited with establishing art history as a discipline in the 1500s, tells us that Leonardo “made every sorrowful soul serene.”

Along with Brunelleschi, Michelangelo, and other giants, Leonardo helped to bring the Western world out of the MiddleAges and into the Renaissance. Our world is going through changes today that are even more dramatic than those Leonardo experienced. As we approach his 550th birthday, Leonardo reigns as an unsurpassed global symbol of human potential. He represents the Renaissance ideal of balance for us at a time when balance may be more elusive, yet more important, than ever.

Course Texts

How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci and the How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci Workbook are both required texts for the course. Without them, you will not be able to follow along with the activities and projects that are part of this course. Please, if you haven’t yet purchased them, take a few minutes to order them from Barnes and

The Secrets of Genius

So, what are the secrets of Leonardo’s genius and how can you apply them to embrace change and enrich the quality of your life? Inspired by this question, I visited Leonardo’s birthplace in Anchiano and walked the Tuscan hills where he was raised. I made a pilgrimage to study his works that included visits to Washington, D.C. (The National Gallery Collection includes Ginevra de Benci, the only Leonardo painting in the Americas), London, Paris, Venice, Rome, Florence, and Milan. I read and re-read his notebooks and every book I could find about him.

When I visited the place where Leonardo died, the Clos de Luce in Amboise, France, I looked through his bedroom window with a sense that a glimpse of his perspective was already changing the way I looked at the world. I began to dream about the maestro, all the while holding in mind the core question: What are the secrets of Leonardo’s genius and how can we apply them to enrich the quality of our lives?

From this delightful inquiry, seven principles emerged for thinking like Leonardo. As they emerged, I asked, “Is there an eighth principle that I’m missing?” No, there wasn’t. I asked, “Could the principles be condensed into six?” No, they cannot. The seven essential principles for thinking like Leonardo are: Curiosità, Dimostrazione, Sensazione, Sfumato, Arte/Scienza, Corporalita, and Connessione.

Today, people from all walks of life are benefiting from the application of these ideas and the exercises that accompany them. One parent wrote: “This book gave me everything I always wanted to teach my children, but didn’t have the words to say.” Many schools around the world are applying the seven principles as the basis of their curriculum. Corporations such as BP, DuPont, KPMG, Merck, and many others use the da Vincian principles in their innovation and leadership-development programs. But my favorite comment was from a woman who wrote, “Exploring these exercises is like having a big box of Belgian chocolates; too rich to eat all at once — but I look forward to unwrapping and savoring one or two a day!”

Creative Fiascos

Leonardo da Vinci may have been the greatest genius who ever lived but, like all of us, he made mistakes. One of his greatest paintings, The Battle of Anghiari, faded within weeks because of his miscalculations, and his plan to divert the Arno River caused great expense but was never practical.

The Seven Principles

Let’s begin with an overview of the seven principles for thinking like Leonardo:


An insatiably curious approach to life and an unrelenting quest for continuous learning.

Young children learn at an astonishing rate. If a child is raised in a home where five languages are spoken, the child will learn to speak all five languages. Why are children so good at learning? They are born with profound, unrelenting curiosity. And genius is born when that quality of curiosity continues throughout life.

Leonardo da Vinci was insatiably curious. He possessed the openness and energy of a child combined with the focus and discipline of maturity. What was he curious about? Everything! But his integrating theme was the quest to find the essence of truth and beauty. In this course you’ll learn to strengthen and develop your natural curiosity and reawaken the childlike openness that can bring more truth and beauty to your life every day.


A commitment to test knowledge through experience, persistence, and a willingness to learn from mistakes.

Leonardo came along after a one-thousand-year period when no one questioned anything, and he questioned everything, starting a revolution in the development of independent thinking. In the Middle Ages, it was generally assumed that everything worth knowing was already known. No one questioned the belief, for example, that the Biblical Flood had deposited the fossilized seashells in the mountains outside of Milan. In his notebooks, Leonardo demonstrated through careful observation and logic that this explanation was invalid and proposed a more scientific explanation.

Dimostrazione is a word used by Leonardo to refer to the idea of thinking independently, testing things through our own experience, and learning from mistakes. Like a baby learning to walk, Leonardo was persistent in his quest for truth and beauty. In his notebooks, he affirms: “I shall continue,” “All obstacles shall be overcome by commitment,” and “Fix your course to a star.”

In the lessons that follow, you’ll learn to strengthen your ability to learn from experience and cut through the “spam” of information overload. And, like the maestro himself, you’ll cultivate a positive attitude to learning from mistakes as you fix your own course to a star.


The continual refinement of the senses, especially sight, as the means to enliven experience.

Five hundred years ago, in Tuscany, Leonardo observed that the average person “looks without seeing, hears without listening, breathes in without awareness of aroma or fragrance, eats without tasting, touches without feeling, and talks without thinking!” And that was well before the onslaught of environmental and media pollution that afflicts us today. Our popular culture tends not to encourage sensory awareness and refinement. But this awareness is a secret of savoring “la dolce vita” (the sweet, soulful life) and a key to becoming “sharper” and more creative.

Leonardo cultivated his sensory awareness like an Olympic athlete trains his body for competition, and he noted that, “The five sense are the ministers of the soul.” In this part of the course, you’ll practice delightful exercises in comparative appreciation (with rigorous wine and chocolate tasting) that will sharpen your senses and your appreciation for the beauty of creation. You’ll learn a simple but powerful approach to enhancing your enjoyment of music, art, food, wine, and life itself.

The introduction to the Seven Principles will continue on the next page with Sfumato.

Einstein’s Three Rules of Work

  1. Out of clutter, find simplicity.
  2. From discord, find harmony.
  3. In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity. — Albert Einstein

The Seven Principles, Continued


A willingness to embrace ambiguity, paradox, and uncertainty.

If you begin to awaken your childlike curiosity by asking deeper questions, if you commit to independent thinking and start to sharpen your senses, the result will be — more questions! Sfumato is a term that art critics coined to refer to the hazy, mysterious quality in Leonardo’s paintings, a quality he achieved through the gossamer-thin application of hundreds of layers of paint so that the light seems to suffuse magically from behind the canvas. It represents one of the most distinctive characteristics of highly creative people like Leonardo himself: openness to the unknown and poise in the face of uncertainty.

Our world is changing faster than ever before. New developments in technology, geo-politics, business, science, and medicine are accelerating change and multiplying uncertainty. As uncertainty mounts, the ability to remain centered and balanced becomes more important for individual well-being. In this part of the course, you’ll apply exercises that will strengthen your comfort with ambiguity and guide you to smile as you deal with uncertainty, and you’ll learn simple techniques for cultivating your intuitive powers.


The development of the balance between science and art, logic and imagination; whole- brain thinking.

Leonardo urged his students to “study the science of art and the art of science.” His claim to the title of greatest genius of all time rests on his unmatched mastery of both science and art. In modern terms, Leonardo was a representative and advocate of what we call whole-brain thinking. He inspires us to use the linear, logical, analytical capacities of our mind in harmony with the more imaginative, colorful, and playful elements.

This ideal of balance is brought to everyday practice through a simple technique called mind mapping (developed by British brain researcher Tony Buzan, who was inspired by the notes of Leonardo da Vinci). In this section of the course, you’ll learn to make mind maps for everything from daily planning and speech preparation to creative problem-solving and test preparation. Mind mapping is a simple, easy method for training yourself to think like Leonardo.


The cultivation of grace, ambidexterity, fitness, and poise.

In addition to his prowess in art and science, Leonardo was also renowned for his physical gifts. History records that he was as renowned for his strength and athleticism as he was for his beauty, grace, and poise. Leonardo gave advice on health and well being that is echoed today in writings on holistic health. He advocated moderate exercise, a diet of fresh, wholesome food (the Maestro was a vegetarian), and a little red wine with dinner. Leonardo understood all those years ago what we now call “the mind-body connection.” His most important advice on maintaining health and well-being included these words: “Avoid grievous moods and keep your mind cheerful.”

In this part of the course, you’ll be introduced to a da Vincian approach to health and well-being that can dramatically improve the quality of your life.


A recognition of and appreciation for the interconnectedness of all things and phenomena; systems thinking.

As Leonardo searched for truth and beauty, he observed parallels in the flow of water, the movement of wind, the flight of birds, and the refraction of light. He noted that everything connects to everything else. The ability to see connections that others don’t is a hallmark of genius and Leonardo offers a supreme example of this creative capacity. In this section of the course you’ll learn to look at your life vision, values and goals from this holistic perspective so that you can integrate your highest aspirations into your life everyday.

Moving Forward

In the next lesson, we’ll get the course underway with the first principle of Curiosità. I encourage you to read Part One of How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci through the discussion of Curiosità on pages 49-55 to spark your curiosity about him and the fascinating time in history in which he flourished. Follow up your reading by doing the Curiosità Self-Assessment on page 56.

Don’t forget to read through the Lesson 1 assignment about journaling. Journaling is an essential component of unlocking your genius, and the assignment will help you prepare for that.

An art critic once said of Leonardo: “Everything he touched turned to eternal beauty.” My wish for you is that you will apply the seven principles to bring a touch of the maestro’s genius to your life every day.

— Michael J. Gelb

Assignment : Preparing for the Course

Reading Assignment

Read Part One of How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci through the discussion of Curiosità on pages 49-55 to learn more about Leonardo and the fascinating time in history in which he flourished. Follow up your reading by doing the Curiosità Self-Assessment on page 56.

Commit to Journaling

Writing in a journal is a significant part of this course and of the book. Many of you have probably kept journals, some of you religiously. If you’ve never kept a journal before, prepare yourself for the wonderful surprise at the benefits they bring. No matter what experience you bring to this course, you’ll learn how to get more from what you observe in your life and how you record it in your journal. But you must commit to journaling.

And to all of you, remember that your journals are for you and you alone. Do not self-edit; write freely and without concern for grammatical rules.

The companion book to the primary text, The How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci Workbook, is designed to act as your main journal as you travel through the text and the course. It is a wonderful guide and may help motivate some of you first-time journalers, in addition to giving that extra bit of discipline to those of you who’ve had a difficult time keeping a commitment to journaling in the past.

Here are some additional things to consider about your journaling:

  • Keeping more than one journal (one for work, another for your hobby, yet another for a current project) is confusing. Limit yourself to two journals, and carry them with you everywhere (make one a visual journal)
  • While keeping a journal on your computer is handy if you’re a 70-word-a-minute typist, don’t keep your journal on a computer unless you have a notebook computer or Palm handheld that’s chained to your wrist. You should take your journal with you everywhere
  • Don’t share your journal with others unless you’re supremely self-assured. You should feel comfortable writing your thoughts in your journal, and if you’re worried that others will read it, there’s a chance you’ll censor yourself
  • On the other hand, occasionally you may want to share what you’ve written. If you’re proud of an insightful journal entry, feel free to share it on the Message Board.

2 responses to “Lesson 1

  1. Ofentse Motumi

    August 7, 2013 at 8:41 am

    I knew that reading this article would not be a waste of time and I was right!

  2. Abigayle Hampel

    September 11, 2014 at 7:33 pm

    lots of info and very interesting


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