I think this book can often be summarized best by Leonardo Da Vinci himself: “He who can go to the fountain does not go to the water-jar.” Learn widely and deeply, from the source itself, from exploration and experimentation- not from pre-digested secondary sources, in other words. In some ways, Leonardo Da Vinci is so relevant to our current age that I found myself pondering the how his life and beliefs could be applied to today’s world of broad, shallow knowledge.
I think that many of us feel disconnected and fragmented- too different from others, ill at ease with others, compounded by our tendency to connect virtually. We take our information in via the sound bite, the Twitter feed (and if you want to know what the Chief Executive has said, you virtually must have a Twitter feed), the TV broadcast, the mobile phone notification. I see increasingly more patients who question-“have I always had ADHD? My kids have ADHD” but yet have not optimized sleep, mood, and have not developed (or lost) the skills of deep focus. One of the best selling books in business today is “Deep Work” by Cal Newport. We require teaching to help us focus given the number of distractions competing for our attention- the fabric of our minds is being frayed at the edges by the constant requests for our attention. Or is it? I think the answer is yes and no. I think we expect absolute focus, and value conformity in our young students. Heck, I value conformity in my young children. I understand- I feel a little upset when my kids aren’t listening in class, or appear to fall behind. I feel a little upset (and amused, I admit) when I get a crayon drawing with “I will not talk when the bell rings” from my son’s school, and a drawing for “better choices” that he might make later. But by forcing people into a mold for achievement, are we sacrificing creativity, zest for life, the joy of learning?
Leonardo did not live in a time like this, but struggled maintaining focus all the same. However, his restless intellect, periodic hyper focus, so common in ADHD (not the more often destructive bipolar disorder, as the author posited, though perhaps there is better evidence somewhere else), was admired at the time. The author himself points out that had Leonardo been able to follow through with his projects, we might have more surviving projects. He also admires Da Vinci’s joy for exploration and learning- and on trying to live a little more like DaVinci, observes that his life was richer for having made the attempt. Can we really say that Leonardo, the inventor of countless devices, painter of accurate optics and beauty, explorer of the mind, probably would have done a lot better on Ritalin? To be clear, the author is not saying this. But I wondered this- have I seen a Leonardo in my practice? Would I have checked the boxes of the DSM-5, and started medication? I like to think (and hope) not. On the other hand, I can’t say I know better than my patients- some of these people are really suffering, and prevented from achieving what they feel they should. But are they trying to fit themselves into society’s expectation- I “should” behave some way or another, etc? I think observing Leonardo’s life with a critical eye- much like he might have himself- can give us some clarity to the place we have found ourselves.
Also interesting and much appreciated, was the author’s ability to review the evidence, and provide what he felt was the likeliest conclusion – too often, biographies, at the risk and worry of being paternalistic, or making judgements, leave us wondering why something happened. I really appreciated the author’s willingness to make himself vulnerable, to say, “this is what I think is most likely.” The book was surprisingly funny in places- the hilariousness of Da Vinci’s to-do lists- was worth the time reading the book alone.
I heard about this book on a podcast- I think it was Tim Ferris’s podcast- and was inspired to check it out from our local library. I am so glad I did. I encourage anyone interested to spend the time with this book. I’ll probably head back to the library soon for the biography this author wrote on Benjamin Franklin next.