To-do lists à la Leonardo da Vinci


Walter Isaacson

Leonardo da Vinci. The Biography


Most of us make to-do lists, but I would bet that hardly anyone has items such as “Draw Milan”, “Get the master of arithmetic to show you how to square a triangle”, or “Describe the tongue of a woodpecker” on it. Mine certainly don’t. But Leonardo da Vinci did, and these are just a few of the numerous examples scattered throughout this fascinating biography.


The author, Walter Isaacson, used Leonardo da Vinci’s countless notebooks as his starting point. I can’t even imagine how much time he must have spent sifting and reading through the over 7,200 pages crammed with notes, sketches, anatomical drawings, calculations, riddles, ideas for weapons and fortifications, lists (including lists of all the books he owned and wanted to have!), and pretty much everything else under the sun.

Walter Isaacson has done a fine job of describing all of the facets of this remarkable man. Although da Vinci had little formal education, he was endlessly curious and ambitious, learning mainly from experience, from trial and error, and from observing nature, people, and animals. It seems he was also quite bold, as one can see from his job application to Ludovico (who later became the Duke of Milan by means of some rather shady activities) in the 1480’s.


I was surprised to find out how many of his projects he never actually finished. Procrastination due to perfectionism?  He actually carried some of his paintings around with him for years on end (including the Mona Lisa), adding a few brush strokes or a new layer to them now and again.


This is a book to savor, one to dip into over and over again. It’s a heavy brick, over 500 pages long, yet I was sorry to see it end because I couldn’t get enough.  And yes, Mr. Isaacson thoughtfully includes a description of a woodpecker’s tongue at the very end. I would have been quite disappointed if he hadn’t! In the conclusion of the book he also lists various lessons one could learn from a master of autodidactic learning, how to incorporate some of them into our own lives today.


I would recommend this to anybody curious about Leonardo da Vinci or curious about the world in general. It makes you want to go out and discover things, to take the time to look and actually see. Now grab a notebook and write down the first item for the next to-do list of your own:


- Buy or borrow Leonardo da Vinci. The Biography by Walter Isaacson


Then read it and note whether or not you observe the world around you just a little bit differently, at least for a while. As an experiment… ;-)