DCPLive is a blog by library staff at the DeKalb County Public Library!
Dec 30 2015

Thinking in Systems

by Arthur G

Curiosity isn’t just a gift–it’s a gateway. Children endowed with an unquenchable thirst for figuring things out will be a real force in the world–as long as they never lose the simple joy in finding the bridge between knowing and not knowing. As a kid, that bridge was always over another horizon, obscured by a mountain of books and a plethora of facts, equations, theories, and gadgets–the collected wreckage of my endless pursuit for understanding. In my childish egocentrism, I thought I was alone in my thirst and occasionally wondered if anyone else thought the same way. I used to fumble through my local library, digesting facts, flitting from shelf to shelf and from subject to subject. It was there that I first discovered the quintessential “Renaissance Man,” Leonardo di Vinci. The fabled “Universal Genius” was my first encounter with the polymath concept, and every book on him I explored filled me with the hope that it was both possible and desirable to be a jack-of-all-trades and master of some.

LeonardoLegacyBut there was something missing. Many authors tended to rattle off his accomplishments like a Wikipedia list: he IS a scientist-mathematician-painter-sculpture-anatomist-writer-engineer. Any insight into his mind, his motivations, are usually swept under the rug or left unexamined. But there is one notable exception: Leonardo’s Legacy: How da Vinci Reimagined the World. A spectacular book penned by Stefan Klein, noted physicist and essayist, it departs from the laudatory fluff of most da Vinci biographies and examines some of the core tenets driving not just the man, but the polymath paradigm as a whole.

For instance, while da Vinci’s extensive resume usually places “mathematician” near the top, he in fact only knew the basics of long division–pretty advanced for his time, but hardly the stuff of pure genius. Instead of firing labels like a rabid kid with a paint gun, Klein looks for the origin of da Vinci’s unique mind view in his notes, letters, and sketches. As it turns out, da Vinci’s drive and most of his discoveries sprung from his pursuit of the ideal expression of art. His examinations into anatomy were born out of dissatisfaction with the outdated models of his time, so often used by artists; his discoveries in optics were spurred by his obsession with accurate light and shadow, and his engineering feats were extensions of these findings, fed also by his need for patronage and the demands of his volatile slice of Italy. Klein presents da Vinci’s achievements as both an extension of his artistry and as an outgrowth of his social and historical context.

By moving his development and discoveries beyond the vague and unhelpful “genius” label, Klein introduced me to a fuller and, dare I say, more accurate model of the “Renaissance soul.” Da Vinci never viewed his varied accomplishments in isolation. Though stricken by a lifelong love for knowledge, he tried to fit what he learned into a comprehensive framework, one much greater than the sum of its parts. Though Klein doesn’t quite mention it by name, his book was my first introduction to the idea of “systems thinking”–an approach to problem solving that views different elements and ideas in the world as part of a larger, interconnected whole, however isolated they appear. To da Vinci and other polymaths, knowledge isn’t just a series of disparate facts, separate leaves to be admired and collected in isolation. The objective is always to get at the “root,” so to speak, to see the tree in its entirety–leaves, branches, and all.

Unfortunately, Klein also points out just how fragile this peculiar brand of curiosity can be when not nurtured or funded by a generous patron. He argues that while we often lament the dearth of “modern day da Vincis,” our current emphasis on specialization and compartmentalization in education can hammer a budding polymath’s interests flat. This, of course, is a debatable point–but even so, Leonardo’s Legacy is a great book for anyone whose passions branch in many directions by offering a peek into one of our most illustrious champions.

Here are other books well worth a look:

The Renaissance Soul: Life Design for People with Too Many Passions to Pick Just One by Margaret Lobenstine (the rare career advice book aimed at people with multiple passions)

How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci: Seven Steps to Genius Every Day by Michael J. Gelb

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Dea Anne M December 31, 2015 at 1:11 PM

This is such an interesting, thought-provoking, post. I agree that just calling Leonardo Da Vinci a “genius” and leaving it as that not only inaccurate and vague, it doesn’t honor the roots of his accomplishment. While specialization certainly can drive productivity on a large scale, I’m not sure that it always leads to innovation. I’m a life long admirer of the polymath approach to thinking and life myself and have sometimes felt a little alone in that – so thanks!

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