Walter Isaacson

Leonardo da Vinci – Walter Isaacson

Leonardo da Vinci – by Walter Isaacson
Date read: 9/29/18. Recommendation: 9/10.

The amount of information in this book is incredible–biographies by Walter Isaacson are not quick reads. Throughout the book, I’d marvel at not only Leonardo, but also Isaacson’s ability to aggregate so much information and tell a compelling story. He’s brilliant in drawing out subtle themes that help tie everything together. Leonardo feels relatable and human in that his genius was self-made, built from personal experience/experiments, and dedication to his craft(s). But he also feels simultaneously distant in that the breadth of his abilities across disciplines, obsession with detail, and ability to bridge observation and imagination seem otherworldly. This book is an investment, but you’ll walk away with a reenergized curiosity and a newfound appreciation for the finer details in life. That’s what makes books like this worth it–the message resonates far stronger than what you might get out of a 200-page popular nonfiction title.

See my notes below or Amazon for details and reviews.

My Notes:

Archetype of the Renaissance Man – combined art, science, engineering, technology, the humanities.
-Ability to make connections across each discipline is key to innovation, imagination, creativity, and genius.
-Benjamin Franklin was the Leonardo of his own era, no formal education, taught himself.
-The world has produced other thinkers who were more profound and logical, and many who were more practical, but none who was so creative in so many different fields.

-Leonardo's was a human one, built on will and ambition (not a divine recipient live Newton or Einstein)
-He had almost no schooling, his genius was based on skills of curiosity and intense observation.
-Ability to blur the lines of reality and fantasy, marrying observation and imagination, was key to his creative genius/innovation.
-Obsession is a component of genius.

"Vision without execution is hallucination...Skill without imagination is barren." WI

Teaches us to marvel about the world we encounter each day, appreciate details, and make each moment of our lives richer.

-Born out of wedlock so wasn't required to pursue family notary business. Instead, able to pursue creative passions.
-Took pride in lack of formal schooling, led him to be a disciple of experiment and experience.
-Freethinking attitude and willingness to question dogma saved him from being an acolyte of traditional thinking.
-Disciple of experience.

Curiosity and intense power of observation:
-Fanatical, and similar to Einstein, about things many people overlook after the age of ten ("why is the sky blue?")
-Aided by the sharpness of his eye which caught details that most of us glance over.
-"Describe the tongue of a woodpecker"
-Most distinguishing and inspiring trait was his intense curiosity.

Environment matters:
-Spent most of his career in centers of creativity and commerce: Florence, Milan, Rome.
-Few places offered better creative environment than Florence in the 1400s (interwove art, technology, and commerce). The culture rewarded those who mastered/mixed multiple disciplines.
-Surrounded himself with students, companions, patrons.
-"Ideas are often generated in physical gathering places where people with diverse interests encounter one another serendipitously." WI (why Steve Jobs liked to have central atrium in buildings, Benjamin Franklin founded a club).
-In the court of Ludovico Sforza (Milan), Leonardo found friends with diverse passions who could spark new ideas in each other. He moved here initially to recast himself as engineer, scientist, and inventor.
-"Genius starts with individual brilliance. It requires singular vision. But executing it often entails working with others. Innovation is a team sport. Creativity is a collaborative endeavor." WI

Apprenticeship with Verrocchio:
-Leonardo began his apprenticeship under Verrocchio at age 14.
-Rigorous teaching program that involved studying surface anatomy, mechanics, drawing techniques, effects of light and shade on draperies, beauty of geometry.
-When mastering drapery drawings under Verrocchio, Leonardo pioneered sfumato–technique of blurring edges (removes sharp edges so objects appear closer to how we see them). Allows room for our imagination to fill in the rest. Outlines of reality are inherently blurry, leaving a hint of uncertainty that we should embrace.
-After apprenticeship ended at 20, continued to work and live there.

Reality should inform, not constrain.
-Leonardo redefined how a painter transforms and transmits what he observes.

Signature marks:
-Luster: sparkling glint of sunlight in the eyes and curls of hair.
-Flowing curls
-Enigmatic smiles
-Twisting movements

-Mistakes in his early twenties with light, perspective, and human reactions.
-First workshop that he opened of his own in 1477, only received three commissions in five years.
-Genius undisciplined by diligence. He frequently gave up on paintings and left them incomplete because they were too much for a perfectionist. His willingness to put down brush is also why he's known as an obsessed genius and not a reliable master painter.
-At age 30, he was known as a genius but had little to show for it. In his gloom, he left Florence for Milan.

Dedicated years and years of work to single projects:
-Would make refinements on many of his paintings for years/decades.
-Knew there was always more he might learn and techniques he might master, so he would often refuse to relinquish paintings.
-Squaring the circle took him years, his notebook filled with attempts.

Know your audience:
-Leonardo demonstrated a knack for swaying patrons because he knew his audience.
-Cast himself as an engineer, architect, and mentioned none of his paintings to Ludovico Sforza (Milan facing threats of local revolt and French invasion).

Unrealized visions:
-Design for utopian city was sensible and brilliant. Was never implemented but might have transformed cities, reduced plagues, and changed history.

-Always kept a small notebook hanging from his belt
-7,200 pages currently in existence probably only represent a quarter of what he wrote, but that's more than all emails/digital documents from Steve Jobs in the 1990s.
-But he was always more interested in pursuing knowledge than publishing it. Made little effort to share his findings. Had no real understanding of the growth of knowledge as a cumulative and collaborative process. As a result, his work had less impact than it should have.
-"He wanted to accumulate knowledge for its own sake, and for his own personal joy, rather than out of a desire to make a public name for himself as a scholar..." WI

Looking for opportunities in every environment:
-While in the court of Ludovico Sforza, produced pageants. This was a way to channel artistic and technical skills - stage design, costumes, scenery, music, mechanisms, etc.
-Mechanical birds and wings he made during this time led him to observe birds more closely and consider real flying machines.

On Wealth:
"Men who desire nothing but material riches and are absolutely devoid of the desire for wisdom, which is the sustenance and truly dependable wealth of the mind." LDV

-Saw art and science as interwoven. Art required deep understanding of anatomy, which was in turn aided by a profound appreciation for the beauty of nature. Intense studies here made him a better artist.
-Depicted in multiple layers (which he also later did while deconstructing complex mechanisms, making drawing for each element), using exploded views, multiple angles, stacked-up layers.
-He made 240 drawings with 13,000 words of text illustrating and describing every bone, muscle group, and major organ.
-His study of anatomy informed his art, but his other disciplines also aided his anatomical studies.
-Discovered the way the aortic valve works (vortices between the cusp and its sinus), only recently validated in 1960s.

The "Mona Lisa effect" - creating a stare or gaze that seems to follow viewer around the room. Comes from drawing realistic set of eyes staring directly at viewer with proper perspective, shading, and modeling.

The Science of Art
-Wove together shadows, lighting, color, tone, perspective, optics, and the perception of movements. Helped him perfect his painting techniques. But also pursued these complexities of science for the pure joy of understanding nature.

"Sometimes fantasies are paths to reality." WI

-His quest for knowledge across disciplines of arts and sciences helped him see patterns. But at the same time, his multi-disciplinary approach helped him avoid letting other patterns blind him.

Mark of a great mind is a willingness to change it:
-Willingness to surrender preconceptions, and always remain open-minded was key to his creativity.
-Best example: questioned then abandoned analogy between circulation of water on earth and circulation of blood in the human body

The Mona Lisa:
-Spent the last 16 years of life making additions, distillation of all his accumulated knowledge.
-Shows the development of Leonardo's painterly skills, but also his maturation as scientist, philosopher, and humanist.
-"The science, the pictorial skill, the obsession with nature, the psychological insight are all there, and so perfectly balanced that at first we are hardly aware of them." Kenneth Clark
-Reason he wanted to paint Lisa del Giocondo was because she was relatively obscure (not a famed noble or mistress), meant he wouldn't have to take direction from a patron.
-Flow of the landscape flows in her and becomes part of her.
-Perfected Lisa's elusive smile in his anatomical drawings. Represents his ultimate realization about human nature–never fully know true emotion from outer manifestation.
-Provokes a complex series of psychological reactions (which she also exhibits) why so many find her engaging.

Deluge Drawings:
-Conveyed his belief that chaos and destruction are inherent in the raw power of nature

"Talent hits a target that no one else can hit. Genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

"Be open to mystery. Not everything needs sharp lines." WI

Awesome takeaways and lessons from Leonardo summarized on pages 519-524.

Benjamin Franklin – Walter Isaacson

Benjamin Franklin: An American Life – by Walter Isaacson
Date read: 8/1/18. Recommendation: 9/10.

Brilliant look at the multi-disciplinary life of Benjamin Franklin. As a scientist, inventor, diplomat, writer, business strategist, and political thinker, it's fascinating how many pivotal moments of early American history he was involved in. In each aspect of his life, he prided himself in practical solutions that served the common good. As Isaacson suggests, Franklin was the first great American exemplar of the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason–as defined by an emphasis on reason, education, and a distrust of arbitrary authority. He was unapologetically self-taught and self-made. Isaacson doesn't shy away from Franklin's complexities and does a great job explaining how his legacy has shifted over time, reflecting the values of different eras. There's a reason he's held in such high-esteem by some of the most brilliant minds of our time.

See my notes below or Amazon for details and reviews. 


My Notes:

Multidisciplinary life: scientist, inventor, diplomat, writer, business strategist, practical political thinker

But the most interesting thing that Franklin invented, and continually reinvented, was himself.

Franklin's most important vision: an American identity based on the virtues and values of its middle class.
-How does one live a life that is useful, virtuous, worthy, moral and spiritually meaningful?
-Questions are just as vital for a self-satisfied age as they were for a revolutionary one.

Early American settlers were pursuing both religious freedom AND economic opportunity.

"Industry and frugality are the means of procuring wealth and thereby securing virtue." -BF

Maxims from his almanacs:
"Fish and visitors stink in three days."
"Little strokes fell great oaks."
"Three may keep a secret if two of them are dead."
"Diligence is the mother of good luck."
"Love your enemies, for they will tell you your faults."

Franklin excelled in writing, but failed math. Still became one of the most ingenious scientists of his era, but did not transcend into a profound theorist (i.e. Newton). 

"From a child I was fond of reading, and all the little money that came into my hands was ever laid out in books." -BF
*Books most important formative influence in his life. He would sneak books from apprentices who worked for booksellers as long as he returned them clean. Was a vegetarian early in life so he could save more money for books.

His writing lacked poetic flourish, but was powerful in its directness.

His most notable trait was a personal magnetism; he attracted people who wanted to help him.

American individualists sometimes boast of not worrying about what others think of them. Frankin, more typically nurtured his reputation, as a matter of both pride and utility. 
*An apostle of being, and appearing, studious. 

Lesson he learned early: people are more likely to admire your work if you're able to keep them from feeling jealous of you. Indulge their vanity (give them opportunities to demonstrate their abilities), they will praise you in turn.

Franklin easily made friends and intellectual companions, but was less good at nurturing lasting bonds that involved deep personal commitments or emotional relationships, even within his own family. 

On deciding whether or not to take a customer's money and run a defamatory article that violated his principles:
-Paused to make the decision, went home and slept on it.
-Practiced voluntary hardship, slept on the floor, ate plainly.
-Determined that he could live this way, was not worth corrupting his values for a more comfortable subsistence. 

Writing to discover: Franklin began to clarify his religious beliefs through a series of essays and letters.

Moral Perfection Project:
-Made a list of 13 virtues he aspired to master
-Focused on improving one virtue each week (related it to weeding a garden, not all at once, but one bed at a time)

First great American exemplar of the Enlightenment and its Age of Reason. Born in Europe in the late 17th century, defined by an emphasis on reason and observable experience, a distrust of religious orthodoxy and traditional authority, and an optimism about education and progress.

"The general foible of mankind is in the pursuit of wealth to no end." BF

Franklin's subscription library (The Library Company of Philadelphia), first of its type in America. Subscribers pay dues to borrow books. Improved the intelligence of common tradesmen and farmers, as local subscription libraries caught on.

His work focused on lightning and electricity led to his first becoming a popular hero.
-Believed science should be pursued initially for pure fascination and curiosity, then practical uses would eventually flow.

Self-made: Thirst for knowledge made him the best self-taught writer and scientist of his times.

Pride for practical solutions:
Crossing the Atlantic in the summer of 1757, nearly wrecked on the Scilly Isles. "Were I a Roman Catholic, perhaps I should on this occasion vow to build a chapel to some saint. But as I am not, if I were to vow at all, it should be to build a lighthouse." BF

Traveling: Franklin's summer travels were the source of great joy
-Deborah didn't share his love for travel and curiosity for the world.
-She was as independent in her own way as he was in his.
-Spent 15 of the last 17 years of their marriage an ocean away.
-Throughout his life, had few emotional bonds tying him to any one place, glided through the world the way he glided through relationships.

Modern election campaigns are often criticized for being negative, and today's press is slammed for being scurrilous. But the most brutal of modern attack ads pale in comparison to the barrage of pamphlets in the 1764 Assembly election. 

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin:
-His goal was to describe how he rose from obscurity to prominence and to provide some useful hints about how he succeeded, for others to imitate.
-If he found himself writing with too much pride about an event, he would revise it by adding a self-deprecating comment.
-Autobiographies existed, but this was the first masterpiece by a self-made man.

Second continental congress:
-Franklin, nearing 70, was by far the oldest of the 62 participants
-Many of the younger, hotter-tempered delegates had never witnessed Franklin's artifice of silence, his trick of seeming sage by saying nothing (oratory did not come naturally to him).
-No one had a clue where he stood on the question of independence. He was biding his time to convert key figures close to him to the rebel cause.

Distaste for established elites, arbitrary authority, nepotism:
-Chafed at authority, why he ran away from his brother's print shop in Boston.
-Was not awed by established elites – Mathers, Penns, peers in the house of lords.
-Opposed unfair tax policies by Penns, even though they would have served his personal advantage.
-Stressed is all his letters that America should not replicate rigid ruling hierarchies of Old World based on birth rather than merit, virtue, and hard work. 
-Groundless and absurd to honor a worthy person's descendants (should instead honor the person's parents since they had some role in it, like Chinese do).
-Rose up social ladder, but did so in a way that resisted taking on elitist pretensions (fur-capped persona). 

At 70, he was continuing to embark on missions for Congress:
-Cambridge, MA to help Washington with disciplining the militia that would form the nucleus of a true continental army.
-Quebec to support American forces focused on preventing Britain from splitting colonies via Hudson River.
-Showed his eagerness to be involved in practical details, rather than detached theorizing.
-He was also, both as a teen and as an old man, revitalized by travel.

Declaration of Independence:
-Jefferson asked Franklin to help edit. Most important change was to Jefferson's phrase, "We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable" to "We hold these truths to be self-evident."
-Changed this phrase from an assertion of religion to an assertion of rationality.

Fate of the Revolution placed into Franklin's hands, just as much as those of Washington and others. He needed to secure support of France–its aid, its recognition, its navy. Displayed dexterity that would make him one of the greatest American diplomats.
-He was instrumental in shaping the three great documents of the war: the Declaration of Independence, the alliance with France, and the treaty with England.

"Moderate your desire of victory over your adversary, and be pleased with the one over yourself." BF

The Constitutional Convention of 1787:
-He was by far the most traveled of all the delegates, and knew not only the nations of Europe but the thirteens states (franchised printing operations, time as postmaster, etc.). More receptive to needs of each state and open to diversity of opinions.

Sensibility, willingness to change mind, and humility to be open to different opinions:
-On crafting the constitution, Franklin realized that they had succeeded not because they were self-assured, but because they were willing to concede that they might be fallible.
-"We are making experiments in politics. We must not expect that a new government may be formed as a game of chess may be played, by a skillful hand, without a fault." BF
-"For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged, by better information or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise." BF

-During the three centuries since his birth, the changing assessments of Franklin have tended to reveal less about him than about the values of the people judging him. Reflect, or refract, the attitudes of each succeeding era.
-His reputation was elevated by the emergence of distinctly American philosophy known as pragmatism - holds that truth of any proposition (whether scientific, moral, theological, or social) is based on how well it correlates with experimental results and produces a practical outcome.
-Unfairly attacked over the years by romantics whose real targets were capitalism and middle-class morality. 

In most of the endeavors of his soul and mind, his greatness sprang more from his practicality than from profundity or poetry.

His guiding principle was a "dislike of everything that tended to debase the spirit of the common people."