Leonardo da Vinci's formula for creativity, described in the prologue of this series, is based on seven behaviors. Previously, we discussed curiosity and how it compels us to learn about our world. Here we examine the next logical step in that process: proving our knowledge by testing our ideas; “dimostrazione,” as da Vinci would say.
According to Michael J. Gelb, author of How to think like Leonardo da Vinci, dimostrazione is a commitment to test knowledge through experience, persistence, and a willingness to learn from mistakes. I think it's expressed even better in the marketing slogan, “Just do it.”
Whether it was classifying plants, mapping the human muscular system, or charting stars, Leonardo da Vinci never stopped doing. “I have been impressed with the urgency of doing,” he once said. “Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do.” To da Vinci, the doing, the experiencing, confirmed the purpose and reason he perceived in nature's designs. And from his many experiences — testing the laws of nature — his creativity flowed.
Now the association between creativity and the natural world is no mere coincidence. Indeed, in nature we find the very source of creativity, or rather, its signature. Da Vinci was convinced of this and believed he could tap this source by tracing backward over its inscription in the things around him. Maybe that's what he was telling us by his unusual writing style, echoed here in clearer terms: “Although nature commences with reason and ends in experience, it is necessary for us to do the opposite; that is, to commence with experience, and from this to proceed to investigate the reason.”
Creativity for da Vinci was a form of reverse engineering. Through his experiences, his dimostrazione, he copied nature's formulas to apply later in his own innovations. We can do the same if we, too, tune in to the design intent sitting just under the surface of the observable world.
Let's not get too carried away here, however. Da Vinci's doings, in pursuit of reason, were not exactly glamorous. Much of his time was spent crawling through mud and handling things in varying states of decay. He described his anatomical studies, for example, as “living through night hours in the company of quartered and flayed corpses fearful to behold.” Yet it was the knowledge he gained there, in the gut-wrenching stench, that allowed him to envision mechanisms and machines, some of which would take another 500 years to actually build.
We should also note that even da Vinci recognized the limitations of his hands-on approach. “Experience does not err,” he said. “Only our judgment errs by expecting from her what is not in her power.” I think of da Vinci's quest for flight. He knew about gravity and had great insight into how birds fly. Yet he couldn't achieve the same, admitting, “human subtlety will never devise an invention more beautiful, more simple, or more direct than does nature, because in her inventions nothing is lacking, and nothing is superfluous.”
What better standard to emulate? No wonder da Vinci chose nature as his classroom and the focus of his dimostrazione approach.