To-do lists are often hailed as the solution for all kinds of productivity issues: distractions, overwhelm, and procrastination alike. But one of history’s most prolific polymaths, Leonardo da Vinci, used them for something else altogether. He wrote lists to keep track of his never-ending fascinations with the world around him.
Walter Isaacson writes in his biography of Leonardo:
His curiosity, like that of Einstein, often was about phenomena that most people over the age of ten no longer puzzle about: Why is the sky blue? How are clouds formed? Why can our eyes see only in a straight line? What is yawning?
Other topics of his curiosity that he listed in his notebooks are more ambitious and require an instinct for observational investigation. “Which nerve causes the eye to move so that the motion of one eye moves the other?” “Describe the beginning of a human when it is in the womb.” And along with “describe the tongue of a woodpecker,” he lists “the jaw of the crocodile” and “the placenta of the calf” as things he wants to describe.
Not only did Leonardo observe his world with a unique sharpness, he also followed through with learning about his list items in great detail. Remarkably, he did so in a world without Wikipedia and Google. This often took hours of observing a subject and distilling his observations down into conclusions.
Isaacson makes sure to tell us that Leonardo was “not graced with the type of brilliance that is completely unfathomable to us.” What made him extraordinary was his curiosity and his dedication to discovering and understanding. We can take inspiration from this, and “be relentlessly and randomly curious” about our surroundings as well.
The Curiosity Exercise
Write a list of at least ten things you’re curious about. Leonardo’s were focused on topics in nature, because he was most strongly drawn towards the natural world. You can focus on any other subject – or none in particular. Here’s my list.
- Why is the sky purple-pink after a thunderstorm around sunset?
- What would happen if a plane was cut off from its fuel supply 20,000 feet in the air? (Inspiration)
- How does a kangaroo baby gestate?
- Describe the operations of a print publication company.
- How are traffic lights programmed?
- Why do city lights seen from a far distance (e.g. from a tall building) look like they’re twinkling?
- What elements in music map to certain emotions in people?
- How do you grow a pineapple?
- What are some unknowable unknowns?
- How was the scientific method discovered and implemented? What did researchers use before?