Taking Note: 5 Ways We Can Learn About Note-Taking from da Vinci

This post is part of an ongoing series, “Taking Note,” which outlines the history and styles of note-taking. In this series, we explore how taking notes can improve your creativity and all the work you set out to accomplish.

Da Vinci's Face

Anatomist, botanist, artist, engineer, geologist, inventor, musician, philosopher, polymath, sculptor, scientist, and writer. Without a doubt, Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was one of the most brilliant people to ever walk the planet. Mankind has never seen such prolific individual success across such a vast array of fields. Especially revered for his artistic works the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, he also imagined (through his expansive notebook collection) ideas for inventions  that would become reality centuries after his death: The airplane, helicopter, calculator, machine gun, spring-powered car, and military tank.

Da Vinci’s diverse interests and knowledge crossed the worlds of art and science. With just the power of his imagination, he singlehandedly influenced the development of  anatomy, geology, civil engineering, optics, and hydrodynamics.

One of the things that made da Vinci the ultimate Renaissance Man was his prescient observations and copious note-taking. Even today, we’re inspired by his unique approach to taking notes, an eclectic mixture of musings, sketches, hidden messages, and to-do lists that have shaped the way that we think about creativity, design, and observation.

Let’s dive into some of his notebooks and discover five ways we can be inspired by da Vinci’s accomplishments in our own work.

  1. Invoke your own system

We know that da Vinci invoked unique systems of note-taking by writing backward. As a left-handed writer, he took notes from right to left in a technique known as “mirror writing,” which he may have done in an attempt to keep his notes illegible to anyone other than him.

In his book, Leonardo’s Brain: Understanding da Vinci’s Creative Genius, author Leonard Shlain notes that da Vinci’s style of writing is indicative that he accessed two different regions of his brain in his thinking:“Leonardo’s quirks of penmanship strongly suggest that…. the traditional dominance pattern of one hemisphere lording it over the other does not seem to have been operational in Leonardo’s brain.”  Most remarkably, da Vinci was able to accomplish so much with very little education or learning language from an early age. He didn’t learn Latin until his forties, and his long lists of vocabulary in his notebooks suggest that he taught himself.

Research suggests that da Vinci possessed incredibly rare cognitive attributes that allowed him to see, think, write, and visualize in ways that have never been seen before or since. Da Vinci constantly studied and observed, habits which were crucial to his note-taking technique. The things he saw helped strengthen his universal thinking — a blend of art and science — and he created a system to measure and track lifelong learning. His drawings helped establish a visual vocabulary that acted as cues to his writing. Together, they often lived in his journal side by side and were a rudimentary implementation of the Cornell Method, popular in academia today.

His system truly served his pursuit of knowledge and commitment to lifelong learning. Whether he was working hard to keep his ideas secret from interlopers (which has been debated), it’s clear that he was complacent about his work committed solely to paper. Despite the advances of movable type and the printing press, da Vinci was  content not to turn his journals into published books.

How Da Vinci can help you with today’s note-taking: Invent a system that works for you. Whether it’s borrowed from a legendary figure or cobbled together from books and professors, adopt a system and commit to it. For example, da Vinci’s system of observations and note-taking blended ideas, thoughts, and sketches (more than 13,000 filled his notebooks). He also was adept at blending learning from many different disciplines and used those skills interchangeably. A true generalist, he pioneered note-taking methods long before they became popular, including what would come to be known as the Cornell Method and mind mapping.

  1. Always Innovate

Long before they became common knowledge, da Vinci postulated ideas that were not only revolutionary but at the time, blasphemous:

  • Earth is older than the Book of Genesis indicates.
  • Humans share a common ancestor with monkeys.
  • The Earth is part of an entire solar system.
  • He predates Newton’s understanding of gravity and the fact that the planet was round.

Da Vinci’s ideas at the time were quite radical, but it’s even more of a feat when you realize that they predated the course of science and the existence of scientists altogether. In fact, Da Vinci practically invented the modern course of science by applying his own research and insights and connecting them to his studies and observations—much of what was greatly articulated in his notebooks, known as codexes.

Follow da Vinci’s note-taking example: Adopt a note-taking style using either paper-based or digital means. Remember to stick to a regular schedule and review your notes often. Da Vinci’s notes were practical. It was not unusual to see reminders and memos alongside complex mathematical notes.  

  1. Take charge of your life through lists

From Edison to Michelangelo, checklists and to-dos are a common thread for how our most legendary note-takers tracked their work.

Lists are a great way to take stock of things we don’t want to forget and things we need to accomplish. For da Vinci, that meant tracking everything from vocabulary words to observations in anatomical research.

Da Vinci’s to-do list was nothing short of incredible. A team at NPR (National Public Radio)  worked to decipher his impressive to-dos and a sampling reveals that da Vinci imagined tackling far more than a lifetime’s worth of work.

Da Vinci To Do Note Illustration

According to The Royal Collection Trust, where these manuscripts first publicly appeared, da Vinci employed some rather unusual items in his checklists:

“Leonardo lists spectacles, stockings, shoelaces, a pane of glass, a fine-tooth bone saw, forceps and a skull as just some of the items that he thought he might need for a journey,” Shlain writes.   “He reminds himself to obtain a skull, to get his books on anatomy bound, to observe the holes in the substance of the brain, to describe the tongue of the woodpecker and the jaw of a crocodile, and to give the measurement of a dead man using his finger as a unit.”

Da Vinci was also a consummate cook. Many of his notebooks show cost, quality, and quantity of the food he encountered throughout his travels.He also used notes to plan and prepare feasts, shopping, and even used his notebook to plan kitchen remodels for the castle of Duke of Milan.

List it like Leonardo: Follow Da Vinci’s lead and take advantage of checklists and to-do lists. It’s tough to tackle everything on your list, but we can use exemplary models like da Vinci to help propel our work.

  1. Cross-pollinate

Blending both the arts and sciences was extremely crucial to da Vinci’s work.

For him, everything was literally connected to something else. And contrary to popular belief, he was not a solitary figure, churning out ideas. He relied on the outside world and others to help empower and enrich his ideas.

In addition, his observations from other aspects of nature — animals and plants — helped shape his ability to study everything from fashion to psychology, and even fostered his understanding of mechanics.

Make connections the way Da Vinci did: Track your personal ideas and observations everywhere you go. It’s tough to steal away moments amidst today’s digital chaos, but when the moment strikes you, sketch out an idea on paper or a Moleskine when you’re out and about. It’s amazing how a few moments away can connect your ideas and thoughts to help solve your most frustrating challenges.

  1. Promote Yourself

It’s hard to self-promote and market ourselves when we’re looking for a job, but da Vinci had it down—because he had kept such detailed notebooks of his work. When he was trying to land a job working for a leader in Milan as a military engineer, da Vinci spelled out his accomplishments with a list of ten ways he could help. He covered  everything from advanced knowledge of military engineering to the ability to draft plans for indestructible bridges that could be moved easily in the heat of battle.

Take inspiration from Da Vinci when selling yourself: Just like the biggest companies in Silicon Valley, you can constantly innovate in your profession and your life to make and change for the better. All it takes is your imagination.

Page from Da Vinci's Notebook

A page from da Vinci’s notebook

How do you think you can use  da Vinci’s note-taking techniques? Share your story and tips in the comments.

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