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On the Ignorance of Leonardo da Vinci

Do you remember the day you got your first professional job? When the envelope flopped through the letterbox, or the long awaited call finally came, and you knew that this was it, your first step on the ladder.

Do you recall too the sense of pride in that moment? The pride that allowed you to carry yourself a little taller, to no longer shy away from the inevitable bar room question, ‘so what is it that you do’?

Well, I’m guessing that first flush of pride, the innocent glow of the ingenue, has now weathered into something deeper and more substantial. You’re no longer merely proud of your title, you’re proud of the work you’ve done, the standards you’ve set, the fact you know your way around your business, what needs to be done and how to do it.

You’re proud of your professionalism.

Which is great.

And as it should be.

But, there’s a problem.

Your professionalism comes at a price; a very demanding price if your job requires you to be creative and to innovate.

You are as an experienced professional someone who – by definition – understands the accepted way of doing things. You’ve been round the block. You know the protocol. You know what works and what doesn’t. The problem is, the more comfortable you are with the accepted way of doing things, the harder it is for you to come up with truly original ideas.

Your experience acts like blinkers. Blinkers which keep you on the straight and narrow, comfortably within the status quo of whichever industry you’re in. Yet while these blinkers keep you safe and secure they also limit your view; they stop you seeing the ground-breaking possibilities which lie beyond the confines of conventional wisdom.

Leonardo Da Vinci changed the way we think about art, about science, about our physical bodies and our place in the natural order. He made countless discoveries throughout his life, and generated a wealth of hypotheses, some of which, like the way blood moves through the arteries in the heart, we’ve only recently discovered to be true.

His innovative, iconoclastic thinking was due in part perhaps to his outsider status at the beginning of the Renaissance. He was gay, left handed, vegetarian and illegitimate at a time when such things put you adrift from the central current of society. But what really enabled him to accelerate human knowledge in a way few others had done before or since, was simple … his lack of formal education.

He couldn’t read the accepted treatises and texts in Latin and Greek because he couldn’t read Latin and Greek. He was unfettered by received wisdom. Quite simply, he had to work everything out for himself, thus avoiding the pitfalls and dead ends which limited his more conventional peers.

There’s a phrase in Buddhism which I love – ‘the not know mind’. It’s a state of enlightenment through deliberate ignorance, where one wilfully disregards those blinkers of experience to see the world afresh, to consider things anew.

If your professional success depends upon your creativity then I would encourage you to look to Leonardo and the Buddha for inspiration on your next project.

Set yourself the challenge of approaching a problem free of any of the accepted protocols which would normally channel your ideas. See if you can attack it with the gusto and innocence of that younger you who opened the envelope or took the phone call way back when. Rip up the rulebook. Forget about what’s been done before. Try doing the things your peers dare not do.

Think like an amateur and your ideas can run free.

richard holmanComment