What is creativity? What is innovation? These might seem like two entirely separate questions, but in fact they are very closely linked. But, to answer these questions properly, let’s take a step back from them and ask another, perhaps unexpected, question: Who was Leonardo da Vinci?
You must have heard of him mentioned mainly alongside his two most famous works: the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, but there is a whole new dimension, or even multitude of dimensions to the man. He can be accurately described as a polymath, which is defined by Wikipedia as ‘an individual whose knowledge spans a substantial number of subjects, known to draw on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems.’
He is held in high regard as one of the most creative and multitalented individuals to have ever lived. From anatomy to astronomy, botany to cartography, and of course painting to inventing, he was indeed a man of many talents, and he shined at them all. This quote about him says it all:
‘Leonardo da Vinci was, by any measurement, an extraordinary man. He was a painter, sculptor, architect, natural scientist, military inventor — the epitome of the Renaissance man. He had an enormous influence on his time… He was engaged by the authorities of Florence to design the fortifications and ensure the freedom of the city state. Needless to say, he had traveled a little way along the initiatory path and was the most advanced of all the painters we know — 4.4 degrees initiate. Five degrees makes you a Master, and so he was all but a Master… He could be nothing other than the highest type of artist in whose work both colour and form are perfectly realized at the highest level…
It is not possible to say more than he is saying in each painting. It is as if each one communicates an almost cosmic meaning which is only able to be represented through the radiance of that painting. They take hold of our imagination and impose their extraordinary sensuous but abstract beauty on our minds.’
– Benjamin Creme in Maitreya’s Mission Vol. III (1997)
Da Vinci poured his heart and soul into everything he did. Coming back to our original theory about the link between creativity and innovation, da Vinci’s work perfectly serves to illustrate this link. Not just his work, but his whole life is a great example of it. His boundless creativity enabled him to be extremely innovative. As his creativity and innovation fed into each other, they lifted each other up into higher and higher paradigms, elevating his work into a legendary and unmatched level.
He was also completely devoted and dedicated to every little aspect of his work. We need look no further than the iconic Mona Lisa to see just how deeply passionate and detail-oriented da Vinci was. As described by biographer Walter Isaacson: ‘The Mona Lisa’s smile is the culmination of a lifetime spent studying art, science, optics, and every other possible field that he could apply his curiosity to, including understanding the universe and how we fit into it.
Leonardo spent many pages in his notebook dissecting the human face to figure out every muscle and nerve that touched the lips. On one of those pages you see a faint sketch at the top of the beginning of the smile of the Mona Lisa. Leonardo kept that painting from 1503, when he started it, to his deathbed in 1519, trying to get every aspect exactly right in layer after layer. During that period, he dissected the human eye on cadavers and was able to understand that the center of the retina sees detail, but the edges see shadows and shapes better. If you look directly at the Mona Lisa smile, the corners of the lips turn downward slightly, but shadows and light make it seem like it’s turning upwards. As you move your eyes across her face the smile flickers on and off.’
This is the key to the link discussed in the article. In the end, creativity and innovation both come down to being obsessed with every little detail, and striving to do something truly great and unique. Notice that I didn’t say ‘perfect’. That’s because ‘perfect’ can be an unachievable goal. No matter how much we try, we may fail to reach it. In fact, even in the olden days, it was said that architects purposely used to incorporate imperfections into their buildings, because they felt only God can and should be perfect. This is why we need to cast aside the red herring of perfection, and instead aim for greatness. There have been many great men and women, and one thing I can definitely tell you is none of them strove to be mediocre.
Another link is that creativity and innovation both involve taking inspiration from anywhere you can. As exemplified by this quote about da Vinci by Lewis Einstein: ‘The genius of Leonardo as a painter came through unfolding the mystery of life…”Look at the grace and sweetness of men and women in the street,” he wrote. The most ordinary functions of life and nature amazed him most. He observed of the eye how in it form and colour, and the entire universe it reflected, were reduced to a single point. “Wonderful law of nature, which forced all effects to participate with their cause in the mind of man. These are the true miracles!” Elsewhere he wrote again: “Nature is full of infinite reasons which have not yet passed into experience.”’
This shows that it does not matter where you take inspiration from, but what you make of it. Looking at da Vinci’s work, you may think that he must have taken inspiration from only the grandest of things, such as the works of the great masters of old or the bright, starry sky at night, but instead he found the greatest inspiration in the most mundane.
It is also important to note that creativity and innovation are not just things or objectives, but on some level they are also ideals that we are forever reaching towards. We can get better at them every day, and we can also approach them from a new perspective every day.
This idealism is also seen in da Vinci’s work, as noted by Lewis Einstein: ‘His art took, thus, its guidance in realism, its purpose in spirituality. The search for truth and the desire for beauty were the twin ideals he strove to attain. The keenness of this pursuit saved him from the blemish of egoism which aloofness from his surroundings would otherwise have forced upon him. For his character presented the anomaly, peculiar to the Renaissance, of a lofty idealism coupled in action with irresponsibility of duty. He stood on a higher plane, his attitude toward life recognizing no claims on the part of his fellowmen. In his desire to surpass himself, fostered by this isolation of spirit and spurred on by the eager wish to attain universal knowledge, he has been compared to Faust; but the likeness is only half correct. He was not blind to the limitations which encompassed him, his very genius making him realize their bounds. Of the ancients he said that in attempting to define the nature of the soul, they sought the impossible. He wrote elsewhere, “It is the infinite alone that cannot be attained, for if it could it would become finite.”’
Clearing away the cobwebs from the old ideas or beliefs you had about creativity and innovation, you will also begin to see that many of today’s greatest leaders also harness these dual instincts to the fullest, both in themselves and their organizations at every level. From Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates to Warren Buffet and Elon Musk, the pioneers and innovators of today’s world are fully aware of these ideas and do their best to incorporate them into everything they do.
As the world evolves, creativity and innovation also become increasingly important if only to be able to keep up. With the uncertain times and the rapidly changing landscape in every field, it is a given that the world you will wake up in tomorrow will not be the same as the one you woke up in today. As disruption occurs at a never-before-seen pace, the face of every industry is changing and this is opening up opportunities for those that can adapt and create like nobody’s business. Whether you take your inspiration from Leonardo da Vinci, Steve Jobs, Nikola Tesla, or any of the bold, intelligent, and bright innovators that have been shining beacons of creativity throughout history, the key lesson to remember is that everything is subject to change. And if you can go along with that change and innovate, rather than trying to fight against it, then there truly is nothing you can’t do and no door you can’t open.
In conclusion, creativity and innovation go hand-in-hand. There is no one without the other. Which is why you also need to foster both within yourself, so that you can fulfill your potential at the highest level!