What's on Leonardo daVinci's "To-Do" list?

The above image is an illustrated and translated version of an actual "to-do" list written by Leonardo da Vinci. It was put together for NPR by Robert Krulwich and illustrator Wendy MacNaughton, based on information found in a new book, Da Vinci's Ghost: Genius, Obsession, and How Leonardo Created the World in His Own Image, by Toby Lester.

What does a list like this tell us about the guy who wrote it? Krulwich sees in this list an example of what the brain can do when it's allowed to really wander. Maybe you're better off not being able to focus very well on one specific thing:

"We live in an age that worships attention," says my friend (and Radiolab colleague) Jonah Lehrer. "When we need to work, we force ourselves to concentrate. This approach can also inhibit the imagination. Sometimes, it helps to consider irrelevant information, to eavesdrop on all the stray associations unfolding in the far reaches of the brain."

Minds that break free, that are compelled to wander, can sometimes achieve more than those of us who are more inhibited, more orderly, [a scientific study] suggests. Or, as Jonah chose to put it, there are "unexpected benefits of not being able to focus."

That's not a bad point. But I see something else here as well. Take another look at that to-do list. I think it's pretty interesting that of the nine tasks shown, six involve consulting and learning from other people. Leonardo da Vinci needs to find a book. Leonardo da Vinci needs to get in touch with local merchants, monks, and accountants who he hopes can help him better understand concepts within their areas of expertise.

Leonardo da Vinci knows he doesn't know everything.

I think that's a big deal.


  1. Awesome point Maggie!  Da Vinci was demonstrating good metacognition (i.e., thinking about your own thinking).

  2. @twitter-48512154:disqus http://www.instructables.com/id/Vietnamese-Iced-Coffee/

    You’re welcome, I just completed 1/3rd of your life tasks with a single Instructable (one of my oldest, but still a popular one). You are on your own for the other two.

    I like the image of the translated to-do list – it is very much like mine. Lots of “talk to someone else about something”. I think a lot of people get into the idea that genius is something that just happens – that his to-do list would say, “sit quietly at home and invent something”. I work on a lot of complex machines and projects (currently rebuilding an old Austrian CNC turret lathe) and people ask me “how do you know how to do so much stuff.” The secret is that I really don’t know how to do things before I start them – the learning how to do it comes along with the doing (as does all of the talking to people and reading books from people who really do know how to do it).

  3. That kind of to do list today would have him arrested as a terrorist. Who else measures buildings and talks to bombadiers ?

  4. Ironically, Leonardo was a huge procrastinator, often blowing off commissioned work for years (if he ever finished it).  Less than 20 finished paintings of his are still around.  Presumably he was busy ice skating in Belgium.  

    1. Yeah, but the good news is that you can see nearly half of those 20 paintings  in London right now….    Well, you can if you are prepared to shell out for some very expensive tickets.  (You know, it’s at times like this that I think that ticket agencies really do need to be done for ticket touting.  That’s really what they are doing, after all, no matter how high-minded they claim to be.)

      Thanks for this little piece, especially the codicil.  Nicely thought-provoking.   

    1. Maybe geometry, but perhaps to understand how to recast one thing as another in a totally convincing way.  A bit like Wall Street – plenty of accountants there!

  5. I just really enjoy Maggie’s posts.  

    Also, I need to make a to-do list.  Staring at a laptop all evening is oddly unsatisfying.

  6. Maggie, I had the same thought as you did about all the other brains he was fixin’ on pickin’. But I’d spin my evaluation just a tiny bit from yours.

    He was smart enough to know he didn’t HAVE to know everything, he just had to be able to find people who did.

  7. It seems he grabbed the pencil off his Fiskars ShopBoss and threw the shears in the river Po. [edit: Or rather the connecting navigli, which he helped design.]

  8. Americans have a peculiar fascination with genius. They seem to think it doesn’t involve a lot of hard work or at least that it lets you skip things everyone else has to struggle with.

    I know a professor who after decades of work in his field, has confessed to me that he really thinks he’s only scratched the surface- even as far as his specialty is concerned. Ask him what he does when he wants to look into something that would require him to use untranslated documents in three different dead languages.

    Answer: He learns ’em. If necessary, working through another language that has better books on those languages.

    1. Shhh!  Americans want to believe it is 100% innate.  So in grade school you are likely to be the target for abuse because others think you got an unfair advantage.  Meanwhile some guys are great at fixing cars but that isn’t considered innate.

      “there are “unexpected benefits of not being able to focus.””
      daVinci sounds like he had a bit of ADD.  I don’t think being scattered brained is too helpful to completing things though.  It makes it hard to study and focus also.  I sometimes envy people who are focused on one thing because they become masters of it though I ultimately like having my wide range of interests.

  9. I don’t think anyone today need encouragement in being scatterbrained. A person( and I say this from personal experience) could spend all day and night forever “researching” an “learning” especially with the advent of google and wilipedia and YouTube. But this doesn’t necessarily translate into action. Creativity requires action. Otherwise you might as well be watching tv in the matrix.

  10. Ah yes, ‘Getting Things Done’. Finally got around to requesting it from the library. I think I have one more day to pick it up at the local library before they send it back to the central store. sigh.

  11. 43: become a teenage turtle
    44: feature in computer game with old pal Ezio Auditore
    45: leave clues hidden in paintings saying “Dan Brown is a knob”
    46: get robbed of an oscar in “what’s eating gilbert grape”

  12. “Tell me…tell me whether…tell me how things are…tell me if there was ever.”

    Sounds just like a Nick Drake lyric.

  13. http://en.museicapitolini.org/mostre_ed_eventi/mostre/leonardo_e_michelangelo_capolavori_della_grafica_e_studi_romani

    After a visit to this exhibit of sixty six drawings (see:sketches and letters) of Leonardo and Michelangelo I can say both of these men were certainly happy mutants!  My wife loves telling people about the “study of geometry using triangles with a cat” which depicts twenty or so geometric shapes and an artfully graceful sketch of a cat leaning over and licking its dignity!  Good thing this sort of thing makes her laugh or this mutant wouldn’t be so happy, heh.

    Here we see Leonardo sketches sweet little baby Jesus with a cute little kitty kat:


    For photo’s of the Marble sculpture also found at Musei Capitolini in Rome see these additions to the BOINGBOING flickr pool…


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