The da Vinci formula
© Getty
December 2018

The da Vinci formula

No other artist and engineer who passed away a long time ago fascinates us as much as Leonardo da Vinci. However, his much-admired innovation prowess was not a gift from heaven but the result of very specific principles of success which this universal genius systematically pursued. These principles are still powerful innovation boosters today. Here’s a selection:
1 Surround yourself with  inspiring people

Da Vinci was an avid networker – long before the word “networking” became as popular as it is today. As soon as he’d become deeply absorbed in a new subject or project da Vinci would embark on a search for colleagues and experts who were able to fill his knowledge gaps. His notebooks are full of names of a wide range of specialists he was just dying to meet. Even back in his day, he seems to have intuitively understood how important the right social networks are for our professional success. Wherever he lived and worked, da Vinci created an inspiring environment of the leading personages, artists and scientists at the time. These networks and collaborative partnerships made it possible for him to accelerate the further development of his thoughts and ideas.

The da Vinci formula© Getty
2 Build upon the ideas of others

For a long time, scientists believed that da Vinci’s ideas were the results of his unique ingenuity. Later, though, it was revealed that many of his ideas originally had not been his own at all. A large number of his designs, for instance, were discovered in similar form with other Renaissance inventors. Da Vinci had no qualms about using someone else’s ideas for his own purposes, although he was never interested in just blindly emulating them. Whenever he began to study someone else’s idea he’d do so with the intention to improve and perfect it. Particularly the way in which da Vinci challenged, rethought and enhanced existing styles, theories and techniques shows the brilliance and sense of purpose of his innovative spirit.

The da Vinci formula© Getty
3 Think with a pen in your hand

Da Vinci was a prolific notebook writer and practitioner of “thinking with a pen.” As a hunter of ideas he knew that the next brainwave might strike him anywhere anytime. That’s why he always carried a small notebook with him, which ensured that he’d always be able to jot down all his observations and thoughts and retrieve them quickly as needed. On thousands of notebook pages, da Vinci recorded everything he observed and that gave him food for thought – be it ideas, studies, drawings or personal experiences. He knew about the fleeting nature of our thoughts, so he wanted to capture as many things as possible. The variety of subjects in his notebooks later made it easier for him to create innovative links between areas of interest that were far apart from each other.

Facts & figures about Da Vinci

The universal genius ...

  • ... learns reading, writing and arithmetic with difficulty; never learns Latin.

  • ... is born in 1452 in the Tuscan village of Vinci, Italy. His mother is a peasant, his father a notary.

  • ... pursues anatomical studies and describes the structure of the human heart, circulatory system and skeleton.

  • ... in 1485 designs plans for a city with a sewer, garbage disposal and a pump system that supplies every building with water.

  • ... develops numerous machines, incl. the precursors of a helicopter and an automobile, a parachute, an armored tank and a diving bell.

  • ... collects 150 books, an impressive number in his day.

  • ... coins 67 terms just for the motion of water.

  • ... moves ten times in his life.

  • ... creates 100,000 drawings and sketches.

  • ... from 1503–1506 paints Mona Lisa, the world’s most famous painting today.

  • ... fills some 24,000 notebook pages, many of them written backward in mirror style.

  • ... dies in 1519 aged 67 in France.

The da Vinci formula© Getty
4 Link the unlinked

To gain new findings for his studies of flight, da Vinci came up with the unusual idea of studying fish in water. In doing so, he discovered that the currents of water and air are very similar and applied this discovery to his flying machines. Da Vinci was unbeatable in this discipline known as thinking outside the box: He had the ability to see connections between things that at first glance seem to have nothing to do with each other. Thanks to this way of thinking he also managed to explain the spreading of sound with waves in water and the function of the heart valves by means of floodgates. By deliberately ignoring boundaries and linking diverse disciplines da Vinci came up with his most revolutionary innovations.

5 Pluck up your courage

Da Vinci’s courage to express revolutionary ideas and to cross the boundaries of established knowledge again and again is another one of his principles of success. All his groundbreaking ideas, observations and inventions would not have been possible without his willingness to reject any form of blind emulation and determination to follow his own convictions. His unconventional pictorial compositions, visionary flying machines and anatomical studies are just a few impressive examples of this creative courage. As a determined “progress maker” he continually challenged the status quo, explored new paths and, as a result, was frequently miles ahead of his competitors. Plus, he paved the way from a purely implemented to an expressive form of art. All of this is all the more remarkable when considering that he lived at a time when any departure from social and religious norms might result in serious if not deadly consequences at any time.

The resourceful founder
The da Vinci formula© Schaeffler

Dr. Georg Schaeffler (1917–1996) is another case in point that proves that the da Vinci formula can work. The founder of the company that bears his name – more than likely unwittingly – applied some of the polymath’s principles.

​Surround yourself with inspiring people
Georg Schaeffler not only sought contact with engineers and technicians in other companies but thought highly of his own employees as well whose brains he’d approvingly refer to as “bio-computers.”

​Build upon the ideas of others and link the unlinked
Lateral thinker Georg Schaeffler did not invent the needle roller bearing. However, its breakthrough was only achieved after Schaeffler had come up with the idea of individually guiding the needle elements in a cage parallel to the axis. During his productive life, he filed 70 patent applications for his own inventions, the last one just shortly before his death. Its title: “Cup-shaped valve tappet.”

​Pluck up your courage
Like da Vinci, Georg Schaeffler knew that the next inspiration might strike him anywhere anytime. The breakthrough idea of the cage-guided needle roller bearing struck his mind while he was driving. It was based on Schaeffler having challenged the design of existing needle roller bearings. And, like da Vinci, Schaeffler followed his conviction: Together with his team he finished the first prototype in the space of just one day. Shortly afterward, he knocked on the doors of Mercedes-Benz and Adler to present the innovation. There it was met with enthusiastic response and two major orders were placed, a success that inspired Georg Schaeffler to courageously develop new products. His bon mot that interprets the INA brand acronym as “Immer neue Aufgaben” (“Ever new things to do”) has almost become legendary and is an expression of his pioneering spirit.

Jens Möller
Author Jens Möller
Jens Möller is an innovation coach, author and keynote ­speaker. He encourages people and businesses to recognize, ­develop and successfully use their innovation potential. For many years, Jens Möller has been studying the life of the Renaissance Man Leonardo da Vinci. He is the founder of the “Leonardo da Vinci Forum,” a think tank focused on the future of innovation. His book “Die Da-Vinci-Formel” (“The da Vinci Formula”) was published by Redline Verlag.