DaVinci’s attainable genius

Cassia Attard
6 min readSep 8, 2023


I visited the Louvre in May. Like any good tourist, I stood among throngs of people to stare at a 77 cm x 53 cm painting of a young woman. As advertised, she stared back.

Despite it being the most famous painting in the world, I was easily one of the most informed people in the room about the Mona Lisa. Not because I’m particularly well-informed about art history, but because I’d recently read Walter Issacson’s biography—nay—textbook on Leonardo DaVinci, which concluded with a hefty chapter about his final and most notable piece of work. The Mona Lisa, I’d come to learn, is a culmination of a lifetime spent mastering science and art. It is, by any definition, a masterpiece.

To my great amusement, the official Louvre audioguide sang little praise of its most crowd-drawing artwork. In fact, the audioguide begins by saying that the most impressive aspect of the Mona Lisa is “its sheer size”. This is particularly appalling when opposite to the apparently-massive Mona Lisa is literally the largest painting in the Louvre, The Wedding Feast at Cana by Paolo Veronese.

While you listen to the Louvre audioguide complement Leonardo’s choice of canvas size, you can turn around to see this.

Needless to say, I disagree with the art consultants at the Louvre. And I believe Leo and Walter would, too.

Leonardo DaVinci was a master of painting because he was also a master of anatomy, botany, optical physics, mechanics, psychology, and more. His paintings are documentation not simply of a natural “genius” intellect but patiently and diligently acquired knowledge. To paint the perfect shadow cast under Lisa’s chin, you must spend decades carefully observing and calculating light mechanics. To paint neck muscles so precisely, you must have dissected thirty bodies–which DaVinci did over the course of 24 years–and filled sketchbooks with each fascicle of the human body. To paint such a backdrop of trees, you must have hundreds of pages of botanical drawings and detailed observations of which plants grow harmoniously. To know how the weight of her hand applies force to her opposite arm, you must have hypothesized two out of three of Newton’s laws of physics almost 200 years before the famous apple fell. To draw the most famous facial expression in the world, you must have gone to the piazza day after day to record how people position themselves relative to their emotions.

He was a “genius” because he understood so much and could distill it singularly. Years of understanding the world on one, relatively small, canvas.

Leonardo DaVinci is a textbook polymath. But his genius is not unfathomable or unreachable. As Walter Issacson says, “his genius was of the type we can understand, even take lessons from. It was based on skills we can aspire to improve in ourselves, such as curiosity and intense observation”.

The core lesson I take from DaVinci is this: If you want to do something groundbreaking, you must have a near-unparalleled understanding of the world.

Most people carry some opinion about what subject is most important to grasp. Some will tell you it’s paramount to know about math and science; others will say history or the recent news. I don’t believe it matters what you learn as long as you are curious enough to continue to do so.

Some will tell you to focus; others will tell you to diversify your knowledge. But the range you seek is all relative. To a geneticist, learning about human digestion is an adventurous pursuit of knowledge. To a spectator, ‘they only know about biology’. I believe it is more important to draw unique connections between the domains of knowledge you hold. That is “intelligence”. To Leonardo, art and science formed a continuous stream that he was peerless in connecting.

If you want to do something groundbreaking, acquire a near-unparalleled understanding of the world, at any scope. Then draw unique connections.

Currently, I am studying Sustainability. I want to play a part in solving major issues and making life better for the people of today and tomorrow. In tandem with my interdisciplinary program, I spend a lot of my time learning about history, development theory, agricultural practices, nutrition, chemistry, cooking, exercise science, psychology, intergovernmental politics, and whatever else I’m curious about. Some are very clearly linked to the issues I care about most, others aren’t. But this learning is consistent with DaVini’s lesson.

I am learning about development theory and agriculture because they are core domains of sustainability. I am learning about cooking because I love it. But I don’t view them as so unrelated. To quote another of Walter Issacson’s biographical subjects, Steve Jobs, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future”. Almost always, a prerequisite to drawing unique connections is having a unique combination of knowledge domains.

I don’t yet have an unparalleled understanding of the world. Not even for my age. However, this summer, I have adopted an approach to learning that clicked for me, bringing me one step closer. Here are the strategies I adopted:

i) Find people whom you admire for how they think, the opinions they form, and the actions they take. Find out what they read. Copy it.

Someone who I look up to immensely, and I believe is achieving a “near-unparalleled understanding of the world” is Bill Gates. He learns relentlessly and is using his knowledge to create maximum good for the people of today and tomorrow. He happens to be an ideal candidate for mirror-reading as he is in the habit of posting his favourite books.

ii) Consume more long-form content and less short-form content. Information without nuance is most often useless. There is also an overabundance of short-form content, most of which is junk.

iii) Don’t fear bad advice or avoid content you disagree with. Bad advice can be filtered. Content that you disagree with is inherently valuable because an opinion formed without a strong understanding of the other side is unfounded.

I recently read Lessons of History by Ariel Durant and Will Durant. It was recommended by Naval Ravikant (via podcast—we’re not buddies). I emerged with a new wealth of knowledge and insights, yet I disagreed profoundly with the concluding chapter. They wrapped up their sweeping analysis of humanity’s history with the sentiment that society is regressing. Knowing how the average human's lifespan, quality of life, and income have exponentially improved, I think this is an ignorant statement. Yet their perspective, opposite from mine, remains valuable, and my disagreement doesn’t tarnish my thoughts on the antecedent chapters.

iv) Journal or talk. Learning is requisite but not sufficient to draw unique conclusions. You must also think about what you’ve learned. Journaling, writing, and talking with others are great ways to draw unique insights. If you need inspiration, my friend Isabella manages to pull a profound lesson from every single thing that she does and reads.

v) Be bored sometimes. The concept of this article occurred to me while I was getting a massage. Wondering thoughts are powerful.

On one of Leonardo DaVinci’s daily to-do lists, he noted to “describe the tongue of a woodpecker” written right-to-left in his classic mirror script. This task was seemingly unrelated to any concurrent project. He was just extraordinarily curious.

All the lessons of Leonardo rest on the foundation of curiosity. Curiosity is one of many traits that’s often discussed as if it’s genetically predetermined. But like knowledge, curiosity is compounding. The more questions you ask and answer, the more you’ll have, and so forth. If you want to start doing something groundbreaking, become curious enough to acquire a near-unparalleled understanding of the world, at any scope. Then draw unique connections.

Thanks for reading 👋 You can find me on LinkedIn or Instagram.



Cassia Attard

Hey, I'm Cassia! I'm a 23 y/o Sustainability student at McGill. Previously, I've worked as a climate consultant and with various climate-tech projects :)