Leonardo da Vinci: An Undaunted Dreamer

In an age during which dogma prohibited free thinkers from full expression, Leonardo da Vinci chased his dreams.  How might we follow his example and overcome today’s obstructions to pursue our passions and fulfill our dreams?

In an age during which dogma prohibited free thinkers from full expression, Leonardo da Vinci chased his dreams. How might we follow his example and overcome today’s obstructions to pursue our passions and fulfill our dreams?

In his famed Paradise Lost, John Milton wrote, “The mind is its own place, and can create a heaven or hell,” and Hamlet laments in his famed soliloquy: “To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub; for in that sleep of death what dreams may come, when we have shuffled off this mortal coil.” In both cases generations have been moved by these profound reflections of the possibility of our inner realities gaining tangibility through placing value on concerted commitment to their realization.  But who among us are sufficiently moved to allow our private “heavenly” aspirations to become physical realities? How many of us are moved to “shuffle off” our mortal apprehensions and chase our dreams? Regrettably not all of us. However, those who do will, at least for the noble efforts involved in this liberating process, if not the subsequent, well-earned successes, be happy we did, and depending on the gravity of our imaginations, maybe be fondly remembered for so doing. Alongside such literary greats as Milton or Shakespeare, to whom we are indebted for great canons of imaginative and philosophical innovation, are of course pioneers of equally vast fields of human endeavor, such as art, music, science and medicine. But to consider even wider-sweeping dreamers, whose subconsciously-conceived and boldly-actualized ideas have enabled veritable quantum-leaps in human progress, names such as Archimedes, Tesla, and Edison, may come to mind, but none, perhaps, so often as that of writer, artist, musician, architect, astronomer, botanist, craftsman, painter, scientist, inventor, and, quite simply, Renaissance man, Leonardo da Vinci.

At a time when religious and secular dogma prohibited the freest of thinkers from full expression, at their own peril da Vinci and such contemporaries as Botticcelli and Ghirlandaio followed their visions to lavish the world with objects of their imagination. Perhaps this was because rather than as obstacles to achievement, they envisioned contemporary restrictions on the advancement of the arts, sciences, and various branches of natural philosophy as sources of motivation and inspiration to bring to bear broader truths for all of humanity, in spite of the narrow straits of predominant tradition. To look at da Vinci’s sketches and mirror-imaged notes one comes to recognize that attempting many approaches and taking many risks is requisite to achievement. One must try and try again. This can be seen in his repeated studies that doubtlessly led to such works as the Last Supper and Mona Lisa. Personally, I have not yet “shuffled off” my apprehensions and actualized such wisdom to get started on, for example, my art career, having purchased oil paints a year ago that I’ve not used for fear that my first strokes might not yield a masterpiece. But in contrast to my blank canvas, da Vinci’s voluminous notebooks, compiled, organized, and brought to Milan for initial preservation in 1519 by his assistant Franceso Melzi, show painstaking incremental ascent towards the realization of, or at least illustration of the tenability of, thousands of profound ideas including the bicycle, airplane, helicopter and other flying machines, the crossbow, workings of simple and complex mechanical devices, naturally-occurring golden ratios, as evidenced in his Vitruvian Man, and of course a great many advances in the understanding of human anatomy. In each case we can see that his evolution of discovery is accomplished through persistent refinement in drawing after seemingly carefree drawing, each effectively forming a repeated study aimed at attaining an ever-closer realization of an intimate intellectual reality.

Da Vinci left us invaluable examples of the necessity of freeing our ideas and improving upon them through laborious steps and strokes, and did so in such ingenious ways that experts today are still unraveling mysteries embedded in his works. Why then do so many of us forfend against even initially sketching out our dreams and ideas? Is this due to a fear of falling short of excellence or a concern of appearing different or misunderstood when weighed against contemporary norms and expectations? If this were the case for all dreamers, what more might come of this or any future age as we collectively failed not to dream, but to allow for the natural “next phase” of our dreaming to emerge through open-minded approaches to experimentation, actualization, and realization, than to stifle potentially broad transformations in the landscape of our world? We must thus conquer contemporary dogma that dissuades us from the pursuit of passions and fulfillment of our dreams.

If it is fear of failure that holds us back, we should remember Emily Dickinson’s who said, “Success is counted sweetest by those who ne’er succeed.” So if we have not yet tried to take action on our dreams because of society’s expectations of compliance, modesty, or the suggestion that none but a chosen few might dare take such risks, why comply with pessimism and the misguided notion of predestined mediocrity.  Don't let opportunity pass you by.  I know, I know, I haven’t picked up my paintbrushes yet, but on the other hand I am the proud owner of two trumpets, a flute, several guitars, a mandolin, a banjo, one drum set, an out-of-tune piano, and a few harmonicas in keys I’m not sure of, and the joy I derive on my road to musical improvement (and maybe a gold record), is immeasurable. So if we must shake things up a little as we progress, and don’t immediately measure up to our idols as we gain our footing, I say we have to keep trying. Fulfilling our passions takes work, but the measure of our persistence represents our desire for the goal.  By following the lead of one Renaissance man and allowing ourselves the freedom to actualize our inner dimensions, we may offer the world unforeseen examples of cultural refinement and enrichment that surpass all initial expectations, and thereafter eclipse any original doubts as to whether or not we should have let ourselves explore. 

In the early days in his garage while welding and soldering, imagining and designing, Bill Gates may not have dreamt he’d one day be among the few private owners of some of da Vinci’s original manuscripts, but I imagine his initial inspiration included an awareness of the great inventor’s achievements. It’s also likely that while tinkering at what would blossom from dream to reality to transform the modern world, Gates was looked on as sneeringly by neighbors as Leonardo da Vinci in his Florence workshop while challenging the sacredly held and ever-limiting notions of the pre-Copernican heavens, or the workings of the human body.  I’ll try to remember this if I have any doubts about buying that saxophone I’ve been thinking about.

Mark Amiama

Photo: © MAMJODH

This article is dedicated to our fortnightly newsletter “Leaders Wisdom Journal”. To Subscribe.

Other articles of the same issue:
J.- J. Dordain (European Space Agency) : “Let’s not forget to dream!”
Why Should We Chase Dreams?
25 Innovative Leaders (Part II)
Wisdom on Risk Taking
Simon Sinek: How Great Leaders Inspire Action (TED Video)


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