The Idea: Walter Isaacson’s research on the lives of Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein, and Steve Jobs shines a light on the transformational effect of curiosity. They taught us that questions unlock the future. Tangible skills have an expiration date; creativity and critical thinking are timeless. The dreamers connect dots and ponder new thinking. Unbridled curiosity is the lesson of da Vinci, Einstein, and Jobs.

Isaacson shares that da Vinci made no distinction between the beauty of art and science. Steve Jobs lived at the intersection of the arts and technology. He believed this intersection is where creativity happens. This is the magic of connecting dots. When Steve Jobs was dying he was asked, “What was your best product?” His response wasn’t the Mac or iPhone. He said, “No, making a Mac or an iPhone is hard, but making a team that will always turn out Macs and iPhones—that’s the hard part.” Creatives ask different questions.

Walter Isaacson shared these thoughts during an interview with Harvard’s Adam Grant: “Leonardo da Vinci, I believe, is history’s greatest creative genius. Again, that doesn’t mean he was the smartest person. But he could think like an artist and a scientist, which gave him something more valuable: the ability to visualize theoretical concepts.”

Isaacson continues: “The most interesting geniuses are those who see patterns across nature’s infinite beauties. Da Vinci’s brilliance spanned multiple disciplines. He peeled flesh off the faces of cadavers, delineated the muscles that move the lips and then painted the world’s most memorable smile. He studied human skulls, made layered drawings of the bones and teeth and conveyed the skeletal agony of St. Jerome in St. Jerome in the Wilderness. He explored the mathematics of optics, showed how light rays strike the cornea and produced magical illusions of changing visual perspectives in The Last Supper.” Da Vinci lived in a state of curiosity.

Isaacson reminds us “His (da Vinci’s) ability to blur the line between reality and fantasy was a key to his creativity.  Skill without imagination is barren. He had 7,200 pages of notes, providing so much info on one page and showing his mental leaps. They are the greatest record of curiosity ever created.”

The curious one’s question everything, even that which appears unquestionable. Author Warren Berger offers a three-step question sequence including – why? what if? and how?

  • Why? When you ask “why?” you’re trying to gain an understanding of something: “Why are we not achieving our goals?” It’s an UNDERSTANDING QUESTION.
  • What if? When you ask “What if?” you are trying to uncover options: “What if we try this idea?” It’s an IMAGINATION QUESTION.
  • How? When you ask “How?” you are looking for the practical solution: “How do we do it?” or “how will it affect others?” It’s an ACTION PLAN QUESTION.

Da Vinci was beholden to his process yet would often take extended periods off to reflect. Isaacson reminds us, “Sometimes when you’re creative, you accomplish the most when you seem to be working the least, because you’re bringing things together, and you’re letting them gel. You’re intuiting what you’re going to do.” Pausing, pondering, observing, and questioning allow you to connect dots. Einstein, da Vinci and Jobs understood that curiosity is the oxygen of all innovation.