Dell Technologies (DT): Some may find it strange that a technology company is producing a podcast episode about Leonardo da Vinci. What would you tell those people about why da Vinci is relevant today, even in the tech space?
Walter Isaacson (WI): Innovation in technology comes from being able to connect engineering and the arts, by being able to connect the technology to beauty and our human emotions. That's what Leonardo did, and that's why he's so relevant to today.
DT: In interviewing the many Leonardo scholars for this episode, we found that there’s some disagreement about whether he could thrive today. Some said the digital age we live in is too different, and some say he’d be at home in the space of art and technology. What is your opinion?
WI: The age of the digital revolution—with the Internet, communications networks, and our ability to form social networks and have ideas rush around the globe instantly—is in a way like the Renaissance, which came about because of the fast spread of knowledge, because of the printing press, because of people questioning conventional wisdom.
So I think Leonardo would love to have lived in our time. He was very lucky to have been born just as the printing press was coming along, just as Gutenberg was opening up his shops to print books. But imagine somebody who wanted to know everything there was to know about everything that could be known being born in the age of the Internet. Somebody who understood beauty, but also understood technology. Somebody who thought of himself as an engineer, but also as an artist. He would certainly be a mix of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates and Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, all rolled into one. He would've really, really loved being a 21st century man.
DT: We talked in the podcast about the traits Leonardo held that we could all aspire to hone today. Would you say any of those are particularly relevant for today’s business leaders?
WI: I think what Leonardo teaches us first of all is to question conventional wisdom… be a bit of a rebel. Say, "Let's do an experiment. How do we know that?" The other thing he taught us is that it's all about the product. You don't try to just satisfy patrons or make as much money in the short term as possible. If you make great products, that's how you're going to succeed. So I think there are a lot of lessons somebody in a start up or an enterprise can learn from Leonardo.
DT: How has what you’ve learned about Leonardo da Vinci most impacted you personally?
WI: After studying Leonardo for all these years, and reading his notebook pages and looking at his great art, I realized I'll never become a genius like Leonardo. But as I walked down the street, I found myself being a little bit more careful as an observer. I'd look at light and how it struck an object, and I'd try to figure out the way the shadows were formed. Or I would be curious about how a bird's wing goes up and down, or maybe the way a dragonfly moves. Or maybe I'd be sitting at dinner, looking around the table at each person's gestures and seeing how those gestures connected to their inner emotions. Or maybe a smile would flicker across a person's face, and I would try to fathom her inner feelings, as if she were the Mona Lisa.
Now, none of us will ever be Leonardo. We’re not going to paint, “The Last Supper.” But all of us, I think, can have much more enriching lives if we just try to capture a little bit of his curiosity, his willfulness about observing things, and his openness to the wondrous mysteries of the infinite things that nature has created.
Click here for more information about Walter Isaacson’s new book, Leonardo da Vinci.
The interviews for this episode of Trailblazers were conducted at the “Leonardo da Vinci: A Celebration of Wonder, Imagination, and the Creative Power of Curiosity” conference at the Aspen Institute this summer. You can check out the videos from the event here.