When I think about the voluminous material that he left to posterity, alongside admiration, I feel a subtle jealousy. I would love to think as much and have as many diverse ideas as a Da Vinci. I would love to, at the end of my life, turn to my bookshelves and see hundreds of notebooks filled with my own drawings, noticings and speculation. But that’s missing the point. The outcome—Da Vinci’s notebooks—are a product of the process. They are a manifestation of his unyielding attention, of his wandering and wondering. So really, I shouldn’t try to emulate—or feel jealous of—his notebooks. Instead, I should aspire to see like him. A tall order, I know. After all, Leonardo was a certified genius. But a high percentage of the makeup of genius lies in its unconventional perceptive capacity. And fortunately for you and I, perception is something that can be deliberately refactored. We can train ourselves to see differently.
There are a few ways to do this, but they all require two things. The first is an awareness of our current perceptual limitations. We need to know our blindspots. We need to know our biases. We need to understand our assumptions, and we need to have a knowledge of our set, stable and shifting beliefs. We need to see—or at least, sense the outline of—our un-knowledge and be aware of the narratives we choose and don’t choose to live by.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, we need to ease up on the self-censorship. There are things that are taboo, not just to say, but to think. Society, culture, and other social and intellectual stimuli etch this list of dos and don’ts into our psyche. Thus, we unconsciously push away uncomfortable thoughts, flee observations that don’t align with accepted worldviews and decline to answer penetrating questions. Given the option, we choose to see certainty and consistency instead of exploring the inherent uncertainty and inconsistencies of humanity and life itself.
A lack of awareness concerning our perceptual limitations and unrelenting self-censorship; this is what prevents us from progressing on the path to Da Vinci-dom. Because we don’t understand what it is hard for us to see, and because when we get near these things self-censorship and inhibition kicks in, we neither detect nor capture the novel, the different and interesting. Instead, we see only what everyone else sees and think only what everyone else thinks; it’s safer that way.