What Would da Vinci and Edison Say to Today’s Innovators?

If Leonardo da Vinci and Thomas Edison were alive today, what best practices and wisdom would they impart? An interview with Michael J. Gelb, bestselling author of How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci and Innovate Like Edison provides insights.

We are all familiar with the classic art and innovations of Leonardo da Vinci and Thomas Edison. Despite the passing of centuries, these geniuses are still well-known and revered. Yet many of us know very little about how these highly intelligent men pursued the innovation process itself.


How did da Vinci and Edison go about developing their great ideas? Are there lessons we can learn from their approaches? Bestselling author Michael J. Gelb has devoted years to researching the lives of these legends and has written How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci, Innovate Like Edison, and Discover Your Genius: How to Think Like History’s Ten Most Revolutionary Minds. I had the opportunity to interview Mr. Gelb about his work:

Q: You’ve written two books about how Leonardo da Vinci and Edison innovate. How do these innovation approaches apply to today’s connected, digital world?

Gelb: Five hundred years ago, Leonardo da Vinci predicted that the world would be linked by communication devices, and 100 years ago, Thomas Edison invented much of the technology that spawned our connected, digital world. The principles of creative thinking that they utilized are universal and timeless, and especially relevant today as innovation becomes ever more important.


Q: What is similar in da Vinci’s and Edison’s approaches and what is different?

Gelb: Someone once asked me, “If Leonardo and Edison met what might they ask each other?” I responded, “Leonardo would ask Edison about the nature of light, and Edison would ask da Vinci, “Do you want a job!”

Leonardo was focused on the pure quest for Truth and Beauty, while Edison’s passion was to invent things that would provide happiness to mankind and a profit for his investors. Although their styles were very different, these extraordinary geniuses did have many similarities; they both kept notebooks, engaged in creative doodling, generated lots of fanciful ideas, and took regular naps during the day, among many other things.


Q: What would da Vinci recommend to innovators today? What do you think Edison would say?

Gelb: Much of what they would advise would be the same. They would both counsel the following:

Keep a notebook to record and explore your ideas.
In 1994, Bill Gates paid $30.8 million for eighteen pages of Leonardo’s notebooks. Edison’s notebooks are being catalogued and studied by Dr. Paul Israel of the Edison Papers Project in association with Rutgers University.


Do lots of creative doodling in your notebook.
Leonardo doodled the first workable parachute, the extendable ladder that fire departments still use today, and the three-speed gearshift. Edison’s doodles became the basis of his record 1,093 United States patents.

Let your imagination run wild first and then focus on analysis, practicality, and implementation.
Leonardo counseled “Let the mind go free and think of a thousand things … Divine landscapes … which you may then reduce to their complete and proper forms.” Edison advised: “To get a great idea, have a lot of ideas.” He balanced his fantastic imagination with rigorous experimentation.

Take a couple of twenty-minute naps each day.
Leonardo took naps in his studio and Edison crawled onto his laboratory desk, using Watts’ Dictionary of Chemistry as a pillow.


Laugh and play every day.
Both geniuses had a strong playful nature and a lively sense of humor. They each had the passionate curiosity of a healthy child; as Freud wrote of Leonardo, “He continued to play as a child throughout his adult life, thus baffling his contemporaries.” Leonardo’s notebooks are filled with jokes and funny stories. Edison carried file cards with jokes printed on them which he tucked into the many pockets of his suits. He loved to make people laugh and he once said, “Maturity is often more absurd than youth!”

Focus on a higher purpose.
Leonardo wanted to know the Mind of God, everything else was just details. Edison described his purpose as “Bringing out the secrets of nature for the happiness of mankind.”

Q: You discuss inspiration and creativity and link it to the experience of drinking wine in your latest book Wine Drinking for Inspired Thinking; Uncork Your Creative Juices. How so?


Gelb: Wine is the lifeblood of civilization, the symbol of spiritual blessing and the elixir of genius. When you open a bottle of wine and share it with your friends or colleagues, you are expressing your connection with an ancient, vivifying cultural practice. You are linking with a tradition that has inspired many of the greatest minds in human history.

The forum for the birth of Western philosophy was a delightful gathering known as the Symposium. Symposium literally means “to drink together.” Plato and Socrates enjoyed wine as a catalyst for creativity; the great figures of the Renaissance – Brunelleschi, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Machiavelli, and Galileo – all met at the palace of the Medici to share wine and ideas; and the Founding Fathers of the USA – Franklin, Washington, Adams, and Jefferson – shared fine wine as they developed the ideals of freedom that we enjoy today. My book guides readers into making this great tradition accessible in their lives now.

Let’s raise a toast to Michael Gelb to thank him for sharing his findings on innovation and creativity and wish him the best with his latest work. To learn more, you can check out his books: How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci, Innovate Like Edison, Discover Your Genius: How to Think Like History’s Ten Most Revolutionary Minds, and Wine Drinking for Inspired Thinking; Uncork Your Creative Juices or visit his website.




Adrian Ott has been called, “One of Silicon Valley’s most respected, (if not the most respected) strategist” by Consulting Magazine. As CEO of Exponential Edge Inc, she has helped some of the world’s most innovative Fortune 500 and start-up companies to gain a market edge in today’s exponential economy. Follow her on twitter at @ExponentialEdge


Adrian is the author of the forthcoming book The 24-Hour Customer: New Rules for Winning in a Time-Starved, Always-Connected Economy (HarperCollins, August 2010).

This article reflects the author’s opinion and does not represent those of clients and affiliates.

© 2010 Exponential Edge Inc., All Rights Reserved


About the author

Adrian Ott, award-winning author, speaker, and CEO of Exponential Edge Inc., was called “one of Silicon Valley’s most respected strategists” by Consulting Magazine. She helps relentless visionary executives to foresee disruptive opportunities and accelerate market leadership