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Learn to write a résumé like the person who invented it—DaVinci

The first personal marketing document in recorded history stands the test of time as an effective example of how you should sell yourself to a potential employer.

Learn to write a résumé like the person who invented it—DaVinci
[Source images: undefined undefined/iStock; Wikimedia Commons]
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Leonardo Da Vinci was born on April 15, 1452, and yet we are still learning from this master of the Renaissance. His résumé—in many ways the first personal marketing document in recorded history—stands the test of time to provide an effective example of how you should sell yourself.

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Da Vinci wasn’t always famous, of course, and just like you, needed to market himself. So in 1482, he wrote a document outlining all of his achievements and capabilities, and addressed it to the Duke of Milan.

In other words, he wrote a résumé.

At Leet Resumes, where we write thousands of professional résumés for free, we found enduring themes in Da Vinci’s résumé that you can apply in 2021.

Key accomplishments are more important than keywords. Anyone can stuff lots of keywords into a résumé in the hopes of turning up in search results. That’s not as effective as telling a persuasive story.  By weaving his past achievements into a great narrative, Da Vinci’s résumé is far more effective than a disconnected jumble of keywords.

Write what it felt like to be your boss. Not necessarily known as a writer, Da Vinci wields the pen convincingly in this letter.  He doesn’t write about what it felt like to be Da Vinci in his past jobs. Instead, he paints a picture of what the future will look like for the Duke of Milan with Da Vinci in his employ. His effective use of imagery throughout the letter makes it easy for his future boss to visualize success with this new employee.

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The greatest artist in history didn’t need graphics—neither do you. When users submit their résumés at Leet, the old drafts we see are often replete with graphics like bar charts, blue backgrounds, and quirky icons intending to convey meaningful information about performance. Da Vinci, wisely, held off on the drawings for this letter. It’s much better to make an effective case in the easiest-to-understand, easiest-to-digest format: the written word.  

Let’s step through this amazing letter and see what Da Vinci got right.

“Most Illustrious Lord, Having now sufficiently considered the specimens of all those who proclaim themselves skilled contrivers of instruments of war, and that the invention and operation of the said instruments are nothing different from those in common use: I shall endeavor, without prejudice to anyone else, to explain myself to your Excellency, showing your Lordship my secret, and then offering them to your best pleasure and approbation to work with effect at opportune moments on all those things which, in part, shall be briefly noted below.”

Here we read Da Vinci’s cover letter, or in this case, cover paragraph. He does a remarkably effective job at setting the stage for why he’s writing, and what the Duke of Milan will get from the letter, in a single sentence. One great sentence can be far more effective than a long cover letter that won’t get read.

  • I have a sort of extremely light and strong bridges, adapted to be most easily carried, and with them, you may pursue, and at any time flee from the enemy; and others, secure and indestructible by fire and battle, easy and convenient to lift and place. Also methods of burning and destroying those of the enemy.
  • I know how when a place is besieged, to take the water out of the trenches, and make endless variety of bridges, and covered ways and ladders, and other machines pertaining to such expeditions.
  • If by reason of the height of the banks, or the strength of the place and its position, it is impossible, when besieging a place, to avail oneself of the plan of bombardment, I have methods for destroying every rock or other fortress, even if it were founded on a rock, etc.

Da Vinci shares his past accomplishments including designing strong bridges, taking water out of trenches, and methods for destroying rock fortresses. He focuses his letter on sharing what he’s actually been able to do in the past, and how those experiences relate to the Duke’s needs.

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  • Again, I have kinds of mortars; most convenient and easy to carry; and with these I can fling small stones almost resembling a storm; and with the smoke of these cause great terror to the enemy, to his great detriment and confusion.
  • And if the fight should be at sea I have kinds of many machines most efficient for offense and defense; and vessels which will resist the attack of the largest guns and powder and fumes.
  • I have means by secret and tortuous mines and ways, made without noise, to reach a designated spot, even if it were needed to pass under a trench or a river.

Demonstrate your capabilities and enthusiasm. Across the centuries, we can feel that Da Vinci is pretty excited about mortars, sea fights, and secret ways. Here’s a guy who is very pumped up about “flinging small stones almost resembling a storm” or passing under a river “without noise.” In your own résumé, convey your enthusiasm for the cool, interesting, clever, and innovative ways you’ve brought your capabilities to bear on problem-solving at work.

  • I will make covered chariots, safe and unattackable, which, entering among the enemy with their artillery, there is no body of men so great but they would break them. And behind these, infantry could follow quite unhurt and without any hindrance.
  • In case of need I will make big guns, mortars, and light ordnance of fine and useful forms, out of the common type.
  • Where the operation of bombardment might fail, I would contrive catapults, mangonels, trabocchi, and other machines of marvelous efficacy and not in common use. And in short, according to the variety of cases, I can contrive various and endless means of offense and defense.

Connect the dots for your future employer by making your résumé about their needs, not yours. Covered chariots, big guns, catapults, mangonels, and trabocchi were music to the ears of the medieval lord. Da Vinci knew how to speak his future boss’s language.

You’ll also notice there’s no mention of duties and responsibilities at his prior jobs.  Rather than saying “I was responsible for the defense of the villa,” or “I managed a studio,” or “I was assigned to paint pictures,” Da Vinci writes about outcomes. You should as well. Your future boss knows what duties someone with your title would have, but what they don’t know is how powerful or effective your mangonels and trabocchi are so let them know.

  • In times of peace I believe I can give perfect satisfaction and to the equal of any other in architecture and the composition of buildings public and private; and in guiding water from one place to another.
  • I can carry out sculpture in marble, bronze, or clay, and also I can do in painting whatever may be done, as well as any other, be he who he may.
  • Again, the bronze horse may be taken in hand, which is to be to the immortal glory and eternal honor of the prince your father of happy memory, and of the illustrious house of Sforza.

Da Vinci includes the war-fighting as well as the art and architecture all in one résumé.  Employers know that you’re multitalented, so share those multiple talents with them.  Anything that is significant enough to be meaningful for your career and employability belongs on your résumé. 

The modern anxiety about writing multiple résumés, each of which showcases different skills, is ineffective, unnecessary, and often counterproductive. Here, Da Vinci includes his peacetime pursuits of architecture, sculpture, and painting—quite different from war machines, but, as it turned out, of permanent and timeless value to his patron.

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And if any of the above-named things seem to anyone to be impossible or not feasible, I am most ready to make the experiment in your park, or in whatever place may please your Excellency—to whom I comment myself with the utmost humility, etc.

Leonardo wraps up with a pitch for the in-person interview. I love the way the artist tried to close the deal here.

Now, there have been some improvements in marketing yourself in the past four centuries. From our vantage point in 2021 at Leet, we’d have some suggestions for Da Vinci:

  • Incorporate more numbers. How many sea fighting machines has he built? How many fortresses of rock has he destroyed? Providing numbers would make the mental pictures even more vivid for the Duke.
  • Put a summary at the top. “War Machines • Big Guns • Destroying Enemies • Sculptor • Painter” This professional summary at the top of the document would’ve helped capture the Duke’s most urgent attention.
  • Include external validation. Who else has already been impressed with Da Vinci’s work? He’d studied at del Verrochio’s studio, who was an art world big shot at the time. And he’d completed works for the Florence City Hall. Demonstrating past happy employers would help validate all of the capabilities Da Vinci ascribes to himself.

Nonetheless, Da Vinci’s ancient résumé markets the man so effectively that he landed the gig and stayed for 17 years. Given his mastery of every form of artistic endeavor, I’d imagine if he were alive today, he’d be schooling us on the best TikTok videos and more.

And so on his 569th birthday, we celebrate this remarkable Renaissance man, his résumé, and his learning, which stretches out to us across the ages.


Marc Cenedella is the founder of Leet Resumes which writes professional resumes for free, and Ladders, the home for $100K+ careers.

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