Leonardo: one of the best note-takers in history

Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about the subject of connected thought. This is due in large part to Roam Research, a tool I’ve been using that’s built for this type of thinking, which lets me link thoughts in new and interesting ways. As I get more and more into this process and take more and more notes, my mind has been drawn to one of the best note-takers in history: Leonardo Da Vinci.

Leonardo took notes — LOTS of notes — and many of the entries, just like his works of art, seem to be things which he tinkered with for long periods of time. Instead of seeing each note as siloed, he would start them, leave them, do something else. And then come back to re-visit them, again and again — sometimes over his entire lifetime.

Leonardo left behind way more works of thought than he did works of art. Historians have collected over 7,000 pages of his notes, and that’s obviously just the ones that have survived to the present day.

It was common within Leonardo’s culture to keep a commonplace book, in Italy these were known as ‘zibaldone’, a word which can roughly be translated to ‘a heap of things’ — but most people used these notebooks as daily logs, keeping records of the comings and goings of family, tracking finances, and writing out thoughts related to their work.

Leonardo’s notebook, however, went way beyond this: his notes were creative, connective and, in a way, transcendent.

Instead of simply taking notes about what was happening in his life and the projects he was working on, he took notes about everything — military machines, how to move rivers, the anatomy of the human body, the anatomy of horses, physics, geometry, and even an 18-folio series we now call the ‘Codex on the Flight of Birds’.

That last one is 18 entire ‘books’ dedicated to how birds fly. Do you remember any birds-in-flight as the central theme of Leonardo’s major works? No! This has led some historians to lament the amount of energy Leonardo spent doing things that feel ‘unimportant’ in the grand scheme, wondering why he spent time researching birds when he could have been painting more works of art that we could enjoy today.

But there’s an opposing argument to be made, which ties both his genius and his masterpieces to his ability to make connections across disciplines. Leonardo became the very definition of a ‘renaissance man’, and his multi-disciplinarian nature is at the root of what that phrase means to this day.

The need to connect information

Leonardo Da Vinci understood the need to avoid silo-ing information. When you aren’t able to make connections, you miss out on subtle nuances that may hold the key to unlocking the revelations you are looking for.

In Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo Da Vinci, this thought is repeatedly hammered home.

Leonardo used his notebook not only to think through ideas but also to link them. One sketch could flow from thought to thought, interconnecting each of them in a way that simultaneously benefited them all.

My favorite example of this is a single page of Leonardo’s which at first glance looks like a simple sketch of a man. But, when you look closely, you see that there’s a tree growing out of his torso, geometry forming from his back, and a rocky mountain coming out of that geometry, with a hillside drawn in parallel to its lines.

To Leonardo these concepts are all connected, and I’ve begun categorizing this type of thinking in my own life as ‘Roam-thinking’.

When I use Roam, I find myself moving from thought to thought seamlessly in a way that I find beneficial instead of distracting…Or rather, I am being distracted but it’s a good thing. Distraction can be a blessing instead of a curse.

To take the example of Leonardo’s drawing, the point was never to sketch a man or a mountain or a tree or a piece of geometry. The point instead was to see what kinds of connections could be formed. And the same can be said for our own notebooks and methods of thinking through ideas.

Another page in Leonardo’s notebook reveals how helpful this can be in a really elegant way, with two drawings side by side. On the right is a study of moving water, showing the way that ripples form as water flows, and on the left is an old man with wispy hair and a flowing beard.

Leonardo notes in the space underneath that there are overlaps between the two subjects, that the hair looks like water and the water looks like hair. He also includes a third connection, saying that the way in which air moves must be, though invisible, like the water flowing through a stream and the curls of hair growing on the man’s head.

An interesting detail about this page is that there’s some debate over when each side was drawn.

Leonardo used his pages to the fullest and it’s possible that the water was sketched early in his life and the man was sketched much, much later. Coming back to ideas repeatedly and building on them each time was a key part of what made Leonardo’s thinking so unique.

And there’s something about Da Vinci’s notebooks that I find really sad, and it’s the fact that so many of his best ideas went completely unnoticed only to be ‘rediscovered’ at later dates by others. For example, looking at Leonardo’s notebook, we can see that he dedicated his time to a deep study of friction, where he methodically experimented in order to understand the way that resistance works on objects in motion.

He was correct in his findings, understanding friction in a way that no one else did at the time, but his discovery would go totally unnoticed only to be “rediscovered” two hundred years later by someone else.

Leonardo did this again and again in different fields like astronomy, anatomy, and music. He invented an entire instrument that combined the body of a piano with the mechanics of strings, but the few which were built broke down and were destroyed, with a functioning one being built only a few years ago. It sounds incredible.

The power of connection and collaboration

While Leonardo da Vinci understood that linking ideas together was valuable, imagine a world where he understood that collaborating was even more important — a world where his notes and his research and his thought experiments weren’t trapped in notebooks, sitting unused for centuries, but accessible to everyone.

A historian once lamented this, saying that Leonardo “had no real understanding of the way in which the growth of knowledge was a cumulative and collaborative process.”

I agree, and this brings us back to Roam.

One of the things that gets me most excited about this tool isn’t just the prospect of linking my own ideas but also of linking my ideas with the ideas of others.

And this is part of Roam’s endgame. Roam’s co-founder, Conor WhiteSullivan, says that the goal is to create “remix-able knowledge graphs” that can be accessed by different people in different ways. While Roam as it exists today is mostly a ‘single-player’ tool, the idea of making it ‘multiplayer’ has so much potential.

Hypothetically, this could mean that I won’t just be connecting the dots when something I’m reading reminds me of something I came across before. Instead it means that, if we want to, I will also be able to connect the dots between something I’m reading and something you’re reading — and that could be so, so powerful.

I recently spent time with a small group of people working on a project to add the texts of history into Roam. We started adding a bunch of important public domain works — the Tao, the Art of War, the Bhagavad Gita, and even the entire King James Bible.

This is nice to have because it allows you to download pieces which are meaningful to you and incorporate them into your own private collections. But for a few of us, it’s even more intriguing to think about how, once these texts are  all connected together, we can start to see similar motifs surfacing within our own thoughts.

As we connected all of these historical texts together and looked around, one of the people working on the project said this: “Even just a quick skim brings to mind thematic connections. I can only imagine the power if all these things were connected in a database, or better yet, if related terms and concepts were automatically suggested in context.”

Can you imagine how powerful this could be?

A future of connected and collaborative thinking

Roam represents not just a better way of taking notes, but also a better way of collaborating — though unfortunately the way that we’ve set up our current systems means that this is lost on many people.

I was fascinated by a comment that I came across underneath the video of an interview Conor did with Kevin Rose. The commenter wrote: “I still don’t really see a practical application for this other than linking a bunch of stuff together.”

That, to me, spoke volumes.

The fact that people don’t understand the power of linking ideas shows what a failure our current systems of files and folders really is. We can learn from the systems that came before us — both in Leonardo Da Vinci’s day and our own — and do better.

Walter Isaacson concludes his biography by stating that the Mona Lisa is a culmination of all of the ideas and knowledge that Leonardo pursued over his lifetime. Seeing so many hints at the variety of studies and experiments and interests that Leonardo held within the details on the Mona Lisa, Isaacson makes a compelling argument for scattered, distracted thought by saying this:

“And what about all of the scholars and critics over the years who despaired that Leonardo squandered too much time immersed in studying optics and anatomy and the patterns of the cosmos? The Mona Lisa answers them with a smile.”

Just as the Mona Lisa is a masterpiece borne out of one man’s connected thinking, I believe there is so much potential ahead in a future where thinking is fully connected and fully collaborative.

Linking thoughts is a key component of developing a better world and a better future. I can only imagine what can come out of the connections made by Leonardo-like thinkers, all curious, ambitious and ready to build something new, together.