Have you ever wished you could think as creatively as Leonardo da Vinci, who designed a flying machine, invented musical instruments and painted the Mona Lisa? Or that you could turn innovative ideas into profitable reality like Thomas Edison, the Wizard of Menlo Park, who developed the light bulb, phonograph and movie camera?
If so, Michael Gelb has some suggestions for you.
Gelb has extensively studied how “genius thinking” applies to personal and organizational development. In 1998, he published his analysis of Leonardo’s brilliance in the best-selling “How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci: Seven Steps to Genius Every Day.” In 2007, he expanded the field of creative thinking with “Innovate Like Edison: The Five-Step System for Breakthrough Business Success,” co-authored with Edison’s great-grandniece, Sarah Miller Caldicott. He has also written 10 other books, leads a seminar on innovation at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, and is the director of leadership and creativity at the Conscious Capitalism Institute.
As part of this focus on creativity and innovation, Gelb has introduced the idea of teaching juggling to promote accelerated learning and team-building. A former professional juggler, he once performed with the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan.
I’ve known about Michael and his work for years. When I attended a workshop of his, long ago, I was blown away by his ability to help people unleash their creative selves. Financial advisors can learn a lot from Gelb’s observations on how to unlock their creativity, fine-tune their goal-setting skills and maximize their brainpower.
Olivia Mellan: How did you get into exploring the lives of Leonardo and Edison?
Michael Gelb: When I was a child my two biggest role models, my heroes, were Leonardo da Vinci and Superman. Eventually I discovered that Superman was only a comic book character, but Leonardo was real.
One of the great things about being human, once you’re a grown-up, is that you can choose who and what you want to imitate. So if you want to learn creativity, it makes sense to model perhaps the most creative person who ever lived: Leonardo da Vinci. And if you want to learn innovation, then you want to model yourself after the greatest innovator of all time: Thomas Edison.
Part of the reason why da Vinci and Edison make such a powerful one-two combination as role models for creativity and innovation, respectively, is that Leonardo was more interested in pure creativity, whereas Edison aimed to link his creativity to business.
OM: How can we apply Leonardo’s processes to our professional lives? Advisors want to help clients achieve the life they truly want, and find financial security and true serenity.
MG: For an advisor in a highly competitive world, the challenge is to add value by serving as more than just a resource for good stocks and bonds. The best advisors have the emotional intelligence to bond with their clients and help them take stock of their lives.
I’ve identified seven principles for thinking like Leonardo da Vinci that can guide advisors in developing an ability to integrate the big picture with the details. Not only can these tools help them better serve their clients, but they also constitute a program advisors can follow to integrate the personal and the professional and keep their own lives in balance.
Q. Can you walk us through the principles for thinking like Leonardo?
MG: Absolutely. The idea is to first implement each principle in your own life, then see how you can use it to improve what you do for your clients.
- Curiosità (curiosity) is the first principle. Leonardo was on an insatiable quest for knowledge and continuous learning. What this comes down to on a personal level is seeking to understand yourself and fulfill your potential. Professionally, it means eliciting from your clients their most important life questions. Dig deep to find out what truly matters to them.
- Dimostrazione (demonstration), the second principle, refers to Leonardo’s insistence on learning by personal experience rather than taking others’ reports for granted. The lesson for advisors is to always think independently and critically, and to help your clients think more objectively about their current situation and their goals.
- Sensazione (sensation), which is related to the first two principles, refers to Leonardo’s ability to focus on sharpening his sensory awareness. He wrote, “The five senses are the ministers of the soul.” You can train yourself and your clients to be sharper by cutting through all the spam and identifying the most critically important information.
- Sfumato, the fourth principle, is a painting technique employed by da Vinci to create an ethereal quality in his work. To me, this ability to embrace ambiguity and change is probably the most important da Vinci principle for advisors and their clients. It suggests the importance of maintaining a sense of perspective and alignment with your principles in the face of grave uncertainty.
- Arte/scienza (the science of art) refers to Leonardo’s whole-brain thinking: his ability to be both imaginative and practical. Advisors too must practice their capacity to think both analytically and intuitively, and encourage their clients to develop the same balance.
- Corporalità, which literally means physicality, represents Leonardo’s belief that a healthy mind requires a healthy body. Even though an advisor isn’t meant to be a wellness consultant, you still need to have a healthy lifestyle and help your clients develop one. In big-picture terms, if your net worth goes up but your energy level and general health go down, you’re not a good investor.
- Connessione (connection) relates to Leonardo’s ability to weave multiple disciplines around a single idea. In other words, he was a systems thinker—which is one of the primary ways an advisor adds value. You have to see all the important connections in your clients’ lives, which means understanding their vision, values and goals. To advise them effectively, you have to be able to ascertain the most significant global forces that will impact the investments you recommend.
OM: I understand that USA Today asked you what Leonardo da Vinci and Thomas Edison would ask each other if they ever met. What did you say?
MG: Da Vinci would ask Edison about the nature of light, and Edison would ask da Vinci, “Do you want a job?”
OM: In “Innovate Like Edison,” you offer a system for cultivating innovation. Tell us more about the five competencies you’ve identified.
MG: Edison’s strategies for generating new ideas and finding promising business opportunities are especially relevant for advisors and investors. His five competencies of innovation, as I’ve determined them, are:
1. A solution-centered mindset. This means focusing on solving problems rather than being dragged down by them. This is the attitude that makes innovation possible.
Edison is famous for having said, “Results? I’ve gotten lots of results. I know thousands of things that won’t work.” He continually focused on finding solutions and learned from things that didn’t work. The message for advisors is not to get bogged down by dwelling on past mistakes and regrets, and to concentrate instead on applying the lessons learned.
2. Kaleidoscopic thinking. Edison said, “If you want to get a good idea, get a lot of ideas.” Open your mind to a broad and expansive range of possibilities, then home in on the most compelling ideas.
3. Full-spectrum engagement. This involves the ability to manage complexity—a skill that’s even more important now than it was in Edison’s time.
Edison believed in Occam’s Razor, the principle that when there are a number of possible answers, it’s advisable to chose the one that makes the fewest new assumptions. He sought simplicity in the midst of complexity. In the complicated world of investing, this is a valuable instinct to cultivate. For example, if you can’t understand what a company does or why it’s valuable, don’t buy it!
Also, both da Vinci and Edison were deeply contemplative. Leonardo said, “Men of genius sometimes work best when they work least.” Here he’s expressing the importance of receptivity and deep relaxation in the process of creation. Edison would go off in the middle of a workday to a nearby pond where he would fish with a baitless hook. Why? Because he was really “fishing” for breakthrough ideas, and he knew that relaxation made him more receptive to intuitive insight. He once said, “To do much clear thinking, a person must arrange for regular periods of solitude when he can concentrate and indulge the imagination without distraction.”
These modes of consciousness are critically important to investment success and success of any kind. The key is to find your own natural rhythm, balancing intense focus and concentrated work with reflection and receptivity.
4. Mastermind collaboration. In order to create his amazing innovations, Edison assembled a team of brilliant people from diverse and complementary backgrounds. As an advisor, one of the best things you can do to be more innovative is to create your own “mastermind” group of specialists with different backgrounds and viewpoints.
5. Super-value creation. All businesses are based on the idea of creating value for a customer or client. Edison believed he had to create value for his customers in a manner that was dramatically superior to his competitors—hence the term “super”-value creation. Of course, discerning opportunities for value in the investment landscape is critical for long-term success. But in addition to beating numerical benchmarks, advisors can add value by cultivating relationships with their clients that result in continuity, even during periods of underperformance.
OM: What’s the single most important thing for advisors who want to innovate like Edison?
MG: I think the most important thing is to align your goals with your passion. Edison said, “I never did a day’s work in my life. It was all fun.” The best financial advisors I’ve ever met are by far the most passionate and engaged and caring. They love what they do.
OM: I understand you have a new book coming out soon called “Brain Power: Improve Your Mind As You Age.” Since much has been written about the graying of the advisory profession, planners will be hungry to learn from this book. Can you tell us a little about it?
MG: I’ve been teaching people how to improve the mind with age throughout my career, but now it’s serious. The exciting news is that scientific evidence that you can improve your mind as you age has become overwhelming.
Most of us grew up believing that our brain power was fixed at age five, and that the mind would inevitably begin to decline after age 30. We now know that that’s not true. The brain, as neuroscientist Dr. Richard Restak explains, is designed to improve with use. Your brain is flexible and adaptable, and is designed to continue evolving over time. As Leonardo da Vinci wrote in his notebooks 500 years ago, “Water that does not flow becomes stagnant. Thus it is with the human mind.”
Contemporary science demonstrates that the question is no longer “Can your mind improve with age?” but rather “What are the best ways to improve your mind over time?” In the new book, I’ve identified the most essential, research-validated and practical approaches to continuous neural development.
OM: As someone about to turn 65, my curiosity is running wild. How about a hint?
MG: Interesting you should say that: Maintaining your curiosity and a positive attitude towards aging makes a tremendous difference in mental acuity and even actual longevity. “Brain Power” also covers diet, nutrition, exercise, attitude, continuous learning, the importance of social interaction, nurturing what I call a “brain-enhancing environment”—making your home and workplace an environment filled with beauty, music and enjoyment—relaxation, rest and meditation.
Many people are familiar with some of these, but what this book does is take a systematic approach to help readers get the most out of these practices. It also includes something unique: My co-author, Kelly Howell, is one of the world leaders in brainwave training technology. So “Brain Power” comes with a free download of training programs that will help readers experience the brainwave states associated with rest, relaxation and deep meditation.
OM: Something you once wrote inspires me personally: “Aging well is the supreme expression of wisdom. If you want to age well, nurture your wisdom by studying the lives of great men and women from all walks of life who continued to be productive and fulfilled in their later years.” To me, these words have the ring of truth.
MG: That says it all for me, too.