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What Leonardo da Vinci Taught Me About Freelancing

Leonardo Da Vinci, the original Renaissance Man, was best known as a master painter and sculptor. He was also a capable inventor, mathematician, scientist and more. In fact, he was a polymath who studied multiple disciplines including music, writing, anatomy, architecture, botany, plate tectonics, civil engineering, optics, and hydrodynamics.

The number of scientific inventions da Vinci produced was truly remarkable. These include the basic designs for a helicopter, tank, solar power, and calculator. He documented a great deal of his thoughts in a series of notebooks, the text versions (sans images) of which are available for free at the Project Gutenberg website.

Photography: manoellemos.

Arguably, every inventor today can learn something valuable by studying da Vinci’s life work. Freelancers can learn a great deal as well.

The promise of freelancing is that you get to pick and choose from work offered to you. The reality is that you are sometimes limited in your choices. However, that does not mean you cannot enjoy what you’re doing. In fact, quite the opposite.

Freelancers are often generalists, able to learn a new niche fairly quickly. The true enjoyment of freelancing – beyond the superficial aspects of freedom of work choice and schedule – is the opportunity to learn many disciplines and produce original work.

Analyzing da Vinci

Here is a rundown of some of Leonardo da Vinci’s thinking and work procesess, plus an interpretation of how freelancers can be benefit by doing likewise.

1. Study structure. Da Vinci was a master artist (painter, sculptor) because he spent so much time understanding the underlying structure of his subject. He studied anatomy, 2d/ 3d geometry, physics, and architecture, the understanding of which gives his work so much realism.

Interpretation: Prep and prime your mind by studying the theory and structure behind your subject. Understand what makes up the building blocks of your subject, and how the blocks interact together.

2. Build broad knowledge. He was part of the original Medici Effect. He learned about art, the human body, architecture, science and then came up with fresh concepts for inventions as well as masterpieces of art.

Interpretation: Absorb knowledge from many niches and create your own modern Medici Effect. The intersection of fields leads to some of the most groundbreaking ideas. You do not have to be an expert in everything. Focus on 1-3 areas of expertise, and treat everything else as a interest. This gives you flexibility to change careers, if necessary.

3. Learn by osmosis. Da Vinci regularly sketched out ideas or wrote down his thoughts in his many notebooks.

Interepretation: You can absorb information by not only consuming information in many forms (print/ web, audio/ podcasts, TV/ movies/ web video) but also by using mind mapping to learn niches. Using point-form notes, mind maps allow you to absorb concept with a deeper understanding than if you simply tried to memorize a list of details. This approach can be like learning by osmosis.

4. Demonstrate your understanding. Da Vinci made thousands of sketches in his now famous sketchbooks. (Though he also filled them with mundane items and logged monies owed to him.) His multitude of sketch studies allowed him to produce masterly finished works.

Interpretation: Do your own “sketches,” whether that means drawings, writing exercises, or snippets of code. For example, before I was a salaried/ contract programmer, I taught the basics of computer coding to students. I knew how the basic computer statements worked, regardless of programming language, and learned “structure” by applying pseudocode first before writing real code.

5. Value your studies. When da Vinci wasn’t doing commissioned work (or even when he was), he was pondering or experimenting on new ideas, exploring his thought processes. He managed to balance personal interests and work.

Interpretation: Always be learning or testing your ideas. When one project is going nowhere, work on something else, or deepen your knowledge of an area of interest. You might in fact find the answers you’re looking for

6. Value your effort. A careful study of da Vinci’s sketches shows that he reused his knowledge of a subject over and over. Anything that he had done before was rarely wasted effort.

Interpretation: Leverage your previously gained knowledge, but keep in mind that even if you have to start over on a project, the existing effort was not wasted, provided you learned something. It’s far better to start fresh than to spin your wheels try to revive something that just won’t work. In Project Management principles, this is known as sunk costs – a cost that has been spent and will not be recovered. That itself possibly spawned the saying, “don’t put good money after bad.” If “time” is your money, then putting in more (good) time after bad (spent, wasted) time is a bad idea. Just start again. The knowledge gained from whatever effort you’ve put in already might be leveraged at some future time on another project.

7. Multitask properly. Da Vinci’s varied interest meant that he worked on many projects, probably in an overlapping time period. While he was learning about one discipline, he might have been working on a commissioned project.

Interpretation: To have success as a freelancer, most of us need to manage many projects (work and research) over time – sometimes simultaneously. To do that, you need good workflow and the ability multitask properly. Multitasking done right produces an efficient workflow. The basis of that means not trying to tackle a big project all in one shot. Break it down into smaller tasks and take one step at a time. This allows you to work on something, get away from it to “think it over,” and meanwhile work on something else.


  1. Elliot Clowes Says:

    Nice article. Very well done.

  2. nasirjumani Says:

    a unique and interesting article of its sort...nice!

  3. Phil Stricker Says:

    Wowza! Never thought of the guy that way. Does that mean I'm a renaissance man of sorts?

  4. jorjun Says:

    In the UK, since 2002 there has been political suspicion of freelancers - that they are in business merely to evade or avoid their tax liability. I think this article reminds us that there may be no 'i' in 'team' but excellence and innovation comes from pioneering individuals. In the coming decade, when a huge range of new jobs, that is jobs that we cannot currently imagine need to be created, this is important.

  5. Michel Lussier Says:

    What an interesting post. Unique and thought-inducing.

    Thank you.

  6. Brian Says:

    Good points regarding freelancing, but I wouldn't have used Da Vinci as an example. Da Vinci was actually notorious for spending his client's money on his own pet projects, delivering extremely late, and in some cases not at all. 😉

  7. anthony caramagno Says:

    Excellent observation and communication of Da Vinci's process / methods. I like the idea of leveraging knowledge gained on what to do that was successful and what to avoid or do differently the second time around. Thanks, this was very helpful for me as a freelance contractor/project manager in Quality Assurance.

    Anthony Caramagno

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