Tag Archives: Walter Isaacson

Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson

  1. Leonardo was the original Renaissance Man, excelling in everything from botany to athletics to engineering and, of course, art. Isaacson took on this project because Leonardo is the epitome of making connections  across disciplines which is the basis for creativity, innovation and genius
Key Takeaways
  1. What set Leonardo apart was not “genius” but extreme observation and curiosity – he ad a passion which was both playful and obsessive.
  2. He was the master of combining art and science. Separating the two is a man-made construct and a false duality
  3. The infinite works of nature are woven together in a unity with marvelous patterns
  4. Leonardo was more human than most people realize and we can learn from his intense curiosity and imagination. His formal education was minimal and most of his abilities were honed by practice rather than being God-given like many people assume. He knew how to marry observation with imagination which made him history’s consummate innovator
  5. Year after year his to-do lists were filled with things he wanted to learn and do as well as people he wanted to meet with. Leonardo’s journal entries are the most impressive compendium of curiosity in history. It shows his curiosity as well as his weirdness. He was gay, flamboyant and his acceptance in Florence at this time was what made Florence great. They allowed people to think and be different. Florence became the greatest cultural and innovative center and creative center in the history of the world as it allowed for mass mixing of different people, skills, cultures, etc. It was unique period of history in that they praised and rewarded those who could master many different fields
  6. Isaacson’s main learning is that deep observation and curiosity of our world leads to a deeper and more meaningful life.
  7. Leonardo questioned everything and was never satisfied with accepted wisdom
  8. Leonardo was fortunate to be born out of wedlock or else he most likely would have ended up as a notary like his father and grandfather. Another benefit was that he was not formally educated, relying instead on observation and experience
  9. By handling the richest people’s money, the Medici’s, without titles or royalty behind their name, became one of the most powerful families in history. Lorenzo and some other prominent figures in the family set up the patron payment system which bred creativity which has rarely been seen before or since
  10. Observing, analyzing, and trying to find better ways to do things became Leonardo‘s method of learning – this preempted the scientific method by several hundred years
  11. Leonardo apprenticed for Verrocchio and learned from him mainly the beauty of geometry. There is harmony in proportions and that is natures brush stroke
  12. One of the many skills that set Leonardo’s art apart with his ability to use light, shade and color to make a two dimensional canvas into a painting which looks three-dimensional. ‘Chiaroscuro’ and ‘sfumato’ were two techniques Leonardo developed to make his art more lifelike and 3D
  13. Reality and scientific observation should inform but not constrain your art
  14. At 24, Leonardo was still living with his mentor and hadn’t produced anything amazing yet and was known for a less than ideal work ethic because he often left projects unfinished. He seemed to enjoy the imagination and conception of an idea more than the execution. However, there was more to it than that, as he was a perfectionist and knew he would learn and observe things in the future which he might want to incorporate or add on in the future. This was seen in several paintings where his autopsies and observation of the human body got him to change his already finished paintings so that they would be more accurate
  15. Leonardo used a technique called ‘pentimento’ which means he used light brushstrokes over and over which created a light, layered and expressive feeling in his paintings and it also allowed him to revise and rework over a period of years and sometimes decades
  16. Leonardo autopsied many bodies in order to observe how the skeleton, muscle and organs were laid out. He believed an artist should draw a figure from the inside out, starting with the skeleton and finishing with the skin and clothes and these observations helped him create some of the most lifelike and moving drawings of all time
  17. Analogy is one of the best ways to appreciate and understand nature. Because of his close observation, Leonardo noticed connections between how the human body (micro) and the earth (macro) worked similarly and how they were connected. The interconnection of nature and the unity of its patterns is a constant theme in his work. He was able to observe similarities between how blood pumped through veins and capillaries, how water made its way through branches in plants, how water flowed from rivers and tributaries. His cross-field, multidisciplinary observations and connections were unlike anything the world had ever seen
  18. Salai was a pupil and lover of Leonardo who he often painted. They fought a lot as Salai tended to steal things and slack off and eventually there seems to have been an estrangement between the two
  19. Obsession seems to be a component of genius. In one entry, Leonardo took thousands of measurements of different subjects and made comparisons and generalizations about the dimensions of a human body. His ultimate goal was the universal measure of man and how he fit into the cosmos
  20. Shadows are the most important part in helping give a three dimensional feel to the painting and that is why Leonardo spent the most time observing thinking and practicing shading. Leonardo observed that there are no definite lines or boundaries in nature so he began blending his paintings (sfumato) which went against the traditional, linear approach common at that time
  21. Leonardo dreamed more of being a great engineer than a painter and though he eventually got a chance to engineer water works and war efforts for Cesare Borgia, he was of course a better painter than engineer
  22. Michelangelo had a great disdain for Leonardo. They were very different – where Leonardo was athletic and well dressed, Michelangelo was disliked, dirty and had a disfigured nose after a fight with a fellow artist. They had a bit of a feud and rivalry which elevated all artists and made the best among them superstars
  23. The greatest anatomical work Leonardo did was on the heart. He recognized patterns due to his multidisciplinary style that others wouldn’t recognize for several hundred more years. His love of fluid dynamics, eddies, branching of veins and more all helped him understand the heart better than anyone else up to that point. Leonardo transferred this to his now famous curls of hair seen in many of his paintings
  24. A mark of a great mind is the willingness to change and drop preconceived notions. Leonardo’s gift was to seek and find patterns, establish frameworks and apply them to various fields. But equally important, he wouldn’t let these patterns blind him
  25. He used drawings, models, sketches and thought experiments to help him think, establish ideas and questions and to find gaps in his knowledge or thinking
  26. Leonardo had an uncanny ability to capture movement
  27. No moment unto itself is self containing. The past is rolled up into the moment and this influences the future
  28. Declaring a work finished stunted it’s evolution and Leonardo did not like that which is why he worked on several projects for years on end and sometimes decades. Don’t get rigid, always be willing to change, learn, grow and improve
What I got out of it
  1. More than anything, I am inspired to simply be more observant and curious about things around me. Why things look the way they do, how they might have come to be, etc. Simple questioning, thinking, observation and synthesis can take you far…

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

  1. A very motivated man who had an uncanny ability to produce world-changing products. He was able to see into the future, know what customers wanted when they didn’t, build hype around the product launches and more. A genius on many fronts who also struggled relating to people at times and had a somewhat estranged family situation
Key Takeaways
  1. Jobs was adopted by a nice but uneducated family. Father loved to build electrical things and cars
  2. Woz and Steve met because of their love of pranks and of electronics
  3. Went to Reed but soon dropped out. He spent some time in India to further study Zen Buddhism and other approaches to enlightenment.
  4. Woz created the first personal computer in June 1975 – Apple 1
  5. When he was 23 he impregnated Brennan but wouldn’t own up to it for many years. “He was an enlightened being who was cruel”Jobs let Xerox invest in Apple if they showed him their newest inventions. They agreed and showed him the graphical user interface and this would change the industry forever
  6. Jobs was eventually outvoted and became a non executive chairman of Apple and eventually left to start Next. It was mildly successful and when it was bought by Apple, Steve was part of the package
  7. Jobs fanatical diets reflected one of his core beliefs – asceticism leads to greater feelings later on. Things often lead to their opposites
  8. Only wanted things around him that he could admire (furniture, appliances, etc)
  9. Toy Story was an incredible success and soon after Pixar went public after Jobs had invested over $60m
  10. Jobs was fanatical about controlling the whole process. Software and hardware should be inextricably linked and with the new retail stores, he could control the buying process as well
  11. Jobs was not very forthcoming about his health to the public or even his board
  12. The iPad and multi touch technology actually came before the iPhone and had to be retrofitted
  13. The attention to detail of every aspect of the design and process is beautiful and inspiring
  14. Jobs was reluctant to let third parties design apps but then relented
  15. After many ups and downs with his health, jobs died on October 5, 2011
What I got out of it
  1. Jobs was a maniac for detail and wanted to control the entire process, every input. He was often harsh and his reality distortion people frustrated and alienated a lot of people but he accomplished more than nearly anyone in this field

Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson

  1. Isaacson does an amazing job of recounting Franklin’s impressive life and how it helped shape America’s values and character. Franklin rose through the ranks to become one of the world’s most foremost scientist, writer, inventor, diplomat and political leader.
Key Takeaways
  1. Benjamin Franklin was a scientist, inventor, entrepreneur, author, political thinker and more. He was one of the most illustrious Renaissance men ever
  2. Only man to shape all the founding documents of America – alliance with France, treaty with England, Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution
  3. Multitudes of inventions – stove, bifocals, 2 party legislature, electricity, and continually reinvented himself But maybe his most important invention was an American identity based on the virtues of the middle class
  4. Over anything else, he was pragmatic and wanted to do well unto others
  5. No really deep, long-term relationships and cannot be considered a great father or husband as he spent most of his time away from them
  6. Franklin was not very religious but preached tolerance of every sect
  7. He was like a chameleon who adapted to the times and the people/culture around him. His pragmatism, maxims, frugality and industriousness drew critics for its lack of romanticism but far more fans. His ideas were ripe for the period and increasingly so during the boom of the American economy and industrial revolution
What I got out of it
  1. So impressive to me how many different fields Franklin was successful in. He took practical and actionable steps in every one of these fields and I think that is what set him apart. He did not waste much time on theorizing or on other pursuits that would not have some immediate benefit.

Continue reading

Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson

  1. Isaacson doesn’t let us down with this huge undertaking of one of history’s most celebrated men. Isaacson dives through Einstein’s childhood, university life, family woes, and achievements. There is much reason for Einstein to be as lauded as he is
Key Takeaways:
  1. Einstein was always somewhat of a rebel. He didn’t really care if he fit in
  2. Believed that imagination and creativity are the key. They are more powerful than knowledge
  3. He was slow to talk and speak as a child – even dubbed the dopey one. Often repeated words an had a temper as a child
  4. Rarely thought in words – always pictures. Lead to lightning on train thought experiment as well as falling in an elevator in space to contemplate gravity
  5. Said he never lost his child like wonder and didn’t believe he was exceptionally intelligent or talented, but exceptionally curious
  6. Mileva Maric, his wife, was an ugly woman with a limp but she was smart and intense. His family did not approve but this made him rebel and like her more. Einstein had always had a strained relationship with his family and was never close with his son
  7. Hated blind following of authority more than anything. Questioned everything until he proved it to himself
  8. Einstein had 4 revolutionary papers in 4 months. They each changed the world. One of the most amazing bursts of creativity and intelligence in history. 1905 was one of the most revolutionary years in history – quantum theory of light, proved atoms exist, explained Brownian motion, upended concepts of space and time and his famous equation
    1. His first revolutionary idea was that light came in little packets, photons, and were not only a wave
    2. Second was the theory and later proven that particles and atoms definitely exist
    3. Third is special relativity – observers are moving at a constant velocity relative to each other. General relativity came 10 years later.
      1. If riding next to a beam of light at the same speed it should appear to be still although oscillating spatially. If everything was a wave there would have to be a universal “ether” which nobody had been able to prove and Einstein thought couldn’t exist
      2. Had 2 essential postulates – theory of relativity where all laws of physics are the same for two observers moving at the same speed and also for inert observers on moving object (people on earth, on a plane, etc.)
    4. Lastly, his world-known e=mc2 equation which determined that an object’s energy depended on its mass * the speed of light squred
  9. His key insight to solve that light moves at a constant velocity is that time is not absolute. What appears to be happening simultaneously to one observer will not appear so to another who is moving rapidly and there is no way to determine who is right
  10. Does not believe in a personal god but believes that a divine design permeates all things
  11. Einstein loved the water, sailing and the violin. He often was messing around with women other than his wife
  12. Einstein was a prominent pacifist
What I got out of it:
  1. Very interesting to learn more about Einstein the man, his background and his family life. His achievements are so well known but learning more about everything which surrounding his successes helps put them in context. Fascinating biography

Buy Einstein: His Life and Universe

Continue reading

The Innovators by Walter Isaacson

  1. Walter Isaacson does an amazing job of taking us through the progression of digital innovations from the 19th through the 21st century. What is so impressive about this wide ranging group of people is that they were able to turn these disruptive ideas into realities, but not without teaming up with the right partners. These innovations formed the basis of the computer, Internet and entire digital revolution
Key Takeaways
  1. Innovations rarely if ever come from one person but rather draws on multitudes of existing ideas and weaves them into new patterns
  2. The goal now is not to replicate human thinking in machines but to work in symbiosis to reach better results using both our strengths
  3. Innovations are always collaborative and often more evolutionary than revolutionary 
  4. Collaboration between thousands or millions of people who might not know each other at all is the closest thing to a revolutionary idea that has come out of the digital revolution
  5. The combination of liberal arts and technology is where our future lies and why Apple has been so successful
What I got out of it
  1. I found this book engaging and easy to follow even though it gets somewhat technical at certain points. It is beautiful to see how men stand of the shoulders of giants before them and build off of their brilliant ideas. As Isaacson says repeatedly throughout the book, innovation never happens alone, is a combination of old ideas and most often are evolutionary rather than revolutionary

Continue reading