Born out of wedlock in the year 1452 in the Italian village of Vinci, the young Leonardo was barred from attending university or practicing any of the "noble" professions. His formal education was therefore minimal; he was left to himself much of the time.
Leonardo spent his days wandering the natural surrounds of Vinci, exploring the olive groves around the village and adventuring along remote paths to areas teeming with life, areas that he deemed both wondrous and enthralling. One day, following a visionary flash to draw the nature around him, he broke into his father's office and "borrowed" a large stack of paper to take along on his forays into nature. The paper allowed him to spend countless hours sketching the various streams, wildflowers, swans, and other aspects of creation that he happened to chance upon. Leonardo had no paintings to base his sketches upon, no teachers to show him what to do. He learned from and was taught by nature alone.
When he was 14 years of age, due to the remarkable nature of his drawings, Leonardo was apprenticed to Verrochio, a Florentine artist who ran one of the finest studios in Florence. In Verrochio's studio, Leonardo was exposed to a vast array of technical skills relevant to engineering, mechanics, chemistry, metallurgy, and several other disciplines.
During the next several years, there were high points and low points, but the lowest point in Leonardo's life occurred in 1481. The Pope had asked Lorenzo de' Medici, an Italian statesman and dedicated patron of the Renaissance, to recommend the finest artists in Florence to decorate a chapel he had just constructed, the Sistine Chapel. Lorenzo sent all of the best Florentine artists to Rome - all except Leonardo. Lorenzo and Leonardo had never really gotten along, and the decision created no small degree of bitterness within Leonardo.
Yet there was more to Leonardo's chagrin than a clash of personalities. Deep down, he hated the dependence forced upon artists by the ruling powers, hated being forced to live from commission to commission; he was tired of Florence and the court politics that reigned there. One day, following a visionary flash to make himself more than an artist, he resolved to change his life and move to Milan where he would pursue all the things that interested him - not just art, but architecture, military engineering, anatomy, sculpture, and more.
The rest of his story is well known.
Who You Are
Had Leonardo ingratiated himself upon the Pope, perhaps he would have been invited to move with all the other artists to contribute to the Sistine Chapel, and had he remained primarily a painter he could have directed his energies towards earning a good living. Had he done either or both these things, he likely would have done well - but he would not have become Leonardo Da Vinci (1). There were several critical inflection points in his life during which Leonardo made a key decision based on who he really was, a decision that kept him true to who he was.
Leonardo never did contribute to the Sistine Chapel.
Some 2600 years ago the Greek poet Pindar wrote: “Become who you are by learning who you are.” By this, he is thought to have meant that you are born with the potential to be who you really are, with a particular makeup and tendencies that mark you from a very early age. The real you, to your core. Leonardo, the boy sketching nature. With the passage of time, some people ignore their potential to be who they really are, never giving their real interests and dreams a chance to develop. They stop trusting themselves, conform to the desires of others, or create a mask that hides their true nature. The inner voice is ignored, the flashes no longer followed.
Follow The Flashes
Everyone has experienced flashes at one moment or another, those rare moments when a sudden, almost crazy vision hits you out of nowhere, one that excites you to your core. It really hits you. Then "reality" kicks in; the vision is lost, often to be replaced by a more practical vision. The flash may return some other time. It may not.
Like Leonardo, perhaps it is best to pursue these visions. To follow the flashes.
"It had long since come to my attention that people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things."
– Leonardo da Vinci
Best to happen to life, rather than let life happen to you. To follow the flashes.
“Become who you are by learning who you are.” – Pindar
Best to trust yourself, lose the mask. To follow the flashes.
“It’s the possibility of having a dream come true that makes life interesting.” – Paulo Coelho (2)
To chase an uncertain or even impossible dream.
To follow your flashes.
References (1) Greene, R. 2012. Mastery. Profile Books Ltd. (2) Coelho, P. 1988. The Alchemist. HarperCollins.