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Leonardo da Vinci was a hopeless procrastinator. (chronicle.com)
134 points by makimaki on Feb 24, 2009 | hide | past | favorite | 56 comments

On a day to day basis Leonardo would allocate his time between customer projects and his own. He would balance client commitments with his natural energy for creativity - and according to this article, his natural energy often won that battle.

It could be argued that it was the vision and taste of the Medici family in Florence that actually launched the renaissance. Their customer dollars enabled a new class of Italian artists and scientists to pursue creativity and innovation. Leonardo took this to a whole new level - if you had the opportunity to see the recent exhibit in the San Jose Tech Museum, it is clear the he was standing on the shoulder of other intellectual giants at the time.. all spurred by customers with a taste for art and technology.

However, when the vision of the creator exceeds the vision of customer, what is the result? A starving artist, a 'self-sabatoger', a practitioner of 'sinful laziness' and 'self-abuse'?

The author points out that academia has no place for the passionate creative. I would argue that similarly the a customer driven market is also no place for the passionate creative. So, where do they belong? Are we content as a society to witness that occasional, rare intersection of the visionary customer with the passionate creative? As entrepreneurs, is it our place to find a solution?

The freedom to pursue creative fulfillment is very unusual in human history.

The vast majority of the time it just takes far too much time and energy to survive.

On very rare occasions, people have enough time to create art. An example I can think of is the native Americans in the pacific north west, before the arrival of Europeans.

The unique combination of:

Seasonal salmon runs - very good calorie rich food that's easy to catch.

A mountainous geography - keeps population reasonably small.

Resulted in a societies that could quickly catch and store enough food for the whole year.

And they ended up with a surplus of time and energy - free time.

Unsurprisingly that led to a staggering amount of art. Sculpture - totem poles, music, dance, etc.

But again, that's very unusual. The only other example I can think of is ancient Greece and they had a lot of free time thanks to slavery.

The one entrepreneurial solution to this, that I can think of is robotics.

I already have a dish washer and a roomba, but those only save a few hours a week. To really free up my time I need something that will do my work for me, like a robot that can code in C++.

I just hope the robots don't rebel or something like that.

Well said.. its interesting, a surplus in groups is created by the need to survive and a stroke of luck. With this excess, groups of people could dedicate some time to song, dance, art, and other expressions - initially used solely for the purpose of communication and passing down communication between generations. This is likely how the human mind evolved language processing abilities (http://www.amazon.com/Singing-Neanderthals-Origins-Music-Lan... and http://www.amazon.com/World-Six-Songs-Musical-Created/dp/052...)

It wasn't the only choice though. Maybe some members of the tribe used their free time to kill more salmon. Maybe they killed all the salmon because it was so good, or because they could bag the prettiest girl in the village because they had all the fish.

One way (song/dance/art), you are enhancing survival for the group and future generations. Another way (using survival skills to create excess), you are profiting in the short term.

Hundreds of years from now our era may be remembered as the generations that killed all the fish, and took all the paint brushes to make more fish hooks and spears.

And then again, the United States has 200,000 professional artists, who earn a living from their craft:


It seems a recurrent mistake that people underestimate how truly unprecedented and awesome our society is.

Also, a large, dense population with lots of wealth is much more art-friendly than your sparse, idyllic native American population. The Indians didn't come up with Beethoven, and there's a reason for that.

Thats an interesting explanation for how art comes to be. It reminds me of the novel 'Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance', in which the author talks about the beauty and art in technology, and fixing motorcycles.

From what I've read, a lot of studies of "indigenous peoples" contradicts what you are saying. Especially regarding the time spent on necessities. I read an ethnographical book about how tribal peoples in the jungle 'worked' for at most half the day on their basic needs.

Granted, the jungle is also plentiful (altho hazardous.)

But the masses of people who have to walk hours for water, in Africa and parts of the Middle East, is also a modern thing. Before modernish times, that would be totally untenable. Either they would move on, or they would all die, rather than this in-between state they occupy now.

The majority of cultures since the Great Leap Forward seemed to have created quite a bit of art, music and myths, but many of them were trasient and impermanent and so left no trace. And apparently a lot of it was "practical," in terms of beautiful clothing, vessels, "magical" items and weapons.

But I don't think I'd call those things uncreative because they were also useful.

I should have been more specific. Clearly almost every people has created art.

It's hard to dig almost anywhere in the world and not at some point hit some magical amulet or wonderfully decorated pottery art, or something like that.

My point was about the rather unusual situation of Leonardo, and even more so, jonmc12 question on how to allow more people the same freedom Leonardo had.

The large degree of time and effort devoted to art, by a large part of the population, is unusual.

Clearly every society has art, and often individuals, shamans, singers, etc, can be full time so to speak. But it's rare that most people can devote most of their time, to activities other then survival.

What was the cause of the prosperity that generated these customer dollars? Isn't it arguable that with enough people with excess wealth, patronage of the arts/science is inevitable?

With the wealth of today's first world, anyone who wants to be a passionate creative can be. And many are. Money isn't the problem; gumption is.

I think the article is a bit ridiculous at the end, about how the man is keeping academics down - if it weren't for the university, why academics' genius would flower. Blaming is the opposite of problem solving.

I would say it is the place of the passionate creative to be entrepreneurs.

An entrepreneur who caters to something other than a "customer driven market" is a rare one. And even if an entrepreneur can create a whole new market on their own by innovating, it will soon become customer driven.

I am betting on the theory that entrepreneurship itself provides much more space for creativity than most other professions and if you succeed, you'll have a lot of money and time to pursue creativity full time. I have also read about a lot of successful entrepreneurs who discovered that they really need a startup to give direction to their creativity. Thus, serial entrepreneurs are born.

pg is one of the few entrepreneurs I can think of who didn't become a serial entrepreneur in the traditional meaning of the word but still found great outlets for their creativity. Although, at least one of pg's outlets - YCombinator can be thought of as a startup.

The best creations are the ones inventors are making for themselves. I was reading the interview with Steve Wozniak in Founders at Work, and what most struck me was how he talked about Apple's biggest innovations as being things either he or Steve Jobs made for themselves, because they wanted their computers to be better.

The guys at 37signals made their products so that they could use them. Mark Zuckerberg made Facebook for himself and friends. I'd imagine the thought process was something similar at Google.

The best creations are the ones inventors are making for themselves.

I agree with this, and this is something many successful entrepreneurs have said. But here's the dilemma I was pointing out (maybe not so clearly) in my previous comment: After your initial success, when your customers clearly want you to add widgets A, B and C but you want to work on innovative product Z instead, it takes a visionary and gutsy person to do that. I realize that there isn't always such a clear cut binary choice.

While it might not be an either-or proposition, many if not most entrepreneurs find their interests diverging from that of the business after initial success. If you're acquired, this is almost guaranteed.

37 signals, Facebook and Google all have one thing in common: the founders are still in control but it's hard to argue that Google still builds what Larry and Sergey want to build for themselves. At best, Google now builds what its employees want to make for themselves. I can assure you that day to day, Larry and Sergei's jobs look very different from their jobs in 1998.

Mark Zuckerberg made Facebook for himself and friends.

That's not quite true.

First of all, not all of his "friends" agree that Z "made" rather than "stole" Facebook. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ConnectU

Second, whether or not there's anything to the ConnectU case, Facebook is a commercialized version of HarvardConnection.

So, the model seems to be:

    1. (get someone else to) Create something you need.
    2. Take it.
    3. Sell it.
Either (a) Zuckerberg is a douchebag who stole the site, or (b) the ConnectU folks are douchebags who want to mooch off of Zuckerberg's idea. The morals of these potential stories seem to be:

      a) Douchebags will steal from you.
      b) Douchebags will try to mooch off of you.
    a+b) Don't associate with douchebags.  (And if you do,
         then at least make sure to get rich and win the 

you've nailed it just perfect with that.

If you want to be successful, make something that YOU need, then find others with the same need and market it to them.

And failing that do something that gives you joy, quite often that leads down fruitful alleys as well.

I think to some extent it depends on the kind of thing you're doing that necessitates the additional activity of a startup.

Linus did not start a startup to make Linux. He still hasn't bothered with one, though he certainly could have done so at various points. Similar stories exist with a huge number of open source projects.

Basically it seems like you only have to start one if:

-You don't get enough time any other way.

-You need additional resources to build the project.

-You like the people and energy.

-You want the money.

it is the high degree of division of labor that gives society enough surplus man-hours to drive creative and scientific endeavors.

My solution to procrastination:

1. Identify the activities you procrastinate (for me, writing scientific papers);

2. Rearrange your life so you don't have to do them any more. (I just left academia to do a startup.)

what kind of startup? Is it linked to science?

I don't know yet! I'm still exploring that, while finishing up various academic projects.

You are delaying facing your fate too! Just do it man. If something is told here over and over, is that theres no perfect business idea. You pick one direction and correct your course every time your market tells you so. good luck. :)

that's the single best solution to the procrastination problem I've seen.

Another possibility is to rearrange things in such a way that the only think you can still do are the things you are trying to get away from.

You can always sit there and stare.

I completely disagree that Leonardo was a procrastinator simply because he didn't do everything he dreamed of. I'm sorry, I've looked through some of the books of his designs and he has things like strip-miners and hang-gliders and such. I'm sorry, they were physically incapable of making them in his day.

He understood concepts and designed things that fit them, likely knowing he'd never be able to build them in his lifetime. The first design for a Space Elevator came in like 1895, and in 2009 we still don't have the technology to make one, so why is Leonardo a 'procrastinator' simply because it was impossible to build some of the things he wanted to.

Because labeling Leonardo a procrastinator makes all of us procrastinators feel better about ourselves.

And not saying it makes me feel like I'm not a procrastinator! I rue the minute you commented and ruined my few moments of not feeling like a procrastinator.

Furthermore, the fact that Leonardo is a procastinator and so are we indicates that we are all merely human and somewhat equally capable, regardless of how human history has elevated the status of one being over another.

That's a good one. I think the author is mistaking 'visionary' for 'procrastinator'.

THe simple fact that Leonardo Da Vinci did not have access to the technology to realize his visions (and could not even begin to guess how far away that technology was) does not make him a procrastinator.

Have a look at the stuff that he came up with that had the technology readily available. It's a good thing they didn't have patents back then or Leonardos descendants would have owned the world.

You might not consider him a procrastinator, but the folks who had paid him for paintings and sculptures that he never produced probably did.

Just because you're doing something productive doesn't mean that you aren't procrastinating. The trick, I think is getting the things that you are supposed to be doing matched up with the things you want to do. I think that's what most people mean by "find your passion."

If he felt he didn't get done the things he wanted to do because he was constantly flitting around on a hundred projects, wouldn't you call that a procrastinator?

I would. I'm the same way. Most people wouldn't call me a procrastinator looking at my output, but I know how I feel.

It's hubris to claim to know how Leonardo felt, of course, unless he wrote it down himself, but I don't think the article's nearly as big a stretch as you think it is.

If he felt he didn't get done the things he wanted to do because he was constantly flitting around on a hundred projects, wouldn't you call that a procrastinator?

I would. I'm the same way. Most people wouldn't call me a procrastinator looking at my output, but I know how I feel.

It's hubris to claim to know how Leonardo felt, of course, unless he wrote it down himself, but I don't think the article's nearly as big a stretch as you think it is.

Real artists occasionally ship?

Steve Jobs tried to motivate people by saying "Real artists ship." This is a fine sentence, but unfortunately not true. Many famous works of art are unfinished. It's true in fields that have hard deadlines, like architecture and filmmaking, but even there people tend to be tweaking stuff till it's yanked out of their hands.


Unfortunately for da Vinci, pg had not yet finished the "noprocrast" feature, so would-be masterworks gathered dust as da Vinci frittered away his days on an early version of Hacker News.

"The unambiguously negative idea of procrastination seems unique to the Western world"

As an American living in Shanghai for 9 years, I have had to confront this meme in its various forms on many occasions. My wife (Chinese) will simply tell me things like "Chinese people are not afforded the luxury of your behavior". It appears procrastination is something that must be "afforded".

Its not that procrastination is unique to us (modern-Western-middle-class++), but that it may have cultivated itself into an attribute that has reluctant value; otherwise da Vinci would have no merit in this context.

Paraphrasing David Allen: Procrastination isn't about not getting things done. Procrastination is about not getting things done AND feeling bad about it.

I spent a month in India this year. It's a much slower lifestyle there. When something doesn't get done, they just don't feel bad about it.

(Obviously, huge generalizations in that last paragraph.)

Is he a procrastinator for not actually attempting to build his helicopter with late-15th century technology? He would have failed, as the rough-hewn wooden gearboxes of the day were incapable of the power levels needed for rotary-wing flight. And other reasons. It was probably better to move on and sketch some new ideas than try to build things centuries ahead of what was technologically possible.

You're seriously missing the point. If you read the article, Leonardo also failed to finish a great number of paintings and sculptures. These were clearly completable within the technology of the time and within Leonardo's personal skill.

I think that's kinda the point of the article. Why was Leo focusing his energy on something that he had to know wasn't possible in his lifetime? For many, that would be waste of talent: a boy in a man's body. What we may fail to recognize or appreciate is that product B couldn't exist without unrealized product A... and that product D includes elements of A, B, and C.

It's just as true now as it was then, perfect is the enemy of good enough.

But would you rather have good enough or Leonardo?

Good enough, because masses will be able to afford it and benefit from it. Bring in Leo and the cost goes from nearly free to extremely expensive. Think bicycle against Ferrari, when all you need is a way to make the 3 mile commute between home and the plant.

Good enough, because masses will be able to afford it and benefit from it.

This reads like something out of Turgenev. A pair of boots is worth more than the complete works of Shakespeare! Before art, bread!

By contrast, one might ask: Leonardo's procrastinations have more value than the output of how many thousands of sensible, disciplined people?

It's not always about getting from point A to point B. There is always something to be said for the beauty of the journey.

Y'all are totally missing the point.

both. please don't make me chose.

What he should have been is a type of center of ideas where other people who could execute brilliantly, but did not have as many insights and ideas could start from to complete his stuff. He'd have become some type of manager at the end though.

Leonardo was the ultimate hyperbrain at work (see http://www.inter-sections.net/2008/08/28/hyperbrain-owners-m...).

Catchy title. Diagnosing "procrastination" seems to be all the rage nowadays, people will almost always identify with it.

This may not apply to Leonardo da Vinci, but I'm reminded of M.A. Foster's notion that overcrowding generates bureaucracy. The idea may not be original to him, but he suggested that people erect social or procedural barriers when physical ones are no longer available.

Perhaps procrastination is a similar phenomenon. The workplace is ubiquitous now, if we allow it to be. Do we procrastinate so that our minds have time to recover from these new demands?

Let's not forget that the invention of bureaucracy was hailed as a beautiful and wonderful thing, in order to prevent rich people from buying positions in govt and also getting personal favors out of other govt officials.

Yes. See Max Weber on the topic.

"You know how Einstein's grades were bad as a kid? Well mine are even worse!" - Calvin (& Hobbes).

I'm in good company.

In all seriousness, that sounds like ADD.

* hopeful

Da Vinci was a true Renaissance Man.

  Procrastination is like masturbation, it's all good until you realize you just f***ed yourself.

Just because he once worked on Duke Nukem Forever, da Vinci has been unfairly tagged as a procrastinator.

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