In Defense of Your Procrastination
Leonardo da Vinci's justification for procrastination.
“Respond to every call that excites your spirit,” said Rumi, the thirteenth-century Persian poet.
Or at least that’s what the translation says he said. Hello, and welcome to the second issue of Abandoned Curiosities. This week, we’ll talk about Leonardo da Vinci, the polymath who answered more calls of spirit than anyone else in history.
Most of us know Leonardo da Vinci as the Italian artist who painted the Mona Lisa, often regarded as the most famous painting in the world. Leonardo also holds the record for the most expensive painting ever sold at a public auction — In 2017, Salvator Mundi, attributed to Leonardo, was sold for 450.3-million USD.
But Leonardo was far more than a painter and an artist.
He was also an anatomist, architect, astronomer, botanist, cartographer, geologist, inventor, scientist, and much more. The eminent art historian Kenneth Clark has called Leonardo “the most relentlessly curious man in history.”
As a young painter in Florence, Leonardo pursued his various scientific enquires primarily to improve his art — he dissected dead bodies to draw human figures that looked real. But over time, Leonardo would obsess over his scientific interests out of pure curiosity. “His curiosity impelled him to know all there was to know about everything that could be known,” writes Isaacson.
Isaacson also argues that while one might be tempted to label Leonardo’s talents as otherworldly but it would be unfair. Leonardo’s genius was every bit human, “wrought by his own will and ambition.” Leonardo had almost no schooling. Instead, he was self-taught. “He was also a bit of a misfit: illegitimate, gay, vegetarian, left-handed, easily distracted, and at times heretical.”
Moreover, Leonardo was almost infamous for his proclivity to procrastinate. Throughout his life, he was accused of procrastination and not finishing his commissions in time, and even abandoning his artworks.
But creativity demanded freedom.
As Leonardo once explained to the Duke of Milan, “Men of lofty genius sometimes accomplish the most when they work least, for their minds are occupied with their ideas and the perfection of their conceptions, to which they afterward give form.”
Imagine telling it to your clients, or worse, your boss.
It’s worth a shot.
Nevertheless, “there was a poignant and inspiring aspect to Leonardo’s unwillingness to declare a painting done and relinquish it,” explains Isaacson.
“He knew that there was always more he might learn, new techniques he might master, and further inspirations that might strike him. Relinquishing a work, declaring it finished, froze its evolution. Leonardo did not like to do that.”
Just consider the Mona Lisa. Leonardo began working on it in 1503, carried it around, and continued refining it until fourteen years later in 1517. It would be in his studio there when he died. Similarly, he updated Saint Jerome in the Wilderness after thirty years, “when his anatomy experiments taught him something new about neck muscles.”
Admittingly, most of us don’t go around life painting masterpieces to be hung inside the Louvre — or anywhere near it, or far. And, in our everyday lives, we ought to finish projects when improvements could still be made. But there are times, when we care so deeply about something, that the pursuit of perfection becomes an endless struggle.
And, to that extent, I want this anecdote from Leonardo’s life to serve as a grand consolation — that even a genius like Leonardo da Vinci would succumb to a realization such as: “Art is never finished, only abandoned.”
For the record, Leonardo was a compulsive note-taker who left behind tens of thousands of pages of notes and drawings as part of his daily journals. Most of these pages have somehow survived to this day — now spread across museums worldwide. In 1994, Bill Gates paid 30.8 million USD to own a small collection of these notes.
While I’d love to dig into the translations of these notes someday, right now, I’m content with my learnings from Walter Isaacson’s wonderful biography of Leonardo da Vinci. It’s an excellent book and one I suggest you add to your reading list.
I’m currently reading Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson. It’s now my third biography by Isaacson — I’ve read the Steve Jobs book in the past. Anyway, I’m having a great time with Einstein, and I believe I already have the next issue in mind. It will be unique, I swear. So stay tuned.
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Also this week: I saw Bohemian Rhapsody, based on the life of Queen’s lead singer, Freddie Mercury — played by Rami Malek. I loved it. It’s worth watching for Malek’s exceptional acting alone. Freddie’s drugs and alcohol usage are also a part of his lore. And at one point in the movie, Malek says, “Being human is a condition that requires a little anesthesia.” Anyway, I found the movie on Netflix but you can always check for your particular region. Meanwhile, check out Freddie’s infectious energy in this video that’s guaranteed to give you goosebumps:
Talking about bad habits, I also remember listening to this Huberman Lab episode on the physiological effects of drinking alcohol on the brain and body. It’s genuinely good. Like earlier I was convinced that most of the ill effects of alcohol were associated with heavy consumption only. Turns out, I was wrong. Huberman, also, kindly reintroduces us to the notion of average: “fourteen drinks on the weekend is, on average, two drinks per day.” And, spoiler alert, it’s not good.
And that’s all for our second issue. If you missed out on the first one, you can read it here. PS: these are early days for Abandoned Curiosities, and your feedback and suggestions could make all the difference. So please write to me — you can reply to this email. Also, what did you like the most about this particular issue — tell me in the comments. Thanks for reading. See you next Thursday!
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I read and discussed this article with my mum while we waited for movie to begin at the theatre, and we genuinely wanted to keep discussing about it. Maybe we shared the chronic procrastination and hunt for perfection and found comfort in these words you wrote.
I’m glad I could save you from the trailers. And I knew you’d enjoy this particular issue. Thanks to the both of you!