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Michael Gelb’s Website

How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci: Seven Steps to Genius Every Day M. J. Gelb (Dell, paperback 2000)

The How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci Workbook and Notebook: Your Personal Companion to How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci M. J. Gelb (Bantam, 1999)

Inteligencia Genial M. J. Gelb (1999)

Samurai Chess: Mastering Strategic Thinking Through the Martial Art of the Mind R. Keene, M. J. Gelb (Walker & Co., 1998)

Body Learning: An Introduction to the Alexander Technique M. J. Gelb (Henry Holt, 2nd ed. 1996)

Mind Mapping: How to Liberate Your Natural Genius M. J. Gelb. Audio Cassette (Simon & Schuster, 1995)

Present Yourself! M. J. Gelb (Jalmar Press, 1988)

Thinking for a Change: Discovering the Power to Create, Communicate, and Lead M. J. Gelb (Out of print)

Lessons from the Art of Juggling: How to Achieve Your Full Potential in Business, Learning, and Life
T. Buzan, M. J. Gelb (Out of print)




Maybe I’m eccentric, but the idea of studying the great thinkers throughout civilization sure sounds like a great job. Michael Gelb does more than just research geniuses, he finds patterns in the way they think and writes about how their experiences can be applied to current situations. From his new home in the New York area, where he’s working on a new book featuring more great minds than his best-selling book How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci, Gelb shared, between laughter and reflective pauses, how great thinkers make the biggest difference in society and are potentially the key to gaining the human capital edge.

Conner: What have you learned about how some of the great thinkers worked that would help anyone be better suited to do their work, be more valuable to their organizations, or to lead more productive lives?

Gelb: Well the first thing is that most people don't think—because they never learned how. Thinking is a skill that we kind of develop willy-nilly in an almost random fashion and over time, we often form habits that limit our ability to think. I love to quote George Bernard Shaw who said, “People hate thinking—they do almost anything to avoid it. I have created an international reputation for myself by doing it once or twice a week.”

When we talk about thinking, we think that we know what we're talking about, but there are many different kinds of thinking. When I say people don't know how to think I mean they haven't been trained to think in different ways. The simplest distinction is between critical thinking and creative thinking. The most powerful thinkers are able to integrate those two modes. That's one distinguishing characteristic of great minds: they're able to look at issues from a critical perspective with logical arguments.

Conner: How about generating new ideas?

Gelb: That’s the creative thinking. But, to generate new ideas and possibilities we often go back to analyze something critical. It's a simple point, but incredibly powerful. First, you learn to be a good critical thinker; that's what school is supposed to do for you—and sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn't. But no one helps us learn the skill of creative thinking: how to generate new ideas, how to be innovative, how to look at problems from different perspectives, how to get outside of one's habitual ways of considering issues—then to propose new possibilities. We return to critical thinking to analyze them, to critique them, to see their weaknesses.

Conner: Many people think that they are good thinkers so what should we do?

Gelb: First, let's look at a few different modes of thinking. One type just looks for information as objectively as possible, just to seek facts, to do fact-finding, to try to assemble data as objectively as possible. That's one kind of thinking. Another kind is to do what we are doing now which is to think about thinking.

Conner: Meta thinking?

Gelb: Meta thinking—right. This is very practical for people running a meeting when someone thinks that they are doing creative thinking, but they're actually doing critical thinking. At that point, you need to have somebody who can step back and point that out.

People say, “Let's start brainstorming,” but then they start critiquing each other and they wonder what happens to the atmosphere of open communication and creative thought. Begin by thinking about facts as objectively as you can.

When you think about thinking, you think about the benefits of an idea—looking for the strengths and what’s positive about what’s been proposed. Then there are just generating different ideas (often called brainstorming), which I call the generative phase of the creative process, seeking to generate lots of ideas and thoughts.

Then we can look at the benefits of those ideas and then do critical thinking, play the devil's advocate, where we look at the weaknesses of an idea. This is a very important element in thinking and problem solving, but most people do it prematurely, before they've generated ideas or before they've laid out all the facts. They habitually go into looking at why it won't work because of the X factor in thinking, which is the way emotion affects our way of looking at issues.

Emotion can sometimes blind us so we don’t see the mode we're in or how to be most effective. Sometimes people support an idea, not because they’ve really thought it through, but because it's within their self-interest. Other times, people oppose an idea, not because of logical reasons that they can express, but rather because they just don't like it. Learning to separate feelings from thinking is a big, big challenge in becoming more effective in every aspect of life.

Conner: But, can anyone really separate feelings from thinking?

Gelb: No. There's an illusion in the scientific, academic, and business world that people can eliminate feeling altogether. That doesn't work either. The important thing is to recognize feelings, see the role they play, and see how they may be influencing our thinking so that we can then think more clearly about whatever issues we’re working on. A part of learning about thinking is to learn about these different modes and to learn the skills that go with different modes.

Conner: Of those different types of thinking, would you say that imagination is mostly for creative thinking?

Gelb: Creative thinking is the product when all of those elements of thinking are in harmonious balance. Ultimately, imaginative thinking isn't necessarily creative. In other words, you can have a tremendous generative session, where you come up with lots of off-the-wall, very interesting, and entertaining ideas, but never actually create anything.

Conner: I know plenty of people who do that all the time.

Gelb: Me too. And so it's probably better to say that creativity is the result of the marriage of logic and imagination.

When you asked me about the great minds, that is something they all pretty much were able to do. They were able to get out of the box, so to speak, and be highly imaginative. They thought of things no one had really thought of before and then they were able to find a way to support those ideas logically and communicate them to others.

Take somebody like Isaac Newton. He was attempting to further validate the insights of Copernicus and Galileo by solving fundamental problems about the nature of the universe. But, he reached the point where he could go no further because the mathematics that existed at the time just wouldn't let him work on the kind of problems he needed to work on.

Conner: What did Newton do?

Gelb: He created calculus! He created calculus so he could work on problems at the level he needed to work on them. He didn't have the math so he made it up.

Conner: Why doesn’t someone tell us that before we take calculus so that we have some context of where this all came from and why we might need it? Just the notion that it’s within the human mind to conceive of something like this would be liberating.

Gelb: It's a wonderful orientation. When you study Newton more, you find that he had this incredible imagination. He was a real dreamer and compared himself to a small child on the beach, fascinated with the stones, the seashells. He wrote in his notebook, “…the vast ocean of undiscovered truth lay before me.” He was a dreamer who wrote more about metaphysics and alchemy than he actually wrote about physics, but he was also stunningly rigorous, detailed, thorough, and a pensive focused mind of the highest order. He's just a fabulous example of the interplay of imagination and logic. You pretty much find that in most of the great minds of history.

Conner: It’s hard to believe so few people focus on thinking, but rather look only about doing. To truly do good work, you need to nurture and foster creative thinking. Why then do you think that people only focus on the doing aspects of human performance.

Gelb: That seems to be both a particular strength and weakness of the American national character. We are very pragmatic, action-oriented, and want to know what we can do. It's not as deeply woven into the fabric of our nature to reflect and be very thoughtful.

Conner: I remember Shoshana Zuboff from Harvard saying something that really struck me. She said (and I’m paraphrasing) that the most important part of her job is putting her feet up on her desk to think and reflect, yet that's often the time when her colleagues walk by believing that she's not working anymore. However, she went on to explain, that was when she was doing her real work.

Gelb: Well she's in good company. When Leonardo da Vinci was painting The Last Supper, he would work very intensively for days, but then he would leave and just disappear. The prior of the church at of Saint Maria Della Grazie didn't understand that Leonardo was a transcendent genius for all history. As far as the prior was concerned, Leonardo was a painter. The prior said something to the effect, “I have a contract here. Where's this Leonardo guy; get him back up on the scaffolding to finish this by the deadline.” Leonardo wouldn't hear of it so the prior complained to the Duke of Milan who had originally arranged the contract.

The Duke called Leonardo in to explain himself and Leonardo said something that Shoshana, I think, would very much approve of. Leonardo said, “Men of genius sometimes work best when they work least.” He went on to explain to the Duke that he needed time to integrate his thoughts and that sometimes the most productive work was when he was not up on the scaffold, but rather just walking through the streets of Milan.

Conner: That's where you get the richness; that's where you bring together ideas that haven't been brought together before.

Gelb: The thing is that most people will intuitively understand that, yet others so often ignore it. In the last 20 years I’ve been asking people all over the world, “Where are you when you get your best ideas, where are you actually physically located,” and people almost invariably respond, “I was lying in bed, I was going for a walk in nature, I was driving my car, I was taking a bath.” They almost never say, “I was in a meeting.”

Great ideas come through the incubatory power of the mind. One of the refinements of learning how to think is finding a rhythm between intense focus and study, learning, and pretty much racking your brain—then letting it go completely so that the incubation and imagination can take over. Then you need to learn to listen to that really very subtle quiet voice that the intuition sometimes speaks in before your next intensive period of doing what we call, “working hard.” If you're working hard all the time, you can often override the subtle messages of the intuition. If you just hope to sit back and be intuitive or lie around all day, it never works; you won't have anything to incubate. It's a matter of finding a rhythm between the intense focus and analysis and then letting it go and shifting modes to be in that more receptive state.

Conner: Respectful as well.

Gelb: It's respecting that process and listening. All the geniuses I’ve studied are pretty good at paying attention to the inner muse.

Conner: Did they do that in any special way?

Gelb: They all kept notebooks. You know Leonardo kept a notebook. Thomas Jefferson wrote endless letters. Newton kept a notebook. In fact, it's hard to find an example of any of these great minds who didn't, in some way, reflect and record the workings of their minds. And that's one of the practical suggestions that I make in my book, How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci—keep a da Vinci style notebook. It’s a simple and practical way to develop or strengthen your approach to continuous learning.

Conner: I keep a journal and save old letters, but I’d never thought about the letter writing process as a record of the mind. And now, I rarely write letters at all. I’m far more apt to write email. I wonder how that influences our reflection habits or how that would have changed Thomas Jefferson.

Gelb: Oh, I think Thomas Jefferson would just love email because his correspondence took up a huge part of his day. He would have been able to do even more, more effortlessly, and I think that he would be an advocate for writing really thoughtful and intelligent emails. Whenever I send email, I always put a meaningful heading on it, yet I get with the information age and don't waste much time on punctuation or capitalization, but I do try to make it somewhat literary.

Conner: Maybe someday we’ll have the collective emails of Michael Gelb.

Gelb: Or even the collective emails of Bill Gates.

Conner: I've worked for Bill and even swapped a few emails with him. While I don’t think any of those were worth publishing, some he sent to all employees when we were just a small company were amazing. In a short format, he could convey plenty of information in a very strong, meaningful way.

Gelb: That's interesting, but not surprising at all. You know I love that aspect of email. On one hand, it's very nice to be able to reflect on a letter and the process of writing it, sending it, waiting for it to get there, waiting for the person to read it; there's a certain rhythm to that, a gentility. On the other hand, it's kind of cool to bang, bang on the keys, sending an instant message. That’s different than talking because you have to write out your ideas—and as a writer I like doing that.

Conner: Does that writing process give you time to improve the quality of the message?

Gelb: It improves quality and increases the volume of writing, too. It may be possible to do more in less time at a higher quality and have more fun but it won't—I guarantee this—it won't be possible if you don't ask questions.

One thing we know about the mind is that it responds to the questions that we set before it. So, if we set limited questions, we'll only get limited answers. If we step back and broaden the questions we're asking, if we dare to dream of a workplace that makes a contribution that brings out the best in human potential that's highly profitable, then we have a hope of creating it.

Conner: Writing this past week, I was reflecting on the questions that little kids ask. You know, those giant questions like, “Where does the universe come from?” or “What’s weather?” These are big questions—not little ones like adults ask like, “Why does this sink leak?” or even the almost interesting, “Why isn't the grass green?” and I was wondering why we stop asking those gigantic questions...

Gelb: That’s at the heart of a critical point in the study of great geniuses because they tend to be people who ask those child-like questions throughout their adult lives. Leonardo da Vinci went on asking questions. Sigmund Freud wrote a book on Leonardo and in it, he points out that Leonardo continued to play as a child throughout his adult life, baffling his contemporaries. He went on asking questions just like the ones you're asking such as, “Why is the sky blue?” Then he went out and actually figured it out! He just kept that childlike, open innocence. Einstein said that the childlike, open, imaginative, playful way of thinking was at the core of his approach. He asked questions with that original sense of wonder and let his mind wander, taking imaginary journeys into the universe on a beam of light.

Conner: What really becomes a challenge is to be encouraging and not judging in our replies so people can see that it's all right to ask.

Gelb: Very much so and the reason people don't ask is that they're afraid of embarrassment. Nobody wants to ask a stupid or silly question and have everybody laugh at them. Unfortunately, most of us had that experience growing up in school. And too often, the dominant force in the workplace or in the school is not the quest for originality, creativity, and self-expression, but rather making sure you aren’t caught making a mistake. And you know that's not conducive to thinking like Leonardo.

Conner: What do you do in your quest for self-expression and intellectual development?

Gelb: I would say the most significant development I do, beside reading and mental sports, is writing and speaking. I'm often giving talks and making up different presentations for my clients where I think I understand something, but until I stand up in front of a group of a few hundred people and talk about it, I don't really know how well I understand it. And then, when I try to write it down and actually think I’m going to publish it and put it out there for the whole world to see, well then I have to think about what I thought I knew in a whole new way. So I would say that speaking and writing in particular are very powerful disciplines of thought.

Conner: That’s also a nice compliment to the journal writing, which may not be so rigorous.

Gelb: Well, the journal writing is part of the generation phase—the free flow phase, which helps to get lots of new ideas that you might not normally connect. And, I use that as part of my writing. I do the generation phase and weigh out all sorts of things that seem messy and disconnected and then I step back and look at them and they seem to come together fairly easily.

Conner: Sometimes it’s as if the ideas draw themselves together across space and time. Maybe it’s that we’re listening to that small, quiet voice inside each of us pointing things out. Look how this relates to what you just read and....

Gelb: Big time. Perception follows our purpose. That's a classic example of, “Seek and ye shall find.”

Conner: Well, we’re all the richer for what you’ve sought and found. Thank you.

Michael Gelb is an internationally recognized pioneer, speaker, and organizational consultant in the fields of creative thinking, accelerated learning, and innovative leadership. A passionate student of the Renaissance and the nature of genius, Gelb is the author of many books including How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci: Seven Steps to Genius Every Day. Learn more about him at

Marcia Conner is editor in chief of LiNE Zine and CEO of Learnativity. Her work as a writer, consultant, and executive coach all stem from her fanatical drive to help people excel in life by learning—and thinking—all of the time. Tell her what you’re learning at




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