Imagine that you have been born with amazing talents that allow you become anything you want. On the one hand, your unparalleled mechanical abilities can serve you to start up an engineering company whose innovations would be sold around the world. On the other hand, your extraordinary knowledge of anatomy can secure you a place amongst the best physicians.
The end result
In addition, your talent for drawing and
composition can allow you to become an internationally-renowned artist
and produce hundreds of paintings that would be avidly purchased by
collectors. All doors are open to you and the whole world is at your
feet. Powerful men seek your friendship and everybody respects you.
make things even better, Nature grants you a reasonably long life so
that you can accomplish as much as possible. You get to live 67 years
and enjoy an overall good health. You are born in a country that offers
wide opportunities and your family encourages your initiatives.
much would you achieve in your lifetime? Would you concentrate your
energies on one field? Or would you rather change occupation every few
years? Which goals would you set for yourself? Would you choose a
profession or business that allows you to accumulate a quick fortune?
weeks after your 67th birthday, your time is up. You find yourself
terminally ill and look back on your life to see how much you have
actually accomplished. When you count your material assets, you realize
how little you possess after decades of work. When you review your
output, you feel shame about how few tasks you have actually finished.
Persistence and creativity
that point, you cannot help thinking that you have wasted your life.
What will remain after you are gone? Why did you squander your talents
in conjecture and speculation? You have started many projects, but
abandoned most of them half-way.
With trembling voice, you
dictate your last will. Since you never married nor fathered any
children, your few possessions are to be divided amongst servants and
friends. The house where you are about to die is not yours either. When
you close your eyes for the last time, you beg for extra time to
complete all that you have left unfinished, but now, it is too late.
Leonardo da Vinci
(1452-1519) died in a house that the King of France had lent him. His
last will, which was published after his death, names his meagre
possessions. His wealth amounted to a few books, a small estate in
Milan, some money, and a few paintings. Not much for someone who many
regard as the most talented man who has ever lived.
Except for a
few dozen paintings, Leonardo da Vinci rarely finished anything he
started. He made copious notes about inventions that never took off the
ground. He spent two years making drawings to illustrate an anatomy book
that was never published in his lifetime. He also made designs for
churches that were never built.
Clarity of purpose
If you have a talented son that
leads his life in imitation of Leonardo, your patience won't outlast
your disappointments. You will come to regret your son's inability to
focus on a specific field and advance his career. You will also have to
endure the sight of your son's being surpassed in honours and wealth by
others who possess less talent but more determination.
structured in a way that rewards constant purpose. Zigzagging can be
psychologically rewarding, but seldom leads to extraordinary
achievement. Even highly talented individuals need time to acquire
expertise and establish themselves in the market. Customers pay for
finished products and services, seldom for preliminary designs.
you study History, you will hear great things about Leonardo da Vinci.
Art teachers will tell you about his genius as a painter, physicians
about his prodigious knowledge of human anatomy, and engineers about his
visionary design of a flying machine.
Fair enough, but if you
look at all those projects with the eye of a tax accountant, you will be
forced to classify most of them as "work in progress." My point is
that, if Leonardo da Vinci lived today, he would probably attain only
In our century, innovation and competition are
fierce in every field. Artists, scientists, physicians, and inventors
never rest in the age of internet. The global economy guarantees that
someone, somewhere is about to overtake your achievements or your
There is so much to learn in every field that
contemporary professionals rarely engage in unproductive ventures. The
market wants reliable products and services. Nobody cares if you are a
genius. What counts is whether you are able to deliver value to paying
More often than not, zigzagging slows you down and
wastes your opportunities. The difference between Leonardo da Vinci and
his contemporary Raphael da Urbino (1483-1520) provides a striking
illustration of this principle.
A sense of direction
Raphael, one of the most talented
painters in History, only lived 37 years, but authored more than a
hundred paintings. In contrast, Leonardo, who lived to become 67 years
old, only produced a few dozen works. How many other brilliant paintings
could Leonardo have created if he had focused on this line of activity?
spent his life moving from one project to another. At 28, he
interrupted his work on his painting "St. Jerome" and never found time
to finish it. At 29, he went to Milan and abandoned in Florence his
half-way completed painting "Adoration of the Magi," which he never
At 40, Leonardo obtained a commission for an equestrian
monument in Milan, but the project also remained uncompleted. Leonardo
did manage to produce a clay model of the horse, but by the time he was
ready to cast it in bronze, his client decided to use the bronze to
Long-term achievement demands a consistent
purpose. If zigzagging ever leads to success, it will be of sort
duration. Personal efforts go farther when they are compounded by time.
Each step of a career consolidates yesterday's accomplishments and
prepares the next. Constant improvement requires a good level of
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