My 2 favorite books of 2018
Last year, my two favorite books were surpringly not textbooks. The first one was Leonardo Da Vinci the biography of the famous inventor and painter by Walter Isaacson and the second was Bad Blood an investigative report on the shenanigans of a silicon valley startup called Theranos.
The reason I’m bringing up these two books is because usually after reading a great book I’m willed into action. Especially in the case of biographies, I find that it’s easier to learn from others’ experiences.
Leonardo Da Vinci
Not many books can be this big and be page flippers but Isaacson manages to keep the readers interest by portraying one of the arguably smartest people of all time in a fairly relable manner. Becoming a genius may not sound like an achievable goal but structuring your life around becoming more creative definitely is. I was struck by how Da Vinci pursued any job that gave him the flexibility to work on his lofty and ambitious goals. He never completed a piece of work until his 40s and spent most of his life learning and figuring out how to fund his learnings. He structured his life so that by the time he was an old man he was actually a master of his crafts.
In the early 1480’s, Da Vinci was seeking a position in Ludovico Sforza’s court as a military engineer - I’m not entirely sure why Da Vinci wanted to be a military engineer but I will mostly remember the below letter as an example where even one of the smartest men in history had to fake it till he made it. In fact, Da Vinci had not devised any of the military instruments he talks about below.
My Most Illustrious Lord,
Having now sufficiently seen and considered the achievements of all those who count themselves masters and artificers of instruments of war, and having noted that the invention and performance of the said instruments is in no way different from that in common usage, I shall endeavour, while intending no discredit to anyone else, to make myself understood to Your Excellency for the purpose of unfolding to you my secrets, and thereafter offering them at your complete disposal, and when the time is right bringing into effective operation all those things which are in part briefly listed below:
I have plans for very light, strong and easily portable bridges with which to pursue and, on some occasions, flee the enemy, and others, sturdy and indestructible either by fire or in battle, easy and convenient to lift and place in position. Also means of burning and destroying those of the enemy.
In time of peace I believe I can give as complete satisfaction as any other in the field of architecture, and the construction of both public and private buildings, and in conducting water from one place to another.
Also I can execute sculpture in marble, bronze and clay. Likewise in painting, I can do everything possible as well as any other, whosoever he may be.
And if any of the above-mentioned things seem impossible or impracticable to anyone, I am most readily disposed to demonstrate them in your park or in whatsoever place shall please Your Excellency, to whom I commend myself with all possible humility.
The Renaissance was a similar but less powerful democratization of information than the birth of the internet which means that we can draw important learnings from people like Da Vinci for today. Again, even one of the most intelligent people of all time had to fake it till made it but his curiosity and hard work were very much genuine. Fortunately, curiosity is very much part of our nature.
When I first read this book I couldn’t help but keep in the back of my mind the concept of “Making house”. Getting a nice office, getting generous funding before ironing out the kinks in the product. Bad blood is the story of Theranos, the biomedical startup claiming they could run a whole suite of blood tests using a single prick from a finger. The charismatic deep voiced CEO Elizabeth Holmes who rarely broke eye contact defrauded investors over $800M. She was able to do this by carefully controlling information and adding fraudulent meeting minutes, studies over a house of cards which her peers thought had a solid foundation. Holmes had all the external indicators of success: charisma, a prestigious board, funding, news articles and she carefully manipulated to turn herself into a celebrity.
Holmes vs Da Vinci
So what’s the difference between Holmes and Da Vinci? Da Vinci was fond of parties, good looking and wasn’t born as the 60 year old bearded man we all imagine him to be. Da Vinci was faking it for most of his life until he had the resources to work on his more ambitious projects. Holmes genuinely believed in her vision which would have ultimately been for the betterment of mankind and she was genuinely smart.
So why will Holmes be remembered as a scam artist and Da Vinci as a genius?
Oddly enough it’s not their intelligence that distinguishes them but their morals and personal goals. Holmes was willing to endanger other people with faulty diagnoses in service of her vision and the cult of her personality. To Holmes, the ends justified the means - she spent little time on actually producing blood testing technology that worked vs the time she spent manipulating public perception. Da Vinci on the other hand prioritized learning and while he did burn much of his patrons money, Da Vinci’s ultimate goal wasn’t to show others how smart he was, he just genuinely enjoyed learning.