How to Procrastinate Like Leonardo da Vinci
By W.A. PANNAPACKER
Chronicle of Higher Education February 20, 2009
"Dimmi, dimmi se mai fu fatta cosa alcuna." ("Tell me, tell me if anything ever got done.")
— Attributed to Leonardo
On his deathbed, they say, Leonardo da Vinci regretted that he had left so much unfinished.
Leonardo had so many ideas; he was so ahead of his time. His notebooks were crammed with inventions: new kinds of clocks, a double-hulled ship, flying machines, military tanks, an odometer, the parachute, and a machine gun, to name just a few. If you wanted a new high-tech weapon, a gigantic bronze statue, or a method for moving a river, Leonardo could devise something that just might work.
But Leonardo rarely completed any of the great projects that he sketched in his notebooks. His groundbreaking research in human anatomy resulted in no publications — at least not in his lifetime. Not only did Leonardo fail to realize his potential as an engineer and a scientist, but he also spent his career hounded by creditors to whom he owed paintings and sculptures for which he had accepted payment but — for some reason — could not deliver, even when his deadline was extended by years. His surviving paintings amount to no more than 20, and five or six, including the "Mona Lisa," were still in his possession when he died. Apparently, he was still tinkering with them.
Nowadays, Leonardo might have been hired by a top research university, but it seems likely that he would have been denied tenure. He had lots of notes but relatively little to put in his portfolio.
Leonardo was the kind of person we have come to call a "genius." But he had trouble focusing for long periods on a single project. After he solved its conceptual problems, Leonardo lost interest until someone forced his hand. Even then, Leonardo often became a perfectionist about details that no one else could see, and the job just didn't get done.
A friar named Sabba di Castiglione said of Leonardo, "When he ought to have attended to painting in which no doubt he would have proved a new Appelles, he gave himself entirely to geometry, architecture, and anatomy." Leonardo worked on what interested him at the moment, cultivating his energies and insights, even when those activities were not directly related to his current commissions.
Leonardo, it seems, was a hopeless procrastinator. Or that's what we are supposed to believe, following the narrative started by his earliest biographer, Giorgio Vasari, and continued in the sermons of today's anti-procrastination therapists and motivational speakers. Leonardo, you see, was "afraid of success," so he never really gave his best effort. There was no chance of failure that way. Better to "self-sabotage" than to come up short.
Of course, the therapeutic interpretation of Leonardo — and, perhaps, of many of us in academe who emulate his pattern of seemingly nonproductive creativity — has a long history. Leonardo's reputation spread at exactly the right time for someone to become a symbol of this newly invented moral and psychological disorder: procrastination, a word that sounds just a little too much like what Victorian moralists used to call "self-abuse."
The unambiguously negative idea of procrastination seems unique to the Western world; that is, to Europeans and the places they have colonized in the last 500 years or so. It is a reflection of several historical processes in the years after the discovery of the New World: the Protestant Reformation, the spread of capitalist economics, the Industrial Revolution, the rise of the middle classes, and the growth of the nation-state. As any etymologist will tell you, words are battlegrounds for contending historical processes, and dictionaries are among the best chronicles of those struggles.
The magisterial Oxford English Dictionary presents a wide range of connotations for "procrastinate," ranging from the innocuous "to postpone" to the more negative "to postpone irrationally, obstinately, and out of sinful laziness." The earliest instances of procrastination do not carry the moral sting of the later usages. To procrastinate simply meant to delay for one reason or another, as one might reasonably delay eating dinner because it is only 3 in the afternoon. For example, in 1632 someone described "That benefite of the procrastinating of my Life." In other words, sometimes delay is good; it is a good idea — in this case — to delay the arrival of death.
Somehow it is not surprising that the first notable shift in the moral weight of the term is found in relation to business and the building of empires. In his 1624 account, The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles, Capt. John Smith — adventurer and founder of Jamestown — wrote of his gang of shiftless cavaliers, "Many such deuices [devices] they fained [feigned] to procrastinate the time." It was, no doubt, owing to this procrastination — not tyrannical leadership and impossible conditions — that Jamestown's early years were so unsuccessful. Eventually, Smith developed the policy of "He that will not worke shall not eate," since eating seems to be one of the few things about which one cannot procrastinate for long. It's a telling moment when procrastination becomes a crime against the state potentially punishable by death.
As time wore on, and the pace of life accelerated, the exhortations against procrastination in the English-speaking world rapidly became stronger. By 1893 we find someone not being accused of procrastination or warned against it, but accusing himself of the shameful vice: "I was too procrastinatingly lazy to expend even that amount of energy." The rhetoric of anti-procrastination — constructed by imperialists, religious zealots, and industrial capitalists — had become internalized. We no longer need to be told that to procrastinate is wrong. We know we are sinners and are ashamed. What can we do but work harder?
Like the English Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, we live our lives with regret for what we have not done — or have done imperfectly — instead of taking satisfaction with what we have done, such as, in Coleridge's case, founding English Romanticism in his youth and producing, throughout his life, some of the best poetry and literary criticism ever composed, including his unfinished poem "Kubla Khan." But that was not enough; always, there was some magnum opus that Coleridge should have been writing, that made every smaller project seem like failure, and that led him to seek refuge from procrastinator's guilt in opium.
One thing about this dalliance with the OED is reassuring: If words emerge and evolve over time, it is possible to get behind them, to disconnect the relationship between "signifier" and "signified" so to speak. Since procrastination emerged from a specific historical context, it is not a universal and inescapable element of human experience. We can liberate ourselves from its gravitational pull of judgment, shame, and coercion. We can seize the term for ourselves and redefine it for our purposes. We can even make procrastination — like imagination — into something positive and maybe even essential for the productivity we value above all things.
In 1486, when Leonardo was still struggling with the Sforza horse, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola gave his famous "Oration on the Dignity of Man," encouraging artists to become divine creators in their own right. In this vision, God encourages Adam not to embrace human limitation but to lift himself upward into the realm of the angels.
It was this dream of human perfectibility that animated artists like Michelangelo, and, perhaps, forever rendered Leonardo unable to relinquish voluntarily any of his more serious artistic projects. As Vasari writes, "Leonardo, with his profound intelligence of art, commenced various undertakings, many of which he never completed, because it appeared to him that the hand could never give its due perfection to the object or purpose which he had in his thoughts, or beheld in his imagination." Through his many episodes of alleged procrastination, we see an artist who engages with the irresolvable conflict between unlimited aspiration and the acknowledgment of human limitation.
If Leonardo seemed endlessly distracted by his notebooks and experiments — instead of finishing the details of a painting he had already conceptualized — it was because he understood the fleeting quality of imagination: If you do not get an insight down on paper, and possibly develop it while your excitement lasts, then you are squandering the rarest and most unpredictable of your human capabilities, the very moments when one seems touched by the hand of God.
The principal evidence for that is, of course, Leonardo's notebooks. He kept those notebooks for at least 35 years, and more than 5,000 manuscript pages have survived — perhaps a third of the total — scattered in several archives and private collections. Leonardo's known writings would fill at least 20 volumes, but if one includes the lost materials, he probably wrote enough to fill a hundred.
Some of Leonardo's entries are short jottings; others are lengthy and elaborate. The notebooks give the impression of a mind always at work, even in the midst of ordinary affairs. He returned to some pages intermittently over many years, revising his thoughts and adding drawings and textual elaborations. Several compendiums have been compiled from his notebooks, but, like so many of us, Leonardo never used his voluminous private writings to produce a single published work.
For the most part, his notebooks — like the commonplace books that were kept by students in the Renaissance (Shakespeare's Hamlet had one, for example) — were a polymath's workshop: a place to try out ideas, to develop them over time, and to retain them until circumstances made them more immediately useful.
Leonardo's studies of how light strikes a sphere, for example, enable the continuous modeling of the "Mona Lisa" and "St. John the Baptist." His work in optics might have delayed a project, but his final achievements in painting depended on the experiments — physical and intellectual — that he documented in the notebooks. Far from being a distraction — like many of his contemporaries thought — they represent a lifetime of productive brainstorming, a private working out of the ideas on which his more public work depended. To criticize this work is to believe that what we call genius somehow emerges from the mind fully formed — like Athena from the head of Zeus — without considerable advance preparation. Vasari's quotation of Pope Leo X has rung down through the centuries as a classic indictment of Leonardo's procrastinatory behavior: "Alas! This man will do nothing at all, since he is thinking of the end before he has made a beginning."
If creative procrastination, selectively applied, prevented Leonardo from finishing a few commissions — of minor importance when one is struggling with the inner workings of the cosmos — then only someone who is a complete captive of the modern cult of productive mediocrity that pervades the workplace, particularly in academe, could fault him for it.
Productive mediocrity requires discipline of an ordinary kind. It is safe and threatens no one. Nothing will be changed by mediocrity; mediocrity is completely predictable. It doesn't make the powerful and self-satisfied feel insecure. It doesn't require freedom, because it doesn't do anything unexpected. Mediocrity is the opposite of what we call "genius." Mediocrity gets perfectly mundane things done on time. But genius is uncontrolled and uncontrollable. You cannot produce a work of genius according to a schedule or an outline. As Leonardo knew, it happens through random insights resulting from unforeseen combinations. Genius is inherently outside the realm of known disciplines and linear career paths. Mediocrity does exactly what it's told, like the docile factory workers envisioned by Frederick Winslow Taylor.
Like so many of us in academe, Leonardo was endlessly curious; he did not rely on received wisdom but insisted on going back to the sources, most important nature itself. Would he have achieved more if his focus had been narrower and more rigorously professional? Perhaps he might have completed more statues and altarpieces. He might have made more money. His contemporaries, such as Michelangelo, would have had fewer grounds for mocking him as an impractical eccentric. But we might not remember him now any more than we normally recall the more punctual work of dozens of other Florentine artists of his generation.
Perhaps Leonardo's greatest discovery was not the perfectibility of man but its opposite: He found that even the most profound thought combined with the most ferocious application cannot accomplish something absolutely true and beautiful. We cannot touch the face of God. But we can come close, and his work, imperfect as it may be, is one of the major demonstrations of heroic procrastination in Western history: the acceptance of our imperfection — and the refusal to accept anything less than striving for perfection anyway.
Leonardo is just one example of an individual whose meaning has been constructed, in part, to combat the vice of procrastination; namely, the natural desire to pursue what one finds most interesting and enjoyable rather than what one finds boring and repellent, simply because one's life must be at the service of some compelling interest — some established institutional practice — that is never clearly explained, lest it be challenged and rejected.
Academe is full of potential geniuses who have never done a single thing they wanted to do because there were too many things that needed to be done first: the research projects, conference papers, books and articles — not one of them freely chosen: merely means to some practical end, a career rather than a calling. And so we complete research projects that no longer interest us and write books that no one will read; or we teach with indifference, dutifully boring our students, marking our time until retirement, and slowly forgetting why we entered the profession: because something excited us so much that we subordinated every other obligation to follow it.
If there is one conclusion to be drawn from the life of Leonardo, it is that procrastination reveals the things at which we are most gifted — the things we truly want to do. Procrastination is a calling away from something that we do against our desires toward something that we do for pleasure, in that joyful state of self-forgetful inspiration that we call genius.
--W.A. Pannapacker is an associate professor of English at Hope College.