How can we recognize our best ideas?

How did da Vinci advance his art further than others? He realized that to accurately depict the outside of a human body, you have to understand how it worked under the skin.

da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci is remembered as one of the world’s all-time greatest artists for a reason – his depictions of the human form were more true to life than anything seen since the heights of ancient Greece and Rome. He was among a small group of visionaries who sparked the Renaissance: the rebirth of art and science after the lull of the Middle Ages.

Accidental innovation

Leonardo da Vinci was not the only Renaissance artist to ask, “Why does the human body move the way it does?” in an effort to better portray people in his art. But with his reputation and quality connections, he was the first to acquire a supply of human corpses to dissect to satisfy his curiosity and advance his understanding.

Da Vinci’s sketches of the human form were more detailed and accurate than anything that had gone before. At the time he was making them, Europe’s doctors still based their understanding of the human body on textbooks written by Greek-Roman physician Galen in the second century.

In seeking to improve his work, da Vinci could have made just as big an impact on medicine as his paintings did on the art world. His work could have changed the medical world – but instead became a lost legacy, unknown for centuries until his notebooks surfaced in the 1800s.

Man as machine

Through his studies, da Vinci began to see bodies as pieces of biological machinery, kick-starting his fascination with engineering. He even began to construct artificial body parts to test his theories, from a glass model of the heart’s aortic valve to sketches of flying machines based on dissections of birds’ wings.

Today, medics and engineers alike take inspiration from the investigations he detailed in his once-lost notebooks, and the work that da Vinci began is continuing to be developed.

Where da Vinci took wax casts of hearts to construct glass models of their valves, in 2015 doctors used a 3D printer to construct an artificial heart valve to save a two-year-old girl’s life. Where da Vinci sketched flying machines to be powered by human muscles, prosthetics companies are now building artificial limbs that can be controlled by the power of thought.

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Avoiding lost legacies

But because da Vinci never published his findings, his discoveries were lost. When his notebooks resurfaced, they astonished the world – a man previously only known as a great artist began to be recognized as one of the greatest scientific pioneers in history.

Had da Vinci – or someone who worked with or followed him – been able to take his work further, who knows how much medicine could have been advanced? His detailed drawings could have revolutionized surgery, saving countless lives and changing the world for the better. But no one realized the significance of his discoveries. The opportunity was missed.

Da Vinci

When moving at pace, it can be hard to identify which new ideas are truly important. So many things fascinated da Vinci that he would frequently become distracted by something new, and his past work would be left unfinished and forgotten. He was so focused in the now, he lost sight of the wider potential of his projects.

Not all innovators can appreciate the true value of their ideas, or have the skills to develop them from a concept into a practical product. This is where selecting the right partners can be vital – people who can bring different perspectives to your own are proven to help businesses perform better, and may spot great ideas among the mass of noise. This is in itself an art.

How can we recognize our best ideas? The greatest legacies are created by those who ask: “Can this work better?” was originally featured on the EY Better Working World website.