renaissance man

Episode 76: The Digital Strategist As Renaissance Man

In 1633, Galileo Galilei was convicted of and imprisoned for heresy by the Roman Inquisition for arguing that the planets revolve around the Sun, rather than around the Earth. Astronomer, physicist, philosopher and mathematician, Galileo, along with Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and other polymaths came to characterize an era of discovery, creativity and progress, often in the face of intense resistance. They were men of the Renaissance, and as digital strategists, we should look to them as our inspiration.

The Renaissance was a period in European history from the 14th to the 17th century that saw the end of the dark ages and the dawn of the modern age. It’s particularly interesting because there are 3 direct parallels to the age we live in.

First, it was a time of transition from the middle ages, a time of superstition and a lack of progress, into the modern, mechanized age. This was a time of revolutionary ideas, from the preaching of Martin Luther to the aforementioned discoveries of Galileo. This was also the time of the introduction of the printing press to Europe by Johannes Gutenberg, facilitating the mass dissemination of these ideas throughout Europe. We can draw a direct parallel to the digital age, as new ideas and inventions radically disrupt our societies. Th twin drivers of technology and globalization have made our world unrecognizable to anyone from a hundred years ago.

Second, the breakthroughs of the Renaissance were facilitated by a small moneyed elite, in particular, started by the Medici family of Florence who acted as patrons and financiers of the artists and philosophers of the age. Again, there is a direct parallel to today’s digital revolution, that has been driven in large part by silicon valley venture capitalists and angel investors. These patrons of the digital revolution are responsible in large part for the emergence and proliferation of much of the technology that has transformed our world and facilitated the dissemination of new ideas.

Finally, the explosion of ideas and technologies disrupted established beliefs and norms, making it a time of conflict and anxiety. The Renaissance was a time of Inquisition, of continuous warfare and religious revolutionaries and reactionaries. We can see this reflected today in the backlash against our globalized world and conflicts brought on by the disintegration of societies that had been frozen in place for decades. Progress is messy and uneven, and those left behind are making their presence felt across the world. Digital technology has connected but also isolated us in ways we have never before experienced, creating filter bubbles where echo chambers form to amplify groupthink.

With these parallels in mind, who were the archetypal Renaissance Men, and what inspiration can we draw from them? Let’s turn our attention to the most famous of them, Leonardo da Vinci. Born in Florence in 1452, da Vinci was a scientist, inventor, architect, mathematician, engineer, botanist, cartographer, geologist, astronomer, writer, sculptor, and one of the greatest painters that ever lived. As well as painting the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, da Vinci is credited with inventing the parachute, the helicopter and the tank.

leonardo da vinci selfie
Leonardo da Vinci also invented the selfie stick. Maybe.

So what drove this towering genius, and what can we learn from him? In his writing, what comes through continuously is his insatiable curiosity. He wrote, ‘learning never exhausts the mind‘, and that ‘iron rusts from disuse; stagnant water loses its purity and in cold weather becomes frozen; even so does inaction sap the vigor of the mind‘.

We have repeatedly made the point that being insatiably curious, wanting to know how things work, and never being satisfied with the status quo are critical for us to excel as strategists. But an extra dimension to consider here that da Vinci highlights is to not look narrowly within a single discipline, but across many, seemingly unconnected disciplines for inspiration. This is how we stay valuable as generalists in an industry of specialists. A strategist needs a broad perspective, and this means drawing on areas of inspiration outside their expertise.

But also consider the fact that da Vinci innovated in these different areas. It is important to bring the same level of curiosity and skepticism to new areas of interest that you do to the subjects you are most familiar with. This is why modern learning techniques focus less on what you learn, but rather, how you learn. Consistently approaching new problems and subjects with the same disciplined and curious approach is important. And this approach is based on simplicity, since as da Vinci wrote, ‘simplicity is the ultimate sophistication‘. We have previously made the case for simplicity in digital strategy, and I think this is a timely reminder that as generalists, the more we can simplify complex ideas, not only do we deliver greater value, but we also use it as a mechanism to learn and challenge new disciplines.

Finally, da Vinci was not content to apply himself and his ideas in the realm of the theoretical. He is remembered because he did something material. He wrote ‘I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do‘. The people he admired were those that made things happen, as he wrote, ‘it had long since come to my attention that people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things‘. We have long argued that the best strategists need to find ways to get their ideas implemented, otherwise they deliver little value and impact, and it is a timely reminder that to be effective, we can’t sit back and wait for things to happen; we have to be the catalysts of action. Also remember that many of these ideas and actions may fly in the face of established thinking, and are likely to be resisted. But nothing memorable was ever accomplished by doing what everyone else is doing.

Leonardo da Vinci was a man of singular accomplishment. He lived in a time that is very similar in many respects to ours. And he helped shape and define it. He is a reminder that through curiosity, a disciplined focus on simplicity and a burning need for action we can help make our own marks. But it begins with the joy of learning. As he wrote, ‘the noblest pleasure is the joy of understanding‘. Without this, we are nothing.

Next week on octopus, we will continue to explore the role of the digital strategist. Please be sure to comment below. I’d love to hear from you. Please subscribe for alerts about new episodes and content. Thank you for listening to octopus. I’m Nasser Sahlool.

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