Many of us aspire to do something meaningful with our lives. The word aspire comes from the Latin to breathe, so there is a clue here that on some level, if we are not aspiring, we are not breathing, and we all know what happens if you stop breathing. You may not drop dead immediately from not aspiring, yet many of us have experienced that choking feeling when our days are filled with jobs, chores, and other activities that aren’t serving us, challenging us, or meaningful to us.
In order to aspire to something you must first suspect that you have the potential to do something more, or different, than whatever it is you are presently doing. I believe everyone is capable of creating a meaningful life for themselves; otherwise I would not waste my time writing a personal development blog. I suspect you also think you are capable of evolving your life, or you would not be wasting your time reading such a blog. So if humans have the capacity and drive towards something more, how can we explore that potential and focus our efforts optimally?
Leonardo Da Vinci is a stunning example of human potential, so perhaps we can learn from such a master. I cannot possibly do him any justice in a short blog article, but William Manchester provides us with a respectable summary of his achievements in A World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance: Portrait of an Age:
“So mighty was his intellect and so broad the spectrum of his gifts—he was, among other things, a master of engineering, biology, sculpture, linguistics, botany, music, philosophy, architecture, and science—that presenting an adequate summary of his feats is impossible.”
And somewhere along the way he still found time to paint The Adoration of the Magi, the Mona Lisa, and the Last Supper . . .
So how did he do all of that in one lifetime? Was he also a genius at time management or tackling his to-do list? Possibly. Luckily, I’m not the first person to wonder how he did so much with his life. Many others have asked these questions, and some have taken the time to study da Vinci’s notebooks in an effort to figure out what made him so unique. (He kindly left humanity 7000 pages of hand-written mirror script that can be read when held to a mirror.)
One of the qualities that emerge from an analysis of his work is that he had an insatiable curiosity about everything. He questioned everything. So how can we apply this to evolving and achieving more in our own life?
Sometimes wanting to achieve something is as simple as writing down goals and working towards them. That works fine when you know what you want and how to get there. Yet sometimes “knowing what we want” from life is not a simple matter. Knowing what to focus our effort towards can be a deep and murky topic. What we need is a tool for illuminating the matter, and this is where self-inquiry becomes our best friend.
Self inquiry is how we connect with our inner intelligence, the guru within all of us. Each of us is unique, our circumstances and perception of life is different from everyone else. Our story, our “path”, the gifts we can offer the world—all of these are different for everyone. Self-inquiry is not a cookie-cutter self-help gimmick. It is a powerful tool for generating profound insight into what is meaningful to you in life.
So here is where I confess that I can’t tell you how to take your life to the next level, I don’t have those answers. But you do. Your journey begins by asking yourself the right questions.
This self-inquiry adventure is taken from Michael Gelb’s How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci: Seven Steps to Genius Every Day. Gelb explores how we can exercise our minds on many different levels, and his book turned out good enough to be translated into eighteen languages since it was first published.
- Grab a notebook that has a lot of blank pages in it.
- In one sitting, write down 100 questions that are meaningful to you. Don’t worry about grammar, some overlap of questions, or details such as spelling. Gelb says “Any kind of question as long as it’s something you deem significant.” Do not try to answer any of them yet.
- Read your list and note what themes emerged.
- Do your best to choose the ten that are most important to you, and rank them according to importance. Refrain from answering any of them yet.
Take a break after doing this, let the dust settle. In the days ahead, choose one question from your list that seems interesting at the moment when you have about 20 minutes to spare. Contemplate the question by writing it again on a blank page, do your best to keep you mind on the question and note what thoughts it conjures. You can also spend the time doing a stream of consciousness writing session on a particular question, and then read over what came out and highlight parts that strike you as insightful. Work through your questions over time, feel free to add more and change ranking as your understanding evolves.
How far you go down the rabbit hole is ultimately up to you, but if do this exercise then you’re likely to get a profound glimpse into what is possible for you.