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💥 DaVinci's Questionable Productivity Secrets and Avoiding Curiosity Traps

Long before she became the First Lady, Jackie Kennedy worked for the Washington Times-Herald, interviewing the public on the streets of Washington DC.

Eventually, Jackie got the opportunity to interview a Senator by the name of John F. Kennedy. When Jackie asked JFK what he believed his best trait to be, she expected him to say something like “courage,” as he was a war hero after all. But he answered instead: “Curiosity.”

Another first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, who achieved great success as a diplomat and activist, also held curiosity in the highest regard: "I think, at a child's birth, if a mother could ask a fairy godmother to endow it with the most useful gift, that gift would be curiosity."

But why does curiosity have such an esteemed track record?

And how might we harness it?

Today’s edition has the answers:

  • 🍿 We learn the curious lifelong habit that an award-winning moviemaker relies on to make non-stop blockbuster hits.

  • 📜 The notebooks of Leonardo DaVinci reveal the link between curiosity and productivity.

  • 🎣 A best-selling author shares his ritual for avoiding modern-day curiosity traps.

P.s., you can check out editions 1-13 here in case you missed them, including insights such as the playbook that Coco Chanel used to rewrite the world of fashion and go from orphan to multi-millionaire, winning creative strategies from Stanford designers, and the motivational memos that turned around a failing soup company.

Seriously, there are some gems you’ll appreciate in these earlier editions. ;-)

1. Turn The Constellation Of Dots In Your Mind Into Paths You Can Access

Dubbed one of Hollywood's master storytellers, Emmy and Academy Award-winning producer Brian Grazer has built an impressive catalog of productions including A Beautiful Mind, Apollo 13, Arrested Development, 24, and Empire.

Brian’s compelling track record has left many to wonder: how has he managed to sustain his success across such an extensive range of genres? The secret, according to Brian, is his decades-old habit of engaging in “curiosity conversations.” 

“For a long time, I had a rule for myself: I had to meet one new person in the entertainment business every day.” During these conversations, “the goal for me was to learn something,” Brian explains, “you’re using all of your focus and energy to learn something, some insight, usually the secret—you’re trying to learn whatever that person’s secret is, the secret to their process.”

But eventually Brian modified his rule. He went from meeting new people in the entertainment industry to meeting no one from the entertainment industry. “I had quickly discovered that the entertainment business is incredibly insular—we tend to talk only to ourselves.” This insular approach is one “that leads to mediocre movies, and also to being boring.” 

So instead, Brian started reaching out to people exclusively from other industries, “science, medicine, politics, religion, every art form, [and] of course—technology,” and has since engaged in at least one curiosity conversation every two weeks for well over three decades.

The fruits of these conversations began manifesting in unexpected ways. For example, Brian’s nuanced understanding of the psychology of survival—informed by a conversation many years prior with a woman who survived imprisonment under a military dictatorship—ultimately contributed to him working on Apollo 13 and the resulting success of the movie. 

“The beauty of curiosity and being present is that it allows you to turn the constellation of dots in your mind into paths you can access, and that’s a competitive advantage over other people. It was a competitive advantage for me, competing against powerful producers who often had far greater resources than me. I realized that being exhaustively curious was my main competitive advantage, because it led to information, knowledge and resourcefulness that others might not have had.”

Brian’s lifelong habit teaches us one of the mechanisms by which curiosity aids us: it adds more stars to the constellation of ideas within our mind. The more expansive this collection becomes, the greater the potential to draw novel connections among the points—enhancing our ability to generate unique perspectives, fresh ideas, and novel solutions to problems.

2. Open A Gap That You’re Compelled To Close

Leonardo DaVinci made over 20,000 pages of notes during his lifetime. Leonardo’s notes depict “the most relentlessly curious mind in history,” according to one biographer. These pages are where masterpieces such as the Mona Lisa first took shape, along with inventions that were centuries ahead of their time—including the parachute, solar power, and the cannon. 

Leonardo’s notes also show us the unique ways in which his insatiable curiosity manifested. For instance, rather than maintaining conventional to-do lists, Leonardo seemed to keep “to-learn” lists. 

Here are a few examples from one such list: 

  • [Discover] the measurement of Corte Vecchio (the courtyard in the duke's palace)

  • Get the master of arithmetic to show you how to square a triangle

  • Get Messer Fazio (a professor of medicine and law in Pavia) to show you about proportion

  • [Talk to] Giannino, the Bombardier, re. the means by which the tower of Ferrara is walled without loopholes 

  • Ask Benedetto Potinari (A Florentine Merchant) by what means they go on ice in Flanders

  • Find a master of hydraulics and get him to tell you how to repair a lock, canal, and mill in the Lombard manner

  • [Ask about] the measurement of the sun promised me by Maestro Giovanni Francese

  • Ask Maestro Antonio how mortars are positioned on bastions by day or night

Modern science has helped bridge a connection between Leonardo’s curiosity and his prolific creative output. Professor George Lowenstein at Carnegie Mellon University is one of the world’s leading experts on the science of curiosity, and Lowenstein has come to define curiosity as “a fundamental desire to fill ‘information gaps.’”

Information gaps are “specific unanswered questions that capture [our] attention,” for example—Leonardo’s desire to discover how the Florentine merchant goes on ice. Leonardo’s notes are jam-packed with these specific, unanswered, questions. But it turns out that his obsession with information gaps may have made an outsized contribution to his productivity.

That’s because Lowenstein has found that curiosity peaks immediately after we’re presented with a question that exposes an interesting gap in our knowledge. But things get even more interesting when we look at what happens inside of our brains at this point of curiosity. 

A 2014 study published by CellPress presented trivia questions to participants who were hooked up to an fMRI brain scanner. When participants read a question they were curious about, brain areas that drive reward-seeking behavior and motivation spiked in activity (specifically: the nucleus accumbens and ventral tegmental area). 

It seems curiosity is rendered inside of our brain as a dopamine-fueled hunger to close an information gap.

(You will have experienced the heightened attention and motivation of curiosity if you’ve ever binge-watched a Netflix show, desperate to find out what happens next. And you will have felt the absence of curiosity if you’ve ever fallen asleep while watching a boring presentation)

But given that…

  1. Curiosity is evoked in response to specific, interesting, and unanswered questions, and;

  2. Curiosity is a dopamine-rich drive that fills us with energy and focus

…this means that any question that exposes an interesting gap in our knowledge can serve as a springboard for creative action. Piquing our curiosity is a great way to generate natural motivation toward an activity. 

This suggests that Leonardo’s incessant questioning acted as a dynamo that fueled his breathtaking creative output. Each gap was a source of energy and inspired action.


When you next find yourself struggling to engage with a task, try tapping into the motivational power of curiosity.

  • Are there any gaps in your knowledge related to the task?

  • What questions do you have about it? 

  • Can you turn your task into a specific information gap to make it easier to get started? For example…

“Prepare a healthy meal” “which vegetable contains the most antioxidants?”

“Go to the gym” “which exercise contributes to better posture?”

“Outline the presentation” “what’s an example of a presentation that really inspires me?”

Open a gap that you’re compelled to close and behold how the action and energy flows.

3. Turn Your Questions Into Action

It turns out that getting ahold of notebooks in the 15th century could be somewhat difficult. 

Many of DaVinci’s notes are crammed onto loose sheets the size of a newspaper, presumably because that was all he could get his hands on at times. 

But this isn’t the 15th century.

So you don’t have to suffer with a disorganized note taking system like DaVinci did. 

Instead, you can pick up a fresh copy of the Action Method Journal today and take advantage of the best system for turning your ideas (and questions!) into action. 

We think that DaVinci probably would have used the system to brainstorm questions on one half… 

And then he would identify action steps in order to answer his most compelling questions in the Action Column on the right hand side… 

We’ll never know for sure.

But we bet Leo would have some killer zoom backgrounds.

“Gone are the days where I walk out of a meeting with long notes and no clear understanding what I need to do. These notebooks keep me on track.”

Tina Roth Eisenberg, founder and designer

4. “This Habit Adds An Additional Half Dozen Hours Of Deep Thinking”

The internet has made closing curiosity gaps almost instantaneous. But at the same time, apps like TikTok, various news feeds, and a tirade of daily notifications and distractions may be pulling our intrinsic levels of curiosity into a sinkhole…

🔐 This insight, that reveals the habit that a best selling author uses to protect his curiosity from “junk information gaps”, is for premium subscribers (yep, this weekly digest is reader supported). For the price of one fancy coffee per month our research team will agonize over the lessons learned from world class creative leaders and teams who make ideas happen, and send their tightly summarized conclusions directly to your inbox on a weekly basis. What a proposition, huh?!

☕️ Join us and help make this weekly action catalyst for creative minds a sustainable project.  

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We’ll leave you with this…

“Curiosity has never let me down. I’m never sorry I asked that next question. On the contrary, curiosity has swung wide many doors of opportunity for me. I’ve met amazing people, made great movies, made great friends, had some completely unexpected adventures, even fallen in love—because I’m not the least bit embarrassed to ask questions.” 

Brian Grazer

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