Disscepolo Della Sperientia
Leonardo da Vinci used to sign off his letters, “Leonardo da Vinci, disscepolo della sperientia” (“disciple of experience”). He used to believe that one learns best by doing. Over time, however, he evolved out of this belief and, biographer Walter Isaacson writes, “became a disciple of both experience and received wisdom.” That is the theme of this SIX at 6: being a “disciple of both experience and received wisdom.”
Liquid Center, Hollow Knowledge
For a long time, the James Beard Award-winning chef Wylie Dufresne was a disciple of experience. He worked as a line cook and when he wasn’t learning on the job, he was experimenting at home. Wherever he went, he carried a notebook and once, he wrote down an idea: chocolate cake with a liquid center. He thought it was a completely original, groundbreaking idea. Then a couple of years later, Dufresne got a job working under the legendary chef, Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Jean-Georges, Dufresne learned, invented the molten chocolate cake many years earlier. Dufresne said, “I remember thinking, ‘Wow, you are not smart. You do not know what’s going on out there, man. You had an idea that someone else had years ago.’” Unlike the cake with a liquid center, Dufresne said, “I realized I had this knowledge that was kind of hollow and empty.” He realized he needed “to become a better student of [my] craft,” a better disciple of received wisdom.
A Lot of Theory and Zero Practical Experience
James Cameron has written and directed three of the top four highest-grossing movies of all time (Avatar, Avatar: The Way of Water, and Titanic). Before he made movies, Cameron was a truck driver. He didn’t go to film school. Instead, on the weekends, he would go to the University of Southern California library. There, he said, “I’d pull any thesis that graduate students had written [on] anything that related to film technology. And for the cost of xeroxing, I got all these doctoral dissertations [and] build up these big binders on how everything was done. So I literally gave myself a full graduate course on film technology for about $120.” Of course, at some point, Cameron had to put the binders down and pick up a camera. When he eventually attempted to make his first movie, “I had a tremendous amount of theory and zero practical experience,” Cameron said. “It was a bit like a doctor doing his first appendectomy after having only read about it.”
The Hero With A Thousand Faces
Shortly after Joseph Campbell graduated from college, in October 1929, the stock market crashed. The economy was in shambles and jobs were hard to come by, so Campbell rented a cabin in Woodstock, New York. It cost $20 a year and for the next five years, he said, “I read and read and read.” He read the ancient texts of Gilgamesh, the Egyptian mysteries, the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Arthurian romances, the American Indian myths, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity. And through this reading, “I found my discipline,” Campbell said: “To synthesize the constant truths of history.” In the spring of 1934, he left the cabin and took a teaching job at Sarah Lawrence College, where he taught classes in comparative literature and mythology. At Sarah Lawrence, he realized that his knowledge was kind of hollow. “I was forced by my students to consider the material from [their] point of view,” he said. “And that point of view had to do with: What does the material mean to life? What does it mean to me? I don’t care why this myth occurred there, and then over there, but not over here. What does it mean to me?” Through experience, he got better and better at making these subjects more interesting and practical to others. And at some point, he began adapting his received wisdom into The Hero With A Thousand Faces, a book that would go on to become a kind of manual for artists, filmmakers, musicians, and poets. After Campbell received the 1985 Medal of Honor for Literature, he said of The Hero: “It came out of my course that I was giving in comparative mythology to my students at Sarah Lawrence College…they were all young [and] wanted to know what it meant to them.”
Read The Library
With a total of 1,093 patents, Thomas Edison was one of history’s greatest disciples of experience. But along with his prolific inventive tinkering, he was a great disciple of received wisdom. Edison was homeschooled by his mother. Mainly, she read him the great works of literature and history. “He grew fascinated,” Matthew Josephson writes in Edison: A Biography, “and at nine was inspired to read such books himself…and soon became a very rapid reader.” Josephson adds, “Thus his mother had accomplished that which all truly great teachers do for their pupils: she brought him to the stage of learning things for himself, learning that which most amused and interested him.”At the age of 12, Edison got a job as a newsboy on the daily train. Every day, during the hours of layover in Detroit, Edison would go to the public library. “My refuge was the Detroit Public Library,” Edison said. “I started with the first book on the bottom shelf and went through the lot, one by one. I didn’t read a few books. I read the library.” I’ve written before that creativity is a function of the library in your head. Josephson’s version is, “Invention is not so much bred by old Mother Necessity as by a growing reservoir of knowledge of various arts and industries.”
Do The Real Thing And Read The Library
The bestselling author and learning expert, Scott Young, has a great article with a great title, Do The Real Thing. “When you examine case studies of people who have had major accomplishments,” Scott writes, “you expect there to be some trick or shortcut…More often, however, the strategy used is dead simple: doing the real thing.” I would tweak it slightly: When you examine case studies of people who have mastered their craft, you usually find they are “disciples of both experience and received wisdom.” Like da Vinci, Dufresne, Cameron, Campbell, and Edison—they do the real thing and they read the library.