I’m freshly back from a family vacation in Tuscany during which – for the first time in over ten years – I properly switched off and didn’t do any work. One of the highlights of the trip was the final day, when I took my family to Anchiano to see the birthplace and home of Leonardo da Vinci. I had studied abroad in Florence as an undergrad, but never visited da Vinci’s home while I lived there and I wasn’t about to make that mistake again.
And as I was walking around the small stone house (photos below), I tried to put myself into the mind of this incredible man, this once-in-an-epoch genius in fields as varied as engineering and portraiture (side note: I think the Mona Lisa is overrated… so many of his other works are infinitely better and more worthy of awe), a man so ahead of his time that he designed a flying machine almost 400 years before they were actually built. And I tried to imagine what he would be telling himself as he grew up among the heat and olive trees and hills of Anchiano.
Because you see, Anchiano is quite literally in the middle of nowhere. And da Vinci was the illegitimate son of a lawyer and a peasant girl. And yet, he clearly had something inside him calling him to greatness. Because he didn’t get weighed down by his father’s initial abandonment or the stigma of his birth status. He didn’t wallow in self-pity or lower his sights.
No. He became a world-renowned genius that revolutionized pretty much every field he touched.
And while I was walking around his home, I kept thinking: “How? How did he leave Anchiano behind – metaphorically speaking – and walk into the history books?”
Because da Vinci, like all of us, started as a “nobody”. From “nowhere”. But unlike many of us, he didn’t let that stop him.
Unlike many of us, da Vinci didn’t tell himself he couldn’t be what he wanted to be because of his parentage, or his accent, or his boondocks of a hometown. Unlike many of us, he didn’t hold himself back because he told himself that all the opportunities were reserved for people from “The Big City” or from the historical equivalent of an Ivy League University or from the “right side” of the tracks. Unlike so many of us, he didn’t dampen his ambitions because someone more famous, more well-connected, or more well-heeled was already doing what he wanted to do (so why bother).
He didn’t do any of that.
And it made me think: why do we? Why do we let the chatter in our minds hold us back with taunts like “who do you think you are?” Why do we tell ourselves that no one from Staten Island – the sneered-at forgotten borough of New York City! – has ever done anything worth doing so why bother (this one is my own personal baggage that I only fully shed in my 30s…)? Why do we let ourselves stop ourselves, diminish ourselves, dampen our ambitions because we are “nobodies” from “nowhere”?
Because the truth is, everybody is a so-called nobody from “nowhere”… until they are “somebody”.
It’s just that the “somebody’s” don’t use their origins as excuses to stop them. They keep going no matter how long it takes. No matter how old or how young or how poor or how disadvantaged they started out. And they listen to the call within, instead of all the noise that bombards them from without. They push themselves to their definition of greatness, test themselves, and keep going and going and trying and experimenting long after everyone else would have stopped.
Sure, there are some among us who are exceedingly gifted naturally – the da Vinci’s of the world – but most of the people we all look to as “greats” get there through graft, self-belief, and good luck that they are in a position to take advantage of because they kept themselves in the game long enough to encounter the luck.
They keep going.
And we can too.
No matter where we’re from. No matter what our family history tells us. No matter what our accents.
We can too.
We can be like da Vinci and become the somebodies we were meant to be.