Da Vinci Syndrome

Check out the original post + discussion here.

Back in high school, my art teacher told me I had Da Vinci Syndrome. When I first heard this, I admittedly wasn’t too upset. A DVS diagnosis sounds like a compliment. But take it from me, this inclination can really hold you back.

So what is it? Da Vinci was famous for starting way too many projects than he could ever finish. He was constantly jumping from one to another. We can probably all agree that wanting to create fresh and interesting work is not a bad thing, but there is a point at which you can’t get anything done as a result.

Da Vinci’s studies of the fetus in the womb. Felt like a symbol of my own sketchbook pages, full of little “idea fetuses.”

I am addicted to possibility, branching out countless potential/fictional scenarios then weaving some of them together to form a hypothetical accomplishment, a road map to creation. I am most at home with myself when brainstorming. However, that elation is temporary, as I am constantly churning out these new project blueprints. These in turn push down the old ones until most are eventually smothered.

When I’m actually working on manifesting one of my personal plans, that “new idea engine” is still running in the background. When I hit rough patches and development slows down, I start to ask myself: Is realizing this current idea REALLY the best use of my time? Should I be slogging through this now-stale stuff when I could jump ship to this NEW one? The new one is superior in X ways, and better still, I could probably finish it faster than it would take to finish this OLD idea… yeah!

So I jump ship. I rationalize this as “using my creative time most effectively.” I also tell myself that I can always return to the old idea when I’m “more prepared” and have “better skills.” I am sitting on a countless pile of unfinished projects as a result of this process.

The Meyers-Briggs test tells me I’m an “INTP.” I WISH I was INTJ for purposes of accomplishing my career goals. (P stands for “Perception” and “J” for “Judgement.” P’s tend to like to explore and keep their options open as much as possible. J’s like to make decisions and act.) I don’t view the M-B test as an all-encompassing authority on categorizing people, but it is still some kind of a shortcut for talking about things.

The Bright side:
I realize that DVS is not all bad though. I shine most as a concept artist when in the “blue sky” phase of a project, as I can rapid-fire idea after idea, bottlenecked only by how fast I can sketch them down. Finding and contributing to more projects at this stage is a priority to me right now. There are also ways to design personal projects around this inclination rather than fighting it, which I am actively pursuing.

The Common Thread:
Another use for DVS it allows me to better see the “common thread” tying all my endeavors together. It’s as if every unfinished project is still an angle of attack in attempt to draw out some kind of internal truth, that thing that remains unchanging in everything I am truly drawn to. Each another chip at the stone, perhaps?

The Reductionist Approach:
When it comes to figuring out exactly what you’re about as a creator, the experience of starting every project is like creating a new eyeball in space pointing at a slightly different direction. Everywhere, the overlaps between these vision cones adds dimension to that “essence” of the theme. This will give life and depth to the few lucky projects that survive to the end of the road.

The Expansionist Approach:
As opposed to chiseling away at an essence, a pile of unfinished projects can also build up some kind of overall structure of what you’re about. It’s like throwing multiple dead-end ideas down on a tabletop and figuring out how they might actually be compatible and link up with one another. Perhaps their “spat” shapes can be modified to interlock to form an ever-growing jigsaw puzzle. This can be a trap as well, though, as it could go on that way forever and water down your theme in the process.

Integrating Reductionism with Expansionism:
There’s a mental model I can’t escape: A closed-loop tree, or fountain-like cycling torus. I like it because it elegantly makes reduction and expansion two parts of the same form. The expansionist approach is the branches. Parent projects/ideas spawning derivative children ideas. The branches loop upward and outward, but eventually curve downward until they touch the ground, where they become roots and integrate back into one trunk either by distilling into a whole. In some sense, it is simultaneously a multitude and a one.

Combating DVS:
The rational part of me knows that there IS no “one lifetime project.” I don’t need to come up with the roadmap of my life’s work while I’m still in my mid-20’s. I just hate the idea of anything I work on to become a dead-end. It is just so easy to try to continually modify the bounds of my “project” for the rest of my life in order to fit whatever creative whim that takes me over. Easy, but wrong.

I find one tool for fighting it is contest and convention participation. These provide a hard deadline while still allowing for maximum creative freedom. This is the best of both worlds for me. I am also in the process of rolling out a Patreon, another form of this same principle.

I know I’m far from the only one who experiences this. I’d love to know whether my creator friends have found other upsides/downsides/solutions to this!


  • Michael says:

    Posted: March 17, 2017

    This reminded me of Oulipo and the idea that a constraint can actually be freeing and productive. As an alternative to expansionist, reductionist approaches. Also intp. It looks like the form ate the original version of this comment. Reply


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    Posted: December 8, 2016


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