Lessons from Steve Jobs, Leonardo da Vinci, and Ben Franklin (#273)

“Education is supposed to juice your curiosity, not diminish or sate it.”

– Walter Isaacson

Walter Isaacson (@WalterIsaacson) is a professor at Tulane University, and the president and CEO of The Aspen Institute, a nonpartisan educational and policy studies institute based in Washington, DC. He has been the chairman and CEO of CNN and the editor of TIME magazine. He is the author of many biographies I have recommended, including The Innovators, Steve Jobs, Einstein: His Life and Universe, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, Kissinger: A Biography, and his most recent, Leonardo da Vinci.

In this episode, you learn life lessons and tactics from Steve Jobs, Ben Franklin, Leonardo da Vinci, and more. Walter ties it all together beautifully.

We had a lot of fun in this conversation, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

You can find the transcript of this episode here. Transcripts of all episodes can be found here.

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Lessons from Steve Jobs, Leonardo da Vinci, and Ben Franklin

Want to hear another podcast with incredible life advice?In this episode, I talk with Adam Robinson, Ramit Sethi, and Josh Waitzkin and discuss a variety of topics on business, wealth, and happiness (stream below or right-click here to download):

#210: Becoming the Best Version of You

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QUESTION(S) OF THE DAY: What was your favorite quote or lesson from this episode? Please let me know in the comments.

Scroll below for links and show notes…

Selected Links from the Episode

  • Connect with Walter Isaacson:

The Aspen Institute | Twitter | Facebook

Show Notes

  • Is it possible to be a Renaissance man (or woman) like Ben Franklin or Leonardo da Vinci in today’s world? [05:43]
  • On noticing and marveling at life’s “ordinary” things. [08:58]
  • What is Walter most curious about now? [11:06]
  • What benefit does Walter see in experiencing historical places and artifacts up close rather than just viewing them virtually? [12:50]
  • With so much already on his plate, why does Walter write biographies? [15:54]
  • Walter’s one rule about writing. [19:35]
  • What Walter does between his first draft and first edit. [21:56]
  • Walter talks about going to school in New Orleans with fellow author Michael Lewis. [23:11]
  • Mentors and inspirations. [25:41]
  • On what we can learn from da Vinci and Steve Jobs about blurring the line between the possible and the impossible. [29:28]
  • Was there anything that stood out to Walter when he was going through da Vinci’s thousands of pages of notes? [32:35]
  • What was da Vinci’s workout routine? [35:03]
  • Was da Vinci’s drive to experiment innate or developed? [38:50]
  • On the uses and misuses of education. [40:41]
  • What Steve Jobs, Ben Franklin, and da Vinci understood about the importance of building a good team for collaboration. [48:58]
  • Does Walter think da Vinci was fulfilled? [55:30]
  • Ben Franklin’s life hack for gratitude. [57:09]
  • How does someone move from success to significance? [59:58]
  • What writing biographies of others has taught Walter about his own place in the universe. [1:02:57]
  • What has helped Walter get through dark times? [1:05:32]
  • The benefits of having something on paper versus a computer screen. [1:10:16]
  • As an educator, what three books would Walter give to every graduate? [1:12:13]
  • The books Walter gifted the most. [1:16:07]
  • What would Walter’s billboard say? [1:18:30]
  • Parting thoughts. [1:24:07]

People Mentioned

The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 900 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.

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22 Replies to “Lessons from Steve Jobs, Leonardo da Vinci, and Ben Franklin (#273)”

  1. Hey Tim, idea for your interview(s)…. how about several different people that “hit their stride” in their 40’s, 50’s, 60’s? Changed their life; athletics, business, adventure, etc. Average people who made a significant decision to change, and did.


    Michael Evans, Texas

  2. Tim – will you be appearing anywhere or book-signing soon? I think you are an incredible interviewer and I love your show! Thank you for continuing to provide excellent wisdom and insight!

  3. Nothing but respect to you Tim, I think what you’re doing with this podcast is amazing. You’ve definitely. made a direct impact on my life personally and professionally. One thing I would like to see more of….

    I’m sure you do your due diligence to appeal to your audience and you’re aware of who is listening…

    but I’m a 32 year black man who has been listening to your podcast almost since it’s inception. Would be inspiring to hear/see more black/African American world class performers on your podcast. The two that I remember were Jamie Foxx and Jerrod Carmichael. Both awesome interviews, just wish to see more because I know they’re out there. Tons of entertainers, investors, chefs, photographers, etc. etc. just fantastic individuals all across the board.

  4. Has nothing to do with the podcast, but I just wanted to say that the best way to explain exogenous ketones, to me, is by comparing it to the word EXOTIC, not exoskeleton. And I believe the internal word is andogenous? That can be likened to indigenous, just to further the metaphor. Exotic and indigenous plants, exogenous and andogenous ketones

  5. Phenomenal interview! Would love to hear more about Isaacson’s experience as a mentee of Walker Percy. (I’m currently writing a PhD dissertation which includes a chapter on Percy’s novel “Love in the Ruins.”) Maybe Percy will be the subject of his next biography?!

  6. Two badasses going toe to toe. Thanks to the both of you for sharing layers upon layers of not just wisdom, but wisdom that can be backed up by action and turned into experience. Again and again, you both deliver far beyond anything that could of ever been expected. Thank you Mr. Ferriss and Mr. Isaacson

  7. Hi Tim, I was wondering if you might consider making transcripts available for those of us who don’t care for the listening method of digesting information. I find it difficult to sit still with only the hearing sense engaged, and really prefer video or reading to listening. I see a lot of great topics that I miss out on because I just can’t sit through a podcast. Just a thought!

  8. One of your best interviews yet! There were so many ideas that I know I need to listen to it all over again. My take away is writing lists of questions I want to answer. I write all sorts of lists to help when I’m overwhelmed or want to set priorities but hadn’t thought of this type. I listened while driving and got home and took out my notebook to get started. Keep finding these inspiring people!

  9. Thank you Tim for another amazing conversation! This is another one of my favorite episodes, that got me thinking – your interviews are so powerful, because like in a great work of timeless literature, in your interviews, in “personal” details you manage to capture Universal truths – if that makes sense.

    QUESTION(S) OF THE DAY: What was your favorite quote or lesson from this episode?

    My personal lesson – let my curiosity lead my life more often to fascinating places, where I suddenly and unexpectedly find all the answers I’ve been searching for.

    Leonardo is one of my personal heroes, that I’ve been researching for ages! My degree in IT, combined with music, dance, literature and language, health education, curiosity in space and physics, evolution, all that allows me to see connections and solve health/diet/training/life challenges for myself and other people in the most peculiar ways. Many curiosities allow us to see connections in sometimes seemingly disconnected world, it allows us to see the forest AND the trees…

    In short – one of my favorite episodes ever, that ignited my curiosity like no other! Thank you Tim! Can’t wait to read Leonardo da Vinci biography!

  10. I appreciated Walters observation concerning staying open to learning across a wide array of disciplines to be well rounded and informed. It is a lesson I’ve overlooked at times, denying myself valuable knowledge in the process.

  11. I think most of the meaning behind writing is cathartic but either way and for whatever reason I need to finally write you. The hand written notes on my pocket-sized journal starts with “thank you Tim Ferris,” which is probably the most succinct explanation of my motivation. Of course from there it lead to I was a premature infant as well… Ask about depression coping…. Ask for advice on yada yada yada… Share my personal experiences etc… but I will spare you the resonance of cacophony that you already understand and have heard before and share with you a dilemma that I need help in deconstructing that I just can’t get my head around yet:

    I don’t care about business, wealth, aesthetics or really anything that most people work for or hope to achieve. It was 2005 and I was stationed overseas with the Navy when I learned of Marla Ruzicka and it was her story that put me on the path to discovering that my life’s purpose and true happiness for myself is in service to our brothers and sisters who need it most. It has been a journey and often times a struggle these past ten-years since I left the service; I have co-directed an anti-sex trafficking organization and testified on its behalf in front of the state assembly in Virginia, I attended Old Dominion University where I majored in Women’s Studies but left before I graduated to work in South Sudan with The Carter Center, then after coming back stateside romantic love lead me to Reno, Nevada for a brief time as well as a homeless shelter and a jail cell before I was accepted to work with The HALO Trust where I was removing explosive remnants of war from the beautiful beaches of Jaffna, Sri Lanka. That was almost three years ago, now I am back to wear it all began in Florida living with my grandmother trying to remain sane while I pave my path forward while attempting to become an altruistic Kidney donor. I have learned a lot from your book and utilized the teachings of Senaca to the best of my ability and I have searched and read and listened but I am missing a few pieces to this puzzle. There is training I need that is offered in Kosovo that will give me the technical skills and certifications to get back into the field and remove the infections of war and conflict, the left over explosives, bombs, and munitions that remain long after the hostilities subside; the last barrier to healing, prosperity and peace. Removing explosive remnants of war is what I am meant to do, but raising the funds for the training and long-term financial stability to remain in a low-paying and often voluntary field is an absurd obstacle to navigate. My monkey brain is distracted by news of deaths in Somalia, helplessness and some times hopelessness. By not having any viable marketable business skills, profitable interests or anyone to turn to I don’t know how can I make it to a four hour work week when the only thing I have a passion for is removing bombs…

    If there is any part of this that reaches you let it be this: thank you for sharing your experiences, I am sure you can understand the appreciation I feel.


    Dustin M. Jensen

  12. Hi Tim, This is an awesome podcast. Walter Isaacson is one of my favorite authors and can’t wait to read his latest book. The key is curiosity and being open. It also goes to show you can have multiple skills in different domains.His book Steve Jobs is one of my favorite biographies.

  13. Wow, Walther Isaacson, what a great talk and interview, listened to it twice taking choice notes on round 2. Certainly a favorite from your great collection.

    Thank you, Tim, for these potent interviews. You know how to stay humble and out of the way, a rare gift from an interviewer. Really enjoying these [seemingly] new interview choices you’re making.

    ~ Donna / LA LA Land

  14. I jotted and jotted to this episode, mid-travels. Thank you Tim and Walter.

    On Tim’s questions….I loved Tim’s first question, on over-specialization. Reminded me of the spirit too of the early inbetweenisode on “Jack of all trades” (search on “The top 5 reasons to be a jack of all trades”). And another question I jotted down was Walter’s musing: “how do you combine observation and imagination”? And too, really liked the new “which attribute or priority do you find most useful right now”? And LOVE “which new behaviour of belief have you most valued of recent years”?

    Da Vinci’s musings to himself are hilarious – an inspiration as to how to gaze at the world. And noted the Neil Donald Walsh quote, “the struggle ends when the gratitude begins”.

  15. Another awesome interview Tim. Love Walter’s book’s and enjoyed listen to you discuss all their attributes. My only comment is while retrieving show notes, I always wish for an easier access to show notes and podcasts. Would be great to see a clean list of all shows by number in a spreadsheet or table with a simple icon to the right with show notes. Me like many of your listeners would pray a premium for this access, especially when we are students of your interviews, blogs and podcasts! Thank you for constantly perfecting your craft through interesting questions. You have a gift for pulling it out of your guests so we can see and use the process. God Bless!

  16. Hey Tim,

    Another great interview! I really enjoyed Walter’s insights and I look forward to reading his new book.

    You should do a podcast interview with Adam Savage, the uber creative maker, and former Mythbusters co-host. There is definitely a ‘Da Vinci’ sort of feel to his work and I think he’d be well recognized by your tech-savvy crowd.



  17. Loved. Loved. Loved this episode. One of my all time favorites that I actually revisit on a regular basis.