Mastery means becoming good or even excellent in a particular area. It is the ability to set and accomplish goals and tasks. We can say we have mastered a particular area when we have comprehensive knowledge or skill in that area. Mastery is the possession or display of great skill or technique. A great football player, a graceful dancer, or an accomplished musician all demonstrate mastery in their particular area.

Competence is closely related to mastery. Competence is the ability to do something successfully or with efficiency. When we have enough knowledge, strength or skill to do an activity we can say we are competent.

The following story tells of a great life that was dedicated to mastery across many different areas…

The master

“I want to work miracles”, he claimed.

An engineer and inventor. Great painter. Scientist. Leonardo Da Vinci was truly a man of many ways. He was the universal man, the renaissance man.

Renaissance means to be reborn. In that time new ideas were born. It was a time of creativity and new ways of thinking about the world. Artists created inspired paintings. Explorer sailed the seas. Scholars studied the ancient Greek and Roman thinkers. Scientists made amazing new discoveries. Truly, through Leonardo, the world was reborn. Never before, nor since, has the world witnessed such greatness.

Three hundred years before the first bike was built, Leonardo built one that would have worked.

He was a great musician, a fine athlete, and handsome fella to boot! There are no photographs nor paintings of him, but whenever people spoke about him, they talked about his good looks.

Yet his life also had its struggles. He isolated himself a lot, not really trusting people. He had no family and often was without a home.

Despite his vast achievements he was disappointed with what he did. A lot of the goals he set for himself he never reached. Many of his works were left unfinished. He had high standards but his life is an example of unending excellence. It is hard to imagine a more productive, creative life.

Leonardo was born in a small hill town village in Italy in 1452. His name means ‘Leonardo from Vinci’ – Vinci was the town he came from.

Sadly, his father was ashamed of the baby because he and Leonardo’s mother were not married. He left and started another family elsewhere. His mother too, only cared for him for a year or two before she too left him, marrying someone else and beginning a new family. He was raised by his grandparents but they showed him little love. It was only his uncle, Francesco, who showed him real care.

Francesco was a farmer who took the young Leonardo for long walks in the hills that were covered in Olive trees. Here, he fell in love with nature. The land, the leaves on the trees, the birds in the sky, the warm sun – all lifted him, filling him with a deep sense of wonder and mystery.

He took a notebook with him all the time. He drew whatever interested him, whether it be plants or insects, flowers or streams. He had a real talent for drawing. The beauty of the land cast a spell on him. Yet he also understood that it was a double-edged sword. When he was young, the countryside was torn apart by a powerful hurricane. Farms were destroyed and many people died. He also witnessed a great flood in the nearby city of Florence. The destructive side of nature intrigued him. He wanted to understand not just the beauty but the danger.

Leonardo’s options in life were limited because his parents never married. He could not go to University nor become a doctor or a businessman.

But he could become an artist.

His father took him to Florence to live and work with a famous artist called Andrea del Verrocchio. This was a turning point in Leonardo’s life.  

At the age of 12 Leonardo became an apprentice, learning how to draw, paint pictures, make statues, design pottery and buildings. He stayed at Verrocchio’s workshop for 13 years until he became a master.  

Leonardo loved to learn. At the time, books were just being printed. More and more people started to read all sorts of books. Books about maths. History. The great thinkers like Aristotle and Plato. Leonardo could not attend University but wanted to learn everything. He started to buy and collect books. And he began to teach himself. 

They said Leonardo had magic in his fingers. He learned the rules of painting, then made up his own. He was always pushing the boundaries of things. When he painted he worked to perfection. He did loads of drawings first. He wanted to get everything right. All the tiniest details, from the look in someone’s eye, to a little blade of grass.

Leonardo had one unusual quirk which people criticised him for: He sometimes struggled to finish what he started. When he first started a painting the first steps excited him the most. But finishing the painting was less exciting. The patrons who paid him to paint were demanding. This annoyed Leonardo. He didn’t like being told what to do! So, some of his works were left undone.

At the age of 30 Leonardo moved on. He moved from Florence to Milan. There he painted his famous, The last supper, showing the time when Jesus told his followers that one of them would betray him. Leonardo worked in different ways. Sometimes he would paint from sun up to sun down, not even stopping to eat and drink. Other times he would, in the midst of working on something else, dash in and add a few brushstrokes before leaving again. He was hard on himself, always criticising his work. It was never quite good enough, in his mind.

Leonardo liked to be alone. That way he was free to think.

Many years later, he left Milan. For years he wandered, bringing with him little more than his precious notebooks. They were full of drawings and ideas. He wanted to turn them into an encyclopaedia about everything. This was another project he never finished. But the notebooks are a treasure none the less, filled with the most beautiful drawings. A funny thing – in his notebooks all his writing is reversed so it can only be read in a mirror. Why did he do this? Perhaps he wanted to keep his ideas a secret. Or maybe it was just a creative style he was trying out. Leonardo was forever experimenting, doing things in different ways.

His notebooks were filled with all the topics he was so passionate about: water, light, how the body worked, how birds fly, music, machines, how to make weapons, or build a dam. He wanted to invent things – vehicles for moving over land and flying through the air and under the water. He designed bicycles, parachutes.

Sometime he would buy birds in cages and then set them free and closely observe how they flew. How did they do that? He wondered. He was sure, one day, humans would be able to do it too. He even tested wings he made once by running off a hill near Florence. He may even have glided off the ground for a few minutes. It was 400 years before people eventually learned to fly. Leonardo was a man ahead of his time.

He could never stick to one subject. Wherever his mind went he recorded it on the page. His notebooks are a reflection of the mind of a genius at work.

Leonardo worked for a power-hungry duke, designing weapons for his troops to use in battle. Leonardo, though, didn’t believe in war, but he did enjoy designing things.

He dissected dead bodies to learn more about them. He drew and recorded them in his notebooks.

When he almost 60, he had no home, not much to show for his work and problems with his health. King Francis of France appreciated the genius of Leonardo and gave him a lovely home and garden in northern France. Each day the King would seek Leonardo out to talk to. He would pick a subject and ask Leonardo what he thought about it.

This was where Leonardo died. Some say he died in the King’s arms. Some say he died muttering regrets of his unfinished works. He was buried in the Chapel on the King’s ground in Amboise.



What were some of the areas in which Leonardo attained mastery? What do we learn about the process of developing competence and mastery from this story? How do we attain mastery of something?

Commitment and dedication to practicing and learning are essential components to developing competency and mastery. What activities have you practiced that has given you a level of competency? It might be a sport like swimming or cycling. Perhaps an artistic activity like painting or playing music. Maybe it is a subject area like Maths or history.

We take for granted the many things we have already mastered in life. Many of us have mastered the ability to walk and talk from an early age. Think of all the things that you could not do as a baby but you can do now, like feeding yourself, getting dressed on your own etc. What activities can you list that you have already developed competency in?

Life is an on-going process of learning. To continue to develop our competency and mastery is central to developing well-being. What areas would you like to develop competency and mastery in? Some people seek to develop mastery in one area, while others, like Leonardo, seek to master a number of different areas.

What would you like to become really good at? Make a list of those different activities. Then, discuss with a partner or in a group what steps you would need to take to develop your competency in that area. Now, what step or steps could you take this week to start developing these skills? For example, if you wanted to become good at debating you might join a debating club or society. If you want to become good at climbing or hiking you might look for an opportunity to join an outdoor and adventure club. If you want to become a competent cook you could try out a simple recipe.

Competency comes from practice. With anything, the more you practice the better you get.