What I learned from David Bowie

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David Bowie did not like to be called the “chameleon of rock.”

His logic was simple: a chameleon spends way too much time and energy trying to blend in. I agree.

Bowie did the very opposite: he stuck out. He was a lion, standing completely on his own if necessary. He made us believe that he was not from this planet, because he was so outrageous. His energy, his music, his costumes, and yes, his personas too, left us wanting more… more of that intoxicating, rule-bending stardust.

Unlike this guy, I was an average Bowie fan. (I saved my obsession for his friend, Freddie Mercury.) However, like millions of others, I cared enough about Bowie to feel saddened by his passing last week. I also knew enough about him, the artist, to extrapolate wisdom from his way of life — lessons that, I believe, can teach us a lot about our own life regardless of the field we’re in.

I’m sure you could come up with your own list, but here’s mine:

  1. Don’t be a chameleon; they blend in. Be a lion, and shine. The purpose of life is not to blend in, or to copy others, but to give openly and freely (and courageously) of our unique combination of talents and quirkiness. This applies to us as individuals and to our businesses as well.
  2. Every obstacle is an opportunity. Bowie seemed to face every obstacle as an opportunity to challenge and stretch himself. We should too. At one occasion, having encountered a rather small turnout in a large concert space, instead of canceling the event altogether or even panicking, Bowie simply invited everyone to come to the front of the room and gave them an intimate concert — an experience of their lives, I’d argue.
  3. Continuously reinvent yourself. The only constant in life is change, and this can be a good thing or a bad thing. It’s a bad thing if we resist it. But it’s a very good thing if we seize it as an opportunity to test things out, revamp what doesn’t work, and come back with something entirely new yet authentically ours. David Bowie was an epitome of reinvention…
  4. Express all of you … and all of your alter egos, too. We are all multifaceted individuals, and to think we only have one side to us is to fool ourselves and others. We are like an abstract painting filled with a variety of colors, each representing a different shade of us. Why hide any of them? Color brings richness. And by mixing all of the proverbial colors we get to create new shades and new colors…a mixture that never was. Bowie’s record company once used a slogan, “There’s old way, there’s new way, and there’s Bowie.”
  5. Trust yourself and do what you want, but take responsibility. When Bowie was a kid, like you and I, he dreamed of making his mark on the world in his own way. He did so by trusting his experiences unequivocally, and by taking responsibility for his actions. When one album did not reach his expectations, he wrote a new one. When one character reached its max, he created a new one. When London and Los Angeles got to be too much, he moved to Berlin. When he struggled with addiction, he put an end to it. And, when death loomed, he continued to do what he loved (write music) and fought it until the end. When we run organizations or manage our own lives, we need to be clear on what we want — as outrageous as our wants may seem — and then take the responsibility to get there. It’s having trust in ourselves and taking the responsibility that earn us the right to do whatever we want with our lives. They also push us to become the best version of ourselves.

Most of us will never reach Bowie’s legend status and have a spider and an asteroid named after us, or be in a position to decline the Queen of England’s offers to make us a knight (like Bowie did in 2000, and then again in 2003.) Most of us will also never get so under the influence of drugs to call Adolph Hitler “the original rock star” or claim that we met our first wife “while doing the same bloke.” However, that doesn’t mean we can’t take from the pages of Bowie’s life and inspire our own human experience, and contribute to the world in our own, unique way. It also doesn’t mean that we can’t be outrageous, daring, creative, innovative, and passionate within our own context.

In the aftermath of Bowie’s passing, his producer Tony Visconti appropriately shared:

He always did what he wanted to do. And he wanted to do it his way and he wanted to do it the best way. His death was no different from his life — a work of art. He made Blackstar for us, his parting gift. I knew for a year this was the way it would be. I wasn’t, however, prepared for it. He was an extraordinary man, full of love and life. He will always be with us. For now, it is appropriate to cry.

We may never become Aladdin Sane, but we surely can follow Bowie’s example in creating something meaningful and living a full and extraordinary life.

Bonus: check out this article to read Bowie’s “What I’ve Learned” post in the Esquire.