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Celebrating the artist inside each one of us

It’s end-of-year list time.

Most of these are fun.  The best movies and music, the weirdest happenings, the memorable one-liners.  But there’s a sobering side to the lists too – remembering the artists, icons and influencers who’ve left us in the past year.  One list I saw a few days ago tacked on an interesting question that I’d never considered.

Of all the famous people who’ve died over the years, who do you still have trouble believing is really gone?

I first thought of the death that rocked me the most – the night I learned about John Lennon from none other than Howard Cosell.  It was December 8, 1980… almost midnight… and I was semi-studying for a university exam while (mostly) watching Monday Night Football.  (Here’s Cosell’s infamous voice from that night.)   But that wasn’t the question.  It was, who do I still have trouble believing is gone? 

I didn’t think too long on that one, either.

For me, it’s David Bowie.

We’re nearing the fourth anniversary of Bowie’s death, and yet I still forget he’s no longer here.  Bowie reinvented himself so many times – from Starman and Major Tom and Ziggy Stardust in his music… to painter, actor, even private equity financier – it kept him perpetually youthful, vibrant, fresh.  He never seemed to be the same guy for long.  Unlike many icons who fade away, there was no decay with Bowie.  The opposite, really.  He seemed to get different, not old.  So I still think of him as being here.

Bowie’s ahead-of-the-curve thinking kept him youthful too. (Consider his eerily profound prediction for the internet from way back in 1999!)   And then there’s this short clip that went viral a few months ago.  It’s brief and brilliant, like a one-minute TED Talk.  If you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favour and invest the 58 seconds.

In it, the interviewer asks Bowie what he considers most important about being an artist.  In less than a minute he offers up two practical lessons (in classic Bowie language) that any of us can use in our daily work:

  1. Never play to the gallery.  By this Bowie meant the artist always works to satisfy herself first.  “Always remember the reason you initially started working was there was something inside yourself… that if you can manifest it in some way… you would understand something more about yourself… and how you co-exist with the rest of society.”   Bowie felt it was dangerous to be pre-occupied in fulfilling other people’s expectations. Rather, we need to be true to ourselves, authentic – which leads to better results, better performance, better art.
  2. Go a little further into the water.  Bowie was nudging us out of our comfort zone.  “If you feel safe in the area that you’re working in… you’re not working in the right area.  Always go a little further into the water… go a little bit out of your depth…. and when you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just about in the right place to do something exciting…”  Look at the photo below, and those eight very different faces of Bowie.  What better evidence of constantly nudging himself further, trying new things?  It’s where the magic happens.

I love these ideas for multiple reasons.  And especially at this time of year.

They’re easy to understand.
They make sense for any of us.
And they’re an inspiring way to end one year and look ahead to the next.

Because we’re all artists in some way.

Whether we’re teaching trigonometry to teenagers, offering financial advice to families, making burritos or writing software – whatever it is we’re up to – we’re all practicing our own art to some degree.

I witnessed this in Jim Anderson when he delivered our Christmas tree a couple of weeks ago, just as he’s done for the past 20 years.  A month earlier, he’d sent us his usual folksy e-mail – complete with the story and background on how he started delivering trees in the first place, where he cuts them, and when the drop-off would be.  Jim also added in his precise instructions on how to properly prepare the tree for decorating, care for it once it’s up, and even dispose of it after the holidays.  What’s clear in all of this is how much Jim cares.  This is his own form of art, and it shows.  He’s not just backing his truck into the driveway and dumping a tree.  It always feels like much more than that.

We’re at that time when many of us pause to celebrate even our tiniest steps forward in the past year, and also to look ahead in anticipation.  Despite the hectic pace of the season, I always find this time to be calming. This year, I’m taking particular inspiration from Bowie’s lessons on artistry – and, yep, it’s still weird to me that he’s not here.

So I’ll leave you with a vivid example of Bowie going deeper in the water.  It’s him singing Little Drummer Boy with Bing Crosby back in 1977.   At the time, this sort of cross-culture moment was unheard of.  Bing and Bowie were at polar opposites of the music spectrum, and collaborations like this didn’t happen.  It was risky.  As usual, Bowie was ahead of the curve.

He was being himself… an artist.

My sincere thanks to all of you for taking the time to read this year – and to the many who’ve also chimed in with feedback and comments.  You are all appreciated.  Peace on Earth, and I look forward to connecting again in the new year.

In the meantime, ask yourself:

  1. Are you playing to the gallery – or being true to yourself?
  2. What’s stopping you from going a little further into the water in 2020?