David Bowie Knew How to Live Life

The enigmatic rock star built a legacy by embracing individuality

We look up to extraordinary men – men who walk with purpose, embrace their truths, and open doors for others to succeed. Our role models do so much more than achieve things. Sure, it’s great to see our idols break records and make millions, but that’s not what’s most important. What matters to us is that our idols teach us how to live – how to follow our dreams, how to explore our passions, how to be ourselves unapologetically. And when we think of all the incredible men who’ve influenced us over the years, the first that comes to mind is David Bowie.

On January 10, 2016, the world lost a legend. David Robert Jones, known to all of us as David Bowie, was an enigma, a rock star for the ages with the kind of style, talent, attitude, and fearlessness most of us can only dream of.

His by-the-numbers biography is impressive in its own right. He learned to play the saxophone at age 13. He was already fully formed as David Bowie at 19. He charged uphill with little success until Space Oddity blew up in 1969. And all along the way, he experimented – with film, mixed media, and even Buddhism. He released 26 albums over the course of his career, not simply scoring hits but redefining the way we viewed rock stars. He reinvented the way rock music sounded.

He was a visionary, and rather than continue to mourn his loss, we have to celebrate his life because that man knew how to live. His time on Earth isn’t just a blueprint for aspiring rock stars – we can all learn something from his life philosophy.

A Proud Outsider

Perhaps what was most striking about Bowie was that he was an outsider. A New York Times obituary referred to him as “an alien, a misfit, a sexual adventurer, a faraway astronaut”. Rather than search for ways to blend in with the crowd, he embraced his outsider status and magnified it. He made it his calling card.

It’s hard to imagine an artist like Bowie stealing the spotlight today. Top 40 radio is chock full of songs that all sound alike, each three-minute tale simply rehashing or carbon copying the one before it. Social media rewards us for groupthink. Hopping on the bandwagon gets us likes, shares, comments, and new followers. We chime in on trending topics because if we veer off-topic, no one will notice us. We live in a society that celebrates sameness but fears originality.

Bowie could’ve cared less. He never bowed to the pressure to conform. He did whatever the hell he wanted, and he dared us to pay attention. We did pay attention – for decades. His approach to life is something the rest of us could learn a thing or two from.

He was so far outside of the box, some called him the outsider’s outsider. In a tribute in The Independent, writer Andy Gill called Bowie “the original avenging nerd, the five-stone weakling who fought back against sand-kicking bullies and proved himself far braver than the burly rock ‘n’ roll mainstream.” By understanding his power and celebrating what made him unique, he was able to hush the naysayers. He didn’t have to kick and scream, or scheme to beat his doubters at their own game. He just bypassed them altogether by remaining true to himself. And what’s more rock ‘n’ roll that?

There were a lot of things about Bowie that ruffled people’s feathers, and not because he set out to be a provocateur. Some thought his sound was too experimental – he embraced acoustic guitar, abstract subject matter, and technological trickery over thrashing guitars and rootsy stories about everyday life. For others, his elaborate makeup and flashy stage outfits were too feminine or too sexually ambiguous. For many, his opinions were controversial – he once chided MTV for failing to play music videos by popular black artists.

He was a rule breaker, an innovator, a constant challenger of the status quo. If he would’ve given in to his critics and changed his music or presentation or public commentary to soothe everyone else’s egos, we wouldn’t be talking about him today. Instead, we realize how much we miss him and how badly we want someone new to try and follow in his outrageous footsteps.

The Importance of Individuality

Bowie’s life was a testament to the importance of individuality. Sure, it might feel good to blend in. You can avoid being made fun of, and you can squeak by with your anonymity instead of feeling nervous about being recognized or chastised. But what kind of life is that? What kind of legacy are you writing? What kind of example are you setting if you simply glide through life unremarkably, leaving no impact on anyone or no stamp on anything?

Individuality matters for so many reasons:

  • The best ideas, be it in a recording studio or a brainstorming session at work, come from the individuals – not all the bozos suggesting the same old ideas. It’s the people who think outside of the box who create innovative new solutions.
  • Individuals are free from the chains of others’ expectations. As an individual, you act on your own accord, not out of fear of what others might think. This can lead to bold creations and world-changing contributions.
  • Individuality paves a way forward for others. Bowie opened a door for shapeshifters like Madonna and Lady Gaga. Without his example, they may have been afraid to don a cone bra or walk the red carpet in a meat dress. Bowie’s boldness encouraged them and showed them they too could indulge the wildest parts of their imagination. You could be the Bowie for a young intern at the office or for your nephew or for that shy friend who’s always been too afraid to dissent from popular opinion. Individuals inspire everyone around them.
  • Individuals are happier. There’s a freedom that’s born from being your authentic self. You don’t have to worry about what others want from you. The only person you need to please is the one you see in the mirror. It takes a load of pressure off your shoulders.
  • As an individual, everything you do leads to inspiration. You’re living proof of what life can become when passion is unleashed and allowed to stay unbottled.

That’s not to say that individuality, in all its beauty and freedom, is easy to protect. Bowie wasn’t an overnight success. It took a few years to get his career going. And as loyal as his fans were, there were always critics there to rain on his parade. Even with Space Oddity topping the charts, he struggled to get coverage in major magazines except through paid ads.

Even after his death, there were people who criticized his life – his use of drugs, his alleged sex addiction. They even questioned his legacy – was he as original as we always thought, or was he simply a plagiarist? Was he just a great quilter who weaved together a bunch of existing styles into something rebranded as his own style?

But he powered forward, and people eventually came around. One critic wrote, “You may not agree with him but you certainly cannot ignore him.” That’s the key. He always prevailed because he stayed the course. The questions raised by his critics are typical of those who can’t process individuality. Rather than trying to understand it and open their minds to new possibilities, they search for reasons to discount that person’s contribution. It’s much easier to look down upon someone and reject them than to reshape your own belief system.

However, Bowie’s legend still rings true, even when it’s questioned, because above all else, he remained an individual.

Think about that in terms of your own life. What makes you stand out? When you’re amongst the crowd, why will someone take notice of you? You may not be a Bowie replica – no flaming red pompadour or star makeup on your eyes – but there’s something Bowie about you. Maybe it’s the unique way you solve problems. Or the unlikely ingredient combinations you use in the kitchen. Or the fresh way you tell jokes.

There’s something Bowie about all of us.

What are you good at? What do you want people to remember you for? And how can you stay dedicated to your original vision for that thing, whatever it is? So often, we think that we need to be extraordinary at a certain skill to be celebrated. If we aren’t the best at this or that, no one will recognize our achievements. But that’s simply not true. You’ve likely been impacted by someone in your life who wasn’t as famous as Bowie but who was just as original. That cool kid in high school you wanted to emulate. That uncle who was always so put-together. That surfer who always caught waves like a pro.

You’ve been impacted by Bowies in your everyday life, and if you embrace what sets you apart, you could do the same thing for someone else.

We remember Bowie because he won awards, because he was famous, because he changed music and influenced generations. But we really remember him because he was one of a kind. He can’t be recreated or simply reconstructed from some easy formula. He could inspire, and he could be imitated. But he couldn’t be duplicated, and neither can you.

If you can learn only one thing from David Bowie’s life, it’s that an original life is the only kind worth living.