7 Lessons In Creativity From David Bowie

With the “David Bowie Is” exhibition opening in Chicago this week, and yesterday being declared an official David Bowie Day in the city, the internet is overloaded with posts re-evaluating the rock veteran’s 50-year career as a recording artist. So why not one more?

I should start by outing myself as a massive fan. And coincidentally, I’ve been re-evaluating the Thin White Duke’s career on my own while reading Paul Trynka’s excellent Starman biography.

David Bowie’s mastery of multimedia performance and self-promotion has always been an influence on my career as a Creative Director. So I’d like to take this opportunity to share some of the key lessons I’ve learned from the strange man behind the music:

1. Don’t fear failure

Most fans under the age of 60 see Bowie’s career in hindsight, as a spectacular rise to fame by a gifted rock star. Prior to 1972, however, this destiny was by no means secure. David Jones spent 8 years jumping from band-to-band, and label-to-label, producing a number of singles and albums that failed to set the charts on fire, before he found a winning formula with the Ziggy Stardust persona.


Moral of the story: Don’t expect to hit brilliance right out of the gate; for most creative people, success is the result of taking risks, accepting failure, learning and moving on. The real key is not to give up.

2. Steal from the best

David Bowie, in his prime, was the epitome of “to copy one is plagiarism, to copy many is research” — but he superseded the popularity of many of his influences (like Little Richard, Marc Bolan, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop) over time by effortlessly blending their showmanship, glitter, grit and angst into something entirely new. And he did it again and again, throughout his career, incorporating soul, techno, and dance music into albums that defined the 1970s.

Moral of the story: The proverb “there is nothing new under the sun” is an old one, and great ideas are not pulled out of the air. Creativity requires you to constantly feed your muse with art, culture, even reality TV — and letting it blend and assimilate until it breeds exciting new insights.

3. Know when to let go

Nobody likes a one-trick pony. Rather than let the Ziggy Stardust spectacle outlive the glam rock fad, Bowie arranged a public execution of his most celebrated persona. His band, and his management, were horrified at the time. Why throw away a sure thing? But over time Bowie proved that he had many, many more surprises in store.


Moral of the story: The best way to stay fresh is to be ready to keep moving outside your comfort zone. Resting on your laurels after an early success will make you obsolete, fast.

4. Surround yourself with people who challenge you

Between 1976 and 1977, David Bowie produced four of the most innovative albums pop music had ever seen. Two of them were collaborations with Iggy Pop that brought his career back from death and remain his greatest solo efforts; the other two were genre-defining game changers that introduced the world to German techno music and jumped Bowie ahead of the so-called new wave. He did this by choosing his collaborators well: In addition to Iggy Pop, the bizarre genius of Roxy Music founder Brian Eno (who would go on to break ground with Talking Heads, Devo and U2) and chronically under-appreciated producer Tony Visconti.

Moral of the story: Never convince yourself you have all the solutions. Sometimes listening to other people’s weird ideas will push you to a higher level.

5. If you’re in a slump, try something completely different

David Bowie had dabbled in acting in the ’70s, but his work in ’80s movies such as Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, The Hunger, Absolute Beginners, Labyrinth and several cameo roles made it seem as if the music was becoming a secondary interest. (He only really released one strong album in the whole decade.) But he managed to make an impression on a new generation of video-obsessed fans.

Moral of the story: You weren’t put on this earth to do one thing only. Lots of people have found creative rejuvenation in packing it in and totally changing course. Painting, photography, carpentry, gardening, and poetry are all out there.

6. Don’t let the work kill you

David was riding high on his career’s third act, 10 years ago, touring the world playing marathon arena shows, when tragedy almost struck. A blocked artery in his heart required immediate surgery, cancelled the rest of the tour, and resulted in a decade of unannounced retirement. Instead, he focussed on raising his young daughter (with supermodel Iman) and acting as elder patron to a new generation of musicians.

Moral of the story: Okay, this is advertising. We all know that stress, broken relationships and substance abuse often go hand-in-hand with succeeding in a cut-throat industry. But it’s not worth your health or your soul. Ensuring your legacy through mentoring can actually be far more rewarding, and the “kids” can teach you a thing or two.

7. Never stop being open to inspiration

When David Bowie staged his comeback last year, it was one of the best-kept secrets in the music industry. He had managed to privately record a complete album, bringing back the band from his latter years and Tony Visconti, the producer of some of his best work.

Because he never really quit, Bowie could take his time and let the inspiration return when it was ready. The result was a strong album that reminded people of his past glories without trying too hard to be young again.

However, he did continue to show a keen eye for current trends when he hired LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy (who had just produced Arcade Fire’s latest album) to remix one of his new songs for the arty set.

Moral of the story: As my mother always says, you can grow old without ever growing up. Isn’t that what being creative is all about?

Feature image via Wikimedia

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