On Having the Courage to be a bit Different (like Bowie)

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He was like an umbrella for people who felt a bit different. Bowie was like a like a lighthouse that guided those people and made them feel it was alright to be different, to try things out and dye your hair and wear strange clothes. Obviously it’s a sad day that he’s died, but the fact that he managed to stay in control of that image and make another artistic statement when he was obviously ill and knew that he was dying, I think that’s incredible and it makes me feel quite happy that he stayed creative right to the end of his life. I think that can only be inspirational. Jarvis Cocker

In his recent post entitled Why is creativity the most important concept for the 21st century Dr. Adam Lent, the RSA’s Director of programme, describes the era of radical change we are undergoing, as consumers shift from passive recipient of products who largely express their feelings about a product through price, to becoming producers or co-producers themselves. He describes this as the era of “self-generated” value arising from the internet where platforms such as Google, Twitter and YouTube offer millions the opportunity to share their own creations.

Dr. Lent goes on to say that one massive consequence of this is that economic success will not be driven by the creativity of an elite few, but by the creativity of all. Lent defines creativity in the broadest sense to include “developing your own food recipes, setting up a charity to address a local problem, establishing a website to network a group with a shared interest, writing your own music, building your own house, writing a blog post and so on and so on”. This is creativity as an act unique to an individual’s own capacities or vision; the defining characteristics of such acts are the “unique proactive and self-determined nature of the activity”

In his article, Lent cites the work of the 19th century English philosopher, political economist and social reformer John Stuart Mill, in particular his most famous work On Liberty, stating that creativity is the best use of freedom: “a deeper happiness has got to come from using our freedom to be creators as well as consumers”.

In On Liberty Mill explores the nature and limits of the power that can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual and champions the rights of the individual against the authority of the state. Mill held that what he called the “tyranny of the majority” (a society based on a “right” way of thinking and behaving that ostracises, shuns and criticises those who fail to conform) was more dangerous to freedom than the state because it “leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself”.

Mill went further, stating that the cultivation of individuality, the freedom to be unique and eccentric is essential for social progress. People who deliberately cultivate their individuality and live unconventional lives undergo “experimental living” and it’s these experiments that drive individual and societal progress. Mill feared that the tyranny of the majority would soon gain complete control and conformity would become all pervasive leading to social stagnation, a point when human beings would lose all that which makes them superior in the animal kingdom since “he who lets the world choose his plan of life for him has no need of any other faculty than the apelike one of imitation”.

On Liberty was dedicated to Mill’s late wife Harriet Taylor an early advocate of women’s rights. He went on to become a member of parliament and was considered a radical because of his support for equality for women, compulsory education and land reform in Ireland. On Liberty was published in 1859, yet Mill’s thinking on freedom and conformity still feels current, particularly this past week, as the world has been reflecting on the life and work of the late David Bowie.

If the most exposure you’ve had to Bowie is bopping about to Let’s Dance, it might be hard to comprehend just why the airwaves and media have been dominated by tributes (you might also therefore be sympathetic to journalist Camilla Long’s advice to “man up”). For eccentric individuals everywhere however, Bowie was a beacon.

Writing on his blog, musician Nick Currie (known under the artist name Momus, after the Greek god of mockery) describes Bowie’s death as the “Diana moment for oddities and misshapes”. Bowie was his “best and only friend” at the grim Scottish boarding school where he was forced to play rugby. Currie had never met Bowie, but he was “the cultural figure without whom I as Momus simply wouldn’t have existed: a genius, a massively liberating presence producing prolifically throughout five decades, an enthusiastic index of cultural connections, a sort of internet-before-the-internet”

Bowie provided the same service to society that all individuals do who refuse to conform, who conduct “experiments of living” through the unconventional choices they make. It is a service critical to societal progression and over 150 years ago Mill believed fewer people daring to be different represented the chief danger of our time:

Eccentricity has always abounded when and where strength of character has abounded; and the amount of eccentricity in society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigour and moral courage it contained. That so few now dare to be eccentric marks the chief danger of our time.

Speaking on the BBC Frank Cottrell Boyce described Bowie as a “proper autodidact someone who studied, read and went to galleries, not for career development but to enrich their lives out of genuine curiosity”. Bowie was a singer, musician, multi-instrumentalist, actor, painter, sculptor, but had very little formal teaching in any of them (a few singling lessons here, the odd saxophone lesson there). Critically and willingly seeking out knowledge to make sense of the human experience and the universe, taking pleasure in learning new things to create something totally new, to create his life, to not need to be right, and be bounded by conventional thinking: his thirst for learning is the source of Bowie’s creativity and something we can all be inspired by.

In her book Daring Greatly, shame and vulnerability researcher Brene Brown asks Appvance CEO and Inc. Magazine’s 2009 Entrepreneur of the Year Kevin Surace what the most significant barrier to creativity is:

“I don’t know if it has a name, but honestly, it’s the fear of introducing an idea and being ridiculed, laughed at, and belittled. If you’re willing to subject yourself to that experience, and if you survive it, then it becomes the fear of failure and the fear of being wrong. People believe they are only as good as their ideas and that their ideas can’t seem too “out there” and they can’t “not know” everything. The problem is that innovative ideas often sound crazy and failure and learning are part of revolution. Evolution and incremental change is important and we need it, but we’re desperate for real revolution and that requires a different sort of courage and creativity”

Thinking differently in order to learn and create is inherently vulnerable. Living differently, undergoing “experiments of living” is inherently vulnerable. Creating something without the “right qualifications” is inherently vulnerable. Those who choose such a path are choosing a life of service.

Live courageously. We can be Heroes, for ever and ever.

Double Flourish Grey

Originally published at Courage Matters.