I'm feeling David Bowie's loss acutely this afternoon as I listen to "Heroes" through a pair of cheap headphones in a lonely coffee shop. In a monochromatic world, he was a splash of color. He was always on the cutting edge of creativity, daring to showcase what many people felt was off-limits or outside the realm of accepted societal or gender norms. Bowie built an image that was as eclectic as it was extraordinary. His influence defies generational boundaries. Needless to say, he will be sorely missed.
Bowie's creative process evolved throughout his recording career, and he drew inspiration from many unconventional places. Here are a few lessons we can put to good use as we celebrate his legacy:
- Use what you feel. Bowie's music was deeply affected by world events like 9/11 that underscored a collective sense of fear and uncertainty. "It's all despondency, despair, fear, isolation, abandonment," he said when asked about what inspires his writing process. This idea should resonate with every entrepreneur who's ever tried to solve a problem or relieve a troubling pain point within their market. It begins, on some level, with suffering. It can be the catalyst for creativity.
- Free associate at will. In one interview, Bowie elusively described his creative process by listing 42 evocative words (with little supporting explanation). Among them were identity, domination, glide, urban, and nerve. Each of these words carries distinctive imagery, and Bowie was masterful at weaving a narrative out of little more than a feeling or a fleeting theme. Try using single words in your brainstorming process and see what shakes out.
- "Zag when others zig." Nobody kept people guessing like David Bowie did. He could've ridden out the Ziggy Stardust era in his music indefinitely, but he reinvented his image completely when he went for Diamond Dogs and eventually Young Americans. And then, when audiences thought they had him figured out, he pivoted again. He approached every project with a fresh creative palate, and was always willing to turn everything that had come before on its ear.
- Surround yourself with visionaries. Bowie was known for his incredible collaborations with other musicians. Mick Jagger. Freddie Mercury. Brian Eno. Iggy Pop. The list goes on and on. Bowie was a builder who believed at his core that teamwork could make the creative process so much greater than the sum of its individual parts.
- Try the "cut-up" technique. Bowie, along with other creative legends like William S. Burroughs and Kurt Cobain, sometimes employed a rather unconventional creative technique. The "cut-up" method calls for arranging and rearranging clippings from newspapers or magazines in an inspiring, free associative mix-and-match. Bowie's unique take on this method was to compose several paragraphs on a subject that he would then rearrange. "You write down a paragraph or two describing different subjects, creating a kind of 'story ingredients' list, I suppose, and then cut the sentences into four or five-word sections, mix 'em up, and reconnect them," he said. Doing so resulted in "some pretty interesting idea combinations." That's for sure.
Wherever you are, Bowie, we miss you and we salute you. You were often troubled by your own mortality, but your creative legacy will live on.