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One Business Lesson from Bowie and Picasso

David Bowie

Great artists are not bound by a single style or media. Instead, their life’s work is grouped into periods, like Picasso’s Blue Period or Bowie’s “Berlin Era.”

The work we do is art.

Like great artists, we, too, can choose to ignore rubrics and conventional wisdom and follow our own inspiration. A varied, wide-ranging career is difficult and often under-appreciated, but it is also personally rewarding and professionally groundbreaking.

Few risk the process of reinvention. Those who do are remembered.

Painting in Blue

What if you limited your art to one tool or technique?

From 1901 to 1904, Pablo Picasso did exactly that. He painted only in shades of blue.

For an artist, color seems to be a given, the most important element when creating a work. For almost four years, Picasso forced himself to discover the shades, hues and intricacies of a single color.

At the time, these paintings were commercial failures. No one wanted to buy them. After a career of wide-ranging work, the pieces from the Blue Period are now among his most popular works. The blue paintings are one piece of a tapestry of a life’s work, marking a specific mood, style and mindset of an ambitious artist.

Imagine if, as a digital marketer, you were limited to a single tool or technique. You could only share your work via email, or a blog or Facebook for four years. You would not only master that tool, but you would force yourself to move from using the tool to creating art with the tool.

Ashes to Ashes

Just eight short days ago, singer, songwriter and true artist, David Bowie, passed away. Bowie was a trend-setter and a convention-defier.

Throughout his career, he created art that was loved by some and dismissed by others. From the Berlin Era to New Wave and Pop, he continually reinvented himself.

At its core, his career and art was Bowie. It was him, searching and finding and exploring. He had the bravery to change and choose what style was next. By doing so, he created a tapestry of work.

At his passing, fans and admirers forgot the songs or albums they didn’t like. They forgot about the big risks that failed. Instead, they remembered his ability to create. At times during his career, his art may not have been appreciated, much like Picasso. When looking back at its evolution and breadth, one can’t help but applaud.

This quote, from the band The Axis of Awesome, neatly summarizes Bowie and his challenge for the artist in all of us:

When in doubt, listen to David Bowie. In 1968, Bowie was a gay, giner, bonk-eyed, snaggle-toothed freak walking around south London in a dress, being shouted at by thugs. Four years later, he was still exactly that – but everyone else wanted to be like him, too. If David Bowie can make being David Bowie cool, you can make being you cool.

Retire the Rubric

I recently shared a beer with a professor friend. I asked her how the semester went and she said she had the most amazing students…but they need to throw out the rubric.

Nearly all of her students, and many of her colleagues, want to know exactly what they have to do for an A. They ask how many words a paper should be, what type of arguments they can make, what literature they can or can’t use and even how big the font should be.

She noted that when they go off script, even just a little, they write the most amazing work. Unfortunately, they have been trained to avoid risk by following the exact rules provided by the professor.

In our businesses, in our art, we can choose to follow the rubric. That’s fine. We will probably grow a successful business and get a proverbial A. However, if we want to be truly appreciated and remembered, retire the rubric. Challenge yourself to grow and develop based on your own standards. A rubric holds you back because no one else know what you are capable of.

We Can Be Heroes

Just like my friend’s students, we know how to do the work. We know how to create.

When we wait for others to tell us what lines to color in, we are no longer ourselves. We need to color outside the lines and hold ourselves to the standard of constant invention. No one did this better than Picasso and Bowie.

You are constantly changing, and if you embrace evolution, you create a legacy and art that lasts. Work you can take pride in.

These risks are often unappreciated in the moment, but in the end, your work will be a reflection of who you truly are. Don’t stay the same or stay satisfied with perfecting a single skill. Artists are always looking for new inspiration and evolution, and you never know where you will find it.

We can be heroes, just for one day.

Photos: Thomas HawkStratopaul