My abiding memory of the Leaving Cert is of being in a Dublin boarding school the night before an exam, cramming the last morsels of useless knowledge into my jaded head, listening to a battered tape recorder blasting out a tinny version of Moonage Daydream by Bowie. In my final stretch in school, Bowie was my companion. His music was the soundtrack of that Leaving Cert year.
For us, caught in the 1980s conformity of the CAO and the points race, Bowie was evidence of a crazy, wonderful, open world beyond the dirge of Peig, quadratic equations and the riveting lessons in the life cycle of a liver fluke.
This extraordinarily creative and extremely courageous performer, who constantly reinvented himself, is a model to all who want to live a sovereign life. This was an artist who was endlessly borrowing, customising and innovating. His curiosity was limitless. And, like all truly independent people, he was working right up to the last day. What else could he do?
He wasn’t all drama, theatrics and image; there was profound social commentary too. In 1972, who else could have written “A cop knelt and kissed the feet of a priest/ And a queer threw up at the sight of that”?
Remember, this was a time when the police force in Britain, and of course Ireland, were protecting paedophile priests, and gay men were regularly being slurred and depicted by the Church as depraved sexual predators your children wouldn’t be safe around.
Is it any wonder the queer threw up?
However, today I am going to write not about his music (there are loads of musos who are much better informed than I on that) but about him – and, sticking with the Leaving Cert theme, what parents could learn from him.
I am going to suggest that there are two models of parenting: the Bowie Method and the Grind Method. I am going to argue that the Bowie Method, in a world of shocks, uncertainty and change, will make our kids much more robust and give them a better shot in life.
The Bowie Method is a way of looking at the world which allows you to embrace change and challenge and not rule anything out. This will make our kids strong, adaptable and flexible.
The Grind Method, on the other hand, which is the chosen method of broad sections of the competitive middle classes, will make our children fragile, inflexible and exposed. The Grind Method might get them into good universities, but by telling them what to learn and what not to learn, the Grind Method narrows their ability to deal with the world, which is constantly throwing up all sorts of surprises.
The Grind Method – which puts huge store in conventional benchmarks of success, status, and the credibility that titles bestow on people – is destined to fail in the 21st century.
The Grind Method limits teenagers’ ability to think for themselves by giving them answers rather than the serendipity of that beautiful journey of trial and error. The Grind Method will get them jobs in the professions, but what happens to the person inside and what happens to the expert in a world of generalists?
Teenagers need to be trained to deal with ambiguity, not certainty. As the great thinker Nassim Taleb argues, the key characteristic for a sovereign life, one that ultimately doesn’t depend on the suit you wear or the title you possess or the company you work for, is not to be fragile. It is essential to be what he terms “anti-fragile”.
David Bowie was anti-fragile.
Being anti-fragile means being able to deal with the shocks and nasty surprises the world throws up, like unemployment, a collapse in house prices or a sudden disappearance of your industry. Being anti-fragile means you get stronger when these changes occur; you not only survive, but thrive on change. This means we have to embrace uncertainty.
When you think about it, most of modern life seeks to minimise uncertainty in life. The Leaving Cert reward system, which places the supposedly most secure professions at the top of the pecking order, creates a series of incentives for teenagers to embrace a structured, pre-ordained life.
That would all be okay if the world wasn’t changing so rapidly. If we were in a nice version of the Soviet Union, seeking this structured life would make sense. But we live now in a period of immense change, where the person who is resilient enough to roll with the punches is the person who wins.
You can only roll with the punches if you are prepared – and if you understand that often you can’t see the punches coming.
This means a lifestyle and a career that embraces new things, does new things and never seeks the stultifying refuge of status. It means taking risks and embracing risk.
This is where Bowie comes in.
This was a man who knew no fear and lived a truly full life, involving his talent in cutting-edge movements and speaking out – rarely but effectively – on a variety of issues, from racism (on MTV back in 1983) to the enormous disruptive power of the internet (on BBC with Paxman in 1995).
This was also the artist who harnessed the power of the financial markets via Bowie Bonds. In 1997, worth an estimated $917 million, Bowie became the first artist to securitise the rights to his future royalty earnings and sold them on privately to the Prudential Insurance Company of America. We’re talking about the royalty rights to a discography of 25 albums recorded between 1969 and 1990: a total of 287 songs. In return, Bowie secured a cool $55 million, with these Bowie Bonds offering a 7.9 per cent annual coupon over a ten-year period. Receiving this lump sum payment enabled Bowie to invest and protect his wealth through diversification, rather than receiving a stream of royalty payments in dribs and drabs over the following decade.
In 1996, Bowie was among the very first to release an internet-only single, Telling Lies. It was downloaded over 300,000 times from his website. This was back when dial-up connection and floppy disks reigned supreme, so that’s pretty impressive.
A 1999 interview with a sceptical Jeremy Paxman in many ways sums up how ahead of his time Bowie was, in particular about the potential power of the internet: “I think we’re on the cusp of something exhilarating and exciting. . . it’s going to crush our idea of what mediums really are.”
David Bowie: visionary, creative genius, poster boy for change, the essence of being anti-fragile and the ultimate role model for teenagers everywhere!