Reinvent yourself, the Bowie way

The other day, while talking to a friend, I told him that one of my biggest regrets in life is not having seen David Bowie live in concert. Not having ever met him or seen him in person to be precise, even if that would have meant seeing him from a distance and not being allowed to touch him, in the same way we were forced to behave with our dearest during COVID times – ‘Do not hug; do not kiss; do not shake hands; do not rub snouts or sniff crotches (I guess the last two were not applicable to humans). To which, in response, my friend said, “if that is your biggest regret in life, Sonya, then I guess you’ve done pretty well so far…”

Fat chance. But my regrets are longer stories for another day. Today I am bursting – because that is a more joyful word to use than feeling conflicted – with thoughts on whether I should reinvent myself, at this particular juncture in life, like my beloved Bowie.  

Among his many talents, David Bowie mastered the art of reinvention. Some say he was driven by artistic rather than commercial reasons. That’s not good enough for me. Experts on Quora will offer more details – for artistic exploration; to avoid stagnation; for personal growth; to reflect cultural changes; for publicity; and so on. All very valid. I am firmly behind the idea that for Bowie, it all had to do with being such a creative genius, having a high score on the scale of the personality trait of openness, and being able to push himself beyond the boundaries of his present scene, but I still suspect there is more to the story.

I personally think the reason why we feel the need to reinvent ourselves – and actually do – is that we fear expiry, which even in the dictionary is only a few pages away from extinction.

I look back at my own book, and that famous chapter numbered ‘2015’ at the beginning of my 5-year career break, having just resigned from my position as the director responsible for environment and climate change policy, and how it felt as if I were ‘jumping into the nothing’. On one hand, I was now able to take control of what mattered most to me outside of work, and on the other, it didn’t really matter because the minute I stepped outside of the public policy world, I had become irrelevant.

Reinvention has to do with identity, and perhaps no one will argue too much around that. There are layers of questions though. Do we do it to fit in, or to stand out? Does it mean we are changing who we are, or are we simply evolving but permanently stuck inside the box of character genes we were born in? When we feel the need to invent a new chapter, is it because we are unable to accept the natural turn of things as they were meant to be?

In 2015 I felt expired, with nothing new to learn, nothing new to give. During a taster week for a master’s course in knowledge-based entrepreneurship (which eventually I did follow, two years later), I voluntarily raised my hand and described my state as “going through a tunnel and not being able to see the light”. The second I stopped talking I wished, vividly and intensely, to be transported to that tunnel where no one would recognise me.  

Perhaps it is true that fear drives the reinvention. It is a special type of fear though, one that does not paralyse you.

So how do we pass through the transition, with purpose and pride?

As humans, we rely too much on our sense of sight. We value vision a bit too much. Our language provides many examples – when it comes to other people, we “see their point”, “share their view”, make them aware of “their blind spots”. I am not saying anything original here – Ed Yong makes a compelling and heavily researched case about this in his spectacular book ‘An Immense World’.

Maybe you can now understand how frustrated I am because I cannot see my next chapter.

For the first step, I will rely on the instruction of a terribly-good-advisor-who-has-become-a-friend. With sarcasm dripping from my mind, I wanted to ask him about the benefits of ageing, but before I could open my mouth to push the air, he proposed – with his usual assertiveness – that I should either accept things with the cosmic patience that comes with the slowing of the neurons, or use these cells to feel my way through the world, experience things through my senses, and let gravity and other forces of collision do their job.

Sound advice. We start to crawl.

The second part contains a contradiction. It centres around the idea that although through reinvention we aspire to renew our identity, in practice we are so anchored to our basic personality, that more than a complete transformation, this exercise is reduced to a mere variation.

If David Bowie reinvented himself for artistic reasons, it was because he had a strong sense of self-awareness and self-respect for his true self.

My advice – to myself as a start – is to go ahead and fight my way through the tunnel.

Be a Rebel Rebel version X.