Career Fuel: Be Like Bowie

On a cold London morning in 2016, I headed over to the rarified climes of Mayfair for a meeting. 

It was the middle of January, just a few days after David Bowie had passed away. 

My host’s occupation exposed him to plenty of interesting people across the spectrum of business and creativity. We talked about startups, freelancing, new agency models and other things.

As we were finishing up I decided to ask for some career advice, giving some brief context on what I had been doing and where I wanted to go.

Quick as a flash, he said:

‘Be Like Bowie’.

It’s a pretty simple concept: build a body of work by collaborating on a bunch of different projects and ventures.

On the face of it this sounds very similar to an approach that’s grown in popularity over the last couple of years – the Portfolio Career. 

Just as Bowie collaborated with all sorts of people, across music, film, art and other disciplines the Portfolio Careerist often has a number of clients and collaborators they work with.

But I wonder if there are two key aspects that differentiate the Bowie-like way of doing things:

  • A greater focus on ownership
  • Being unpredictable, a shapeshifter

Ownership

While not every Bowie project involved an equity stake (i.e. touring and acting would be mainly fee-based), the vast majority of the body of work involved some degree of equity ownership. 

As the person on the other side of the table that day put it to me – “own 5% of 20 ventures, rather than 100% of 1”.

Some Portfolio Careers may lean more towards ownership models, but they’re more likely to contain a considerable amount of consulting and freelance work alongside equity-based projects (especially in their early stages). 

There’s nothing at all wrong with this – in fact the time-for-money model has taken a bit of an excessive hammering recently – but ownership can allow for a greater degree of freedom and the ability to make more choices. 

Which leads onto…

Shapeshifting

Understandably, the Portfolio Careerist usually has a core specialism they build their business around: ecommerce packaging design, Python development, music festival production, SEO for media companies. It’s important to know what you’re remembered by.

Bowie’s core specialism was of course music, but he was able to extend effortlessly into many other art forms (and eventually a little bit of science and futurism too). 

Successful shapeshifting at that level feels more like magic – reserved for the once in a generation geniuses.

But perhaps there’s some lowercase shapeshifting available to all of us. Transferrable and exportable skills, combined with a little appetite for risk, and what Steven Johnson calls The Adjacent Possible can open up a lot of interesting opportunities. Even more so when done with collaborators.

This approach certainly isn’t for everyone, and most of us can only dream of reaching the heights of Ziggy Stardust, but perhaps it’s a move that’s smart, fun and fulfilling if we set out to be just a little bit like Bowie.

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