“If you feel safe in the area that you’re working in, you’re not working in the right area. Always go a little further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being in. Go a little bit out of your depth, and when you don’t feel that your feet are not quite touching the bottom, you’re just about in the right place to do something exciting.” — David Bowie.
From the outside, things often look impossible — the martial arts demonstration, the gallery exhibition, the author that has opened up a new world for us.
When we start out, we generally aspire to be like someone else we’ve seen. Fortune cookie wisdom tells us that we just need to be ourselves. But, in reality, to live any kind of fulfilling life, or to do anything memorable or important, we need to push beyond ourselves.
When we’ve surpassed the person we were aiming to be like, or if our practice leads us to some unexpected area, we have started to become something new — a new expression of our tradition. We have both surpassed our old self, that did not have much skill or understanding, yet have begun to become our self at a higher level, as a person of skill and understanding. We are praised for our achievements or for our unique insights. What happens next?
Instead of aiming to be like someone else, we panic, and aim instead to keep replicating the winning formula. We want to mimic ourselves. We see this especially in entertainment — in particular, rock and pop bands that have been going for thirty or forty years, and, though now aged and somewhat sad looking, insist on dressing as teenagers, instead of thinking about what might suit them now. The music, too, doesn’t change. They dare not risk losing fans. They become touring museum exhibits. We go to see them only to catch a glimpse of what it was like during the sixties, seventies, or eighties.
In contrast, whether you like him or not, Bowie changed his appearance and changed his music. He absorbed new influences; he partly adapted to the times, and he partly tried to make art that was against it. He continued to push forward and to take risks along the way.
We see this with the more interesting writers and artists as well. For a long time, I didn’t think much of Picasso’s work. We’ve probably all seen low-level artists ripping off one of his styles. But they miss the point. If you go to the Musee Picasso in Paris, you’ll be struck by how prolific he was, and how much energy he had. Anyone can rip off Picasso, but there was only one Picasso — only one person who turned the art world on its head by constantly pushing forward, constantly drawing in new influences.
Whether, it’s art, music, writing, philosophy, constantly pushing forward, finding new inspiration, and taking risks — putting yourself in that creative space where your feet aren’t quite touching the bottom, as Bowie put it — is the only way to make something that will be looked back on a century or so from now.