Being a shape-shifter in the workplace: David Bowie as a role model


How many times have politicians been accused of being flip-floppers and how much flack did President Obama get when he said he had “evolved” on certain policies? The media excoriates those that change political positions. And in certain instances, such excoriation is warranted, considering the obvious political expediency that led said change of mind. People who change their mind are seen a wishy-washy and not as being thoughtful which is often the image that those that change their mind want to portray.  Changing one’s mind or opinions can be seen as lacking in conviction.


Our popular culture vernacular and top 40 hits reflect our collective psychological need for people to stay the same and not change.  The television show One Tree Hill’s opening theme song was “I Don’t Want to Be” by Gavin DeGraw which exclaims:

I don’t want to be anything other than me
I’m surrounded by liars everywhere I turn
I’m surrounded by impostors everywhere I turn
I’m surrounded by identity crisis everywhere I turn
Am I the only one who’s noticed?
I can’t be the only one who’s learned

Being true to oneself is the opposite of being fake. Although I would argue that selfie-obsessed Kim Kardashian is both true to herself and fake. One can both. We talk about keeping it real and being true to ourselves. There is so much talk about keeping it real, that at times employees feel justified in being insubordinate, non-compliant, rude, and angry.  Just this week I was told by an employee that she told her boss in front of the whole office that he didn’t have their back. I arched my eyebrow a little an she shrugged her shoulder and noting that she isn’t fake and is always going to tell it like it is.  In my head I just kept thinking that she was fake in that she was using being non-fake as an excuse to be mean-spirited and rude. That is not keeping it real. It’s like Jennifer Lopez telling us that she is still Jenny from the Block.  The more she shakes and shimmies to her own lyrics, the more we disbelieve her protestations. It would be preferable if she just owned the fact that she has changed a tad bit. She has evolved, she can argue.

Change is ok. It would be great if as a collective we could just allow people to change gracefully or even not-so-gracefully. That is where David Bowie comes in, or rather, how he came in. He was a shape-shifter. And he was lauded for it. Let’s make sure we get one thing clear, Bowie was not a chameleon. He never blended in. He was front and center in his metamorphosis. He outwardly shifted personas, outfits and overall feel. He even celebrated those shifts with his song Changes.  He wisely noted “Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes
Turn and face the strange.”  Bowie was known for one second being Ziggy Stardust, then Aladdin Sane,  and later the Thin White Duke.  He sang about a space oddity and heroes and asked to dance. Each representing different beat, melodies and genres.  He morphed, he changed and he evolved.   He showed what magic could be done with a restless soul and mind. While he made millions of dollars from change he touched the world over through his changes.

Instead of digging in our heels and proclaiming in snotty tones that we are keeping it real and will never change, we can look to Bowie for a role model on how to truly keep it real. Despite his constant changes, he seemed more real than most.  A longstanding cultural archetype is that of a shape shifter. Many cultures the world over has had stories of shape shifters. We have read about shape-shifters in the Illiad and in Harry Potter. We have a collective fantasy about changing but we also hold ourselves to a rigid standard to not change. Obviously, there are times when we do have to stand steadfast. We cannot be afraid to also stand strong and withstand forces to change for the worse. We also cannot be afraid to look change in the eye and embrace it. We can evolve. We can admit mistakes. We can develop new interests. And it is ok to do so in the workplace and we need not hide behind trite messaging about keeping it real.

To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often. —Winston Churchill

2014-10-24 21.31.49

3 replies »

  1. I think that the difference is that politicians take a hard line with their beliefs, while Bowie dabbled in different genres. While it may appear that Bowie was out in front of change, he really recognized and co-opted emerging trends. Take for example his 3 album trilogy during his Berlin period. Kraftwerk was already doing electronica at the time, and liked it, adopted it, and came out with Sound and Vision. To your point, change is good, and it’s healthy. I do believe that Bowie’s change was a matter of artistic interest, while politicians change is usually based in expediency. You had mentioned the Thin White Duke. That’s from Station to Station. I had recently read ‘Low’ from the 33 1/3 series of books. The author contends that Bowie was into Kabbalism at the time, and the phrase from Station to Station in which he sings “throwing darts in lovers eyes” refers to a bizarre ritual that Alistaire Crowley performed, resulting in the deaths of two people. Anyway, did I venture too far away from the original topic? 😀


  2. I think we have to teach our children, especially our daughters, to remain true to themselves, especially internally. My daughter, who now works part time for a Beverly Hills dermatologist after a year long full time stint in the same position with a Santa Monica dermatologist. The latter loved her, especially her work ethic.

    When I spoke with her yesterday, she told me she’d had 2 meetings with her current management, both of which revolved around her laid back appearance and attitude. She and I agreed that this reflects the difference in expectations and lifestyles between Beverly Hills and the coastal republic of Santa Monica.

    Your post brought this juxtaposition to mind, especially since David Bowie and Glenn Frey, who reached the heights of popularity almost simultaneously, both passed in the same week.


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