I had a wonderful experience in meeting a person who has radically changed his identity over the years, when at dinner one night I happened to be seated next to Bono, the lead singer of the Irish mega-band, U2.
I didn’t know much about Bono at the time. As an ‘older guy’, I was a little embarrassed by the fact that I knew his name but was not familiar with any of his records (since they had been made after 1975). Someone told me that he was one of the top rock stars in the world. It was interesting to me that a star of this magnitude was asked to speak—not about music—but about his ideas for making our world a better place.
Fortunately for me, he didn’t ask me about any of his records. We just talked about life. In a way, it shouldn’t have been surprising to me that Bono thought about his identity. Successful musicians, who can continue to fill arena for three decades, finding new audiences while keeping old fans, are masters at creating and managing their identities. I guess if someone is plastering your image on posters, CDs and T-shirts, you have to control your identity—or someone else will.
I learned a lot from Bono’s personal story. He is a wonderful example of a person who has been able to change his identity and—at the same time—remain true to himself. In his early years, Bono's identity was "regular guy,” just a bloke from Dublin who liked hanging around with his mates. (From our conversation it didn’t sound as if he had fully shed “regular guy” identity—or wanted to. He apologized to me for using multiple variations on the" f-word". (I assured him that his language did not trouble me. As a teenager back in Kentucky, I thought the “F-word” was the adjective that preceded most nouns.)
For all of his fame and money, Bono still impressed me as a regular guy. He did not act pretentious. He was not overly sold on how wonderful he was. He was courteous enough to be concerned about possibly offending some white-haired nearly bald guy that he had never met.
After defining himself as a “regular guy” Bono became a “rock and roll fan”. Like many kids his age, he fell in love with music. He was animated in his discussion of the musicians that had influenced his life—and how much he enjoyed listening to them as a youth. He talked about how he still loved listening to new groups.
Bono's next identity was “musician.” He described how he had made a commitment to his craft and how lucky he was to find something he loved to do. He talked about the innocent joy of forming a band with friends when no status or money was involved. It was clear from his description that he not only loved being a musician then—he still loved it. He doesn’t make music just to make money—he makes music just to make music!
At this point, Bono was describing the familiar trajectory of every young boy who dreams of being a star. What happened next was a long shot. He went from being a “musician” to being a “rock star.” He clearly liked being a rock star. He enjoyed the life, the fans, and the access to influential people. He referred to himself as a “rock star” when we talked. I realized that he was using the phrase with a very useful detachment, as if it was the only way to accurately describe the one-in-a-zillion situation he found himself in. Beyond the view of an adoring public, he was still a regular guy, with a wife and four kids at home. But when he was in public, his identity was clearly labeled “rock star”—and he was smart enough to recognize that was an important part of his identity.
As much as he remained a sum of all his other identities—regular guy, rock ‘n roll fan, musician, rock star—it was evident that Bono was forging a new identity as a humanitarian, and that he was as professional and serious about this new identity as anything else in his life—maybe even more!
He recounted with deep feeling his experience of visiting Africa during the great famine of the 1980s. He talked about his lobbying of political leaders to reduce African debt. He talked about his desire to alleviate human suffering. There was no doubt that a big chunk of his remaining years would be devoted to doing whatever he could to make our world a better place.
As it turns out, my friend Richard Schubert was CEO of the American Red Cross during the great African famine of the 1980s. Richard gave me the opportunity to go on a volunteer mission to Africa at the same time Bono was there. This was—and still is—the most unforgettable trip of my life. In my nine days there I saw many people starving to death. I saw the hard work that was being done by wonderful humanitarians to save as many people as they could.
Tears came to my eyes as Bono described his experience in the African famine—and I remembered my experience.
Although I didn’t own any of his records, it turns out we did have something in common. In his after-dinner speech Bono did not take cheap shots at politicians, governments, or anyone else—even when several politically charged questions from the audience made the opportunity very tempting. He was clearly there to raise money, not to appease one side’s political views over another. His desire to help others far exceeded his need to be smart or fashionable. He is a man with a mission. He isn’t pretending to be a humanitarian. He is a humanitarian, and he is incredibly disciplined about how he presents this newfound identity to the world. His mission was clearly more important than his ego.
After that dinner, I couldn’t help thinking how extraordinary Bono’s analysis of his identity was.
At first blush, it may not appear to be much of an achievement. After all, Bono is rich; he can afford to take a sabbatical from rock ‘n’ roll and pursue his humanitarian interests. Bono is also a celebrity, which provides him with a loud megaphone to voice his opinions. He’s also a successful creative artist, which automatically provides him with a large receptive audience for what comes out of that megaphone.
But on closer inspection, at least in terms of creating a new identity, Bono’s celebrity is a double-edged sword. A lot of people are very hostile to the idea of celebrated people moving from their primary sphere of influence (e.g., movies, music, or sports) to an unrelated more “serious” realm of public discourse. Think of all those stars—Angelina Jolie or the late Charlton Heston —who are mocked as much as they are admired for voicing a political opinion or trying to help people. Stick to your day job, they’re told, as fans and media question their motives and commitment.
Bono also faced the additional hurdle of being part of a large thriving enterprise, namely U2. What if his three lifelong band mates resented his utopian dreams or thought his mission threatened the band? These are not questions to be treated lightly. Bono not only had to create an identity for himself, he had to earn support from his fellow band members.
In that context, Bono’s self-transformation is actually amazing. He did not let his definition of who he was—attractive as the identity of “rock star” may be—limit his potential for what else he could become. Frankly, I’d argue that creating a new identity is more difficult for Bono because of his celebrity than it is for average civilians like you and me. We don’t have as much to lose, or as firmly established an image to shed. And we don’t have hundreds of thousands of fans questioning our right to do so.
More than anything, Bono’s example is inspiring. Many of us make the mistake of treating our identity as a fixed, immutable object. We believe it cannot be altered, at least not significantly. As a result, we never try to create a new identity. One of the greatest obstacles to changing our Mojo is here—in the paralysis we create with self-limiting definitions of who we are.
Life is good.
Dr. Marshall Goldsmith's 24 books include What Got You Here Won't Get You There - a New York Times best-seller, Wall Street Journal #1 business book and Harold Longman Award winner for Business Book of the Year. His recent book Succession: Are You Ready?- is the newest edition to the Harvard Business 'Memo to the CEO' series. Marshall's latest book is Mojo: How to Get It, How to Keep It, and How to Get It Back When You Lose It!
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What a great illustration of manifesting change and keeping real about where we are no matter what success we achieve.
Helen 1224 days ago
Love this! I am constantly trying to stay 'relevant' and learn who is 'new' and the 'what's what' and yet, as you illustrate, relevancy is about being true to you and your values - the core of who we are.
Kim Roman Corle 1220 days ago
I, too, stopped noticing new bands - but for me it was 1980. I'd heard of U2 but only became aware of Bono when his humanitarian efforts leaped out. I've been fascinated by his dedication to this cause while still putting out music and reading this helps me understand a little bit better how he does it. It wasn't just luck that helped propel him from musician to rock start. Clearly he is a guy with focus! Thanks for sharing your insights here.
Rosalind 1218 days ago