When he was a 20-year-old kid, nobody in New York really knew what to make of Bob Dylan.
He had come to the city about a year after dropping out of college, simply telling people he was there to visit his musical idol Woody Guthrie and to start a new life as a performer.
This was an exciting time to be there, though. The folk music scene was picking up steam, and soon, the clubs were giving him his time of day. He’d show up, perform, and move on.
With time, however, attention started to congregate around him. Slowly, he began to get showings on the radio, a few critics heard his name, and by 1962, he had managed to sign on with Columbia Records, even releasing a self-titled debut album.
This was the beginning of a career that has now spanned more than six decades. To say that Dylan is an iconic figure in 20th-century culture is to understate his name. There were times around his peak when he was arguably larger than the concept of pop culture itself.
With his poetic music, he has shaped movements and genres, and he has done so while staying relevant throughout. In 2016, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
The secret to Dylan’s longevity comes from a part of him that most people are afraid to face in themselves; the part that tells you, at a certain point, it’s about reinventing yourself.
Life is long, and it’s diverse, and it’s challenging. To live is to grow and to grow is to create a new self when circumstances demand. Dylan’s story shows exactly how we can do this by:
- Committing to development beyond success
- Expanding your identity to beat plateaus
- Valuing the authenticity of growth
We don’t become who we are by staying as we are now. We do so by continually evolving.2
Commit to development beyond success
The benefits of success have diminishing return, but they tend to amplify temptation.
Once you have a taste of what you thought was the goal, and you realize that maybe it wasn’t all you had imagined it would be, it’s very easy to fall into a cycle of chasing more.
External success, especially, has an allure. Early on, it can have many different perks as it covers our basic needs, whether they be personal or financial, but once those basic needs are met, it just becomes a game of setting a higher bar for no other reason than familiarity.
By the mid-1960s, Dylan had become a national and an international superstar. He had started to bring the kind of music that was previously on the fringes to the masses.
Then, right at the height of his newfound fame, in a move that shocked and even alienated many of his fans and contemporaries, he chose to switch up his sound. He added an electric guitar to the mix. Rather than exploiting what already worked for more, he changed gears.
After becoming what the media called “the spokesman of a generation,” he left behind his old sound so he could continue to explore and grow, even if it meant giving up existing success.
Ironically, later, this change would actually go on to be one of the reasons for his longevity.
Any meaningful achievement is never the product of direct planning. It’s often the byproduct of a commitment to developing yourself in a more inwardly-focused way. It’s what you get by aiming to be someone who is willing to try new things for the sake of growth and maybe fun.
Your sense of attachment to who you want to become is more valuable than a life of more.
Expand your identity to beat plateaus
In a way, the dive into electric sounds in the 1960s was just the start of his experimentation.
Throughout his career, Dylan would go on to produce songs with a touch of everything from his early folk music to blues to country to gospel to electric rock and roll to even jazz.
A lot of this was a natural evolution for him, but there were times when he explored simply because he had to. He was stuck in some way, either not progressing or moving backward.
When he injured his hand and wasn’t able to pay as much attention to his instruments, he focused more on songwriting, forming an identity around that. When he was struggling with his aging voice in performances, he decided to completely reinvent how he made sounds.
There are various reasons we fall into plateaus in our lives. Sometimes, the cause is time. Sometimes, it’s a lack of interest. Sometimes, it’s something else entirely out of our control.
If this is concerning a thing that we have built confidence around, it can be an incredibly difficult transition, and often, if it isn’t dealt with, it can even force a mental purgatory.
By remaining versatile to the idea that you can create a new identity by mixing and matching with something else, plateaus don’t have to exist longer than they must. You can bypass them by changing the rules of the game, rather than trying to change the game itself.
The fact that you defined yourself one way in the past doesn’t have to get in the way of you choosing another way that leads to a better end. These limitations are often just mental.
There is always room to improve, and there is always a path to refining something about yourself in a meaningful way. You just have to be open to seeing an opportunity when it arises.
Value the authenticity of growth
When we change ourselves in response to life’s demands, there is generally tension between doing what we must do and what we feel we ought to do to remain authentic to ourselves.
We all have an innate nature that is, to some degree, always a part of who we are, and this nature doesn’t respond well to anything that conflicts with what it finds natural.
That said, we often wrongly conflate this nature with our broader character, identity, and value system at any given point in our life. While it’s true that a part of our brain is largely programmed the way it is at birth, much of how it understands the world is, in fact, malleable.
For decades, psychologists have studied the different stages children go through as they age or as their experience becomes more complex, but it wasn’t until recently that they realized that adults similarly go through a layer of very natural phases of development.3
The more we live, the more we change in ways that are authentic to us in a new form.
When Dylan was called the “spokesman of his generation” due to his counterculture lyrics and then being pressured to lead the movements that were occurring at the time, he began to hide out. At the height of his fame, he started to shun being in the public eye. Why?
He had gotten married and was starting to have kids, and he realized that this part of his life was far important to him than his career, and he wasn’t willing to let his privacy suffer for it.
There is no such thing as a static identity. As we follow the arrow of time and experience, we all grow in various ways, and throughout this process, so does our concept of who we are.
This growth can bring with it shock, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t authentic or necessary.
All you need to know
Time changes a lot of things, but perhaps most of all, it changes our circumstances. How well we accommodate this, then, depends on how well we are able to reinvent ourselves.
Over the decades, Bob Dylan has seen just about as much as anyone, and we have seen him overcome just about everything to remain an icon. He knows change better than most.
Here are three important things we can take away from his story:
- Choose development beyond success. External achievements have diminishing returns, and after a certain point, the only way to capture meaningful success is to give up chasing more of what you already have. By exploring new things and becoming more of what you want to be, even if it means sacrificing familiarity, you eventually find what you were looking for without even aiming at it.
- Expand your identity to beat plateaus. At different times, for different reasons, we all end up in places where we no longer see a way to improve. We get stuck. Now, rather than fighting this stuckness within the confines of an existing identity, the more effective way to deal with this is to mix and match parts of yourself to create a new identity. You can change the rules of the game to broaden possibility.
- Value the authenticity of growth. There is a sense of pride in doing what you know and doing what aligns with who you are as a person at any given point. Sometimes, however, who you are changes in response to circumstance, and while it can be disorienting, it is also often necessary. There’s an authentic way to grow as a person.
Many of us find comfort in what we know, who we are, dreading the idea of changing ourselves. But living in an evolving reality and expecting a stable sense of self doesn’t work.
You are going to have to change one way or another. Why not take charge of it yourself?
Want to think and live smarter? Zat Rana publishes a free weekly newsletter for 30,000+ readers at Design Luck.