TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – Michael Stipe seems like an unlikely source for life and career advice.
Stipe was the lead singer of the great, defunct American rock band R.E.M. You’ve probably heard their music in hit songs such as “Losing My Religion,” “Everybody Hurts,” “Man on the Moon,” “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” and many more.
Before he performed in front of millions around the globe, Stipe studied photography and painting at the University of Georgia in his youth. After R.E.M. broke up in 2011, he became an artist and teacher at New York University.
Stipe’s love of art followed him throughout his music career, coloring and shaping his ideas as a songwriter and performer.
One concept he retained came from Swiss-German expressionist, cubist and surrealist painter Paul Klee. Klee taught at the German art school Bauhaus in the 1920s and 1930s. In a 2004 interview, Stipe related Klee’s concept of a circle of artistic mastery.
Klee told his students to visualize a circle. At the bottom, closest to them, was the beginning of the journey, a place of naiveté and innocence. As they progressed up the left side of the circle, it was a path of education, learning and discovering one’s craft. At the furthest point, that person has mastered their field, becoming what Klee called a craftsperson.
“The lesson got really interesting when he continued down the right side of the circle,” said Stipe. “He said that to be a craftsperson is fine, but to become an artist, you have to start to forget everything that you know. It’s when you come back to the bottom of the circle, to a place of naiveté and innocence, that you have achieved artistry.”
I see parallels between my field of journalism and military life as well as artists of many stripes, including those such as Stipe. I think there’s an important truth in the lesson he passes on from Klee: Not to forget what it was like to be a beginner—to retain the awareness of someone who has not mastered their craft.
I was closer to being that beginner back when I started as Tailwind editor in 2007 at Travis Air Force Base, California. I was 25 and my knowledge of the military life was informed by visual media such as “M*A*S*H,” “Band of Brothers” and “Good Morning, Vietnam.” They’re enjoyable works, but don’t paint an accurate picture of what it’s like to work in today’s Air Force.
Around that age, I worked with someone who repeatedly told me I had nothing to offer because I was inexperienced. I remember how that felt, the anger and frustration that any ideas I brought to the table were worthless.
But now, at age 36 in 2018, I keep the Klee lesson related by Stipe close. Last fall, when an Airman in the 60th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs shop told me he appreciated my experience, I told this Airman that although I know a lot, there is always more to learn. Public affairs is full of surprises.
I think this lesson applies not just to public affairs, artistry or journalism, but to all realms of our lives. No matter how much knowledge and experience we gain, it’s important to retain that naiveté and innocence—to never reach a point when we think we have stopped adapting, growing and learning.
This must be more than words, but practice. Beginners look to those with experience to lead. That’s a reasonable expectation.
But it’s also important for the experienced to remember what it was like to be the beginner, to stay open to a fresh perspective, to use their shared knowledge to inform the way we move into the future together.
In the same way, taking life advice from an expressionist painter via a rock star might raise an eyebrow. It’s important to entertain new ideas no matter how experienced we become.