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Life Advice from Sting

The Englishman in New York on his work ethic, band breakups, and still finding the fun in fame.


By Sean Woods, Men's Journal

What’s the best advice you ever got?

The pianist and arranger Gil Evans was in the studio with me, and we were discussing what I considered to be a wrong note that somebody played. And he said, “There’s no such thing as a wrong note. It’s the note that follows what you think is the wrong note that’s important. Because any note that you choose by accident can be given a context that makes it right.” If you apply that to life—it’s not the mistake you make, it’s how you react to that mistake—it’s fantastic advice. We all make mistakes. It’s what we do next that’s the important thing. So I continue to make mistakes, and manage to get out of most of them in as artful a way as I can.


What motivates you?

I’ve always had a fierce work ethic. That may come from anxiety—a hole you can never quite fill up—or it may come from a genuine love of the work. I have one of those jobs that, frankly, I’d do for nothing. But I’m not very good at doing nothing. Downtime is stressful for me. I think it’s a skill that maybe I should work at. I try meditating every day, 20 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes at night. I don’t know the actual percentage of time I’m genuinely meditating, but I think I’m getting better at it.


What did you learn from working so many jobs before you were a musician?

I started working for my father at the age of seven or eight. He was a milkman. He’d take me out at 5 every morning, before school, while all my friends were in bed asleep. It was kind of an amazing privilege to work with my dad and to be paid. Then after school I’d sell papers on the corner. I always had money, and I liked earning it. I worked in a tax office, on a cruise ship as a musician, I drove a truck. I didn’t really make it in the music business until I was 26, and before that I had real jobs and a real life. I paid taxes, I voted, I was broke, I was married, I had a kid. So in a way it puts this spectacular life I have now in perspective. I know how fortunate I am.


What have you learned about fame?

That if it’s not fun, don’t bother. Don’t even think about it. I actually have fun; fame hasn’t curbed my citizen’s rights. I don’t invite hysteria. I walk the street and people are respectful and pleased to see you, especially in New York. New Yorkers have a certain self-esteem. You’re on their TV show, you know? New York’s got this sort of mythic attraction: the architecture, the scale of it, the human drama. It’s not a gated community.


How do you know when to call it quits?

Like marriage, or a band? I’ve broken up in both. When your freedom to evolve is restricted, then that’s the time to leave any partnership. You have to be allowed to grow. And often I think marriage vows are “You will stay exactly as you are right now, and I’ll stay with you and do the same.” It’s not rational. And it’s the same with a band. When a band starts out, we’re all heading one way, but you evolve, and you need that freedom to say, “This isn’t working. The gestalt of the band is too limiting. I need more colors to paint with.” So I don’t regret leaving the band.


How should a person handle aging?

Philosophically. I think that as you face mortality, you learn more in reflection than you could have perhaps learned in your glory. I’ve got a song on the new album, it’s called “50,000.” It’s a response to David Bowie, Prince, Glenn Frey, and my friend Alan Rickman, all of whom died around the same time. It made me realize that I’ve lived more of my life than is left. I think an awareness of mortality, an acceptance of it, enriches your life rather than makes you morbid.


What do you want your legacy to be?

I only really care about what my kids think of me. The other things I’m not in control of, so it doesn’t interest me much.
Life Advice

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Men's Magazine: Life Advice from Sting
Life Advice from Sting
The Englishman in New York on his work ethic, band breakups, and still finding the fun in fame.
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