Interview: THE DAILY TELEGRAPH (2001)

June 17, 2001

The following article by Sting appeared in a June 2001 issue of The Daily Telegraph newspaper...

Take a risk - and never look back.

Sting believes in taking chances. Here he explains why he quit a steady job for the dole, left the Police at their peak - and how he deals with happiness ONE man's risk is another's sure bet. I may have the reputation for being a risk-taker, but when I look back, I wasn't always conscious of taking them. To me, at the crossroads, there weren't really two divergent paths for me to consider; two stark but equally compelling choices. There was a dead end and the edge of a cliff. So, if it's die or jump, is it risk or destiny? Maybe it doesn't matter. Maybe risk is destiny.

Sting: 'I think that men seek thrills because we don't always have the courage to take real risks'.

I suppose the first risk I took was to leave my "profession", which was teaching. I was 24; I had a wife, a baby, a dog, a little car. My foot was on the first rung of the ladder, but I wasn't going up - I had one boot in the grave. I knew that for sure, the minute the head teacher warned me that, if I left, I'd lose my pension.

Pension? Didn't know I had one. All I did know was that I didn't want a life with a pension plan waiting at the end of it. I know that attitude was arrogant. I was born into a working-class family and, for us, pensions were the reward for hard, honest toil. But it wasn't going to be my reward. Arrogance is a highly underappreciated character trait. In fact, arrogance fuels risk.

My then wife was an actress pursuing a career in London and I knew that if I was going to make it as a musician, I had to be in London, too. So we packed up all our belongings, which besides the baby and the dog were a rocking chair, and set off in our battered Citroen toward the living-room floor of a friend.

I really had no prospects. What was I thinking? Well, I wasn't. There seems to be very little cognitive process associated with risks. But it was also strangely joyous - like when you're about to dive into some very cold water and the minute before you hit the water you think, "There's no turning back now. I've done this." And there's a great freedom in knowing that there aren't any safety nets.

Whenever you change the direction of your life, it's going to scare the people around you. That's a given. But if it doesn't scare the daylights out of you, it's not a real risk. Very often, the fear comes only after you're well into it. Those early days were both debilitating and frightening for me because the only way I could support my family was to go on the dole. Turn up on Wednesday afternoon, sign your name, and say you're available for work.

I never felt I should be there, doing that, but I was grateful for it each week because during the day I could practise my music. That's when I met Stewart Copeland, who would later be the drummer of the Police, and he had this idea of forming a band.

He said he liked my playing and singing and wondered if I wanted to risk tagging along to see how it might go. Was there a choice? It didn't seem like it at the time, it just seemed like the answer to my prayers. So again, the paradox: if you've got no choice, how can you call it a risk? Sometimes, people mix up thrill-seeking and risk-taking, but I think they're totally different experiences, with different motivations and outcomes.

Thrill-seeking is flirting with danger, taunting the fates. Thrill-seeking seems to be a particularly male endeavour; it's probably encoded in our DNA. It's about speeding motorcycles, parachute jumping, mountain climbing, drug-taking, and adultery when you've got a great wife and a beautiful family.

My perverse enjoyment of rough plane rides brings out the thrill-seeker in me. I was once in a near-crash in a small plane flying over Venezuela. Walking away from it was one of the best feelings I'd had for a long time. Surviving. What a rush. Women understand this wild streak in their sons, but barely tolerate it in their men. Perhaps external thrills are more seductive when our daily lives disappoint us.

I sometimes think that men seek thrills because we don't always have the courage to take real risks, whether they're the emotional risks necessary in successful personal relationships, or practical ones, as in changing jobs. In my life, there's always been a connection between risk and luck. A lot of people approach risk as if it's the enemy, when it is really fortune's accomplice. A risk you take may seem ridiculous to other people, but risk isn't random or rash when it's a necessity.

The night I decided to walk away from the Police, I felt I'd reached the summit. We were being hailed as the hottest band of the decade. In barely five years, we'd gone from playing for a handful of people in bars to 67,000 fans in Shea Stadium. We'd sold 40 million records. I had more money than I knew what to do with.

But I was miserable. I was out of control and so was my life. Everything was falling apart - my first marriage was breaking up, my relationships with the other guys in the band were horrendous, yet the world envied me. As I walked off the stage, I knew I had to make a change. Everybody thought I was certifiable. But I was joyous, relieved. Risk had given me back my soul.

As one grows older, one has more to lose and the risks loom larger. I'm halfway through my life. How do I become the old man that I could admire now, a wise elder? How do I grow old gracefully, especially in my profession, which glorifies youth so aggressively? How do I become useful to the people around me and to my society as an older person?

I think it's crucial to start afresh, take a blank canvas, do things that defy logic, whether it's introducing an audience used to listening to music in four-four time to a more complex metre, or making a movie that's unconventional, or popularising somewhat unfamiliar topics such as rain forest issues or meditation or whatever.

What's disconcerting or unexpected often pleases me, especially if it takes my audience and me in a new direction. What's my biggest risk now? How about being happy? I used to subscribe to the theory that in order to write anything worthwhile, you needed to be in some sort of turmoil. And I wasn't alone in that belief. I would manufacture all sorts of problems in order to be creative.

But in the past few years, I've made a conscious decision to create from a profound depth of happiness, and no one is more amazed than I that some of the best work of the deposed "King of Pain" was inspired by joy. It has always impressed me that the Chinese pictogram for crisis is identical to the one for opportunity. I'm convinced that taking risks redeems, restores, and reinvents. So the next time you're overwhelmed by curiosity, or the prospect of change makes your stomach heave and the ground beneath your feet rumble, my advice is: don't look back.

Risk is sitting on your shoulder, my friend. Nothing in your life is beyond redemption. Dive into that cold water. All bets are off.

A longer version of this article appears in 'A Man's Journey to Simple Abundance' by Sarah Ban Breathnach and Friends (Simon & Schuster, £10). You can order it through the Sting Shop.

© The Daily Telegraph



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