Live Like You Give A Damn – The Lessons of Anthony Bourdain

Like a lot of people, I have some complicated feelings about the death of Anthony Bourdain. As a general rule, I don’t usually have much to say about celebrity deaths other than “Man, that sucks.” But a few, a precious few, manage to hit me like a hammer to the chest. Those are the ones that feel too close to home, the ones who had serious meaning for me. Sometimes it’s because they were someone whose work had a major impact on my life. Other times, it’s because I can relate far too closely to the pain that brought them to the end. Robin Williams hit both of those for me. So, surprisingly, did Bourdain.

Now there’s a lot of talk about in the wake of his death. Many people, myself included, have had a lot to say about living with depression. There are some great resources for getting help if you have mental health issues or how to help someone you love who’s dealing with mental illness in real and material ways. And there are plenty of people arguing about suicide and how to process it all.

And then there’s this asshole.

But, honestly? I’m getting incredibly tired of talking about death and eulogizing all of the people we’ve lost recently. Because while we should eulogize and mourn and grieve for those we’ve lost, I feel like a fitting monument – especially to larger than life figures like Bourdain – is to learn how to live. Taking inspiration from them and living a better life because of their example is, to my mind, the best tribute one could pay to the ones we’ve lost.

And while you could say many things about Anthony Bourdain, everyone can agree that the man lived – deliberately, passionately and incredibly.

So while we may have lost a larger-than-life figure, we can all learn to live our own lives in a way that Bourdain would’ve admired.

Here’s how you live like you give a damn.

Get Out Of Your Comfort Zone

One of the easiest – and laziest – things you can do in this life is to simply go through it on auto-pilot. Too many of us simply coast through, never challenging ourselves or taking risks. It’s incredibly easy to stay on the sure path, avoiding risk, avoiding failure. Stick with the known, the safe, the things that don’t push you or challenge you. Eat the same food, listen to the same music, go to the same places day in, day out.

Or you could end up in foreign countries eating fermented shark and warthog anus.

OK, maybe that’s going a little far.

Part of what made Anthony Bourdain so compelling is that he lived life in a balls-out manner. As a younger man, he was a raconteur and libertine, living a punk-as-fuck life; partying to excess, drinking and drugging his way through restaurant culture. And while he gave up the more extreme ways of his youth, he never let go of the energy, drive and passion that propelled him to every corner of the world. You can take the young punk out of the walk-in freezer (especially after he’s done getting high) but you can’t take the punk out of the man. Just as that reckless disregard for the norms of life propelled Bourdain into superstardom, so can it be what gives your life the fire and grit it deserves.

If any of Bourdain’s writings, his shows, his activism or his cooking has taught us anything, it’s the joy, the terror and the wonder that comes from stepping outside of our own bubbles. It’s that willingness to grab opportunities as they come, even if they’re something you would never do, and squeeze them until they squeak.

Now this doesn’t mean that you need to be working as a sous-chef while high on LSD or subsisting on enough coffee and cigarettes to keep both Virginia and Columbia in clover. But living like you give a damn does mean a willingness to take risks. You should try things that challenge you and push your limits. Take on tasks that scare you, recognizing that you know you may well fail in the attempt… and then do them anyway. Yes, you may not succeed – at first – but you’ll still survive. And in failing, you won’t just survive, but you’ll bounce back, stronger and better than before.

Life is too short and too full of wonder to play it completely safe. Taking even a small step out of your own comfort zone is the first step towards entering a bigger, more incredible world, full of things you would never see or experience otherwise.

And while we’re on the topic:

Explore Like Bourdain

Part of what makes people lead lives of quiet desperation is how little curiosity that we show in the world around us. Think about your own daily routine. How often do you take the same routes to work, talk to the same people, eat the same food, over and over again? To be sure, there’s comfort to be found in routine, but routine can also become the straightjacket in which we live. Like I said before: we have our little bubbles and we scarcely can be bothered to leave them. Most people live their lives solidly between the lines, never venturing so much as a toe’s worth outside of them. It’s all so very safe, so very familiar and so very much the same. It’s all too easy to miss out on wonders because of how rarely we stop to look around.

And even when we do venture out, we do so in the narrowest, most structured way possible. Everything gets planned and scheduled to within an inch of its life, leaving little opportunity for serendipity. And while there are times when structure is good – even necessary – there are more times when it’s better to just strike out and find adventure on your own.

Part of what made Bourdain so compelling was his willingness to do whatever in the name of getting to know a city, a people or a cuisine. Whether it was dining at a dingy food truck in Austin or a hole-in-the-wall noodle shop in Thailand, he was willing to go off the beaten path just to see what was there.

It’s almost impossible to go wrong when you eat where the locals do.

This doesn’t mean that you need to travel the world – though you should, if you have the opportunity. It just means that you need to make a point of getting to know the world around you. Find the areas of your town where you never go and get to know it. Eat at restaurants and try cuisines you’ve never had the guts to try before. Read books that are the polar opposite of what you normally read for pleasure. Talk to people, especially the people on the margins; get to know their stories and appreciate life from a perspective other than your own. And if you do travel, give yourself opportunities to get lost and just explore.

If you want to let Bourdain be your inspiration, then find the blank spots in the map of your life and start to fill them in.

Blow Through Mediocrity

Anthony Bourdain was a man who lived for the things that he loved. Even when it hurt or things seemed impossible, he was able to push himself to new levels. He was someone who tossed the easy, predictable life aside in order to pursue the vagabond life in the kitchens of the world. And he thrived. He fought and clawed and endured and studied and learned, crawling from the bottom rung to becoming a legend in his industry. Yes, he did have prodigious talent, the sort of skill and mind that only comes along once in a generation, but talent only gets you so far. In the words of Henry Rollins: knowledge without mileage equals bullshit.

Much of what made Bourdain special, what helped him advance where others didn’t was a refusal to slack. To take it easy. To do what so many of us do and take the easy, expected way.

One of the hardest things to do in this world is to push yourself out of the rut of your life. The rut is comfortable. The rut is safe. It may be boring and predictable, but it’s also easy. Staying in your rut takes no effort. You can do it on autopilot, coasting your way through life with your eyes closed. But that’s no way to live.

And there are so many ruts in our lives. Our careers. Our relationships. Even our own identities. We take the easy path when we can because we know it’s safe. We don’t push our way out of those ruts because it’s hard and it’s risky and we don’t know what may happen because of it. Easier to let someone else tell us what to do, to look to the Great Savior to ply us with platitudes even as he expects us to ignore how empty his words are. Harder to take chances. Harder still to go over the top and face a fate that might end with our hopes and dreams shattering around us.

Even when that’s exactly what we need to do. Bourdain was a man well acquainted with failure. His second act was based on failure; part of what prompted his famous essay “Don’t Eat Before Reading This” was yet another restaurant failing. But that failure, the loss of those dreams became the foundation for new dreams. He took the remains of his future and forged them anew and attacked his life and his career again with the ferocity and tenacity of a pit-bull. The same tenacity and ferocity defined everything he did; he refused to accept mediocrity. He might succeed or he might fail but he would do so greatly. If he was going to crash and burn then it would be a fire that the gods of Olympus would see.

And anyone in the restaurant business can tell you: your food is being cooked on the flames fueled by someone else’s dreams going up in smoke.

This didn’t mean going balls to the wall every second. Part of overcoming your mistakes means learning how to ease back on the throttle. Sometimes the way you recover from failure is to slow down and find another way… but that’s predicated on accepting that there is another way. It may not be what you expect… but it’s there for you to find it. But the fact that there’s another way doesn’t mean that you get to half-ass it. No matter what you do, life’s too important to give it anything less than the full ass.

Speaking of failure…

Collect Some Scars

In the Austin episode of No Reservations, Bourdain said something that resonated with me: “My body is like a car; there’re so many dents in it by now that one more won’t matter.”

The mistake that so many people make is that they let fear of consequences hold them back. Far too many of us treat life as a game. Not in the sense that we don’t take it seriously, but in the sense that we believe it’s something that can be won. What holds people back is their desire to critical path their way through life. If they can’t be assured of having The Perfect Run, get the Best Ending and find that perfect play through to an S-rank, they don’t want to play at all. They want to make it through to the end without a single mistake, a single flaw or a single lost life.

The problem is: we can’t. There’s no such thing. But it leads to people treating their lives like a brand new car, so afraid of getting scratches in the paint that they never drive it to its full potential.

Hey, it doesn’t matter what shape it’s in as long as it makes it over the finish line.

The truth is that none of us are getting out of this life alive, or in perfect condition. But trying to stay as pristine as possible keeps us from living our lives the way that we wish we could. Scars – physical or emotional, deliberate or accidental – are examples of a life lived with purpose. They’re reminders of adventures you had, choices that you’ve made and mistakes that you’ve survived.

Some scars are ones we’ve picked up by choice; we knew that this was going to hurt, but we did it anyway. Others are inflicted upon us by others – sometimes with intent, others by accident.  Some of them may be the marks of regret or pains we wish we never experienced… but those marks add to the texture of our lives. The ridges and whorls become the maps of our lives and a sign that we didn’t just exist, we lived. Every single scar we carry is a story, and stories are part of what make our lives great. Stories are what make life worth living.

If you want to live like you actually give a damn about the act and the art of living then you need to be willing to take on the dents, dings, scrapes and bangs that come with living. They’re going to happen, regardless of what you do; life is a full contact sport and there’s no going through life without getting banged up. But it’s better to have marks that come from living deliberately than the accidental door dings… or the stress of trying to live life while staying in factory condition the entire way through.

Examine The Impact You Have On The World

Part of what made Bourdain amazing – and makes his loss hurt all the more – was his willingness to be a force for good in this world. Anthony Bourdain was a tireless advocate for the underclass and the downtrodden – in almost everything he did. He was a champion of low-end cuisine, the food of the peasant class. But rather than appropriating it and turning into haute cuisine, he celebrated the food and the people who made it. To him, the people were inextricably tied to the food; to deny one would be to insult the other. He recognized that he was in a position of privilege. As someone in the spotlight, he was able to bring attention to injustice and wrongdoing. Instead of hogging the spotlight himself, he would shine it on others and let them tell their stories.

In 2017, as the Harvey Weinstein scandal continued to unfold and #MeToo was exposing the sexism and harassment in chef culture, Bourdain took time to share how the movement had changed how he looked at himself:

I’ve been hearing a lot of really bad shit, frankly, and in many cases it’s like, wow, I’ve known some of these women and I’ve known women who’ve had stories like this for years and they’ve said nothing to me. What is wrong with me? What have I, how have I presented myself in such a way as to not give confidence, or why was I not the sort of person people would see as a natural ally here? So I started looking at that.

This is important. Instead of centering the story around himself – how he did or didn’t make things better, or proclaiming his innocence – he took a look at who he was and how he could help others. He took responsibility for his own part in contributing to the romanticizing of toxic restaurant culture and became an advocate for the women who were speaking out. He did his best to be conscious of how he could support and help others and be the person that others could rely on if needed.

In a world that seems increasingly dark, chaotic and hopeless, he was a beacon of light. He was willing to lend his voice and his prestige to tell the truth and help push back against injustice.

He was a lion of a man and we won’t see his like again.

Unless we take up the standard that he left behind and follow his lead.

There are many ways of eulogizing and mourning the loss of another. But there are few better ways to commemorate their life than to take inspiration from them and learn from them. To make the world a little better and our lives a little more interesting.

And maybe have a drink and an amazing meal in the process.


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