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Ten Unimaginable Life Lessons You Can Learn from Anthony Bourdain

Tim Denning Profile of Tony Bourdain

Image Credit: Flickr Creative Commons


I got emotional writing this.

It’s my last farewell to a great man, full of flaws, surrounded by beauty. I’ve spent the last 730 days studying the life of Anthony (Tony) Bourdain. From book writer to travel tv show host to philosopher — his life has touched me.

Since my journey of discovering his work began, I’ve watched every episode of every tv show he ever did. With no international travel for the last two years, his overseas journeys filled that void. I completed the last episode of his tv show, Parts Unknown, a few days ago.

Towards the end I felt emotional, tears in my eyes — like I was losing a family member.

He’s such a kind, gentle f*cking soul.

This article closes a chapter in my life that I don’t want to end. I feel like I let him into my living room for all this time and then he abandoned me, leaving me feeling somewhat lost.

He took his life, yet his life still gives.

The hidden battle that killed Anthony Bourdain

People assume Tony died in a drunken rage. His toxicology report shows he wasn’t drunk on that dark day in France.

The battle he fought was between light and dark. While darkness forced him to take his own life, I believe light still won.

He became a bright light for millions of people. That’s what makes me tear up.

The dichotomy of Anthony

While watching the documentary about Tony’s life, I learned a common view about him: he could have killed someone else, too, if they were there in his darkest hour.

Respecting a man, who those close to him said had the capacity to kill another, is a strange idea to think about.

The only way I can come to terms with it is to focus on the good he did. And to believe that we all have the capacity to murder another, but 99% of us never will. I prefer to judge based on someone’s actions rather than what they could have done.

This is the strange predicament you find yourself in when you study Tony. I don’t have the answer. Take the good, leave the bad???

Be extremely careful with dark fantasies

Tony’s dark side was always present.

In multiple episodes he talked about taking his own life. In one of the last episodes of Parts Unknown, he said that he’d like to get left in a forest for the animals to eat him.

The difference with Tony is these fantasies weren’t one-offs. He joked about his own death, often. People close to him were uncomfortable about it. The signs of his eventual demise were there, yet acting on the facts became nobody’s business.

Lesson: Don’t joke about your death or someone else’s.

The biggest untold lie of his life

The stories of Tony’s huge impact on the world are bullsh*t.

They always start with “his first book Kitchen Confidential started his career.”

They’re wrong. Tony didn’t work as a chef in a restaurant and then write a book after hours and become one of the most iconic figures in history.

Hollywood loves to sell the lie of overnight success.

Tony was a writer for over a decade before his breakout classic. The first book he wrote, “Bone in the Throat” came out in 1995. It did poorly. He even paid for his own book tour. His second book, a fictional tale, “Gone Bamboo,” was also a huge flop.

What caused Tony’s third book to become a cult classic is this:

  • Work ethic
  • Never giving up
  • Rejection after rejection

Using these traits, Anthony randomly pitched a story in 1999 to the New Yorker called “Don’t Eat Before Reading This.”

Through a series of bizarre events the article got read, and later, published. This one viral article was the basis for his third book.

Lesson: Failure equals success if you keep going.

Get the edge

Lots of people write happy-go-lucky cookbooks. Not Tony. His success is completely misunderstood.

His book “Kitchen Confidential” became a hit for multiple reasons.

It’s no secret Tony was a young cook that got addicted to heroin. Drugs shaped Tony’s life story. He then fused cooking with drugs and turned it into a book. Nobody had done this before with a soft topic like cooking.

There’s a secret most people don’t know about him. The guy bet his entire career on black at the roulette table. He says “I began thinking about becoming a traitor to my profession.”

The book exposed the hospitality industry, including the restaurant he worked at while writing the book to pay for food and rent.

If the book wasn’t a success Tony’s cooking career would have been over and no one would have ever wanted to hire him as a cook again. With a lingering heroin addiction, he would have most likely become a junkie and ended up dead. Yet he didn’t.

The secret to success is risk. Read that again.

Tony took it further and even added explicit acts of humans ‘doing it’ and racism to the story. It’s an uncomfortable read. The book led to a tv show where his skill of writing would further differentiate him.

The tv show defined his whole life and allowed him to travel. Travel let him not be in one place for too long where he’d have to think about how bizarre a person he was.

Gif Credit: Tenor

A mission greater than a dumb travel tv show

Tony’s tv show was different.

At the start he read the narration others wrote for him. Then eventually he wrote the narration himself. Tony’s writing ability is unlike something you will ever come across.

His descriptions are deep. His characters are extraordinary. His ability to communicate emotion is impossible to comprehend.

“I see stuff. I talk about it. I talk about how it makes me feel,” said Tony.

The show starts out as a food show, then a food and travel show, then he adds philosophy, then he sprinkles in recreations of his favorite film scenes.

By the end you have parts of multiple tv show formats fused into one, with the voice of a writer to guide you through a personal transformation in your understanding of the world.

The show became a platform for the ignored. The stories got you out of your comfort zone. Tony hated going to cliche places most of us spend our lifetimes traveling to. He wanted to go to the uncomfortable parts. The parts you would never know to go to if someone didn’t show you.

Certainty is my enemy. I’m all about doubt. — Anthony Bourdain

On these strange, wonderful journeys I discovered Tony became an advocate for the poor, oppressed, and my favorite, the underdogs. “Put the people who would never be on camera, on camera” was his philosophy.

The magic? Those people were incredibly relatable to us, so we fell in love.

“Life starts at the edge of the unknown”

The news only follows the bad stories.

Tony wanted to follow the good stories too. In the Libya episode of Parts Unknown, Tony explores what it’s like to go to a country that has been liberated from a dictator. The people have seen some rough times and most have seen people get killed.

Oddly, they are happy though because they now have freedom.

We’re left with an appreciation for the power of freedom we take for granted.

In another episode Tony is in Israel. One street has four religions that each have a popular moment in history that has occurred there. Tony visits the various neighborhoods, and there are walls between each. People from one side can’t cross into another side.

The strange situation they live in seems to lost on them.

It makes you think life would be so much better if we all forced ourselves to get along despite our differences.

The Berlin episode taught me about the fall of the Berlin Wall that school left out of my education. As a former DJ one moment stood out. A young woman explains that techno music united East and West Berlin after the wall came down.

Now I understand the magic of the music I once played in a new light.

In the Vietnam episode we see John McCain and other American soldiers visit their enemies. They no longer saw hate. They saw fellow humans.

Later, Tony meets Barrack Obama for a meal. They both agreed that travel allows us to immerse ourselves in different cultures. It helps us see strangers as people exactly like us. This can prevent wars and decrease racism.

At the end of the episode Tony talks to a young lady. The lady says we must never forget the Vietnam War. She bursts into tears as she says, “Remembering is how we ensure another war doesn’t happen.”

In the final season of Parts Unknown the first episode is in Kenya. It has Tony’s famous voiceover. By the Texas episode the voiceover is no longer there. No doubt Tony filmed the episode but never got to do the voiceover due to his death.

It feels creepy.

The light that is Tony slowly fades through the tv.

Gif Credit: Tenor

Fame is a silly fantasy

Tony taught me that fame is a nightmare. He chased raw, unfiltered — not fancy or edited for show.

The food he eats in the show is closer to home-cooked than fine dining. Fine dining is a form of eating to compliment fame. That’s why I now hate it.

Tony argues that the entire business of restaurants is built on fame. If you look at the risks of starting a restaurant it’s higher than startups. He says they’re the worst investment you can find. So why do people start restaurants?

They want the attention, the fame. Even the friends of restaurant owners are fame junkies. They only go to the restaurant to say they know the owner and to get free/discounted food.

Scum.

The only time these friends stop going to the restaurant is when it starts to fail from too many leeches and the inevitable bad business model of hospitality.

People love you when you’re successful. They hide when you’re unsuccessful.

You don’t need fame. You need to be a bright light for one person.

Never underestimate the life of a service worker

What made Tony relatable was his service worker life.

All the good things he learned, he learned as a dishwasher or cook. There’s a lot to be said about that. Any one of us can achieve greatness when we understand humans.

Relatability is underestimated.

The least you can do is see the world with open eyes — Anthony Bourdain

Decide to screw being normal

The greatest sin is mediocrity — Anthony Bourdain

Tony taught me to hate the normal life. You get to do life once. Why would you play it on easy mode and live below your potential? It’s madness, I tell ya.

Normal equals replaceable.

The sheeple people way of life … is one to unfollow.

See someone in the mirror worth saving

What many people don’t know about Tony is he quit heroin cold turkey. When asked about it, he says “I saw someone in the mirror worth saving.” He tried hard to save that person.

He got off heroin. Then writing became heroin, then food, then his tv show, then finally, Jiu-Jitsu.

Eventually, he could no longer save himself from the darkness. But he tried bloody hard. That’s all you can do.

Save yourself over and over. Transform. Reinvent.

The key to happiness that Tony spent his entire life chasing

What eluded Tony was a feeling that he belonged.

His personality was one of a searcher. He traveled the whole world looking for a place where he could belong. Each episode of his tv show he would spend time with new people.

Most of them never stayed in his life. He never had a place to call home. That’s where the darkness came from that put out his bright light.

You feel happy when you feel like you belong.

What stopped him from belonging is a disease many of us suffer from: being romantic. Romanticism is just a fancy word for perfection. Tony became romantic about everything in his life, so reality became a constant disappointment. He could never live up to his romantic fantasies.

When you lower your expectations the good life becomes achievable.

Don’t die for love

What killed Tony is love.

His lover Asia became his heroin. Paparazzi photos a few days before his death show Asia with another man. In the documentary “Roadrunner,” it’s noted by those close to him that he was furious.

His final social media post is a revenge sequence from the 1970 film Violent City. It starts with paparazzi photos of a woman cheating. Many believe those photos caused him to take his life.

In an episode of Parts Unknown Tony meets his idol, rock legend, Iggy Pop. After Iggy’s crazy lifestyle and wild stories, Tony says “What thrills you?”

“Being loved.”

Hearing his idol say those words revealed what Tony thought he could never quite have. The truth is, you don’t need to let love be your downfall.

If only Tony knew…

Life can be reborn.

Final words on a great human

Writing about Tony is a battle between light and dark, too, I’ve found. There are many ways to portray the character he was for so many people. I choose to see the light he gave people like me during the darkness of the last two years.

The way you remember Tony is all that matters.


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Tim Denning
I am an Aussie Blogger with 500M+ views — Writer for CNBC & Business Insider. Inspiring the world through Personal Development and Entrepreneurship. You may have seen my work on Medium, LinkedIn, Bitclout, or Twitter.

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