The Most Important Lessons Prince Taught Us

04/26/2016 11:46 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

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photo by Peter Tea

As I read stories written about Prince since his untimely death, I realize there are some loud messages he's left us to ponder. One of the most crucial is: it's okay to be different. In fact, it's not just okay. It's important, necessary, vital even.

Prince never shied away from being different. Or confusing. Or undefinable. He reveled in it and boasted about it. He teased us to question who he was in lyrics like "Am I black or white/Am I straight or gay." This is powerful stuff. In an age when people, especially kids, try to fit in, assimilate, blend, and not stand out, Prince deliberately defied categories: musical, sexual, racial, and cultural.

The beautiful thing is we are celebrating Prince for this. This is a positive step for humankind. Every article I've read in last few days, uses words like: different, renegade, visionary, "rewrote the rulebook," inventive, imaginative, revolutionary to describe him. Nowhere have I read that his style and message were similar to anyone's. Because there was no one.

We are a society that is not comfortable with ambiguity. We want explanations and definitions and delineation and compartments. Are you republican or democrat? Black or white? Gay or straight? Rich or poor? Christian or Jew? Man or woman? We don't readily acknowledge the somewhere in between. Or things that lie outside a category. Thankfully, we are beginning to support people who blur lines or imagine or innovate in a way we are not used to. But what Prince did was something different. Not only did he defy descriptions and labels, they didn't matter to him. At one point in his career, he even stripped away his name and replaced it with a symbol. Long before emojis existed. I remember the day I heard about this. I was so uncomfortable not to know how to refer to him in conversation. What would anyone call him? I could write the symbol but I couldn't say it. That blew my mind. This was just another way Prince taught us that labels aren't important. However, it's not okay if we only honor celebrities or the rich and famous for living this way, in fact it's hypocritical. This should be everyone's right.

To me, Prince was saying: You don't need to define yourself. Just be. And while you're at it, be bold. He said, "A strong spirit transcends rules." How can we live as individuals if we follow someone else's values? Someone else's style? Someone else's vision? How can "revolutionary" ever happen unless someone ventures on a new path? Do it with passion and purpose. And if it fails, move on. When someone as prolific as Prince dies at the young age of 57, one of the first thoughts people have is what could have been. How many other boundaries would he have broken, or ignored? We will never know.

The takeaway for me is: Don't waste time seeking the approval of others for your journey. There is no time to sulk about failure or cower in insecurity or paralyze yourself with self-doubt. You have been given a life. Define it the way that's true to you. Be bold, live authentically. Have empathy for people who choose to live outside a category. Have respect for people who are thinking and living and creating outside the box. These people will benefit all of us and the world around us. Their journey isn't easy; it's daring and uphill. Let's level the playing field, knock hills down with empathy and respect. And work on our own footprint. Now. There's no way to know how long we'll have.

Eva Lesko Natiello is the award-winning author of the bestseller, THE MEMORY BOX, a psychological thriller about a woman who Googles herself and discovers the shocking details of a past she doesn't remember.