What Gord Downie Taught Us About Life

If you knew you only had a few months to live, what would you change about your life in the time you had left?

It’s a question often posed by life coaches to get a client to root out their deepest desires, goals and dreams, as well as the fears and reservations that are currently holding them back.

For Gord Downie, the frontman, lead singer and lyricist for The Tragically Hip (a Canadian rock band whose music was the soundtrack of a generation in this country), the answer to the question, it seems, was “I wouldn’t change a thing”. Gord was a man who lived his values, who knew his path and never wavered from it. He left us 3 years ago, on October 17, 2017.

After his diagnosis of a glioblastoma (brain cancer) in December 2015, Gord continued to write and record music. He went back into the studio, recording enough material to produce two solo albums before his death, as well as a number of tracks recorded with the band, which have yet to be released.

Gord continued his philanthropic work and activism, which had begun years before his diagnosis, co-founding the Gord Downie and Chanie Wenjack Fund to support reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.

The Hip announced a Canada-wide tour, Man Machine Poem, culminating in a historic, nationally-broadcast concert in their hometown of Kingston, Ontario. So profoundly did Downie’s lyrics and the band’s music touch the nation, that the national broadcaster, CBC, aired that final show live, free of commercials, and on all its platforms – television, radio and live streamed on YouTube. The event united Canadians of every age and demographic; it’s estimated that 1/3 of Canada’s total population tuned in to watch, to listen… and to mourn.

What an amazing legacy.

We can learn a lot from Gord’s example, it seems to me. Here are just a few of the lessons I’ve personally taken to heart. I hope they resonate with you as well. 

1. Figure out what you love to do, and then put your heart and soul into it.

Gord was a poet, first and foremost. I doubt anyone would argue that he was a brilliant vocalist – he was no Burton Cummings, at any rate. But what made The Hip’s music so magical was those lyrics – words that conjure up vivid experiences to which every Canadian can relate:

It was in Bobcaygeon, I saw the constellations
Reveal themselves, one star at a time.

2. Stay true to yourself; be authentic. Don’t try to reinvent yourself for the sake of fame or fortune.

The Hip were never able to break through onto the mainstream US musical scene; they were popular in border towns like Buffalo, NY and Detroit, MI, but none of their songs ever got higher than #16 on the Billboard charts.

It didn’t matter. From Wikipedia:

Downie once complained that the band's lack of crossover to the American rock music market had been overexamined, stating "[Interviewers] always ask us about our success or lack of success in the States, which I find absurd. While that is a story of the band, there are so many other stories."

If they had made breaking into the US market a major focus, it’s quite likely that The Tragically Hip would have had to compromise on their sound, losing what made them a unique and beloved Canadian group. Would the entire nation have stood still on August 20, 2016 to watch that final concert in Kingston, if The Hip were just another mainstream band? Highly doubtful. 

3. Surround yourself with people who love you.

The members of The Hip first got together as a band in 1984, and they remained together until Gord’s passing in October of 2017. I often marvel at how well they kept their composure on that last tour, sharing the stage every night with their friend of 32 years, watching him fight a losing battle for his life and struggle with memory and balance issues. At the end of every performance, Gord would embrace and kiss each of his bandmates in turn; the brotherly love they shared was palpable.

It’s clear to me that this was where Gord drew his strength. Touring is gruelling for even a musician who is in good health; doubly so for someone battling cancer and who had recently finished several rounds of radiation and chemotherapy. But he loved his bandmates, and he loved the audience. It was that love that compelled him to keep performing, night after night, and that love radiated back to him from a nation in awe of his generosity, courage, and spirit. 

4. Don’t waste time - it's a finite resource.

Gord lived life to the fullest, and this was a common theme in his songs as well. No dress rehearsal, This is our life he wrote in “Ahead by a Century”.

On the morning after his death, the official statement from his family, posted on the band’s website, included the following:

Gord knew this day was coming – his response was to spend this precious time as he always had – making music, making memories and expressing deep gratitude to his family and friends for a life well lived, often sealing it with a kiss ... on the lips. Gord said he had lived many lives. As a musician, he lived "the life" for over 30 years, lucky to do most of it with his high school buddies. At home, he worked just as tirelessly at being a good father, son, brother, husband and friend. No one worked harder on every part of their life than Gord. No one.


Have you ever thought about what your family and friends will say about YOU when you pass away? Try writing the eulogy you hope someone would read at your funeral; then take a step back and assess whether the life you are living today will justify those words. If not, you’ve got work to do. It’s never too late to make a change, until you take that last breath.

The catch? You have no way of knowing when that day will come. 

So…what are you waiting for?


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