37 career lessons you can learn from some of the best U2 songs

What can you learn from some of the best U2 songs?

Those who know me well know that my love for U2 (“the greatest rock band in the world!” – fight me later…) knows no bounds.

There are certain musicians you connect with on a deep level for many reasons. Besides Bono’s wailing voice which sounds like he’s always begging for forgiveness, my favourite U2 lyrics  always guide me with multi-faceted life lessons.

For example, one of the best U2 songs  “Gone”, which I referenced in my TBEX keynote on life transitions in Stockholm, goes:

“You hurt yourself, you hurt your lover, Then you discover, What you thought was freedom is just greed.” – which echoes the very thin line between freedom and selfishness.

But beyond everyday life lessons, I’ve also gleaned a lot of career advice as a freelancer and entrepreneur from their deep lyrics.

So, I’m sharing the career lessons I’ve learned from some of the best U2 songs and a few of my favourite U2 lyrics. Hope they help you too.

NOTE – All photos under each section are from U2’s official media gallery.

Best U2 songs - Best U2 lyrics

On diversifying

(1) “The rivers run but soon run dry. We need new dreams tonight.” – Song: In God’s Country | Watch video

We’ve all heard the saying of never putting all your eggs in one basket. One of the career lessons I learned very early on is that if I was going to survive as a freelance travel writer and photographer, I needed to diversify and do so quickly.

That was why ever since 2008, which was a full year before I actually went  freelance, I have been keeping and publishing my freelancing charts publicly. That chart has changed drastically over the years.

On time management

(2) Time is a train…Makes the future the past.. Leaves you standing in the station… Your face pressed up against the glass” – Song: Zoo Station  | Watch video

Ha, time. If only we had more of it. Except we do have enough time and yet, we seem to have adequate time for the things we subconsciously want to do, but really shouldn’t be doing.

And somehow we don’t have time for what we actually need to be doing. Reassess how you spend your time.

On resource management

(3) “Zooropa… be all that you can be. Be a winner. Eat to get slimmer” –  Song: Zooropa | Watch video

When it comes to work, it’s really about getting to the point where we’re all working smarter, not harder. About passive income and making money while we sleep. In essence, eating while getting slimmer.

(4) “The more you take, the less you feel. The less you know the more you believe. The more you have, the more it takes today.” – Song: Last Night on Earth | Watch video

I wrote an entire book on LAGOM which is the Swedish secret to living well – reducing stress within your control so that the life scale we all carry remains balanced. It’s about reducing overhead and unnecessary tasks and endeavors that don’t truly move your business forward.

(5) “Don’t run if you can walk, Don’t cheat, compete. Don’t miss the one beat.” – Song: Numb | Watch video

Pace. Have you found your own work pace? In our era of instant gratification and overnight stars, it’s easy to try to find shortcuts, cheat the process, and take the easiest and fastest road to success. What happens is that we end up building our empires on fluffy cotton candy instead of solid food.

Best U2 songs - Best U2 lyrics

On fighting impostor syndrome

(6) “Sometimes you can’t make it. The best you can do is to fake it” – Song: Sometimes you can’t make it on you own | Watch video

Every creative person has suffered from impostor syndrome at some point during their careers. The feeling that they aren’t good enough. That they would be “found out”. As Pratik Naik explains in this piece, “In simple terms, an effect of impostor syndrome is when no matter how good your work actually is, you will always feel like you don’t deserve the praise and accomplishments that come your way.”

Take comfort in the fact that you’re not alone.

(7) “And I don’t know the limit. The limit of what we’ve got” – Song: Zooropa | Watch video

But here is the counterpoint to that – Oh, how we let self-doubt chip away at our talents. How much power we give to that voice inside our heads when we haven’t even tapped into the extent of our own genius?

(8) “The best of us are geniuses of compression” – Song: Cedars of Lebanon | Watch video

It’s often said that it’s the very best of us who suffer from imposter syndrome the most. If only we would let our work speak for itself and not let our self-doubt cloak it.

On rejection

(9) “You ask me to enter, but then you make me crawl” – Song: One | Watch video

The bane of every freelancers exist is rejection. But what’s far worse than rejection are publications and partnerships which string you along with no real answers. In other words, waste your time and disrespect you. Cut them loose as soon as you can, because you deserve better.

On putting in the work

(10) “If you want to kiss the sky, better learn how to kneel. On your knees, boy!” – Song: Mysterious Ways | Watch video

Ok, so U2’s Mysterious Ways is my favorite song of all time and I have explained why in depth here. But the lyrics above in terms of work really talks about putting in the effort to truly build and achieve your dreams. Nothing happens overnight even if the world lies to us that it does. Preparation meeting opportunity is what brings us this far, and we need to be prepared and understand what working hard truly means. We need to learn humility.

On success

(11) “It’s no secret ambition bites the nails of success.” – Song: The Fly | Watch video

What is your definition of success? If you want to reach it, you’re going to have to take big risks. Risks that make you nervous enough to bite your nails. Because the more ambitious you are, the more risks you’re taking career-wise, and the chances of you being successful as well as failing miserably are equally high.

(12) “Some things you shouldn’t get too good at. Like smiling, crying and celebrity” – Song: Original of the Species | Watch video

And once success reaches your door and you become “famous”, try not to lose yourself even before true fame has reached your door.

And what is “fame” anyways but this arbitrary feeling that pigeonholes you into that big fish playing in a small pond mentality. Why not aim to move to an even bigger pond where you can find even bigger fish that inspire you and still give you space to swim around and be your own fish?

That is what I wrote in this piece titled The danger of believing your own press.

On procrastination

(13) “Nothing changes on New Year’s Day” – Song: New Year’s Day | Watch video

Exactly. We make work resolutions and we don’t keep them. That’s why I’ve personally stopped creating New Year’s resolutions and started choosing focus words instead that cut through all aspects of my life, including my business.

(14) “A man dreams of leaving, but he always stays behind.” – Song: Lemon | Watch video

You can keep dreaming from the cubicle of a job you absolutely hate. Or, you can finally take that nail-biting risk and make that big transition into living your purpose and what you’re supposed to be doing. Look, we all have responsibilities that tie us down, but we can start inching closer to our dreams instead of leaving them as just that… dreams.

On chasing false leads

(15) “They say be careful where you aim . ‘Cause where you aim you just might hit. You can hold onto something so tightly. You’ve already lost it.” – Song: Dirty Day | Watch video

Learning the art of pivoting as well as detecting false leads and dead end relationships is very important in business. You might hold on to an ideal for so long – that prestigious publication, that prime partnership – until you’ve closed yourself off to other more rewarding opportunities, only to end up with nothing in the end.

PS: This is one of my favorite U2 songs to sing and play on my guitar. The chords are super easy 🙂

Best U2 songs - Best U2 lyrics

On accepting responsibility

(16) “If you need someone to blame, throw a rock in the air, you’ll hit someone guilty.” – Song: Dirty Day | Watch video

Having true honest self-assessment has helped me. Knowing when things are technically my own fault is important. Once you stop playing the blame game and move forward, things start happening.

But as a Black African woman, the professional cards are already stacked against me career-wise due to systemic racism. As a society, we all share the blame, some more than others. Those that institute it and those who stay silent and do nothing about it.

(17) “You gotta stand up straight, carry your own weight” – Song: Stuck in a moment | Watch video

Most minorities (myself included) are forced to carry twice our own weight when it comes to work and business, while others just coast by due to privilege. That is what builds true grit and character.

When you carry your weight, you empathize, you understand, and you appreciate. Otherwise, you become like #45 who has never had to carry his own weight in life.

On networking and sharing

(18) “You’re holding on to every little thing so tightly. Till there’s nothing left for you anyway.” – Song: Gone | Watch video

I find emails from strangers saying they want to pick my brain for free extremely rude and disrespectful. This is coming from someone who considers herself quite generous.

That said, I do operate from a mindset of abundance. I truly believe in sharing and lifting a bit of the load off someone else’s back, especially if I’ve trudged through that same road career-wise. That is why I share information and contacts freely, but within reason.

(19) ”You don’t have to go it alone”- Song: Sometimes you can’t make it on you own |  | Watch video

Luvvie Ajayi of Awesomely Luvvie said it best – “The reason why we get to do certain things is that someone mentioned our names when we weren’t even present. That matters.”

I have written about “saying my name” and subconsciously lifting others when it comes to their careers and opening doors for them. You can’t reach your dreams alone. You need others, you need community, you need support, and most of all, you need that one person who will mention your name in a room when you’re not there to get you into that room.

(20) “Would you deny for others what you demand for yourself?” – Song: Crumbs from your table | Watch video

What more can I say about this lyric that is already perfect in its delivery? Be the example you want to see in the world. Create the work you want to see out there. Be your own standard.

Best U2 songs - Best U2 lyrics

On failure

(21) “The right to appear ridiculous is something I hold dear” – Song: I’ll go crazy if I don’t go crazy tonight | Watch video

If you’re not failing often, you’re not taking big enough risks to push your work and your business forward. For me, this means I’m still learning and growing. Because the day you stop evolving and developing is the day your business dies an unnecessary and avoidable death.

(22) “And if your way should falter. Along the stony pass. It’s just a moment. This time will pass.” – Song: Stuck in a moment | Watch video

That said, it’s okay. Don’t get stuck in that rejection. Or in that flawed business relationship. That too will pass and you will be able to start afresh with wisdom and clarity. That is the gift you get from the process.

(23) “Every day I have to find the courage. To walk out into the street. With arms out” – Song: Breathe | Watch video

Creating a business, building a brand, and showing your “baby” to a cruel world is a very vulnerable thing to do. Waking up every day doing what you love and creating what you want to leave behind takes courage. But if you’re truly doing what you love and are passionate about it, that passion will feed your courage to do this every single day, despite every wrong turn and rejection.

On staying true to your personal brand

(24) “You wanted to get somewhere so badly. You had to lose yourself along the way.” – Song: Gone | | Watch video

When I turned 40, I wrote about how proud I am that I haven’t lost myself and my values along the way towards living my dreams and building the work I’ve always wanted to be doing. It takes a lot of inner strength to be able to stay true to your voice and brand on your business journey.

(25) “I like the sound of my own voice. I didn’t give anyone else a choice” – Song: All because of you | Watch video

In this piece Defining my voice as an African travel writer, I write that the mainstream perception is that if I have an African voice, then I’m mostly writing about African experiences. Even Africans who’ve been in the diaspora for decades tend to find more “success” as an African travel writer if they come back and write about “home”.

Except, I found my own voice very early on, so I really didn’t give anyone else a choice about defining what I was supposed to be writing about. I write whatever moves me and the best part is that I love the sound of it. I can write about Nigeria and Sweden with equal authority.

On fighting burnout

(26) “Baby slow down… The end is not as fun as the start” – Song: Original of the Species | Watch video

Knowing when to slow down and when to gear back up is crucial. For a long time, I’ve been sharing status updates on FB that say “shifting gears”, “in parking mode”, “slowing down”, etc – to share where I mentally am.

”Don’t live life as if you’re afraid of being late to your own funeral,” says Geir Berthelsen, founder of The World Institute of Slowness (WIS), whose business card is a three-minute hourglass that recipients can use when they need to pause.

On self promotion

(27) “Everywhere you go you shout it. You don’t have to be shy about it” – Song: Original of the Species | Watch video

During her keynote at Travelcon, my friend Onieka of Oneika the Traveller said that when we women are in doubt of self-promoting our work, we should think about what a white man would do. Even the most mediocre of white men already think they are great.

So, if you want to get your work out there and let it be seen, no one cares more about it than you do. And no one will promote it with the same passion as you can because you created it.

On setting priorities

(28) “Take these hands. Teach them what to carry” – Song: Yahweh | Watch video

Let’s face it – most of us suck at prioritizing the right things work-wise. Deadlines usually nudge us aggressively to get what we need to get done. I’m a person of faith so this particular lyric helps me to stop and reach out to the source of my strength – God – for guidance in terms of what I need to focus on right now in my life.

Best U2 songs - Best U2 lyrics

On embracing change

(29) “Restart and re-boot yourself. You’re free to go. Shout for joy if you get the chance” – Song: Unknown Caller | Watch video

Transitions in our lives are opportunities to reinvent and transform ourselves and our work, so embrace them as invaluable gifts. Transitions are a chance to grow and explore more of what you want and leave behind what you most definitely don’t want when it comes to your work.

(30)“The world is spinning fast tonight. You can hurt yourself tryin to hold on. To what you used to be” – Song: Volcano | Watch video

How many of us are subconsciously defined by what we do and not realize it?

When I moved to Sweden, my first major transition started from having to shed the comfort of being a well-paid programmer to the uncertainty of becoming a freelance travel writer and photographer. It wasn’t until I sat in an Swedish language class and saw that no one cared that I was a programmer that I realized how much I’d let what I do define me. It forced me to peel off that programmer jacket.

You’re so much more than your career.

On partnerships and collaborations

(31) “Josephine, be careful of small men with big ideas” – Song: Stand up Comedy | Watch video

I could easily swap “Josephine” with “Lola” because I’ve met many small men and women with big ideas. How they react when I quote what I think my work is worth tells me everything I need to know about the partnership and their big ideas.

So, remember this poignant quote I’ve come across earlier this year -> “Pay attention when people react with anger and hostility to your boundaries. You have found the edge where their respect for you ends.”

On knowing your worth… and demanding it

(32) “Walk on, walk on. What you got they can’t steal it. No they can’t even feel it. What you’ve got they can’t deny it, Can’t sell it, can’t buy it” – Song: Walk on | Watch video

Yes, we often say exposure is good for your career, but within very rare contexts. You need to not only know your worth but demand it too. Forget impostor syndrome. Everyone battles it daily. There are gifts and talents only you can provide. Show up and charge up.

(33) “I believe my best days are ahead. I can see the lights in front of me” – Song: Lights of Home | Watch video

That said, seeing your career as an evolution is the only way you will remain relevant and productive within your field. As wide as my network is, I stay clear of pessimists. I surround myself with energy, positivity, idealists, and optimistic people who see great potential in everything. Because that aura is contagious for your work and your business.

(34) “Get out of your own way, I can sing it to you all night all night, If I could I’d make it alright alright, Nothing‘s stopping you except what’s inside, I can help you but it’s your fight, your fight.” – Song: Get out of your own way | Watch video

I have given so many presentations where people met me afterwards with a renewed charge on life and their work. Yes, you are the only one (most of the time) standing in the way of your work. Put it out. Share it with the world. Don’t wait for perfection. Vulnerability is what builds connection. So get out of your own way when it comes to your business.

On professional envy

(35) “You’re kept awake dreaming someone else’s dream” – Song: Electrical Storm | Watch video

It is human nature to compete, no question. This constant jockeying into position to be heard or seen, to be on someone’s list (who, in the grand scheme of life, isn’t essential to your survival), to fight the feeling of irrelevance when offline for a day or two…it can be draining.

The problem with creativity in all its forms is that it is bitterly subjective and intrinsic to the creator so competing creatively with someone else makes no sense to me

Don’t derail your business rubbernecking at someone else in a totally different lane.

On building legacy

(36)“Every generation gets a chance to change the world” – Song: I’ll go crazy if I don’t go crazy tonight |  Watch video

If we build empires around fluff, we aren’t leaving legacies behind. In this era of entitlement, we’re leaving dust in our wake. Like powdered sugar remnants of a donut around our lips. Instant gratification that would leave us hungry again within the hour.

So, let us all collectively do due diligence when it comes to creating the world we want to leave behind through our work.

Best U2 songs - Best U2 lyrics

And the ultimate career lesson – On work-life balance lesson

(37)“Some days are better than others.” – Song: Some days are better than others | Watch video

“Some days take less, but most days take more

Some slip through your fingers and on to the floor.

Some days you’re quick, but most days you’re speedy

Some days you use more force than is necessary.

Some days just drop in on us.

Some days are better than others.

Some days it all adds up

And what you’ve got is enough.”