Book review: The Art of Non-Conformity

In June 2008, a Get Rich Slowly reader dropped me a line to see if I’d like to have lunch. “My name is Chris,” he said. “My wife Jolie and I will be visiting Portland next week. Do you have time to meet?”

“Sure,” I replied. I was just beginning to meet colleagues and readers for lunch, a habit that has since become the best part of this job. “Let’s meet at my favorite Thai place, Pok Pok.”

I didn’t know anything about Chris and Jolie when we met, but over noodles and rice, I grew to like them both. They told me about their adventures in Africa. Jolie gave me advice on how to recover from a running injury. Chris told me about his world travel and his new blog, The Art of Non-Conformity.

“I’ll have to take a look at it,” I told him, not expecting much. But I was hooked from the start and have been reading ever since. The Art of Non-Conformity is — no question — my favorite blog. And now it’s one of my favorite books.

Note: Although this review is as unbiased as possible, it can’t be unbiased. Chris Guillebeau is my friend, and I am a huge fan of his work. Please keep this in mind.

Set Your Own Rules
The Art of Non-Conformity by Chris Guillebeau

The Art of Non-Conformity (the book) is a lot like The Art of Non-Conformity (the blog). It’s a mix of personal history, anecdotes from other people, and plenty of sound advice about becoming successful and pursuing your dreams.

Guillebeau’s message is simple: You don’t have to live your life the way other people expect you to. There’s nothing wrong with being different. But he doesn’t want readers to fight authority just for the fun of it; he wants them to challenge conventional wisdom so that they can set their own rules and live with purpose.

This isn’t as easy as it sounds. First, you have to know what you want and how you plan to get it. Second, you have to be willing to work hard to make your plans succeed.

Unlike Tim Ferris (and his four-hour workweek), Guillebeau isn’t suggesting that people escape work altogether. Not at all. He wants people to work well at something they love instead of plodding half-heartedly at a position that provides no passion. He wants them to define what they want out of life — and then live it.

But setting your own rules will usually bring some challenges, such as:

  • Making sacrifices. If you choose to pursue a passion, you’ll need to make trade-offs. You can’t have everything. “I’m adamantly opposed to exchanging money for things I don’t value,” Guillebeau writes. He doesn’t spend frivolously because he knows that by doing so, he moves farther from his goals.
  • Overcoming fear. “Fear is normal! The goal is to conquer the fear, not to avoid it or pretend it doesn’t exist,” Guillebeau writes. “Most remarkable people are not remarkable by nature. Instead, they make a few key choices along the way that helped them overcome their fears.”
  • Ignoring dissent. Whenever somebody decides to do something different, they meet with opposition. In order to succeed, you’ll have to ignore the naysayers, quiet the critics, dodge the gatekeepers, and stay true to your purpose.

The Art of Non-Conformity doesn’t tell you which rules to set for your life. That’s your job. Guillebeau simply says you can set your own rules, and encourages you to do so. It’s up to you to actually decide what these rules will be and then to implement them.

Live the Life You Want

By deciding to set your own rules, you’re becoming your own boss. “No one else can be responsible for your success or well-being but you,” Guillebeau writes. “You don’t need someone’s permission to live your own life.”

Go back and read that again. It’s a vital, important message, but one that too many people ignore or cast aside as facile. You are a grown up. As long as your actions aren’t directly preventing others from pursuing their dreams, you have the right (and responsibility!) to pursue your own dreams.

  • If you want to spend your free time and money surfing, then surf.
  • If you want to accumulate cash to travel, then travel.
  • If you want to become a grade-school teacher, then do it.

As long as you can afford it, it’s not wrong to pursue your dreams. In fact, it’s wrong not to pursue them. You don’t need anyone’s permission but your own.

If you’re not happy, you need to take steps to change that. And, believe it or not, sometimes people aren’t happy because they’re having too much fun. What do I mean? Guillebeau explains his notion of a “To-Stop-Doing List”:

An important principle of life planning is that you can have anything you want, but you can’t have everything at the same time. To be able to devote most of your time to projects and activities you enjoy, you’ll need to be forceful about dropping a lot of other activities. The best way to do stop spending time on unnecessary distractions is to make a “to-stop-doing list”. This is better than a to-do list, because it helps you see what’s bringing you down.

It’s okay to to do fun things, but if the fun things get in the way of what you should do or want to do, that’s a problem. If the fun things are a net negative in your life, cut them out.

I used this principle in my own life just last week. Even after writing about the difference between Talkers and Doers, even after admitting I was playing too many computer games, I couldn’t stop slacking. I didn’t have the willpower to play in moderation. Instead, I had to stop doing the things that were causing problems for me. I uninstalled Starcraft II and I loaned my iPad to my nephew so that he could watch train videos. Drastic measures? Sure. But these are the sorts of things I need to do (or not do) in order to be the man I want to be.

By giving things up, we often get more in return. By trading an hour of sleep for an hour of exercise every morning for the past few months, I’ve lost 35 pounds, trimmed eight inches from my waist, and feel stronger than I have in my life. That’s a fine bargain. (Though, I do look forward to getting better sleep in 2011!) By changing the rules I was living by, I’m closer to leading the life I want.

Change the World

Guillebeau’s message isn’t just about setting your own rules so that you can live the life you want. He urges readers to look for ways that they can change the world. He urges you to ask yourself:

  • “What do I really want to get out of life?”
  • “What can I offer the world that no one else can?”

It’s not enough to build the life of your dreams, Guillebeau says; you have to help others build the lives of their dreams too:

Regardless of what you’ve done before or where you are in life now, you can make something beautiful that will outlast you. You can help others in a unique way that couldn’t have happened without your influence…

Remember: We all get one life to live. You might as well take it seriously, and a legacy project will ensure that what you bring to the world will continue to be valuable for a long time. Are you up for it?

Many GRS readers have urged me to take a more active role in charitable giving. But none of their scolding has had the same effect as hearing what Guillebeau has to say. His message of empowerment finally got through to me last February when he wrote about “dropping keys”. He shared this poem:

Keep Dropping Keys All Night Long
A poem by Hafiz, illustrated by Jolie Guillebeau. This is my mission, and Chris’s too.

Reading this sparked a flash of insight. Maybe I’m not meant to make a difference by donating money to charity or volunteering at soup kitchens — but I can still have a positive impact on the world.

I feel like my mission in life is to go around dropping keys — to do what I can to to help others achieve their financial goals. Sappy? I don’t care. It’s what I believe. And I would never have realized this except that Chris Guillebeau himself is out there in the moonlight, dropping keys to help the beautiful, rowdy prisoners escape their cages.

The Quest for Abundance

Is The Art of Non-Conformity perfect? Of course not. For one thing, it sometimes lacks a certain depth. There’s no question that Guillebeau has a lot of experience, but he’s still young. Sometimes this is reflected in his advice. (If you’re 40 and have three kids, you may find his suggestions impractical.)

Also, the beginning of the book feels a bit scattered, like a series of loosely connected essays without clear direction. Guillebeau ties everything together in the end, but I wanted more connections at the start. Finally, the book has no index. I hate it when non-fiction books don’t have indexes, and it frustrates me here, too.

These complaints are minor, though. Overall, I think The Art of Non-Conformity is a fine book. It’s like The Four-Hour Workweek lite — and that’s a good thing. Not every idea here will be applicable to every reader; Guillebeau includes a lot of stories and information, some of which will prove more useful than others. That’s fine. I measure the value of a book by what I take away from it.

Often I’ll finish a book, think “that’s nice”, and never consider it again. Nothing from the book sticks with me. When I wrote my own book, I tried to make it just the opposite. Your Money: The Missing Manual is packed with information and resources. My goal was for it to be a go-to resource that readers could reference again and again.

The Art of Non-Conformity is closer to this ideal. Though the first half didn’t hold much to interest me, the last half was packed with stuff I wanted to remember. I took tons of notes and dog-eared many pages. As soon as I finish typing this review, I plan to go back through to pull out websites, books, and projects for future use. (I’ve thought about going back to school, for example, but I love Guillebeau’s idea that it’s possible to get a quality education on your own without paying tuition; I may devise my own course of study!)

If you feel trapped, feel like there must be more to life than what you have, pick up a copy of The Art of Non-Conformity (and start reading the blog). You may just find the key to what you’re looking for.

The Real Deal

“Is Chris Guillebeau for real?” a friend asked me recently. Since Chris and Jolie moved to Portland 18 months ago, they’ve met many of my friends. And those that haven’t met Chris have heard me speak of him.

“What do you mean?” I asked. “Real in what way?”

“I don’t know,” my friend said. “I can’t put my finger on it. I know you like him, so I subscribe to his e-mail. But when I read it, I just get this vibe, you know? Nobody’s that good. He seems like a charlatan, like he can’t possibly believe everything he says.”

I laughed. “Chris is real,” I said. “I’ve met a lot of bloggers, and you’re right that a lot of them are very different in person than they are on their sites. Not Chris. He does believe what he says. He lives it. He’s no scam artist. He genuinely wants to help others ditch the daily drudgery and pursue their dreams. He’s all about making the world a better place.”

What he wants, I thought to myself, is to keep dropping keys all night long.

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