The Art of Non-Conformity: Book Review

Have you ever thought “I don’t like where I am in life right now,” that there must be something more to life than what you’re currently experiencing?

If your answer to the above question is yes, then Chris Guillebeau’s new book, The Art of Non-Conformity, might be the book you need to read next. The book is subtitled “Set Your Own Rules, Live the Life You Want, and Change the World” — admittedly a grand series to accomplish (especially the last part), but Chris Guillebeau sets you on the right track…

Before I begin this review, a disclosure: I’ve been following Chris Guillebeau online over the last two years or so. I am a big fan of his blog and have been for a number of years. His Brief Guide to World Domination is a must-read. I was one of the 99 people to receive an advance copy of this book by leaving a comment in this post. Onward!

The Art of Non-Conformity on my desk...

Introduction

In Chapter 1, in the very first sentence, Chris outlines the purpose of his book:

The purpose of this book is to transform your thinking about life and work. You’ll benefit from the transformation if you’re in a season of life where you’re getting ready to make some changes.

Chris then goes on to explain that there are essentially two kinds of people in this world: those that choose to help you on your journey, and those that will do everything they can to prevent you from achieving your dreams (so-called gatekeepers and critics). Of course, there is another group: the one that doesn’t know or care about your life and goals, but the focus here is to connect with those people that want to help you, while carefully removing ties with the haters…

Just a few pages later, Chris highlights (italicizes) this sentence, and I have marked it as the thesis of the book:

You don’t have to live your life the way other people expect you to.

What struck a chord with me is how honest Chris was upfront about who this book is for:

I’m writing for believers, not cynics, and if you make some big changes as a result of the stories and ideas you read here, we will both have succeeded. In the event we succeed, you’ll have the ability—and the obligation—to live life on your own terms and help other people while you’re at it…If anything else results from our time together, I will have failed. In that case, I’ll deserve one-star reviews on Amazon.com, and you’ll deserve an apology for my wasting your time…

The Book Contents

The Art of Non-Conformity is organized into three parts: The Remarkable Life, Reclaiming Work, and The Power of Convergence. The chapters are listed below, and I provide some key passages from each chapter as well.

1. Sleepwalkers and the Living World.

In this chapter, Chris explains the ground rules: why he wrote the book and for whom this book is intended. I think the key takeaway is that you must be open to new ideas (i.e., really be open-minded rather than just say that you are):

Almost everyone says they are open-minded, but when it comes down to it, most of us are deeply uncomfortable with change. We like things the way they are, or at least the way we imagine them to be.

Also of note is that you must be dissatisfied with the status quo (which is your impetus to start doing something on your own terms, which would be valuable to you and others). There’s a great list in this chapter called “11 Ways to be Unremarkably Average.” Some of the items listed include: “Accept what people tell you at face value” and “Go overseas once or twice in your life, to somewhere safe like England.” However, there’s one item with which I disagree: “Think about writing a book, but never do it.” I think not all of us are cut out to write a book. Rather, I think that item should be replaced with: “Think about starting a great blog, but never do it.” Blogging is much more practical than writing a book, in my opinion. And I don’t think Chris had the intention to write a book until he realized how popular his own blog had become…

2. Setting the Terms of Your Unconventional Life.

This part of the book is all about you: what do you want to get out of life? In this chapter, Chris prods you in the right direction, but ultimately it is up to you to decide on what you really want to do, where you want to go, etc. I like this quote from Joseph Campbell that Chris includes in this chapter:

People say that what we’re seeking is a meaning for life…I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. What we seek is an experience of being alive.

The rest of this chapter focuses on goal-setting, both short-term and long-term. Chris uses a so-called “radical goal-setting” in his life, whereby he creates a “life list” (or a “bucket list” of everything he wants to do at some point in his life). He encourages the reader to do the same. Furthermore, Chris creates a list for those things he wants to accomplish in one year and five years.

Something I am trying to do more of is help others. Chris suggests:

As a general rule, if you don’t know what to do on any given day, spend at least some of your time helping someone else.

3. Smashing Through the Brick Wall of Fear.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said: “Always do what you are afraid to do.” While this advice may be peevish, it does represent the core concept of this chapter. Chris begins with a profile of Sloane Berrent, who traveled to Manila as a Kiva fellow on a four-month volunteer commitment. There’s a touching letter from her in which she writes:

I’m scared every day. I’m scared people won’t think I’m doing this for the right reasons. I’m scared since I’m everywhere at once and nowhere all the time I won’t have the opportunity to settle down and have a family…But here’s the thing. I’ve also realized that fear is normal. If I didn’t get a little tug in my stomach before something big, it wouldn’t be the right thing.

In this chapter, Chris also includes a comparison of two people. Both said they wanted to make changes in their lives, but only one came through with it. Was one person more fearful than the other? Maybe so, but more important is their desire: you can’t make someone truly want something. For if they wanted it bad enough, they would have already been on their way in going for it.

Do you believe this claim from Paulo Coelho?

When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.

4. How to Fight Authority and Win.

This chapter goes more in depth about gatekeepers: those authority figures who seek to limit your choices. A gatekeeper can also be an obstacle that must be overcome to achieve unconventional success. There’s an interesting table in this chapter which takes a look at conventional assumptions. For instance, according to Chris, the conventional assumption of higher education is to train students for a profession; an alternate interpretation is that higher education reinforces social obedience and pressure to conform.

5. Competence is Your Security.

This chapter is about risk tolerance and taking responsibility for your actions. Chris has a good side-bar in which he profiles a few businesses which were started for $100 or less. There is a table which lists characteristics of “good and bad businesses” in this chapter, which I found a bit short-sighted. Why? Chris writes that location independent business is good while a fixed location business is bad, for instance. I think Chris’s perspective is based on the self-entrepreneurial, blogger-type. The other points are more difficult to argue with: certainly the business isn’t as good if the cash flow is unpredictable or irregular.

There’s an excellent short profile in this chapter of a man named Allan Bacon, a self-described “40-year old average guy” with a good job (great salary, full benefits). The problem was that the job was driving him crazy, and he was looking for an outlet. In a series of “Life Experiments,” Allan took up simple things like visiting art museums on his lunch break and dabbling in photography on the weekends. It’s a good option for people who aren’t quite ready to make a drastic change in their life. Slow and steady changes in daily life can lead to big improvements over time.

I liked this paragraph near the end of this chapter:

I’m also skeptical of the idea of eliminating work or reducing it to its most limited elements. It’s not that I think there’s anything wrong with making more time for family or activities you enjoy. I just think that if someone is unhappy with how they are spending their workday, the answer is to find better work. Personally, I like work. I believe in a 168-hour workweek that is filled with activities I like.

6. Graduate School vs. the Blogosphere.

This chapter is a bit controversial, because Chris’s mindset is that of a (very) successful blogger. While Chris doesn’t think the $32,000 he spent on graduate education at the University of Washington was a waste, he does think that he’s had a more positive impact in the world by writing in his blog (and I agree with him here). There’s an excellent box in this chapter titled “The One Year, Self-Directed, Alternative Graduate School Experience” which profiles some of the things you can do:

  • Subscribe to the Economist and read every single issue. [May I suggest you also subscribe to The Atlantic and The New York Times?].
  • Memorize the names of every country, world capital, and current president or prime minister in the world. [I’ve got the world capitals down, but I’m still working on the current world leaders].
  • Loan money to an entrepreneur through Kiva.org and arrange to visit him or her while you’re abroad on your big trip. [This is something that I need to do. And soon].
  • Read at least 30 nonfiction books and 20 classic novels. [I am a huge proponent of reading, though I will fall short of my goal of reading fifty-two books this year].
  • Instead of reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, read The Know-It-All by A.J. Jacobs [Yes! Excellent suggestion. I read The Know-It-All in 2007, and I highly recommend it. Very entertaining and filled with tons of fun and useful trivia].

The conclusion that merits repeating?

Don’t use graduate school, or any other course of study, as a form of life avoidance. Pursue the course only if there’s a good reason.

7. The Power of Your Own Small Army.

This chapter focuses on building a following (both online and in real life). Chris uses the phrase small army and groups people in these four categories:

  1. Prospects: those that are curious about you and what you’re doing. From my own personal experience, these are the kinds of people I encounter the most. They don’t tend to stick around because, as Chris writes, they probably don’t see a “reason why” (Why are you useful to me?).
  2. Followers: this is the largest part of the small army, made up of people who actively learn of your cause. They’ll subscribe to your newsletter. If you have some product out for sale, they will buy it. They’ll tweet your blog posts.
  3. True fans: these are hyper-responsive followers. Chris says that they represent two to four percent of your follower base. True fans are one hundred percent devoted in seeing you succeed. If you succeed, it empowers their success as well. These are the kinds of people who buy an author’s book or an artist’s album before anyone else, before there are any reviews of it…
  4. Allies: like-minded folks who are actively waging campaigns of their own in similar fields. These may be your peers.
  5. Friends of friends: these represent an extended network. I think this may be the largest group, but it depends on your venture and your audience.

The rest of this chapter focuses on how to build, train, and maintain your army. While this topic could deserve a book of its own, Chris does provide excellent pointers. I think the key word to remember is motivation. Why should anyone care about what you’re doing? Chris explains that motivation comes in three forms: inspiration, education, and entertainment. If you aren’t doing any of those three things in your campaign, you will have a hard time attaining (and maintaining) a following…

8. The Personal Finance Journey.

This chapter offers a glimpse into Chris’ view on frugality and spending. I share his sentiment in that he and I both value life experiences more than physical possessions. Something I still need to work on is this:

Investing in others is at least as important as my own long-term savings.

There are a couple other principles in this chapter which are worth noting:

  1. Deferred gratification can be a form of life avoidance. Chris notes that he doesn’t mind saving for the future, but not at the expense of enjoying life today. It doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t invest in a 401K plan, but it does mean to be mindful of how you can balance out enjoying your present and (your uncertain) future.
  2. To get serious about saving, focus on increasing income more than cutting expenses. This is a good idea, but again, the mindset is that of an entrepreneur.

I think The Art of Non-Conformity is an excellent complement to Ramit Sethi’s excellent, no-nonsense book, I Will Teach You To Be Rich. I read it in 2009, and I must say, it’s one of the best personal finance books I’ve ever read. Highly recommended. Since The Art of Non-Conformity isn’t a finance book, Chris doesn’t explain how he invests his extra income (or if he does so at all). If you’re looking for ideas about investing in CDs, 401K plans, Roth IRAs, and general advice on saving money, get I Will Teach You To Be Rich.

9. Radical Exclusion and the Quest for Abundance.

This chapter focuses on eliminating the distractions and unnecessary things in your life. It’s always helpful to ask: “Why should I do this?” in most contexts. Chris mentions that Bill Gates would, twice a year, close off all distractions and just read during a time Gates dubbed “Think Weeks.” There’s also an excellent idea to create a to-stop list (as opposed to a to-do list), the purpose of which is to enumerate which things you can remove from your daily life which are unnecessary, distracting, or boring.

In this chapter, Chris mentions that Seth Godin, who writes the number one business blog in the world, has given up meetings and TV in his life.

10. Contrarian Adventures.

Chris includes a great quote in this chapter: “Travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer.” I wouldn’t disagree. This chapter focuses more of what Chris Guillebeau is all about: his quest to visit all 192 countries in the world. He explains how he began counting the number of countries he had visited, and it was around 50. To visit the next 50 countries, Chris estimated that it would cost around $30,000; while his friends were busy buying gas-guzzling SUVs, Chris would choose to commute by public transportation and save his money on traveling adventures.

Chris explains that The Art of Non-Conformity isn’t about travel hacking (for that, see Chris’s excellent post on the subject), though he does enumerate a few tips in the “Travel Hacking Basics” box:

  1. If you’re stumped with a travel dilemma, visit the forums at FlyerTalk.com. [I haven’t heard of this website until I read The Art of Non-Conformity, so it’s good to find out about this resource].
  2. Priceline.com can be a good source for discounted hotels. Since minimum successful bids aren’t disclosed, Chris provides an A+ tip: do a Google search on “Priceline winning hotel bids.
  3. When redeeming frequent flyer miles, you can request rewards at partner airlines, and the value is often better than on the domestic carrier. [Useful!]

Chris notes that traveling isn’t for everyone, but many people answer “I want to travel more” when asked “If you could do anything, what would it be?” Plan accordingly.

11.Your Legacy Starts Now.

The final chapter in the book (excepting the conclusion) is all about you. By this point, you’ve read enough to get started on your own. The pressing question which remains is this: “What can you offer the world that no one else can?” I am continually developing an answer to this question, both via my photography and this reading blog. I think there is no prescribed answer. Rather, I believe it’s a process, a journey of discovery.

I like this concluding thought:

If you want to build something that will provide tremendous value to others and even outlast your own life, you have to be able to clearly answer the question, “How will this really help people?”

Chris’s Story

What I really liked about this book is Chris’s personal reflection on his life. Chris recounts his time working four years as a volunteer aid worker in west Africa. He explains how he spent two years at the University of Washington pursuing a master’s degree in International Studies. Chris explains that he spent $32,000 on this education, but what he learned most from his time at UW is learning about motivations. He profiles how he moved overseas and did consulting work on Google Adwords accounts, built websites for clients in the United States and Europe, all while working in countries such as Sierra Leone and Liberia. These personal vignettes are personal and honest, and I really appreciated reading them. Chris shows enormous gratitude to his mentors, supporters, and fans (both throughout the book and at the end of the book, in a section titled “Gratitude”).

Final Thoughts

I already mentioned that The Art of Non-Conformity would complement well with Ramit Sethi’s book I Will Teach You To Be Rich. Even more so, The Art of Non-Conformity would complement with Seth Godin’s Linchpin (here is my review of Linchpin), which teaches you to let go of your lizard brain and start becoming indispensable.

I really enjoyed reading Chris Guillebeau’s book, The Art of Non-Conformity. As I was reading this book, I highlighted a number of useful, relevant passages (a lot of which I listed in this review). The Art of Non-Conformity is a practical, motivational book. If you’ve never read anything by Chris Guillebeau before, then this book is certainly a superb way to get started. If you’re a loyal follower of Chris and his blog, then you will appreciate this book for its cohesive structure tied with Chris’s personal story. I don’t write reviews on Amazon.com, but if I did, I would give this book five stars.

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If you’ve read The Art of Non-Conformity, what did you think? Did you have a favorite quote, passage, or chapter? Let me know in the comments.

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