Book Review: The Art of Non-Conformity

I’m trying to read more books by other bloggers, and the one I managed to finish first was The Art of Non-Conformity. Based on the writings at eponymous ChrisGuillebeau.com, the book’s tagline is “Set Your Own Rules, Live the Life You Want, and Change the World”. Sounds good, eh?

I’m not sure how I found the site initially, but I remember finding it neat that he resides in my old zip code of 97214. Awesome neighborhood. :) As you might expect, it is more of a “lifestyle design” book than anything specifically financial.

What do you want from life?

The author’s adventures so far has included going from doing manual labor at FedEx, to selling stuff on eBay, to volunteering with a medical charity in West Africa for four years. He now makes a living as a writer, selling a variety of “unconventional living” eBooks and now this physical one. One of his current big goals is to visit all 192 countries in the world.

A big chunk of the book is about finding what you really want to achieve in life. Instead of trying for less work, why not better work. What do you imagine as your legacy? When trying to figure this one out, Guillebeau pushes you to think openly – take risks and don’t listen to what others say can’t be done. Sprinkled throughout the book are stories about his experiences and those of others who are leading non-traditional lives. Two of my favorite quotes:

Take your dreams seriously.

We tend to overestimate what we can complete in a single day, and underestimate what we can complete over longer periods of time.

Making it happen
How do you create your ideal life? Spend your time towards your real priorities. Stop spending time on busywork or other inefficient activities. Realize that a “Stop-Doing List” is just as helpful as a “To Do” list. Instead of a “work/life balance”, which often works out to be “stop working so much, since you hate it, but enough so you can eat”, why not make your work align with what you want your effect on the world to be?

The author is a strong proponent of self-employment, especially through internet-based businesses that allow you to be location independent. This makes sense, because this is exactly what he has done successfully. However, at times I felt the book was colored a bit too strongly with his own experiences.

One example is how he’s not a big fan of college and graduate degrees, noting repeatedly that 80% of it was a waste of time. (I’d say his eventual occupation and his degree of Masters in International Studies had something to do with it. Many engineers or medical school graduates probably think higher of their education.) School isn’t always the answer, but he really seems to dismiss it too easily because it didn’t help him personally.

Personal Finance
I’ve already said this isn’t a financial book, and so don’t be surprised that the section on personal finance is pretty sparse. Most of the advice is of the big-picture variety, and parallels his life advice. Just like you should only spend time towards what you really value, you should spend money happily on what you really value. Don’t spend a dime on the rest. Life experiences are more important than physical stuff.

One interesting idea was his preference for what he calls Income-Based Financial Independence as opposed to Wealth-Based. Basically, he dislikes the traditional goal of having a “Number” of say a million dollars as a goal. Instead, he wishes to create a certain income from work that he likes to do, while also having the freedom and time to do all the other stuff he wants. Somehow he avoids the term “passive income”, but he does tell you to avoid work that simply trades time for money.

Wrap-Up
By far, the strongest part is the author’s easy and energizing style of writing, which makes adventure seem within grasp to everyone. If you have that little idea in your mind that you want to do something different/drastic/scary, then this book will help push you to take the next step. Cynical readers will just see this as rah-rah impractical dreamy fluff. However, I happen to agree that accomplishing just one bold task can make us feel invincible, propelling us to do more. Hopefully, this review will help you decide if this book is for you.

Comments

  1. I think the 80% of college being a waste of time is generous. One of my professors told us in our field (electrical engineering) that new technologies and the amount of stuff we covered means we’ll only really learn/retain maybe 10% of what we’re exposed to, and of that, only 10% is likely to be applicable to our jobs. So, at the end of the day, only 1% turns out being useful to us.

    That said, he also pointed out that our degree indicates that we can take on a large, complex, technically difficult task and complete it. That is the real value. So, in one view, I wasted 99% of time on some tough stuff, but the time spent is not the primary concern. Maybe for people like Bill Gates who have other resources or breakthrough ideas, it makes perfect sense to drop out of college and not complete a degree. For others of us, I think it’s perfectly reasonable to take on a large project and see it through to completion. The journey can be tough, but very worthwhile even if it is a waste of time.

  2. You sound like what the book is telling you not to be: a conformist.

  3. @scott – I think much of education could be DIY, and I think that’s the future. An MBA or CS degree could be done online much more easily than an engineering or medical degree that takes advantage of hands-on problem solving.

    @Nicky – Perhaps you’re right. :) My focus is on getting people to “live the life they want”, as opposed to simply being non-conformist for the sake of being non-conformist. I don’t think college is for everyone certainly, but if it gets you to your goals then it’s worth it.

    Otherwise, making SBUX your office, working funky hours, working one year on one year off, living as a nomad, retiring early or never or partially, all sounds good to me.

  4. I guess I don’t see why it’s an either/or proposition. Why can’t you pursue some things in parallel? You could join the fencing club or rowing team if you wanted in college, but there’s probably not a good way to provide support for yourself and family.
    Nascar is hugely popular, doesn’t require a degree, but a lot of people pick that up with go-kart racing before they turn 10. From this suggestion, if an 8 year old really likes racing, they should just dump formal education for going after what they want.
    In my engineering field, I loved all of my math and science courses, but I really have never had a need for high school biology, chemistry, I never cared for Dickens or Shakespeare. It sounds like in the pursuit of happiness through non-conformity I should have dropped out after 7th or 8th grade.
    There has to be line where each individual decides traditional education systems don’t fit their needs, but is that at 8 years old, 18 years old, or 28 (like some lawyer friends of mine)?
    Based on your review, the author has confused tradition and conformity with actual requirements. He has also misunderstood that those requirements change over time.
    According to wikipedia, as 16 Feb 2011 there are 156 million bloggers. Ground breaking, this guy is truly non-conforming. Here he is 5 years after Time magazine said the person of the year is “you” because so many people do this. You can always follow his twitter feed or join him and a half billion other non-conforming facebook users. He sure sounds like he’s out changing the world just like everyone else.
    Adventure is within your grasp, but sending a nickle to this motivational poster creator will not help anyone.

  5. I think we are in agreement that the goals can be “non-conformist”, but the path to those goals are hard to define. The author here lays out one path, I just wanted to comment that you can still take somewhat traditional paths to non-conformist lives.

    For example, two CPAs could open a private accounting firm and only work every other year, switching off. I know of firefighters that work one week a month, and then get the remaining 3 weeks off.

  6. I haven’t read this book, but I used to read Chris’s blog (before he finished the book). In fact I used to read a lot of “lifestyle design” blogs – blogs that preach not buying into the sucky “conformist” life the media/government/society/etc. tell you to live. Then I realized that hey, I actually enjoy my life, and these “lifestyle design” blogs are just trying to sell me yet another lifestyle. I also realized that by not reading these blogs I would have more time to enjoy my awesome life, rather than spend my time thinking I should be dissatisfied with it.

    Most Americans lead exceptional lives (by world standards – see the “ovarian lottery”), yet are dissatisfied with their lot – and I think books like this add to the problem. I guess pushing dissatisfaction moves books. I imagine a book teaching you to live a life of gratitude and appreciation for what you’ve got would do a lot more good for everybody.

    Although I believe that not everybody should go to college, I agree with your assessment, Jonathan, that a college education should not be so readily dismissed. I have never met another engineer that was disappointed with their major. If I for some reason gotten a master’s degree in International Basket Weaving, I could be singing a different tune…

  7. Oh, I forgot to point out another problem with these “lifestyle design” people. People who buy into this idea are forgetting the logical error of survivorship bias. Just because some blogger succeeded doing “X”, doesn’t mean you will… you never hear about the other 1000+ people who tried the same thing and failed.

    Not that I want to rain on anybody’s parade. I think if you’ve got a dream you should pursue it. I just believe people should really consider their risk tolerance before jumping in!

  8. Alaska 33 says:

    I have moved on from 97214 too…loved that neighborhood.
    25th and Hawthorne…I’m liking your blog more because of it.
    I often think of moving back…but man, those houses got expensive.

    Chris G. also writes on travel and has some pretty good ” travel Hacks”

  9. I’ve lived at three different places in 97214… Above Zupans on Belmont… 37th and Belmont… and 34th and Hawthorne. I enjoyed renting a craftsman house built in 1900, but I don’t know about being an owner. Very sturdily built, though!

  10. Alexandria says:

    As a CPA, I think that CPA idea is terrible. ;) I’d lose all my clients if I took every other year off. BUT, being a tax CPA, it is pretty easy to only work half the year (or 1/4 of the year). More along the lines of what CPAs do in retirement.

    I agree with JonM. “I think if you’ve got a dream you should pursue it. I just believe people should really consider their risk tolerance before jumping in!”

    My risk tolerance is relatively low. This is largely why I chose my career. I have many interests and strong areas, so I chose accounting for career and the rest are hobbies. I REALLY value job stability and financial stability. Likewise, we are often written off as conformists simply because we work traditional jobs and don’t enjoy traveling the world. The truth is I could really care less about retirement because I do what I enjoy every single day. My parents strongly encouraged me to do what I loved, while being practical.

    As such, though I would identify on the book on some level, I think it would just annoy me on another level. I will probably pick it up and read it though. But yeah, I am tired of being told I am not living my life to the fullest because it doesn’t align with some ideal of adventure and travel. & this mantra about experiences? The only experiences that matter and mean anything to me are time with my friends and family. I suppose I am blessed to realize that – it’s really the simple things in life that matter. Too many people are selling that you have to spend a fortune on contrived experiences to be happy. I am not buying it. For me, simplicity is happiness.

  11. Wow! I didn’t realize you were from PDX! I just met Chris at SXSW and am totally stoked for his World Domination Summit in June. Thanks for posting a book review. I still need to pick up my copy.

  12. I just found this book super interesting, and very condensed, so it’s a must-read. I’m not really big on the Travel around the world thing, but that doesn’t matter. This book is genius.

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