September 20, 2010

News & Opinion: The Art of Non-Conformity

By: Dylan Schleicher @ 2:03 PM – Filed under: Management & Workplace Culture

I first read Chris Guillebeau's blog after Seth Godin mentioned him a couple years ago, and have been fascinated ever since. Not only have I followed his blog, I bought one of his Art and Money guides, and was recently excited to see he had a book out, called, The Art of Non-Conformity: Set Your Own Rules, Live the Life You Want, and Change the World.

Yes, that's a pretty bold title, but Chris is the kind of person who can post it in confidence. His own story is exactly as his message: Don't play by the rules, play by your own, and succeed in living the life you want. From volunteering in Africa, to attempting to travel to 192 countries, to not having a 9-5 gig, one can't help but wonder how he does it, and this book tells the story.

The good thing is, that story isn't so fantastic. In fact, it's quite applicable. Don't believe me? Here's a quick Q&A I did with Chris while he's on his 50 state book tour that sheds some light on what the book's all about:

Your book (and blog) have great insight about traditional jobs, yet you haven't had one for some time. Where does this fundamental knowledge come from?

Mostly I'm interested in thinking about life and work in general, whether it's done for someone else in a job setting or as an entrepreneur. In my case, you're right, I don't have much experience working in a corporate setting. I've been self-employed for most of my adult life, and also served as a volunteer executive for a medical charity in West Africa from 2002-2006. My experience comes mostly from being on the outside of that setting, and also from supervising people over the years in business and non-profit work.

That's my story—but it's also important to mention that the whole Art of Non-Conformity project is continuously made better by the AONC community, which is drawn from people with employment backgrounds of all kinds. Among that group are a number of people who are content to work in an organization that can achieve goals with more scale than they could on their own, and I think that's great.

Some people don't want to change the world, but simply want to be better at what they do. Is this book for them?

I'd say the book is for people who are discontented or dissatisfied in some way. If people are fundamentally satisfied in every area of their lives, then I don't think the book is a good fit for them. Fortunately for me, the market of dissatisfied people, or those who simply want to better themselves as you put it, is a large one. Non-conformity is firstly about making clear choices and genuinely understanding what we want to get out of life. Different people will interpret that in different ways, focusing on travel, self-employment, non-profit work, or something completely unique.

I'd also say the book is pro-change, and change begins from within. Change is a hard thing and almost no one enjoys the process of change—we like the promise of change, just not the actual execution of it. But when we put things into their proper perspective and see what we can gain by learning to embrace the right kind of risk, change becomes a lot easier.

After years of playing by the rules, how does one really understand what life they do want to live?

I tell people to start by thinking about what excites them. Was there something they wanted to do when they were younger, but gave it up in exchange for something that seemed more practical? Is there something else they've always wanted to do, but felt like there was a big obstacle in the way? How can we reclaim those dreams or negate that obstacle?

Then, sit down and start brainstorming a little. Make a list of 30 things you'd like to do “one day”--and over time, begin taking small actions to get closer to those goals. There is a good story in the book about a guy who did just that, starting with what he called “Life Experiments” that were as simple as visiting the art museum on his lunch break to taking up a new hobby of photography. These things didn't involve a lot of risk or sacrifice, but they helped him break out of routine and begin to consider greater alternatives. Later, he temporarily relocated to Paris with his wife and daughters—something he said would never have come about without the Life Experiments.

The book offers good advice on preparation before quitting your job, starting your company, etc. What are the key elements of this step?

If someone wants to start a business, I think it's good to start with what they don't need—they don't need a ton of money, a 65-page business plan, an MBA, or whatever. In some ways, money can be a hindrance. What they need is a basic product or service, and a group of people willing to pay for it. That's it. And they can lay the foundations for that, and maybe even get underway, without leaving their job, which of course is a big scary step that is naturally intimidating.

Yet another benefit of starting on the cheap and the quick is that if you fail, well, that's OK. You can try again without going bankrupt or losing years of work. We always hear these statistics about how many new businesses fail, but what we don't hear is the fact that most entrepreneurs start multiple businesses over the course of their lives. Often a business owner will close down one project to focus on another that is more promising, which is not something I think of as a failure.

How do you see the rise in self-empowerment changing the workforce? The economy?

By far the biggest thing is a change in how we define security. Historically, entrepreneurship was viewed as a risky alternative to participating in the job market. But now, I think more and more people are recognizing that the real risk may be trusting in the economy to magically provide enough jobs to go around. I recently heard a story of 300 applicants competing for an $11-an-hour receptionist job in my hometown of Portland, Oregon. Three-hundred! Just think about that—obviously the answer to success in that situation isn't just “Get up earlier and try harder.” We have to rethink the whole system.

Let's be clear, though, that I don't think everyone should be an entrepreneur. There are plenty of great companies out there (like 800-CEO-READ, for example) where an employee and an employer can be a good match. Instead, I think the change lies in the word self-empowerment you mentioned. More and more people thinking for themselves, choosing to find security in their own competence, and believing in the power of change can only be a good thing.

Or at least, that's the message of The Art of Non-Conformity: You don't have to live your life the way other people expect you to.


And that's just the start. I hope you find Chris' work and life as interesting as I have. If so, pick up the book, follow his blog and enjoy the ride.

About Dylan Schleicher

Dylan Schleicher has been a part of the 800-CEO-READ claque since 2003. Even though he's stayed on at the company, he has not stayed put. After beginning in shipping & receiving, he joined customer service and accounting before moving into his current, highly elliptical orbit of duties overseeing the ChangeThis and In the Books websites, the company's annual review of books and in-house design. He lives with his wife and two children in the Washington Heights neighborhood on Milwaukee's West Side.