The Art of Non-Conformity

“There’s nothing wrong with thinking ahead, but life does not start at 65.”


The Art of Non-Conformity
, page 24

During the early part of our careers, we’re made to believe that success is linear, and that we need permission and outside validation to fit into society.

In his refreshingly different book, The Art of Non-Conformity: Set Your Own Rules, Live the Life You Want, and Change the World, author, global traveler and entrepreneur, Chris Guillebeau begins with a stringent conclusion: the typical path to success is a deferred life, and it was designed to make you embrace safety and mediocrity. The freedom we think we have is just a set of limitations imposed and enforced by others.  And so, to create the life we want, we need to challenge those limitations.

The idea of challenging norms resonates with new and veteran entrepreneurs alike; entrepreneurs who defected from the traditional path and finally addressed the lingering concern that there may be more to life than that which proclaimed by experts, authorities, and the passively conformist majority.  However, Chris Guillebeau warns the newcomer about what happens when you take a stand and pursue your independence.

The Art of Non-Conformity (AONC)  is a manifesto and precursor to entrepreneurial thinking. It reveals what’s evident now, in our 21st century world, and why you shouldn’t back down. The AONC reignites the spark that was once snuffed out so that you can (re)start designing the life you truly want.

Golden Egg

Dominating through Convergence

“When faced with uncertainty about taking a leap of faith, take the leap.”

The Art of Non-Conformity, page 40

The Art of Non-Conformity presents relentless individualism in a different spirit. It certainly isn’t violence, martyrdom, megalomania, heroism, or rebellion without purpose.

Some might mistake creative self-employment and the pursuit of radical goals as egotistical and self-centered, but these are just blanket condemnations rooted in a false dichotomy: the choice of either serving yourself versus serving others. Chris says this is the wrong choice. Instead, seek convergence where you strike harmony between doing good things for yourself while still making the world a better place for others.

Convergence is a state of being when you’re pursuing a life of alignment and abundance. You know you’re close to it when you see some of the following signs:

  • You’re in good health,
  • Your relationships with friends and family are also in good health.
  • You’re excited about your work
  • You’re regularly engaged in healthy challenges and adventures.

People may realize that their careers or jobs have outworn their charm, and that some existential questions about themselves remain unanswered. The path to convergence begins by asking what you really want to get out of life. Chris presents some questions that can help in your pursuit:

  • What needs can you meet?
  • Who looks to you as a leader?
  • What bothers you about the world?
  • How can you make things better?
  • What can you offer the world that no one else can?

Then, how would you craft your plan of action? What’s a more effective or efficient way to achieve it? When you start thinking this way, you’ll start eliminating what’s unnecessary. You’ll find that sometimes things like formal qualifications and intelligence aren’t necessary prerequisites, but just purpose and determination to make it happen.

GEM # 1

Who’s Stopping You?

“As long as what you want does not cause harm to others, you never need to apologize for pursuing your own dreams and big ideas. They belong to you for a reason.”

The Art of Non-Conformity, page 37

After clarifying your true ambitions and embarking on your journey, many new people will come your way. Some will support the meaning of your quest, but there will be some who will try to discredit and stop you. This second camp of people is comprised of two types: Sleepwalkers and Gatekeepers.

Sleepwalkers are the conformist majority and passive energy vampires who are ruffled by anything new. They’re comfortable with staring through the glass while dragging others into the dark crypt of excuses of “being practical” or “being reasonable.” They can only defend their case by reciting “history” even if their recollection is vague, inaccurate, or incomplete.

They’re there to justify the real world and remind you of your impending failure.

Gatekeepers keep the sleepwalkers in their place. They block access to what really matters. They’re the “No” people who limit the choices and reinforce the busywork. They’re the ones who directly prevent you from reinventing from the inside or doing remarkable things for yourself and others. Rulebooks are the canon which gives their authority legitimacy. They’re skillful at marginalizing, demoralizing, and using circular reasoning as a lukewarm defense, but that’s their job: To enforce the status quo.

Chris is warranted to mention the candid truth that people will try to outright discredit you even when “business-as-usual,” conventions, and common assumptions have clearly outlived themselves. Question those agendas. Why do these people, these “Gatekeepers” value preserving things as they are? The point is to discern who is really worth your time and energy along the journey. Sometimes you don’t have to directly confront the forces that try to stop you. You can kindly proceed and go your separate way as you intended without asking for forgiveness or permission.

GEM # 2

Fear of Change

“Fear is normal! The goal is to conquer the fear, not to avoid it or pretend it doesn’t exist.” 

The Art of Non-Conformity, page 66

The other disclaimer of the Art of Non-Conformity is to take responsibility by taking action. Some may desire change but never act. They’re frozen in stasis. It can mean the difference between a full leap of faith and a halfhearted hop.

While the gatekeepers and sleepwalkers can easily be ignored, the greatest obstacle is your fear.

Chris says that fear isn’t irrelevant at all: They’re the battle scars from past criticism and neglect by sleepwalkers and gatekeepers. The after effects might’ve drifted into the present, but the fear right now is self-imposed, manufactured, and exaggerated, and they shouldn’t define the future.

Some people just aren’t ready to pursue their true ambitions. But what’s common is that people who have created some remarkable lives for themselves had to make key choices to overcome the fear.

Right before a big decision, the ultimate obstacle is always you. Don’t pretend fear doesn’t exist. Smash through its wall by forcing the active decision. The active decision is the obvious choice which moves things forward.

Some helpful questions Chris presents: “What’s the worst that could happen?” or “What really waits beyond the wall of fear?”

“Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with their song still in them.”

-Henry David Thoreau (AONC, as quoted in p. 3)

Our educational lives begin with an innate spark. Throughout time it dims as we plod along believing the illusion of choices presented to us. Chris reveals that rather than guided soul-searching, we are encouraged to descend into “occupational planning,” filling someone else’s role instead of creating our own. The spark doesn’t reemerge until a crisis hits later in life.

“There is almost always more than one way to accomplish something.” (pg. 39)

Ask yourself what makes you unique? How do you define your true abilities and how can you best deliver it to those around you? Sometimes, that’s exactly what the world needs from you. No authority or sleepwalker can decide or validate that for you.

The rest of the book contains many hidden gems and tools for pursuing a meaningful life, including contrarian travel and other testament from entrepreneurs who have become non-conformists. But before you can design the life you want, you must remember what really matters.

The Art of Non-Conformity is a reminder to be alive again, and live.

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Bryann Alexandros

ABOUT Bryann Alexandros

I help nonprofits and changemaking organizations become adaptive problem-solvers in the 21st century. My approach includes design thinking, applied creativity, process design, and helping senior leaders apply it to strategy and large-scale social challenges...
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