Review: The Art of Non-Conformity

Every Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal finance book or other book of interest.

ncReviewing a book like this is a difficult challenge.

The Art of Non-Conformity by Chris Guillebeau is one of those books that’s intentionally narrowed its audience. It hones in deeply on a group of people that share a handful of characteristics: they’re single (or married to a like-minded person), they don’t have significant community attachments (“strong ties” as opposed to the “weak ties” in the book, which I’ll mention later), they’re dissatisfied with their life, and they’ve got a personal skill set that tends towards openmindedness, self-motivation, and self-improvement.

The more of those criteria you meet, the more powerful this book will be for you, plain and simple. The fewer of these criteria you meet, the more you’ll think of this book as merely interesting with a few bits and pieces of specific applicable stuff to pull out.

Where do I fall in that? This book spoke deeply to where I would have been in 2002 or 2003, before I got married, had children, developed a lot of “strong” attachments in my area (as opposed to the “weak ties” that Chris mentions), and got on track with the career I wanted. Some of the things in this book are hard to do if you’ve got a family to feed and other groups relying on you for various things.

Knowing that, I focused on reading the book through those earlier eyes – and through those eyes, this book is empowering and (very) potentially life-changing.

1 – Sleepwalkers and the Living World
Guillebeau makes the point that, in many avenues of life, mediocrity is the standard by which people are judged and accepted. His comments reminded me of Jack Welch’s 70-20-10 philosophy, where Welch suggests that people be separated into three performance categories – the top 20%, the middle 70%, and the bottom 10%, and that the bottom 10% should be fired. In essence, though, Welch is saying that the middle 70% is mediocre but completely acceptable, which falls right in line with Guillebeau’s point – most people are mediocre but are accepted for it. The centerpiece of Guillebeau’s point here, though, is that “you don’t have to live your life the way other people expect you to,” but it has an implicit requirement that you not be mediocre and that you be in Welch’s top 20%.

2 – Setting the Terms of Your Unconventional Life
There were two big messages I found in this chapter. The first is that goal setting is incredibly powerful, something I’ve found over and over again in my own life. If you set a big scary goal, then break it down into things you can do each day to move towards that goal, you can accomplish things you would have never believed you could accomplish. It works because so many people don’t do it. The second point that stood out to me was the value of what Guillebeau calls “serendipity” and I simply call “luck.” Luck can play a huge role in a person’s life, both positive luck and negative luck. One of the strongest things you can do is to simply put yourself in a position where more luck finds you.

3 – Smashing Through the Brick Wall of Fear
For a person to change what they’re doing now and shake them out of their current routine, that person must either increase the pain of their current situation or decrease the fear of the desired situation. Increasing the pain is more familiar – losing a job, getting sick, and so on. The less familiar part is decreasing the fear of the desired outcome. How do you do that? Guillebeau offers several ideas – the ones that have really clicked with me in my own life are simply dipping your toes in the pool by doing as much as you can in your spare time and building a safety net around yourself so you can make that leap without falling to your doom.

4 – How to Fight Authority and Win
Most of the time, when you try to do something different, you’re going to meet with disapproval from various people in your personal and professional life. Guillebeau calls such people “gatekeepers” and discusses how they use a lot of different tactics to keep you from doing what you want. They often use psychological techniques and circular reasoning to keep you doing the set of things that they want you to be doing, using guilt and statements like “Everyone else does it this way so why aren’t you?” You don’t ever have to justify yourself to anyone – after all, you’re the person that has to sleep at night.

5 – Competence Is Your Security
The more skills you have to offer (and the more follow-through you provide), the more value you will always have to others and the more value you’ll always have in the marketplace. Nothing trumps ability and follow-through (though communication skills definitely help). In other words, the more competent you are at the work you’re trying to do, the more security you’ll always have, either in your current job or in terms of future employment. That kind of security enables you to get away with having less security and stability in other areas of life, which is where living unconventionally comes in.

6 – Graduate School vs. the Blogosphere
The entire point of this chapter can really be summed up in one simple statement: don’t use additional schooling as a form of life avoidance. If you simply want “life experiences,” you can get them all over the place and at a lot less cost than at a university. You should only walk in the door of an institution of learning if you have a plan and a purpose for being there and you’re focusing on executing that plan as intensely as possible. Why? Because college is a really expensive way to just spin your wheels.

7 – The Power of Your Own Small Army
This chapter focuses on what Guillebeau calls a small army and what I called “weak ties” in an earlier post. The concept is simple: the strength of a “weak” relationship with a lot of people is at least as strong as a strong relationship with just a few people. The best way to explain this is with an example. If I were to go on Twitter and ask my Twitter followers where the best place to shop online for an electric piano is, I’ll get a lot of useful responses (I’m now aware of the very awesome Musician’s Friend). Each of those responses has some value, and that value, added up over a lot of interactions, really adds up. Maybe such a tie will result in an ad being viewed or clicked or a downloadable file being purchased or a book being bought on Amazon. It can add up to a career – after all, that’s what The Simple Dollar is based on.

8 – The Personal Finance Journey
Debt holds you back. Required expenses hold you back. The idea of a “comfortable retirement” and other vague personal finance goals holds you back. Guillebeau argues that money and happiness are only correlated to a certain degree (I’d argue up to about $40,000 a year, which is what Daniel Gilbert claims) and that investing in yourself and spending money on unique experiences often has more value than accumulating stuff. Most of the ideas in this chapter are spot-on, but again are sometimes restricted by other life choices (children, strong ties, etc.).

9 – Radical Exclusion and the Quest for Abundance
You can have anything you want. You can’t have everything you want, and if you try for everything, you probably won’t get anything. The trick is going through “everything” and deciding what the one or two “anythings” you actually want are. An example: one big “anything” I’ve focused on in my own life is being a good parent. That means giving up on a lot of other things: being a good community builder, being a good game player, and on and on and on. It’s hard to give up on some of the things in that “everything” basket that you want, but the more of them you let go of, the more likely you are to really nail the ones that are left.

10 – Contrarian Adventures
Where do you want to go one day? If you start saving $2 a day starting right now, you can probably go there in late 2012. Seriously. Check airline prices and the cost of actually being there (after shopping around). It’s that kind of thinking that makes adventures happen in people’s lives. You have to let go of the big imposing wall and look at the little steps. Chris focuses heavily on travel here, but I think the idea expands to any big thing you want to do in your life.

11 – Your Legacy Starts Now
Get started today. Not tomorrow. Not next week. Today.

Is The Art of Non-Conformity Worth Reading?
On page 7 of the book, Guillebeau lays out four strict requirements for readers of the book to get something useful out of it:

You must be open to new ideas.
You must be dissatisfied with the status quo.
You must be willing to take personal responsibility.
You must be willing to work hard.

I’d add to that some of the requirements I mentioned above: a core family that supports radical life shifts (i.e., you’re single or have a partner that’s equally on board) and a lack of current community attachments or obligations.

If you’re in this boat, The Art of Non-Conformity is a home-run read. If you’re not, I’d call the book interesting with some applicable pieces, but it won’t have the full power that it will have for someone who can fully jump on board with all of the ideas.

A book is what you make of it. The more ideas you pull from it and apply positively in your own life, the better off you are. There are a lot of elements in this book that can be pulled out that can provide a lot of life value – more elements for some than for others.

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  1. Jaime says:

    I just read the book this week and I actually liked it. I think travel is possible if you have family, but its probably better to wait until the kids are older. I also think its possible for parents to leave the 9-5 and be entrepreneurs.

    I think I posted at GRS, how the book was a little unrealistic this past week, but when you think about it, the book can apply to even families. Honestly, I think that what keeps parents, young professionals in jobs they hate is debt and living expenses (high rent, high car payments, high cost of living in expensive cities such as NYC and SF).

    That’s why a lot of people stay at jobs they hate. I think its a really good book overall, the part that I kind of disagreed somewhat is about college. Like yourself, I agree that you don’t always need college for life experiences.

    Sometimes some subjects such as art history, history,etc. are better off learned at the library for free, no need to spend $20k at state college or at an Ivy, for these subjects and for the most part, you teach yourself the information, the professor just lectures, and tells you when the tests are coming up.

    On the other hand sometimes its worth going to college and really learn a specific skill, he raced his way through an undergraduate degree, I understand why he did that, but at the same time, most people can’t really learn and retain something when they have to race through it.

    Whether someone goes to college, or the library to learn, they should take the time to learn something well and not just race through it because they want to be done it. Education all builds up over time and is eventually useful.

  2. RateNerd says:

    Good companion to Tim Ferris’ “4 hour work week” book. Here’s a quote I like:

    A mind is like a parachute – it works best when open.

  3. Joshua R says:

    So, I am really happy to see you review Chris’ book as these two blogs, The Art of Non-Confomity & the Simple Dollar, are responsible for every positive major change in my life over the last year. I don’t really chime in on either site, but you should know you are doing good work that inspires me to do better.

    Most specifically your writings on Getting Things Done made the already approachable book significantly more approachable, which some of us (me especially) needed. I am now more orginized than I have ever been in my life.

  4. Systemizer says:

    “A book is what you make of it.”

    Talk about a wishy-washy review.

    It’s a good thing Jack Welch ain’t your boss.

  5. Cortney says:

    Systemizer-

    It’s hard for me to see the “wishy-washy” in the review. I thought Trent made it pretty clear that you need to be in a certain point in your life, or have a specific kind of lifestyle, for this to be applicable/life changing to you. Reading “Your Money or Your Life” at 16 might not be that powerful, but reading it at, say, 27 with some debt and trying to get out of the typical debt laden work till you die mentality could be life changing.

    We were talking about reading “To Kill a Mockingbird” in junior high, and how going back and re-reading it as an adult is like reading an entirely different book. I took Trent’s review to be referencing this exact thing when he said “a book is what you make of it”.

  6. moom says:

    I don’t agree with the community attachments thing that you emphasize in your review. That depends on what your goal is. You don’t have to travel the world like Chris is if that isn’t your goal.

  7. DivaJean says:

    I am putting this book on my must read list.

    It seems to back up something I have not been able to verbalize well- that once you deliniate (sp?) an area of non-conformity in your life and stand up to it without flinching, other areas in your life also become open for redefinition. It has been my life experience and ongoing life lesson.

    As a lesbian, certainly defining my life and way in the world was not the standard. In the 80’s as I began to accept myself and define my relationship with the world, I broke many societal barriers. Upon meeting my life partner in the 90’s, gay marriage was not a blip on the radar- it happened, but not openly and with church involvement. Continuing to push the envelope, we had our ceremony without our Lutheran minister presiding. Ultimately, we pushed the envelope further towards developing our family with adoption of 4 kids over the last decade plus.

    Over the years, my non-conformity has moved me in other forums as well. I have come to become an advocate of size acceptance, financial management, etc.

  8. Systemizer says:

    @Cortney

    “I thought Trent made it pretty clear that you need to be in a certain point in your life, or have a specific kind of lifestyle, for this to be applicable/life changing to you.”

    According to Trent, the author’s requirements to get something useful out of the book are:

    – You must be open to new ideas
    – You must be dissatisfied with the status quo
    – You must be willing to take personal responsibility
    – You must be willing to work hard

    If that’s the case, then Trent should evaluate the usefulness of the book based on these criteria alone.

    Instead we get …

    Trent’s additional requirements:

    – You must have a core family that supports radical life shifts
    – You must lack current community attachments or obligations

    Trent’ll write anything to exclude himself from the intended audience then write it’s a “home run” for others but not for him.

    Wishy-washy.

    I should add, for Trent’s first requirement, it sounds like Trent is saying his wife doesn’t support change. If so, what a jerk, to do so here. And for his second criteria: if his community attachments are so vital I doubt he would be planning to move into a forest at the first given opportunity.

    It would have been more honest for Trent to write: “this book doesn’t apply to me because I fail to meet the author’s first requirement: to be open to new ideas.”

  9. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    Not every book is useful for everyone at every stage in their life. A good review makes it clear who it is useful for and when. The material in this book doesn’t work well for people with children and civic responsibilities. It does work well for people with fewer such ties and responsibilities. Thus, I recommend it much more highly to the latter group.

    An example: the chapter on travel makes a ton of assumptions based on the idea that you’re only buying one ticket and responsible for one person when traveling the world. When you’re married and have three children (as I am), that threshold for travel is completely different. Not only am I paying for the travel of five, the needs of a four year old, a three year old, and an infant highly restrict what you’re able to do. You can’t do a three week backpacking trip across rural India. It doesn’t work.

  10. Dan M says:

    @ Systemizer

    “If that’s the case, then Trent should evaluate the usefulness of the book based on these criteria alone”

    The reason why Trent adds more criteria, is because they are needed.

    For instance, if you read the book, you’d realise that “a core family that supports radical life shifts” is integral to Chris G’s way of life. He states several times throughout his book the importance of having a like minded partner. It is, therefore, puzzling why he didn’t add this as a 5th criteria point.

  11. Gal @ Equally Happy says:

    Thanks for the great review Trent.

    As another commenter stated, this does sound similar to Tim Ferris’s 4 hour work week, which I believe you have also reviewed. How would you compare and contrast the two? Which one would you recommend?

  12. Marlon S says:

    RE: #8Systemizer

    Systemizer, you mention that “Trent should evaluate the usefulness of the book based on these criteria alone.” If you read the article you would have noticed that he did. He specifically stated that he was reading the book through the eyes of his younger self – which is to stay at a time when he was open to new ideas, dissatisfied with the status quo, realized that he would have to work hard and take responsibility for his happiness. Altough without actually stating it I thought he was pretty clear conveying the message that this book does not entirely speak to him, but there are still some good ideas that to be had from reading it. How is that being wishy-washy.

  13. Systemizer says:

    @Marlon S: “If you read the article you would have noticed that he did. He specifically stated that he was reading the book through the eyes of his younger self”

    Yet Trent’s review of chapter 7 brings up his experience with Twitter. And Chapter 9 parenthood.

    The review is convoluted.

  14. Systemizer says:

    @Trent: “When you’re married and have three children (as I am), that threshold for travel is completely different.”

    Never mind the “civic responsibilities” – whatever those are.

    Vague vague vague.

  15. tentaculistic says:

    Wow, this book sounds like *exactly* what I need! Those 4 apply to me. I totally have that vague feeling of wanting OUT, but not knowing where or how, or what. I just stuck this book into my Amazon cart!

  16. Systemizer says:

    @Dan M “For instance, if you read the book …”

    If only Trent’s review helped me decide whether or not to invest the time.

  17. Landon says:

    Thank you for the review, Trent. The first paragraph you wrote really spoke to me. I fit under all those characteristics! Like tentaculistic said before me, I’m adding it to my Amazon cart right now!

    CG’s blog is great also.

  18. Wow I had no idea as a weirdo I was so easy to describe, right down to the weak ties to the community! Think this book is something I need to check out, thanks for the continued good info!

  19. Jessica says:

    Thanks for the review Trent. I will have to check this book out.

  20. I read the book and really enjoyed it. The message I received from the book was to live the life YOU want. So if that means traveling around the world that is great but it can also mean working part time and being home more with your family, or finding work you love.

    We have two small children (ages 1 and 3). We have done a lot of the things that Chris suggests. I quit my six figure job to work part time from home. (even though I made over two thirds of the income) People thought I was crazy.

    I have no desire to travel to every country, though his crazy quest is inspiring. After meeting Chris last week I do want to take my children to other countries, even if they are young.

    I think Chris emphasizes being remarkable in what you do, and while it’s not a message for everyone, it’s a great way to live.

    (and thanks Trent, I almost never comment but you helped me get out of $70,000 in debt which allowed me to quit my job :) )

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