The Art of Non-Conformity

In his 2010 book The Art of Non-Conformity: Set Your Own Rules, Live the Life You Want, and Change the World, Chris Guillebeau expands upon the ideas in his popular blog and online manifesto, A Brief Guide to World Domination.

The book begins with a description of what Guillebeau calls ‘sleepwalkers,’ which he defines as people leading lives that are ‘unremarkably average.’ In the following pages of this quick read, Guillebeau frequently cites his own successes (and a few successes of others) as he describes the path of self-employment, setting and achieving goals, and living a life according to one’s dreams and values.

I will admit that I chose to read this book largely because of the catchy title, and because it had been described on a few other blogs as a must read. I haven’t followed Guillebeau’s blog in the past, so I hadn’t previously been exposed to his philosophy. However, in my recent first visit to his website, it appears that he has quite a cult following with hundreds of comments on his blog posts and through an annual World Domination Summit that attracts thousands of attendees. Clearly Guillebeau’s ideas are popular, and many people crave to lead a life according to his example.

He has achieved a lot of the goals which he has outlined in his book. He has created a small army of committed followers, he has published several best-selling books, and perhaps most notably, he has almost achieved his goal of visiting every country in the world by his 35th birthday. At the time of writing this post, Guillebeau has visited 189/193 countries with an April 2013 deadline. Clearly there is much to be proud of.

On paper, I have a lot in common with Chris Guillebeau. We are roughly the same age, live in the same city, are both self-employed, have master’s degrees in international development-related fields, and have both volunteered for several years in Africa. I have even adopted a number of the philosophies he posits in this book, such as radical exclusion, debt free living and making the most of airline frequent flyer programs. One would think I’d love this book, but unfortunately I didn’t.

I had a hard time with the tone of voice. While this may be a good read for someone who is looking to make radical changes to his/her life and is looking for a pep talk, this book isn’t for everyone. I respect that, but I am not sure that Guillebeau does. Many people do find happiness in life by following traditional paths. While entrepreneurialism may be the best road for some, and may especially seem like an alluring path in times of economic hardship, there’s growing discussion that only a handful of the population is fit to succeed in self-employment.

Overly idealistic people oftentimes glorify self-employment, without acknowleding ongoing challenges such as inconsistent income, the constant need to build clients and negotiate new contracts, and the reality that self-employed individuals are taxed more heavily than those in traditional employment, without getting benefits such as health insurance, paid vacations and retirement bonuses. When I am tracking down late payments and working twice as many hours as I get paid for, I often remember the days when I could rely on a paycheck at the end of each month and I would get paid for a certain number of hours even though I might not have been actively working much of that time.

I also struggled with Guillebeau’s opinions on university education, which he describes as a waste of time and money, and resulting in nothing more than a piece of paper. Perhaps I was blessed to attend a liberal arts college for my undergraduate education that was focused as much on the out-of-classroom experience as the coursework itself, but I do not share his views. I do agree that education is an expensive investment, and while I have yet to see a return on investment in the monetary sense, I have already reached my experiential investment every time I visit an art museum, discuss archaeology at parties, or write a research paper that has the potential to positively affect public policy I believe in.

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5 Responses to The Art of Non-Conformity

  1. Elisabeth says:

    Thank you for this candid review. Knowing you and your husband and having a husband myself that is an entrepreneur, I know how tough it can be. It’s definitely worth it, if it’s the right choice for you, but it’s not for everyone. And that’s not a bad thing. Entrepreneurialism is frequently glorified, and more traditional employment is often dissed. To me, both are valuable, and both can be rewarding. The key is knowing yourself and your goals, as well as being aware of the challenges and benefits of each type of job. Excellent post!

  2. Claire Ady says:

    So, reading your review was the first I had heard of this book, I ordered it straight away from the library and it has taken this long for it to get to me, so it’s popular. As you say, many very good points but I really did not find him very likeable, or his advice overly practical. I’d love to see how he’d feel about his “higher education is a waste of time” theory if he ever needs medical surgery and I offer to do it for him.

    • Becky says:

      I can’t believe you had to wait nearly 6 months to get this book from the library. Great point about the medical surgery!

      • Claire Ady says:

        I think at least one of the library copies had been stolen by a non-conformist so that slowed it down a lot. I feel sure I could take out a small organ such as an appendix or spleen without too much bother 😉
        The thing that annoyed me most was the smugness about having visited a lot of countries. So what? It doesn’t mean you know them well or have learned anything from them if you’re just ticking them off a list. Travel only broadens the mind if done in a certain way.

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