Book Review: The Art of Non-Conformity by Chris Guillebeau

AONC book coverA guy I know once said: "If you follow the herd, you'll end up as lunch." (Actually, he said "Schnitzel", since he's German, but you get the idea).

Well, here's a guide, a manual if you wish, for avoiding the fate of leading a dull, boring and unremarkable life. This is not just a self-help or success guide type of book, it's much more. It's a manifesto for personal freedom that can apply to all of us, if we choose to follow it.

In some ways, it's like the red pill/blue pill thing from The Matrix: Do you want to stay in the normal world, do normal, boring things like getting a job, applying for a mortgage, going on vacation once or twice a year, and feeding the ducks in the park after you retire?

Or do you want to decide for yourself what to do with your life, create your own rules and live your life the way you want?

Chris Guillebeau, the author of The Art of Non-Conformity is a remarkable guy:

He skipped high school and went directly to college instead, quit his last conventional job at age 20, then sold coffee from his kitchen table and played music, before joining a medical charity in West Africa for four years, while running e-commerce websites from satellite phone internet connections in the middle of the night. He worked with plastic surgeons, refugees, warlords and presidents before he came back to the USA to start his blog, The Art of Non-Conformity. And now, he's on a quest to visit every country in the world.

He's currently 77.6% done.

Is he a success guru? An overachiever? A celebrity? No. None of this is noticeable when you read his blog or his book. He's a genuinely nice guy you could meet everywhere, with one small exception:

He's dissatisfied with the status quo.

The Status Quo

Looking around us, there are a lot of normal people doing normal things: Accepting the world the way it is, obeying authority, going to school/college/the office because they're supposed to, staying at home most of the time, dreaming dreams without actually trying to make them real, checking off boxes and functioning like cogs in the machinery of the world.

Chris calls them Sleepwalkers and it's a very fitting description. And his goal is to help you wake up. Here's the one-line summary of his book:

You don't have to live your life the way other people expect you to.

Let's look at the three parts of The Art of Non-Conformity and see what he has to offer:

Part I - The Remarkable Life

In this part, Chris tells us about Sleepwalkers and the Living World, setting the stage for the rest of the book. He introduces us to his basic philosophy of how to set the terms of your own, unconventional life and helps us smash through the brick wall of fear while warning us of the forces that want us to fail: Critics and Gatekeepers. Fortunately, he has some proven, helpful tips and tactics on how to handle them.

This chapter is all about reprogramming yourself to become the person you want to be, as opposed to the person your surroundings impose on you. He offers helpful tools and exercises, like imagining your ideal world and the perfect day, radical goal-setting and a set of principles for unconventional living, garnished with fun and insightful stories. We continue by confronting our fears and learning that they're actually less significant and more manageable than we thought them to be. And we take a look behind the scenes of authority, learn how to circumvent it, and win the battle underdog-style.

Part II - Reclaiming Work

This part is all about the tools for making your dreams real. A lot of them revolve around work, the main activity you spend your life with.

Life and work, the everlasting duality. But does it have to be two different things? In this part of the book, Chris reminds us that job security is an illusion and urges us, his readers, to take responsibility by taking matters into our own hands. He offers three options for leveraging our own competence and bringing work and life closer together:

  • Option 1: Self-Employment
  • Option 2: Becoming a Rock Star in our Jobs
  • Option 3: Hiring a Better Boss

Each option is illustrated with a real-world story, and he adds his own story to the mix to get the reader's ideas flowing.

Part II continues with comparing the traditional "Graduate School" education approach to today's internet/social media/blogging culture. The theory here is: You can get a great education in one year for $10,000 or less that rivals the result of most people's traditional graduate school career. And he even includes a detailed 14-step recipe. Cool stuff.

The underlying message here is more powerful still: Never stop learning, always continue starting, never settle for mediocrity.

Nobody can rule the world (yes, World Domination is Chris' metaphor for leading a responsible, self-directed life) alone, so Part II includes a piece about building your own army: Your friends, your friends' friends, your followers, readers, fans, true fans, etc.

BTW: Thank you for being part of my army, which according to Feedburner is about 400 people strong. I really appreciate that! And if you haven't done so yet, feel free to join my army of non-conformant IT people. I promise it'll be interesting.

Finally, every book of this type has to have a chapter about finance, but the refreshing take here is that money is just a means to an end: Money won't make you any happier once it has covered the basics of living. Use it wisely and according to your values. Use it to invest in yourself and others, don't waste it on "stuff".

Part III: The Power of Convergence

Here's where Chris puts everything together. He calls it "Convergence": The state of being where everything in our lives is in alignment.

This includes eliminating the unnecessary (including a new, cool idea for GTD freaks: The To-Stop-Doing List!), enriching our lives through abundance (i.e. filling each day with activities you enjoy doing and which add to your legacy as much as possible), and embarking on unconventional adventures, designed to expand the boundaries of what we think is possible.

We learn more about Chris' quest to travel to each of the 192 countries of the world, including helpful travel hacking tips (a topic for which he could write a whole book of its own) and lots of other details that help us understand that living our own life on our own terms is really something everyone of us can do, if we choose to.

And then he hands over the topic to ourselves, asking the reader to start their own legacy, offering a few final tips to get us started, including the two biggest questions:

"What do you really want to get out of life?"

and

"What can you offer the world that no one else can?"

One of Us

The whole book is written in a very refreshing, friendly, no-nonsense buddy style. There's never a moment in which the author comes through as a teacher, an uber-guy, or any other authoritative figure.

Instead, Chris makes it clear that he's one of us. He could be the guy next door, the person who stands up at a local barcamp offering some anecdotal advice, your buddy from the gym giving you a hint on how to save some money on your next trip to Hawaii, whatever. He's just cool and you're free to do what you want with his book and his ideas.

Why I Love This Book

My whole life has been kinda unconventional before: I was born in Germany, my mom being German and my dad being from Chile. I learned Spanish as my first language while I was with my parents in Colombia. Then we traveled to Turkey (where I had to learn German very quickly to attend the local German school), Germany (where I touched my first computer) and Rome (where I picked up Italian as well, since it's close enough to Spanish), before returning to Germany again to study computer science (my younger brother got to live in Lisbon and Barcelona after that).

Later, I always followed my interests over anything else, which made me the CEO of a local pub, co-founder, writer and salesman of a student newspaper, actor in a theater play and the guy that ran the web servers for my university. Which brought me in touch with Sun.

My career at Sun was again dominated by the stuff I love: First it was graphics and workstations, then digital media, later processor and system technology and now the Solaris OS and ZFS.

To me, this book is a relief, because it shows me I'm not the only guy in the world with a crazy background.

But this is also a wake-up call for me: Don't let the world take control of my life, just because I'm now married with two kids, living in an apartment in Munich, employed by one of the world's largest IT companies.

Chris, if you read this, I sure hope I can buy you a beer some time!

Sun, UltraSPARC and Solaris are Non-Conformant, Too!

In the world of IT, Microsoft, Intel and Linux are the way of the masses, the way of the IT herds, stuff for people on the way to becoming lunch.

Sun always chose to think stuff through from the beginning and ask: Does IT always have to be this way? Do CPUs need to be single-threaded and burn a lot of Watts or is there an alternative? Do filesystems have to suck at large capacities and lose data to bit rot, or can we do better? Does virtualization need to be brute force or can we create a more efficient way to manage services in a system? And if we go for full scale virtualization, why not do it right and virtualize everything on anything for free? (And don't forget desktops).

Now, I'm looking forward to some more unconventional things that Oracle is going to do. This one looks quite interesting.

Others don't want to conform to the way OpenSolaris has been developing, so they chose their own paths of Solaris non-conformity. This is fine, too. You see, there's room for non-conformity everywhere!

The Verdict

This book is not for everyone, but everyone should buy "The Art of Non-Conformity" and read it now. But be careful: It is full of dangerous ideas! You can decide to take the red pill and let Chris show you the way down the non-conformant rabbit hole. Or you can take the blue pill, and join your sleepwalking friends in schnitzel-land. It's your choice now.

And if you choose to not read this book, at least check out Chris Guillebeau's blog, where he'll offer you a brief guide to world-domination for free. Plus more cool stuff.

How Non-Conformant are You?

I'm sure there's a lot of non-conformity in you, too, so let me know! What's the biggest thing that bugs you and that you're about to change? What authorities do you question? What stories of non-conformity do you have to share?

Disclosure: The links to Chris' book in this entry are Amazon affiliate links. If you buy through them, I'll get a small kickback from Amazon that'll help me pay for the cost of this blog. Thank You!

If you don't like affiliate links, go to Chris' AONC book page and buy from there. That's cool, too.

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