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Disruptive Thinkers: Chris Guillebeau Wants to Teach You the Art of Non-Conformity

June 20th, 2008 · 10 comments

A Marathon on a Cruise ShipChris with Desmond Tutu

My first encounter with graduate student and blogger Chris Guillebeau, was an article he wrote about running a marathon…on a cruise ship. He did this for no real reason; it just seemed interesting at the time. My next encounter was an essay posted on Zen Habits about arriving in a small Macedonian town, at 4 am, with nowhere to stay, and subsequently wandering into a all-night street party.

Then I noticed he has traveled to 83 countries and plans one day to visit all 198. He also maintains an excellent blog, The Art of Nonconformity, and he will be releasing on Tuesday a free PDF manifesto titled The Art of World Domination — something I’m eagerly waiting for.

With all this in mind I knew I had to meet Chris (pictured above, chatting with Archbishop Desmond Tutu). He was nice enough to answer some questions about his life philosophy and what it means to become a nonconformist student.

Can you talk about your experiences in college and then the unconventional path you followed afterwards?

“I started college when I was 16, and finished in about two and a half years. I wasn’t incredibly smart or anything; I just registered for lots of classes at multiple schools and then transferred everything at the end to graduate. I’m not sure I would recommend that method to others, since my focus was definitely on completing my degrees instead of learning, but it worked for me.”

“When I was 20 I went to graduate school and needed a way to make some money. I started selling random stuff on eBay (this was 1999, the early days of online auctions) and ended up building a small wholesale business that later expanded to consulting and design projects. I wish I could tell you it was strategic, but it was initially motivated by a strong desire to avoid working for someone else.”

“By far the most important life change I made was moving to West Africa in 2002 to volunteer as an aid worker. I spent four years working with government leaders and villagers in nine different countries there, and the experience affected me profoundly. I came back to the U.S. in 2006 to return to grad school, but I have spent every break since then traveling to as many places around the world as possible.”

What advice do you have for a college student who is wearied by the “traditional” options before him?

“My advice is pretty simple: you don’t have to live your life the way other people expect you to. This includes parents, professors, and even peers. If you’re wearied by the system, you have to decide exactly how wearied you are. Most people complain about the traditional paths but don’t bother trying to make their own. If it bothers you enough, you’ll probably find something else sooner or later.”

I’m interested in your notion of how to become “remarkable.” Could you describe your philosophy here?

“It begins with the observation that most people are what I call unremarkably average. It’s important to note that this doesn’t mean they are bad people; it’s just that they do what everyone expects them to and they kind of amble through life. A remarkable person is not innately special– rather, to become remarkable (or noticeable), we really have to find our own way somehow.”

“By the way, I’m not interested in telling people how to live their lives. What I’m interested in is showing that there are alternatives out there and you don’t have to be like everyone else.”

What’s the one misconception, commonly held by college students, that you would most like to dispel?

“I just finished a master’s degree at the University of Washington, and during that time I got the chance to hang out with a lot of other students, both graduate and undergraduates. I would never say this is universal, but I did notice that a number of students tend to think that the school has a responsibility to find them the job of their dreams after graduation. There is inevitably a lot of disappointment when this doesn’t work out, and I think it’s far better to take personal responsibility for your own plans from the beginning.”

What are some specific things a college student could do right now to transform their life from conformist to nonconformist?

“Well, the fact is that most people are conformists, and I don’t necessarily think everyone should change. But for those who want to do something else, I think it starts with clearly understanding what it is you really want and how you can cause that to happen. Then, you have to think as well about how you can help improve the lives of others, because most people are not ultimately satisfied with a life focused only on themselves.”

“Once someone knows what they want and how they can help others, the plan of attack is to start taking it step by step. One thing that helped me in college, both undergrad and the grad program, was always asking the question, “Is there another way to do this?” If your advisor is sending you in a direction you are uncomfortable with, I’d push back a little, or suggest an alternative, or just get a new advisor. There are usually multiple ways of accomplishing any goal, including academic goals, and it has greatly helped me to think a lot about the alternatives instead of just doing things they way everyone else does.”

Interesting Posts from The Art of Non-Conformity

10 thoughts on “Disruptive Thinkers: Chris Guillebeau Wants to Teach You the Art of Non-Conformity

  1. Daisy says:

    Interesting thoughts. :D

    I’ll probably be mulling over that the next few days.

  2. @Cal, thank you again for the chance to chat about unconventional college life. Your site looks great and I look forward to hearing of other students finding their own way in the midst of the conforming landscape of academia.

    @Daisy– thanks as well for your thoughts.

  3. DottyWine says:

    Okay, so I have been trying to become the kind of student you put here.

    I decided to create a hip hop dance crew on my school campus since I like dancing.

    As I was pursuing this, I began to meet people unlike any I’ve met before. They then invited me to things unlike things I’ve ever been to before. That then led to some interesting new ideas and money making possibilities that may have crossed my mind but never thought I would ever actually seriously consider before.

    I am SO glad I did not take the student job at the library…

  4. Study Hacks says:

    As I was pursuing this, I began to meet people unlike any I’ve met before. They then invited me to things unlike things I’ve ever been to before. That then led to some interesting new ideas and money making possibilities that may have crossed my mind but never thought I would ever actually seriously consider before.

    It’s amazing the powerful influence of meeting new people. I think we set a lot of our internal boundaries on what’s possible and what’s not based on the attitude of our friends. So the process of going out and finding people doing more interesting, bolder things, can really make an impact. I even wrote a chapter about this in my first book, How to Win at College. It was titled “Inflate Your Ambitions,” and said, in essence, find people doing amazing things with your interests then go meet them for coffee. You’ll never be the same.

  5. alexa says:

    Cal,

    Thank you for posting about Chris, thereby bringing him to my attention. It makes me feel better about humanity when I see proof of solid people doing good things and thinking different thoughts.

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