Does Living a Remarkable Life Require Courage or Effort?July 22nd, 2009 · 68 comments
A Non-Conformist Manifesto
My friend Chris Guillebeau runs the fascinating and extremely popular blog, The Art of Non-Conformity. What I like about his site is that: (a) Chris is a good writer; and (b) he actually does interesting things, and then reports back about them.
On his FAQ page, Chris notes the following about the philosophy motivating the site:
- “My target market consists of people who want to live unconventional, remarkable lives.”
- “You don’t have to live your life the way other people expect you to.”
- “From time to time, people will try to stop you from pursuing your goals. You can safely ignore them.”
- “We’re waging war on the status quo, mediocrity, and the passive act of sleepwalking through life.”
These same ideas, of course, show up again and again in the growing number of popular blogs and books that tackle the topic of building a remarkable life. At their core, they all express the following belief: the key to living a remarkable life is mustering the courage to step off the “safe path.”
In this post, by contrast, I argue that having the courage to ignore the status quo is of minimal importance for achieving this goal. The most important factor, instead, is becoming so good at something that society rewards you with a remarkable life.
(I should mention, before continuing, that Chris and I are in agreement about this philosophy — c.f., this recent post from his blog — I’m using the above quotes only to typify the standard thinking about the topic.)
An Economic Model of the Unconventional Life
Let’s start by defining our terms. I think we can more or less agree on the following definition of a remarkable life:
A remarkable life is one in which: (1) you do something meaningful that you enjoy; (2) you have a flexible schedule that you control; and (3) you earn recognition and good (enough) compensation.
The question at hand is how one constructs such a life. My argument is that this outcome can be understood as a reward. That is, society will reward you with a remarkable life if and only if you can offer in return a useful and rare service. This is a basic economic argument: A remarkable life, as defined above, is very appealing and valuable. To earn it, therefore, requires the contribution of something valuable in return.
When we consider people who do seem to be living the type of life described above, we notice, almost without exception, that they validate my theory.
Consider, for example, the author Neal Stephenson. In two previous posts, I described his envious workday. He writes only in the morning, when his focus is at its peak, and then spends the afternoons working on interesting projects — typically things that require the use of his hands. He ignores most e-mail so that he can have more time to think, write, and, in general, enjoy life. He’s revered by his fans and well-compensated.
How did Neal earn this remarkable life? It wasn’t because he decided to eschew a traditional career and instead become a writer. (Plenty of people try this and fail.) What earned him his reward is that he became exceptional at writing a particular style of book. (We can assume that this was a slow process replete with lots of hard focus.)
The Danger of a Courage-Centric Approach
I think there’s a danger in focusing exclusively on the courage piece of building a remarkable life. It leads people to lionize the acting of making the bold decision to try something unconventional, but this decision, in the grand scheme of things, might not be that important.
It’s becoming increasing apparent from my study of the issue, that what matters is excelling at the unconventional activity in question. And in most cases, you make quite a bit of progress down this path before having to quit your job. (Consider, for example, the story of novelist Haruki Murakami, who waited until he had published novels and won awards, before he quit his day job as a bar manager.)
My tentative conclusion: If you’re itching to make your life something amazing, consider spending less time daydreaming about defying the status quo and answering the critics of your decision, and spending more time gearing yourself up for the challenge of becoming so good that they can’t ignore you. Ultimately, it will probably be the latter that generates the remarkable results.
I use the word “tentative” here because these are more rough thoughts than a philosophy that I trust with certainty. With this in mind, I’m particularly interested in your own reactions to the popular idea of living a remarkable life, and what it really requires.