Study Hacks Blog Decoding Patterns of Success

On the Possibility of Non-Conformity in a Conformist Career

March 9th, 2011 · 26 comments

Not long into the premiere episode of their Discovery Channel series, American Treasures, anthropology professors Jason De León and Kirk French find themselves in the East Texas flatlands, at a run down, dirt road homestead. They’re here to investigate the authenticity of a suit that supposedly belonged to Clyde Barrow of Bonnie and Clyde fame.

It takes the professors all of thirty seconds to disprove this claim: not a lot of suits from that period feature a “Made in China” tag. But this doesn’t dampen their enthusiasm.

“You’re from a moonshine family,” notes French.

“Yep,” drawls the Leslie, the suit’s owner.

“Let’s try some moonshine.”

Soon a stoppered glass pitcher is produced. As Leslie pours the hootch into mason jars, he offers a warning: “Don’t ask about the proof. You wouldn’t drink it if you knew.”

French and De León smile as they take their jars.

On Non-Conformity

Professors De León and French are non-conformists. I define this term, in the context of careers, to describe someone who pushes their work in an unexpected direction with the goal of increasing its meaning and interestingness. Two young, non-tenured professors (De León and French received their PhDs in 2008 and 2009, respectively) spending their summers trekking around America in an old Ford pick-up truck, followed by Discovery Channel cameras, clearly matches this definition.

For fans of this style non-conformity, there’s good news and bad news…

The good news is that this concept has received a lot of attention recently, especially from the community of lifestyle design bloggers. Spurred on in large part by the success of Tim Ferriss, there’s now a whole ecosystem of writers pushing their readers to take their lives in radical, unexpected directions.

The bad news, as I see it, is that this writing often serves to dampen the very non-conformity it aims to support.

Here’s why…

Much of this writing presents conformity and non-conformity in binary opposition. Either you reject everything traditional and start a low-cost, web-based cash-flow business, or you’re a conformist drone. I worry that this sharp distinction inadvertently culls out many interesting paths.

Let’s return, for a moment, to De León and French. Their act of non-conformity required them to first become professors: without this expertise they couldn’t have scored a Discovery Channel show. This expertise, however, required quite a bit of traditional striving: to become a professor at Michigan and Penn State, where they’re currently employed, requires exceptional performance, starting as an undergraduate and continuing through graduate school. This is exactly the type of “conformity” that much of the blogging community decries.

When you examine other stories of people doing unconventional, interesting things with their lives, this mixture of conformity leveraged to gain non-conformity is common.

To name another example, consider the popular science writer Jonah Lerher. His lifestyle is decidedly non-conformist. There are no office cubicles or staff meetings in Lerher’s schedule. He lives where he wants (after returning from Oxford, for example, he moved to New Hampshire to write), and is tasked, in his assignments from NPR and Wired, among other outlets, to simply seek out interesting science stories and write interesting articles about them.

This sounds good to me.

But how did Lerher burst into the science writing scene? After studying neuroscience at Columbia he won a Rhodes Scholarship, which he used to study psychology, philosophy and physiology at Oxford University. This was exactly the expertise he needed to write Proust was a Neuroscientist, his critically-acclaimed debut book.

My plea here is for a broadening of imagination when considering interesting directions to steer our working lives. Some of the most interesting, non-conformist opportunities, require a foundation of ability gained through unabashedly conformist means. While some writers, such as my friend Chris Guillebeau, do a good job of separating the spirit of non-conformity from a strict collection of “acceptable” and “non-acceptable” paths, too many others treat traditional accomplishment as the enemy.

As readers we should demand more subtlety and imagination from these conversations. When figuring out how to make the most out of our lives, we shouldn’t accept any philosophy that takes a large collection of options off the table.

Perhaps it helps to remember that De León and French look like they’re having a damn good time.

(Photo from The Discovery Channel)

26 thoughts on “On the Possibility of Non-Conformity in a Conformist Career

  1. Jesse says:

    Some of the lifestyle bloggers ways of making money are pretty empty. A web-based business selling whatever rubbish you can convince people to buy by using google and SEO doesn’t really get me going.

  2. Jenion says:

    As most people learning a discipline, you’re taught to obey the rules. Once you’ve mastered them, then you’re allowed to break them. This article illustrates that.

  3. Oh, that I could imprint this post into most of my client’s brains! Nicely done, thanks.

  4. Ashlie says:

    Cal, while I usually don’t agree 100% on some of your posts about passion, but this post is fantastic!

    When figuring out how to make the most out of our lives, we shouldn’t accept any philosophy that takes a large collection of options off the table.

    That is my favorite thing I’ve read in a while! It’s very true, I do believe in following my passion, but your idea’s of learning a skill and leveraging it are actually part of what I’m trying to do with my passions. So it is more about balance and what works for you then about any one ideal or “plan” someone can sell you in a book or on a blog.

    Thanks again Cal!

  5. Stephen Y. says:

    Something I would be interested in learning more about is how individuals move between these ‘two’ spheres – not simply starting out as a conformist to get the credentials necessary to become a non-conformist, but being both in different places.

  6. feng says:

    ok, i like this article a lot. i currently work about five minutes a day on average training labs on how to measure air pollution.

    my friends think that this is such a good position to be in life. at first it was really nice being admired. but after awhile it felt kind of lonely. like is there no one who understands what you need to go through before you get to such a position?

    i worked in a small chemical testing laboratory for four years for relatively low pay in a town right next to a very alluring and bright and big city. i cannot imagine too many other places to work at which is more “conformist”. in fact we have auditors coming in to make sure we conform to tons of standards! LOL. but still, it was a lot of fun. plus i missed the politics. how interesting that makes life. ha!

  7. Meredith says:

    Love this post! I think what you’re proposing requires a certain humility, and an ability to delay gratification, sometimes for years and years in the case of the professors. I wonder sometimes if we’re all losing that ability, that our attention spans for our own lives have gotten so short that we can’t invest years in the traditional path. We want unique careers now, but I agree… there’s so much value in finding out who you are as a worker over time, in a more traditional environment.

  8. Study Hacks says:
    So it is more about balance and what works for you then about any one ideal or “plan” someone can sell you in a book or on a blog.

    That’s a good way of putting it. The more you study people with compelling careers, the more complexity you find.

    Something I would be interested in learning more about is how individuals move between these ‘two’ spheres – not simply starting out as a conformist to get the credentials necessary to become a non-conformist, but being both in different places.

    I’m interested in this too. I wonder if there is a type of mindset you can cultivate that helps you continually notice places to apply your expertise as it grows.

    Love this post! I think what you’re proposing requires a certain humility, and an ability to delay gratification, sometimes for years and years in the case of the professors

    I think it helps not to see it as delaying gratification, but instead as an approach to work where you are constantly seeing how interesting you can make what you’re doing. As you get more and more expertise, the scale of this interestingness grows, but the general enjoyment remains constant.

  9. Eugene says:

    Cal, I think you’re right about the negativity in seeing conventional opportunities as something you need to endure. The mindset of having this ideal workplace, fantastic lifestyle doesn’t really do much for you, as you’ve been emphasizing in several posts. Being a non-conformist in what you might think of as a conventional, conformist area is the key here, I think.

  10. Rich says:

    Reading this article reminds me of the old adage (if it can be called such): “You need to think inside the box before you start thinking outside of it.”

  11. Alujna says:

    I think you need to be in a position where, if you take a different road you’re not likely to lose anything except the time you spent. In other words, you need to be a position where you can afford to lose. You have back up. THEN you can be a non-conformist.

  12. John says:

    I think it helps not to see it as delaying gratification, but instead as an approach to work where you are constantly seeing how interesting you can make what you’re doing. As you get more and more expertise, the scale of this interestingness grows, but the general enjoyment remains constant.

    Cal, I think this is the key. As a teacher, I’ve been thinking about how to modify the structure of my course to do more than just teach a particular body of content, but also to teach metacognitve skills that help students to evaluate their own learning, and see the benefit of the struggle as stretching their minds (Dweck’s growth mindset), as well has habits of mind that are particular to a field, that will help students to develop the vision within a particular field that an expert has (thinking like a scientist, or historian, etc). I’ve written a preliminary post in this direction, but you’ve got me thinking I need to explore this much more deeply.

  13. andy says:

    Please discard my previous message….i didnt give much thought to it, and just went on in an emotional fervour. Please dont mind also.

  14. Nick says:

    Really like this article and the comments.

    Reminds me a lot of the Ira Glass article, where he basically said to hunker down, put in your hours (what are really years), and then build something off of that.

  15. Justice says:

    Cal,
    Just wanted to send a note of thanks for sharing your thinking through this blog. I find your approach to work inspiring as I’ve been wrestling with my own pursuit of work I am passionate about. One thing I might suggest, as one who is just starting to explore subjects to focus on to develop differentiating expertise, is that you don’t have to wait until you have achieved some ideal level of expertise to start doing something with it. This has been a trap for me as I have held off on bringing the fruit of my learning about behavioral change and business to my day job because I didn’t know enough about it despite having read more about it than most of the folks around me. It seems to me that you have to start somewhere on the non-conformist path even it is in a decidely conformist context. At some point, you’re good enough to make a start. Any thoughts how you know?

  16. Robert Paul says:

    I’m thinking about starting a blog titled “Thank God for Cal Newport”.

  17. I agree that conventional success provides the economic and social foundation to take unconventional paths. However, a good friend of mine, who was academically stellar, now works 80 to 100 hours a week in a high pressure job doing uninteresting work to pay for his Jaguar and custom-designed apartment. If he wanted to, he could experience so much more. But he won’t, since he is immersed in a culture which dictates that this is the right thing to do.

    Culture also has a huge impact on me. In the last few years, I have made a big effort to meet unconventional people from all walks of life, even though I work in a law firm. This means that I experience many different cultures. I find this diversification allows me avoid the pit-falls of one particular social group. Couchsurfing is just one example of where I can constantly meet people who are a source of inspiration for unconventional living.

  18. Jake says:

    Thanks Cal, I have been wanting to write exactly what you did but didn’t know how to say it. I just get angry and want to bash people like the author of Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel. This book sucks and his advice isn’t worth the cost of electricity to copy and past the title here. But I did in hopes someone else wants to throw in on how bad he and his book is.

  19. Study Hacks says:
    One thing I might suggest, as one who is just starting to explore subjects to focus on to develop differentiating expertise, is that you don’t have to wait until you have achieved some ideal level of expertise to start doing something with it.

    A good insight. The ability to know when and how to leverage a growing body of expertise is one of those x-factor skills that plays a huge role in compelling careers, but is often overlooked as being important.

    I agree that conventional success provides the economic and social foundation to take unconventional paths. However, a good friend of mine, who was academically stellar, now works 80 to 100 hours a week in a high pressure job doing uninteresting work

    Be careful not to swap sufficiency for necessity. Building conventional expertise is often necessary for launching a non-conformist lifestyle, but by itself it is certainly not sufficient. Arguably most people end up like your friend. In an earlier article, I called this the prestige trap, and noted that actually leveraging ability to do something different can be surprisingly difficult.

    Culture also has a huge impact on me. In the last few years, I have made a big effort to meet unconventional people from all walks of life, even though I work in a law firm.

    This sounds like a great strategy for preparing yourself to be more autonomous and to more easily side step the prestige trap when making decisions.

    I just get angry and want to bash people like the author of Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel

    What’s that book about?

  20. Cyrano says:

    I agree. Thanks for telling people what they need to hear, instead of what they’d like to hear, Cal.

  21. Will Geiger says:

    Great post. I think that guys like Tim Ferriss have some really interesting things to say, but people want to follow their “plan” to a T. They want to make money with internet marketing and then travel, but what they fail to realize is that there are other options too. Your point (and Tim’s overarching point) is that you have to make your OWN plan about something you are interested in. That way your life is filled with what you find fulfilling.

    There comes a certain point when just reading about lifestyle design, passion, etc. becomes very dangerous and you just have to get out there and do it yourself.

  22. Fong says:

    As Bruce Lee once said “Absorb what is useful, Discard what is not, Add what is uniquely your own.” There’s no reason to categorically adopt or reject either conformity or non-confomity as these hard distinctions arbitrarily segregate us into tidy classes but prevent the adoption of hybrid idealogies. Though these ideas are not new, it does strike a pragmatic chord when aptly applied to something tangible we can relate to.

  23. Max says:

    Jonah Lehrer’s name is spelled wrongly in your article, just so you know, Cal.

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