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.
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.
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)