The Art Of Non-Conformity: A Negative Book Review

Chris Guillebeau's art of non conformity bookI really wanted to like this book. I really did.

Chris Guillebeau’s popular blog, “The Art Of Non-Conformity” is now in book form… and in this short 256-page text he covers a wide range of topics – everything from overcoming your fears… to education… and even world travel. The goal of the book (I think) is to teach people that you can live the life you want and you don’t have to play by everyone else’s rules.

If this is a new message for you, then “The Art Of Non-Conformity” is a highly recommended read. But I fear that for most of the people who will pick up and read this book, the overall message and the various subjects within will contain few new ideas.

In the book, Chris sets out to show his readers that a life outside the norm is possible, and that by living a life of non-conformity it is possible to do so much more than what might be capable by simply getting in line and following the crowd.

This part, I agree with. In fact, I should know!

Like Chris and many of his readers, I too have been living an unconventional lifestyle for the past several years. I’m vegetarian. I work for myself. I’ve designed my business so that I can work from anywhere in the world as long as I have an Internet connection. I travel a lot. I have thousands of people absorbing my content on a daily basis. And so, for me, the message of Chris’ book felt like a re-cap of my past, rather than a quest for future change.

My fear with Guillebeau’s “The Art Of Non-Conformity” is not so much that the book contains few original ideas, but the fact that those who read the book are likely already converts of this particular way of living. Essentially, Guillebeau is preaching to the choir, when in reality, the people who need to hear his message most are probably the people who don’t read books at all – or at least not books like this.

When it comes to reading and learning, it seems to me that there are two types of people. 1) Those that read books to learn something new… and 2) those that read books to affirm to themselves the beliefs that they already hold. This book, I fear, is one that will be largely read by the later.

After reading “The Art Of Non-Conformity” I will openly admit to being reminded about a few of my current beliefs, but there was nothing in the book that made me consider the possibilities of something bigger, better, or more profound. The ideas throughout the text are mainly recycled thoughts from other popular authors – such as Tim Ferris (who wrote “The 4-Hour Work-Week“) and Seth Godin (author or “Tribes” and so many more).

To fully understand the difference between these popular authors and the work done by Chris Guillebeau inside “The Art Of Non-Conformity”, let me make some comparisons.

When I first got my hands on a copy of Tim Ferriss’ “The 4-Hour Workweek” I read the whole book though in a single night. I couldn’t get to sleep afterward because my mind was racing, and even though many of the ideas in the book were not entirely unique, the content was arranged in such a way that it make me think twice, reconsider, and ponder numerous possibilities for myself the future. After reading the book, I read it again, and then I bought copies of the book for my friends and over the years have told hundreds of people about the ideas inside the text.

Guillebeau’s book didn’t do any of that for me. Reading through the text, I never got excited, enraged, or had any type of self-reflective thought to which I might be able to improve my own life. Instead, I found myself regularly shaking my head in agreement, but bored with the books overall unoriginality.

In the travel section of Chris’ book he admits, “I don’t claim to be an expert on every place I visit, and I wouldn’t make a good tour guide. After receiving nearly 1,000 stamps in my passport over the past decade, though, I’m pretty comfortable with settling in and finding my way around almost anywhere.”

This attitude toward travel is extended into his book as well. While “The Art of Non-Conformity” covers a number of different subjects, it doesn’t really focus on any one subject in particular. This lack of focus might be a good approach for a blog, where one would want the freedom to jump from one subject to the other, but for a book, the overall effect of jumping from one idea to the next results in a rather lackluster message. The result here, very much like Chris’s travels around the world, is a whole lot of reading (or passport stamps) and very little knowledge about anything in particular.

One of Chris Guillebeau’s mentors is legendary marketer, author and idea man – Seth Godin. Seth has written a number of highly successful books, each of which is about a very targeted subject matter. And like Guillebeau’s “The Art Of Non-Conformity”, most of Seth’s books are pretty darn short.

The difference between the two authors, however, is that when Seth writes a book, it is about a single subject only. He doesn’t jump from one idea to the other. Instead, every word is focused on making a clear and dramatic point about a very specific idea. The result, quite often, is a hugely popular book with a lasting message that resonates with people and brings about actual change.

“The Art Of Non-Conformity”, however, never really focuses on one idea long enough to say something meaningful and push the reader to action.

While I realize I’m being terribly cynical here, my cynicism comes largely from the fact that I was expecting so much more from this book. My expectations were so high that after reading “The Art Of Non-Conformity”, the only thing I could feel afterward was a sense of disappointment.

That said, there was one part of the book that I did enjoy, and it was Chris’ chapter on education, which he titled “Graduate School vs. The Blogosphere”.

In this part of the book, Chris discusses how his time in school didn’t really teach him all that much. Here, he states that since getting out of school, his website and various side projects have taught him so much more than he ever learned during his formal education.

Again, I was shaking my head in agreement during this part of the book. But unlike the other chapters in “The Art Of Non-Conformity”, the message here is not one that I have heard repeated dozens and dozens of times. While the ideas are not necessarily unique, however, the ideas Chris presents on education are something that need to be discussed in today’s modern world. Our education system (especially here in America) is broken and I think there are more than a few people in the world today who would admit that our education system could use a dramatic overhaul.

I just wish Chris had taken this idea and expanded on it. In fact, that’s what I wish Chris had done with his entire book. Instead of trying to cover every idea he’s ever discussed on his website, the book would have been so much better if he had taken just one idea and focused solely on that. It may be the one lesson Guillebeau has yet to learn from Godin. Focus on one subject and make a huge difference with one simple idea.

(Personally, I’d love to read an entire book about our current education system and how it could be reformed. And I know thousands of others would be interested in reading that book as well. At some point in “The Art Of Non-Conformity”, Chris encourages his readers to “Challenge Authority”. This subject too would make for a great text if approached in a very targeted, tactical manner.)

In the end, “The Art Of Non-Conformity” might be a good refresher course for those already marching in Chris Guillebeau’s tribe of the converted, but the overall theme of the book is weak and less than motivational (unless, of course, you’ve been living under a rock for the past ten years). The ideas are largely unoriginal and terribly non-focused. And while I’m still a fan of Chris Guillebeau and his work… and I’ll continue to read his blog… I’m sad to say that “The Art of Non-Conformity” is going to be one book I quickly soon forget.

About Darren Alff

Darren Alff is a world-renowned authority on bicycle touring and is the founder of - the world's most popular bicycle touring website and how-to information source. He is the author of "The Bicycle Touring Blueprint" and three additional cycling books. Darren has dedicated his life to helping others conduct the bicycle tour of their dreams. His websites, books, email newsletter, products and public appearances now inspire and assist hundreds of thousands of people from all around the world.

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  1. Donna

    April 14, 2011 at 7:50 am

    Hey Darren,
    You mentioned wanting to read a book about educational reform–check out Diane Ravitch (2010), “The Death and Life of the Great American School System.” She supported No Child Left Behind when it was first pushed through, but has since recanted that position. Her book doesn’t necessarily provide a solution for the system; however, she is a thorough historian of the public school education and she lays out how everything became such a screwed up mess. She also wrote (2000) “Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms.” Both are worth the time it takes to understand the incredibly flawed system that keeps making the same mistakes and puts our kids in the unenviable lowest-of-the-low when compared to the rest of the world.

    The video below is from her visit to Los Angeles (I teach in L.A. Unified. Thanks to many variables, teachers are being held solely responsible, if not vilified, for the failure of our schools, as well as being subjected to unreliable methods for determining teacher effectiveness, the results of which were made public last fall in the L.A. Times.). She has definitely made a U-turn in her support of government models for schools, and her dire warnings leave you feeling a bit helpless, but at least she’s honest.

    Also, if you haven’t read “Deadly Spin,” by Wendell Potter, I highly recommend it. Even though it’s about how PR is being used to squash universal healthcare, it can be generalized to many other topics, including education.

    RE: your book review–Definitely plan to check out Tim and Seth. Heard of both, but haven’t looked into them yet. WIth education going south, gotta get something else going here! I’m working on getting 3 websites ready to launch by late summer, and will hopefully be able to (kind of) do what you do–travel and do business on the road. :)

    • Bicycle Touring Pro

      April 14, 2011 at 11:24 am

      Hi Donna! Thanks so much for the book recommendations. I will definitely check them out when I have a chance.

  2. Chris Kostman

    April 18, 2011 at 10:44 am

    I’m pretty sure the rest of the world nods their head in agreement. Shaking means disagreement to the rest of us.

    • Bicycle Touring Pro

      April 19, 2011 at 3:59 pm

      Ha. I think you’re right Chris. Whoops! Whatever. You knew what I meant.

  3. Harry

    April 19, 2011 at 7:43 am

    Hi Darren,

    great review, thanks for taking the time to review it in depth. I assume that Chris is counting on his converted followers (like you and me) to spread the word to people who are still stuck.

    But if it is not focused enough, then it won’t work, thanks for pointing that out.

    • Bicycle Touring Pro

      April 19, 2011 at 3:48 pm

      I think you might be right Harry. I think this is the type of book that isn’t really for the people who already read Chris’ blog. It’s for the people who don’t! And yes, maybe Chris does want us (his readers) to help spread the word.

      But what do you think? Should a blogger who writes a book write the book for his current readers… or the readers he hopes to have? Personally, I think it should be both!

  4. Mark

    May 8, 2011 at 4:37 pm

    “Personally, I’d love to read an entire book about our current education system and how it could be reformed.”

    I highly recommend picking yourself up a copy of Ken Robinson’s book “The Element”

  5. Michael A. Robson

    July 17, 2011 at 12:03 am

    I just found this book super interesting, and very condensed, so it’s a must-read. I’m not really big on the Travel around the world thing, but that doesn’t matter. This book is genius.

  6. Grace

    June 3, 2012 at 7:16 am

    Hey Darren,

    Great in depth review! I also gobbled up the Four Hour Workweek with much excitement but not Chris’s book for the exact reasons you stated-there was nothing new in it for me. It was just…nice .

    I also liked the chapter on education especially watching this in depth video put out by the National Inflation Association called The College Conspiracy. Incredible fact filled video that expands on what Chris was talking about.
    I think you will enjoy it.

  7. Holly Bernabe

    June 8, 2013 at 6:59 am

    I really liked the book. I AM new at these ideas and they were mind blowing to me. Then, I followed it up with reading the 4 Hour Workweek. I’m glad I did it in that order. Art of Nonconformity was like an introductory reader, a 101 course. 4 Hour Workweek was more like the next couple of levels rolled into one. Now that I have these books and tools, I’m excited to see what I can do with them. I wonder what a graduate level book would be? LOL.

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