A Non-Conformist's Guide to Success in a Conformist World
I’ve been a non-conformist for as long as I can remember. “All the other kids love sports” never seemed like a good reason why I should feel – or pretend to feel – the same way. “None of the other adults are wearing shorts and flip-flops” never seemed like a good reason why I should make myself uncomfortable. It wasn’t mere elitism on my part. “All the other Princeton economists take general equilibrium models seriously” was no more compelling to me than “All the other teens want their own car.”
Non-conformism at my intensity rarely allows real-world success. Doing well almost always has a big social element; going solo gets you nowhere. Yet by conventional standards, I’ve succeeded. I have a dream job for life and enough money that I don’t think about money. How did I pull it off?
Some of it’s luck – especially the luck of being in the right place at the right time to meet the right people. (Thank you, Tyler Cowen). But in hindsight, I also played my cards fairly well. If you’re a non-conformist who hopes to succeed in our conformist world, my favorite strategies will probably work well for you, too. In no particular order:
1. Don’t be an absolutist non-conformist. Conforming in small ways often gives you the opportunity to non-conform in big ways. Being deferential to your boss, for example, opens up a world of possibilities.
2. Don’t proselytize the conformists. Most of them will leave you alone if you leave them alone. Monitor your behavior: Are you trying to change them more often than they try to change you? Then stop. Saving time is much more helpful than making enemies.
3. In modern societies, most demands for conformity are based on empty threats. But not all. So pay close attention to societal sanctions for others’ deviant behavior. Let the impulsive non-conformists be your guinea pigs.
4. During childhood, educational institutions’ threats are by far the most real. While “This is going on your permanent record” is usually an empty threat, “Do as we say or you will suffer at the next educational level” is not. Vivid anecdotes about billionaire dropouts aside, the modern labor market remains extremely credentialist, and there’s no reason to think this will change anytime soon.
5. A non-conformist attitude toward education is dangerous because academic status is painfully linear and cumulative. To go to college, you must finish high school; to finish high school, you have to finish all the 12th-grade requirements; to finish the 12th-grade requirements, you have to finish all the 11th-grade requirements; and so on.
6. Fortunately, the content of modern education is neither linear nor cumulative. You can safely forget most of what you didn’t feel like learning right after the final exam.
7. Although teachers and students urge you to conform across the board, good grades in hard classes are virtually the only thing with long-run consequences. You can live with C’s in P.E. Or ugly nicknames. Or exclusion from the cool kids’ clique.
8. Educational success hardly guarantees career success. But educational credentials open a lot of doors – including most of the doors to non-conformist-friendly careers in academia, science, and yes, bureaucracies.
9. Most bureaucrats are deeply conformist, but bureaucratic (lack of) incentives are great for non-conformists. Think job security.
10. Social intelligence can be improved. For non-conformists, the marginal benefit of doing so is especially big.
11. Treat your family fairly, but remember that relatives – especially older relatives – are the lords of empty threats. Despite all their criticism, they probably love you too much to do more than nag you.
12. When faced with demands for conformity, silently ask, “What will happen to me if I refuse?” Train yourself to ponder subtle and indirect repercussions, but learn to dismiss most such ponderings as paranoia. Modern societies are huge, anonymous, and forgetful.
13. Most workplaces are not democracies. This is very good news, because as a non-conformist you’ll probably never be popular. You can however make yourself invaluable to key superiors, who will in turn protect and promote you.
14. Spend the first year of any job convincing your employer he was right to hire you, and he’ll spend your remaining years on the job convincing you not to leave. This advice is almost equally useful for conformists, by the way.
15. Despite everything, the world has more greatness than you can savor in a lifetime. And in the modern world, finding greatness is remarkably easy. Stop complaining, stop feeling sorry for yourself, and suck the marrow out of life.
16. Hiring your non-conformist friends is a great way to make your life better… but only if they follow these rules, too!