October 04, 2010
Life as invention: Colin Marshall talks to blogger, entrepreneur and non-conformist Chris Guillebeau
Chris Guillebeau is a blogger, entrepreneur, and liver of the unconventional life. Having written his blog The Art of Non-Conformity: Unconventional Strategies for Life, Work, and Travel for “a small army of remarkable people” since 2008, he’s now the author of a book which expands on his ideas and experiences, The Art of Non-Conformity: Set Your Own Rules, Live the Life You Want, and Change the World. Colin Marshall originally conducted this conversation on the public radio program and podcast The Marketplace of Ideas. [iTunes link]
This is the question anybody who reads your book is going to ask first: how many countries are you up to?
Right now, I think it's 151. It's kind of funny; in the book, it's outdated now. The book says 125, but I'm at 151 now, and I've surrendered my passport for the next four months so that I can go around America and talk about the book. Next year, I'll be getting back out on the road.
You have this mission to get to all 192 or 193 countries before your 35th birthday. Now you talk about surrendering your passport for four months. Kind of getting to know you through the book and the blog, I feel like that is a painful thing for you to do, to surrender a passport.
Yes, that's correct. I'm out on the road constantly, usually in about 20 countries a year. To surrender the passport was a big decision, but hopefully it'll be worth it.
One of the elements of this unconventional life, of the non-conformist life I talk about you as living, is that you do travel so much. You've got this goal of getting to all the countries. You talk about so many travel experiences. That seems to be one of the main things that draws people to you, that has gotten you such an audience. Specifically that, the traveling part; why do you think that's so resonant?
When you ask people, "What would you do with your life if time and money were no object?", almost a majority of people identify travel as something they would do more. They might not do it as much as I do; they might not be interested in going to every country in the world. But I've found that when you talk to people about those big, life-dreaming questions, people always identify travel as something they would like to do, whether it's just a trip here and there or someplace they've always wanted to go. Whether it's backpacking or some other kind of experience, people are drawn to travel. They like the idea of being able to do more of it and to have more freedom that way.
You mention in the book that even those who don't think they're that travel-inclined probably have one or two countries they would want to go to. I imagine people ask about your traveling experiences, how you've managed to do all this traveling. How much do you think, for these people, it's just a question of logistically, financially, technically, "How do you travel so much?" and how much is it a question of, "How do you get into the mindset where you give yourself permission to travel so much?", if that makes any sense?
It does make sense, and it depends on who you're talking to. The audience listening to this interview as well as the audience of people who read my blog or the book, most of us are relatively privileged. Even if we're not wealthy compared to our neighbors in America, most of us do have the opportunity to travel at least somewhat. It's more a question of mindset, priorities, and values. I don't necessarily think everyone should have the value of travel, everyone should prioritize that, but sometimes there's a disconnect when people say they like the idea of traveling, they would love to do it more, but they just feel like the can't. The logistics are almost easier to reconcile than the mindset. Once somebody really decides they want to do something, once they identify, "I've always wanted to go to Paris," "I've always wanted to go to Thailand" or whatever, I don't think it's that difficult to back it up and look and see, "How can we make that possible? How much money do you need? Can we set a goal of doing that in a year?" It's first mindset, and second logistics.
Some of the other planks of non-conformity you describe in the book include working for yourself, starting your own businesses — doing these sorts of things on one's own part, with not a lot of institutional guidance. How similar are they, traveling, working for yourself, starting your own business? Are these pursuits that require the same sort of shifts in mindset for people?
They're certainly related. A lot of people are interested in the whole movement of location independence, the idea that you can travel as much as you work and still maintain a career. That's what I've done, and there's a lot of people doing it. First of all, it is mindset. I think some people will be attracted to some parts of it and not to others. I do have a big part of the audience that actually doesn't care much about travel, and I also have a big part of the audience that are pretty comfortable in traditional jobs, not really seeking to be entrepreneurs or start a business, but they're attracted to the idea of doing something different or the idea of pursuing a different sort of dream. As I've gone through the project, I've learned to stop applying what I think it best for everyone and try to look at what the core motivations are, how to help people do whatever is they want to do, whatever is most meaningful to them.
I want to know more about your starting the whole project as far as the context you were starting it in. This whole phenomenon of people writing, on the net especially, about what they call lifestyle design, about living unconventionally, about traveling a lot: there's not necessarily a trend, but a group of people there are a lot of readers for. This seems like a new invention of our era. How much of that was going on when you first started?
I started doing my own thing probably more than ten years ago. At the time, I don't think there was a big movement. Blogs were just getting started then. I started out of my own desire to be self-employed, because I wasn't a very good employee. I learned. A couple years after that, I had a 9/11 story. I was really depressed after 9/11, like everyone else, and ended up moving to west Africa and volunteered for a medical charity for four years. After I came back to the states, I did grad school. It was out of this combination of experiences — being an entrepreneur, traveling in west Africa, starting the goal of visiting every country in the world — that's how my role in the whole thing came about. There's certainly many other people writing about the topic of pursuing your dreams, about travel, about different kinds of work. I think it's great. A lot of people have different perspectives, and that's very healthy. That's good.
You got these ideas that you would act on about how you wanted to live your own life, how you wanted to do things differently, how you wanted not to conform. How did you come to the point where you realized this could resonate with other people and you could make something to connect, showing how you live and how you got to live the way you live?
After I came back from Africa, I relocated to Seattle and was doing a grad program at the University of Washington. Throughout that two-year experience, I was thinking ahead and trying to decide, "What's the next step for me? I feel like I've done a lot of different things. I've been fortunate to have a number of broad experiences, but there's really not a convergence point to it. There's nothing that connects all these things. Maybe I've helped people on an individual basis, working in west Africa or working with different entrepreneurs or small business owners, but I don't have a platform. I don't have a way to help people on a broader basis."
I also wanted to write a book, but then I realized, "Who's going to let me write a book? I've done all these things, but if you Google my name, there's like ten results." It was a two-year process of thinking through, "How can I establish a platform? What is it I really want to say? What is the core message?" In 2008, I started a blog, The Art of Non-Conformity. This went from there, but I definitely thought a long time about it before I did it.
There's this word you used, "convergence." It fascinates me, the way you use this word. It seems to me the way you use it is like, finding the place where someone's widely, maybe even wildly different interests can come together into something that connects with other people. That's really vague, but does it get at all at what you mean by convergence?
Definitely, in many different ways. When I first started writing the blog, I didn't have that convergence point. That was the goal, but I definitely didn't have it. In the beginning, I was mostly writing about my own trips. Some people are interested in that, but not a huge audience: people who are interested in adventure travel or something. Otherwise, I had a lot of people ask, "What does this do for me? How does this help me?" Those are very good questions which I didn't have a good answer to. Over time, as I listened to people, as I engaged more, and as the profile grew a little bit, that's where I understood more about this concept. It's great to pursue your own dreams, but if you want to build a platform, if you want to reach more people, it has to intersect with other peoples' interests as well.
I say the same thing in my small business work, or whenever I talk to people who are interested in starting businesses. They have different ideas of something they're passionate about or a skill they have that they want to transfer to a business. The first question I always ask is, "Okay, it's great that you're passionate about this. We need to look and see who else is passionate about it and is actually willing to exchange money in return for what you can offer. I like to say that I'm really passionate about playing video games, but I've never found anyone willing to pay me to do that. The trick is, most of us are passionate about many different things. If our goal is to start a business, we have to find something that we're interested in, that we're excited about, but other people are also interested in. That's usually a long process for most people.
This fascinates me a lot, because there was this one phrase I read you use — I wrote it down, I liked it so much — you talked about finding "what you care about that other people care about." It's really simple, but I think it's often forgotten. What was the process for you of finding what you care about that others also care about, and in as many numbers as you have readers?
I committed to a schedule. I saw a lot of people start blogs that started with a bang and then fizzled out. I said, just for my own discipline, "I want to make sure that I write 1000 words a day. Maybe not all of them are going to be for publication. Not all of them are going to be great, but I'm going to make sure I maintain this discipline. Over the course of a year, as I hear from people, as I connect with people — people post comments every day, every day I'm getting tons of e-mail, just hearing different perspectives. It's not always constructive criticism, either. I've definitely benefited from that, but one of the things that has benefited me the most is hearing stories of people who read the blog. People write in from all over the world and share often quite personal stories of how they have challenged authority or somehow done something differently.
Whenever I read their stories, which come from this wide array of perspectives, I'm always flattered and honored that that person's reading the blog. Sometimes I think of them when I'm writing the next post. I think, "How is that person going to respond? Is this good enough for them?" They've made this difficult choice, they're a Peace Corps volunteer, they're an entrepreneur, or they've just quit their job or started a new job or gone back to school or quit school. Long story short, I find myself challenged by the stories of the people reading the blog and engaging with it. Over time, as you write, as you produce your radio show, or whatever it is you do, the more you do it, the better you get at it.
Can we conceive of the thing you care about that other people care about as broadly as saying you and other people both care about living life differently than most people live it? Is that accurate enough a way to frame it?
It is a bit broad like that, so I do try to get more specific with the book and the blog. At the same time, I've also learned not to put people in a box, especially when you're writing about non-conformity and unconventional living. I try to be really careful about not telling people what to do and providing a space for whatever that means. Of course I have some guidelines: our dreams can't harm someone else. I think most of us actually want to make a difference in the world, so I write about that, how our dreams can intersect with making the world a better place. At the same time, I've tried to deliberately get, in some ways, less specific as I've gone on.
When we were first pitching my book to publishers and they asked about the target market, I said, "The target market is people who want to change the world." I was told that's not really a target market; a target market is women age 30-34 with a college degree, or something like that, which I understand in traditional business terms. But I also knew that wasn't really aligned with my audience, because the audience is very international. The audience ranges a great deal in age; I've got senior citizens, I've got high school students, I've got people from all different perspectives. It's more like a psychographic targeting than a demographic targeting, if that makes sense.
That's something publishers may be catching on to, considering your book is published? It's a real thing. Seems like you were eventually able to push through this concept of psychographic audience.
It makes sense now. It's one of those things: once you achieve some degree of success, then everyone's like, "Oh, of course that makes sense." But in the beginning, we pitched the book and ten publishers turned it down. One publisher was interested. That's how it goes.
There was a great moment in the book: you mentioned your favorite novelist, who also happens to be one of my favorite novelists, Haruki Murakami. You talk about his book, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, a recent memoir. You talk about how he conceives of his relationship to his audience and how much he's prioritized it. What do you take from Murakami and the way he does things?
I definitely am a big Murakami fan; I think I've read most of his work that's been translated. In that passage, I was talking about a specific choice he made in terms of prioritizing his relationship with the audience, almost deliberately choosing to turn down a lot of social engagements. He's committed to his wife, of course, and a small, intimate circle of friends, but he doesn't make a lot of other commitments. He doesn't do a lot of social things. He talks about how people find that unusual, but says, "As a novelist, shouldn't I prioritize my relationship with the readers, the readers who support me, the readers who care about this?"
It's a deliberate choice to define your relationship to a broad group of people as opposed to a very small group of people. That's something I've definitely thought about. Every day, people all over the world are reading and participating in one way or another. I really, really want to make that a priority in my communication, in my time, where I decide what projects I'm doing. I want to think about them, as opposed to thinking of a smaller group.
You think of your audience, your "small army" of readers, as being one of the most important relationships you have. It's like a two-way thing that's always on your mind? They support you, you support them, and it's kind of a loop you try to continue and maybe enlarge? How do you think of it?
The whole platform comes from the small army of remarkable people, as I call them. I've been grateful to have the support of some influential people along the way, but ultimately, the message of the site has spread just from all kinds of ordinary people without a lot of influence who are excited about it and posting it on Facebook or Twitter or writing about it on their blog. From the beginning, I had a strategy that I never wanted to distance myself from that. I never wanted to create unnecessary barriers between myself and that group of people. I still do all my own e-mail, and I'm really happy to do that. I don't have a lot of assistance or staff or anything. I try to give back.
I'll share a quote with you from Gary Vaynerchuk. I hope it doesn't sound bad; to me it makes perfect sense. I heard Gary was speaking in Phoenix, and people asked him something like, "How have you been able to achieve such success? How have you gotten such a platform? You're talking about wine, but other people talk about wine. You have this internet show, but lots of people do. What is the secret?" He said, "Really, the secret is, I love my people more. I just love them and try to keep the focus on them as much as possible." I heard this quote, and I really identify with it. That's the approach I want to take as well. I hope it doesn't sound fake or anything. It's something very genuine; I know it's genuine for Gary. I try to apply the same thing myself.
It is a fascinating quote, but it also brings to mind something I think about a lot in terms of the way a lot of people have carried on their online ventures, especially blogs. Them communicating with a wide audience; Gary Vaynerchuk's a good example. Do you think about the fact that you don't want to lose yourself; you don't want to simply be a mirror reflecting an audience back to themselves. At that point, the question becomes, "Why am I doing it, and not just anybody?" Does that ever come to mind?
I think there's a tension. I think there's a natural tension and a natural balance. A leader has to be able to put forward a message and some kind of agenda, understanding not everyone's going to like the agenda. That's something I've gone back and forth with every time. We mentioned Seth Godin earlier, before the broadcast. When I met Seth last year in New York, I said, "Seth, tell me one thing you think I can do better. I know it's a long list, but just give me one thing." He was very kind. He said, "It's not a long list. You're doing great, Chris, but I think you need a little bit more of an agenda, because consensus is overrated." That was a very Seth kind of thing to say, and I really liked that, so I've been thinking about that over the past year, getting ready for the book to come out, getting ready to go out on the road and thinking, "Okay, what is the agenda? What is the message?" People do read the site for a reason; they do want to know what I think about different things.
You bring up Seth Godin, and he of course was on this show not too long ago. We were talking about his book Linchpin. A lot of resonances happen, at least for me, between his book and yours. We talked about how, if you follow a lot of the recommendations in Linchpin, you might seem, to some people, somewhat "insane." He says the way things are today, the "insane" people are the sane people. Do you have similar sentiments?
Sure, of course. Seth has been a huge influence on me; I was reading his books when I was in Africa. It was great to start this project and come full circle and get to know him. Seth is the kind of person where — he's accessible to his readers, even though his readership is much larger than mine and everyone else's. A whole part of the message and the movement is about questioning assumptions and questioning conventional expectations of how we should live our lives. It's ironic, because now there's a large group of people saying the sane way was insane.
I see it throughout all kinds of different walks of life: the consideration about mortgages now, for example. The New York Times is having all these articles showing how mortgages aren't appreciating, and maybe they never will again the same way. Now it's somewhat fashionable to suggest that renting a home is just as intelligent a decision as owning a home, in some cases, whereas a few years ago that was an unusual belief. That's one example, but I see it throughout society. A lot of these assumptions are being questioned. It's an interesting dynamic when things change and there's almost more people on your side than against you.
With what you've read, with how you've communicated with people who read you and others, with the conversations you've had, tell me, do you get a sense that people are more dissatisfied with the traditional ways lives have been conducted in the western world, the developed world, than ever? Is there more dissatisfaction with the normal template than ever?
I think so, but I kind of preach to the choir. I'm not on a mission to persuade anybody about anything. For the most part, I'm recruiting, not evangelizing. It's a key distinction. I'm not really trying to argue with anyone. I'm just trying to provide an alternative, or maybe not even provide the alternative, but just be an amplifier for the alternative. With that disclaimer, I would say that I hear more and more stories of people who are dissatisfied, maybe disappointed. They went down a traditional college track, maybe a grad school track, maybe a career track, and discovered that wasn't what they had hoped for.
It's two things: one is the discovery that things were disappointing or not what they'd hoped for, they didn't have the job security they expected, but also, they're seeing that there is an alternative. You can't just be disappointed; you also have to see some kind of alternative or you'll just be discouraged. The exciting thing is, people are becoming dissatisfied and discontented, but they're also finding new ways to do things, new ways to make a living and not just to make a living, but to have a life. That's really exciting to me.
What do you think was different about the sort of setting early on that made you come to the point where you opted for non-conformity when you did, rather than twenty years down the road when you realized, "You know, I have this career and this mortgage — it's not too fulfilling"? What helped you realize early on that you had a different way to go?
Right from the beginning, my dad was very helpful. I had a very good upbringing with my dad and stepmother, and also had another family as well, which was helpful in some cases. My dad was really good in terms of encouraging independent thinking. We used to go to bookstores, and I always liked to read from a young age. My dad wasn't spectacularly well-off, but I remember going to bookstores, and I could pick out whatever books I wanted. I could bring like eight books to him, and he would pay for them. The books might be on this huge array of topics, and he wouldn't even look at the titles. He'd be like, "Oh, that's great." He would really support me in that. It's kind of funny, because as a kid you think that's normal. You think every parent is like that. Of course, you grow up and realize that's quite an abnormal but incredibly supportive thing.
I had a very unusual college experience, and that also helped in the sense that I didn't really learn much in college, but I did go through this accelerated process of attending multiple institutions all at once to try to get my degree as quickly as possible. Probably not the smartest thing, in retrospect, but it was fun at the time. It set a foundation for everything that came later, for better or for worse.
I want to get an idea of what it took to convert your life itself, the way you live your life, to material for a book that recommends certain things to people. I don't even know if "recommends" is the right word, but a book that re-frames life for people to look at their own lives differently. How do you go about knowing what in your life is good raw material to make suggestions to other people? How do you know what material will apply in a wider sense?
That's the challenge. Other people will be the judge of whether I succeeded or not, but the challenge is how not to write a prescriptive kind of thing, like, "Here's what I do, therefore you should do this," while at the same time not being too generic or vague. The way I approached that challenge was, "Okay, I'm going to tell my story, because people are interested in the story for whatever reason, but I'm also going to tell a number of other stories. I'm going to look at my life and say, 'Here are the choices that I've faced, here is the life I've forged, here are the decisions I've made in terms of how to find a way to make a living, how I started traveling, the volunteer aspect, the college aspect, all these kind of things. Take what works for you, discard what doesn't. But also, here are the stories of a number of other people who have made courageous choices or somehow come up against something and found an alternative or unconventional way around it.'" The question is whether I found the right balance or not. I feel good about it, but ultimately, the readers will decide.
How much has hearing the stories of readers, getting more information about them, and examining the choices they make — have you been able to use these examples that you've gotten from people looking to you as an example, and then sort of work them back into the way you're tackling the challenges you set up for yourself?
Definitely. One good example is this thing of having children and traveling. I am married, but we don't have any children. Often, people write in and say, "Oh, well, I want to live this unconventional life, but I've got two kids" or "We can't do this because we have a baby" or whatever. For a long time, I'm like, "How can I respond to that?" Sure, I don't have children. Maybe, in fact, once you have children, you'll never be able to travel again. I don't know for sure. But then, I started hearing from lots of families from all over the world, from missionary families or aid worker families or families who had just decided they wanted something different than raising their kids in America.
There's a family, I think they're currently in Spain. They had a three year old/ I think she's now six, so for three years they've been living and traveling on about $24,000 per year, going to all these different countries and basically doing what I'm doing, but with a family. There's some other examples too, but now when people ask that question, I'm like, "You're right, I can't answer that myself. But I encourage you to look at this family, what these people did." It's also a nice deflector: whenever you receive criticism and people say it's impossible, I say, "Well, maybe it's difficult, but other people have been able to do it." In many cases, I've been able to think about my readers and refer them to different people.
As you're writing for people like this, people who want to break out of the conventional life for an unconventional one, people who want to stop conforming, people who have had an especially hard time doing so before — do you get an idea if there's any slant toward one of these or the other? Do you think they conceive of a non-conventional life as being more difficult than it is to execute, or do you think they think they themselves are less suited to it than they may actually be? Do you think it's more about the way they think of the tasks ahead and they way they overestimate them, or the way they underestimate themselves?
That's a very good question; we could probably talk about that for a long time. One of the biggest barriers is fear and uncertainty. People looking from the outside in do perceive making choices to be more difficult than it actually is. One of the main concerns people have is, "What will people think of me?" or "I don't think my family will support this" or "I wanted to do this trip or take this job, but I know that my traditional family will not support me." One of the things that's been helpful is talking with people about how, over time, people do get used to those kind of things.
In my case, I remember when I moved back to the states, I think some of my family thought I was in the States to stay. One time, they called Jolie, my wife, and Jolie was like, "Oh, Chris is in Vietnam." My parents were like, "Vietnam? What's he doing in Vietnam?" That was maybe two years ago. Then I started doing the thing where I was in 25 countries a year. Now they send me e-mail like, "Chris, we're not sure what continent you're on," but no one's concerned. The choice is always difficult in the beginning, but it does get better over time. People do get used to what you're doing over time. Maybe they'll actually be encouraged in it themselves, to make maybe not the same choice, but some other difficult choice for them.
This fear about "What will people think of me?" does seem even more prevalent than it would initially seem — and it initially seems pretty prevalent. You talk about, in your book, how you get some criticism, probably off the sidelines on the net, like, "Oh, this Chris Guillebeau, he's not living in the real world. He doesn't think about what people actually have to do." I assume this comes in maybe not in a huge volume, but fairly regularly. Does it bother you? Does it hurt at all? Or is there anything to be learned from them?
Maybe both. I think you can be hurt by something and still learn from it. I would definitely say I'm not immune to it. I would definitely say I can hear 99 nice things one day and one not-so-nice thing, and the not-so-nice thing's going to bother me, even though I know it's totally irrational. I would love to get over that, but no, I haven't figured out a way to be immune to that. I've seen some people that — at least my perception is — are immune to that kind of thing, and I respect that, but I don't quite have that myself. I often think of Malcolm Gladwell. I read his blog, which is really interesting: I love Malcolm Gladwell's books, and then I read his blog and, for the most part, it's almost a defensive criticism. His blog is like, "Oh, so-and-so says this. Well, here's the real story." It's almost like I can perceive he's a little bit sensitive over it, which is fascinating because he's Malcolm Gladwell. He writes these incredible books, yet still seems quite threatened by criticism. If he hasn't figured it out, maybe I never will.
The second part of your question: can something be learned? Definitely. I think it's always good to look and see what the core motivation is. What's the root of that criticism? Maybe someone is just projecting some experience of their own. Maybe it's true that I didn't really consider the angle they were talking about. Another thing that's helped me is, I have learned to preempt objections a little bit and just try to think, when I write, "What are going to be the concerns? What are the objections?" Maybe I can't counter them all. There's certainly room for other perspectives. But I can try to think in advance what the objections are going to be. If I can answer those in the essay or the book or the post or whatever, then I think that reduces the level of criticism.
There's this great word for that — "prolepsis." It's a good thing to get into. I want to also get into another element of the way you relate with other people. It's something I think readers tend to be surprised by: you claim to be an introvert. How surprised are people by that? It certainly surprised me.
I don't know why they're surprised. The classic definition of introvert or extrovert is where you get your energy from, right? I tend to get my energy more from being by myself, just kind of recharging. I do enjoy social events, the meet-ups and things I've been doing, but I also feel really tired at the end. I feel like I need to go and sleep for three days. That's why I think I'm more introverted. Talking about fear a little bit, I have a fear of public speaking, like a lot of people do. I don't necessarily like to be around large groups all the time. One of the things I've learned is, I don't let fear make my decisions for me, at least as much as possible.
That's why, when I was thinking about the book tour, I was like, "What could I put together that could be the most epic kind of thing?" That's when I came up with the idea of visiting all 50 states, all ten provinces in Canada, doing this on my own without a lot of support from the publisher. On the one hand, it scares me to death. On the other hand, it sounds epic, it sounds fun, it sounds like a good story. It's the kind of thing I think is going to tire me out in many different ways, but I also think it's going to be worth it, and I'll look back on it with good memories. I'm definitely introverted, but I've found a way to work with it.
This is a concept I've thought a lot about, and only now does it become clearer to me. Taking on a task that is, as we say, epic — does the epicness make the task not necessarily easier, but something you're more inclined to jump into, more inclined to give yourself over to? There are regular hard things that don't present that epicness, and maybe those are actually harder to do, in a certain sense, because they're harder to build up the excitement about, the excitement of achievement?
I like to say nothing worth doing is ever easy. People pick that apart and find different examples, but I think the epic nature of it creates a meaning, creates a challenge. Visiting every country in the world is, in my case, something where I find personal meaning. There are a lot of challenges, a lot of times I feel like giving up, and a lot of times I feel like doing something different, but because of the goal, because it is epic — at least, it's epic to me — it's something that helps you keep going because of the story. Not the story in a P.R. or marketing sense, but just the heroic or the long-lasting nature of it, even if no one else ever knows or cares about it. When you can find personal meaning in something really difficult, some kind of personal quest, it definitely helps you keep going when things are hard.
There's this element in the book: you talk about the idea of what you call "life experiments." You do attribute that to someone else, but it was really fascinating, the way you describe it. I think something like a life experiment, periodically saying to yourself, "What would happen if I did this, or if I lived this way, for this time period, to put myself to this sort of test?" I think of it as being a way to keep life exciting by always, in some sense, putting yourself to the test. Is that what you look for in life? Do you always want to be putting yourself to some sort of test, even if it's maybe an easier one than some? Do you always want to have that "see what I can do" element?
I hope so. I think routine is dangerous, at least routine over time. That's what the whole idea of the life experiment is about, and that actually comes from one of our readers, Allan Bacon. Life experiments can be very small at the beginning; he talked about going to an art museum during his lunch hour. That was something he'd never done before. He might go to an art museum on vacation with his family, but he wouldn't take his lunch hour. He talked about how it came with a shift in perspective. That life experiment lead to taking up a new hobby of photography, and that led to traveling to Paris a few times on business trips. Then he moved his family, for a few weeks, to Paris for an extended trip. As we take risks, even if they're small or seemingly meaningless, they may, in fact, serve as a catalyst for something else, or at least make life a little bit more exciting.
Whether it's moving to Paris for a few weeks or doing an all-states-and-Canadian-provinces book tour or whether it's traveling to every country in the world, are these things you can convince people are worth doing, or are they things that only people who already know they're worth doing or have gotten ready to believe that will come to you and want to know more? Is this something you're saying, "Here's why this is worthwhile, and believe me on this one," or is it like, "You already believe this. Now I'm going to show you've come to the right conclusion"?
I would say it's closer to the second. Probably it's true that some people are challenged by different ideas and hear it and think, "Oh, that's interesting, I've never considered that before." Maybe it opens something. But I tend to hear more of the second. There are plenty of people out there, and some of them have written to me, saying visiting every country in the world is a dumb idea. I always say, "That's great. I wish you well. Because I'm not doing it for you. No offense." I'm doing it primarily for my own motivations. I think people already have a mindset, whether they like that kind of thing or not. I was in New York City recently , just on a quick stopover. I was in Washington Square Park. I met a guy playing piano there. He brought his piano into Washington Square Park. His name is Colin Huggins; he's been in the New York Times and the Village Voice and all these things. He's relatively well known for carrying this piano all over New York City. He's brought the piano into the Manhattan subway and all these crazy places. The articles talk about how he physically has to cart the piano around Manhattan, where he stores it, and all that.
That's an example where I meet the guy who carts the piano around — I think that's amazing. I think that's crazy and epic, and I think it's really fun, and I want to support his work. Obviously a lot of other people do too. But it's also the kind of thing that's very polarizing, because other people think, "What's the big deal on that? Can't he just get a real job? If he wants to play piano, why can't he just play in a bar? Couldn't he carry a synthesizer?" I think there's different mindsets, and I'm more interested in connecting with people over, like, "Wow, that's awesome. That sounds really fun."
There's something I have to ask about here: people actually write to you to say, "I think traveling to every country is a dumb idea," and that's the whole reason they wrote?
That's correct. I wouldn't say it's a huge amount of people. What you have to realize is, travel is something people are very opinionated about. I know that. Some people have judgments that, if you're not in a country for years and years, then you're not able to know something about it. Obviously, I disagree with that, but people have different value judgments, and that's fine. I try to explain my perspective on my blog. I've got a Frequently Asked Questions. I try to say I'm not trying to be an expert on every place in the world — obviously not. I'm more interested in travel as a goal by itself. But yes, people do say that.
You're kind of at the intersection of two world: you've got the travelers and you've got the entrepreneurs as well. There are a lot of entrepreneurs who have gotten very vocal on the net. Do you think of yourself as being in the middle of those two? Is there any distinctive perspective you get with those two audiences at once?
Sure, and one of the things that helps me is, I wasn't hyper-specific about the site and the project in the beginning. Even now, the tagline is "Unconventional strategies for life, work, and travel." Some marketing people would say that's a mistake, because it's not a niche, it's very broad, et cetera. For me, it was just a question of, I'm an ADD person. I'm an entrepreneur who's always done a bunch of different stuff. I like different things. I don't want to pigeonhole myself. Writing about the travel, the small business, and also other related topics on motivation in general, I would say it's helped. It's fun to have the different audiences. It's fun to have the audience that's more interested in the business side. It's also a challenge, because I have to think, "Okay, how can I not alienate anyone I don't wish to alienate?" That's part of the fun.
With all the culture of "lifestyle design" that's popped up in the last few years — you've got very big stars in this, like Tim Ferriss and Leo from Zen Habits — it's become a big thing on the net. Is this a culture or subculture within which you feel like you actively have to actively set yourself apart from the others? Or is it just something you just kind of have been distinguished in, and you don't necessarily sweat that?
I would say I don't really sweat it. There's space for a lot of different voices, a lot of different perspectives. That's one of the beautiful things about blogging and globalization and the internet in general. Different readers can be attracted to different voices and different personalities. I'm friends with those people you mentioned and I do keep up with what other people are doing, but I don't always read what some of the other blogs are saying. I want to make sure I have some kind of original voice and perspective. I don't really worry about competition or anything like that.
It's a big world out there. I've got a readership and other people have readerships. Anyone can start a blog tomorrow and have their own voice and their own audience. They're probably going to say some things that are different and better than what I would say, and so other people will be attracted to them. It's kind of an expanding the pie concept. We don't have to worry about fighting over pieces of the pie. The pie's just going to get bigger. More people are going to be attracted to the so-called movement. That's great for everyone.
When it came time to translate these efforts into a book, how much rethinking does it require? It's not necessarily a motivational book, but it is a book that does motivate you. How did you go about fitting yourself into this type of work?
It was difficult. As you say, I'm used to writing a blog, and to go to writing long-form... I had written a master's thesis, I had written some manifestos that are maybe 30 or 40 pages long, but that's quite different from a 250-page book. It definitely took some getting used to. I don't think I'm a natural book author. It was a lot of sitting down. "What do I really want to say? I don't want to re-use anything from the blog." I went through the usual author anguish of having to lock yourself in a room and get it done.
The other thing that's interesting about publishing is that it takes so long; it takes almost a year to write a book, and it takes a year after that for the book to come out. The time line is a little bit difficult. I'm reading the book now, and I'm like, "Oh, I wrote this a year ago." Some things I'm happy with, and other things I think I'd say a little bit differently now, but like Seth Godin says, at a certain point you just have to ship. You have to deliver, and an artist has to stop there and go on to the next thing. That's what I'm doing.
Are there any advantages you find in a form like a book, where you have to keep it a little more timeless? This thing's going to be around for a while. People are going to be reading it for a very long time. Copies are going to be around as long as books are around. Was there an advantage in keeping in the mindset that the things you're writing can have a longer shelf life than on a blog?
I hope so. The goal is to create something relatively timeless, a souvenir, a physical thing. Of course, it's a digital version as well, but the book is something that hopefully has a longer life than a blog post. One of the motivations was, I can't think of a lot of blog posts that, however well-written, have really changed my life in a fundamental way, but I can think of a number of books that have. Murakami's work as a novelist has really been influential to me. Man's Search for Meaning. Mountains Beyond Mountains made an impact and caused a big shift in my life. I'm not necessarily saying that's what my book is going to do for everyone, but that's the goal. The goal is to write something that's fundamentally going to transform someone's relationship with life and work. I'm not sure a blog post can do that. As to whether that's the case or not, I guess we'll find out.
You once described your life pretty concisely, in a way I quite enjoyed: "writing and connecting with people." Do you consider that to be the core of whatever you do, whenever you're doing it? You're writing, and you're connecting?
Yeah, that's good. I might add something about adventure in there somewhere, in terms of not just the travel but trying to tell a good story with my life. In terms of just going on big things: every country in the world, the book tour, other things I might do in the future. But I like that, writing and connecting.
And with something like travel, you think how much fun it must be to do when you're someone who hasn't traveled much. You think what the possibilities are for that, but then, it seems on one hand that traveling is, in its way, a way to connect with people. You can connect with people you're not much like when you're traveling around the world. You can connect with people by your stories about your travel. But there's got to be a part of it that's purely internal, that changes the way you think, that modifies your brain? Is that in any way at all like you think of it?
Absolutely. It's one of those things that's not always politically correct to say, but some of the best travel experiences I've had have been completely on my own, not with people, maybe in a place where I don't even speak the language, so I can't talk to a lot of people. I'm just trying to sort myself out and go through whatever I need to to survive in this place and go on to the next place. There's definitely an internal motivation, an internal reward of working through the challenges, then having a good experience. I remember being in Zimbabwe, watching the sun set, thinking, "This is really remarkable, that I get to do this." What's remarkable is, it's not like the fulfillment of a lifetime dream where I've saved for ten years to make this happen. It's more like this is what I do; this is part of my life on a regular basis. There's a lot of personal meaning to it.
How important is it, whether you're traveling, whether you're writing books, whether you're doing volunteer work, whether you're doing philanthropy — any of the tasks you do, especially if they're epic ones. How much of it is important to you just to get the idea into your head that it's something you can do, that when you've done something, that automatically widens your view on what your own abilities are? Do you enjoy just knowing what is possible for you, seeing where your own limits are?
I think so. Seeing where the limits are, and seeing how you can go beyond the limits, like we talked about: doing the meet-ups, doing the speaking, whatever our fears are trying to find a way to overcome them. There's definitely a beauty and a meaning in pursuing big goals for the sake of themselves, or for pursuing a quest.
Another guy I like is Thomas Hawk. He's a photographer, and his goal is to have one million processed photos throughout his life. He's addicted to this idea. He's got a day job — he's a financial analyst or something in San Francisco — but photography is his passion. He spends all his free time pursuing this goal. He loves photography, he loves the skill and the craft, but he also loves the idea of trying to push this limit, trying to reach this goal. Some people would say that's an arbitrary thing, but to him it has a lot of meaning. It's also something where a lot of people have come along and look at his work and said, "Oh, this is really fantastic. I'm encouraged by this too." It's like Colin and the piano or Chris and every country in the world. I think it's really fun when you can do something that has that personal meaning, that is a goal for its own sake, yet other people also come alongside and say, "That's something that encourages me."
All feedback welcome at colinjmarshall at gmail.
Posted by Colin Marshall at 12:15 AM | Permalink