Non-Conformity

I have wanted to write about this topic for a while, but to be honest, I have been lost for words. In compliance with my mantra about “writing what I wish I had read”, this is definitely a subject which warrants further contemplation on my part. Therefore, I am now sharing my thoughts on non-conformity for the edification of all readers. I have been a non-conformist for most of my life, and it derived from my questioning why I should do what everyone else does. In a truly free society, why should I have to follow the same paths as everyone else? “Everyone else at your age is preparing to drive” did not sound like a good justification for me learning to drive. I heard similar responses when I said “I am not going to college” — and indeed, people continue to try to sell college to me today because they think I should go. After all, why is someone else doing something a good reason for me following in their footsteps?

Non-conformity in small doses can lead to great success, but when you start to be a non-conformist in various other areas, it becomes even more difficult to succeed. This is because as you deviate more from society’s norms, you have to invest more time in developing your own path — a stressful task. I believe that I have succeeded — at least thus far — as a non-conformist. Indeed, I attribute much of my success to my non-conformist stances on a variety of different topics. However, by many measures it has been very difficult for me to get ahead, because I had to combat the social pressure associated with going out on my own path, which is especially difficult when you are younger and only just entering the “real world”, as parents would say. In this essay, I am going to use my not going to college as an example of my non-conformity — a relatively common belief, but one which I closely defend.

The reason most people do not pursue a non-conformist path is because they do not have the confidence to go against what is socially accepted, and pursue their own independent route. There are two factors which cause people to adopt this mindset. The first is that parents try to reinforce traditional paths as much as possible toward their children. They want to see their children succeed, and they know that studying law or accounting at college is a good way to get a well-paying job in the future. Parents don’t want to see their children pursue a path which is riskier, because they will live in fear that their child will fail. I also think that many parents are hesitant to promote non-conformist paths because they will not be able to help their child succeed, and that is part of parenthood. If your child starts a company when they have finished high school, most parents will find it difficult to support them because they did not pursue that path. If your child wants to go to college and you also attended college, you will be able to provide them with more support. Again, this is another form of parents wanting to see their children succeed.

The second reason why most people do not have the confidence to pursue a non-conformist path is because teachers do not advocate for these paths either. Both parents and teachers want to see the child succeed, and most of the time, the teacher and the parent will have a shared belief in what success looks like: working in a profession like medicine and earning a good salary. The reason for this is because this is what most other people think success looks like — earning money and working in a career where you have a title. And so teachers and career counselors offer support to students who want to apply for college, or find a local internship, but are unable to provide support for students who want to pursue a non-traditional path. If teachers and parents are not advocating for non-conformity, then the child will not know what other paths are open to them.

The moment I became a non-conformist was when I started to ask myself the questions “Why do we have to go to school until the age of 16 and learn these specific subjects — history, biology, algebra? Why can we not just pick something we like and go deeper? Why do teachers teach us things which have been fully replaced by computers in the workforce?” I could no longer see the value in traditional education, and ever since that time, I have never been able to defend traditional education. At the time, I also started to learn about the Silicon Valley culture of optimism and accepting failure, and I realized that a lot of what people had told me — you need to go to college to get a great job was perhaps the most common — was untrue. Granted, there was not one specific moment, but when you finally realize that sometimes the way things are is not perfect, then you feel like wool has been pulled over your eyes. There was a great quote by Steve Jobs I heard around that time which inspired me to do my own thing: "The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do. Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma—which is living with the results of other people's thinking.”

And so I decided to start sharing my beliefs, not the beliefs which traditional education had taught me. I started to share my thoughts on why traditional education was suboptimal, why I think more people should be able to start a company at a younger age, why we should all be more optimistic — things that my parents and teachers had resisted sharing with me. I was able to adopt a broader view of the world. One not powered by pursuing a traditional path and listening to societal norms, but rather a view that if I tried hard enough, I could inspire a change in the way things worked. Steve Jobs eloquently summarized this by saying “Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you and you can change it you can influence it you can build your own things that other people can use” As a non-conformist, I felt liberated.

There are a few things that I have learned about non-conformity, which I intend to briefly share in this essay. The first is that you should not try to be a non-conformist in every possible situation. Non-conformity is about choosing the right battles and going against the norm in areas that you are passionate about. If you try to be a non-conformist in every scenario, then you will find it difficult to build relationships, and your way of thinking about the world and solving problems will by limited. Diverse perspectives lead to more well-informed thoughts, and so conformity in many situations is optimal. I have also found that if you conform with the norm on small things that you don’t care much about, you have more energy and support when you want to go against the grain on a bigger subject, like education. If you conform with your teachers, then you will have more time to develop non-conformist beliefs at home (and will not get in trouble!).

Another thing I have learned is that too many people focus on convincing others that their path is viable. When I initially started saying that I did not want to go to college, I invested a lot of time and energy in trying to convince other people that not going to college was the right decision for me. Trying to convince other people that non-conformist beliefs are viable is natural — we want other people to think highly of us and want other people to be assured that we are doing what is our best interests. However, this was a major problem. I was spending a lot of time convincing people who are likely to never come around to my way of thinking on the subject to think the same way I do.

I quickly learned that a more efficient use of my time would be focusing on doing the best job I possibly could and working toward my personal goals, rather than convincing other people to come around to my way of thinking. If someone asks me to conform with something my values do not agree with, then I often quietly ask myself “What will happen if I refuse?”, which provides me with a roadmap regarding my potential next steps. I further realized that, for the most part, people were not going to force me to pursue a conformist path anyway.

I also believe that what other people think doesn’t matter — if I believe in what I am doing, then that is all the assurance I need. At first, this was a difficult mindset to adopt, but as I started to become more comfortable with following my internal beliefs, I realized that internal validation was the most important — and indeed the only — for of acceptance that I needed. I figured that if I followed the path everyone else was taking, I would be living a life where I did not practice my beliefs, and I have not been able to accept that notion. I have spent a lot of time over the last few years trying to cultivate a strong set of principles — integrity, honor, trust, among others — and I was not willing to sacrifice what I thought was right to satisfy someone who wanted me to pursue a safer path.

I also learned that being a successful non-conformist is easier when you have security. Although working for the government — or in another stable job — may seem like there are little opportunities for personal and professional growth, doing so provides you with job security and access to a salary which allows you to be a more effective non-conformist. You now have security and a stable salary and if your path doesn’t work out, you have something on which to fall-back. This has the added value of helping your friends and family feel more comfortable because they know that if you fail, you will still be secure.

Non-conformity is about defending your beliefs — about being willing to go against societal norms to promote the things which you feel passionate about. Non-conformity is not an opportunity to be different, but rather a way that you can challenge society and prime yourself to innovate in the future. As aforementioned, I became a non-conformist because I did not believe that “everyone else wears t-shirts in summer” was a good reason for me to follow in their footsteps. I also became a non-conformist because I am very principled, and I was not comfortable following a path that someone else had paved for me because they thought it was best for me. If I wanted to have an impact in the world, I needed to be able to stand up and share my thoughts freely. Being a non-conformist is difficult, but as more people start to realize that things like traditional education can be changed, we should start to see a shift in paradigm toward the acceptance of non-traditional path. Silicon Valley is paving the way, and has set a strong precedent for non-conformity to become more popular across the world.

Non-conformity is okay. Don’t be a total non-conformist. Don’t spend too much time convincing others that your path is a good one. Focus on what you care about.