The Art of Life and Work Advice

When chatting with a friend on Skype, about how many new countries we wanted to visit in 2011 (me 20, him 3), he said:

“Incase you don’t already know if him, be sure to check out Chris Guillebeau.

He’s made quiet a life out of seeing every country in the world.”

I checked out the website, and had mixed feelings. Some positive, but there was another side which nagged at me for a while. I read more of the website, including some of the manifestos, and I think I worked out my thoughts.

First, the positive:

If you want a good guide about starting and running a professional blog, he has a load of good information. He also has good advice for someone wanting to travel.

Chris seems to have a good life traveling the world, and enjoys sharing his and other people’s stories.

Second, the “not negative, but not sitting right”:

It started with the language.

The language of the website seems at odds with the content and goals. I know a lot of it is just marketing speak and metaphor, but that kind of things doesn’t really grab me. Some examples:

The title is “The Art of Non-Conformity.”

The subtitle is “Unconventional Strategies for Life, Work and Travel.”

Nice titles! However, I read through the Top 10 Articles, and while they are helpful for a narrow audience, there is very little unconventionality on display. (I’m not saying the narrow audience is a bad thing, as Chirs writes that he is only interested in writing for a small niche.)

The business advice seems to focus on professional blogging and selling ebook products. Now, maybe I’m way too savvy, or something, but this seems like quite a conventional way to earn a living. The advice is good because it is tried and tested. If something is tried and tested, lots of people do it. Yet isn’t that the definition of conventional?

Traveling the world, and visiting every country, is quite a conventional this to do. It isn’t a goal of my own, mainly because visiting many countries is a by-product of my lifestyle and job. But I’ve met all kinds of people who want to do this, and there are uncountable travelers who blog about their adventures online. There is even a club for people who want to travel to every country.

And the Non-Conformity part seems to stick out a bit. Non-Conformity in this sense means not having a 9 to 5 job. I’ve had a 9 to 5 job, so I know why people aspire to not have one. More importantly, I’ve had a 10pm to 7am, stacking shelves in a super market. More importantly still, I’ve had no job!

But switching from conforming to one expected life path (9 to 5 job) to another (blogger) isn’t Non-Conformity. It’s just changing your lifestyle to one that suits you better.

For every young person who quits their day job to become an “entrepreneur” and embraces the freedoms and responsibilities that entails, a slightly older person gives up working for him or herself, and goes back to working 9 to 5, in order to spend more time with their family, or for the higher pay and security working for a large, stable company might offer.

One way of life is not better than the other, in my opinion. Personally, I don’t see me going back to a 9 to 5 job any time soon, but who knows what the future may hold? At the moment I earn plenty of money, but it depends on me being away from home a lot. If I have a family, I either need to be paid more to travel less, or find a better paid job nearer to home.

Here’s a biggy:

The top manifesto on the site is a PDF called A Brief Guide to World Domination. Awesome title!

But first, we let Chris define “world domination.” As outlined in the manifesto, the options are:

A. become a successful professional blogger.
B. work for charity.

Both admirable goals, but hardly dominating the world! This is a another metaphorical turn of phrase, as Chris himself admits.

Beyond the Language

Why I wanted to write this blog post:

I don’t want to put down Chris, or the success he is having in the realm of life advice blogging. A lot of people aspire to quit their job and make a living through their blog or other online activities, and he’ll probably help some people do that.

However, I’m always nervous about taking any kind of advice from anyone who makes their living by providing advice to other people.

I’m not talking about all fields, of course. I pay my accountant to give me advice! However, the advice she gives me is very specific to my life and my job and my expenses and my income.

But Chris, and many other lifestyle gurus like him, use themselves as an example for the validity of their own advice.

He makes a living by telling other people how HE makes a living.

In many ways this is good as we know his advice worked for at least one person. But say he has 2000 people seriously reading his site. If 2000 people suddenly followed all of his advice, how many would succeed? Let’s say 1%. 20 people make it. To be generous, let’s increase this by a factor of 10. 200 people become successful professional bloggers.

Now let’s go back to my accountant. If people following her advice had a 90% chance of failing, she wouldn’t be an accountant for very long!

For life advice and entrepreneur bloggers, that isn’t a problem. Most people won’t follow their advice, and they only want a quick fix of aspirational messages. Those that follow their dreams would probably do so anyway. From there, those who succeed will be vocal, and those who don’t will slink away back to their 9 to 5 jobs.

The Existential Blog

People read the blogs of successful professional bloggers, not because they have the best advice, but because they exist, or continue to exist. That they exist probably has very little to do with the advice contained within the blogs, as applied to the blogs themselves.

1.

Chris has the right mindset to travel the world because he did that as a job, working in Africa for various charities. He can cope with the jetlag and the other hardships of his lifestyle choice, not because he read about it on a blog, but because he has lived the life of a world traveler.

2.

Chris is a great marketer. He has a good eye for design, and can certainly come up with eye-catching titles and slogans. He’s obviously skilled in terms of building relationships with other blogs, and connecting directly to his readers via twitter and other social networking services.

But he can successfully market himself and his blog, not because he read advice on a blog like his, but because he he did this as job. He learned all these things when promoting other people’s businesses and products, not his own. He has lived the life of a marketer.

3.

Chris is also a good writer. But he didn’t become a writer that people wanted to read because he read advice on a blog. No, instead he set himself a task to write 1000 words every day. He probably did this for years before relying on it to earn a living. He lived the life of a writer.

Are you getting my point?

Living the life.

I’m going to sound like a hypocrite now, using my own life as an example, but before I became a successful professional juggler (and by professional I mean earning as much money as a juggler as I did in my last 9 to 5 job) I had been juggling for 14 years.

In those 14 years juggling had turned from one hobby among many into a passion. More importantly, I studied performing arts full time for 2 years, got a degree in music production, worked for two years for a television company, then spent three and a half years without any steady source of income, but traveling and performing as much as I possibly could, often for very little money, yet constantly developing my show and performing skills, and juggling between 1 and 5 hours a day.

To get by in those years without a real job I wrote music for TV, made juggling beanbags for other jugglers, worked as a tour guide in Berlin, along with a few other odd jobs here and there.

Everything I’ve listed above contributed to my current success in my chosen field. Other professional jugglers may have made the same kind of journey with less steps, and others may have taken more or different steps.

If you are reading a blog for advice about unconventional work, or a PDF about becoming a entrepreneur, it’s likely you aren’t ready for either of those things.

This is not a bad thing! Just be aware that you have many years of hard work ahead. As an example, let’s take Chris himself.

Chris as a counter-example to Chris’s message.

Chris has a PDF called 279 Days to Overnight Success. It’s a really good guide to blogging, I’ll give him that. My issue is with the title (again).

He started counting days from the time he started publishing web content.

Then, he tells us that before he started publishing, he spent several weeks writing a 29 page PDF manifesto as a focal point to his blog, to draw initial traffic (a really good idea, by the way).

He also tells us that before he started publishing, he had written dozens of blog posts and articles, so he could keep up his thrice weekly publishing schedule, even if he fell behind.

He tells us that he was thinking about and planning the blog for two years before he started it.

He tells us that he spent four years living and working in West Africa, and many other years traveling the world.

He tells us that he hasn’t had a 9 to 5 job since leaving college. He is now in his 30’s.

Instead of 279 Days to Overnight Success, the truth is that Chris has already put in 10 years of work to becoming an Overnight Success. He might not call it work, but he is now reaping the rewards as income. The people who write about him in the New York Times, and at Slate.com and LifeHacker, don’t respect him for what he has done in 279 days (from the start of his blog until writing that PDF), they respect him for the 10 years before that.

The 10 years of hard work before you become successful is always the most crucial, and even then it’ll take you another 10 years to really master your profession.

So to succeed in any area, the single most important thing to do is to stop reading about it, and get on with it!

Finally.

It’s such a minor point, but in his quest to visit every country on Earth, he lists he has made it to 151 of 192 countries. Personally I define “country” less strictly. 192 must be the UN or IOC list, which is a good start, but for someone who travels to interesting places, I like the list to be a bit more inclusive. One great example is visiting Easter Island. It is part of Chile, officially, but it is culturally, geographically, ethnically and politically distinct. Visiting one is so much unlike visiting the other that many other country lists consider these to be different destinations.

The focus is different though. I often spend only a few hours in a “country”. If you want to meet people and write about your experiences, you might need longer than that, so reducing the target number might simply be practicality.


2 comments to this article

  1. Chris Guillebeau

    on 2011/01/05 at 18:10 -

    Dear Luke,

    Thanks so much for your review and thoughts on AONC. I respect your views and appreciate you taking the time. Just a few points:

    I have tried very hard, numerous times in the blog and the book, to explain that I have an anti-guru philosophy. The core message of AONC is “You don’t have to live your life the way other people expect you to.” That would certainly include me as well, but thankfully I don’t expect anyone to make the same choices I have.

    I don’t define world domination, at least in this context, as blogging and working for charity. I define it as pursuing a big dream and finding a way to make the world a better place at the same time. Naturally, there are many different ways that different people will do that.

    I think we agree on “overnight success” as something that takes a long time — that’s exactly the same concept I was illustrating with the title “279 Days to Overnight Success.” Perhaps I should have called it “Ten Years” but that didn’t seem as interesting. :)

    The U.N. list is just a list. I’ve been to Easter Island. I’ve also been to Taiwan, Kosovo, the Faroes, the Canaries, and many other places that aren’t technically countries. But when you set a goal, you have to have a way to define success toward that goal — therefore the list.

    All best and thanks again,

    cg

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