Inching towards non-conformity

May 12, 2015 § Leave a comment

So I’m pressing through this enormous task of writing a book. Being a writer is like playing a video game. Every time you succeed at something, you basically unlock a whole new level of mental illness. My book is my bipolar odyssey. I am manic when I am writing. Giant snowdrifts of index cards fill the room. Sentences come together, paragraphs disappear altogether. Accumulating words feel like my new life savings. 20,000. 30,000. 40,000. And then my knees knock as I lope down the mountain. When I’m not writing, I’m worrying that I should be. I think about writers who’ve built bigger platforms than I have, people who have an army of followers. Am I doing enough? “Enough” is the worst word there ever was.

AONCcoverLast week I finished reading Chris Guillebeau’s The Art of Non-Conformity. It’s one of those books that most people will dismiss as being unrealistic. Yes, most of us cannot make many dollars traveling to every country in the world and running a self-help blog. But I decided to take it seriously. I take fictional people seriously when they veer off the map, so why not a real person?

About a year ago I decided to take my dreams seriously. I began to examine whether a life of private practice, or non-profit paper shuffling, or academic politics was really right for me. Sure I was making money writing articles and ghost writing for therapists, but that income was like the icing on the cake. Icing that I’d scoop off and dump in my student loan balance. And until my debts were paid, I was going to have to get a real job, in a real office, and watch my vacation days accumulate at a glacial pace.

Guillebeau writes, “Change happens when the pain of transition becomes less than the pain of the status quo.” That was certainly the case for me. Three years of indentured servitude in a doctoral program was enough status quo for a lifetime. So I never walked into that office. I took a job that mostly let me work from home. And I found a second one. I started teaching in the evenings. And I wrote. I wrote like there was no rejection in the world that was going to keep me from writing. And no rejection did. Now I wake up whenever I want. I make coffee and sit on the porch in my pajamas, writing about hairporn and anxiety. Nothing else can happen until those 1,000 words are typed. My morning sentences are tadpoles, but they have strong legs by the time I’m done with them every night.

I work when I want, and where I want. The fact that this is even a possibility tells me how many myths we are fed about extreme adulting. But I also work hard. Because I don’t get paid if I don’t work, there is a constant fire under my butt. And because of that, my income is twice what it would be if I were in that office or writing that research paper.

I share this not to brag, but to challenge others and myself to consider the narratives that hold us in place. Why do we seldom challenge those myths that there are certain ways life has to be lived? Ways that students, helpers, mothers, and even fangirls must follow, no matter what. These were the lies I told myself:

  • I can’t pursue my dreams until I pay off student loans.
  • I need to finish my dissertation before I can write what I want to write.
  • Turning 30 means it’s time to stop fangirling.
  • No one wants to pay me to write about what interests me.
  • 40+ hours a week in an office provides stability.

That last one is the funniest. I feel more financially secure than I ever did with a single job. You don’t have to worry about having the rug pulled from under you when there are 27 rugs.

Inching towards non-conformity looks different for different folks. But I think most people can agree on this one simple radical act: make sure your direction for the day doesn’t get buried under a mountain of “shoulds.” Under busywork and Internet usage that distract us from where we want to be. My favorite exercise from The Art of Non-Conformity includes questions to ask yourself when you wake up and when you go to bed. This is something I’m going to try and keep doing until it starts to invade my thinking about my work and my life.

Morning Questions:

  • “How am I feeling?”
  • “What do I want right now?”
  • “What is the single, most important thing I can do today?”

Evening questions:

  • “Who did I help today?”
  • “How much time did I spent creating today?”
  • “Did I move closer to one of my big goals today?
  • “What do I want for tomorrow?”

Even if my morning answers are always, “Tired, Coffee, and Write,” I will keep asking myself what’s important instead of just what’s urgent. And then I’ll do exactly that. I won’t pay bills, I won’t sign paperwork, and I’ll try my best not to check Twitter until the most important task is complete. I climb back up the mountain, and try to descend with a little more self-compassion than I did the day before.

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