Bryan Caplan  

A Non-Conformist's Guide to Success in a Conformist World

I feel pain therefore I am (a ... Intervention Leads to More Int...
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!

COMMENTS (13 to date)
David R. Henderson writes:

This post reminds me of a book that helped me live my life to the full. I read it in the late 1970s, I think. It is Harry Browne, How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World.

Ivan writes:

One of the other less pleasant aspects of being a non-conformist is that people take non-conformity as a sign of elitism. Non-conformism then becomes interpreted as a sort of flouting of people's cherished beliefs and preferences even if it has no direct harm to them.

I feel the need to almost constantly reassure people that my non-conformist preference is not indicative of my disapproval for something they hold dear.

Etewa writes:

Great Article. I would add one more item to your list. Work for yourself. Entrepreneurship is a great way to be a non-conformist and not worry about the demands of conformity.

sam writes:

I would disagree entirely.

This is advice for conformists. It is the goal of a conformist to conform to educational cultural, and bureaucratic goals in order to find a place within the bureaucracy.

More accurately, this is advice for upper-middle-class conformists who are slightly less conformist than most upper-middle-class conformists, and wish to live in the same cities and work in the same cubicle-bound organizations that most upper-middle-class conformists do.

Actual, practical advice for non-conformists:

1: Get the educational credentials you need, and no more. Most education in the US has little to do with skill acquisition and much to do with conformism signalling.

2: Find a profitable line of work that is based in skill and science. Many of these jobs will be scorned by conformists like Caplan, but may well pay better (many petrochem, allied health, and IT jobs pay a salary much higher than his)

3: Live in a low cost of living red state. Again, probably scorned by conformists like Caplan, but will allow you to build your nest egg.

4: Retire early. Avoid the greasy pole entirely.

silly sailor writes:

Interesting how you single out education as a place to conform.
This wouldn't be to make your day job easier would it?

Miguel Madeira writes:

"Entrepreneurship is a great way to be a non-conformist and not worry about the demands of conformity."

A problem with "entrepreneurship" for non-conformist is that usually requires being also a salesman (a job that I suppose that non-conformists have some difficulties)

Frogger writes:

I have to say coming from a non-conformist family has given me a different perspective. I'm the first of my parents and siblings to graduate from high school and in most people's eyes the least successful since I stay home with my children to homeschool them while all my older siblings are making at least six figures. My mother dropped out of high school but did manage to graduate from college and medical school and my father has run three successful businesses though having no degree at all at any level. America is great that way. In some countries you would not be able to skip the lower levels of education without severe repercussions.

Terry Hulsey writes:

Sam's advice (posted July 28, 2014 3:10 PM) is actually superior to Caplan's, who writes for conformist poseurs who want to pass themselves off as non-conformists at cocktail parties.

Ivan writes:


You made some good points. I don't see however how your advice necessarily contradicts with Caplan's. If anything, it adds to it.

If you were a regular on this blog, I think you would agree that Caplan would concur with you wholeheartedly on point #1. On points #2 and #3, where did you get the idea that he would scorn someone for choosing an allied health profession or living in a southern/red state?

Mark S writes:

Another nonconformist hero of mine, Paul Graham, wrote great essays that talk about surviving in & exploiting a conformist world (the latter is directed toward high school students and covers more than just non-conformity):

1. What You Can't Say

2. What You'll Wish You'd Known

Kevin Erdmann writes:

Mark S., those were great essays. Thanks.

Alex writes:

Bryan, I have an econ question that isn't much related to this post but I can't find a good answer anywhere else on the internet (I'm not an economist/economics student). I noticed at the beginning of your post you said:

"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."

I have seen many critics of "neoclassical economics" online cite the Sonnenschein-Mantel-Debreu theorem as demonstrating that the downwards-sloping demand curve common in microeconomic theory is not justified. What's the best response to this criticism? Does the S-M-D theorem only have consequences for general equilibrium, or does it extend to partial equilibrium also? Thanks in advance.

Andrew Atkin writes:

Only one problem. To be a conformist is to be a nobody. And that leads to a "secret" depression...and your pride rots away into nothing. As you do nothing.

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