Happy Nonconformism

One of the many things they don't teach us in school

One of the things you learn in school that turns out to not be true (or at least not so simple) later in life is that conformism is inherently valuable.

At a young age, we’re taught that deference to authority and convention are basic life skills: we get judged on our ability to comply, because (presumably) better ability to comply = better prospects for a good life ahead.

That linear view of conformism works fine if the thing(s) you’re conforming to do, in fact, lead to the best outcomes. And in grade school, where the main goal is arguably to teach kids how to be a functioning human among other humans, that’s not such a bad assumption. So on average, as kids we do a good job of picking up the basic do’s and don’ts of civilized behaviour, and everything works out pretty well.

But at some point, you get older, life starts to throw more nuance at you, and things get a touch more complicated. Conformism, it turns out, is not quite so unequivocally useful. And you may be too busy carrying out your marching orders to recognize it.

Let’s deal with that last part first: the habits and beliefs trained into us in our early years tend to be the hardest to shake later in life -- no newsflash there. Even as you continually acquire a bunch of new information and experience, chances are still that much of what you do today can be explained by things you learned in childhood. So if it turns out, in this case, that the simple utility of conformism isn’t so simple after all, many of us may overlook that fact given how strongly the assumption was trained into us at one point.

Back to the nature of conformism itself: it turns out that there are sometimes better alternatives to just going with the flow, even when going with the flow is generally productive.

I’ll use myself as an example -- coming of age as a university graduate with lots of options and opportunities available to me. I’d been a good student and a rule-follower my whole life to that point, for which I had been rewarded handsomely (good grades, my pick of careers). Surprise surprise: not a nonconformist bone in my body. So I picked a very conventional life/career path, selecting from the menu of options presented to me. It didn’t occur to me that it was even possible to go off script -- to order something not on the menu, or otherwise question the premise of really anything. Personally and professionally: when given a choice, I chose; when given direction, I took it.

That basic mode of conformism was totally...fine. It set me up for a comfortable life, with nothing to complain about. But eventually I realized that having “nothing to complain about” goes hand-in-hand with having no real sense of purpose -- which, long story short, I’ve come to understand is core to my feeling like I’m getting the most out of life. So at some point I started making somewhat unconventional career choices, optimizing for learning and purpose and growth instead of comfort, and my sense of life satisfaction improved dramatically in the process (even as my level of comfort declined). 

I’ve learned, then, that there’s such a thing as a sort of optimistic or purpose-driven nonconformism that can actually yield better results than falling in line -- which is just one of the bits of nuance they didn’t cover back in grade school.

The trick isn’t necessarily to be a contrarian -- rejecting convention as a matter of principle -- it’s to recognize that even when conforming leads to basically good things, it may not be optimal. Recognize that there are happy and productive forms of nonconformism available to you, and you might be surprised at what options open up.