Chris Guillebeau: Balanced People Don’t Change the World

If you were able to make $48,500 a year by following your passion, would you do it? That number comes from 279 Days to Overnight Success, an e-book by writer and world traveler Chris Guillebeau that outlines how he became a full-time writer/blogger in less than a year. Depending on who you are and where you live, Guillebeau’s projected annual income of just under $50k may or may not sound like much money. Regardless, it raises questions about how we define success: Is it about money? Is it about personal fulfillment? Is it about doing good in the world?
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uillebeau believes that success is living an unconventional life, in which he can spend most of his time writing, traveling, and talking to amazing people. Since 2008, he has been living and documenting that dream with his popular blog, The Art of Non-Conformity, and his e-guides and manifestos have been downloaded by hundreds of thousands of people. He has traveled to 144 countries and counting.In the midst of a recent trip through West Africa, Guillebeau chatted with us about what drives truly remarkable people and if it’s really possible to “have it all” – friends, family, financial success, and creative fulfillment.

If you had to name one thing all of the remarkable (and happy!) creative people you’ve met have in common, what would it be?

I’ll give you two big ones: the remarkable and happy people I know tend to do their work out of a sense of urgency, and most of the time they love what they do. Remarkable, happy, creative people also tend to be pro-change or at least pro-risk, in the sense of being willing to push the envelope a little.

Also, for the bonus round: they tend to drink a fair amount of coffee, or at least tea.

When it comes to realizing your passion, “priorities” come up a lot. How many priorities do you think you can have at once for prioritization to be useful? Can you be open to new experiences without being willing to deviate from your priorities?

I feel like quantifying priorities can be stifling for some people, especially creatives. You definitely have to be open to new experiences, because that’s where growth—personal and professional—comes from.

That said, prioritization requires you being disciplined enough to implement your ideas and work towards creating something over time, which usually involves challenges and setbacks. So even though I don’t like the word balanced (more on that in a moment), I agree that there’s a tension between being open to new experiences and pursuing something full-tilt to the degree in which you make tradeoffs and forego some new experiences.

Remarkable, happy, creative people tend to be pro-change or at least pro-risk.

Many people use creative routines to enable them to produce great work at a steady pace (painter Ross Bleckner for one, or writer Stephen King). Much of your writing and observations seem to be about breaking routine. What’s the value of routine vs. breaking routine?

I’m not sure I’m all about breaking routines, so I’m glad you asked that. For me, the setting varies but I’m always trying to move forward, to initiate, to have a bias toward action—explained well by this great book I’ve been reading in Cameroon this week. So there is still a routine, even if it’s not oriented around being in a certain place or working at a certain time.

Every day I have a list of things I’d like to accomplish, based off my overall projects list. If I finish the list or at least make good progress with a few things out the door, I feel good. If not, I feel anxious. I’m not sure it’s the best model, but I suspect a lot of other creatives will relate.

[Editor's Note: Yes, the "great book" Chris refers to above really is Behance CEO Scott Belsky's Making Ideas Happen. We didn't make that up!]

Any thoughts on the “time curve” of being able to subsist on work that’s driven by your passion? Many people seem to hope for instant gratification as they make the switch from a regular job to one driven by creativity. Will 279 days work for everyone?

I guess it depends on the medium and the related business model. If you find a way to successfully day-trade the stock market, it might take a lot less than 279 days. On the other hand, if it takes a while to figure out how your passion will translate to something marketable, it might be much longer.

The model I used with 279 Days to Overnight Success was to show one way to create a sustainable, self-publishing writing career in less than one year. It’s not the only way, and it won’t work for everyone. In my case, the primary motivation was to make a living as a writer, and I needed to find a way to deconstruct that idea and figure out how to make it happen without being a starving artist for decades.

Can your passion necessarily be monetized? You say you spend 10% of your time on “business” and the rest doing the things you love. Do you think that’s possible for everyone?

Great question. The short answer is, no, not every passion can be monetized. I always say that I like to eat pizza and play video games, but no one is willing to pay me for that regardless of how much passion I have. The critical point is that we have to find the convergence between what we’re passionate about that other people are also passionate about (and willing to spend money on).

When I say I spend 10% of my time on biz stuff, I tend to think of that as the administrative side of work, or whatever I do that I don’t really enjoy. I don’t think that kind of thing can be completely eliminated, but I like to keep it to minimum.

The 10% of “business” time doesn’t include creating and connecting, which is really what I do continually. I work on that at least several hours a day, every day, from wherever I am in the world (16 countries so far in 2010). For the most part I enjoy what I do and feel very fortunate that I’ve been able to craft a career around it.

We have to find the convergence between what we’re passionate about that other people are also passionate about (and willing to spend money on).

In a great David Sedaris essay, he uses a stove metaphor to talk about work-life balance: “One burner represents your family, one is your friends, the third is your health, and the fourth is your work. The gist, Pat said, was that in order to be successful you have to cut off one of your burners. And in order to be really successful you have to cut off two.” Thoughts on the possibilities of following your passion AND having a well-rounded life?

That’s a fascinating model. I’m not sure if it’s cutting off one burner, two burners, or just making deliberate choices, but overall I agree. My observation, which tends to elicit a range of responses, is that balanced people don’t usually change the world. If you want to be balanced, go and work at the bank and live for happy hour. Or maybe you make something other than your work a priority, and that’s totally fine too.

But the other thing to think of, it’s that being unbalanced (for lack of a better word) doesn’t mean you have to go into destructive genius mode. I don’t know if it’s your family or your health, but if you really want to head off in pursuit of a big dream, something’s gotta give. It’s up to each of us to determine what that’s going to be and how we’re going to allocate our energy.

How About You?

What does success mean to you? Is making enough money to follow your passion sufficient reward?

How do you manage work-life balance while striving for a remarkable life?

More insights on: Career Development, Interviews, Money

Jocelyn K. Glei

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As Editor-in-Chief and Director of 99U, Jocelyn K. Glei leads the 99U in its mission to provide the “missing curriculum” on making ideas happen. She oversees the Webby Award-winning 99u.com website, curates the popular 99U Conference, and is the editor of the 99U books, Manage Your Day-to-Day and Maximize Your Potential.
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