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Singing (and Hip-Hopping) the Praises of Non-Conformity

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After writing this two-part series on following your bliss, I've come to realize one of the biggest obstacles to going after what makes you happy is actually standing up and bucking conformity if that's what it takes to get it.

It's all well and good to have figured out what brings you lasting and authentic joy, to acknowledge you want whatever that is, and to accept that being in alignment with it will make you happy.

It's a whole other thing to stand up to the forces that be and declare you're going to go publicly do whatever brings you joy, especially when it's not the norm. And that, dear readers, is exactly what makes Chris Guillebeau's debut book The Art of Non-Conformity so timely, reassuring and downright practical.

The Young Grasshopper of Non-Conformity

I've been following writer and world traveler Chris Guillebeau for about a year. Sensing a kindred spirit (we both love to travel, travel-hack and write) after connecting with his blog, I immediately raised my hand for an advance copy of his book when he offered it and was lucky enough to get one. Now about half-way through my read, I realize we share another key trait: non-conformity.

Chris Guillebeau Art of Non-ConformityLike many readers of Chris' book will undoubtedly discover, I owe him a debt of gratitude for emboldening and empowering me to set my own rules and go after the life I really want. Because you see, Chris is a freakin' non-conformity master.

In his early 30's today, Chris is a man who refused from an early age to accept the status quo. He dropped-out of high school after two years (mostly from what I construe as boredom) and went straight to college. Taking classes simultaneously at a community college and local university, he graduated with not one but two (count 'em, two) bachelor's degrees at the end of his second year as a college student. His friends from the brief time he'd spent in high school were just finishing their freshman year.

Chris then went on to do a variety of non-conformist things including a short stint working the night shift at Fed-Ex at age 20 followed by starting and running an eBay business, and more notably, spending four years as a volunteer aid worker in West Africa. While in Africa he enrolled and was accepted into a Master of Arts program at the University of Washington, where he finished early and instead of attending his graduation ceremony spent two weeks traveling around India.

Back to Us Mere Mortals

Take a breath. Yeah, I'm exhausted, impressed and intimidated too, but the point of this is not to compare myself to Chris, or for you to compare yourself to Chris (don't do it!). The point is to learn from him.

Truth be told, I can barely call myself a non-conformist next to this guy. As the parent of an eighth grader I find the idea of her skipping high school hard to swallow, but maybe that's because she's applying to one of the best high schools in the country this year (and the fact that it's a pretty damn non-conformist place makes my heart sing) - yet that's another story. Still, while I started out bucking authority in school and easily bored like Chris, somehow I followed a quite conformist, conditioned path of good-Catholic-school-student, 4-year college, career, marriage, homeowner-ship and motherhood.

Until about six years ago that is, when I realized that following someone else's program for supposed "success" was leaving me empty, unfulfilled and angry. Yep, I was one miserable bitch.

So after being laid off from my last full-time job I got off the conformity train.Passed on the big offer from Deloitte and Touche. Said no to graduate school (after ten years in management what exactly was an MBA going to get me except more student loans?). Married a foreigner (Mexican) and started traveling the world with him (not as much as Chris - yet). Stopped at one kid. Founded my own business. Moved out of the Midwest, leaving family and friends behind, for south Florida. Dove into a two-year inquiry into meditation, spirituality, and self discovery. Started writing for Huffington Post. Started this blog.

Okay, Where Does Hip-Hopping Fit In?

Oh and last week, I enrolled in a hip-hop class with a bunch of teenagers.

You read that right. One of the bright lights in "stage two" of my life since moving to Florida six years ago has been reconnecting with both the outdoors and physical exercise - two things I dearly loved as a child - and dance has been key in the exercise department. Zumba, Latin, ballroom and belly - I dance them all but am especially partial to speed and intensity. Also, lacking a partner for couple's dances (dancing is just not my husband's thing), hip-hop provides precisely the right mix of high energy and independence.

I've wanted to learn hip-hop - really learn it - for over a year ever since my daughter enrolled in a ballet class at a local popular dance studio that offers all-ages classes, but my travel schedule and other things inconveniently got in the way. Yet as I wrote about earlier this month, the joy of dancing that little bit of hip-hop in my exercise classes at the gym prevailed. I needed more. The desire remained alive, and this Fall I pulled the trigger and signed-up.

I am one of two grown adults in the Intermediate/Advanced hip-hop class of 20 or so teenagers. Last week, as I waited to enter the class, I felt something I haven't felt in a long time. I felt youthfully, innocently nervous. Now that I'm over 40, there isn't much I get nervous about anymore. Worried, sure, but nervous? Jittery, stuttering clammy-palm nervous? I was surprised.

As it turned out (as it always turns out when you follow your bliss) I need not have been afraid. My regular dance and yoga routines have kept me flexible and strong enough to hold my own with the young-uns for an hour. And since I was just trying out the class and not sure how I'd do, thankfully the instructor encouraged me to stay. Best of all, a gawky, pimply 14-year old boy with a mouth full of braces actually looked me in the eye and said "good job" as we filed out of the studio after class. Never before (and probably never again) will a gawky, pimply teenage boy with braces have made me feel so utterly validated and alive!

The Big Finish: Non-Conformity as the Critical Ingredient in a Joyful Life

Like me you're not getting any younger. And if you've passed a major age milestone (40, 50, 60 or beyond) chances are you're dealing with the double-whammy of inertia and urgency. The longer you keep doing what you've always done the harder it is to change (inertia), yet the older you get the louder you hear the clock ticking until the whisperings of your goals and dreams ARE SHOUTING FOR EXPRESSION (the urgency).

So what are you supposed to do? In the spirit of aligning with joy, of following your bliss, screw what anyone else thinks and express them for god's sake!

It might not be easy. It might make you nervous and afraid. It might mean you need to defy conformity - even if it's showing up as none other than your own conditioned beliefs. Defying conformity might even make you subject to criticism and ridicule. And yes, it might come from the people you love most and sting more than a little. But none of that is lasting, and although it will feel real, it's not the truth.

Here's the truth: you don't need to justify your dreams to anyone, but you do need to live them to be happy.

And if others don't get your dreams, or you? Realize that not everyone - even the people closest to you - is supposed to. Your dreams are uniquely your own. Just as hip-hop or traveling to every country in the world might not appeal to you, your passions will attract only those with a like vibe, and that's okay. In the end, you've gotta be your own superhero.

But you never know, sometimes when you're following your bliss full-throttle, you end up being someone else's hero too. Joy is a magnet. Joy is addictive. People want to be around people who are happy and courageous. I've had three women over 40 (maybe they're over 50, I don't know for sure) ask me for information about my hip-hop class in the last week because when I talk about it, I'm frickin' glowing.

As your trail guide, I urge you to break the bounds of conformity and follow your own path, "lions and tigers and bears!" and all. And if you need a little help, remember now you can always just pick up the book.