Loneliness and the Unconventional Life

Ben Casnocha recently wrote a great article entitled, “Unconventional Lives and the Challenge of Loneliness”, where he discusses a common drawback to breaking free of the crowd: loneliness. Chris Guillebeau has posted similar observations about a life of constant world-travel at The Art of Nonconformity.

Is loneliness just the price you need to pay for daring to be different?

The Lonely Path

I’ve been a vegetarian for almost four years. Surprisingly, the easiest thing about being a vegetarian was the not-eating-meat part. I feel I’ve gained health and energy benefits from the diet and, when someone inevitably asks me, I can honestly say I don’t miss eating meat.

The hardest part about being a vegetarian is no longer fitting in. Eating is often a shared event, and ordering separate food, even if it equally satisfying on a gustational level, often excludes me from the group. Seven hamburgers and one veggie burger on the grill is often less a dietary statement than a social one. Seven people all alike, and one different, alone.

In the end, I firmly believe my decision is worth it. The evidence that a low-meat diet is healthier than a typical North American diet is staggering. Also, all else being equal, I’d prefer to eat in a way that has fewer ecological or ethical repercussions.

But my decision does highlight an important choice any person considering the unconventional path must take. The unconventional path is often, by definition, the lonelier path. Instead of easily meshing with the group, you stick out. Instead of the soft comfort of lying in the fat middle of the bell curve, you’re in the bare and isolating extremes.

Walking the Unconventional Path Alone

The conventional path isn’t necessarily safer or more pleasant. If you were one of the autoworkers who lost your job along with many of your friends, your career choice probably wasn’t especially safe and being laid off is definitely unpleasant.

But what the conventional path does offer is an easily accessible community. If you were laid off, chances are you had other friends and family members who were affected. At least, in your darkest times, you weren’t alone.

Contrast that to someone working in a start-up or microbusiness that crashes. She may not have many friends going through the same challenge. Failure compounded by loneliness.

Many people resist unconventional lives on the grounds they are less safe. I feel this is bogus. Some unconventional lives are unsafe, but many are safer than following the crowd. Some reports estimate that 10-20% of people are planning on lottery winnings to support them when they retire. Following this crowd is downright dangerous.

I think the real reason people avoid unconventional lives is that they don’t want to risk the potential isolation that can result. Even if told smoking will cause an early, painful death, many people would continue to smoke if everyone around them did. The need to connect and avoid isolation is a powerful one. Sometimes greater than the instinct to survive.

Reaching Out from the Lonely Path

I don’t want to be pessimistic. I think anyone who has read this blog for any amount of time would probably agree that I wholeheartedly support an unconventional lifestyle. Speed reading, holistic learning, vegetarianism, microentrepreneurship and living around the world are just a few of the unconventional traits I’ve adopted and I’m sure there will be many more in the future.

But I do think, if you’ve chosen an unconventional life, that you need to invest more time reaching out to people. If you’ve chosen the “safe” path for your work, relationships, life and hobbies you can probably get by just connecting with the people surrounding you. Unconventional people usually can’t do that. You need to cast a wider net to find people you can really connect with.

Here are a few implications for this in my own life:

Friends from Around the World

I have many local friends, but I also cultivate a lot of mostly-online friendships with people around the world. I like talking with other people who have share my eclectic mix of interests. It may be more difficult to get everyone together in the same room, but it allows me to connect with people who might be out of reach.

The best way I’ve found to connect with people is just to shoot them an email. Unless you know a shared connection who can introduce you, this will often work. Bloggers or Twitter users are easier to find because you can learn a bit about their interests via their writing. However, I’ve also made great friends through forums and other online vehicles.

I don’t believe you should keep most of your connections online, as these don’t have the same depth as face-to-face interactions. But I think it’s useful for broadening the net, even just to let you know that you are not alone in the world.

If I relied on only my face-to-face friends for encouragement, I probably would have never started this blog or business. It was my online friends who shared my passions and goals that really encouraged me by sharing their own stories.

Forced Extroversion

You can’t be shy. If you are shy, you need to train yourself to meet new people. Being idiosyncratic means that if you’re only connecting with the people who knock on your door, you’re going to miss out on the really great connections. I would guess that out of every 200 people I meet, there is a decent connection, and out of 1000 a best friend. With those kind of odds, I need to remind myself not to sit at home.

While I think meeting people is a numbers game (if you meet more people, the likelihood of a better match increases), I don’t think the same logic follows when building relationships. Once you decide you like a person and share multiple interests, it’s more important to build that relationship.

To continue with Ben’s logic in the previously mentioned article, I’d rather have one solid connection than ten minor ones. One good close friend will do infinitely more to stave off the loneliness than surrounding yourself in a crowd of associates.

Build a Tough Skin

I don’t believe the unconventional path has to be lonelier than the conventional one. Simply that finding connections when you defy a stereotype is more difficult. If you make connecting with other people a priority, you can still be different without having that isolate you.

However, there are always gaps in an unconventional life which aren’t immediately filled. There are gaps in a conventional life too, but I think when you make following the herd a priority, those gaps are less frequent. Dealing with the temporary loneliness is as much a challenge of living an unconventional life as any other hurdle is.

I’m leaving for France in one week, while I’m certain I can make new connections, I know only a handful of people in a 500 mile radius. Is the temporary loneliness worth the adventure? Of course. But it is a sacrifice, and just like being the only vegetarian at the barbecue, it’s one you have to choose to make.

  • Jeffrey

    You’ve brought out a lot of good points and this echoes a lot of my own feelings of the past few months.

    Because I choose to be unconventional, I have trouble finding and keeping company. My closest friend in the town I live in is quite cynical, and I cannot be around his acerbic personality for long. I’ve tried to look for other friends, but have trouble finding a balance between my old, conventional friends and self-help wackos who invest in every MLM and scam they find (why can’t you live closer Scott?)

    Which brings me to another question. You talk about your personal and private life in detail, while still leaving out a lot of detail. How many close friends do you have? How have your girlfriends reacted to your blog and lifestyle? Have you dropped cynical friends? If so, how (I’ve seen many articles on this, just curious as to your experience).

    Thanks again and keep up the good work.

  • Hey

    The evidence that a low-meat diet is healthier than a typical North American diet is staggering.

    Oh really? Even for people who do heavy resistance and metabolic training? And who try to get grass-fed meats? I find it hard to believe.

  • Scott Young


    I never said a vegetarian diet was ideal for everyone. Simply that, in most cases, it is a lot better than the average. But I’m really not trying to convert anyone who isn’t interested. If you want to read more, check out the China Study, otherwise be healthy and happy in your own way!


    I fill in details of my life into blog articles when I feel they are relevant, so that naturally omits a large chunk of my life. I’m not trying to maintain a personal blog here and I do enjoy maintaining some level of privacy.

    As for my friends and girlfriends, this blog plays a minor role in my personal life. My friends know about it, and some of them read it, but I don’t let it occupy my friendships. I do have blogging friends (in person and online contacts) that allow me to share and talk about my passion more deeply.

    I agree with you on the self-help wacko front. Definitely not all people interested in self-improvement are crazy (or even most). But the topic does seem to attract people with more zeal than common sense. I try to avoid these people just as much as I avoid cynics.

    I have about a dozen or so friends I would call close friends and two best friends. The people I would feel comfortable sharing private details of my life.

    Ben Casnocha shared a morbid analogy, “A close friend will help you move. A best friend will help you move a body.”


  • Enrique S

    I’m amazed at the influence food and drink have over our social relationships. I find that I always have a problem when I decline food that’s offered to me. If I say that I’m on a diet, I usually get a response such as “just have a small amount” or “you don’t look heavy to me”. I found even more resistance when I gave up coffee. There’s a certain amount of peer pressure involved at work when it comes to coffee drinking. Everyone “fuels up” before a meeting, and by not participating, I’ve felt like an outcast. It’s lonely being an oddball, I guess.

  • Dave

    If I were you, I would try to not use the term “unconventional” to describe your life. “Unconventional” guarantees loneliness. There is not inherently good about being “unconventional.” I never felt lonely when I took a girl out on a date and ate my paleo-meal. I never thought of it as different from others; I thought of it as best for me.

    That’s the real reason you do what you do, isn’t it?

    I believe people sense my enthusiasm, because instead of being considered an outsider, I’m often approached as a leader. New friends I get will ask me about nutrition or exercise or dating, and I am more happy to answer.

    Yes, I too am starting to sense that my choice of friends are slimmer as I begin holding higher standards for myself. I have a hard time associating with friends who are now alcoholics, pot-heads, womanizers, drunk drivers and shoplifters. Frankly it sucks, but I believe that if I hold on to my convictions from a point or morality instead of just moral-superiority, then they will eventually follow.

  • Daryl Furuyama

    I learned of an experiment in my sociology class where if the subject was surrounded by a group of people agreeing upon something, the subject will often agree as well (even if it is obvious that they are wrong). Crowds are powerful, so we need confidence that we are doing the right thing. Keep heart Scott 🙂

  • DAC

    Hi Scott,

    I think you hit on a very important point…the costs of being different. I agree that any path outside of the societal norms can be a bit lonely at times but I always keep in mind the best and the brightest have always gone against the grain. We can thank Galileo for defying the church and suggesting the world is not flat 🙂 There are a multitude of examples of people who dare to dream and live outside the expectations of their family and society as a whole, and they end up changing the world we live in.

    I think in time you will see that life gets a bit easier for you as you have an incredible ability for introspection. Most people do not sit and think about what they want, they simply follow the common path of job/career, house, kids, etc.. Since you work from a goal focused life not a life dictated by the media or marketing, you will feel more accomplished and self confident than the average person.

    My suggestion for you as you travel France this month is to also travel to neighboring countries such as Belgium and Holland. I think these countries are socialist by nature but have some interesting perspectives on the world that few countries can offer. There is a sense of freedom there that is unlike the US and parts of Canada. In Holland there is only one night the stores are open late during the week and that is Thursday. The rest of the week the restaurants are not crowded as people spend time with family and friends. There is no real excess in Holland due to the tax structure so most people live in apartments and have limited material items. I can say that even with limited income the Dutch travel extensively and when I meet the average Dutch person in my field, they have seen more of the US than I have:) This worldly perspective gives way to some amazing conversations!

    Cheers and enjoy your trip!

  • Scott Young

    My point wasn’t to say I was particularly lonely, I’ve been lucky in that I’ve been able to cultivate great relationships that are accepting and supportive. Simply that I have been lonely, and I know that often the “best” choices for yourself can be more socially isolating than the popular choice.


  • angela

    At times I am overcome by a sense of loneliness that brings me to tears – this i now know is simply a sense of compassion – it may be that I am feeling lonely myself – or that I am tuning into the over-riding reality of loneliness that affects most people who live a life separate.

    What is considered “conventional” may indeed be the loneliest life one can elect to lead – as the herd mentality that “binds” groups of people – in fact – keeps individuals in isolation from themselves.

    When we feel at peace and one with ourselves we are able see through the illusions society would have us follow – sadly – many people are entrapped in a fear based reality that prevents them from becoming whole.

    When we are at one with ourselves we are at one with all.

    Following the herd an individual cannot become at one. ‘Ask’ any of the Great Individuals who have existed throughout human history. All have walked their own path, alone, toward complete unity.

  • Louche

    Being vegetarian is hardly a “sacrifice.”

  • amanda

    I happened to stumble across your article as i was seaching for some kind of encouragement towards my life decisions. I must say that i couldn’t agree with you more. I’ve been a vegetarian for 2 years and i don’t regret it one bit! If i can keep a healthy body, and eat delicious vegetarian food then i don’t see why my body should be a cavern for dead animals. Well it can certainly lead up to lonely situation. Enormous amounts of people think you have to eat meat to get protein. I also have a genuine concern for animals. I have discovered though, that with patience i will meet people more like me. That support and friendship is everlasting

  • Catherine Flynn

    Thank you for this great article. I really connected with it. I have been researching what it means to be an unconventional person and why I am like I am. It is the first time I have read about how it can be a lonely path, it’s encouraging to know that I’m not alone in identifying this! I don’t feel like it’s a choice to not follow the crowd though. I cannot choose to follow the crowd because in doing so, I continue to feel like an unfulfilled fish out of water!