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.
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.