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Chris Guillebeau: Balanced People Don’t Change the World

Is achieving remarkable things compatible with a happy work-life balance? Veteran non-conformist Chris Guillebeau says, “something’s gotta give.”

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?

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 Posts by Jocelyn K. Glei

A writer and the founding editor of 99U, Jocelyn K. Glei is obsessed with how to make great creative work in the Age of Distraction. Her latest book is Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distraction, and Get Real Work Done. Her previous works include the 99U’s own bestselling book series: Manage Your Day-to-Day, Maximize Your Potential, and Make Your Mark. Follow her @jkglei.

Comments (22)
  • Modern Heinrich

    Being a starving artist is disgusting. Pushing yourself in an even more shitty place, only to make money is even worse. Bay the way, great interview.

  • Robert Mockler

    Great article, thank you.

    I have always believed in the “burner theory” Its most definitely a factor in my life at current.

  • John Lemire

    Something does have to give, you’re right. We are only given 24 hours each day and if you are trying to start something new, or devote more time to something, that time has to come from somewhere. I enjoyed reading this article and the various ways that you framed it.
    I know that I got where I am at today by taking risks that I just knew were going to be worth it. If I wasn’t open to taking chances or making any risks, then I would not have learned the lessons that have lead me here.
    One of the bigger influences in my online career has been Frederic Patenaude. He is pretty big in the online raw food community and has a ‘success’ group. I was part of it for a while and one of the things that has stuck with me is the concept of Ready, Fire, Aim.
    I know he wasn’t the originator of the idea, but hes the one that taught me its use. If you are so frozen in your ways that you are unable to take action to manifest your desire, then you will never see it materialize. Its better to have a goal, take action, then hone in on the goal, then to never make an action in the first place!!
    Thanks for the post!

  • Nicolò

    Regarding David Sedaris’ point: everybody defines success a different way. You CAN have a successful life even if you keep all the burners on, if for example success is for you being a well-rounded person. In case you’re referring to the “doing something big” definition of success instead, as in creating a popular product or achieving widespread impact, that kind of success doesn’t really care about work-life balance. You can see people working long hours on one burner alone and still being unsuccessful. On the other hand (e.g.… you can actually be successful with a good work-life balance. Success is determined by a combination of factors (not to mention pure chance) of which work-life balance might not even be one of the most significant ones.

    Now, changing the world is a whole other issue. I would argue that the “balanced people” you describe, the ones that work in a bank and live for happy hour, are the ones that are not passionate about their work. So it’s not the fact that they keep more than one burner on which makes them unable to change the world, it’s just that whatever burner they have on they just keep it at a very low flame.

  • Raam Dev

    This was incredibly insightful. The last part about balancing life was extremely interesting. It made me wonder if that was my problem with productivity. Maybe I’m trying too hard to excel in all four areas instead of accepting that something has to give to become exceptional in another area.

    All the people I know who are changing the world with big ideas are lacking in at least one of those four areas.

    I also wonder if “family” is referring to having a family of your own (wife/kids) or if it implies family in general. Could one turn off the “family” burner by simply choosing not to marry and/or have kids?

    I’m a balance fanatic, so it’s pretty difficult for me to accept that there isn’t SOME way to make all of them work, but again, maybe that’s what is limiting my progress.

  • Wyatt

    Great interview! Love the work that Chris is doing. Every bit of it is inspiring. The burners are an interesting way to look at life energy. My immediate reaction is to disagree because I want balance and the idea of cutting off a part of that seems drastic. I know when I think about it further it makes sense. However I also think there are ways to combine areas of life so they meet together. Simple example is combining health and family by bike riding or running with them. That way you get to leverage for both. When you think about the average 10,000 hours it takes to really be good at something then that doesn’t always work. But it is better than cutting off. Thanks for the post.

  • Wyatt

    Great interview! Love the work that Chris is doing. Every bit of it is inspiring. The burners are an interesting way to look at life energy. My immediate reaction is to disagree because I want balance and the idea of cutting off a part of that seems drastic. I know when I think about it further it makes sense. However I also think there are ways to combine areas of life so they meet together. Simple example is combining health and family by bike riding or running with them. That way you get to leverage for both. When you think about the average 10,000 hours it takes to really be good at something then that doesn’t always work. But it is better than cutting off. Thanks for the post.

  • Jennie Brown Hakim

    All four burners are important to me. I have heard that no one can “do it all,” but you can get most of what you want to do done if you allocate your time wisely.

  • JT Singh

    Being a starving artist is a phase that the creative person must go through initially until you have earned the reputation, experience, and knowledge to start making that dough. You must master the art of being a starving artist without actually being starved, for example, people that travel on a very very low budget know how to hitch hike, rideshare, bicylcling, couch surfing, and even eating for free through dumpster diving which is going through the dumpster behind grocery stores that throw large amounts of good food away even though the food is still completly edible. Now this sounds extreme, but you gatta do what you gatta do.

    In terms of the stove burner concept, I believe that the creative person should be creative enough to engage with all four burners as much as possible.For example one idea, is to use video skype to stay in touch with family and friends while traveling or living over seas, or buy a juice machine to quickly get all the nutrients you need, vitamins, also get a work out routine that only takes a half hour but is intensly effective or integrate your workout in you daily functions.

    Another idea is to go on binges, for example this week i am going go all out in spending time with family and friends, but then for the next 2 months I will focus on work much more, or this week I will workout like crazy and play sports and then be more lazy for the next 2 weeks.

  • David Niemann

    I switched from a “regular” job (marketing) to one “driven by creativity” (cooking), and am currently in the starving artist phase – a line cook in New York City, making $9/hour, working with illegal immigrants who keep the pay scale low, but putting my time in, enjoying my work, and learning everything I can, everywhere I work.

    The thing is though I’m not actually starving – I keep my expenses low, and end up with a fair amount left over for personal spending. I use a lot of this for cooking at home – which is where I can put all my creativity to work. I also write about it on my food blog,

  • comradity

    Agreed about balanced people not changing the world. But I do think that the path to innovation is disrupting ambiguity by finding balance. “Disrupting ambiguity” is not about destroying the other side in a conflict â?? it is about resolving the conflict by moving to a whole new level that makes the differences of the two sidesâ?? moot, irrelevant. Thatâ??s what transforms innovation from the realm of the â??early adoptersâ?? to irresistible to the whole community.

    More on this here:

    and here:

    Interested in knowing how that strikes you?

    Katherine Warman Kern

  • L. Marie Joseph

    $48,500 with no debt is plenty of money. Enough to save, travel ,give and have fun!

    Go Chris

  • Erin

    it took a lot longer than 279 days for chris to achieve overnight success; he has a masters degree for crying out loud!

  • Penelope

    I have been following Chris for a short time now and recently purchased his e-book Art and Money. I am a potter by passion and a manager by trade. I am reading these articles in hopes of stepping off the 9-5 ledge into the self-employed unknown. After 18 years of struggling as a single mom, I know how the frugle living part works, I can do it. But, now here I am, 5 years after my child is gone (well, they never really are) and I have slipped into a comfort I haven’t felt before, going to the grocery store and not feeling guilty for buying a can of Pringles (this was my once a month, $1 treat for years) Is there a balance between living your passion and affording pringles? Penelope in SC

  • David Jehlen

    Killer interview. Yes, I think that having enough money to pay the bills and do what you really love is much more worthwhile than making lots of $$$ and wanting to drive off a cliff in complete misery and despair. Once you’re paying the bills you can also work on ramping up the business and revenue. I also tend to agree with Chris’ statement that “balanced people don’t usually change the world”. I used to think that comlete balance was important but there is only so much of the “energy pie” to go around and fuel our passions and desires. However, some semblance of balance is needed to keep from being destructive.

  • jc46202

    Well yes and no. He’s focusing on his success once he decided to do full-time blogging I think. Any of us could select any number of years from our life and say they set us up for a critical moment of success, but that’s not his point.

  • Traveling bags

    Nice review ! I like your article and i will definitely look again……………………………………

  • G. C.

    I am a writer and have a full time job in a huge company as a non-writer so I can pay my bills but at this point I have not time to write. Vicious circle isn’t it. http://www.agirlinhongkong.blogspot.c...

  • Trent

    there is a danger in turning your passion into a business. The
    money may follow or it may not. But the
    conversation should be around the question, : “IF I follow my passion and the money follows, will it kill the passion
    at some point?”

    If you follow your passion and make it a business, as I have
    done, there is a danger that lurks in the weeds of that decision. And the early warning sign is when you reach
    the tipping point and you are spending more time turning the passion into dollars
    than you are pursuing the passion like you did when it was just that, your

    As far back as I can remember, all I wanted to do was help
    people get where they wanted to go whether there was anything in it for me or
    not. To put people together for the
    benefit of the individuals has always been satisfying, but even more fulfilling
    is when the result of the introduction has benefited the greater good that
    might not have happened if those people had never met or those companies had
    never talked.

    I turned that into a business six years ago when I successfully
    monetized my passion. Connecting people
    and resources is such a part of who I am that, whether or not I get paid, I
    cannot help doing it everyday. It’s just
    what I do. It is a passion. But I have to be constantly aware of not
    letting the business get too far ahead of the passion. If I don’t, then it will be a job. Yikes!

  • Jim

    I think most of the great ideas were from people with unusual minds. Maybe even bordering on the insane. Many extremely creative people did go off their rocker before they died.

  • Manuel Calavera

    Yes.. i have read that stuff. Good book. That book inspired me to take couple of
    timeshare jobs where i got to travel and work same time.. and make good money.

  • Berni Xiong

    What an awesome article. I love what Chris is doing and am a strong proponent of living life led by passion and backed up with deliberate action. Success has many definitions to it, obviously because it is so subjective in nature and we live in an opinionated society. Each of us create our own reality and if we’re not living up to our own definition, we will feel deficient. The beauty in being able to create our own reality is that we have the power and control to achieve the success we want. But, first, we MUST define success for ourselves before we can even go out and grab life by the horns to go get it.

  • Linda

    Chris is a brilliant writer and marketer. I think his point rings true that not every passion can be monetized but he certainly inspires you to think of ways that you can make $ from what you love. I recently did a quick interview with him on his marketing mastermind. You can find it at… if you are interested. Thanks for the great post!

  • Gregor -

    I follow Chris and the 99 percent a lot, but the title of this article is annoying.

    Firstly the term “change the world” is significantly over used in the startup world to a point that founders have lost site of what actually needs to change in the world (we sure as hell don’t need another mobile app or photo sharing service).

    Secondly, with all respect to Chris, he is not changing the world. He’s changed his world yes – but is he changing the world on a grand scale? No. I’m thinking climate change, tackling poverty and so on.

    Thirdly, some of the world’s most balanced people tend to get involved with “good” initiatives at a ground level and on a small scale – charity fundraisers, recycling, donating, fostering children and so on.

    Whilst remarkable people will always do remarkable things, let’s not forget the millions of people who collectively can truly change the world. Balanced or not.

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