'Adventures in Opting Out: A Field Guide to Living an Intentional Life' (Book Review)

Cait Flanders' newest book is a wise and inspiring read on navigating new life paths.

Adventures in Opting Out book cover

K Martinko

Have you ever felt like you just want to live life a bit differently from everyone around you? Maybe you self-identify as a "black sheep" in your family or friend circle and wish you knew someone else who felt the same way, so you could talk about the awkwardness of trying to fit into (or finding a way to exit) the path that everyone else appears to follow so willingly. 

If you can relate to any of these feelings – and who doesn't at some point in life? – then Cait Flanders' latest book is for you. The Canadian finance blogger, frugality expert, and author of the enormously successful "The Year of Less" (a story about her year-long shopping ban, reviewed here on Treehugger) has just published a second book called "Adventures in Opting Out: A Field Guide to Living an Intentional Life." It's a blend of self-help and memoir, but refreshingly blunt and entirely free from the feel-good platitudes that tend to define the former genre. 

The book is aimed at readers who may feel lost or restless, craving a new path in life, and strives to give them the tools to get on that path with confidence, even if they feel like they're the only ones doing it. The chapters have an unusual yet pleasant format, modeled after the experience of hiking up a mountain, which is something Flanders does frequently while living on Canada's West Coast. The five-point journey starts at the base, progresses to the viewpoint, moves into a valley, and then up a final slope to the summit. Flanders found this route to be analogous to the emotional and practical work it takes to get through changing paths in life.

She calls changing paths "opting out," and urges people not to feel they have to make radical, drastic changes to their lives all at once, but rather be willing to try something new, little by little, until they find what feels right. It's OK to stop partway, to turn around, to redirect, to start over. She writes, 

"This is a conversation that's been missing from the simple/intentional living space, but it's also one I don't see people having around lifestyle changes in general. The content is always so focused on how to follow the steps and make the change that it doesn't address the fact that there are real human beings involved in the process. Human beings who are going to have a very human experience when they decide to do the opposite of what everyone around them is doing."

Flanders gives examples of previous opt-outs she's taken in life, from quitting drinking to decluttering her home and getting finances in order to leaving a stable government job to become self-employed. The main narrative, however, revolves around a more recent decision to give up her apartment in Squamish, British Columbia, and start traveling full time. She heads to the United Kingdom, only to meet with unforeseen challenges that result in her returning to Canada temporarily. She figures out a new approach to travel, returns to the UK, and ultimately has a successful stint abroad, though it took a radically different shape from what she'd envisioned at the start. 

Tied up in her travel experience is newfound guilt at flying for pleasure – the notorious flygskam that was starting to afflict many people prior to COVID-19's shutdown of global tourism. Reducing flight is one of the most effective things a person can do to reduce their carbon footprint, and Flanders' decision to travel full-time clashed with what she was learning:

"I could not unsee the statistics I was reading about flying. Or forget the people I was meeting in the UK who were committing to never fly again ... I just knew that I didn't feel great about it anymore. And I wasn't sure how to address this shift in my values – especially now that I had already started this new adventure of mine." 

This value shift ends up affecting her choice of locations when she returns to the UK, guiding her to prioritize train travel over planes.

While Flanders' travel story is nothing out of the ordinary – many of us have traveled extensively and coped with the challenges associated with it – she offers thoughtful insights into the emotions associated with doing brave things, making tough choices, dealing and communicating with friends who may not understand our reasons, and determining when to take advice from people whose worldview may be very different from our own. (The answer has stuck with me: "The truth is that most people can see only as far for you as they see for themselves ... This is why it's so important to find the right person to discuss your opt-outs with." Profound!)

In reading this book, I felt a sense of kinship, and even relief, that someone else has felt the same way I do about, for example, alternative life paths that I never took but sometimes wonder about. Flanders' tone is clear, direct, and approachable; she writes like a good friend would speak to you. Whether you're in need of a life change these days or not, it's helpful to read words of guidance from someone who works so hard to practice what she preaches about simple, frugal, and intentional living.

You can order the book and learn more about Cait Flanders' work here.