The 4-Hour Work Week, by Timothy Ferriss

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The idea that we can work less and free up time to pursue our own dreams is highly attractive for most people and this book is a guidebook on how to do it. The methods that Ferriss recommends to achieve that lifestyle provoked both admiration and disgust from people I know who read it, and I’ll get more into that below. Let’s start with what Ferriss says before getting into reactions.

Ferriss recommends a four step process to changing your life, which he abbreviates DEAL:

  • Define – Figure out what you want to do. Honestly answer the question of what you would do if you had unlimited money and time. Travel the world? Learn a new language? Become a world-class expert in tango? Then sit down and figure out what it would take to actually do those dreams – Ferriss points out that it’s not as much as you think. For instance, he spent approximately $1500 a month to stay in Argentina and take private Spanish lessons and private tango lessons for several months before entering a tango competition – most of us spend more than that on our mortgages and/or rent. Don’t delay your dreams for a long-off retirement – start doing them today.
  • Eliminate – Eliminate anything from your life that doesn’t contribute to you achieving your dreams. Ruthlessly apply the Pareto Principle that 80% of the benefits come from 20% of the work. If you’re an entrepreneur, concentrate on your cash cow clients, and get rid of the small clients and the complainers. Deal with all the important things that you are avoiding doing by engaging in time-wasting activities like meetings and email and surfing the web. Get rid of stuff that you own that ties you down and keeps you from being mobile.
  • Automate – Start a business that you can reap the benefits of without being in the critical path (he calls these muses). He recommends selling things like training CDs or DVDs in an area where you are perceived as an expert (see below for how to achieve that). Hire a virtual assistant from India at $10/hour to do paperwork and answer email. Set up the purchasing system on the web so it automatically forwards orders to the warehouse which ships the materials. Take yourself out of the equation completely.
  • Liberate – Adopt a completely mobile lifestyle. Once the business has been automated, you should only need to check in once a week via email to make a few decisions. Only pick up the phone for a few hours each week, and train all your people that you are only reachable during that time – they’ll start to take initiative and solve problems themselves. At that point, you’re ready to embrace the lifestyle defined in step 1 and pursue your dreams.

The process makes sense. And I think it would work if followed. So why not follow it?

Ferriss is exploiting the existing system, something he takes great glee in doing. He brags about winning a world championship in a martial art by figuring out that weigh-ins were the day before, so he dropped 20 pounds of water weight for the weigh-in, rehydrated before the match, and took advantage of a loophole in the rules that awarded a TKO for pushing his opponents out of the ring by using his longer reach. For selling a training CD, he describes the process of becoming perceived as an expert:

  • Join the industry association of the field
  • Read the top three books in the field, as recommended by that association
  • Summarize the books into one page of talking points each
  • Contact a local university, and offer to give a talk, leveraging your association membership.
  • Contact two local companies, and offer to give a talk, leveraging your association membership and the fact that you’ve spoken at “University X”.
  • Put yourself on a media expert website and cite your association, the talk at “University X”, and talks at “Company X” and “Company Y”.
  • Total time to achieve media experthood in your chosen field: Four weeks

I admire his chutzpah and his ingenuity in figuring out how to live life on his terms, but I still don’t completely subscribe to his ideas.

Everything he’s doing is within the rules as they currently exist, but that just perpetuates the system. He’s playing the game as it’s given, rather than trying to improve the game (it reminds me of the difference between finite and infinite games). Maybe changing the system isn’t possible and the best we can do is to exploit it to our advantage. I’m not ready to do that yet, and I will continue trying to live my life “as if” things could be different. Maybe in a couple more years I’ll be ready to concede and I’ll just want to cash out as he did.

I still recommend reading the book, although I’d borrow it from a friend or the library. It’s a quick read, and it’s definitely a strong meme going around my generation, so it’s good to be able to participate in the conversation. There are several good lifestyle suggestions in the book, especially in clearly defining one’s own goals, and eliminating behaviors that are not contributing to achieving those goals (tasks that would be valuable in one’s professional life as well as one’s personal life). I need to commit to some more specific goals, and start hacking my way towards them, and we’ll see if the ideas from the book can help me with that.

8 thoughts on “The 4-Hour Work Week, by Timothy Ferriss

  1. Hrm. How odd. I mean, not having read the book, I can’t make a complete assessment, but basically it sounds like, as you said, Ferriss is exploiting the system and cashing out without really adding any value to the process.

    In some sense, he’s basically just a middleman who takes a cut. While I suppose that’s fine if all you’re trying to do is make enough to live and not work, I guess I want my life to actually have brought some value to the world. Yeah, making videogames isn’t curing cancer, but I still feel like I’m contributing something.

    The way you’ve framed it, it sounds like the intention is basically to exploit the general public’s ignorance in a field to achieve a completely superficial “mastery” of it, in order to turn the perception of knowledge into cash. I do know someone like that – David Freeman, of the Freeman Group – he manages to turn supposed knowledge of game writing into a lucrative career, but the guy is the most ingenuous jackass I’ve ever met, and every time I even think of the guy, I wish he would be catapulted into the sun.

    I don’t want to live my life that way, I suppose.

  2. To be fair, Ferriss does address that issue in passing and say that once you have cashed out, you then have the free time to actually work towards contributing towards society. If you could make enough money in four hours a week to pay your rent and expenses, then the rest of the week could be spent towards doing good works. Of course, I wonder whether the type of person that would pull these exploits would actually then re-focus on doing something worthwhile, or whether they’d coast as a playboy as Ferriss has done.

  3. I think I read a review of this book somewhere (NYT or Atlantic, I guess), and they pointed out the many confluences that enabled the author to do this–the way his field was set up, etc. Their point was, “Well, not sure that the rest of us will ever be in the position to do this, ourselves.”

    But the point I wanted to talk about was, “He recommends selling things like training CDs or DVDs in an area where you are perceived as an expert (see below for how to achieve that).” Some colleagues of mine in the Minneapolis area did just that–they sank a load of money into a set of DVDs aimed towards builders for improving energy efficiency. They completely lost their shirts–they could barely give them away. It might have been problems with the target audience (i.e., builders who would rather see a real person talk), the price point (I remember it being pretty darn high)–but there was no disputing that they had established themselves as experts in the field previously.

    I think that my company is trying to do at least part of the ‘automate’ portion–they are putting together an informational website–there’s not enough content right now to justify charging, but I believe they are talking about context-based ads. No idea if that would ever turn a profit, though.

    As for “Get rid of stuff that you own that ties you down and keeps you from being mobile.”–yeah, that sounds like a pretty neat idea… I think that is an intrinsic part of my ideal retirement plan.

    As I’ve said, I fall into the Gen X stereotype of not wanting to Achieve Great Things–I just want to make enough to be comfortable and get out. I was thinking of putting together a blog post about it sometime. Have you found sources that talk specifically about that topic?

  4. Yeah, this could be an example of Fooled by Randomness – there may be no causal relationship between Ferriss’s proposed strategies and his success. He may have just gotten lucky, but is ascribing his success to his skill rather than to the confluence factors. Shades of Duncan Watts’s study involving Justin Timberlake, which showed that identical baselines (music in that study’s case) led to different results when they re-ran the study.

    As far as retiring and going mobile, I haven’t found any specific resources about that, but I’m pretty sure you know the answer. Figure out what your expenses would be in that lifestyle so you have an investment income target, and reduce your expenses now so that you can save and increase your investments until they generate the income you need to retire. This can be helped on both ends by being willing to accept a less opulent lifestyle both now and later. I mean, if you go truly mobile, and don’t have to pay rent/mortgage, I bet you could live comfortably on, what, $12k a year? Save up $240k, stick it in a high-interest CD at 5%, and you’re done.

  5. One other note about your colleagues – it sounds like they were taking the “Field of Dreams” marketing approach of “If we make it, they’ll buy it.” Figuring out how you will reach your target audience and convince them that you have a solution for their problems is why marketing departments exist. It’s hard work, and something that geeks do very poorly. I may be influenced by the fact that I’m currently taking a marketing class, though.

  6. A few points.

    First, I already didn’t like Tim Ferriss before I read his book, for pretty much the reasons you folks list.

    However, after reading it, I decided that I’m not mad at him; I’m mad at the world for allowing his strategies to work. Not his fault that he’s taking advantage of a system I don’t like in ways that work for him.

    Re: “middleman”: middlemen add value, period full stop. If you get me something I couldn’t or wouldn’t have gotten without you, then you earned your cut. That’s his game.

    Re: expertise: for what it’s worth, I am the world expert on teaching vocal percussion (which is as fun to say as it is blatantly true). My instructional DVDs turn out to have been the best return on time investment I’ve ever made. Then again, the market was definitely there (something Ferriss recommends you research a lot more thoroughly than I did… lucky me).

    Is Ferriss a jackass? Don’t know. Never met him.

    But does following his advice make you a jackass? Ay, there’s the rub. I don’t have the answer. Not yet, anyway.

  7. Having actually met Tim (we gave talks together, then saw him at Foo camp) I can attest that while he’s self-assured to the point of arrogance, he’s not a jackass.

    Part of his schtick depends on that arrogance- who would believe you if you weren’t sure of yourself – and that’s the hard thing for most people to mimic. You can’t manufacture charisma. He’s a reasonably attractive fellow in a “short clean-cut white boy” sort of way, but does that bit where he’s loud enough and sure enough of himself to make him seem bigger. I found it a bit off-putting, actually, since he seemed to be performing all the time; this may have been exacerbated by my gender, as he appears to do the conscious “look at me, I’m charming” thing to women. All women.

    Anyway, back to the premise of the book.
    Automating our earnings is a good thing. Whether this gets translated into owning a business that requires minimal/no input or investments in the stock market, you want your money to be working for you while you sleep. This is solid basic investment theory. Hourly wages are a good base, but can’t change your situation by orders of magnitude like a good investment can.
    However, as you’ve noted, he’s gaming the system. There are limited slots available for this tactic; the whole world can’t do it. (Sort of like my caveman diet.) Not to say that those who can shouldn’t, but it’s not, and will never be a solution for more than a tiny number of people.

    That said, the number of people who can figure out what they would do with that free time and actually do it is even lower than the number of people who can carry it off, so the numbers will always stay low. It’s primarily an abstract aspirational concept, used to drive more $$ for Tim’s extensive vacations.

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