Telegraph Magazine, Jan 2013
Timothy Ferriss has made it his mission to teach others how to master any skill – from the tango to cooking – in just four hours.
(Also at The Telegraph)
In the Noe Valley suburb of San Francisco, on the night of Obama’s re-election, best-selling author Timothy Ferriss is in his living room getting smashed.
“Come on, let’s keep going,” he slurs. The tequila between bottles of wine probably wasn’t a smart move. “Leave the recorder on, it’s OK.”
This isn’t what I was expecting. If there’s one thing Ferriss is known for, it’s optimization and efficiency, the art of getting the most from the least. He takes the Pareto Principle – by which 20% of input yields 80% of output – and homes in on that critical 20% in all kinds of fields. His first book – The 4 Hour Work Week – optimizes the working life by answering email only twice a day, reading the headlines not the article and employing cheap virtual assistants in faraway countries. His second – The 4 Hour Body – sets it sights on optimal health, including 15 minute orgasms. And his latest, The 4 Hour Chef is a sprawling 672 page doorstop about how to best exploit all that free time and health that we now have, by optimizing our ability to learn not just cooking, but anything.
“It’s like Benjamin Franklin’s trinity,” he says. “Healthy, wealthy and wise. My three books are the same – your body, your career and your ability to acquire skills quickly.”
And yet here we are getting drunk. My allotted hour has turned into a four hour session. It doesn’t feel very optimal.
“Oh but it is!” he says. “It just depends on what your success metric is. If you want to finish this in the shortest time, then no, but if your success metric is how much you enjoy the process….” He fills my glass. “Cheers!”
On the face of it, Ferriss is just an overenthused and somewhat nerdy 35 year old from Silicon Valley. Sociable to a fault, he has a handshake that’s as firm as his jaw is square, a modest, Zen-tinged home, and a penchant for the occasional bucket of Pinot Noir.
But he’s also a phenomenon. Of his huge following – one million unique visitors per month on his blog – many credit him with changing their lives. His live-in assistant Maneesh, for instance, dropped out of college after reading the 4 Hour Work Week. Part of his aura is that he walks the talk. He tests his techniques personally, and it has led to an eccentric but adventurous resume. Highlights include fluency in four languages (Japanese, Mandarin Chinese, Spanish and German), a national championship in Chinese Kickboxing, and a tango dancing world record that he set on a live American morning show. The evidence for his lifestyle is all over his apartment – a kendo suit on his wall, the Patagonian art, the ceremonial Muy Thai headdress.
None of this is news if you’ve so much as skimmed his books – Ferris is the opposite of shy about his achievements. Before we met, I’d pictured him at an almost comical apex of optimization – Ferriss as a hyperfunctioning superman, commanding armies of staff around the world while mastering the harp, learning how to snipe targets from long range and maintaining zero percent body fat. And it’s partly true – he actually did spend last weekend sniping with a Navy Seal. And he does have assistants in multiple time zones (at last count, San Francisco, New Orleans, New York and a mother of two in Canada who handles his email). But he’s remarkably unfrantic with it. He sleeps nine hours a night, and seems to have plenty of time to entertain a thirsty journalist.
“There’s a saying,” he says – there’s always a saying with Ferriss – “you can have everything you want, just not all at once. So right now, I’m putting everything on maintenance mode except for the 4 Hour Chef.” His book, he explains, is a “force multiplier”, or “the highest leverage project” on his agenda. It has also been boycotted by most independent bookstores because it’s the first major title to be published by Amazon publishing. So unless he promotes the hell out of it – even through a blur of alcohol – his most ambitious book risks becoming his first non-bestseller.
“That’s not a bad thing though,” he says. “The stick is more effective than the carrot. People work a lot harder to avoid humiliation than they will to get rewards, there are tons of studies. Have you tried Stickk.com? It’s a useful tool, check it out. But anyway, I enjoy trying new things. If I take a few arrows being on the front line, then that’s OK. It’s a new sandbox.”
(As it is, his fear is not realized – the 4 Hour Chef debuts at #4 on the New York Times list.)
It’s an extraordinary book – sprawling, exuberant and prone to gallop off on tangents. One of its goals is to guide a kitchen ignoramus, as Ferriss himself was, to becoming a confident, instinctive cook. So there are recipes, how-to photos and top tips from world class chefs as you might expect. But for Ferriss, learning to cook is an exploration of learning itself, so the recipes come folded in with science, psychology and behavioral studies, the sort of thing that will please fans of Freakonomics and Malcolm Gladwell. He likens learning to cook to learning chess, Spanish, swimming or how to shoot a 3 pointer in basketball. He wanders off on diversions about hunting, knife skills and the science of poached eggs. All skills are broken down to their parts, and unlikely parallels are drawn relentlessly because “a world class tango dancer and a world class hedge fund manager have more in common in how they think than a world class hedge fund manager and a mediocre hedge fund manager.” And the whole thing is sliced up with blaring quotes from the likes of Picasso, Voltaire and Adam Sandler.
Like this interview, however, it’s awfully long.
“The hardback weighs 3.87lbs,” says Ferriss, proudly. Though, typically, he sees an added efficiency there. “When I was travelling in India, I’d load up my backpack with books and do all the kettle bell swings, all the high pulls and what not. Resistance is resistance.”
Would he be offended if readers observed the Pareto principle and only read 20% of his book in order to glean 80% of its value?
“That would be fine,” he says. “I’d be curious to see which bits they chose, because I tried to distill it down already. But I don’t expect anyone to apply all of it. It’s a choose-your-own-adventure book.”
Ferriss has been called many things – a lifestyle designer, a self-experimenter and a life hacker. But whichever the title, this much is true – he’s a creature of our time, and he fits in right here, in Silicon Valley. He’s part of that tribe of Wired-reading app-happy nerdpreneurs and venture capitalists who scour these parts looking for the next big score. He speaks the language – a combination of northern Californian lingo (Ferriss is often “superpsyched”) and the Ted Talk jargon of “sandbox”, “anabolic”, and yes, “optimal”. Even while drunk his casual chatter is strewn with actionable data and “neat” URLs. “Try emailgame.com,” he says. “You can process email in 40% of the time.”
A common misnomer about the 4 Hour philosophy is that it’s about avoiding work – a manual of short cuts for the lazy. Ferriss points this out in classic humblebrag fashion: “If anyone sees me at a coffeeshop with my laptop for 20 minutes, there’s going to be 50 photographs on Flickr by the end of the day: Tim Ferriss working!”
The truth is that Ferriss is utterly driven. He wants to adapt the 4 Hour Chef into a TV show, which he’d produce himself so as “not get fucked by Hollywood”. He has invested in over 30 Silicon Valley start-ups at present, and he travels so often that he deliberately bought in a neighborhood close to the airport.
What he’s not, however, is a self-help guru. It’s the “guru” part he balks at: “I don’t want people to rely on me for answers. I want to create people who are self-reliant.” The “self-help” part, however, is fine. He’s not troubled by being associated with a genre known for trite promises of wealth, the body beautiful and spiritual joy. In fact, it was self-help literature that set him on this path – it’s his “before” story, one that he has honed over countless tellings.
His story starts in the Hamptons where he grew up. Not society Hamptons, mind, but solidly middle class – the son of a real estate agent father and a physical therapist mother. He made it to Princeton to take East Asian Studies and took an eye-opening trip to Japan. Upon his return, he founded a sports supplement company which he built to the point where he was earning $40,000 a month. But he wasn’t happy. He was living to work, not vice versa, and as the story goes, his then-girlfriend left him a note reminding him that work finished at 5pm. As often happens in these fables, a lightbulb went off. It was 2004 and he was 27 years old.
“When I went to the bookstore to deal with my own crises, you had Jack Welch on one hand, which was like, ‘win at all costs’, but you also have all these divorces and what not,” he says. “And on the opposite end was ‘money’s not important’. Books like Less Is More, or How to Give Up Material Possessions. And I didn’t buy that either.”
Enter Jack Canfield, the author of the phenomenally successful Chicken Soup series (Chicken Soup for the Soul and so on). They met at a networking event in 2000, and Ferris made sure to stay in touch. When he sketched out his first book proposal – “I was in Argentina, learning the tango,” he says – he sent it to Canfield for feedback, who in turn hooked him up with his editor, who became Ferriss’ agent. And the 4 Hour brand was born.
He describes it as an approach, or a toolkit. “What I do is ingest information from disparate sources, look for patterns, study outliers and then do a ridiculous number of experiments on myself that often push the boundaries of self-preservation,” he says. “Then I look for elegant and uncommon solutions.”
He sees himself as an experimentalist in the vein of the late George Plimpton or his more current peer A.J. Jacobs, an Esquire writer with a more comic voice (his first hit was My Year of Living Biblically). What distinguishes Ferriss is his data. “AJ and George are much better writers than I am,” he says. “But I’m highly prescriptive.”
He also has a Barnum quality that the others lack. A natural self-promoter, he happily goes to extremes to get press. For the 4 Hour Body he put on 15kg of muscle in 28 days and weighed his faeces. His website has videos of him shoving a biopsy tube into his thigh and swallowing 25 pills at once. And he once found himself in a Cape Town hospital after overdoing it on resveratrol which has been shown to extend the life of mice.
But Ferriss makes no apology. “I’m happy to use Barnumesque stunts,” he says. “They give me a Trojan horse to deliver what I want to teach. So I sell people what they want, like better orgasms, as a way of giving them what they need, which is lower glucose.”
There’s a pattern to his patter – it’s the classic before and after testimonial, core to any pitch man. In the 4 Hour Body the change was physical – he was fat, now he’s ripped. In the 4 Hour Chef, the change is skill-based. He has two left feet, but then he breaks a tango record. He can’t swim because of a weak lung, but now he swims miles without a problem. He hates writing so much that “my senior thesis at college nearly killed me”, but now he’s a bestselling author.
It’s a schtick, no doubt, but even so, Ferriss likes to be thought of as more scientist than salesman. He’s not an infomercial guy, and he doesn’t do many events because he says he doesn’t much enjoy public speaking. He also claims that he hates networking but that’s a bit harder to swallow. He seems born to it.
The bottom line, however, is that he doesn’t appear to be in it for the money. If he’s wealthy, it’s not obvious from his digs. He still drives a “shitty used 2004 VW Golf with the radio antenna ripped off. It gets me from A to B.” And unlike some on the self-help shelf, he’s not angling for your credit card number: “I don’t want this book to be a teaser – to say, if you enjoyed this, maybe you’ll enjoy my $4000 coaching program.”
Furthermore, he says he has “foregone millions” in corporate endorsements. “The only way that I can create an army that I can direct toward benevolent means, is by having them trust me – and I do that by making recommendations that are not tied to my bank account.”
In any case, Ferriss has tracked the ups and downs of money in his life and concluded it has diminishing returns. “I’ve been happy, I’ve been sad but above $75,000, income pretty much doesn’t correlate,” he says. Besides, he likely hasn’t much to worry about, as he later reveals: “I am an early investor in Twitter.”
His next move is telling: a well-earned vacation. He plans to go to Indonesia for a month or two with his girlfriend of 18 months to surf and learn the Bahassa language. This for Ferriss is what happiness is about. And typically, he’s been tracking it.
“I keep 80/20 lists of the activities which produce 80% or more of my positive emotions,” he says. “Language learning is high, and physical movement and water are up there too.”
What about book number four?
He shakes he head. “I’m not in a rush,” he says. “This book probably shaved five to 10 years off my life!”
But surely the 4 Hour philosophy must find a new application – could our emotional lives be optimized according to the Pareto principle, for instance?
Ferriss laughs. “I’m not trying to optimize my time with my girlfriend where I can get it down to 90 seconds a day!” He looks at the empty bottle of wine. Our second. “There are things you want to minimize, and things you want to savor.”