Book review: The 4-Hour Workweek, by Timothy Ferriss.

June 21st, 2007

At this year’s South by Southwest Interactive conference, one of the sessions I wanted to attend was Tim Ferriss’s presentation on The 4-Hour Workweek. Using himself as a guinea pig, Ferriss has carried out a series of experiments in lifestyle design, all of which are meant to free himself (and you and me, if we care to join in the fun) from the rat race. Ferriss uses his freedom to pursue his own varied interests, especially travel, competitive dancing and martial arts, and foreign languages. In his book, he encourages readers to find their own passions — ones meaningful enough to motivate a serious departure from the 9-to-5 life. If those passions aren’t in evidence for you, Ferriss would tell you to unhook from the office job anyway, so that you have enough time, money, and mobility to explore your interests and find your passions. All of this I’ve garnered from reading Ferriss’s book, blog, and interviews, because unfortunately, I missed Ferriss’s SXSWi presentation.

I was stuck in the office.

Mind you, I like my office, so that’s not so bad. But given how much Ferriss’s ideas intrigue me, I can’t recall what was so important that I couldn’t get from there to the Convention Center in time for his presentation that day. I had a green light from my employer to attend SXSWi — heck, they paid for my conference pass! Yet, like so many of us, some false sense of duty kept me strapped to the desk that morning, when I could have been learning more and meeting neat new people at the conference. (The rest of SXSWi was a blast for me, and indeed my head and Rolodex both expanded rapidly.)

Ferriss wants to help you kill that false sense of duty and get serious about what matters most to you. Above all, he wants his readers to avoid the trap of the “deferred-life plan”. That’s the standard-issue career template in which you get out of school, start working 50 weeks a year for 40-plus years, then take retirement all at once for the last 20 or 30 years of your life. Ferriss believes — and I agree — that life is too precious to spend that way unless you really want to. There are those who are so absorbed in their careers, and whose careers provide enough variety for them, that they can follow this model. But for most of us, this model is broken, if we’re trying to find the mix of work and non-work activities that most fulfills us.

As the subtitle of his book would suggest (“Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich”), Ferriss has a step-by-step method for moving you from the deferred-life plan to the “New Rich” plan. This approach doesn’t aim to make you rich like Steve Jobs is rich; that would imply working your tail off building a company. Ferriss would rather see you detach yourself step by step from the office world, set up freestanding sources of income to support your wandering ways, and then take advantage of your newfound time and mobility to see the world and explore your interests. Indeed, it’s the combination of time, money, and mobility that distinguishes the New Rich from the Old Rich or the typical wage slave.

Ferriss’s own New Rich lifestyle is eye-popping — to the point that he’s gotten plenty of questions about how he really did all the things he says did. (My own take: I think he’s honest — and he’s certainly self-deprecating and funny — but he’s putting the best or most interesting spin on his various activities. Also, he’s clearly an adrenaline junkie who’s strongly oriented toward his own objectives. So, yeah, you can rack up some impressive-sounding achievements that way.) Among other things, Ferriss is a champion martial artist and tango dancer, he’s done his own television shows in Asia, he speaks several languages, and he owns a business that underwrites his lifestyle of near-constant overseas living. He takes full advantage of the latest technology to run his life remotely, and in fact his guidelines for doing so will be useful to many readers who have no interest in studying kickboxing in Thailand or entering tango competitions in Buenos Aires.

Indeed, before I go on to review the sections of the book, I would say that many of the pointers in it will be useful to you even if you don’t want to become a global vagabond. Everything Ferriss does is designed to give himself more freedom and let him enjoy life more; I’ve already applied some of his advice to my own life and found it worthwhile, yet I have no plans to chuck my job anytime soon. On top of this, his book is studded with insightful quotes from the famous and the less-famous, and the whole thing is written with wit — I laughed out loud several times, and I have no doubt that Ferriss would be a great person with whom to drink a beer or a traveling adventure.

The 4-Hour Workweek features four main sections, which correspond to the four major phases the author suggests for unhooking from the deferred-life plan: Definition, Elimination, Automation, Liberation. (This is how you strike a new DEAL for yourself in life, see? Ferriss doesn’t make a big, uh, deal about “DEAL” — it’s just a mnemonic.) Entrepreneurs can run through the steps in D-E-A-L order, but Ferriss suggests that employees should follow a D-E-L-A order, since they’ll need liberation from the office setting before they can get away with automating their labors such that they “work” only a hour or two per day.

Before he proceeds through these sections, the author introduces his own story. In his post-college years (Ferriss is still not yet 30), he went through a succession of jobs as he tried to pursue the tried-and-(theoretically-)true road to success for Princeton graduates such as himself. He worked too hard for others while following their limiting rules, burning himself out in the process. Finally, he quit his job, had a nervous breakdown, and went walkabout on a long tour of the world. Which is pretty much what he’s still doing; this book is the latest in the long series of adventures for him. In the four main sections of the book, Ferriss spells out how his readers can do the same.

Definition. In the early chapters of the book, Ferriss wants readers to define what they really want out of life, and to see the ways in which they’re probably not getting these things if they’re following the typical patterns of America’s corporate cube-dwellers. He offers several ideas for breaking through these fears, including a classic thought exercise in which you imagine all of your worst fears coming true (e.g. bankruptcy if you leave your current job), and then think in a detached way about what you could do next to deal with such problems. He also stresses straightforward truths that tend to escape many of us, for example the idea that we should emphasize our strengths rather than fixing our weaknesses. As he aptly says, “The choice is between multiplication of results using strengths or incremental improvement fixing weaknesses that will, at best, become mediocre.” He stresses that inaction implies a huge risk that we will never attain our dreams, because we’re all but certain to end up short of our dreams if we do not move in the direction of them day by day. (Like Churchill, Ferriss shows an admirably stark bias toward action.)

The closing chapter of this section is especially important. In it, the writer calls for “being unreasonable and unambiguous.” His basic message here is that it is far better, and in some ways actually easier, to go against the rules of the soul-destroying game that prevails in corporate America. Best of all is to get absolutely clear — and insistent — about what you want to do, so that you won’t fall into the trap of always doing what someone else would have you do.

Elimination. In this section, Ferriss proclaims his debt to the semi-obscure economist Vilfredo Pareto. (I say “semi-obscure” because he would surely be obscure if you polled a general audience, but I’ve found many businesspeople who understand immediately when you say that something is “Pareto-optimal” or the like.) Pareto’s most influential work showed the disproportionate impact of a small number of actors within an economy. If memory serves, his findings arose from his study of landholding in Italy, which showed that a fifth of all Italians owned four-fifths of Italy’s land. The finding has been applied across many fields, e.g. to show that 20% of a company’s clients often account for 80% of its revenues, 20% of all authors are responsible for 80% of all book sales, and so on. The popular name for this relationship is the 20/80 rule, even though the ratios often work out to, say, 10/50 (10% of inputs yield 50% of outputs) or 5/60 or 15/95. The point is that, in most things, a disproportionately large number of outputs derive from a disproportionately small number of inputs — and that we should act accordingly.

The 4-Hour Workweek — the book and the underlying concept — relies heavily on Pareto analysis. What are the few activities you perform that bring you the most economic reward? What are the few things you do that bring you the most joy? Ferriss, in fact, does his readers a service by presenting the steps of his plan in rough Pareto order; that is, he first gets them to tackle the enormously important task of defining what is meaningful to them and what isn’t, and then encourages readers to eliminate the dross from their lives. If you did nothing else from the book but these steps, I estimate that your working life would undergo enormous improvement. You could hardly fail to take a more thoughtful approach to your work, or to free up time in your day by eliminating attention to minutiae.

Much of the dross subject to elimination comes in the form of information, and one of Ferriss’s toughest — and best — prescriptions is to go on a radically reduced information diet. This seems counter-intuitive to those of us who live online most of the time, or who spend their time, say, reading or writing long books reviews on blogs. [smiley] But think of it this way: If I gave you the choice right now between reading a free copy of the Financial Times or living in Hawaii for six months with all expenses paid, which would you choose? Nothing against the FT, which I love to read, but almost anyone would choose Hawaii — if the choice were presented in these stark terms. But, of course, it isn’t, unless someone like Tim Ferriss comes along and hits you over the head with it.*

So, what’s wrong with reading the Financial Times? Nothing . . . except that Ferriss finds that information overload, especially when combined with overreliance upon communications technology, typically overwhelms us and prevents us from following our dreams. We become so connected to answering (or just anticipating) the next e-mail in our inbox that we don’t stop to consider whether we should be answering e-mail at all. You will hear echoes of Thoreau in this — do Maine and Texas have anything to say to one another? — and you should, since Ferriss cites Walden as a key influence.

Ferriss seems to revel in the contrarian nature of his low-information diet. Instead of reading the news, he skips it — with no ill effects. He checks e-mail once per week, to make sure that things are going smoothly with his business. (The folks who help his business run have his global cell phone number in case they need it, but they seldom use it.) Instead of spending his time like a trained office monkey, compulsively checking e-mail throughout the day, he’s given himself the power — or, if you like, he’s granted himself the authority — to ignore the clamor of the low-impact information and communication that tends to overwhelm us by its sheer bulk. Most of us never take this step, but I can tell you from my early experiments with it that it’s extremely liberating.

Mind you, I’m not a great candidate to give up reading the newspaper, since I’m a journalist, a professional business blogger,† and a Ph.D. student of foreign relations. But I need not feel, as I sometimes have, that it’s mandatory for me to keep up with everything. My information-rich professional duties notwithstanding, I certainly take in more low-grade information than I ever need to from my RSS reader, from the newspapers on my desk, and from the magazines to which I subscribe. Even before reading this book, I had cut way back on my number of RSS feeds, and I’m much better now at simply clearing my feeds on days when I don’t need to look at them at all. In the wake of reading 4HWW, I’ve also set up a trial folder in my RSS reader, so that new feeds undergo extra scrutiny before they’re folded into my regular reading diet.

I’m also unlikely to give up on e-mail to the extent that Ferriss has. I’m such a hard-bitten extrovert that I do a lot of my best thinking in conversation with others, and crave a high volume connections with others. This means lots of face-to-face conversations during my day, but I don’t especially like to talk on the phone, so much of my correspondence with friends goes on via e-mail. Still, I’ve taken Ferriss’s advice by cutting way down on the number of times I check e-mail during the day, batching my e-mail sessions so that I don’t waste time hitting the “Send/Receive” button or watching for the little envelope icon to pop up in the Windows taskbar. It’s amazing how much you can get done in a single sitting if you’ll just work straight through on whatever is most important to you. In his book, Ferriss says that his most important piece of practical advice may be to abstain from checking e-mail until 11 a.m. each day, and to make sure that you complete the single most important task of the day before that time. My own experience confirms this: do this and prepare yourself to be amazed by the immediate positive results.

Mind you, in many cases Ferriss is stressing approaches that have already been on my personal menu. I’ve had a picture of Vilfredo Pareto in my screensaver for a couple of years, and I’ve been familiar with the concepts of Pareto’s work at least since I read Alec Mackenzie’s The Time Trap in the late 1990s. But my spotty application of Pareto thinking makes it obvious that I need to hear them again; Ferriss’s good-humored, eloquent, and forceful presentation offers just the tonic I need.

The point of putting yourself on an information diet, however mild or radical, is to come to grips with the fact — the fact — that selective ignorance is mandatory. Wikipedia contains more information on, for instance, military battles alone than you could absorb in a year of full-time work (nevermind worrying about inaccuracies); you could spend the next year of your life reading Wikipedia’s entries just on rock-and-roll bands. There are good reasons that you wouldn’t do this, because you’d immediately recogize the futility of it. Yet so many of us bull ahead through a zillion RSS feeds, e-mail newsletters, and so on without stopping to think that we must always be choosing which parts of our world to inform ourselves about, and which parts to let alone. Out of all the potential inputs we could pursue, it makes sense to pursue those that bring us the highest returns, whether in terms of money, enjoyment, or some other benefit. But in fact, as Ferriss ably elucidates, it’s often emotionally hard to make those choices about inputs, so we often default to low-return (or no-return) activities instead. (Later in the book, Ferriss writes: “Don’t confuse the complex with the difficult. Most situations are simple — many are just emotionally difficult to act upon.”) Like me, Ferriss would rather that we all embraced these hard realities with a sense of joy, and then proceeded to inform ourselves thoroughly about the areas of life that actually matter to ourselves, while merrily ignoring the rest.

[A note to the reader: This post is getting way long and I want to finish writing it in the next half-hour, so I’m going to exercise a little bit of Pareto organizing and discuss the next two sections of the book more briefly. I’m sure I’ll be talking more about this stuff in weeks to come, anyway.]

Automation. In this section, Ferriss draws from his own experience to offer a step-by-step plan for how to liberate yourself from many of life’s everyday cares. He talks about outsourcing parts of your life to virtual assistants in the U.S. or India (a topic he’s discussed extensively on his blog), and then about setting up your own freestanding sources of income that can free you from the 9-to-5 world. If you’re willing to stomach a little bit of risk (but nothing worse than the risk of being stuck in soulless jobs for 40 years) and go through some trial and error, you too can become an owner in life, rather than just an employee. The distinction is crucial — few people ever get rich working for others — and taking this step is usually essential for those who would emulate Ferriss’s global-traveler lifestyle.

In this section and the next, Ferriss also gives examples of people who are happy in company jobs, but who still want to share in the “New Rich” brand of mobility. Fortunately, today’s technology makes this possible in ways that would have been unthinkable 15 years ago. So if you’re interested in setting up ultra-low-maintenance businesses for yourself and abandoning the salaried workaday world, Ferriss has a clear set of steps for you to follow. If you’re only interested in giving yourself more freedom from the drudgery of the office, he’s got that covered, too.

Liberation. Many folks would be happy to do the work they already do, just not on a rigid schedule that requires their daily presence in an office. In this section of the book, Ferriss offers lots of good thoughts on how to negotiate your departure from the office, temporarily or permanently. He’s been a desk-bound workaholic, and he’s been the guy checking e-mail once a week from the beach in Panama, so he knows whereof he speaks.

In this section and throughout the book, Ferriss gives lessons that apply to all sorts of people, whether you want to ditch your job so you can volunteer on an organic farm in New Zealand, or if you want to spend more of your time doing your own thing away from the office, or if you just want more peace of mind when you’re in the office. Its practicality across these contexts makes The 4-Hour Workweek a book to read and re-read. Doing so will hammer home Ferriss’s specific pointers about how to pursue a New Rich lifestyle, but more importantly it will reinforce Ferriss’s worldview, which stresses endless possibilities for those who are willing to detach themselves from unfruitful habits of thought.

As I’ve gone back through my notes on the book, I’ve smiled — or grimaced in pained self-recognition — over many of Ferriss’s choice observations. He rightly says that “Tomorrow becomes never” if we ever start deferring action on our dreams. He rightly lambastes our sheeplike default to checking e-mail first and last and all the time in-between. He stresses that, even if you plan to never leave your job, giving yourself more options means giving yourself more power, and that’s a great thing to have when you’re talking about your own life and livelihood. And he spices up the text with witty coinages, as when he uses the term “procrasterbation” to describe how many of us invent new trivial things to do so we can avoid what’s most important. (That one term was worth the price of admission for me.)

He’s also willing to think a little deeper about life and what it means, as when he includes this long quote from Steve Jobs’s 2005 commencement address at Stanford:

For the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something . . . almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose.

This isn’t a dress rehearsal. Tim Ferriss understands what Jobs is teaching, and he lives his life accordingly. His book shows you many ways that you can do the same.

~

Notes:

* This reminds me of a scene from Ron Howard’s film The Paper, in which the Marisa Tomei character makes a similar case to her husband, the Michael Keaton character, except the choice is between herself in peril or his newspaper in peril.

† Let’s set aside all these niceties about a low-info diet: You are keeping up regularly with my BIZ blog, right? And telling all your friends? And linking to it from your own blog? And spreading the business gospel of Tim? Yes?

9 Responses to “Book review: The 4-Hour Workweek, by Timothy Ferriss.”

  1. Bjorn Says:

    Great summery of the book! Thanks :-)

  2. Captain Flint Says:

    A very good synopsis of the 4HWW. I’ve read it recently as well so I decided to low-info-diet-speed-read most of your article. Right now I am in the Definition stage, I have a rough idea of what I want but it isn’t specific enough. Other than that I liked your reminder that it’s important to have an emphasis on action (so true!) and that inaction implies a huge risk.

    Cheers,
    Flint

  3. What I’ve Learned So Far » Blog Archive » Guy Kawasaki in support of Tim Ferriss. Says:

    [...] Well, Guy doesn’t mention it, but the lead graf from this blog post tends to support Tim’s views on setting up a job that (a) pays you plenty while (b) leaving you plenty of free time for the rest of your life. If it provides a useful service that promotes human connections (of whatever sort), so much the better. No Plan, No Capital, No Model…No Problem [...]

  4. What I’ve Learned So Far » Blog Archive » Friday links roundup. Says:

    [...] I’ll be writing more about this topic in a series of posts I’ve been drafting on information overload, the besetting sin of the modern workplace. But for now let me say that you could do far worse than to start with Dan’s post, accept it on faith even if you don’t yet admit all the details of it, and then proceed here (if I do say so myself). You might just change your life. [...]

  5. What I’ve Learned So Far » Blog Archive » Information Overload: an introductory palaver. Says:

    [...] This theme has insinuated itself into my thinking more and more lately, especially as I’ve read various good books like Bit Literacy, The 4-Hour Workweek, and CrazyBusy, which tackle the topic in their own ways. Information overload is, in my opinion, one of the key problems that faces us today. (Who do I mean by “us”? Chances are overwhelmingly good that, if you’re reading this blog, you qualify.) It’s not precisely a new problem — there were already far too many books to read in a lifetime in Ben Franklin’s day — but it has exploded in the past 15 years with the rise of the Web. For all its countless benefits, the Web is also an open invitation to swamp yourself in more bits than you can ever possibly process. [...]

  6. Low information diet analysis - A 4 Hour Work Week Forum Says:

    [...] Exhaustive review of 4hww Tim Walker has pt up an exhaustive book review on the 4hww and concepts at What I’ve Learned So Far » Blog Archive » Book review: The 4-Hour Workweek, by Timothy Ferriss. [...]

  7. What I’ve Learned So Far » Blog Archive » Give yourself the gift of focus. Says:

    [...] (This is in part a riff on Tim Ferriss, in part excavated from my own head.) [...]

  8. What I’ve Learned So Far » Blog Archive » A germane question about “prosperity”. Says:

    [...] I’ve been there, so I definitely know whereof she speaks. And I’m the last person to tell her — or anybody — what they should do or must do with their lives.** But I will note that plenty of people are able to change their lives, disengage from their former “must-have” jobs, and pursue all kinds of adventures . . . when they change their mindsets. [...]

  9. THE 4-HOUR WORKWEEK | AUSTINKLEON.com Says:

    [...] Tim Ferriss’s The 4-Hour Workweek. Why did I read this book? It was all Tim and Mark’s fault. Also, the fault of the UT librarian who displayed it prominently in the new books section. [...]

Leave a Reply