On Feeling Ambivalent to Tim Ferriss’ Work

Back in Spring of 2009, I had just moved back from Chicago to my parents basement in Colorado Springs, in order to save some money, while I looked for jobs in the Denver area. As you can imagine, for a single 27 year-old male, this was a depressing move. One afternoon, shortly after I moved home, I was browsing a bookstore and came across Tim Ferriss’ book, The Four Hour Work Week. Now, I’m a bit reluctant to admit this, but in my past I read some self-help when I should have been reading philosophy. Needless to say, I think each of us has an individual threshold for the amount of self-help we can tolerate in one lifetime and, fortunately, I thought I capped out at a relatively early age. So what, then, drew me to purchase Ferriss’ book that afternoon?

Like many young twenty-somethings graduating college, I really had no clue what I wanted to do. I did, however, know that I needed to start making money, ASAP, and thus I was eager to jump at any job offer that afforded me an independent lifestyle. Soon enough, I found myself in an analyst role at a Denver based firm in the structured finance arena [1]. I stayed with that firm for two years and then moved onto what I thought, at the time, were greener pastures in Chicago. I did, however, stay within the structured finance arena in Chicago, albeit to the detriment of my soul.

I suspect that anyone who works in Corporate America, or it’s international equivalent, eventually hits a breaking point. After-all, there are only so many insincere conversations, meetings about meetings about meetings (dare I call them metameetings?), Saturdays in the office, and work disguised as happy hours that one can handle in a given lifetime. The Japanese have a term that relates to this, Karōshi, which literally means death from overwork and I was well on my way to dying prematurely from work in Corporate America, even if it was just on the inside. After getting stabbed in the back by coworkers and managers, time and time again, you finally turn into that cynical asshole you always said you’d avoid becoming in your idealistic youth. Sadly, when you hit this breaking point, there is no going back.

Enter The Four Hour Workweek.

I vividly remember a section in Mr. Ferriss’ book titled “The Fat Man in the Red BMW Convertible” that struck a chord with me. In this section of the book, Mr. Ferriss describes a phenomenon that, I’m unfortunately afraid is all too common, i.e., you delude yourself into thinking that you need “X” amount of dollars before you can be happy or begin pursuing what it is you want in life. Of course, as any behavioral economist would tell us, that “X” number will continue to fluctuate and grow as we spin our wheels on the hedonic treadmill.

Mr. Ferriss suggests, and I agree, that because we don’t know exactly what it is we want in this life, we spend it working, which is an elixir of sorts, albeit a paradoxically dangerous one. Soon enough, we become that 50 year-old (likely divorced) bitter-bitter old man who has sacrificed his health, both physical and mental, and personal relationships to the corporate world. And for what? For a stack of cash and not much more, that’s what. There is a Talking Heads song, “Once In A Lifetime”, that fittingly speaks to this situation.

And You May Find Yourself Living In A Shotgun Shack
And You May Find Yourself In Another Part Of The World
And You May Find Yourself Behind The Wheel Of A Large Automobile
And You May Find Yourself In A Beautiful House, With A Beautiful
And You May Ask Yourself, Well, How Did I Get Here?

Recently, there was a piece in the popular cultural magazine, The New Yorker, that profiled Mr. Ferriss. In it, the author of the piece, Rebecca Mead, writes of Mr. Ferriss, “he prescribes a kind of hyperkinetic entrepreneurialism of the body and soul, with every man his own life coach, angel investor, Web master, personal trainer, and pharmaceutical test subject.” This independent and freedom based approach to life, in a nutshell, is what attracts me to Mr. Ferriss, as I’m sure many of his other fans would agree attracts them as well.

Mr. Ferriss, however, has his fair share of critics. In fact, I agree with many of the critiques in this piece from my friends at Beyond Growth. Personally, I have not read Mr. Ferriss’ new book, The 4-Hour Body, which, from what I know of it, is full of overhyped gimmicks and claims that, at best, are suspect. I’ve been sharply critical of Mr. Ferriss’ work in the past myself (see “The 4-Hour Sucker“). For many people, he’s an easy guy to dislike and it’s not hard to see why. I think most people who dislike him, however, don’t dislike him, per se, but rather, his perceived manipulative marketing prowess.

His use of marketing tactics are largely why I feel ambivalent towards his work. I think on some of his marketing he’s dancing dangerously close with the borderline of the ethical. I’m sure he would disagree, which he has every right to do. My problem with his critics, however, is that they fail to realize all the positive things he has brought about. One such thing I must applaud him for is helping to bring about the revival of Stoicism. As Jules Evans writes, “Ferriss is to be credited for bringing Stoicism to a much wider audience – and for bringing ancient self-help into the modern age with his self-tracking technology.”

It’s important to remember that what works for Mr. Ferriss won’t necessarily work for you, but the larger philosophical concepts he promotes can be very helpful to everyone. Sadly, if his marketing advisors didn’t make such audacious claims to promote his work, he’d be merely a lowly philosopher like the rest of us and I probably wouldn’t be writing this essay about him.

For what it’s worth, I’m not interested in mimicking the lifestyle of Mr. Ferriss (his fame is a gift and a curse), but I’ve learned quite a bit from him; namely, figuring out how to get what you want is the easy part; figuring out what you want is the hard part. Admittedly, I’m also jealous that he is known to occasionally have lunch with someone whom I admire dearly, i.e., the great thinker, essayist, and author, Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

[1] I suspect that many other economics majors somehow find themselves in finance jobs, which is strange, because I didn’t learn a thing about finance in my undergraduate economics education. When you say economics, people just assume you’re good at math. Go figure!