The Modest Proposal

Return to Index
4-Hour Phenomenon By Robert V. Aldrich
The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich
Timothy Ferriss
New York: Crown, 2009
The 4-Hour Body: An Uncommon Guide to Rapid Fat Loss, Incredible Sex, and Becoming Superhuman
Timothy Ferriss
New York: Crown, 2010

Who is Tim Ferriss?

Like learning to do handstands, learning a language delivers interesting results (especially when using Google). Determined to become fluent in Japanese despite previous attempts (I was on lucky number 4 at the time), I stumbled across mostly professional services like Rosetta Stone and the Fluenz and the like. I came across a few good books and a few crazy ones. I found a bunch of helpful forums, as well as a few unsettling ones (I don't care if it might work, 'go to children's websites and talk to kids in their native language' is just a creepy suggestion). I came across websites for polyglots (linguistic aficionados who speak multiple languages) and websites for penpals. I came up with a lot of stuff.

But one thing I also came across was a website for a guy named Timothy Ferriss. On the site, he talks about becoming conversant in a language in a matter of hours and days: in fact, he tells of one story of becoming functional in Russian over the course of a plane flight. What I found at the site, however, was far more than merely how to learn languages. Indeed, what can be found at the site is pretty staggering, both in the breadth of material as well as the sheer volume of useful information. Nearly every topic—from fitness to languages to food to business—gets discussed at his site, and usually in a unique way that's more approachable and digestible than other resources. And that's appropriate given how unique of an individual Tim Ferriss is.

Tim Ferriss is a two-time New York Times bestselling author and he holds the world record for the most consecutive tango-spins in one minute. He is a champion San Shou fighter (Chinese kickboxing). He's an RKC 2 kettlebell instructor and he's fluent (at last official count) in six languages. He's been lauded by Wired and Maxim magazine and gives Ted Talks. He's lost 25lbs of fat in six weeks and he's put on 34lbs of muscle in 28 days. All of this is documented.

I came to follow Tim Ferriss—going to the webpage often and getting the newsletter—and eventually got around to purchasing his two books: 4-Hour Workweek and 4-Hour Body. Both books have been huge successes and for good reasons. The information within is as potentially life-changing as it controversial. And with his third book, 4-Hour Chef, set for release at the end of November 2012, it seemed a good idea to take a look at just what makes these books so popular and what, if anything, about them is true.

80/20 Principle and Minimum Effective Dose

Tim Ferriss' books have a lot of great information in them, but they all basically revolve around one cornerstone concept—apply the minimum effort necessary to achieve your goals. At first glance, this might appear to be lazy, but there are two principles that backup this thinking as simply being efficient.

The first, and probably the most important, is called Pareto's Rule. Vilfredo Pareto was an economist and philosopher who came to prominence at the end of the 19th Century when he observed that most of the produce of his garden came from only a few plants. Expounding on this idea, he would go on to document that 80% of the land in Italy (his home) was owned by 20% of the population. Numerous examples followed and with more consistency than deviation. Thus, he coined the 80/20 Rule, which states (for business and effort purposes) that 80% of productivity comes from 20% of the effort. This has surprisingly far-reaching implications, from biology to business.

The second postulate is that of Parkinson's Law, which states (somewhat humorously) that work expands to fill the time allotted for it. Most everyone can think of some school/college/work project that we put off until the last minute and then did a week's worth of work in one night. It's this very phenomenon that Ferriss seeks to utilize.

Tim Ferriss' work can be said to be the pursuit of the 20% effort that produces 80% of the results, and to minimize the time given to various projects so that they get done with the most efficiency. This has led to some exceptionally controversial policies such as 'firing customers', in which a customer who takes up a lot of time and/or is disruptive or difficult to work with is simply asked to no longer do business with the person or company. This can be done politely, but many business professionals look upon this as professional suicide. "But what if..." and there are always a litany of concerns, many quite valid. But the counterargument is that by removing that disruptive, costly (at least in the energy spent dealing with), and potentially negative customer, one can pursue more constructive and positive (and often more lucrative) customers.

In the pursuit of this magical 20%, Tim Ferriss has become a veritable human guinea pig. He's applied this basic philosophy to small business ownership and outsourcing daily tasks like checking email. He's applied it to dating and travel, and to diet and fitness. This pursuit has led him to cut body fat by doing a single exercise, outsource his dating life, and even change the types of shoes he regularly wears, with nothing to say of money made or experiences had along the way. So then, just how does one implement this changes? That is the topic of his books.

4-Hour Workweek—What's the DEAL?

Tim Ferriss' first book is his treatise on his philosophy, and also the most intangible. Written in a rather conversational manner reminiscent of Neil Strauss' The Game and coming across more like a friendly conversation than a pseudo-textbook, 4-Hour Workweek is in fact a step-by-step walkthrough for professional—even fiscal—liberation from the rat-race. In this brief, barely-300-pages book, Ferriss introduces us to the concept of the 'New Rich', which is a new breed of entrepreneur.

One thing that will become readily apparent to anyone reading the book is that Ferriss advocates removing the traditional concept of retirement. Ferriss argues that retirement savings will dwindle long before a person's retirement is over, ensuring an increasingly lessened quality of life into the golden years (one million dollars spread out over a thirty-year retirement comes out to a monthly income of roughly $2500 a month, and that's without taking into account inflation or rising medical costs). But on top of that, he asserts, that boredom will become a true danger in retirement. The rare dogged and ambitious person who manages to save up a million dollars by retirement will likely be bored to tears by the middle of the first week, and will invariably take on a new profession (in some sense) just to pass the time. Given these two factors, Ferriss advocates against 'aiming for retirement' and sacrificing the here-and-now in favor of an idealized end-of-the-race that likely will not be nearly as good as promised. It is worth noting that Ferriss doesn't dissuade from saving for retirement in the slightest, but to do so as more of an insurance policy rather than an active 'Plan A'.

The ultimate solution he postulates is to engage in assorted 'mini-retirements' throughout one's life (Ferriss himself espouses going on month-long mini-retirements about every four months), interspersed with periods of decreased work volume (via the 80/20 Principle) and entrepreneurial ambition. From here, he introduces us to his four steps to this golden land of the New Rich, set up as a D-E-A-L: Definition, Elimination, Automation, and Liberation. By following each step, one will discover a new paradise of self-discovery and self-sufficiency. At least, in theory.

Definition is an exceptionally valuable chapter because it goes about identifying the reader's desires as well as the reader's fears. It takes the reader on a surprisingly effective guided tour of the confines of their life and explores just what a person wants out of life and what is holding them back from pursuing it. Travel, being held in especially high esteem by Ferriss, is the usual example, with sections taken to explain the myths (and realities) about traveling abroad. Ferriss sets up a valuable experiment where the reader examines five things they wish to have (for example, BMW motorcycle), what they wish to be (ex: fluent in Mandarin), and what they wish to be doing (ex: visit the Bahamas). He then breaks down the steps to owning/being/pursuing those goals with surprising speed. By the end of the section, the reader will have a clear idea of what they're after in the next six-to-twelve months, how much it will cost, and the needed steps to do them.

Elimination is where the reader applies the 80/20 Principle to their work and job, by identifying disruptive and costly (either in money, time, energy, or some combination of the three) elements to their workday. The chapter is a little less enlightening but no less valuable, and helps to crystalize what the reader really does with his or her time. Probably the best example is looking at a to-do list involving a few errands, and understanding why three five-minute errands has such a tendency to take three hours, if not a whole work day. Another example is how placing five separate weekly orders, one a day, can take an hour each, while placing all five at once takes an hour and a half total. Little tricks and insights (not just how to do specific things, but on how to identify problem areas and addressing them creatively) abound, but they may add up to less than Ferriss espouses.

Automation is the kicker, and it is what will make or break the book for many readers. Automation is about setting up small businesses geared at incredibly niche markets and then letting them essentially run themselves (using creative outsourcing and the Elimination suggestions in the previous section). While even the most lofty advice is broken down into very manageable steps, it still assumes that the reader can generate successful business ideas and has an interest in developing them. And this is where many readers may stop reading.

Not all readers will have entrepreneurial inclinations. And even those are so inclined may not be able to generate ideas for a viable business. Ferriss gives a lot of good ideas on how to do come up with ideas for products and services (and gives a boatload of case studies at his website for further consideration). He also takes the reader through a step-by-step process on how to test out their ideas before committing fully to them. But as good as the advice in the section is, it does conjure the underpants gnomes from the 2nd season of South Park, saying 'step one, steal underpants; step two...; step three, profit!'. Even with the very helpful and valuable suggestions, it still feels like a gaping hole in the plan that simply says 'and then come up with something that will make money'. Regardless, the book is tremendously valuable without this chapter, and this chapter may turn out to be a lifestyle-changing read for more than a few people with small business ideas and the interest in running said business. But more than a few readers will be turned off by the idea of creating a small business, however self-sufficient it might become.

The final chapter, Liberation, is about what to do with one's time and money. Assuming you create a self-sufficient website that sells the hottest iPad covers and generates $50,000 a month indefinitely, what do you then do with your time? It's a wonderful problem to have, but it's still a problem that needs to be addressed. As such, this chapter begins to explore the world the New Rich, and it does this largely in the form of world travel. Ferriss, a big advocate of travel as the ultimate adventure, spends a lot of time advocating the experiences to be had overseas (his emphasis on learning a new language and the exchange rate of money is the source of his preference for international over domestic travel).

But beyond merely what is fun and cool in the world, the chapter also gets into what to do once the novelty of this lifestyle has worn off. Let's say you make the clever business and it runs itself flawlessly without needing more than an hour a week's input on your part. What do you do with the remaining 167 hours of the week? Once you're done touring all the art museums in Germany and you've lived in every nation in South America at least once, what then? This chapter gets into that. It addresses the concepts of self-betterment as well as service towards humanity as long-term personal goals. It doesn't get preachy or suggest joining the Peace Corps, but it does take an honest look at what to do once you're living a "rock star's lifestyle." And it's a pretty inspiring and even humbling look.

4-Hour Body—Effortless Superhuman?

Where 4-Hour Workweek is a treatise on lifestyle and personal philosophy, 4-Hour Body is more of a how-to book. It's far more practical and tangible and it shows the physical benefits of Tim Ferriss' thinking—namely the application of the 80/20 Principle—but this time on all things physical.

From the outset, it's worth nothing that Ferriss is very clear about his methods and methodologies. He explains a bit of how he came to explore a given topic (his story about learning about garlic extract from a homeless man is especially curious) and the steps he took to measure a given approach's success. He's also upfront that he isn't a doctor, or even a medical professional, and that all his advice should be taken with a grain of a salt and an eye towards personal experience. Probably the best example of this is at the end of the book in a section he devotes to weeding through 'dubious science' made by pharmaceutical and diet companies, where he uses his own Slow-Carb Diet (advised in the book) as an example for critical evaluation and discusses the potential shortcomings in the data he shares throughout the book.

But after the advisories and warnings, the book still promises quite a lot, including classic hallmarks of the fitness industry like making you run faster, jump higher, be stronger, look better, sleep easier, live healthier, get skinnier, and so on. Does it deliver? In a word, "yes." In two words, "yes but..."

Each chapter in the book is built towards a single goal (fat loss, muscle gain, sleep improvement, etc), with similar chapters grouped together. Ferriss presents his experiences running himself as his own guinea pig, submitted evidence from his followers and fans, and medical/scientific/professional advice where applicable.

And it's that last element that's worth noting. Almost all of Ferriss' advice and protocols actually come from other people. Very little of the book, it seems, is his own invention. Most everything seems to be an amalgamation of someone else's work. Ferriss doesn't hide this fact; in fact, he promotes it. One of the running programs given was devised by Barry Ross, who is one of the most decorated track-and-field coaches to ever walk the earth. The strength program? It's the product of Pavel Tsatsouline, the man responsible for (re)introducing the western world to kettlebells. His muscle-gaining program? Based heavily on Mike Mentzer and Dave Polumbo's work. Most of the experts offer anecdotes, and a few even write segments and inserts for him.

The appeal of the book then, isn't so much that the material is particularly new; it's that it's all been compiled into one place. The book is a one-stop-shop for body transformation, but based on the 80/20 Principle. For example, the strength program (based off Pavel Tsatsouline's Power to the People program) uses just two exercises—the deadlift and the bench press or push-up—done three times a week, for two sets each. And yes, it works. Ferriss offers two conditioning programs; one uses kettlebell swings (and that's it) while the other involves walking very fast (and that's it). And yes, they both work. At various points throughout the book, he explains why one exercise is chosen over another (why the kettlebell swing is selected over the kettlebell snatch), and why one exercise is chosen over three or four (why the myotatic crunch is chosen over crunches and ab wheels and leg raises and medicine ball rotations). But in general, the proscriptions are short, sweet, simple, and effective.

The later chapters of the book become a bit more esoteric. He discusses having better sex (and I'm gonna leave it at that) as well as how to hit a baseball better. There's how to hold your breath for an absurd amount of time and how to swim efficiently. One chapter that's particularly bizarre is about getting better sleep. The first half discusses lighting and different sleep environment techniques (good stuff, but not quite groundbreaking) while the second half addresses sleeping less (down to as little as 2 hours a day). Through the use of polyphasic sleep (a ten-dollar word meaning 'taking a lot of naps'), you can trick the mind into upping the amount of REM sleep you get at the expense of non-REM sleep (this assumes that non-REM sleep is of little benefit; a hot-button topic to say the least). Matt Mullenweg (who wrote the code for Wordpress) used these programs to great effect. Others might find them less-than-appealing.

So, a lot of chapters providing you with a clear-cut process to do most anything you could want. And do the programs work? Yes. But there are a few conditions to that "yes." Some of the programs, while effective, have a serious learning curve. Some become tolerable over time while others are unpleasant throughout. Ferriss' Slow-Carb Diet is a good example. It's a program that's designed to be "effective, not fun" in his own words. Some people come to enjoy the diet and have no problems staying on it indefinitely. Others find it odious and will struggle with it until they reach their determined body fat goal and then switch to something else more to their liking. It will be a matter of personal experience (though Ferris does devote a whole chapter to making the diet more approachable for the less-than-enthused).

The polyphasic sleep programs can be really brutal, especially the uberman sleep program which involves just six 20-minute naps and no other sleep. Ferriss is very clear that for the first two to three weeks, you're going to be a zombie. After that, things should clear up.

The muscle-gaining program will probably garner the most attention (as it's the inspiration for the name of the book; a muscle-building program that involves less than four hours of total gym time in one month). The program is based around time-under-tension, muscular load, and muscular failure to trigger muscle gain. It's a very effective program, somewhat similar the DoggCrapp training that's predominated bodybuilding of late. It's a very effective program and one that will show quite impressive gains, especially when considering the amount of actual time spent in the gym. So what's the downside? Well, to put it simply, it's going to suck. It's going to suck a LOT. Muscular failure and a 5/5 tempo lifting scheme (five seconds to push the weight up, and then five seconds to lower the weight) are not fun at all. And at muscle failure (where you can no longer move the weight), you are proscribed to hold the weight for five to ten seconds, only then dropping the weight. This is one reason why Ferriss advocates doing the program with machines (as opposed to free weights; failure-based programs are quite dangerous with free weights, even with a spotter). The program is highly effective and necessitates a minimal gym presence to allow for recovery. But again, it's not pleasant at all.

"Effective, not fun" is probably a good way at looking at a lot of these protocols.

Closing and Recommendation

Both the 4-Hour Workweek and the 4-Hour Body by Timothy Ferriss are good reads. They're insightful and useful and even if they fall short of their lofty goals with a reader, she or he will still be left with a lot of good and useful ideas. Workweek is far more thought-provoking and potentially revolutionary, while Body is just useful and good clean fun. Both arm you with the tools to reinvent yourself: Workweek in a professional and lifestyle sense, Body in a physical and health sense.

4-Hour Body comes with a few caveats/warnings about just how approachable all the protocols are (seriously, for the love of Pete, don't do the muscle-building program with free-weights), while 4-Hour Workweek will be advised more for its optimistic and encouraging outlook rather than its potential to make you money (though that potential certainly exist). But at the end of the day, both will provide at least some significant insight to the reader. And at the most, it will transform the reader's life four hours at a time.

Return to Index