November 2019: I recently found out this review is one of the top-ranking results on Google. This does not make me happy! At the time I wrote this piece, I was surrounded by snake-oil salesmen exploiting naive young people for profit. The criticisms I make here are accurate, but I’m ashamed of the mean-spirited tone. I leave this here as a reminder to myself and others: it’s much easier to snipe from the sidelines than it is to put something out into the world. Tim Ferriss is an awesome dude, and I’ve found a lot of his ideas incredibly helpful. He acknowledged some of the flaws with the 4HWW in a recent episode of his podcast, which makes me respect him even more. So, this is my attempt to own my own flaws, and aspire towards sincerity over snark.
Tim Ferriss’ The 4 Hour Work Week is a cultural colossus. It’s sold more than 1.3 million copies. It’s been translated into 35 languages. It’s spent more than four years on the New York Times bestseller list.
And it’s a running joke.
That is, to some of the very people living the globetrotting, coconut-sipping lifestyle that Ferriss has marketed so successfully. I found this out after I quit my job and bought a one-way ticket to Bangkok, and found myself part of the tribe of ‘digital nomads’—people who work online from anywhere in the world.
It didn’t take long to notice that lots of veteran nomads had no love for the unofficial Bible of lifestyle design. Any time that palm-tree paradise cover popped up, a merciless roasting was never far behind.
While I’d read the book several years earlier, I couldn’t remember it well, and didn’t give it much more thought.
Then a few months ago, I reached the one year anniversary of my travels. Somehow, I’d pretty much ended up living the real-life ‘four hour workweek’. At the same time, the book had just turned 10 years old. This got me curious: Was it as cringeworthy as the cynics had led me to believe? How well had it stood the test of time?
So I found the nearest palm tree, strung up a hammock, and settled in for round two. Here’s what I realised:
- The 4HWW had a much bigger impact on me than I realised (and probably more than the critics would care to admit).
- The simmering resentment toward Ferriss and his acolytes is somewhat understandable.
Trouble in Paradise
Back in the early days, being a ‘digital nomad’ probably sounded badass—a lean, mean posse of Macbook-slinging bright young things, roaming wherever they could find a WiFi signal. Whatever cultural cachet it had, it’s disappearing fast. Nowadays there’s a fascinating undercurrent of self-loathing in the digital nomad community. Those who possess some shred of self-awareness go to great pains to distance themselves from the label. Now I think I understand why.
If you haven’t read the 4HWW, here’s an uncharitable summary:
Don’t try and look for meaningful work. Find a way to make money as quickly as possible, focus on the 20 per cent that drives most of the results, automate everything possible, and outsource the rest to low-paid Indian assistants. That leaves the rest of your time free for fun stuff, like bragging about cheating in sports tournaments. The meaning of life is to ‘be excited’.
Let’s zero in on the ‘find a way to make money’ bit, which just-so-happens to be the vaguest section of the book. Ferriss calls the desired money-making scheme a ‘muse’, to distinguish it from, you know, a real business:
Can a business be used to change the world? Yes, but that isn’t our goal here. Can a business be used to cash out through an IPO or sale? Yes, but that isn’t our goal either. Our goal is simple: to create an automated vehicle for generating cash without consuming time.
Not exactly stirring stuff. Now, imagine what happens when that lacklustre little message gets propagated to tens of millions of people, over the course of a decade, by a best-selling author with an adoring entourage of copycats and acolytes…
The Making of a Monster
The 4HWW has inspired legions of dreamers to try and build passive income empires through the likes of affiliate marketing and drop-shipping, which are two of the main ‘muse’ ideas in the book
There’s a never-ending stream of naïve kids upping sticks to Thailand with no cash, no marketable skills, and nothing but a copy of the 4HWW clutched to their chests.
Nature abhors a vacuum. Wherever you find gullible people desperate to chase a dream, predators are never far behind. An entire cottage industry catering to aspiring nomads has popped up like mushrooms—which is to say, in the dark, and mostly based on bullshit.
This industry sells courses on how to live the nomadic life, make money online, and sip coconuts in sun loungers for the rest of your days. The graduates go on to shill their own e-books and courses to the next influx of wantrepreneurs, in a pyramid scheme so industrious that Ramses II is sitting up in his sarcophagus.
You might think the whole ‘blind leading the blind’ thing provides a bit of harmless schadenfreude. Now, imagine this conga line continuously screaming in your face about their travel vlogs, and trampling on your toes as they flail around the place.
The snake-oil salesmen are loud, visible, and endlessly self-promoting. They attract unwanted attention from authorities. Legit remote workers and entrepreneurs outnumber them, but they’re mostly invisible, leaving the hucksters as the new face of the movement. No wonder no-one wants to call themselves a digital nomad.
A Missed Opportunity
The dream the 4HWW sells is not just that you can quit being an employee—not just become the boss of a company—but skip straight to becoming the boss of a company that requires little or no time to run.
This might work out for a tiny handful of people, but it’s bad advice in general. Not everyone can magically climb atop a passive money-making machine. Who are the Indian virtual assistants earning $4 an hour going to outsource their dirty work to?
The 4HWW was so caught up in selling a fantasy lifestyle that it missed a big opportunity. What if it had focused on running a location-independent business (as opposed to a ‘muse’), or becoming a freelancer doing something useful— programming, development, writing, design, translation? Sure, it wouldn’t have generated as much sexy marketing sizzle, but there’d be a lot more sausage.
Here’s a matrix of the options, arranged by time and income:
|The 4HWW (Reality)||The Employee|
|Uncertain income, little spare time||Active income, little spare time|
|(Most people trying to create a passive ‘muse’ will never leave this quadrant)||(The status quo for pretty much every normal nine-to-fiver)|
|The 4HWW (Fantasy)||The Nomad|
|Passive income, lots of spare time||Active income, lots of spare time|
|(Unlikely odds of success)||(Relatively easy to achieve)|
The last thing the world needs is more sugar water salesmen. Going down the entrepreneurship or freelancer path still comes with all the juicy lifestyle benefits of location independence. Most importantly, it’s a much more realistic option.
After all—that’s the pathway Tim Ferriss actually took.
The ‘Four Hour Work Week’ is bullshit
Tim Ferriss busted his ass building a successful supplements company. He spent years testing various entrepreneurial ventures, and working regular jobs. He worked incredibly hard to be able to get to his much-hyped $40,000 a month. The reason he gets to say he works ‘four hours a week’ is that he did the hard work for years, then learnt how to delegate and prioritise tasks better.
Ferriss’ epiphany was that happiness largely comes from time and freedom, which he calls the currency of the ‘new rich’. I couldn’t agree more. But implying that you don’t have to work for it is misleading:
Before you get to the four hour work week, there’s the 40 hour work week of building your skill. Then you cash it in, to get the four hour work week.
That’s Cal Newport—a computer scientist and author, who noticed a distressingly large number of people skip over the part where they build a stable means to support their unconventional lifestyle.
If you want a ton of autonomy and a really interesting life, Newport points out you probably need a ton of career capital to invest in it. How do you get that career capital? By building up unusual and valuable skills.
Traps for Young Players
In a parallel universe, there’s another version of me who skipped journalism school and moved to Thailand at age 18. The other-me had no writing skills, no contacts, and nothing in his portfolio. He scratched around on Upwork, trying to make enough pennies to buy sticky rice. He had a miserable existence, and almost certainly flew home to with his tail between his legs within a matter of months.
This is the number one mistake that aspiring freelancers seem to make.
Compare that to the universe I’m currently inhabiting: I went to school and got the bit of paper I needed to get past the gatekeepers. Then I spent almost five years in a newsroom, working my way up from total know-nothing to a competent business reporter. When I moved to Thailand, I had no debt and six figures in the bank—a big enough slush fund to finance some interesting projects, and remove any pressing need to earn money. I have a weekly columnist gig, and solid contacts. Instead of going out to find work, it comes to me.
Now I get to live the real-life ‘four hour work week’—that is, if you define it the same way as Tim does.
The ‘Four Hour Work Week’ is bullshit; continued
Not only did Tim have to put in years of work in order to get to the fabled four hours, the dude clearly works vastly more than that. Essentially, he’s changed the definition of the word work to mean ‘stuff he doesn’t like doing’.
It’s this sleight-of-hand that most critics obsess over, but I have no problem with it. As Tim constantly has to explain, the 4 hour work week doesn’t mean you jerk off for the remaining 20 hours of the day. Instead, it frees you up to focus on whatever you’re really interested in.
By his definition, I do about four to 10 hours of work per week. Exhausting!
By the rest of the world’s definition, I probably do more like 40 hours, or maybe more.
The difference is that it’s on passion projects of my own choosing—things which I’ve always wanted to do, but didn’t have time for before. For example, I don’t consider this blog ‘work’. It’s entirely voluntary, it’s fun, and it’s useful in all sorts of unexpected ways.
The only reason I’m interested in money is because I can use it to buy back my own freedom and time. Did I subconsciously pick this notion up from the 4HWW? On closer inspection, there are lots of solid ideas in the book that have almost certainly influenced me.
Tim recommends taking ‘mini-retirements’ throughout life, rather than spending all your best years grinding away so you can retire when you’re old and decrepit. I’m pretty much doing exactly that, so I obviously think it’s a good idea. I don’t remember if I picked it up from the 4HWW, but it seems highly likely. Thanks, Tim!
Note: This is a similar concept to Nassim Taleb’s serial barbell strategy, in which you alternate between periods of stable work and risky ventures. (Read more in How Not to Be a Starving Artist)
If you quit watching the news and reading junk online, you’ll pick up the general thrust of current events through osmosis, and stop wasting your time and mental energy on things outside your control. This might sound heretical, but it’s good advice.
Tim suggests an exercise where you don’t even read non-fiction books (except his one, of course). This might be a step too far. Books have a way better signal-to-noise ratio than the ephemeral daily stuff, and I firmly believe it’s impossible to read too many of them.
Earning Western dollars while spending your money in pesos or baht or dong is one hell of a potent combination. For example, I’ve sometimes managed to live on as little as US$500 a month while in Southeast Asia.
Keeping income high and expenses low means you can either:
- save up way more money than you would at home,
- live a crazy opulent lifestyle,
- do hardly any work, or
- some combination of the above.
Whichever way you look at it, it’s pretty badass. Again, I probably first read about this concept in the 4HWW. Thanks, Tim!
I have nothing against passive income, provided it doesn’t cross the line to into scammy shenanigans. In fact, I love the stuff. I just happen to prefer earning mine the old-fashioned way—by living modestly, and then investing my savings so they compound over time.
The 4HWW also has a solid section on productivity strategies, which is a great primer for those who haven’t encountered these sort of ideas before:
Pareto Principle: 20 per cent of inputs (time, employees, customers) account for 80 per cent of outputs (results, sales, productivity). Find that core, focus on it, and cull the rest.
Parkinson’s Law: Tasks grow in perceived importance based on the time allotted to do them. Tight deadlines keep them from turning into mental monsters, and help you focus on the 20 per cent that actually matters.
Batching: Save up all your boring stuff to do at once, rather than letting it distract you throughout the day. Constantly switching tasks creates mental residue which takes time to clear.
The 4 Hour Workweek is in the freaking water supply
As far as I know, not all of these ideas are original to Tim. But he did an incredible job in popularising them. If they seem obvious now, that speaks to just how much ‘lifestyle design’ has permeated our cultural consciousness in the last 10 years. At this point, the 4HWW is in the drinking water.
And there’s something to be said for that. Sure, the Tim Ferriss wheel spins like crazy. I mean, the dude lists one of his accomplishments as being named ‘self-promoter of the year’. But I’m deeply fond of him and incredibly appreciative of his work, even if he gets a bit carried away now and again.
I think we have to take the Bruce Lee approach here.
No-one is better at this than Tim himself. He’s a bit of a mad scientist; stitching together bits and pieces from all over the place, combining it with his own experiments, and breathing life into the resulting creation. Sure, the thing that climbed off the operating table 10 years ago had a couple of manky bits. With the benefit of hindsight, maybe Tim would have assembled it a little differently.
The important thing is that the monster is greater than the sum of any of its individual parts. I, for one, am very glad he created it.
The public library will loan you these books for free. If you’d rather buy them, the referral links on this page send a few pennies to support this site, at no extra cost to you (read more here). No, this is not my secret ‘muse’ strategy; just a way to recoup some hosting expenses.
What, the last 3000 words weren’t enough to tell you how I really feel? Don’t take my word for it—give it a read.
The best book on productivity I’ve ever read, and I’m already using lots of the strategies to great effect. Here’s the main premise: “The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.”
A handy primer on entrepreneurship from my favourite libertarian bloodsucker. The founder of PayPal and Palantir is not here to mess around, so you won’t find any dinky ‘muse’ stuff or lifestyle advice. Zero to One is all about coming up with ideas so different and contrarian that you can create a game-changing monopoly.
To me, this is Tim’s greatest legacy. Interviews with big stars normally last a few minutes, and they’re only there to plug their latest movie or book or whatever. The Tim Ferriss Show episodes last for literally hours, are uncut, and get deep into the weeds on what makes successful people successful. I highly recommend the episodes with Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jamie Foxx, Will MacAskill, Derek Sivers, but there are so many great ones covering any domain you might be interested in. (Tim’s recent book, Tools of Titans, is based on the choicest excerpts from these interviews. I took about a million notes from it.)
Another excellent podcast focused on location-independent entrepreneurship, and everything related to it. Features lots of great guests, like Cal Newport (the bit I quoted in this article was from a TMBA episode). They also offer transcripts of most episodes, which is fantastic if you prefer reading to audio.
UPDATE: The TMBA crew just released a new episode (thoughtfully) critiquing the 4HWW, touching on some of the same areas I’ve mentioned here, and some other great points I missed.