Formal Book Review: The Four Hour Workweek

From time to time I write longer book reviews on books I find particularly provocative. Previous formal book reviews have been on affirmative action, national security, the CIA and Afghanistan, atheism, the prodigious mind of David Foster Wallace, and 21st century college life according to Tom Wolfe. This review is of Tim Ferriss’s book The Four Hour Workweek. Thanks Tim for sending me a galley of your book!

Tim Ferriss‘s new book The Four Hour Workweek has generated a lot of buzz for good reason: it’s entertaining, original, loaded with practical tips, and well-written. And it champions an idea I wish more young (and old) people would subscribe to: Reject the corporate 9-5 job and become CEO of your own life. Go travel, go be entrepreneurial, go take risks, go reinvent what it means to be a 20-something. What he calls "Joining the New Rich" I call "Being a Life Entrepreneur". At a high level, Tim and I couldn’t agree more.

Unlike so many self-help authors and speakers, Tim doesn’t just repeat motivational one-liners. He gets very specific and presents all his theories and formulas succinctly. Since he had the courage to get specific, I’ll have the courage to directly challenge a couple of them in this review.

But first, a brief summary. The way to join Tim’s New Rich is to follow DEAL: Definition, Elimination, Automation, and Liberation. Definition is to re-define what life success and happiness mean to you. What are your real dreams? It also means to focus on relative income versus absolute income (if it takes you twice as long as your buddy to make the same amount of money, you aren’t making the same amount of money).  Elimination means eliminating all unimportant information and meetings so you can focus on what really matters. Once re-focused and freed from time sinks, it’s time to Automate. This is the key. This is where you generate the cash to live the vagabond lifestyle. All you have to do is manufacture or re-sell a product, automate the fulfillment and customer service, and start signing checks! The last step, Liberation, is to finally, truly live the four hour work week by leaving town and letting your automated income system run itself.

There are two ways to read this book. The first is to try to do the New Rich lifestyle and implement the DEAL formula in your own life. The second way is to scan the book for useful life hacks. My conclusion is that you should read this book more for the compelling life hacks.

Why? Well, the linchpin of the "lifestyle" is income automation, and Tim’s methods for generating cash seem quite outlandish. If all you had to do to make buckets of cash was whitelabel a product or develop a health supplement or resell a piece of furniture and then outsource every single piece of the business, why wouldn’t everyone be running these kind of companies and living on a beach? Tim would say because people don’t try. I would say people (like me) don’t because it’s not that simple.

Another element of Tim’s "lifestyle" formula which I don’t buy is what he calls the Low Information Diet. He says, "Most information is time consuming, negative, irrelevant to your goals, and outside of your influence." He encourages you to stop reading newspapers, magazines, audiobooks, news web sites, non-fiction books, and the like, for at least five full days to see how it feels.

I have two gripes with this advice. The first is philosophical. Sure, a lot of information you take in might be "irrelevant to your goals," but is that the only point? What if you read a news story because it’s intellectually interesting? Or you’re merely curious? Reading about a genocide a million miles away, for example, does not help in the quest to optimize your life, but might it not prickle your social conscious? Adopt a Low Information Diet and you’ve not only smothered one form intellectual curiosity, but you’ve also become more inwardly focused, as if the only things worth paying attention to are your own life experiences and concerns.

Then there’s the more practical downfall. When you subtract newspapers, RSS feeds, audiobooks, non-fiction books, and magazines, how in the world can you remain an informed, responsible citizen? Tim claims it’s still possible. How? Ask people, "What’s new in the world?" And before voting, ask informed friends what they think. This takes clever outsourcing one step too far – you have outsourced basic thinking about what’s going on around you. By the way, Tim’s approach is only possible if you’ve eliminated most of those boring, time-consuming things known as human interactions with business colleagues (Tim says he doesn’t do meetings anymore). In the circles I hang out in, our mutual engagement in current affairs strengthens out relationships.

So I believe that in a fast-changing world, a high information diet is the smarter tack. What I do concede to Tim is that we must focus on taking in the right information. Discriminate, but don’t eliminate.

OK, I’ve picked on a couple points, and I probably sound overly negative. I don’t want to, because Tim is on-the-mark when he talks about Definition and Liberation. It is important to not let the media, your parents, or your employer define what The Good Life means. Don’t tolerate boredom! Tim’s examples of folks who have redefined success and freed themselves from suffocating six-figure jobs in i-banking and law are excellent and inspiring. In particular, his guidance on how to travel overseas is spot-on. Other great nuggets include how to find good virtual assistants in India (I’ve already taken action on his outsourcing tips), how to ask your boss for permission to work from home, how to research new business ideas, and how to spend less time chained to your inbox.

•••

But there is still something that rubs me a little funny, and I can’t quite put my finger on it. Near the end of the book I think Tim tells me why. He proactively asks the question, "So, what do you do once you’ve eliminated work and the office? How do you fill the void?"

He says you might be asking yourself, "I’ve got more time and money than I ever dreamed, why am I still depressed?"

These are amusing questions to include because while it’s true an endless flow of money and time ain’t happiness, it’s a predicament most of us would love to have.

Tim suggests filling your newly open days by doing service work and learning new things like languages. Fair enough.

But this, for me, raises a central difference in philosophy: What about finding and doing meaningful, income generating work? That is, instead of treating "work" as an evil which needs to be automated and isolated from your life, what about finding joy in a career?

Sure, kickboxing in China, surfing in Latin America, and barhopping in Europe sound like lots of fun – and I speak as someone who spent three months overseas this past year doing many of these things – but after awhile, wouldn’t you start to miss real work? I did. Maybe I’m 1 in 100, but I actually like working on hard problems. I actually like sitting a desk and thinking about things. I actually like depending on others and being depended on. I actually like showing up in an office and working with other talented, fun people toward some collective effort.

•••

What’s fantastic about Four Hour Workweek is that it should inspire many cubicle-huggers to reinvent their career, take "mini-retirements", and think about their life in terms of what it can and should be versus what it is.

What’s unfortunate about the Four Hour Workweek is that the prescription toward achieving everything you ever wanted is really geared to a particular kind of person – namely, people like Tim.

And so what I learned in reading his impressive publishing debut is that while I have a lot of Tim in me, I’m not Tim. No one is. We’re all our own person, and though it’s fruitful to learn from the lifestyles and routines of others, you should never adopt someone else’s choices as your own. In the end it’s up to each of us to carve our own life path.

20 Responses to Formal Book Review: The Four Hour Workweek

  1. Sam says:

    Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame) has an interesting post on his blog about what a person does after getting rich and achieving so many goals:

    The Meaning of Meaning

  2. Scott Young says:

    Ben,

    I completely agree. Find meaning in what you are doing so it will fill you more than an endless vacation.

    -Scott

  3. Reader says:

    I just bought Tim’s book today. His suggestions for dealing with email and time-wasting meetings are not original, but are worth repeating in his direct, no-nonsense writing style. I agree with Ben that the main takeaway in this book is the call to focus on *your* definition of the dream life. That can be hard to do when your peer group is made up of corporate jobbers.

  4. Check out The End of Work, by Jeremy Rifken for the economic side of the near term ends of white collar and manufacturing jobs. It’s a bit of an old book, written in 95, but the ideas are still very applicable. Agriculture went from 97% to 3% of our GDP in the industrial revolution. The same is happening now with blue collar manufacturing jobs. What will happen if we are literally left with no real work to do?

  5. Martha says:

    Ben, I’m with you. I’ve done a bit of traveling and community service in my time, and it’s been very satisfying. But there’s something about working — and getting paid for it — that I find quite gratifying. So, don’t look for me to retire any time soon.

  6. Erick W says:

    Ben, I read Tim’s book last week as well and I appreciate your thoughtful, in-depth review. As an “information junkie,” I’ve caught myself too many times simply scanning my netvibes rss reader just to see if anything new has happened in the world. Although I’m still going to read the news, Tim’s book has encouraged me to be much more focused on WHAT I need to do if I’m truly going to achieve my defined goals.

  7. spencer says:

    Hey Ben, glad you made it home safe and sound…that little 48hr unplug you did was fun to read!

    I have been thinking about your position vs the authors in his recommendation for severly reducing ‘information intake’.

    Over the past 10 years, I have gone from 3 daily’s and at least an hour of the cable news circuit plus the local 6 or 10p ‘news’ (loosely labeled too!) to “being free”. I have not read a paper in 6 or 8 months and take in exactly zero cable news or local (sans the occasional need for weather). My main stay for current events is NPR and the BBC radio; they both do an excellent job of in-depth reporting of stories both main stream and off beat.

    This transition I made was partly a result of reading Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi series of books on “Flow” (excellent stuff!). His book on creativity is loaded with the ‘good stuff’ us thinkers like to take in. The other part is that I find that is simply hard not to be ‘in the flow of information’ today.

    I can say that I have never felt better in my life about what I am taking in on the information front. And I may even be feeling better about what I am not taking in too!

    We get about 80 years. After much contemplation and practical application (of de-info-sizing my life) my decision to disconnect has been rewarding and the net result is now the time I used to give away to do intake, I get back and can apply for more creative output!

    As always, good writing!

    take care

    spencer

  8. krishna says:

    The theme is worth appreciating than the quality of advise. It’s not easy to switch Life to Auto Pilot mode however hard one may try. The problem is that this thought never occurs while you’re in the best of positions to try it – while as a student, single and unattached. The need is most felt when you are inextricably mired in bondages with all its complexities that constrict your principle areas of interest to an inconsequential corner owing to other `seemingly’ urgent priorities.

    But Ben, you’ve figured it out while you are still young and hopefully before complexities have set in. This is the best time of your life to switch to Auto Pilot mode and enjoy the flight, if you aren’t already.

  9. Great writeup, Ben.

    The book has a definite rah-rah vibe throughout, and is definitely inspiring and informative.

    What I came away from it thinking though, was that the essential key to all of this is getting the passive income flowing in the first place.

    While Timothy makes it sound like life was horrible with $70k a month coming in and being so busy — in my mind, once you have $70k a month profit flowing into your pockets it doesn’t seem all that hard (or a stretch) to hire a bunch of virtual assistants, etc. to take care of the workload.

    For most people, just getting the $2-10k / month passive, automatable or outsourceable income coming in will be the most difficult part, not deciding where to live or what to do once you get there!

  10. Chris Yeh says:

    Ultimately, the problem I have with guys like Tim or far worse, Robert Kiyosaki, is the fact that they encourage people to ignore the laws of economics.

    I often joke that many people have what I call the Dungeons & Dragons approach to life–they think that there are certain rules, and that based on those rules, certain things happen. Slay a dragon, get 1000 gold pieces. Slay 10 dragons, get 10,000 gold pieces.

    In our world, it’s “You can build a passive income if you do X.” And so on.

    They never seem to point out that basic economics states that if everyone does X, pretty soon no one will be making any money.

    Can everyone in the world earn a passive income by selling supplements online? Hell no! Someone has to buy the damned things.

    There is no free lunch. The only way to make money fast is to sell programs on how to make money fast to desperate buyers.

    I freely confess to not having read Tim’s book. And it sounds like it has a lot of good thoughts in it. But I am always wary of books that promise the world.

    Why stop at “The Four-Hour Workweek”? Why not write the remaining books in the series:

    “Eat Whatever You Want And Still Lose Weight.”

    “Get Rich Even If You Have No Real Talent Or Work Ethic.”

    “Have Sex With Tons Of Hot Women Even If You’re Ugly And Poor.”

    I’m sure they’d be top sellers as well!

  11. DanM says:

    Good review Ben. The fact is Shanti not everyone will follow Tims ideas. The only rules that can’t be bent are scientific and legal.

  12. Sam says:

    Chris, the book “Have Sex With Tons Of Hot Women Even If You’re Ugly And Poor” has already been written. It’s called “The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists” by Neil Strauss :)

  13. Chris Yeh says:

    Sam,

    Good point about “The Game.” I guess I’d better get cracking on the other two books!

  14. Wes Mahler says:

    Alright Ben, looks good I just purchased that one too.

  15. Wes Mahler says:

    Great Review Ben,

    I’m currently reading it right now, and looks like you’ve beat me too it :)!! Of course!

    Yeah, I would have to agree with you about most of your arguements. It even talks about Donald Trump being super-busy all the time. But he even quotes in Why We Want You To Be Rich, that he and his father believe, as you do, and I do to a point absolutely,

    I may work seven days a week, but it doesn’t seem like work to me, its fun, and were passionate about what we do.

    I really liked how u hit on right on, making money while making a difference.

    But yes I’d also agree its interesting to just go do it, and I probably need to do some more and just kinda take it easy and maybe have some more fun now.

  16. Sarah says:

    Ben

    What an interesting review – really makes me want to read this book (sooo many people have urged me to already). I’m glad you’ve got the courage to be honest about what you don’t like. Like your style.

    Sarah
    http://www.ratraceescapeartist.com

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  19. Because these CFWs are made true by concrete things, they are not Molinist CFWs. In fact, I suspect that most Molinists (I am thinking of Tom Flint in particular, who made a remark that commits him to this) would say that the corresponding Molinist CFWs can have different truth value from the ordinary ones. For instance, take (2). On standard Molinist views, it is highly plausible that there is a possible world w where Martha kisses her husband, and where the fact that he is her husband is one of the reasons for kissing him, which is sufficient to make true the might conditional in (2), but where in w there also holds the Molinist CFW that had he not been her husband, she still would have kissed him. Thus, the Molinist CFW would conflict with the ordinary one. Likewise, Molinists are apt to agree that Molinist CFWs could be such that were Patrick not to have been the winner, he would not have chosen to believe that he was the winner. The Molinist CFWs hang loose from the ordinary ones, then, and are irrelevant for the kind of nomative evaluation that we make. If Patrick is lucky enough that for him the Molinist CFW holds that had he not been the winner, he would not have chosen to believe he was the winner, that doesn’t make his belief knowledge.

  20. Christos O says:

    Ben,

    I couldn’t agree with you more on your review, you are bang on!

    I am currently listening to the audiobook of 4-hr work week. I find Tim has some great points, but of course don’t agree with everything he says.

    As you mentioned, he is definitely missing the whole “pride of workmanship” concept and doing quality work, engaging with others, and the satisfaction of problem solving and doing work you are proud of.

    I find that is the one huge problem with almost every self-help book out there: the authors were never successful or happy with their career/professions, they were never anybody that people looked up to (like a talented artist, musician, filmmaker, athelete, or scientist). And thus all their examples of work are very lame and depressing (Tim talks about a lot of sales work) and I find it hard to relate to. They just seem like they were so lame. I’d like to read a book where the author is successful, talented, and respected in a given discipline, yet still provides insight on their success and growth. Yvon Chounard’s “Let My People Go Surfing” is a great example.

    I just came across your site for the first time, looks like there is some great stuff here.

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