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.

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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.

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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.

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