I don't want to distract you too much, but this is the rare piece on here that I didn't just have to massively edit, but completely burn my first draft and start again. This book is hard to talk about, but I think I know where to start.
The Four Hour Work Week is a 2007 pop-business book written by Tim Ferriss as a part of his strange personality-driven fan community. I've read this book maybe five times in the decade+ since it came out, but have failed to finish any of his other books or tolerate the podcast he currently spends his time on.
Even the early reads, when I was but a child, hardly left me impressed. Perhaps a few of his stories would get me interested, but then it turns out, for instance, that his tango award was for spinning the fastest – perhaps the most pointless Guinness World Record I've ever heard of. At least making a full-court basketball shot blindfolded is doing the thing you're supposed to do with additional handicaps. For someone whose book contains plenty of admonishments to appreciate the things that really matter and not get swept up in trivialities, he spun his way well right past the whole point of tango (which has a value you can't measure in RPMs).
Look, I could nitpick the book to death, about his strange claim it's illegal to make a product after you charge someone's credit card (which, as far as I can tell, is not just common but requisite for commission work). I could say his view of work is dysfunctional because he thinks the best job is the one that takes the least time – of course there could be more moral component to being a firefighter, nor any reason any human could ever have not to be a patent troll or do leveraged buyouts to help run stable companies out of business. He doesn't think offering something of value to someone at a fair price is enough to justify someone's existence, which makes me feel, despite his jet-setting and time in the limelight, that his life might be fairly hallow. He's a business book writer who doesn't care about business, and an angel investor in small companies where he'd recommend people abandon the tasks they've dedicated themselves to.
Indeed, the first draft of this book review spent a lot of time talking about his abrasive writing style (it's hard to ignore or escape). But I have a better idea: let's read this book as the result of hyper-marketing some small amount of truly captured wisdom. How do we tell where the gems are, and learn from them?
So I started a re-read with this intention a while ago, took all the notes I could, and I've come to a couple conclusions. The first is that Tim Ferriss is shockingly good at finding competent subcontractors. He frequently uses the word "outsourcing" instead of just "hiring", but the core of his philosophy is to drive relatively high-margin sales so you can use that margin to pay for business operations. You systematize as much as you can (and cover the rest – hence the titular four hour work week), and position yourself as the owner of the business instead of the operator.
There are lots of businesses out there, they're all owned by someone (or some group). And it's easy enough to say, hey, restrict the businesses you'll consider to ones where you can get a juicy enough margin so that you can hire an operator, or a bunch of completely unconnected people that, together, operate the company.
This is relatively standard business advice, but I think it sort of ramps up risk to your company. You find some way to delight customers, which is fantastic. They're getting an even better value for their dollars than they were before. But every dollar you make in profit is incentive for someone out in the world to make something that delights they even more.
As a brief aside, this is why we shouldn't tax away all business profits. It isn't so much that people deserve massive profits, so much as they tempt the next person to topple them from the throne – if only they can better serve the customers.
But buried in this strange self-promotional book, he's talking about hiring people for bargain-basement rates and getting super high quality work from them. If you've hired an electrician or plumber or, well, really anyone, you'll notice a slight hiccup. Hiring qualified people you can trust for a small enough amount of money to make it worth your while IS the tough part.
He also spends a lot of time trying to convince people they ought to want just enough money as easily as possible, which seems like a strange thing to want to convince people of. Are there people who need to hear that? Do they honestly not know where an additional dollar would go, in their lives? My experience of people is that they spend literally every penny they have because they're simply overflowing with wants and needs compared to their income – almost irrespective of what their income actually is. Telling people to minimize work time is a good idea – if you can ground them in some fixed amount of spending.
Which introduces another thing I think Ferriss gets essentially right – perhaps the only other thing, aside from subcontracting. His brutal insistence you ought not care about a lot of things a medium amount. I think it's normal to have a whole array of things you care about, but not too much. In some ways, it makes how you spend money more efficient, because everything is constantly in the running, and if only it had a good deal, it could be the best thing to spend that money on. But the weakness is obvious – in a world saturated with marketing, you end up being deeply consumerist. It probably is much better to pick maybe three things you care a lot about, and simply ignore everything else. Is organic food better for you or the environment? Congratulations, you've found a question almost no one should care about. And identifying the thing you want to trade away is the core of optimization. Ferriss understands this, I think, even though he spends almost no time discussing it in the manner I would. It's hard to explain, without sounding like you just want everyone to be austere. He does a good enough job.
The thing is, that austerity gives you slack in the system. Save money, save time. It gives you that room to optimize he talks about constantly. Finding goals you care about (as silly as that part of the book might sound) gives them something to funge against. If you think doing more work is costless, it really is important to remember the dreams of what you could be doing, so you know if the work is worth it.
Almost the entire rest of the book is platitudes disguised as controversial insight. It would be embarassing for someone to write this book today, when people are a bit more aware of the effects of self-obsession, but in 2007 it was a simpler time. He would decline to bring a computer with him on a vacation because he could use screen-sharing software at an internet cafe. It was a time before self-obsessed Instragram models existed. It was a time when we weren't so hyper-aware of how that kind of stuff is just for fun, and real life isn't like that. So when turbo-tango weirdo says your whole real life can be some fantastical thing, it didn't ring quite as false. I mean, it was pretty silly at the time, but not sad.
I would say I don't know why he would deliberately take a simple idea from Business 101 and reframe it like it's some type of dynamic innovating bucking of the system – but I do know. It's part of how he reaches an audience of people who dislike business as a general rule, despite having no actual issue with it. It's a deeply strange way to pander to people who would like their complete life-upheaval to at least be iconoclastic, please.
That being said, as much as it is a recap of some very 101 business ideas, there's a moment where he calculates the marginal cost of subcontracting something incorrectly. This is important, because as I've said, the two things he seems to do well are hire people to work for him, and correctly encourage marginal trade-off thinking when in business (instead of simply working as much as possible), so let's look at the scenario:
You make $25/hour. You can pay someone $30/hour to automate 8 hours of work. Ferriss says we should think of this like paying ($30-$25)*8 = $40 to get a day off. But let's be very clear: the alternative implied by the $40 dollars is already a four-day week. We pay $40 for an additional day of work to be done, and it's not by us. But if you say it only costs $40 (compared to your default), then just take the default! It involves the smaller amount of work AND you get an extra $40 bucks! Isn't this the whole point of the book?
This, I think, is the tragedy of The Four Hour Work Week. In a book with advice about how to be a fake expert to impress people, shockingly, he's neglected the fundamentals. His understanding is weak, and while he's found success for himself, he would be the first one to admit he stumbled into it, the consequence of a terrible life he was convinced he would abandon, until that was no longer an option. It left him with a business he had altered to be easier to sell, and it turns out that's a pretty good business. Weirdly, this whole book could be replaced with The E-Myth Revisited (an earlier book it's clear Ferriss's read) and be improved in almost every way, despite sharing very little.
And if you're willing to take my advice at all: don't be so impressed by someone tango-ing fast. Read a book. Take a walk. Love your family. The best things in life aren't in the records books.