Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Tim Ferriss - Superman?

This isn't going to be exactly the same post as yesterday. Having done the snarky cynical perspective (even if you didn't get to see it), I thought I might try to make writing about The 4-Hour Workweek (TFHWW) for a second time in 24 hours a little more interesting for myself by, this time, giving Ferriss's ideas something more resembling a fair hearing. In other words, my initial assumption that Tim Ferriss was the strawberry-blonde embodiment of smugness - based largely on photos like the one below, in which it appears to be literally radiating from him - proved more or less unfounded.

That icy cool light behind him isn't entirely irrelevant, though.

You see, while I have every sympathy with the book's stated aim of helping people escape from the 9-5 to live a life doing what they care about - that's largely why I became a freelance writer, after all - I can't help but be put off by some of the strategies Ferriss advocates - he might not come across as smugly as I expected, but some of his ideas are still coldly Nietzschean enough to give me the shivers. We'll come to that soon enough, though.

First, the book's title - how on earth does someone write a book while working only 4 hours a week? Well, that question was soon cleared up by this (slightly badly recorded) podcast; the answer being: he didn't. Or rather, he didn't consider it work. A convenient explanation, perhaps, given that it must directly and indirectly account for a lot of his income these days, something I feel sure would have been a primary intention behind him writing it (judging by the way he approaches everything else), but basically it's an explanation I can't fault him on - on your own projects at least, I tend to agree, writing should be something you just want to do, or can't help doing.

Nor is Ferriss trying to encourage everyone to work a 4-hour week; it's a viable option for those who want it, he says, but the majority of readers will benefit from his book simply by being shown ways to reclaim more of their work time for their own purposes. He even seems to admit that a 4-hour week is a much more realistic possibility for those in certain careers. But what, you might be wondering, does he have to say about time-management?

Mostly, that he doesn't believe in it. The emphasis of time-management has traditionally been put upon getting as much work as possible done in the time available; whereas Ferriss's emphasis is upon just doing as little work as possible. Where Getting Things Done, for instance, was a system of organised forgetting, TFHWW is about productive laziness and selective ignorance. Everything in TFHWW is about freeing up time for your own enjoyment. To this end, Ferriss gives us the acronym DEAL:

Definition - define what you want in life, and calculate how much it will cost - often less than you thought. This is your TMI - Target Monthly Income.

Elimination - 20% of your tasks are responsible for 80% of what you achieve, meaning that most of the rest of your work time is benefitting you very little - try to eliminate those pointless tasks. Do only the things that are really getting you somewhere. Eliminate distracting and unnecessary inputs. (At this stage this might be helpful, for instance).

Automation - if you can get someone else to do something for you for less than the task will bring in, you'd be stupid not to. Delegate. Outsource. Come up with business models that largely run themselves.

Liberation - once your lifestyle is more or less automated, you can be anywhere in the world; you've been liberated from both your job and your geographical location; you're mobile.

Ferriss also talks about there being three currencies - in order of importance: Time, Income, and Mobility (hmm, TIM - a coincidence?). If you can maximise all three, you're on the way to a happier life. Time is most important, since it's in the shortest supply. Therefore, always look at your income in terms of an hourly rate: you could get a raise, but be expected to work more, for instance, and thus actually be earning less per hour - is that extra money worth it?

So far, so good, I suppose; I'm even, basically, in agreement with him. But it's when I look a little closer into his ideas regarding Elimination and Automation, that I find myself diverging from Ferriss's way of thinking.

In this recording of a presentation he gave at SXSW Interactive 2007, Ferriss talks about checking your e-mail only twice a day and setting up an autoresponder to deal with it all - saying, essentially, that he most likely won't reply, but please don't be offended, and if you have an urgent query just call his cellphone. Sounds kind of sensible, admittedly, but I get the impression he deals with his social life this way too. In fact, later he says, "I'm ruthless with my social life." On his website he talks about befriending an author, so that he could find out how to pitch his book to publishers. And at other times he talks about training the people you deal with, and how "having people wait for you is power." All of that stuff just leaves me a bit cold. It reeks of calculation and manipulation.

But there's more behind that impression. Almost everything in Ferriss's life he outsources; mostly, to sometimes as many as 40 assistants based in developing countries and paid as little as $4p/h. Maybe that's a living wage in Bangalore or the Philippines, though? I don't know. So I'll let that slide. But then you read a story cited by him as both hilarious and a good example of how such outsourcing might work, or you hear his story about a man who has his low-paid overseas assistants find and break in a new pair of jeans for him, so that they look as worn as his old pair - is it me, or does that task, and some of the others mentioned by AJ Jacobs, seem a bit demeaning? And doesn't AJ Jacobs start to sound ever more pathological in his outsourcing?

Ferriss himself has even used his team in Bangalore to manage his love life, arranging for him 30 dates with 30 different women in 2 days. Never mind anything else, doesn't that seem like an arrogant and grimly functional approach to dating?

All in all, the more you read and hear about Ferriss, the more you get the impression that everything in life, including a person, is simply an experience for him to have; the operative word in that sentence being 'him'. And I can't help thinking that, in his extra-curricular activities as well, his unspoken aim is that of achieving the Nietzschean ideal of the Superman, utilising everything and anything to raise himself high above the herd. The evidence presented here is scant I know, but to me there just seems to be something very self-centred and unfeeling of others at the heart of TFHWW; and there's more evidence out there, if you look.

Don't get me wrong, I can see value in advice such as the auto-responder, checking e-mail less often (and consequently responding to them in batches), narrowing down the topics on your RSS feedreader, etc., and I'm totally behind the overall idea of escaping the 9-5 and enjoying the more important things in life; I just find too much that's cold and clinical to be inclined to investigate any further.

In fact, after researching TFHWW, oddly, I find myself thinking almost fondly about Getting Things Done...

Maybe there's hope for me after all?

Next week: Just some useful hints, tips, and downloads, hopefully. And perhaps a short progress report - you'd be surprised after reading these last few posts, but I actually might be making some... Well, just a little.

This week's useful download: Evernote. I haven't investigated it too much yet, but it looks like something that might be really useful to the GTD crowd.

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