Timothy Ferriss is author of The 4-Hour Work Week – a book that debuted on The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal bestseller lists, has been published in 31 countries so far and made headlines around the world.
Apart from being a major publishing success, The 4-Hour Work Week explores ideas of outsourcing and automating your life. It showcases case studies and principles to look at a broad concept of lifestyle design as an alternative to traditional career planning. Whether you’re an employee who wants to escape the 9 to 5 and work remotely, or an entrepreneur who wants to leverage your time so that your income isn’t a function of the hours you work, Tim writes about various strategies so you can make it happen.
It’s not just the ideas in his book that are interesting. What’s equally interesting is the strategy he put in place, which led to his book being sold out in three days on Amazon, hitting the bestsellers’ lists.
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* Please note that these transcripts have been edited for readability
So tell us, how in the world did this idea come about in the first place, the thought that you were going to write this book?
I never had any intention of writing a book at all, in fact. because I was dyslexic at a young age. Dysgraphia, which means that even to this day in handwritten English I misspell things, flip words and letters upside down and sideways. Really the impetus for the book came from my students at Princeton.
Let’s take a step back and I’ll provide some context. In mid-2004, I had spent four years putting in 80 to 100 hour work week, that’s not an exaggeration in Silicon Valley; first as a low level employee, gained a small start-up and then as CEO of my own company.
In mid-2004, early June specifically, 2004 had a long-term girlfriend break up with me and the reason was my schedule. It was 7am to 9pm, oftentimes bleeding over into the weekends and waking me up in the middle of the night to check email.
She gave me a parting gift which was a plaque of sorts, physically a folding plaque that usually holds photographs and it said, ‘Work hours end at 5pm’. And she encouraged me to keep that on my desk as a reminder to maintain some semblance of work-life balance.
At that point, I think I really realised that income has no practical value without time. And even though I was making more per month at that point than I had been making a few years earlier per year, I had sacrificed everything else.
I went to London to remove myself from my routine and all of my work habits for four weeks, and the objective was to either redesign my company and work style to allow some semblance of a life or to shut it down completely and start it from scratch. The one rule that I set at that point was the most difficult to follow, which was I would only check emails on Mondays for no more than two hours.
This was coming from a schedule that had me checking email more than 100 times per day like a rat with a cocaine pellet dispenser. So I made the decision that I would follow this rule and then had to basically change and adapt everything to accommodate that.
I expected everything to implode; I probably had a nervous breakdown my first morning. I mean, quite literally because my first action upon waking up was always to check email. I didn’t bring a laptop with me purposefully, so there was about a week of detox where I couldn’t do anything productive because I had been reacting for the last several years and hadn’t really set in place any long-term planning, but it worked.
Those four weeks turned into about 18 months of travelling through more than 15 countries seeing how far I could push some of these concepts related to outsourcing and automating. Not just related to my business but related to my life.
Flash forward to February 2005; I was at that point, after bouncing around many, many different countries, in Argentina preparing for the Tango World Championships. I had just set the world record in the tango, the first American to do so, and I taught my Princeton class via phone.
It was the first lecture in which I introduced this concept of lifestyle design. I took all these experiments and principals I had been examining, the case studies and interviews, and found some commonalities and put it into this broader concept of lifestyle design which would allow you to dissect and plan your lifestyle just like you’d plan a career or plan investments.
The feedback was enormously overwhelming from the students. When I say students, people tend to think, ‘Ah, 20-year-old, 30-year-old guys, single, easy’. These are 20- to 40-year-old students because it’s an electrical engineering class. You have graduate students, PhD, some of whom have families.
In any case, a few students wrote back and said, ‘You should really just turn this into a book and be done with it. Ha, ha, ha’. Like most ideas that end up having some degree of merit, I would just lay down and try to go to sleep and this idea would pop in my head about the book and I couldn’t get to sleep so I decided, ‘Alright, I need to get this out of my head just so I can go to sleep’.
I put together a short proposal, sent it to a friend of mine who is an author, Jack Canfield, who is the co-creator of Chicken Soup for the Soul – you know the King James Bible, Harry Potter, Chicken Soup for the Soul in terms of US copies sold. I said, ‘Jack, am I full of crap or is there something here?’
He said, ‘No, you should really go after this’.
That’s how the book came to be. It was turned down by 13 out of 14 publishers. It’s been a very, very fascinating year for me. That’s how the book came about.
How did you feel after the 13th rejection? Did you actually think, ‘Is there really something here?’
There was another factor that led me to write the book. The students were the first, that’s what convinced me to put together the proposal. And then I spoke to a number of agents, very good agents, A-list agents, which had been referred by Jack.
There’s a very tactical way and you want to talk about how writers can do that kind of stuff we can talk about that too but, once I found my agent, the agent really got it. They either get it or they don’t generally, and he really got it and we got along really well.
He used to be an editor and it’s important that he had the experience on the operational side as well which became very relevant later. But, I asked him just not to show me the rejection letters. I didn’t want to see them.
The scary part was, I knew there was something there. And the reason why I wanted to write the book, another reason, was that many of my best friends, they’re well educated, they work extremely hard, some of them make extremely good incomes but one of my close friends had chosen investment banking.
I remember speaking with him when I was in Argentina. He had finally bought his dream car, his Porsche Boxer. He had talked about it for years and years and years. Toys are fine, there’s nothing wrong with toys as long as they’re not a substitute for other things or a compliment.
He was so excited about this car and I spoke to him a month later and I asked him, ‘How’s the car going?’
He said, ‘I’m going to sell it.’
‘Why are you going to sell your car?’
‘Well, it’s just been gathering dust in the garage. I spent like a half hour in it.’
I realised that for myself also with many of the quarter-life crisis and accelerated midlife crisis existential questions that I had been trying to address, if you go in to a book store you find usually ‘I don’t pay my bills but can’t figure out why my credit is bad, what do I do to fix my life books’. Those, which don’t apply to any of my friends at all. And then you have ‘How to become the next Jack Welch and be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company’ and my friends don’t really want that either.
So I hoped that the book I would write would address that neglected demographic which doesn’t have an age limit, but people that were beginning to realise that retirement isn’t necessarily the pot of gold that people expect it to be nor is possessions.
Those things combined, I think, gave me confidence in the concept as well has having taken it for a test drive with the students. I’ve done 11 or 12 of these guest lectures thus far and it’s very consistently a powerful and effective concept. So, I had confidence in it.
I remember we were supposed to have an auction for the book and the deadline was 12 noon on a Wednesday or something like that, East Coast time, and I’m in California, my agent is in New York. There were five or six publishers who said they were going to put in bids and then as we got closer and closer to the deadline and for one reason or another it was like, ‘Yeah, I want to do it but the publisher doesn’t want to do it’ or, ‘This senior editor has this issue so he can’t do it’.
For whatever reason, political or otherwise, they just started dropping off, dropping off, dropping off. Then, the deadline came and went – no bids. Then five minutes after the deadline, one offer came in and that ended up being Crown. Crown was then announced as being the publisher.
I hoped that it would sell well but not for money. As you know, choosing writing as a career if your primary motivator is finance, it’s a bad idea. I sacrificed a lot of income to focus on the book and the way I did to write it. But, I would have been happy if just my close friends read it. People in retrospect say, ‘Yeah, yeah whatever’. But, it’s true.
It ended hitting The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal the first week – and that just blew my mind – Amazon sales alone because there was so little distribution of the book, it was stuck in the catalogue at the last minute sort of, ‘We’ll see how it goes’.
How did you feel when you found out? And who told you? Do you remember the moment?”
I remember. You want the unedited version?
So the unedited version is – I never did any book tours or book store signings or anything like that. I interviewed about half a dozen to a dozen best writing authors about their writing process because I was terrified about the prospect of writing a book.
So, I had interviews with all of them to help me write the book. Then I also did interviews with bestselling authors. They’re not always the same thing and universally when I asked the question, ‘What is the biggest waste of time? What would you not do having been through this process?’ They said, ‘Book tours, book signings.’ So, I didn’t do any. I focused on social media online and blogs and then did a number of radio satellite tours.
A radio satellite tour is where you sit in a small prison. And in my case, I did my first radio satellite tour at the Random House offices and we did, starting at about 5am, radio interviews 10 to 30 minutes in length until about 4pm. So, I went through a few pots of coffee and did these radio interviews.
I wanted to compress them into one day for a lot of reasons. I can explain if you want to go into that. We did that and this is the second week of sales. The New York Times reports on Wednesday. This happens to be a Wednesday and now it’s a week later. In any case, the list has their own alchemy to them. So I finished doing everything and I get a call from my editor Heather and she goes, ‘Tim, how are you feeling?’
‘I’m exhausted but I feel good. I feel good. It was actually pretty fun.’ So, I’m sitting down against the wall with my back to the wall, exhausted.
She says, ‘Well, I have some news for you.’
‘Yeah, what’s that?’
She goes, ‘You hit the list.’
I go, ‘What are you talking about?’
She says, ‘You hit The New York Times list.’
I’m like, ‘Heather I’m really tired, please don’t f**k with me.’
She goes, ‘No, you hit the list. You’re number 15 on the extended list so technically you’re still on the list.’
I was like, ‘No I didn’t.’
She’s like, “‘ou hit the list. Come downstairs and I’ll give you a copy.’
I said, ‘Okay.’ And, I’m like, ‘Holy s**t!’
I couldn’t believe it because I had at one point approached the president of a very large book store, not Barnes & Noble, not Amazon, not any of the names that most people would be familiar with and spoke to him on the phone. It was out of respect for my agent who was a real hotshot that he took the call. I explained to him how I wanted to partner with them and do a number of things, like what my plans were for the different lists and he basically said, ‘Look kid, let me tell you how this works’.
He sort of laughed a little bit and said, ‘You’re not going to hit the lists. I know that every writer wants that but let me explain a few things to you.’ And basically ran down this list of reason and statistics that indicated how I would never hit the list or any list for that matter. He went so far as to send me PDFs in an email after our conversation saying, ‘This is the statistical likelihood of hitting different lists. I think you should readjust our expectations, be more realistic.’ That was the last conversation he had with me.
After conversations like that, to see it hit the list in the first week based on Amazon sales. Now, Amazon ran out of stock like that and it was not distributed well at all, at that point, offline. So basically it hit both lists with three days of Amazon sales. So once that happened I was like, ‘Holy crap. I guess there’s something here’. I mean, a year later it’s just hitting No. 1 on the New York Times business lists again and there’s no advertising, nothing.
So tell us a bit more about your strategy with social media and blogs.
I was interviewed by one of the most powerful and popular tech bloggers out there named Robert Scoble, a very nice guy, very fun guy. He interviewed me about this.
Did you approach him to be interviewed?
Basically my general social media approach was getting drunk with bloggers. That’s half tongue in cheek. But what I recognised was, No. 1, the publishers are the ones who control a lot of the PR mechanisms so I had limited options to play with.
I knew nothing about blogs, very little, nothing about social media really but recognised that it was one of the few hands I had to play if I wanted to play it because the publishers were very hesitant about that world and nervous about that world.
I started educating myself on blogs, reading blogs and began to look at how different blogs were quantified. Some were ranked according to incoming links, others were ranked according to traffic. Then I began to look at how influence was defined.
People always talk about influencers and this and that and you find that it’s actually defined very poorly. My belief, and this is actually very closely related to a lot of topics of the books, you can’t measure it if you can’t understand it. And people are very bad at measuring influence so I tended not to pay a lot of attention to them.
But what I did recognize is that, No. 1, if you’re on a blog that is well read even by 1,000 people it’s not how much traffic they have, it’s who reads their blog. I would present that, unlike most traditional media with a question, would you rather have a blog that has 100,000 readers or would you rather have a blog that has 1,000 readers but they’re all bloggers? Of course, I would opt for the second because you get immediate syndication.
What I did rather than send them an email, although I did that in some cases, is I went to conferences. I would go to conferences and I would get to know the organisers whenever possible. If not, I would try to at least get to know one panellist beforehand, someone who is not well-known but a panellist, which meant they were one degree or two degrees of separation from those people.
And it was never about the book, it was never about the book, it was always about me, ‘Hey I’m a total idiot I don’t know anything about this stuff but it’s really interesting. Here’s why I’m a geek’. There was always some supporting evidence that I wasn’t this interloper just trying to capitalise on blogs, which was true, I am fascinated by the technology.
I would come in and generally would just ask them, ‘Who do you think I would get along with? Do you think there’s somebody who wouldn’t find me totally annoying who knows something about blogs?’
They’d usually make one or two recommendations and I would just go to a group of guys generally in the world of blogs, not always, but a group of guys – or like Gina Trapani who writes Lifehacker, who’s awesome – this group of people having beers and I’d say, ‘Hey guys do you mind if I just listen in? I’m probably not going to contribute much on the technology side but I’ll do my best to learn.’
They’d be like, ‘Okay, fine.’ Then I would stand there and if they said something like, ‘Blah, blah, blah, Ruby on Rails.’
I’d say, ‘Sorry, Ruby on Rails, just 10 seconds can you tell me what that is because I’m in the deep end of the ignorance pool.’ It’s very uncommon that people who are trying to promote something, not a secondary launch, approach things that way. They tend to try to come in completely prepared and impress people with their knowledge and it doesn’t work, very rarely works.
What would happen is I would just, over the span of two or three days, I would go to multi-day conferences. At some point they would say, ‘Alright, what the hell do you do? Who are you? What do you do?’
I would just say, ‘I’m this guy and a guest lecturer at the university’, something with credibility. And it’s not that hard to get that, if you’re a member of an association, you can do that as well as ‘and I’m working on my first book’.
This is a very important point. There’s a certain art to eliciting questions and interests. So, I would never say, ‘Boom, boom, boom here’s my 30-second pitch like I gave you at the beginning.’ I would never do that. I’d said, ‘I’m working on my first book.’
And they go, ‘What’s it about?’ I would always give them a little bit less than I knew they wanted so they would ask me questions. And then ultimately, usually by the end of it, they would say, ‘Cool. That sounds pretty neat.’
Then I would say, ‘Well, if you want’, and I would make it very explicit, ‘I don’t expect you to write about it or anything. But if you want, I have a publisher who can send you a copy if you want to check it out.’
I think being honest about defects or limitations of what you have helps people to trust you. I would say, ‘I don’t think you’ll find all of it interesting. You’ll probably find this and this really unbelievable. But I do think this chapter and this chapter, about 30 pages total, would be really relevant given that you’ve read about this and this.’
They’d be like, ‘Cool. Great.’
No one has time to read books, least of all bloggers who get 100 books a week to review. That was my approach but there was a couple of principles that I would play here. I avoided the busy channels. The most congested communication channel to reach bloggers is email, which makes it least likely that you’re going to have dialogue with them, I avoided that. I avoid telephone for similar reasons and then met them in person.
It also humanises you, so it’s harder for them to immediately write you off especially if you’re being referred by someone else. Then I essentially engaged in conversation about topics around the book. Not about the book and never pitched the book, just made it available after people felt I was credible.
You can’t promote anything unless you overcome the credibility hurdle first. That was it. I also never became a traffic bigot in the sense that I didn’t look at Technorati and look at the top 50 blogs and say, ‘Okay these are the people I need to pitch’.
No, the better approach is to ask yourself or identify who the thought leaders are. Who do the traffic leaders read who are not traffic leaders? Those people are going to be easier to reach, they’ll generally have more time and bandwidth attention to dedicate to you and they’re interested in ideas, which is another reason why you can’t lead with the book.
I also recognised that using the online channel, my goal wasn’t to have hundreds of articles written about the book. It was to have a blogger of good standing and good reputation say, ‘This guy has an interesting idea. That’s a cool idea.’
Then, how would he attribute it me? It would be Tim Ferriss, author of X or it would be Tim Ferriss and a link under my name to the Amazon page. That’s all ultimately, at the end that was what contributed to the groundswell.
I didn’t need a feature article written. It would have been helpful and it happened later, when enough noise is created online, then I get a call from The New York Times. And in some ways the bottom-up approach, the anti-Oprah.
I think she’s a hotshot, I think she’s awesome, she’s a stud. But she’s not going to return my phone calls. So, I took the bottom upwards approach where if I made enough noise I knew they would have to pick it up because they would not want to be last.
This is all very, very strategic and very tactical. Did you do this in the months preceding the release of the book? What period was this? And how long did you do it for?
It took me about three to four months to seed the ground. Total budget for launching the book, I shouldn’t say budget, the total expense was $25,000 roughly, $18,000 of which was wasted on a PR firm, one of the most respected book PR firms in Manhattan and $6,000 retainer per month, and they got one print feature. And they were seeding the ground, warming up relationships, etc., etc., and did nothing.
They are definitely excellent publicists out there but I think retainers are very overrated. So, what that means is that the entire book was launched for $7,000. I would say at least half of that was books being mailed out, postage costs, then flights and then hotels to and from conferences.
People ask me, ‘If you were to do it again what would you do differently?’ I don’t think I would do anything differently.
And these are conferences like BloggerCon, things like that?
South by Southwest, Web 2.0 Expo, and I think the benefit that I had was that under it all I’m actually very, very geeky. I really, really enjoy the sort of hacker mentality.
I’m not a programmer, I don’t know Java or C++ or anything like that, but I respect what these people do and I recognize how hard it is. I think that if someone comes in with the idea, and I get emails from writers all the time, ‘How do I pitch bloggers? How should I do this?’
I’m like, ‘First of all, if you pitch bloggers, bad things happen.’ Blogging is the Wild West so if you send a stupid pitch to someone and they want to give you a swift kick in the ass, they can and it will backfire big time.
Let me give you an example. A friend of mine, a very offensive guy named Tucker Max, his book was in The New York Times bestseller. And he did it all on his own online because he has a very, very popular website and presence online.
Anyway, he was violently turned on. His book is called I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell and it’s basically, you can imagine, they’re real life stories of his drunken debauchery but, very, very funny. So he was violently turned down by many, many publishers and then once his book became a New York Times bestseller he started getting these letters from the publishers that turned him down and the PR department saying, ‘Dear Mr Max’.
No one calls him Mr Max. ‘Dear Mr Max, you are influencing your community. We know you will love our included book. Blah, blah, blah, ISPN. Blah, blah, blah and very much appreciated it if you could promote it to your community.’
He was like, ‘Hmm, you should have done your homework. You guys violently turned me down a month ago.’
He took that letter, put it on his bulletin board and his 100,000 acolytes of his with his cell phone and email address of the women in the PR department who sent it and said, ‘Feel free to let her know what you think of it’.
She quit her job because she was just overwhelmed with emails and phone calls. So, if you’re going to step into that world, you have to do it the right way. But it took me three or four months.
And for people who have a full-time job, this is probably a question that you get asked a lot. People who have a full-time job, that have an employer they have to be accountable to and that sort of thing, what would be your top tips to them to create their own four-hour work week?
The first thing I would say is although there are case studies in the book who have reduced their work day to four hours, it’s important to recognise that the objective is not to be inactive and the objective need not be to get to four hours necessarily.
So the way I would start is, No. 1, to get an incredibly good and clear understanding of how your performance is measured. How are your raises and promotions determined? What are the checkboxes and criteria that are used to really understand the business model of your company and to think like an entrepreneur so you can measure your output and the effect it has on the profit and loss statement?
I’ll give a real world example. One of the case studies in the book is a gentlemen who is in his mid-40s, has a family and he’s in high-level tech support for one of the largest computer companies in the world. Tech support, he’s expected to be on call 24/7 essentially. And now he has the capability, he’s the only person in his department that has the freedom to take two months per year to travel internationally.
So, how the hell did he get from there to there? The way he did it was initially he worked at home two or three Saturdays in a row. So he first determined how his output was measured or he created metrics to measure his output, whether that’s billable client hours, projects completed, account payable cycle, payment terms.
If you’re being paid in any way to contribute value, which you should, then there are ways to measure. He essentially also, volume of emails sent, volumes of CC’s sent to the boss, he compared his performance in the office to his performance on Saturdays outside of the office.
And he was able to set a time to meet with his boss and walk in and say, ‘Here’s my productivity. Here’s my measurable output that contributes to the bottom line of the company when I’m not interrupted every 10 minutes with these types of issues that only take place in the office. Also, subtracting the commute, this is the additional work I’m able to produce. Here’s the amount of workload that I’m able to remove from your plate because I don’t have to CC you due to this, this and this.’
He did a very compelling case as a business benefit, not as a personal perk, as to why he would then say, ‘Would it be reasonable to test this, let’s say for one day for the next two weeks, Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday?’
You don’t want to propose Monday or Friday because then it seems like a thinly veiled three-day weekend. He started with that and then he began to expand it and it go to the point where he was able to be wherever he wanted whenever he wanted.
He would have in some cases, his wife was Chinese, he’d go to China. He could, through Skype and a number of different things, have calls routed to his cell phone wherever he happen to be with a quad band phone. So, he’s now over a very short period of time created this vast amount of flexibility.
In some cases, he has more flexibility than the CEO of the company. It’s through small steps like that. So, within a company it’s really a matter of recognising, No. 1, I do have a choice.
People give their bosses more credit for having control than they actually do. You have a choice, there’s more flexibility than I currently see, if you’re contributing. If you’re not producing good work then you have no right to ask for things, period. Then small measurable steps over a short period of time can give you things like that.
Another example, a software account executive in Silicon Valley, San Mateo, his name is Charney. I met him not long ago and he has two new kids, one young kid and a brand new baby boy. He wants to spend more time with his wife and kids. That’s the only thing he doesn’t have is time.
The only recommendation I made to him, we met at a birthday party and I couldn’t go into this elaborate discussion of different techniques, was to set an alarm on your Outlook or on your Blackberry that pops up at 10am, 2pm and 4pm that simply asks, ‘Am I being busy or am I being productive? Am I being busy or am I being productive?’
He was like, ‘What do you mean?’
The way he’s rephrased on the description I gave him was, ‘Am I inventing activities to avoid the important’, because the important things tend to be the most uncomfortable.
He contacted me two weeks later and said, ‘I’ve published more in the last week than I did in the previous four weeks combined. And because I’ve documented that, I’m now able to spend Fridays with my family at home and it took the span of two weeks.’
So, those would be a few of the ways to look at it.
The point is to structure a scenario where it’s actually a business benefit as opposed to a personal benefit.
So your boss can actually see what he’s getting out of it, what she’s getting out of it, as opposed to you slacking off or whatever.
Exactly and there’s really no way. It’s very difficult for someone to argue with you if you’re increasing your performance, measurable performance, so they have a way to justify their decisions to upper management and providing them with a personal benefit to them in the form of reduced work load or management responsibility.
Would you say there are some jobs or industries that are more aligned to being able to do that than others?
Sure. I think any author that would tell you their book is written for everyone is lying or delusional. This book, I’ve had the question, ‘What about the brick layer? What about the taxi driver?’
I think they actually could get a lot out of the book but it’s designed for white collar workers, office workers and knowledge workers, people who spend some time on the phone or on the computer, which is an emotional work, is going to be feeling the effects of time famine or time poverty. I think anything that is really part of the knowledge commodity, which is very broad ranging from people in banks to lawyers, to stay-at-home moms who have part-time businesses, to any type of business owner and as far as employees go, I found very few limitations.
The book is designed in such a way to be modular. What I mean by that is it’s a menu of options. No one who reads the book is going to use everything, there’s no way. It is possible but people might look at say the cost of personal outsourcing of labour, ‘I work in law. I can’t use personal outsourcing there are client confidentiality requirements’. Or, ‘I’m in healthcare there are regulations, I can’t send things to India or Philippines or Croatia.’
I say, ‘That’s fine, don’t use that chapter then. It’s one of 16 chapters.’ I think the concepts are very flexible. I think of them almost like investing, am I going to become a day trader? Absolutely not. Might I invest in a few particular stocks and put the rest of the money into a money market account or into an index Vanguard fund? Sure. There are options for every scenario, set of responsibilities and risk ponds for that matter.
Do you think the book can say, “What works for you?”
The book has come out in many countries in the world. What has the response been in terms of their reaction to the book and whether different countries differ in the way they think it can apply?
It’s been fascinating to see how this plays out on a number of levels. The book has been sold into 31 languages and it’s come out in eight or nine so far and they all have their own subtitles, they all have different subtitles. So it’s interesting to see the reflection of the national psyche and the subtitles.
The German cover is awesome its, [Speaks in German] More Time, More Money, More Life. I was like, ‘That’s a good one, I like that.’ Then others focus on the money, money, money side of things. Like, How to Become Super Rich in Four Hours a Week, the Chinese version, not a huge surprise there.
But what I see in almost every country is that the book makes people, the concepts in the book make people uncomfortable, necessarily so. Change I think is intimidating, is an intimidating experience. So in every country there will be a faction of people that will say, ‘That can work in the USA, it will never work in this country.’
In the same way people in the US might be inclined to say if they look at the cover, ‘Well, I have a family, I can’t do that. I have a mortgage, I can’t do that. I’m an employee, I can’t do that.’
So, in every country that first hurdle is, ‘I’m an Australian, I am an Italian. I’m Semolina. I can’t use this.’ But, once it hits a certain critical mass and there are case studies in whichever country it happens to be published in, then it’s overcome fairly quickly because it’s really not US specific.
In a digital world, and most all countries or developing countries are experiencing this, you have the potential for infinite interruption and infinite minutia and I think we’re reaching a critical global bottleneck in that respect. It’s been a bestseller in Japan and I just found out it’s in its third printing in four weeks or something like that in the UK. It just hit the bestseller list in Germany.
This is a universal problem and I think that people in each location will find resources that they can use and then leverage for the different versions of the book. We’ll see, so far so good.
You’ve mentioned in Australia that your focus in your radio interviews that you’ve done has been on the money side of it. Does that surprise you?
It has been really surprising. It’s always been ‘How to get super rich in four hours per week’ whereas in the US it tends to be, ‘Good God, I get email on my Blackberry at 3 am on Saturday. If I could just stop that, if I could just turn it off for five hours, what a fantasy’. It’s very different.
I’m not quite sure why that is, it seems to me that in the English speaking countries that I’ve been to so far, that the Australians are the most – right up with the Americans, even perhaps more so at least in Sydney – materialistic in the sense of deriving some self-value from possessions. It seems like the house on the beach, the car, the this, the that, that there’s a lot of possession focus. It’s surprising to me.
We seem so laid back.
Yeah, and just the geographical beauty of this area also. If you go to San Francisco this is very similar in many respects, you don’t find this focus on possessions. I mean, there are exceptions of course, but that has been curious and I’m very, very curious.
So since the book came out and it’s been so popular, what’s been your primary activity? Promoting the book? Doing other stuff? What have you been doing?
I don’t do that much to promote the book in the sense of what I do might, as a by-product or a side-effect, promote the book but I don’t do it because of the book. Does that make sense?
I think another reason why the book has done well is because I find the ideas, I really do think that the concept of lifestyle design is one of the few viable alternatives to the time management approaches that have very obviously failed people so I’m happy to talk about it.
But, for example, on this trip to Sydney, I actually didn’t come here really to promote the book. I came here because I was invited to speak. I had always wanted to come to Sydney so they’re going to cover business class, first class airfare, fine. I wanted to come anyways, so fantastic. So I came over here and I said, ‘While I’m here I’d love to see what I can do with the concepts in Sydney and explore that.’ So, here we are.
So as far as how I spend my time, I am an investor, an angel investor for technology companies in Silicon Valley. I also very much enjoy my blog, the blog is very exciting for me and I think it can be actually much bigger than the book in some respects. It gets 20 million hits a month and it’s in the top 1000 blogs out of 150 million. It didn’t exist a year ago so the leverage I can get through that is actually astounding. I’m very involved with educational reform in the US and elsewhere.
How are you involved in that?
I’m using social media fundraiser to finance projects and about 15,000 students in the US, that’s a pretty big number in public schools. I’m also building schools to spread literacy in certain developing countries. So far I’ve built two schools in Vietnam. I’m building schools in Nepal, India and also in countries where the alternative would be Madrasah terrorist schools. So our schools are non-denominational, functional, literacy-based schools. That takes a good amount of effort and marshalling of resources. I’m in the process of getting together political leaders and business leaders to help really address some of the critical educational issues in the US especially in science and math education.
Where did that drive come from? Where did that interest come from?
I recognise the opportunities that have either been made available to me or that I’ve been able to create by virtue of the access of that education that I have. I think that if I am able to focus on one cause, so to speak, I think education is the most root pathway for addressing almost every other problem that we experience in society or ecology or what have you.
So, rather than say, ‘Alright let’s address poverty by increasing aid.’ I say, ‘Let’s address poverty by actually enabling these people to create businesses through microfinance’ or something like that. I think Muhammad Yunus is a very interesting role model in that respect. I just think that good education and training people through critical problem solving is a way to address almost all the issues that we face. I think that investment now is going to be extremely important, especially in math and science for the next 20 years.
So paint us a picture five years from now from not only your activities in the social hemisphere but also what you’ll be doing business-wise? And also maybe how many other books you’ve written?
In five years, I don’t think I’ll write more than one more book if I do at all. I’m not interested in producing a lot of books. The closest thing to a role model that I have in that world would be probably Jim Collins, he’d be great. He really does spend a lot of time on his research. He gets the facts straight and produces one solid book every few years.
There are other approaches too; kick out a book or two a year, find a ghost writer, stick your name on the cover, is very common. I’m just not interested in that. I view these books as my legacy and this book is my legacy and if it expires in six months, if it’s out of date in six months, if it’s a passing fad like Razor scooters or something like that, I’m not interested. I really want to try to produce something that has staying powers in concept X.
As far as business-wise, it’s hard to say. I’m not a very firm believer in long-term planning. That’s not to say that I’m haphazard nor that I don’t believe in investing or saving, I do. But I find that when most people attempt long-term plan – and by long-term I mean longer than two years, further than two years in the future – if they can follow it reliably they’re generally playing too far within their safety zone, their comfort zone, which means that they are generally sacrificing experiences. So I would say I usually look six to 12 months out and then quarter by quarter.
But from a business standpoint, nothing I do right now is financially driven. I am very – consumption doesn’t fill the void. So, that’s not going to be a huge driver for me I don’t think. I’ll definitely be doing more investing, I’m investing probably once per quarter now, I’d like to get that to once per month.
This is investing in your own personal portfolio? Or is this your angel investing?
Angel investing in technology companies.
What kind of firms are you investing in?
So far I’ve invested in one social media online storage company which I think is very interesting named Badongo.com. They have a very strong presence in Asia, they really haven’t addressed the US market as of yet. There’s another company related to online identify protection and reputation production which is called ReputationDefender.com. There are quite a few others that I’m looking at in personal productivity, priority management field that are very interesting. But, I’m not too limited in that respect, I have a broad scope of interests and really, what it comes down to is if I feel like I can add value in excess of the money that I’m contributing, then I will consider investing.
When did you start thinking that you wanted to get into angel investing and why?
I would say in 1999, that’s when I first took the high-tech entrepreneurship class at Princeton that I now guest lecture to. The professor was named Ed Zschau. He was congressman for Silicon Valley for two terms. He’s considered one of the founding fathers of Silicon Valley because I believe he introduced the capital gains tax which brought in all the investment to match the technology and grow the technology. He was head of IBM Data Storage division at one point, which is massive, one of the youngest teachers in history at Stanford Business School, an extremely famous professor in management at Harvard Business School, just extremely accomplished by competitive figures there.
We get along well and he teaches. I’ve always wanted to be a teacher and I think books are a good medium for that. I also think the blog is an excellent medium for that. I had many, many conversations with him over the years about angel investing and the personal gratification he gets out of it and the value he feels that he’s able to contribute as an angel investor. It’s been a long time coming. I wanted to wait until I had more practical experience and relationships and capital.
So when was your first investment?
My first investment was six to eight months ago. So I only recently started. I don’t invest by myself either. I only invest with more experienced investors to keep me from making really stupid decisions.
So, tango, how did that start? Why do you still do it?
The unedited version?
Yes, the unedited version, the tale of love.
In January of, no, it wasn’t February 2005, it was later when I had that guest lecture with my students. January 2005, I ended up in Panama with a friend of mine who is half-Panamanian and I ended up doing all sorts of crazy things like living on a Smithsonian research island for a week with fisherman and the ocean. Good at snorkelling because they did not trust their scuba gear at all, it had massive duct tape on one side. It was an amazing experience.
But in Panama I met a number of people, many people, a few of them said, ‘You have to go to Argentina. You have to go to Argentina’. That is how I planned it, or not planned, an entire 18 months because my life up to that point had been planned in 10-minute increments in an Outlook calendar. I didn’t want anything to be planned I really wanted to be able to act on spontaneity.
I had a number of people recommend that I go to Argentina. ‘Excellent, excellent, the best beef on the planet’, I’m a fairly avid red meat eater. They are grass feed and all the vegans out there getting high blood pressure. Beautiful women, okay red-blooded male part that’s kind of hard to lose. And very safe. Beautiful architectures of the Paris of South America. Fantastic, I’ll check it out.
I fly down and I had no interest in tango, none whatsoever. All I envisioned from tango was some guy from Shall we Dance with a flower in his teeth and sequined shirt and something god-awful like that. I had no interest.
I had a falling out with my Spanish school at one point because in very true Argentinean fashion, they decided they wanted to raise my rates 40 per cent because I was asking too many questions. I was like, ‘No, give me my money back.’ So I left the school in the middle of the day and I didn’t have anything to do for a few hours until I was meeting up with a Danish friend of mine.
Everyday I would walk back and forth to this Spanish school and pass this tango store that had classical on the second level. What am I going to do? Well, I’ll take a tango class. It’s the birth place of the tango, Buenos Aires. I’ll try it just for s***s and giggles.
I go in, I go up to the second floor and there are about 10 gorgeous woman and two guys, me I’m one of them. The other guy is kind of fat and looks really bored. They start the class and the head teacher he looks like Al Pacino from The Godfather, he’s got his hair slicked back. Buenos Aires is basically built by Spanish, Italian and German immigrants. So it’s a very interesting mix of blood there. This guy is straight out of The Godfather and you could tell he really wanted to have that image of a Gestapo. What a character.
He sent his assistant over to teach me the basic eight steps in the corner. Latin women are not very modest in dress. They are blissfully unaware or very proud to embrace their femininity. So this little latex-like workout clothing and about yay tall and she was very annoyed that she had to take the time out to teach me the eight steps because she wanted to be practicing, a very fiery Argentinean girl.
Tango dancers in particular are pretty moody. She comes over and she’s like, ‘Okay.’ She grabbed me and I had never done any partner dance. I’m like about 165 pounds now, 75 kilos, and at the time I was like 90 kilos, I was a lot bigger and muscular.
I was like, ‘Ahh.’ And I grabbed her really lightly and she throws her arms down and kinds of spins around to look across the room and shouts over the professor. Everybody stops dancing and she goes, ‘This guy is built like a goddamn mountain and he’s grabbing me like a f**king Frenchman.’ in Spanish.
Everyone is like, ‘Ha, ha, ha'” I’m humiliated. She turns around and is like, ‘Okay, grab me.’
I’m embarrassed and I just out of anger and frustration and I’m like, ‘Okay, fine.’ And I just kind of crushed her.
She looks up at me and doesn’t even flinch and goes, ‘Now, that’s better.’ I was like, ‘Awww.’ Signed up for 10 classes. But I also realised by the end of the second class, and I think most people realise this fairly quickly, that that was something that I could actually be good at.
I was like, if I lose about 40 pounds, which I did, If I lose about 40 pounds because big legs are not good for tango, you look like a dancing monkey or something; if I lose about 40 pounds I think I could be really good at this.
I ended up starting to analyse it, deconstruct it and then did it six to eight hours a day to the point where the balls of my feet were black at some points and I’d have to take a few days off just to let the bones in my feet recover. Just for the sheer hell of it one day, I saw posters up all over the city for the Buenos Aires Championships. I was like, I said to my partner …
My teacher at one point was a very famous female dancer, she had been one of the most famous female dancers, maybe 10 years prior, named Alecia Monti and she was my teacher at one point. When I got to a certain level she said, ‘You really need a good male teacher. There are things I can teach you but you need a good male teacher to really explain the intricacies of the lead.’
The only way to get some of these really good teachers is to take private lessons, they just don’t do group lessons. So I signed up for a few and I said, ‘I don’t have a partner. Do you mind coming with me for one or two classes?’ We ended up going to many, many classes together and then practicing together and became good friends.
At one point I saw these posters and I said, ‘Hey, do you want to compete in this.’ Like ha, ha, ha.
She goes, ‘Yeah, okay.’
I was like, ‘Holy crap, I’m actually preparing now for the Buenos Aires Championship.’ I did that, expected to get knocked out on the first round. It ended up that we were the people’s choice, the audience’s favourite this entire round of competition.
We made it to the semi-finals and then got knocked out. I was like, ‘You know what, I was really nervous. I can do better than that. I can do better than that.’ So I was like, ‘Well that was fun. Why don’t we try to do the World Championship that is in a few months?’ That’s how it all started.
We were training and training and training six to eight hours a day. I was like, ‘Well, if we’re doing this much training why don’t we try to set a world record or something?’ I got the Guinness Book of World Records and I looked it up, took some video, sent it in and set a world record. Then had to break it later on national television but totally unexpected, accidental, accidental.
Were you a determined high achiever as a child? What were you interested in when you were little?
I think that I’ve always been competitive. But most of the things – people look at my bio in the book for example, I’ve been Chinese Kickboxing National Champion, I’m a world record holder title. They either assume I’m a liar, which people do, which is not true. Or they assume that it’s been equally spread out throughout my life. The reality is almost all those things happened in the last few years since really embracing, testing different assumptions and reallocating time.
But I was born premature. I was born six weeks premature and was in intensive care unit for quite a while. So you can see that there’s a scar there by a cigarette burn and another big scar here. I actually can only use a portion of my left lung because it collapsed when I was born. There’s a chemical called Surfactin that maintains surface tension. If you’re born too premature you die because your lungs collapse. My left lung collapsed, I was put on a respirator, that’s what the scar here is from. I couldn’t oxygenate my blood, my entire body volume of blood transfused five times.
I have a lot of health issues and as a child couldn’t really exercise and ended up, because it was the only sport I could really compete in and the only one that would exhaust me enough to deal with my hyperactivity, my mom put me into kid wrestling. She put me in to a wrestling group because it was weight class based. That was my sport for the next 15 years or so and that led into, I went to Japan as an exchange student at 15. That was a year in Japan, the only non-Japanese student in a school of about 5,000 students, living with a Japanese family. That introduced me to judo and that got me into all the fighting stuff. But I think wrestling is really what helped to develop a lot of the attributes that translated into other areas.
Were you geeky then?
Oh, yeah, I was geeky, geeky in my own way. I enjoyed academics.
Technology yes, but not in the sense that most people think of technology. Most people think of technology as computers, video cameras. I was always more interested in physical performance so chemistry, biochemistry, supplementation, nutrition, blood testing. I’m fascinated by blood testing. I get extensive blood testing done every three months or so to trend everything. It’s fascinating to me, endlessly fascinating to me.
You trend your own blood tests?
Doctors don’t trend, they’ll look at absolute values and if you’re within a range they’ll say, ‘Oh you’re fine’. Even if they were to trend it, let’s say on a monthly basis they’d see it dropping five per cent per month, that indicates a problem but they don’t trend, so I do the trending myself.
Where was I going with that? Yes, so geeky, I think on many levels geeky. But the technology, meaning online blogs, hardware, software, programming, things like that, that’s all been pretty recent because I had a phobia of that type of technology because my perception was it would be too complex, too difficult for me to understand and it isn’t.
It’s actually to some level I think most people, if they were to take the time and have someone patiently explain a few things, would find that it’s actually very interesting and understandable. You just need someone to sit down and say, ‘Okay, this is software, this is hardware, this is how a hard disc works, this is how storage works, this is how RAM works.’ And you’re like, ‘Oh, wow that makes sense.’
I’ve had the benefit of asking a lot of questions and doing that like, ‘I’m kind of an idiot but can you tolerate me for a few minutes’ routine. I do that very regularly and as a result I’ve learned a lot the last few years. I’m geekier than ever I guess.
And finally, when we come to look at what’s become a phenomena, The 4-Hour Work Week, your book, really that’s a result of a girl, a girl that broke up with you. Is that right?
That’s one contributing factor, sure. I think when you’re following the rules you’ve been taught to follow, when you’re doing the things everyone else is doing, it’s hard for you to step back and see how ridiculous and unfounded they are. It’s hard to believe that 9 to 5 is arbitrary. That work should be something you do, not a place that you go. That you don’t have to check email every five minutes or respond immediately or IM. So it took that one relationship to really force me to re-examine some of the assumptions I had about work life and career and timing and so forth to see just how completely unfounded they are. It’s very hard to support them.
Do you still keep in touch with her? Does she know that she was a catalyst?
She might. It took me two years of exploration and experimentation to figure out what the alternatives were. So, she had moved on by that point. I don’t blame her.
One thing that people would be interested in, you mentioned that if you did write another book there would probably be only one. Have you got some thoughts as to what that might be or what that might be called?
I have some ideas but I’m very elusive about it, even my publisher has no indication of what it might be. But it will be – I’ll put it this way, if I’m going to write another book, it will be much more controversial and I think ultimately much more impactful than this book. It would be called deconstructing something that is very complex and full of undying assumptions and I haven’t decided exactly what that will be just yet. I’m not sure.
If you had one last message for your readers, what would it be?
One last message for my readers? I would say whenever you find yourself on the side of majority, it’s time to take pause and reflect. I think that’s actually Mark Twain. But the most common answer, the most common actions are some of the best. So just common consistently, test assumptions, always ask why. Most things people say you have to do or you should do, fall apart. So if you’re unhappy, if you’re overwhelmed, ask yourself why.
Great, thank you. Thank you for your time, Tim.