Interview: Tim Ferriss

Photo: Olivier Ezratty (cc)

Tim Ferriss is the author of the The 4-Hour Workweek, a Japanophile, tea drinker, tango world record holder, and language learning fanatic.

Avi Solomon: How did you get to Seneca?

Tim Ferriss: I came to Seneca by looking at military strategies. A lot of military writing is based on stoic philosophical principles. The three cited sources are Marcus Aurelius and his book Meditations, which was effectively a war campaign journal. The second is Epictetus and his handbook Enchiridion, which I find difficult to read. The last is Seneca and, because Seneca was translated from Latin to English as opposed to from Greek to English and also because he was a very accomplished writer and a playwright, I find his readings to be more memorable and actionable.

So, it came to me through a number of different vehicles, the study of war and war strategy. Second was through philosophers like Thoreau and Emerson who were also fans of Seneca. Thirdly, was when I was really embracing minimalism and trying to eliminate the trivial many, both materially and otherwise. From a business standpoint, Seneca is constantly cited by people in the "less is more" camp of philosophical thought. I basically came to Seneca through several different directions.

The other was – and part of what appealed to me about Seneca – was the similarity I found between his brand of stoic thought and the brands of Buddhism and Zen Buddhism that were practiced by people like Musashi Miyamoto. He wrote The Book of Five Rings and is also the most famous Japanese swordsman in history.

Avi: Did you also read James Stockdale?

Tim: Absolutely. You said James Stockdale, right? He was in a POW camp.

Avi: Yeah, in Vietnam.

Tim: Yeah, absolutely. He would be one of dozens of military leaders who have embraced Stoicism to survive and to win in combat.

Avi: Do you have a favorite letter of Seneca?

Tim: Offhand, it would be hard for me to choose a single one. The first that comes to mind is "On the Shortness of Life," which is more of an essay. I've read Letters from a Stoic at least 50 times and I tend to find different letters appropriate and helpful at different times.

Avi: There's a difference between reading and doing. How do you apply this in your daily life?

Tim: It's really, for me, the base foundation of an operating system for decision making, and I'll explain what I mean by that. I don't view philosophy as an idle form of intellectual masturbation. I really view good philosophy as a set of rules that allows you to make better decisions. What Stoicism helps you to develop is a value system that allows you to take calculated risks, which I think is very effective for entrepreneurs.

So, in very simple terms, stoicism and, by extension, Seneca teaches you to value only those things that cannot be taken away, meaning you would actively practice poverty, for example, subsisting on the meagerest of food and clothing for, let's just say, one week every two months. The way Seneca would phrase it is all the while asking yourself, "Is this the condition I so feared?"

That type of practice – and I do view it as a practice, just like you view meditation as a practice and I don't think it's entirely coincidence that Marcus Aurelius' book is called Meditations – helps you to live life offensively as opposed to defensively. So, I would say that on a daily basis I revert to some of the basic principles of stoicism to make decisions about where to invest my time, which relationships to cultivate, which relationships to sever so forth and so on.

Avi: And it's also making you comfortable with failure. The essence of entrepreneurship is being OK with failure and with having fears.

Tim: Yeah, absolutely. It also helps condition you so that you don't have emotional overreactions to things that you can't control and I think that's very, very helpful. Critical even, not only for competitive advantage but for quality of life.

Avi: Do you have a generic method for hacking some advanced skill set. You seem to have hacked so many advanced topics that you must have a method to your madness!

Tim: Well, I do have a method and it's really a series of questions more than anything else. It's almost a Socratic process but I would say that, first and foremost, I have to have a very clear, measurable objective, whether that's in language acquisition or in power lifting.

The common element is measurement, so you need to know when you have succeeded and how to measure progress to that success point, whether that's a 500 pound dead lift or a 50 kilometer ultra marathon or getting to the point where you can do, let's say, a single lap in an Olympic pool with 15 or fewer strokes. These are all real examples. The number of footfalls, meaning stride rate, per minute in endurance training and how long I can sustain that for say with a goal of 20 minutes at a time. Or a 95 percent fluency in conversational German as measured through different metrics. These are all real examples.

So the first is measurement. I have a clear idea of what success looks like and how to measure it.

Secondly, I will look at the most common approaches, which are, oftentimes, the lowest common denominator but have some thread of efficacy. I will ask, "What if I did the opposite?" I'll look at the established common practices, the established dogma, and ask myself what if I did the opposite.

If it's endurance training, let's look at Iron Man training, and the average is 20-30 hours of training per week for people in the upper profile. What if I limited that to five or fewer hours per week? What would I have to do? How could I make this type of training work or perhaps be more effective if I had to focus on low volume instead of high volume? The same could be said of weight training. The same could be said of language learning.

If someone says it takes a lifetime to learn a language or it should take 10 years, what if I had to compress that into 10 weeks? And if they say that vocabulary comes first because we should learn as we did when we were a child, which I completely disagree with – it's entirely unfounded – what if you were to start with a radical structure?

So, flipping things on their heads and looking at opposites can provide some very surprising discoveries and shortcuts.

Thirdly, I look for anomalies. For any given skill, there's going to be an archetype of someone should be successful at that skill. If it's swimming, for example, it would be someone with the build of Michael Phelps. They would have a long wingspan, relatively tall, big hands, big feet and large lung capacity. So, if I can find someone who defies those anatomical proportions; someone who's 5' 5", extremely heavily muscled, like 250, who is still an effective swimmer, I want to study what the anomalies practice because attributes can compensate for poor training. I want to find someone who lacks the attributes that can allow them to compensate for poor training.

Typically, you find much more refined approaches when you look at the anomalies. That's true for any skill I have looked at, whether that's programming or otherwise. So, let's just take computer programming as an example. If the common belief is that someone should start with language A, then progress to framework B and then progress to language C, if I can find someone who skipped those first two steps and is regarded as one of the best programmers in language C, I'm going to look closely at how they developed that skill set.

Then I would say, lastly, is a set of questions related to rate of progress. So I don't just look at the best people in the world; I look at people who have improved upon their base condition in the shortest period of time possible.

Let's say I'm looking at muscular gain. I would certainly interview the person who's, let's say, 300 pounds and 7% body fat but there's a very good chance that I'll learn more from the person who's put on 50 pounds for the first time in their life in the last 12 months. So, I always try to establish the rate of progress and, when that person has plateaued at different points, for what duration. I find that exceptionally helpful also for finding non-obvious solutions to problems.

Avi: Thanks, I would call that a meta-hack! It might take a while to digest but it could drive a lot of things in many different domains.

Tim: Oh, yeah. That's the framework that I overlay on any skill I'm looking to analyze and hack.

Avi: So like in language learning, you have one critical sentence I think.

Tim: Oh right, so with language learning, each of these different skill sets will have certain domain-specific approaches but in the case of languages a big part of learning language quickly is teaching native speakers to deconstruct their own language for you and you only do that through very refined questioning, because they're not going to be able to explain to you the difference between, if you say, "What's the difference between anything and something?"

The average native English speaker's not going to give you a good answer for that, but if you know how to ask them for comparisons properly and you can simply ask them to, perhaps, provide five or six examples of various types then you can get your answer. You can essentially use a lateral approach to get your answers. So, in my particular case, it had determined that we had eight to twenty sentences of various types, if you have them translated effectively. Fortunately for native English speakers most of the world is forced to study English or chooses to study English.

If you translate those 10 to 20 sentences, you'll have a very good grasp of auxiliary verbs, sentence structure, like subject-object-verb versus subject-verb-object, how indirect objects, direct objects are treated, how personal pronouns are treated, etc., and it only takes 10-20 sentences to get all of that onto one sheet of paper. So, it's entirely possible to become fluent in almost any language. Conversationally fluent – there's a problem with definition there – so that's a longer conversation, but effectively what most people would consider conversationally fluent in 8-12 weeks.

Avi: So again, there's also the traces of Pareto's law there.

Tim: Yeah, absolutely. The material you choose is oftentimes more important than the method you use, so it's important to have an understanding of high frequency versus rote memorization from a textbook that doesn't do any kind of analysis of frequency of occurrence, for example.

Avi: Food, for example, you boil it down to eggs and spinach first thing in the morning.

Tim: Oh yeah, absolutely, in behavioral change related to diet, small changes are more effective than big changes. The abandonment rate is less, so I would say give someone a very simple prescription, like 30 grams of protein within 30 minutes of waking up, and that could take the form of a few hard boiled eggs and spinach, a few hard boiled eggs and lentils, it could be scrambled, certainly, or you could simply have them consume 30 grams of unflavored whey protein with cold water. So I think that in the world of behavioral change, simple works.

Avi: I remember you saying that access to rich experiences doesn't have to cost a lot of money. Can you expand on that?

Tim: The perception is…let me take a step back. Most people have a number, a fairly arbitrary number, usually influenced by their peer group, which is a financial target, typically an amount of money in liquid assets like a checking account. So that could be once I have a million dollars, I won't have to worry about anything. Once I have five million dollars, I won't have to worry about anything. Once I make 250,000 dollars a year, I won't have to worry about anything.

And that number is typically arrived at with no calculation of what their ideal lifestyle actually costs and the question I like to pose is if you had 20 million dollars, 50 million, 100 million in the bank, after the first month or two of going crazy of buying all the toys and doing all the ridiculous girls gone wild stuff, what would you actually spend your time on a daily basis, monthly, weekly, and what would you like to do and what would you like to have? And then you can sit down and cost those things out and for most people it very seldom costs more than, let's say, 150,000 dollars a year.

And what we find is even to privately charter a private airplane in Patagonia, which I did or in my particular case also in the wine county in Argentina, it cost me, I think it was, less than 300 dollars for effectively a half day and that included gasoline costs, or to live on a private island in Panama, especially a research island, to go snorkeling and scuba diving every day, that cost similarly less than 500 dollars.

And what you find is that the deferred life plan which is based on retirement and redeeming these experiences, that are most valuable in your peak physical years, is a false paradigm. It's a very Faustian bargain and bad bet. So when I say that having incredible experiences, once in a lifetime experiences, is generally less expensive than people think, it simply results from sitting down and costing those out. So if you want an Aston Martin DB9 there are definitely ways you can do that for 1500 dollars a month, even if you purchase. And to postpone all of these bucket list experiences until 50, 60, or beyond is, I think, a very bad wager.

Avi: So that kind of leads me to the other question I have, which is about college or MBAs. Is college a scam in terms of lost opportunity cost or investment? If you'd rather invest the money, like 40,000 a year, with the added advantage of not being in debt?

Tim: So I'm going to leave aside the debt question, that's a very personal question. I have different views of, let's say, a liberal arts undergraduate degree versus an MBA. I don't think the objective of a liberal arts education is to train you for a single profession. I view the value of a liberal arts education as making you a well rounded human being and to that extent I think it's a very worthwhile investment. The real world doesn't go away once you enter it, so I don't see any particular rush in jumping into income generation if you have the option of cultivating yourself through a good liberal arts program. I don't regret having gone to college at all and I would recommend it to most people who can afford it or find a way to afford it, even if that puts them into debt for limited amount of time.

When you start looking at professional programs like law school or MBAs, then I have a less favorable opinion simply because they're so specific, and they're designed to train you for a specific career path and if you're not confident that is your career path, I view it as a huge opportunity cost and financial burden. But if your goal is to reach the pinnacle of success in investment banking or investment consulting where an MBA is effectively a prerequisite to have certain job titles, than that is a good investment of your time, if that is your chosen path. It requires being very honest with yourself about your motives. So if you're going to business school, as I would say at least half of the students do, because they're on a two-year vacation, an excuse to party and decompress that looks good on the resume, that's fine but don't fool yourself into thinking that that's the best way to gain practical business experiences, which it is not.

I would much prefer to take someone who's interested in becoming a competent deal maker or business development icon and putting them into a start up of, let's say 15 to 50 people, in a position where they can work directly with the CEO or one of the top deal makers or negotiators in the company like a VP of Business Dev. or a VP of Sales, because an MBA also buffers your decision making from the consequences of the real world. It's fantastic if you can sit down in a Harvard case study and determine what the best decision is for a company that you have no vested interest in. It's quite a different story when you're sitting across the table from someone who has 20 years more experience negotiating than you do and you have millions of dollars at stake that will personally affect you and affect everyone at your company. Theoretically you might understand what to do, but you need practice in the trenches to be able to respond properly in those circumstances or you'll fuck it up.

Avi: What would be advice to a smart kid in high school today?

Tim: I would say choose your friends wisely. You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with. Choose your peer group wisely and if you can't find the type of mentors that you're looking for in person, find them through books and don't be biased towards the latest and greatest. I think that you can certainly learn just as much, if not more, from Seneca and Benjamin Franklin by just reading their writings, as you can from the hot CEO of the moment.