Tim Ferriss and multiplying parameters beyond necessity

Those of you who have had the pleasure of spending any quality time with me will probably have heard me mention the 4 hour work week by Tim Ferriss.  Like just about everyone, I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with Mr Ferriss.  I think that (at least in his first book) about 50% of his ideas are brilliant and 50% are complete rubbish.  As most books struggle to be 10% interesting let alone brilliant I was rather impressed overall.  I would summarise the 4 hour working week thus:

Axiom: We all hate our jobs and would rather be having fun

Solution: Given this fact you should find ways to cut down on work and live the life you want to live e.g. boat drinks off a tropical island.

To achieve this goal we should do the following:

  1. Become more efficient at working.  Save time by improving time management e.g. improve email processing, avoid pointless meetings etc.  I thought his ideas here were very interesting (this was most of the 50% brilliant bit).
  2. Create a business which provides you with a residual income*
  3. Outsource all the functions of this business and spend approximately 4 hours a week counting the money.

Easy!  His example would be something like writing an online course (low reproduction, low postage and zero storage costs) and then promote this using Google adwords.  I reckon that it would be possible to do live the 4 hour work week dream but only if you worked about 150 hours a week for the 5 years beforehand.  As has been noted by many commentators, Ferris clearly works like a dog, he just does not call it work.
Since then, our hero has written two further books, which like most sequels, are not as good as the original.  The general gist of these two books is similar to the first, with more of a focus on how to achieve results in the quickest way possible.  i.e.:

  1. Study your area of interest and establish the most important aspects to mastering that skill
  2. Practise/learn these skills to master the discipline

An example which he mentions in both his first (4 hour work week) and third (4 hour cook) is how to learn a language.  Ferris constantly boasts that he learnt various languages in less than 3 months.  Now I am getting to the point of this article and why I think Ferris is speaking mostly rubbish.  I would like to accuse him of the following 3 crimes of bullshit:

Yeah, Yeah, its going to be easy (or ‘Lobstering’)

I had a friend at university who used to refer to fudging the answer to maths questions as lobstering the answer.  In a similar vein, Ferris makes out that the things he are suggesting are easy when they are in fact very, very hard.  In his view, learning anything is easy, you just need to work out the right short cuts.  Whilst I think that he is right to look for better ways to learn things, some skills such as languages simply require a lot of hard work.  You can right down a cheat sheet of the top 100 words in a language, you can even learn them by heart, but putting them all together conversationally, I’m not sure there are any shortcuts to getting good at that.

It all slightly reminds me of the Tom and Jerry cartoon where Tom picks up a music book, learns two notes and then can immediately play an entire concerto. Pure fantasy.


Like all good snake oil salesmen, Ferris is very vague in his arguements.  He suggest that you can learn any skill to pretty much world class standard in a few months.  However he fails to define his terms.  For example

  • Is that a few months part time, or full time with private tuition?
  • What is world class, or fluent when it comes to languages?

I reckon that most people could get pretty good at a skill if they immersed themselves in it for several months.

Not coming up with the goods

Ferris claims to give you the tools to enable you to learn skills fast, however, until he comes up with a range of 4-hour-language courses I will remain unconvinced.   If his techniques are so good he should be publishing a range of learning tools.  You could argue that he has already done this for fitness and cook, but 500 page doorstops are hardly digestible guides (see below).

Crimes against brevity (or multiplying parameters beyond necessity)

In last two books Ferris quotes the following without irony:

  • “I am sorry for the length of my letter, but I hand not the time to write a short one” Blaise Pascal
  • Occam’s razor (he calls it Occam’s Protocol)  i.e. entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity

Both books are over 500 pages longggggggg.  How can you possibly include quote on brevity when your books are so spectacularly tedious?


In summary I think that Ferris’ books are in part brilliant but increasingly fatally flawed.  After the first half of the first book he is selling a daft fantasy and little else.




* The only time I have ever heard the phrase residual income is in connection with some sort of suspicious sounding multi level marketing scheme

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