The Tim Ferriss Way: Life Is a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Game

The author and podcaster says reinventing yourself is simpler than you think.
October 12, 2015

Emerald and I are just passing the time, waiting for Tim Ferriss.

She really has the pixie dream-girl thing going on—irrepressibly cute with freckles and brown locks dangling from a winter cap that sits high on her head and defies gravity with its pointy top.

We’re early. She busies herself with inventory and phone calls as the sun of a spring morning lights up the dark wood inside the restaurant she manages, Salumeria, a modern deli in San Francisco’s Mission District. I take a slow look around as “Jump” by Kriss Kross plays at sufficient rap volume throughout the space. Pasta styles you wouldn’t expect to find outside Tuscany sit under the deli glass, while the shelves are a hungry hipster’s dream, housing local goods such as a jar of San Fran-style ketchup that runs $9.99. Everyone is trying to strike it rich in this town—it’s only the method that has changed since the Gold Rush. The drive in through the hills passes the impressive offices of tech-industry fixtures such as Zynga and Sega; billboards advertise cloud services, with self-assured taglines like “Ask your developer.”

Finished with her routine, Emerald has a moment to chat about the man our SUCCESS crew is expecting to meet here. Ferriss is a three-time best-selling author and investor whom The New York Times positioned somewhere between Jack Welch and a Buddhist monk. He has carved a unique niche for himself, mastering a variety of skills in the most efficient way possible and teaching more than a million adherents how they can do the same.

Related: Tim Ferriss on Turning Knowledge Into Action

Emerald doesn’t know it yet, but Ferriss also has a modest stake in Salumeria, along with the attached fine dining restaurant, Central Kitchen, and the saloon around back. When he was writing The 4-Hour Chef, he wanted to understand the restaurant industry, so he bought in. But that must have been before Emerald started.

“I know of him more than I know him,” she says. “He’s like an angel investor, right?”

And just about this time, Ferriss walks through the door. He’s 5-foot-10 “on a good day,” dressed in a comfortable, plain cotton shirt, blue jeans and charcoal-colored slip-ons.

“Hi—Tim,” he says with a comfortable grin. “I’ve gotta give you knuckles.” This is the first indication that Tim is very much the man we were expecting. A firm, squeezing handshake would hurt too much today, just a week or so after he injured himself while performing a handstand high above his partner in AcroYoga, an incredibly difficult-looking discipline that one-ups regular yoga with Cirque du Soleil-style feats of strength, teamwork and balance. “It’s just something that I decided I wanted to get good at,” he says.

So Ferriss bumps fists around the room, and we get to work on his photo shoot. He seems fairly delighted to be on the cover of the magazine, and he certainly belongs. His story is an enviable one, ripe with lessons that anyone seeking to reinvent with a new, different, better life ought to hear. After graduating from Princeton in 2000 with a degree in East Asian Studies, he moved to California in search of gold but ended up working at a data-storage company making cold calls at the behest of an unimaginative sales director.

The money was pretty good, but he got bored. On the side he began to develop an online nutritional supplements company—a good thing, too, because he was soon fired from his day job over continual clashes with his boss. Within a couple of years, the company he started with just $5,000 in credit card debt had taken off nicely. This time the money was really good, but Ferriss was overly involved in every detail and got burned out.

 

There is a way to have more while doing less.

 

Finally, after what he describes as a nervous breakdown during a European vacation, Ferriss decided to take a big step back. His monthlong trip turned into two months, then four. He checked in on his business just once a week via email. But the company didn’t flounder in the absence of its founder: With the wreck removed from the traffic jam, profits improved 40 percent. Four months turned into eight. Ferriss worked hard on himself—on perfecting automation and “experimental living.” After nearly two years, he returned to the States ready to spread the word that there is a way to have more while doing less.

Related: Tim Ferriss on Treating Life as an Experiment

We pause the photo shoot because Ferriss needs coffee. And he needs cream. Lots of cream. At this point, he says, he is consuming 70 percent of his calories from fat while attempting to maintain ketosis, a metabolic state in which burned body fat is the source of all energy. Ferriss is working on his body because, for the better part of a year, he has been sapped of his usual energy by Lyme disease, which he picked up near his childhood home on eastern Long Island. Finally he is feeling more like his typical self, and that puts him high in the air, upside down for AcroYoga or, later this day, hanging from a boulder at the nearby Mission Cliffs rock climbing center.

Ferriss is adventurous because he can afford to be, and maybe he can afford to be because he chooses to be. Since high school he has lived a life of deliberation and efficiency. The physical side of things began when he was on his school’s wrestling team. To gain an advantage on opponents, he experimented with different diet and hydration regimens, hoping to achieve the weight-cutting and rapid weight-gaining that would allow him to surpass the physical limitations from his premature birth, including a weak left arm.

Athletic pursuits introduced him to a new way of thinking. Call it a search for a shortcut, or the easy way out, or whatever. The point is to maximize results with minimum input of effort or time. During college, for instance, he found a way to win a Chinese national kickboxing competition using his hydration techniques—adding a couple of dozen pounds or more between a weigh-in and his fight—then using this added mass to simply overpower his opponents, repeatedly pushing them out of the ring for a cheap victory, but a victory nonetheless. Although this style was looked down upon when he applied it in 1999, it is now standard in the sport.

This quest for efficiency is the underlying theme of his trio of best-sellers in the 4-Hour book series: The 4-Hour Workweek (2007), The 4 Hour Body (2010) and The 4-Hour Chef (2012). For the foreseeable future, Ferriss says, he is done writing books. Whatever work he does now is primarily devoted to investing in startups, educational philanthropy, his popular blog at FourHourWorkWeek.com and The Tim Ferriss Show podcast, which usually ranks No. 1 in iTunes’ business category, with 500,000 or more listeners for some episodes, he says. It could just as easily be classified as a personal-development podcast. His audience might be made up of entrepreneurial-minded bros from New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, but the interviews with diverse characters such as actor-director Jon Favreau, wrestler Triple H and chess prodigy Josh Waitzkin typically veer toward lessons applicable in Middle America, too.

The idea is that life is a choose-your-own-adventure game—that there is a way to summon the courage to pivot, to go do, to become something else at the drop of a hat, and that there is a way to get really good at that new thing without waiting to reach the full 10,000 hours of deliberate practice that Malcolm Gladwell espouses for mastery.

Related: 5 Deliberate Steps to Master a Skill

“It’s simpler to reinvent yourself than people think,” Ferriss says over a heavily dressed salad during a break from the photo shoot. “But I think there are recipes that people can use that are very reliable. Reinvention comes down to asking better questions about yourself, your direction, your objectives, and also being very honest. It’s something that everyone has the capacity to do, but a lot of people fear doing. I think that reinvention is making big decisions about fundamental areas of one’s life. And when you’re doing that, it’s critical to clarify and define your fears. For me and for a lot of people, nine times out of 10, it’s ambiguous fear that is preventing action, and then also having weak, impotent goals. ‘Oh, I want to take a week of vacation in Napa.’ If you choose impotent goals, you’re going to quit when you hit the first handful of obstacles. You need a goal that is going to drive you through those walls when they pop up.”

To overcome self-doubt, Ferriss says he regularly puts himself through an exercise called fear-setting—on the top of a page, he writes whatever quandary he is facing, and then in three columns below, he first spells out the worst-case scenarios preventing him from taking action; second, the things he could do to minimize the likelihood of damage; and third, the things that could be done to repair the situation if it goes badly. More often than not, as he points out in The 4-Hour Workweek, people whose worst fears are realized often find that life isn’t really all that bad after the fact, anyway.

One of Ferriss’s greatest fears is wasting time, and for a long while it might have seemed that he had done just that in his attempts to forge a television presence. In late 2008 he practiced yabusame, Japanese horse archery, in the pilot for a History Channel series that would have shown his attempts to quickly learn skills that took years or decades for the ancients to master. His next shot at television came in late 2013, when he recorded a full 13 episodes of The Tim Ferriss Experiment for HLN. Instead of ancient disciplines, he started from scratch with modern challenges like rock ’n’ roll drumming, surfing, poker and learning a new language. Only a few episodes aired before a network reorganization scuttled it. Ferriss spent more than a year negotiating for the rights to the series, which he received this spring and then released all at once, House of Cards style, via iTunes for $1.99 per episode. It quickly became one of iTunes’ 10 most purchased TV shows.

In each episode, Ferriss tests his accelerated learning theories in trademark fashion. In each of the 13 disciplines, he finds a teacher who takes an alternative approach—the guy pushing kickboxers out of the ring—and dives headlong into the coaching with little regard for best practices. “It’s MythBusters meets Jackass,” he says. And just like Johnny Knoxville, he pays the price for his fearlessness from time to time. For example, while jumping and swinging from tree branch to tree branch to learn parkour, the art-meets-sport of obstacle-course training, he tore ligaments in a knee.

“That’s just Tim being Tim. He’s not afraid to risk it and go all out in his pursuit of learning. But there aren’t really any shortcuts in parkour,” says Travis Brewer, a friend who coached Ferriss in that particular episode. “It was kind of insane for him to try to learn all that at once, but he did a pretty good job. He’s a quick study. I think what makes Tim different from most people is his attention to detail.”

Related: 22 Ways to Become a Relentless Learner

It was Brewer who introduced Ferriss to Jason Nemer, the founder of AcroYoga. “Tim’s got a hunger for learning how to overcome and achieve,” says Nemer, who gave Ferriss his first lessons in the practice. “But I think AcroYoga has been right up his alley because you could spend your entire life practicing acrobatics or yoga and never feel done. There is no completing or conquering it; you just go deeper and deeper. What I learned very quickly in teaching him is that I can give him one thing to digest, and I never have to say it again. He’s almost like a binary machine—he just puts down one block after another block, and it’s a really steady build.”

 

The main thing Ferriss wants to do is learn—learn in general, learn about whatever strikes his interest—and from that learning he is able to teach.

 

The rabid determination to accelerate his improvement drives Ferriss to push himself and his teachers farther than those mentors are accustomed. “Tim will ask 10,000 questions,” Brewer says. “And he studies. He filmed our workouts and watched them later. He’s relentless in whatever he decides he wants to do.

The main thing Ferriss wants to do is learn—learn in general, learn about whatever strikes his interest—and from that learning he is able to teach. After crunching a crouton, Ferriss explains that he doesn’t like being labeled. The New Yorker called him the self-help guru this generation deserves. But he says his motivations aren’t necessarily altruistic.

“I’m willing to write blog posts that are 15 or 20 pages long for free,” Ferriss says. It’s for his own self-interest. “If I want to learn more about a given subject in a week than I could in a year, all I have to do is write a blog post. And then look at the comments. I’m not doing it just for the story or to get attention. I’m doing it for the takeaway. In English the word guru implies someone who has the answers; people come to them for the answers, and that’s the last thing I want. I want my readers to be armed by me with better questions so that they can find the answers themselves, better answers than I could ever provide them.

“If we look way back at the genre, I would say I aspire to be someone more like a Ben Franklin, who was very much in the how-to business but was first and foremost a doer. And then he shared what he learned. But I don’t aspire to be someone—and I think there are a lot of these people—who gets on a stage and motivates people but doesn’t give them particularly actionable information.” An admirer of the Roman thinker Seneca, Ferriss ascribes to the philosophy of stoicism. He also has a deep appreciation for the classic titles of the personal-development genre. “I’ve read a lot of them—Think and Grow Rich, How to Win Friends and Influence People—because if something lasts for decades, if it’s enduring, then there is something to it.”

Ferriss’s investing career fulfills the titular promises of Napoleon Hill and Dale Carnegie. He has stakes in more than three dozen companies, including smash hits such as Facebook, Twitter and Uber, and many smaller ones in which he serves as an adviser, albeit a rather hands-off one in most cases. He is especially interested in young businesses that aim to spread education, such as CreativeLive, an online service that broadcasts live classes to an international audience, and NoRedInk, a platform that teaches students grammar and writing while adapting to their personal interests. He is a donor and an advocate of numerous educational nonprofits in the United States and abroad.

“I think Tim cares about having a real impact on the world,” says Jeff Scheur, the founder of NoRedInk. “I think he values reaching students and impacting students while they’re young before they miss the boat on important skills that they’re going to need later in life. And he knows certain companies are going to have an impact on a lot of children at a young age.”

As for having kids of his own, Ferriss, 38, isn’t so sure. Marriage might not be his thing either. (In 2014 he ended what he describes as a very positive, caring four-year relationship.) He hasn’t closed the door on a family life, but says he wants it to result from meticulously examined, conscious decisions, not societal pressure. “I realized that my entire life has been focused on questioning assumptions,” he says of his current stance toward settling down. “I’ve seen a lot of smart people fail when they aren’t questioning these assumptions.”

For now he is happy to be dating. He dabbles with the matchmaking app Tinder, with its swipe-left-for-no-thanks, swipe-right-for-hey-cutie simplicity. “Addictive,” he says. Ferriss claims that approaching women doesn’t come naturally to him—in fact, he says that arguably the most difficult challenge of his television show came in the episode where he was tasked with becoming a pickup artist, starting conversations with strangers and asking them on dates. But as things wrap up at Salumeria, Emerald seems pretty glad to have finally met him. The two are sharing a smiley conversation and a long handshake. Emerald’s little hands probably can’t squeeze very hard, but maybe Ferriss is grinning and bearing this one because she’s cute.

Or maybe he’s just being nice. He’s equally congenial over at Mission Cliffs, a couple of blocks away, patient and polite despite having to endure a bit of a hassle to get inside for rock climbing. Ferriss used to be a member here, but work, travel and Lyme disease have interfered. A skinny desk attendant with a long beard is trying a little more impatiently to confirm whether Ferriss has already signed the waiver required to climb, and so as not to seem like too much of a big shot, Ferriss is working very hard to avoid admitting that his assistant handled that for him earlier in the week. Time inefficiencies like paperwork are the sorts of things you pay someone else to do if you can afford it, and maybe you’ll be able to afford it if you choose to make efficiency a priority in general.

There are practical aspects of a deliberate life, after all, and things that must be done just to carry on. But those are minor details compared to the big picture. If the big picture is framed correctly, the other things fall into place more easily. Ferriss is willing to put up with the inconvenience of not big-timing this desk clerk because he doesn’t view himself as big-time anyway. He doesn’t take himself too seriously.

 

“I think the only way that you can be effectively serious with the things that matter is if you don’t take yourself too seriously when it doesn’t matter.”

 

“Life is at the same time too long and too short,” he says. “No one knows the reason we’re here, if there even is a reason. So I think fundamentally, at least at times, you have to enjoy yourself. Kurt Vonnegut, one of my favorite writers, said that the purpose of life is to fart around, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Of course, that’s tongue-in-cheek, but I think the only way that you can be effectively serious with the things that matter is if you don’t take yourself too seriously when it doesn’t matter.”

What is most serious and important in this instant is to hang onto the ledge.

Mission Cliffs has five-story-high rock faces to scale, and people are losing their grips and swinging back and forth attempting to gain a foothold all around, but Ferriss prefers bouldering, which focuses on moving laterally along the steep surface rather than climbing upward. Bouldering doesn’t include any harnesses, and the drop to the safety mat is only a few feet, so there’s nothing to be injured except pride. But it’s difficult for someone who hasn’t bouldered in over a year.

Ferriss climbs beneath an outcropping and is hanging horizontally. His arms tremble as he dangles there. His injured hand is bothering him. He’s thinking about how to get around this problem, about whether there is any way to do this with only one hand, about whether there’s a shortcut. But it’s not that easy.

The photographers have their shots and start packing up equipment for the next gig. Everyone shares final fist bumps and says goodbye. Ferriss is still wearing his climbing clothes. He eyes the boulder.

“I’m going to stick around here. I want to see if I can get around this thing.” 

Related: How to Develop an Insatiable Hunger

 

This article originally appeared in the November 2015 issue of SUCCESS magazine.