Review of The 4-Hour Workweek


In 2007, Tim Ferriss shocked the publishing world with his best-selling book, The 4-Hour Workweek.  Who would think that a book selling a lifestyle change would be so popular?  In it, Ferriss re-examines what it means to be a “success” and offers a unique and challenging answer.  We explore that answer in this review of the second edition of his book.4 Hour Workweek

Tim starts his book by defining a new concept of rich – what he coins the “new rich”.  Who or what are the new rich?  The new rich are a group of entrepreneurs that start and run businesses, not for the purpose of creating vast sums, but for the purpose of creating just enough wealth to live life and do the things they want to do.  In this, he does something too few people consider – he asks the question “is spending your time doing this thing worth it?” and it’s corollary “do you mean it?”  These two questions permeate the entire book.

Is the 4 hour work week worth reading? Absolutely.  It’s a very good book, with just two problems – which I’ll get to.  But first, let me share the good with you.

The book proceeds with 4 steps – the first being definition.  This is absolutely where you need to start.  Define your goals, passions, and dreams.  Without a clear idea what you want, it’s impossible to get there.  As I state in the keys to picking a career, identifying what you want is an essential first step.  He goes further though, and asks his readers to define what’s stopping them.  Is it fear?  What of and why?  What’s the worst that can happen?  Can it be mitigated?

In the second section on elimination, Pareto’s law was invoked – stating that 80% of the outputs result from 20% of the inputs.  While that ratio may not be consistent in every scenario (often it’s more sever – 90/10 or 95/5), the major takeaway is that the much of our time and effort is spent on things with small returns.  If instead, we focus our energies on the 20% of things that have large returns, we would instantly improve our life.  Eliminate the low return items.  As he asks, which 20% of sources causing 80% of my problems and unhappiness?  And which 20% of sources are resulting in 80% of my desired outcomes and happiness?

Consider one of his lessons – eliminate 80% of your work-time by focusing on the things that matter and ignoring the rest.  Tim did this with his business, which at one time was consuming 80-100 hours per week.  He was miserable.  In danger of depression, he decided to take an extended vacation to Europe.  While away, he learned that much of his time was spent handling brush fires from a few obnoxious customers.  Yet these customers brought him very little revenue.  To fix this, he focused his entire effort on his few biggest customers, ignored 80% of them, and fired the rest (yes, he fired his most obnoxious customers).  These few big customers required much, much less effort for the return it brought him.  While he took a small hit on revenue, he freed dozens of hours a week to pursue other things.

What did he do with this free time?  He pursued various other passions – from dancing and traveling, to horseback archery  and learning new languages.  According to Tim, he learned to focus on his dreams by earning enough income from his businesses to finance the rest.

There are a host of other important principles covered throughout the elimination section, including Parkinson’s Law (work expands to fill the time available for completion) and the information diet (cutting back on the flood of information you see everyday).  Taking these principles to heart will surely get individuals focusing on what’s truly important and eliminating the rest.

Next, the book delves into automation.  This can be seen as an extension of the eliminate section, in that you are taking activities that need to be done, but find someway to automate.  This can be as simple as hiring a virtual assistant to creating a business that sells a product without your presence.  Tim even tells a story about an editor who attempted to “outsource his life” by hiring virtual assistants for “paying my bills, getting stuff from drugstore.com, finding my son a Tickle Me Elmo”.  Recently in the news (I don’t know if he read The 4-Hour Workweek, but he shows the principle perfectly), one man tried to outsource his job to a Chinese consulting firm without telling his boss.   He paid the Chinese firm a fraction what he was being paid to do the job he was hired to do.  Apparently, the Chinese firm did the job so well he received high marks on his yearly evaluations.  While his dishonesty is deplorable, his ingenuity in applying the principle intriguing.

Lastly, the book presents the life-style options once your income is secure.  In particular, Tim recommends “mini-retirements” – of leaving work behind for extended periods of time as you explore the world and learn new things – and to live out your dreams!

So, what are the two problems I had with the book.  The first stems from his concept of the “new rich” and “mini-retirements.”  They are both based on an implicit assumption about work – that it is generally undesirable so avoiding it is a positive.  This assumption manifests itself while discussing dreams and mini-retirements.  Nowhere does he acknowledge that someone may identify a central purpose to their life that becomes a career – work loved for its own sake.  If someone has a career they love, they will be living their dream everyday.  Why would such a person a desire “mini-retirements”?   Now, this is admittedly the life-style choice acknowledged in the intro.  Not everyone will want to follow that part of the advice, even if the rest makes sense (like eliminating the pain from your life and overcoming your fears).

The second problem with this book has been rectified by the publication of his latest book, The 4 Hour Chef.  The problem – the ability to create a business like he advises would require many years of trial and error to learn to do appropriately.  While he makes his life-style choice sound easy, it’s actually the culmination of many years of learning.  In his latest book The 4 Hour Chef, Tim claims to lay out the method by which he learns things extremely fast and furious so that he can improve his life quickly.  By using this method, Tim says you too can achieve the same results as he did in business, fitness, salsa dancing, cooking, or any skill.

Photo credit: Werner Kunz via photopin cc


About John Drake

John Drake is an assistant professor at East Carolina University. While pursing his PhD in management information technology and innovation, John learned the art of high productivity through setting difficult goals to achieve unending success. John is a student of Objectivism, an advocate of Getting Things Done, a parent of three, a husband, a writer, a business owner, a web master, and an all around cool guy. His professional site is at http://professordrake.com

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