Tim Ferriss’s first book, The Four-Hour Work Week, has been a runaway success. In the past year, 500,000 people have shelled out their cash to learn why desk jobs are for suckers.
The book instructs readers how to outsource their lives – at least all the annoying bits that can be palmed off to virtual assistants. In the meantime, you find a niche business that can tick over by itself while you go travelling, learn languages and live the “life of Riley”.
This how-to guide to a fantasy life has struck such a chord among worn-down wage slaves that it appeared on three prestigious best-seller lists at the same time last year (The New York Times, Business Week and The Wall Street Journal) and has brought fame and more fortune to the 30-year-old professional maverick who wrote it.
Tim Ferriss was already doing very nicely thank you before the book appeared last April. The Asian linguistics graduate from Princeton had found himself the ideal niche business, selling sports vitamin supplements to one or two resellers.
By automating the ordering and payment processes and employing virtual assistants to do all the running around for him, he is able to live comfortably on the profits. Where he was making $US40,000 ($42,000) a year previously in his desk job, he says he is now bringing in $US40,000 a month.
Talking on the phone from his San Francisco home, Ferriss breaks off to say goodbye to the man who was taking care of the plants in his atrium, while someone else scans feature articles into his computer, and another, named Mike, potters around in the background.
“Mike? I don’t know what Mike is doing,” Ferriss says cheerfully.
Ferriss has plenty of reason to be happy, his list of achievements in his book (Crown Publishing, Random House) make him a generation Y role model: “No-holds-barred cage fighter, vanquisher of four world champions; first American in history to hold a Guinness world record in tango; Princeton University guest lecturer in entrepreneurship; applied linguist in Japanese, Chinese, German and Spanish; glycemic index researcher; national Chinese kickboxing champion; MTV breakdancer in Taiwan; athletic adviser to more than 30 world record holders; actor on hit TV series in China and Hong Kong; TV host in Thailand and China; political asylum researcher and activist; shark diver; motorcycle racer”.
“There are some people who look at that list and say ‘liar’,” Ferriss admits. “Then, they look at the title of the book and say ‘bullshit’. This book is not for everyone.”
Ferriss may have majored in linguistics but he is no slouch at marketing himself and his products. On closer examination, the achievements stack up, but are not always what they seem at first.
After all, how many Americans would think of setting a Guinness world record in tango? He does lecture twice a year at his alma mater. He studied Asian languages at university and instructs people on his blog how to become conversationally fluent in languages in two to 12 months by deconstructing them.
Ferriss says he was a breakdancer in the background on an MTV show in Taiwan (he started a hip hop and breakdancing group at Princeton) and played an FBI officer with “a few lines” on the TV series Human Cargo. All great adventures, and a lot of fun.
Ferriss also likes to rewrite, or bend, the rules. He admits that he won the kickboxing championships through a loophole, dehydrating himself for the weigh-in and then rehydrating back to normal for the fight to become three weight classes above his opponent . . . and then pushing them off the podium three times so they were disqualified.
The ordinary social rules of working life that most of us follow unquestioningly are also under challenge. You don’t have to quit your job altogether if you are not keen on running your own business, Ferriss also provides a step-by-step guide to people who just want to be their own boss and set their own schedules.
The first thing to do is cut out all the dithering. Maybe check your email once a day and have an automatic reply that filters out time-wasters. Cut out all the minor clients or too small to bother with sales accounts and just concentrate on servicing big ones. Then start working on your boss so that you can cut the ties to the office.
Ferriss supplies a script that shows how, with a little deception and persuasion, you can convince your boss that you are more productive at home than at the office (artificially lowering your results at work, and then boosting them from home). Then, with the help of email and phone technology, you should be able to work from anywhere in the world and you employer will never know that you are at the Oktoberfest in Munich.
While this sounds incredibly self-serving and manipulative, Ferriss argues that, if you become more effective in your job, nobody is being dudded.
It is the outsourcing or “delegating”, as he calls it, that provides the greatest freedom to Ferriss and his followers. There are a growing number of internet-based concierges which, for a fee, will transcribe the minutes of your meetings, prepare your PowerPoint presentations, research your next project, book your dinner dates, pay your personal bills, handle your emails, find the nearest mechanic for your car and write your blog for you.
The beauty of many of these services is that you earn your money in first-world dollars, while you pay them at developing-world rates. Indian outsourcers cost between $US4 and $US10 an hour and can be very efficient, highly educated (there are plenty with MBAs) and, because of the different time zones, can complete a job for you while you sleep.
“I probably have between a dozen and 20 virtual assistants running my life in various aspects,” he says. He pays his main virtual assistant in Canada between $US800 and $US1200 per month.
Ferriss also uses virtual assistants from Croatia, Romania, the Philippines and Argentina.
He says he now spends less than two hours a month working on his vitamin company, BrainQUICKEN, and has not done the book tour and store book signings that are usually expected of an author.
“Keep in mind, I get more than 1000 emails a day . . . you can save yourself from 10 to 20 hours of minutia in a busy week.”
For as little as $US19 a month, asksunday.com will handle 10 jobs, the charges rising depending on the workload.
Ferriss spent two-and-a-half years years researching his book, which then took nine months to write, and used a number of researchers to provide the background. “The demand for personal outsourcing is tremendous,” he says. “I think there are a few reasons for this. People are beginning to realise that in a digital world there are too many interruptions. Time is now the most valuable non-renewable resource.
“Many of my good friends are extremely well educated and work extremely hard. In some cases, they generate very, very good income and almost all of them have this 24/7 low-grade anxiety and unspoken sense of unfulfilled potential.”
While Ferriss’s book was well received by reviewers, Ferriss says there has been a lot of resistance from people who simply refuse to believe that they could “have it all”, if they were just willing to take some risks.
“It is very unpopular to say ‘I don’t want to work’. People wear a work ethic like a badge of honour,” he says.
“But the overarching concept is not to be idle, but to spend time on the things you enjoy doing.”