Tim Ferriss

I had a chance to talk with a very special guest. One of my personal heroes, yoda, and nerd.

New York Times bestselling author Tim Ferriss. Tim, welcome to the Nerd Fitness Rebellion, dude.

Yeah, thanks for having me on.

So for those out there that are currently living under a rock and aren’t familiar with your previous books, can you quick tell us a little bit about The 4-Hour Workweek and your philosophy?

Yeah, sure. So whether it’s The 4-Hour Workweek, 4-Hour Body, 4-Hour Chef, the underlying principles and themes of all the books are the same. And that is looking for uncommon solutions and the shortest path from A to B. It’s not necessarily about shortcuts. I think this is a common misunderstanding. It’s about elegance. So like Toyota lean manufacturing. Removing as much as possible so you have the simplest, cleanest solution possible. In the world of work, one of the tools for doing that is the 80-20 analysis, where you’re looking at the 20% of activities or customers and products that produce 80% or more of your profits, say. There are different ways you can use metrics, and you can do the opposite, which is what a lot of people don’t do. Which is, what are the 20% of products, services, etc. that are consuming, say, 80 plus percent of my time or expenses, or what have you. And the general approach that I take as the writer for doing these books is trying 1,000 things, being the human guinea pig, and then reporting back on what has some scientific support and what works. Whether that’s looking at remote control CEOs and so on and so forth in The 4-Hour Workweek, which ended up being used, oddly enough, by groups at Google and Microsoft, even the CIA, believe it or not. I know, it’s wild. Who knew? And then The 4-Hour Body, which is where I was a human guinea pig again for three years, trying everything imaginable, legal, illegal and in between, for improving fat loss, muscle gain, endurance, hacking the NFL combine, holding your breath with David Blaine. Whatever, you name it. It’s sort of a Choose Your Own Adventure book. And then the last one’s about accelerated learning as it relates to all things, but we’ll get to that.

Yeah, absolutely. I was going to say, so I have 4-Hour Chef right here. Dude, you could do bicep curls with this thing, I think. And add that to your 4-Hour Body workout. It’s a cookbook, but it’s about so much more than that. I read it all the way through, and you cover things like memorizing decks of cards, three-pointers, hunting deer, catching pigeons with one hand while sitting in a park, Alessandra Ambrosio, and what to do with this upcoming apocalypse that’s right around the corner. Can you talk a little bit about how you use cooking to teach, instead of just teaching people to cook?

Right. So cooking was chosen for this book. My readers have been asking me for a book about accelerated learning for five years. I mean, since the first book came out. Because a few of my articles on the blog that did really well right off the bat were about language learning, because that’s something that I’ve spent a lot of time obsessing on for a long time. And there was never—I never found the perfect storm, like the perfect opportunity to write this book. And now that I have more access, more resources and everything, I was able to choose and decide to choose cooking, because it had defeated me so many times in the past. I’d quit so many times in the past. Like, “Oh, it’s too much time. It’s too inconvenient. I hate cleanup.” That’s why I make the money I do, so I can go out to eat. I don’t want to cook. So I decided to tackle that because, #1, there’s so much overwhelming information, just an avalanche of information. Secondly, you use all five senses in cooking, so it transfers to almost everything. For me personally, cooking, basically going from black and white to HD in cooking meant I went from black and white to HD experiencing food, experiencing drawing, weirdly enough. Like shooting three-pointers and all of that. Everything was so weird. Music. Oddly enough, you’d never think that, but it’s been wild. So you can use cooking as this gateway skill to learn everything else. Now, that doesn’t mean you have to cook for the rest of your life. It can be just a week. But the—as you’ve noticed, the content of the book, there is—these stories are told through cooking. Just like stories are told through motorcycles in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. But there is a lot, like you said. There’s Victoria’s Secret models. [INAUDIBLE] Killing chickens. [INAUDIBLE] It’s got a little bit of everything. But the—what I’m trying to teach, a lot like Mr. Miagi would teach wax on, wax off, and he’d show him what it was for, by doing specific things with food, I’m teaching you skills that apply to anything, whether it’s Spanish, searing a steak, archery, whatever. It doesn’t matter. And that grand recipe is this process of meta learning, which I’ve applied to everything, and done a lot of it publicly. Whether it’s the languages or Japanese horseback archery or some other crazy ass thing that I subject myself to. You know, I haven’t really said all too much. But it’s true, is that if I had had all of the access and resources in 2007 that I have now, I probably would’ve written this book first.

Very cool. So I love the gamification aspect of The 4-Hour Chef, specifically in the back cover. Like, you can award yourself points by every time you cook a meal or cook a variation on it. Obviously I run a website called Nerd Fitness. We are huge on the gamification aspect. Why does gamification work? I have my ideas, but I’m interested to hear why you decided to include it in yours and what makes gamification so popular these days, and how it helps people actually get things done.

Yeah. I think gamification, of course, there’s the good, the bad and the ugly with gamification. And there’s some instances where I don’t want gamification. I just want something really simple and clean. But in other instances, I think specifically as it relates to behavioral change—I don’t need, let’s say, my bank, to gamify—[LAUGHTER] I don’t want that.

You’ve already got the money, right?

But if you’re trying to adopt a new behavior or a new skill, whether it’s exercise or diet or cooking, for instance, it’s very helpful. And that is because when most people are learning a new skill, they don’t have progress markers. Now, in fitness, fitness is a bit unique, because if you track your workouts, say, you do have progress metrics based on number of reps, amount of weight, whatever it might be. But what I wanted to do was set out signposts for cooking, so people would have a very distinct, very precise way of grading themselves. How am I doing? Oh, I’m up to this many points. And it also helped to hopefully encourage them to follow the lesson plan. So if you look at the lesson plan, the first recipe, which is one of the easiest, is very disproportionately high in its number of points. Because the lesson that this osso buco teaches is very, very important. And I had proofreaders who would skip it because they’d say, “Oh my God. Osso buco’s too complicated. I’m going to go do the Sexy Time Steak Recipe for testosterone loading that’s 30 pages later.” I’m like, “What are you talking about? That is 100 times more complicated than—[INAUDIBLE] And to try to encourage—and the reason the Osso Buco is first is because it is easier to make this $35 entrée for four to six people than it is to scramble eggs properly for one or two people. It takes five minutes of prep time, and I want that sort of mind blown experience to be had by every reader. It’s very important that it happens at that precise point in the book. And having points helps with that. Now, will it help everyone? I don’t know. Will it help some people? Yes, it will. And some is good enough for me.

Very cool. All right, so a lot of people in Nerd Fitness are brand new to this whole diet and fitness thing. They get the majority of their meals from a drive thru window or the frozen food section of a grocery store. How do you help out that person who is so brand new and absolutely terrified of a kitchen, from getting started? What do you tell that person?

Well, they should—what I would say is, just change your breakfast. The first thing I would do is have them change their breakfast. And the—they could also do dinner, I suppose. But one of the problems with cooking—this is why I failed for so long, I realized—is that when you’re asking someone to learn to cook, it’s not one things. It’s five or six discreet new behaviors. So you’re asking someone—I remember trying cooking, right? I find a recipe, this looks great. Let me try this. First of all, there are 12 ingredients. I don’t where any of them are in my grocery store. So I go to the grocery store. I spend an hour looking for this shit, pardon my French. And super frustrating, and I have to wait 20 minutes in line. Then I get home, have to unpack it. Have to prep it. I don’t know how to prep. That’s a new skill. No idea what I’m doing. Then cooking also of course new. Maybe it turns out, maybe it doesn’t. Then there’s the cleanup, which is thankless and miserable, typically. So that’s five new habits. If you try to get, for instance, a 50+ year old person to quit smoking by using a texting program, they almost always fail. Why? Because that’s two new habits. So if you try five, of course you’re going to fail. It’s like when people try to do everything under the sun at the same time for fitness. Usually they quit. And in the case of my dad, I’ll just give a quick example. So for fat loss, for The 4-Hour Body, my dad had 100+ pounds to lose. I did not have him change his meals up front. I did not have him go to the gym for the first maybe eight weeks. What I had him do was consume 30 grams of protein within 30 minutes of waking up. That was it. It was just a Myoplex shake. Was it perfect? No. Myoplex has a bunch of garbage in it. But I knew it was something he would do, and something I’ve said before is the decent program you follow is better than the perfect program that you quit. So with cooking, what does that mean? Well, one of the ways I like people to experiment with cooking is, let’s say breakfast. OK, eggs. Eggs are—they’re pretty fast, right? Even if you’re used to doing a Lean Cuisine or something in the microwave, eggs are going to be just as fast. And I would open them up to different flavor combinations. So that if they want, let’s say, Middle Eastern eggs, boom, like that they’ve got Middle Eastern eggs. If they want, you know, Italian eggs, slight tweak and they’re done. And so that would just require getting maybe five or six different herbs and spices, and experimenting in the mornings. It’s something you’re doing anyway. And it’s not an additional load, right? So even personally, I cook breakfast at home and I did that even when I was a non-cook. I just quickly cooked some eggs and I’d be done. They were always pretty horrible. [LAUGHTER] [INAUDIBLE] So teaching someone how to improve something they’re already doing, like that, I think is a very smart place to start. The other thing I would say is the worst time to practice a new skill is when you’re under pressure to create a meal. This is also something where I think cooking messes up. And a lot of people mess this up in 100 different ways. But you do not want to have to learn how to use a knife when you need to get food on the table in 20 minutes. That’s the wrong time to learn how to use a sharp knife.

Or in a knife fight. [LAUGHTER]

A much better approach would be to [INAUDIBLE] a lettuce knife, which looks like a real knife. I mean, it has the same shape as a chef’s knife, so you practice the proper hand grip and control. And just like watch TV and cut celery. Practice that skill when you have no stakes at all, no risk at all. And this is what I do with everything from marksmanship to archery to almost anything that I find intimidating. I practice this under circumstances where there are no consequences. There are no consequences. And then when you go to the kitchen to actually use it to make a meal, instead of feeling anxious and quitting cooking altogether, you’ll be like, “OK, I’ve done this before. This is fine.” So those would be a few of the tips that I would say are really helpful. What else? Let me just think about some—and you know where I might actually start? Nerds who really have never cooked and maybe even have no desire to cook, is there’s a section of the book on learning to taste and deconstructing food. You can do as an eater. Just learning to distinguish the million colors, as opposed to just good/bad, hot/cold, spicy/not spicy. So I might have to start there.

Very cool. All right. So let’s move on to learning new skills and making changes. Like most superheroes, you are a man of humble beginnings. How does the fact that you didn’t win the genetic lottery affect how you approach skill learning and who you go after as far as mentors?

It makes a huge—it makes all the difference. Because I look for the anomalies. People who are really good at something, who shouldn’t be good at it. And what I mean by that is, rather than emulating, let’s say—the example that I use in the book is Michael Phelps and Shinji Takeuchi. So when I wrote this book, the two most viewed swimming videos were, #1 of Michael Phelps in the Olympics. #2 is of this middle aged Japanese guy named Shinji Takeuchi.

Identical, right?

Their methods of swimming are different. Training is totally different. And unlike Michael Phelps, who learned to swim at like age 5 or something like that, Shinji learned to swim in his 30s, and he’s now the CEO of Total Immersion Swimming. So Shinji is someone who’s extremely good technically at what he does, but he shouldn’t be. He started way too late, and he also uses the wrong technique. Like, he doesn’t really kick with his legs much. Just enough to rotate the hips. And it’s beautiful and effortless, and that is how I ended up learning to swim two or three years ago, after not being able to swim at all my entire life. Growing up on Long Island, that’s pretty embarrassing. And so I looked—I scan the entire landscape looking for anomalies, like Ed Cook, who can memorize a shuffled deck of cards in less than a minute. But that’s not because of some genetic gift. That’s from training. He knows how to coach people to do that, and he has coached people, which is another one of the questions I asked. Have they replicated their results with anyone? So Ed has trained people like Joshua Fuller from absolutely nothing to National Memory Champion in I think it was a year. These things are teachable. That’s the fascinating part. Other friends of mine, like Josh Waitzkin, who is the basis for Searching for Bobby Fischer. He’s a chess prodigy. That’s how he’s looked—he’s looked upon as a chess prodigy. What people don’t realize about Josh, because he’s a very good friend of mine, is he is also a—I think he’s a world champion or like 10-time national champion in tai chi push hands. Also the first black belt under Marcello Garcia, who’s like the Michael Jordan plus Wayne Gretsky of Brazilian jujitsu. Josh has a recipe that he uses when tackling these skills. He has a particular process. And part of it has to do with things that are very contrarian, like learning something backwards. When he learned chess from his first really formal coach, they didn’t start with the openings. They started with the endgame. They started with king and pawn against pawn. That was it, that’s how they started. So when you start to model these anomalies, you pick out these really uncommon options for, say, learning a language in eight to 12 weeks instead of eight to 12 years. And it’s not like this is science fiction. You can find people who do this routinely. And then all you have to figure out is, what’s their algorithm? What’s the actual recipe that they’re using? And then you copy it, and you try it. So that’s what I’ve been doing for the last two or three—well, I’ve been doing it for like 15 years, but this is the first time I’ve actually put it into a book.

Very cool. So a lot of people are interested in learning a new skill, or like you said, maybe trying to cook. Or maybe sign up for a dance class, or even go up and talking to somebody. They are absolutely terrified of failure. What do you say—I mean, you can’t just slap them in the face and say, “Failure is gonna be OK.” You have to actually get them to get over the fact of failure. What can you tell those people?

That depends on who I’m talking to. I mean, if I’m talking to—we use the term nerd. If I’m talking to somebody—the way that I usually present it is—it depends on the audience, but there are a few different ways. #1 is you want to learn to think scientifically. And scientists run experiments. Experiments fail all the time, i.e. you have a hypothesis and the experiment does not either meet your expectations or invalidates the hypothesis. Whatever it might be. And that isn’t failure. It’s iteration, right? So that’s sort of the logical argument. The more emotional argument is—or perhaps emotionally compelling argument, is to have someone do fear setting. And you probably remember this from The 4-Hour Workweek, where you would write down all of the worst things that could happen. So it’s like, “oh my God, I’m going to approach some girl.” OK, what’s the worst thing that could happen? Worst—she’d call me a creepy pervert and run away. She could slap me, she could…you go down the list. OK, fine. That’s my—now it’s not like, “I’m afraid of getting rejected.” It’s like, “I’m afraid of these very specific worst case scenarios.” This is better. Just like with [INAUDIBLE], to conquer your fear, just as to achieve your goals, you need to be specific. So again, back on this piece of paper, we have all these worst case scenarios. It could be quitting your job. It could be starting your own company, doesn’t matter. Let’s say it’s this girl, right? All these terrible things that could happen. She could mace you and leave you crying. Then the second column is for you to minimize the likelihood of all these things happening. Minimizing. Then third is, if these things actually happened, what could I do to get back to where I am now? And what you realize is, even with these ridiculous worst case scenarios, once you write them down, you’re like, “That’s ridiculous. That would never happen.” But when you write all these down, realize—going back to the quitting your job thing, or starting a company. If I start this company and it doesn’t work out, how hard is it going to be for me to come back to work and get back to where I am now? Not very hard. It takes a few months. Maybe it takes six months. I’m not going to be out of my home. I’m not going to blow up. And I think that fear setting is a very important process. That’s how I—that’s the only way that I’m able to get past some of the things that I fear. And fear is a normal emotion, that’s the thing too. I wouldn’t say that people are wrong for feeling that. And Cus D’Amato, who was Mike Tyson’s primary trainer when he was unbeatable—because Mike Tyson was so nervous before his fights that he would vomit, and said to him, “The hero and the coward feel the same thing. It’s what they do that makes them different.”

Very cool. All right, man. So you are probably the type of person that has constantly remade yourself and made yourself with productivity and habit building habits. Despite all of that, and you’ve changed so many things, I’m assuming, in your life over the past couple years. Do you still have any bad habits that you can’t kick yet, like biting your nails or picking your nose or something?

Tons of bad habits. I have tons of bad habits, and lots of vices. But the key is not trying to—from my standpoint, the—what’s important is multiplying and leveraging your strengths as opposed to trying to fix every single one of your weaknesses. As long as you can get the big, good things done, having stupid little habits here and there is OK. But you need to focus on your strengths, and some weaknesses you need to fix, but not all of them. I mean, one of mine, which is so stupid, but it’s always been a thing for me, is hitting the snooze button. Like, I will wake up and there are days when I don’t want to get out of bed. I will hit the snooze button, and keep in mind it’s going off like every five minutes, right? I’ll hit the snooze button for an hour, two hours maybe if it’s like a Saturday. It’s so dumb, you know? My girlfriend’s just like, “Why don’t you just set the alarm for an hour later? Like, really?” And I’m like, “I don’t—because this is how I do it. It’s dumb, but this is kind of how I do it.” Other bad habits? God, I’ve got tons. Bad habits do I have? I procrastinate all the time. I mean, what’s really funny is people are like, “What does a normal day look like for you?” And I’m like, 80% procrastinating and 20% focusing on my most important one or two to dos on my list. And that’s fine, as long as I focus on the one or two most important to dos on my list. If I’m too busy, like running to the UPS store to mail some nonsense, returning phone calls that can wait, if I do that, then I’m toast. Then I’m game over, I am dead. And I’m not going to get remotely productive. If I waste 80% of my day and then spend 20%—let’s say 30%, let’s just make it like two hours—on my most important one or two to dos, like the one or two things that would change everything else, I’m going to end up more effective, more productive, than 99.9% of the people out there. Even though I am screwing around for 80% of the day. Now, I try for it not to be 80% of the day, but I do procrastinate a lot. I mean, with writing. Like, writers would rather do anything besides write. It’s—I think it’s critical to realize that what you do is more important than how you do it. Doing a lot of things quickly does not make them important, and great models for that are like really old executives. Study really old executives, ’cause they’re just—the men at least, they’re these old, cantankerous guys. They’re not moving real fast. They can’t figure out email. They’re not on Twitter, but get lots of shit done, because they focus on the handful of things that they can get done with their limited physical energy that really have an impact. And I think that emulating the technique du jour is a dangerous habit, because the timeless principles still apply.

Very cool. All right. On to the hard hitting questions: Lord of the Rings or Star Wars? 

I could recite every single line from Star Wars. I still have all, like my original Boba Fett with like the orange—I was a little kid. I gotta go Star Wars. That’s how I grew up.

Jason Bourne or James Bond?

I have to go with Jason Bourne, ’cause he’s against the system, not part of the system. When I write my books, I do it late night, typically. And I’ll put movies on mute that I’ve seen before, and I’ll just put them on loop, so I wrote probably half of the revised 4-Hour Workweek with Jason Bourne, Bourne Identity, and I wrote almost all of The 4-Hour Body with Casino Royale.

All right. I’ve got two last questions for you. First one is, what’s next, man? Like, 4-Hour Astronaut4-Hour Surgeon? 4 Hour what?

I am not sure what is next. I’m actually very comfortable with that, and very excited about it. I think this is going to be the last 4 Hour book. We’ll see. But to me, I don’t have insight into everything, certainly. There are lots of things I haven’t explored. And I’d always idolized Benjamin Franklin, at least for the last 20-25 years, and this is my attempt to provide his healthy, wealthy, and wise to my readers. So you have healthy, 4-Hour Body, wealthy, 4-Hour Workweek, and then wise is 4-Hour Chef, which is this comprehensive book on accelerated learning. And I don’t know what’s next. I’ll probably try something outside of books before—I may come back to books, but I’d like to try something outside of books before I come back to books. We’ll see.

Thank you so much for taking the time out of your hectic day to stop by and hang out with us and the Nerd Fitness crew.

Yeah, my pleasure. And if people want—you know, people want to see samples of the book, free chapters, etc. I’ve put at least a couple hundred megs up on Bit Torrent, so they can find tons of stuff. Video and photos and chapters and whatnot. And then 4HourChef.com has sample chapters and everything else. So hopefully people enjoy it.