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Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Book Review: The 4-Hour Workweek

The 4-Hour Workweek immediately hit the media spotlight. It got raving reviews and has created countless debates on blogs around the web ever since. Its author, Timothy Ferriss, coined the term "the new rich". The new rich are not rich. They don't own oil companies or Manhattan nightclubs. They are not bestseller authors either. What they have is a regular flow of cash which they obtain without working much, and which they use to fund their dream lifestyle. Tim aims at showing anyone how to achieve just that: a luxury lifestyle without putting in the hours. And by 'anyone' he literally means 'anyone', from the Midwest academic on a 4-4 course load to the single mother working a 9-5 job as a coffee bitch. The book is smack-full of neat tips. Here are just a few of the "how-to" promises of the book. Tim promises to show you:

• How to outsource your life to overseas virtual assistants for $5 per hour and do whatever you want
• How to read 200% faster in 10 minutes
• How to eliminate 50% of your work in 48 hours using the principles of a forgotten Italian economist
• How to trade a long-haul career for short work bursts and frequent "mini-retirements"
• How to train your boss to value performance over presence, or kill your job (or company) if it's beyond repair
• How to cultivate selective ignorance—and create time—with a low-information diet
• How to get free housing worldwide and airfare at 50–80% off
• How to fill the void and create a meaningful life after removing work and the office

What the heck is the guy thinking? Well, there is a bit of history to it. After college Tim took a wearying sales job at a tech-y firm. When he left to start a successful business of his own, he went from 40 to 80 hours a week. Despite making good money, he felt like every little piece of his soul was slowly being sucked out of him.

Tim then decided to change. He streamlined, eliminated, automated, outsourced. Not exactly the geeky type, Tim took off to tropical paradise, and then decided to write a book about achieving the true American dream. He also created a blog devoted to experiments in life-style design.

So what to do if you want to be Tim? Well, first stop your 9 bad habits and then start outsourcing. It's that simple. Tim's 9 bad habits undone are plainly adorable:

1. Do not answer calls from unrecognized phone numbers
2. Do not e-mail first thing in the morning or last thing at night
3. Do not agree to meetings or calls with no clear agenda or end time
4. Do not let people ramble
5. Do not check e-mail constantly — “batch” and check at set times only
6. Do not over-communicate with low-profit, high-maintenance customers
7. Do not work more to fix overwhelm — prioritize
8. Do not carry a cellphone or Crackberry 24/7
9. Do not expect work to fill a void that non-work relationships and activities should

I must admit that I haven't been able to stop a single one of these killer habits (except the first one, but I never answer the phone anyway, unless I really like you). But the thought is a good one. What about outsourcing? The trick is to find a job that doesn't require your presence. Then, and only then, will outsourcing work. You then hire some poor Indian guy to do business for you and then you book a discount trip to Hawaii or Greenland. It sounds burlesque and irresponsible but, Tim argues, it really isn't. We are simply socially conditioned into thinking that we have to work our asses off to be successful. Get over your fears and hit the road, guys!

But outsourcing seems to rub people the wrong way. It feels a bit atrocious to hire some stone broke virtual guy from a third-world country to do an exhaustive search of the world's boutiques in order to find a talking or dancing Elmo for your spoiled child or to arrange for a team of tech nerds to set up a countless number of speed-dates with oblivious young women looking for true love. Tim has done all of that, and more. The most hilarious part of the book is the section where Tim describes how he is outsourcing his love letters to his wife! I am glad I am not married to him (though I do have to admit that he is quite a handsome young man). But back to outsourcing. Is it really that bad? We live in an outsourced world, don't we? We pay people to clean our houses, wash our cars, fill our SUVs with gas in Jersey, walk our dogs, house-sit our cats, baby-sit our kids, cook our party food, teach our classes, grade our quizzes, conduct our X-Phi quasi-experiments, add footnotes to our book manuscripts (yes, some people really do do that!), you name it. But it's not just paying people to work for you that fuels people's concerns about outsourcing. It's the fact that Tim pays $5/hour to have young starving men and women from India run his company and personal life while he tangos in Argentina and eats at 5-star restaurants. Ever thought of donating, Tim?

But if (and that's a big if) outsourcing really ain't that bad, then the question arises, is it really true that you can get away with working only four hours a week? Not really. By "a 4-hour workweek" Tim means four hours spent on work you really despise doing but which nonetheless brings in most of your income. Many of us (academics) are fortunate enough to have a 4-hour workweek in this sense. Not all academics are where they want to be, but a huge number of us are doing exactly what we want to do 90% of the time. So, the book is not really geared towards academics. But I think even academics can draw something useful from the book. If nothing else, you can get a good laugh out of it. Plus, it's all the rage, it's been on New York Time's bestseller list for years. Actually, this is the second expanded edition (100 pages of added material!), and it's still on the lists. Of course, the fact that it has been on the lists for years just shows that people buy it for whatever reason (a lot of marketing buzz and a catchy title?), not that it's a great book. But it really is quite a useful book, full of little nifty tips on how to use your time more efficiently and find more time to do what you really enjoy doing. One wonders, though, whether Tim actually wrote the book. Or did he follow his own religion? This could be a true Gödel-Schmidt story.

[Nota Bene: I appreciate the sudden flow of free books from trade publishers after I started posting book reviews to my blog but it is still my prerogative to pick and choose which of them I review. Yes, I do have a life! So, no follow-up emails please. Or maybe I should think about outsourcing my reviewer responsibilities!]


Anonymous said...

I would say one of the big reasons you don't relate to the big is because you are an academic.

I'm an entrepreneur and while I don't agree with everything in the book, I understand where he is coming from. Many of his ideas were brilliant in reducing work and focusing on growth.

Brit Brogaard said...

I agree. Outsourcing is not a bad idea. Paying someone a rate that is reasonable in the location they are working from is a fine one too, in principle. I wonder how it affects unemployment, though.