A couple of years ago I read the popular book, “The Four Hour Workweek” by Tim Ferriss. It was recommended to me by my friend, Net Jacobsson, who was trying to do some basic Life Hacking. If you’re not familiar with the term it’s basically trying to help all of us who are deluged with technology to find ways to cope with the masses of information without having it ruin our lives.
Let me start by saying I’m a huge business book cynic. I think too many books are written by charlatans and have too much management jargon / double speak that I can’t stand. So I don’t read too many of them. You can imagine my reluctance to read a book with a title full of such bluster. But Net had told me that he picked up some valuable lessons from the book, so I thought, “WTF? Can’t hurt.”
I’m sure many people have many take-aways (positive and negative) from the book. But on balance for me the positive messages far outweighed the negative ones. I didn’t go back and re-read the book or double check my exact language but the thoughts below are directionally correct (the fact that I remember anything a few years later from a business book is already a huge positive sign).
My 2 biggest positives:
1. The Deferred Life (DL) Plan - This point alone makes the book worth reading. The concept is that in the “information era” the overwhelming majority of employees in the world have meaningless jobs pushing papers from one side of their desk to the other side from 9am to 5pm and really don’t have much of an impact on anything. The problem is that most people in this situation know they are stuck in the position and never try to change or to do anything about it.
In America being in this type of job means that you get 2 (maybe 3) weeks of vacation per year. So people diligently put in their hours every year, brag about how little vacation they’ve taken and try to save up for 45 years so that one day in their late 60’s (or in today’s era 70’s) they can do what they’ve always dreamed of. They can travel the world, take classes in interesting subjects, spend time with loved ones or start new hobbies. Of course when they get there those individuals are no longer young and after years of mental and physical atrophy they lack the ambitions to get these things done.
Tim Ferriss’ assertion is that you should try to pursue an entrepreneurial job where you can take control of your life and your hours. You should make a list of the ambitions that you have in life and accomplish many of those things now. Want to spend a year or more in Argentina? Andrew Warner from Mixergy is doing it. He’s not on the Deferred Life plan.
With the exception of rare circumstances most people could do this if they chose to. I’m not saying there would be zero sacrifice but if it’s your dream what are you waiting for? Want to take a year pursuing your dream to write a screenplay, travel through Asia, run a triathlon or start your own fashion line? If not now, then when?
Of course the 4-hour work week and DL plan is a gross over generalization and meant to be shocking. So in that context let me use it. I often encourage people to pursue their entrepreneurial dreams. I wrote a blog post related to this called Is it Time to Earn or to Learn? If you don’t have entrepreneurial dreams no problem. But if you do and if you sit on the sidelines waiting for the day when the circumstances are right for you to start a company you never will. You’re on the DS (deferred startup) plan.
How I Avoided the Deferred Life Plan – And Why it Means So Much to Me
I worked for a large multinational for nearly a decade. I learned much and had great experiences. I used it as my “live now” vehicle. After 3.5 years in LA (early 90’s) many of my friends left to start companies in Silicon Valley. We were high tech at the very start of the boom. I chose a different path. I pushed for Accenture to transfer me to Europe.
It took more than a year to make this happen (I’ll cover how I did this in a different post) but January 2nd, 1995 I flew to France for 2 years and didn’t move back to the US for 11 years. During this period of time I found ways to get my firm to staff me in Italy, France, Hungary, Switzerland, Belgium, Spain and the UK. I got my firm to pay for 50% of my MBA and I did the international program at the University of Chicago. Our European campus was in Barcelona where I rented a villa with 5 buddies. I spent 8 weeks there per year as well as time in Chicago. I did all of this while I had an income.
In early 1999 I made the decision to fulfill my lifelong dream to live and work in Japan. I will also cover how I accomplished this in a separate post but in early 1999 I arrived in Tokyo for the first time. I spent 6 months there (actually, I commuted between London and Tokyo 6 times in those 6 months). I ran a team of 14 people (12 Japanese, 1 German and 1 Turk … both of whom were fluent in Japanese) who produced an Internet strategy for the board of Sony. I got to experience much of the local culture and customs. It was not a touristy experience.
My big push to avoid the Deferred Life plan came from a bad experience at my first employer. My first corporate job was at First Interstate Bank where I worked in Corporate Finance. My boss and my boss’s boss made me all sorts of promises about how quickly I’d be promoted. I’m sure they meant it. I worked late hours but didn’t care because I was young. But I was a bit depressed to see my boss’s boss there late every night. He had 2 kids and seemed to stay late for mostly political reasons (or maybe he enjoyed it more than he enjoyed being home?). His boss worked too much too. We all did until the S&L crisis hit and I was laid off. So was my boss. And my boss’s boss. And his boss. And his boss. Our bank was gutted.
I was 22 and unemployed. It was the best thing that ever happened to me. I had a nice severance check and secured a job with Andersen Consulting very quickly. And it taught me at 22 to be my own man. Large corporations can be soulless. They are necessary and do much good but they do what they have to to evolve and survive. You may be a ‘favored child’ now but when circumstances change radically, business is business. And while I bounced back very easily, many of the bank elders did not.
I swore never to let that happen to me. A rolling stone gathers no moss. I wanted to be that guy who was always morphing. Always developing. Seeing new places, learning new things. Always on take off, never at cruising altitude. Not on the deferred life plan. And so it was that I pushed to get jobs in LA, Miami, Rome, Barcelona, the South of France, London and Tokyo.
2. Getting Your Work Schedule on Your Terms – Many people in America sit at their desk much of the day and have email open. When a new email comes in you see the little pop-up in the bottom right-hand corner of your screen and like Pavlov’s dog you feel an adrenaline rush and need to read that email.
We have become a reactive society where we feel beholden to those that want to contact us. We owe them all something. I am like this, too. I feel guilt and stress when I don’t respond to people that reach out to me. And from email we added IM, Facebook and LinkedIn where people contact us. And, of course, now Twitter.
The 4 Hour Workweek sets out an extreme view of email and similar communications but it is directionally correct. He says not to leave your email box opened all day and I totally agree with this one. If you sit on your email all day you’re reacting to somebody else’s input rather than proactively getting your work done. Tim recommends that you check email initially twice / day – at 11am and at the end of the day (if I remember correctly). He doesn’t think you should check email first thing in the morning because you should start your day by getting the stuff done that is on YOUR important list, not somebody else’s. He then goes on to recommend that you do email just once / week. Yeah, right!
I wish I were good in the email category. I feel the need to check first thing in the morning. But then I tend to stay off email throughout the day as much as possible. I check it when I’m between meetings or when I out and about because I can quickly read it on my Blackberry. I try to do email at the end of each day but with so many evening obligations I find this hard. Obviously if you’re in a customer support role, a sales role or a customer service industry this can be impossible.
Where I’m more disciplined is on Twitter. I don’t leave Tweetdeck or Seesmic apps open during the day. These are great products but if you have them open all day and see the pop ups telling you, “You’ve Got Tweets,” then you’re sucked in. So my Twitter pattern is to check in the AM, check between meetings for 5 minutes max and check in the PM. And, of course, I check incessantly when I travel, am waiting for a meeting or am sitting in a conference. Blackberry satisfies this addiction.
My 2 biggest negatives about the book:
1. Not everybody is geared up to be an entrepreneur – Tim Ferriss is obviously a very talented individual. I believe that he takes for granted that everybody can start their own company and run it a few hours / week and earn a decent living. I think the overwhelming majority of people would not be good at running their own small businesses (but that doesn’t mean they need to work in mindless jobs or be on the Deferred Life plan).
When I counsel people on whether they should make the leap to running their own company I always give the honest truth that being an entrepreneur is hard, stressful, time consuming and a low-probability of making millions. It’s not for most. But if the person that I’m talking with seems unphased by this and has the passion to try then I become unbearable in preaching from my soap box how they should stop sitting on the sidelines. I just don’t believe in coaxing somebody who may not have the right constitution or economic circumstance. To me the book glossed over this. You should buy it and read it anyways.
2. Four hours is unrealistic – OK, so if he called the book the 34-hour workweek I guess he wouldn’t have sold too many copies. I guess the 70-Hour Workweek defeats the point of the book. Let me assume that Tim Ferriss really only works 4 hours / week. Then he’s the only person not born into wealth or not in semi-retirement that I believe can do this. It’s just not realistic. I believe you can choose not to over work, but 4 hours? Meh.
My advice. Whatever you decide to do about your career, find the little things to take you off the DL list. If you always planned to study a second language – START! If you have kids make sure you find ways to occasionally drive them to school or turn up at their school events. Find a way to schedule meetings on Fridays out of town so you can merge work meetings and family adventure.
If you’ve always wanted to travel find a way to make this happen through your work or find work that will enable this. When I went it was at the end of the last big recession. I worked long and hard to make it happen. You CAN do it. It may not be your exact plan. Mine was to live in Spain but I could only make France happen. Close enough. If you wait for the “perfect time” you’ll never go. Trust me.
Next post: two “4-Hour Workweek” like hacks I started in 2009 to try and take back control of my life that are saving me hours.
(Cross-posted @ Both Sides of the Week)