How to Test Your Dream Job (Case Study: Me as Monkey Trainer)

Ever had the desire to run off and join the circus? I have.

Two weeks ago, I finally decided: enough is enough. I need some monkeys. Who hasn’t? I’d dreamed of having a monkey on my shoulder ever since I first watched Indiana Jones. So, I called the San Francisco Zoo and asked if I could drop by and play with their monkeys — did they have capuchins? No and no, respectively; however, there was a famous trainer in Napa with baboons. They’d get back to me with his number.

And they did.

Last Saturday, I spent the afternoon with the Jedi master of baboon trainers, Kevin Keith of Napa. He gets called when Hollywood needs monkeys to interact with Sandra Bullock without biting her face off. It was AWESOME. And, God save the queen, he had capuchins. AND spider monkeys, New Guinea singing dogs (the rarest breed in the world, by some accounts), Mandrille baboons, and much more.

For me, this was just the latest experiment in a long string of testing dream jobs — shark diver, tango dancer, MMA competitor, truffle maker, author, etc. — albeit a long-overdue one. Is it possible to just run off and test dreams jobs like this? Sure it is. Is it common? No, but it is very, very possible.

Ever thought of being a chef, chocolatier, dog sledder, astronaut, fashion designer, or sports team manager? There are companies that will pair you with mentors to give you just this experience. For $200-1,000, VocationVacations can help you test the fantasy, just as one example.

If they can’t help you find your champion hotdog eater or Mustang customizing expert, don’t fret. Just call up someone who has your dream job and beg them to spend a slow afternoon with you. Quite literally say something like, “I know this is out of left field, but it’s been a dream of mine since I was a kid to be a _____. I finally built up the courage to look for someone who is a pro in _____, and I found you after hours of research. Is there any possible way I could shadow you for an afternoon, even on a Saturday or Sunday if you prefer? How do I have to beg? I’ll bring a bottle of wine and buy you lunch, stand on my head, or do whatever necessary! Just let me know what I have to do, but please don’t say ‘no’! I’ve come too far.” If that’s a little too dramatic for you, bribe them to lunch to ask them about their job and then spring a version of the above on them.

Trust me, it works. No one does it, so it works.

So, how did my monkey mania turn out? Just check out the below video for a sample, and, yes, Kevin Keith does look like Johnny Knoxsville. Towards the end, the male Olive/Hamadryas mix Mickey unexpectedly jumps on me. This made me a tad nervous, as Hamadryas are the most aggressive of the baboons, and he had been tearing his cage apart seconds earlier, and I do mean TEARING it apart — throwing 100-200-lb. pieces of furniture around like paper airplanes. That’s the smashing sounds in the background at 00:47 and 01:14.

“Oh, he’s jealous and excited to play with you!”

I bet. Bring on those 3-inch canines and let’s dance! I was freaking terrified. The lip smacking you’ll see, a gesture of friendship, made me feel slightly better, but not much. Zoe, the wee lil’ capuchin, was a bit more my speed (re: not easily able to kill me).

Last but not least, I was able to eat some Monkey Chow, which tasted pretty damn good. Imagine a large Dog Chow biscuit, yellowish in color and slightly sweet. Deeeeelish. My next business? Repackaging and selling it to health nuts in Santa Cruz for $30 a handful.

Monkeys rule.

The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 900 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.

Leave a Reply

Comment Rules: Remember what Fonzie was like? Cool. That’s how we’re gonna be — cool. Critical is fine, but if you’re rude, we’ll delete your stuff. Please do not put your URL in the comment text and please use your PERSONAL name or initials and not your business name, as the latter comes off like spam. Have fun and thanks for adding to the conversation! (Thanks to Brian Oberkirch for the inspiration.)

18 Replies to “How to Test Your Dream Job (Case Study: Me as Monkey Trainer)”

  1. It depends on how much you hustle, in the positive sense. Most operators are independent and depend on booking gigs for income. Few are full-time employees of zoos, circuses, etc. Just as in speaking, there are brokers and agencies that are supposed to book on behalf of clients, in this case trainers, but animal trainer brokers seem to be much less dependable (probably because they have less client volume and need to hold multiple jobs) than speaking bureaus, for example.

    In the end, to be a good monkey trainer requires being in business, which requires being a good self-marketer. I’ll be working with Kevin to get his stories and day-to-day experiences to the world via his own blog, which will be awesome. His life and amazing handling skills are really suitable for a TV show on Animal Planet.

  2. Pretty inspiring stuff. Not the monkey training in particular, but the notion of test-driving your dream job. I think many people already do this in the form of getting serious about a hobby, but the idea of finding a mentor is RARELY done.

    I do this today at work (have a few mentors that are very senior folks) and it has helped me immensely in getting clear about what I want to be and do “when I grow up.”

    Outside of my job, three careers that I would like to try out are:

    1. yoga instructor

    2. adventure tour operator

    3. writer/journalist (travel-writer, biographical stories)

  3. Besides the requirement of being in business, a good monkey trainer also has to have an excellent knowledge of animal behavior and psychology for the purpose of conditioning the animal’s behavior, and they should also know quite a bit about each individual species they’re dealing with. Most infant primates are fun and gentle, but once they are out of infancy, most monkeys are socially aggressive. After all, they’re evolved to live in a social hierarchy, where one animal is more dominant than another.

    I’m saying this from direct experience as an animal behavior major during and after college who worked with baboons, macaques, chimps, orang-utans, etc. The animals are fascinating and fun, but you’re right that someone who isn’t careful can easily get bitten.

  4. Thanks for adventuring off to play with monkeys and sharing this story, Tim. This was really timed well for me, since I find that while much of what I do professionally today is personally rewarding for me, there are times during which there is only so much I can do to ensure the realization of my goals. The list of to-dos will always be never ending, but sometimes you can only plan, manage, and bury yourself in work for so long, until the concept of diminishing returns catches up with you and you are really just wasting your time.

    Therefore, when those times arrive, I am learning how important it is to ignore the kneejerk reaction of productivity deficiency-charged guilt, which often sets in, and find some form of personally-satisfying adventure, no matter the day of the week or time of day. I think that part of what kills creativity in a non-entrepreneurial setting (think cubicles and 9-5s) is that creativity and innovation come in spurts. Oftentimes, my best ideas and work come while doing a 10 mile run, trekking through Golden Gate Park, reading a book, meeting new people, etc. Forcing oneself to produce creative ideas according to a set schedule and in an unchanging environment is irrational. Working in sterile, unchanging environments according to a set schedule parallels trying to solve hard problems by one’s self, when the opportunity to work with a group exists. In a sense, we end up stifling our own creativity.

    Thanks again, time for a burst of work and then a bike ride through Golden Gate Park.

  5. Most entertaining post I’ve seen today, thanks! I’m definitely going to try find a monkey trainer to hang out with in South Africa. And this 4-hour workweek sounds like my cup of tea, time to read up a bit more.

  6. Hi Ravi, Tom, Ryan, and Vaughn,

    Great comments — thanks! Here are some of my thoughts:

    Ravi, I love your to-test dream jobs. I’ve seen people test yoga instructor by offering free lunch-hour lessons to co-workers; I recommend volunteering as a guide during a vacation for adventure guide; and check out for Jen Leo’s tips on becoming a travel writer, which is an awesome gig but usually doesn’t pay too much.

    Tom, I agree 100%. Monkey trainers deal with a inevitable dominance struggle once monkeys pass adolescence, and few are equipped to deal with it. Kevin knows all of his species and even understands the differences in dominance between Mandrille and Hamadryas baboons, for example. It’s totally different! I never would have guessed.

    Ryan, fantastic observations, and you’re making me jealous talking about Golden Gate Park while I’m stuck in Man Jose (San Jose)! Sterile, unchanging environments produce sterile, unchanging thinking, which is bad for business and even worse for personal life. Amen. That’s why I’m now in Kentucky, but more on that in my next post 😉

    Vaughn, monkey trainers are fun to hang with, and I’d even recommend finding some of the Great White (White Pointer) divers if you’re in SA — good times if you don’t get eaten. There are some excerpts of the book on the main site at, and the whole book hits in 10 days!!!

    Thanks for the great comments, and have a fantastic weekend,


  7. @Tim: Yeah, those baboons can be fearsome! It was incredible to me how well he had them trained. I can’t believe how friendly and cooperative they were with him and with you. I’ve been chased out of an enclosure by one adult male baboon, and I’ve seen that same male slice open the arm of a juvenile from elbow to shoulder. So kudos to you and the trainer for getting so up-close and personal with those animals– I would have been scared out of my wits.

  8. Pingback: gameboys 2007
  9. WOW Tim you are amazing! What fun that would be! I also LOVE monkeys and apes and would absolutely love to do what you did. The idea of testing out your dream jobs is a great one. I would do it in a heartbeat. I think anything is possible – 10 months ago I started self-training to be a contortionist and the improvements have been astounding. It’s not FOUR months 🙂 But this type of stretching needs a little more time for healing. I’ve been posting progress pics at: ….anyway – if you get this please check out the site. I know you’re busy – so take care! I enjoy reading your blog. 🙂

  10. thats awesome.

    How much does a capuchin cost and are we allowed to keep them as pets?

    I’d love to have one.

  11. Capuchin monkeys (Cebus capuchinus) are endangered monkeys. In Costa Rica, where I live, the populations of capuchin monkeys have decreased extensively because of deforestation and destruction of their natural habitat. In spite of that, unscrupulous men hunt them and sell them to foreigners as pets or for circuses. That’s too sad. In fact, all the monkeys are endangered at this moment. We should just let them live in peace.

  12. i just heard about your tv pilot. I hope it does well. have you mentioned anything about it publicly?


    Hi Hawk,

    I haven’t talked about this much at all but will make some announcements on the blog as soon as anything happens 🙂


  13. Hey Tim!

    Realized I never thanked you for including us in your blog way back when. OK, truth be told, I wasn’t even tracking blogs at the time. I drank the blog Kool-aid early in 2008. I was slow to the party. Now I’m addicted. And don’t even get me started re: my 5-6 Twitters per day.

    Love your book…great insights, advice, guidance and how to’s! I’ve recommended it to many.

    Hope to meet up with you sometime soon in Portland, NYC or one of the many other places that our lives and lifestyles take us!


    Brian Kurth

    Founder, VocationVacations

  14. Tim,

    First paragraph, “India Jones”. I think you meant “Indiana Jones”.

    Monkey Chow. You could rebrand it as Bachelor Chow — but you’d have to give Matt Groening credit.


      1. You’re welcome. It’s amazing how many things I’ve written that I proofread a dozen times and still spot a mistake five minutes after I hit post or send.

        Happy holidays!