Filling the Void: Thoughts on Learning and Karma

Palmyra Atoll National Wildlife Refuge (Photo: Jim Maragos/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.

-Viktor E. Frankl, Holocaust survivor, author of Man’s Search for Meaning

I believe that life exists to be enjoyed, and that the most important thing is to feel good about yourself.

Without the latter, little else gets done.

Each person will have his or her own vehicles for achieving both, and those vehicles will change over time. For some, the answer will be working with orphans, and for others, it will be composing music. I have a personal answer to both–to love, be loved, and never stop learning–but I don’t expect that to be universal.

Some criticize a focus on self-love and enjoyment as selfish or hedonistic, but it’s neither.

Enjoying life and helping others–or feeling good about yourself and increasing the greater good–are no more mutually exclusive than being agnostic and leading a moral life. One does not preclude the other. Let’s assume we agree on this. It still leaves the question: what can I do with my time to enjoy life and feel good about myself?

I can’t offer a single answer that will fit all people, but, based on the dozens of fulfilled people I’ve interviewed, and the thousands who’ve provided feedback on this blog, there are two components that are fundamental…

Continual learning and service.

What follows is how I think of both.


Americans who travel abroad for the first time are often shocked to discover that, despite all the progress that has been made in the last 30 years, many foreign people still speak in foreign languages.

-Dave Barry, American writer and humorist

To learn is to live. I see no other option. Once the learning curve flattens out, I get bored.

Though you can upgrade your brain domestically, traveling and relocating provides unique conditions that make progress much faster. The different surroundings act as a counterpoint and mirror for your own prejudices, making addressing weaknesses that much easier. Learning is such an addiction and compulsion of mine that I rarely travel somewhere without deciding first how I’ll obsess on a specific skill.

A few examples:

Connemara, Ireland: Gaelic Irish, Irish flute, and hurling, the fastest field sport in the world, and perhaps the most amazing sport I’ve ever played (imagine a mix of lacrosse and rugby played with axe handles)

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: Brazilian Portuguese and surfing

Berlin, Germany: German and locking (a form of upright breakdancing)

I tend to focus on language acquisition and one kinesthetic skill, sometimes finding the latter after landing overseas. The most successful serial vagabonds tend to blend the mental and the physical. Notice that I often port a skill I practice domestically-—martial arts-—to other countries where they are also practiced. Instant social life and camaraderie. It need not be a competitive sport-—it could be hiking, chess, or almost anything that keeps your nose out of a textbook and you out of your apartment. Sports just happen to be excellent for avoiding foreign language stage fright and developing lasting friendships, while still sounding like Tarzan.

Language learning deserves special mention here. It is, bar none, the best thing you can do to hone clear thinking.

Quite aside from the fact that it is impossible to understand a foreign culture without understanding its language, acquiring a new language transforms the human experience and makes you aware your own language: your own thoughts.

The practical benefits of this are as underestimated as the difficulty of language learning is overestimated. I know from research and personal experience with more than a dozen languages that 1) adults can learn languages much faster than children when constant 9-5 work is removed and 2) it is possible to become conversationally-fluent in any language in six months or less. At four hours per day, six months can be whittled down to less than three months. It is beyond the scope of this post to explain applied linguistics and the 80/20 of language learning, but here are a few starting points.

Don’t miss the chance to double your life experience. Gain a language and you gain a second lens through which to question and understand the world.

Cursing at people when you go home is fun, too.


Morality is simply the attitude we adopt toward people we personally dislike.

-Oscar Wilde

Service to me is simple: doing something that improves life besides your own.

This is not the same as philanthropy. Philanthropy is the altruistic concern for the well-being of mankind–human life. Human life and comfort have long been focused on to the exclusion of the environment and the rest of the food chain, hence our current race to imminent extinction. Serves us right. The world does not exist solely for the betterment and multiplication of mankind.

Before I start chaining myself to trees and saving the dart frogs, though, I should take my own advice: do not become a cause snob.

How can you help starving children in Africa when there are starving children in Los Angeles? How can you save the whales when homeless people are freezing to death? How does doing volunteer research on coral destruction help those people who need help now?

Children, please. Everything out there needs help, so don’t get baited into “my cause can beat up your cause” arguments with no right answer. There are no qualitative or quantitative comparisons that make sense. The truth is this: those thousands of lives you save could contribute to a famine that kills millions, or that one bush in Bolivia that you protect could hold the cure for cancer. The downstream effects are unknown. Do your best and hope for the best. If you’re improving the world–however you define that–consider your job well done.

Service isn’t limited to saving lives or the environment. It can also improve life. If you are a musician and put a smile on the faces of thousands or millions, I view that as service. If you are a mentor and change the life of one child for the better, the world has been improved. Improving the quality of life in the world is in no fashion inferior to adding more lives.

Service is an attitude.

Find the cause or vehicle that interests you most and make no apologies.


Afterword: My Current Passion

I’m passionate about many things, but one of them is timely.

In one of the most ecologically diverse areas in the Bahamas, I am working with Summit Series and others to help create a Marine Protected Area (MAP). Think of it as a ocean-based national park. It would be patrolled and run by the Nature Conservancy. I am passionate about saving the oceans upon which we depend.

To get this protected area to the finish line for funding, it needs just one last nudge. I’m therefore offering a match:

For the next week, up to $25,000, I will match every dollar donated here. This means that if you donate or help raise $25,000, I will donate another $25,000 for a total of $50,000.

As a bonus, anyone who donates $10 or more is automatically entered to win one of five seats on a shark tagging trip with the University of Miami research team (all the fine print here). I did this myself, and it’s AMAZING.

Please take a look at it all here. It’s tax-deductible, and everyone who donates will get a tax receipt seconds after they donate.

If we raise less than $50,000, I’ll still match dollar-for-dollar, but I think we could raise $25,000, don’t you? Then I’ll make it $50,000.

Thank you in advance to anyone who decides to give this a shot. Thank you also to everyone who politely declines but asks themselves: how might I make my own dent in the universe?

Be the change you want to see.

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.

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163 Replies to “Filling the Void: Thoughts on Learning and Karma”

  1. I like how you started this post Tim:

    “I believe that life exists to be enjoyed, and that the most important thing is to feel good about yourself.”


    It seems so easy an obvious but some times we miss this big shot call LIFE .. just enjoy the ride!

    It also takes balls to say NO to all the BS and the things that are not enjoyable, life is fun and constant learning makes life absolutely amazing.



  2. I’ve just moved to BUENOS AIRES and while the glory days are over, it’s still really cool here.

    One problem I’m struggeling with:

    WHERE CAN I FIND 100% GRASS-FED/finished, antibiotics, hormone free and organic BEEF?

    I know it sounds ridiculous but apparently the good days of the argentine beef are gone.

    Please help me find a provider if you got a hint!

    Thanks a lot!

    I’m trying everything to find a good provider and I’m struggeling. So maybe somebody here may be able to help me out!!

    Thanks a lot.

  3. Tim and friends.I hope this is the rigth vehicle for this.

    great post of course.

    Rigth now I work as a software designer, one of my clients is a HVAC service and maintenance company, that doesn´t have an internal training program (they get a new worker and just put him to work alongside someone more experienced and hope for the best) in this company I am trinig the following experiment starting next week.

    Inspired by the short lived tv show ‘trial by fire’ I am becoming an HVAC tecnician so I can figure out the 80/20 and basic rudiments of that work and laso figure out when to uso ‘just in case’ vs ‘just in time’learning .

    One of the supervisors and my guide in this journey tells me I can be a capable tecnician (for basic HVAC manitenace 80% or more of the companys workload) in one month. I think I can be in one or two weeks. If this experiment is succesfull and the findings usefull I pretend to try it in some of my other clients.

    Some questions for you guys:

    Any advice in this endeavour?

    Did the Yabusame training stick over time or did it just fade after you stopped practicing?

    is there a market for this kind of intervention?

    Do you guys know of some else doing this kind of experiment?

    Thanks in advance.

  4. Mr. Ferriss,

    I’m not prepared to call you a quack because you did state in your book that your program would not work for everybody. I’m 56 years old, 6’3″ and weighed 222 eighteen days ago. Hoping to get rid of my belly, I have applied your weight loss program diligently for 2 1/2 weeks, spent money for all the supplements, and today I weigh 225 with no reduction in the good old abdomen. I’m abandoning the program, obviously. A whole lot of sacrifice for absolutely nothing. If I go back to my own program (low carbs, high protein, lots of exercise), do you believe your recommended supplements (esp. PAGG) will be beneficial or will they be a hindrance to my weight loss goals. Thank you. Carl Henry

  5. Tim, for what it’s worth.. your best post yet, by a country mile.

    Frankl’s account of his experience of life in the concentration camps is humbling beyond words. I think it helps one get perspective in one’s life and also rigorously reflect on what’s important in life.

    I can just imagine how the guys in Ireland came up with the idea of hurling after a long session on the Guinness, awesome game.

    On the subject of language, learning and kinaesthetic skills…

    A few years ago I ran a small diamond prospecting operation in west Africa. The way we extracted the diamonds was by diving (using fairly primitive commercial diving kit) to the bottom of rivers and dredging the gravel from the bottom. It was massively demanding, both physically and mentally. Diving blind in rivers with 25knots of current was hard enough without having to contend with boomslang, green mambas and crocs, not to mention a civil war in the background.

    My point is this, I lived in the bush with a group of Congelese and Angolan divers and soldiers, who only spoke portugese, french or native dialects (none of which I could understand initially). But I had no choice, my life and business depended upon it – within about 4 months I was almost fluent, not through any structured learning but simply by working alongside these guys in a physically demanding environment where the risks were high and therefore the need for effective communication was imperative. After a while I started to think in Portuguese!

    Another great book if you’re interested by the way, is Mandella’s Long Walk to Freedom – an inspiring account of man’s drive for freedom, equality and dignity.



  6. “Improving the quality of life in the world is in no fashion inferior to adding more lives.”

    Thanks for writing this, Tim. I sometimes feel pressure to have children even though I feel my mission is to improve the world in different ways (some I know, some I am still figuring out) instead of “adding more lives”. I like to think that following your passion and thereby making the world a better place is equally valuable as being a good parent and deserves just as much respect. So I couldn’t agree more, and I am happy that the above words come from a man!

    Thanks for your work & all the best,


  7. Thank you for such a fantastic blog. Where else could anyone get that kind of info written in such a perfect way? I have a presentation that I am presently working on, and I have been on the look out for such information..

  8. I think I’ve followed your blog longer than any other (even if that’s only ~ a year and a half), so I suppose I might as well start contributing to the conversation.

    I love the points you make here. I feel like my perspective on the world is always adjusted slightly (for the better) when I visit.

    On language and sport:

    I’ve always been fascinated by other languages. I have about 5 years of Spanish study (4 high school, 1 university) and about a week of Japanese. I’ve never had the opportunity to travel abroad (other than a day trip to Canada), but I think a few months in a South American country or Spain will do wonders for my fluency.

    I’ve always been a huge fan of sport. Living with Indians and Nigerians this past year, I started playing much more pick-up soccer (at Penn State) for the first time this year. The games have such an incredible mix of nationalities. It’s generally ~ 50% American, 20% African, 10% S. American, 15% Asian, 5% European. Even though I have little experience in soccer, I play with the stereotypical American hustle every second of the games.

    Being one of the worst among 20 or so every time, and not following football internationally (at first), I found it hard to connect with the other players at first. But over time, I realized that they respected my hustle. And they saw that I was a good goalie (thank you baseball, football, a few year of soccer and hockey). And, maybe most importantly, the majority of them were visitors to my nation.

    Once I realized that I was essentially a host to these soccer players, I realized that it was probably my duty to open up to them and initiate the relationship. Even though the relationships mostly stayed on the pitch, once I opened up, those relationships were strengthened greatly.

    This makes me think about when I do travel abroad for the first time. People will learn that I am American. They will see that my skin tone is lighter than most (assuming I’m in S. America, Africa, or India). And, in some cases, they might be shy about opening up initially.

    Or maybe they’ll be very welcoming. Maybe I’ll learn something from them. Maybe I’ll learn to be a better host.

    I feel like my comment doesn’t have much focus, so I apologize. I’ll tell you about playing basketball with 9 Indians another day.

    And can you please put the comment box at the top of the comment list? I don’t enjoy scrolling down through all 130+ comments, only to scroll up to re-read a single line from the post, scroll back down, etc.

    Thanks for all of your content over the years. It really is incredible and genuinely appreciated. I’ll go buy a book of yours tomorrow.

  9. you blow me away man, everytime i read an article of yours no matter what the content. Just read your book 4 hour work week and I was absolutely dumbfounded as to the amount of pure wisdom it infused me with. Letting aside all the “business magic” there is this meta level, that just improved my way of thinking and regarding the world…astounding!

    And just by saying,

    “Service isn’t limited to saving lives or the environment. It can also improve life. If you are a musician and put a smile on the faces of thousands or millions, I view that as service. If you are a mentor and change the life of one child for the better, the world has been improved. Improving the quality of life in the world is in no fashion inferior to adding more lives.”

    you just solved a minor life crisis of mine. I put myself under a lot of pressure recently but now I realize that I serve a lot of people already just by doing the things I like. And if it is only the little nerd blog I write that some people enjoy reading 😀

  10. Helping others just to help them is how everyone should be. If everyone just helped others because they wanted others to do better, then most problems that the world faces wouldn’t exist anymore. Not only is helping good for the people you’re helping, but it’s also helpful for yourself. When you help others it usually comes back around. What that means is that if you help others then eventually others will help you. This is how many of the great business men got where they are today, they focused on needs of others and it came back to them eventually.

  11. I really enjoyed this post on the topic of why life exists: thank you Tim.

    I recently lost pretty much everything–job, retirement funds, house, almost, and health. But at one of the worst points I found something wonderful–an inner calm that I had never met up with before. Learning to reach moments, at least, of this bliss–even when everything else around is frenzy–seems to me to be the why of life.

    Thanks again Tim.

    Scott Roberts

  12. I know so much about personal development, positive thinking, all the visualization techniques the power of believe and a lot more, but only recently I understood how important it is that you feel good. And now I read it again. And you know, it is a habit to feel good or not.

  13. I think that’s the real point of the 4 Hour Work week/Body etc., is that what we perceive as norms to learning and personal action may indeed be norms, but ones with significant exceptions. Exceptions that we can exploit to elevate ourselves above a norm, by purposefully taking a not normal perspective we might be capable of extraordinary things.

    Language acquisition theories are just that, theories. Tested on a certain body of subjects, a certain sample size, and refined in accordance to the biases and experiences of the researchers in question. This constitutes a norm, but one that may have significant exceptions.

    So such theories may simply not apply to people from backgrounds other than those of the subjects these theories were drawn up from.

    This should always be kept in mind when it comes to ANY learning theory, the theory is limited by the experience and worldview of the theorizer.

  14. Dear Tim,

    Good morning. This is Kyle. I’m from the Philippines. This is general inquiry and a curious case of well, curiosity. I know that you are a fan of organization and working closely on the dynamics of everyday life. The Slow Carb Diet and the chapter on making a Perfect Posterior are one of my favorites. “Ice Age” was also cool (no pun intended) Unlike Gary Taubes, you have a way of synthezing information that is more personal and well, really tested as well. I don’t dispute Gary but I can see the process with you more. Reading this post and filling the void right now, I’m happy to see that you put forth the power of minimalist (perhaps taking a mark bittman approach?) to cooking in 4 Hour Chef. The most empowering thing I got from you Tim has been that one can influence the hand they have been dealt with especially genetics. I’d like then to propose (not of arrogance) but simply if it can be done.

    1. Can Buffalo Humps be reversed at a later point in life? (my age is twenty two right now and they say it’s genetic)

    2. What is the real cause of “man boobs” or is it too late to reduce it once gynecomastia is already there? (Along with me and overweightness, I see friends who are lean yet have these boobs.)

    3. Is there really a way to increase penis size naturally after puberty? (the evidence seems bible right now to state that once this stage has passed, it’s lost. Just hopes your son–when he hits nine–starts training like paleo guys and engaging in resistance and eating a mega healthy diet so that when he gets to college he’ll not only be tarzan but the great stallion as well.)

    I am sorry to disturb a busy schedule like yours Tim but you’ve been an inspiration and a true scientist. I’ve tried to track the numbers on each one but perhaps i’m asking the wrong questions (as Gary Taubes would say) and I screwed up. If help could be given, I’d really be grateful. Namaste. Thank you Tim!

  15. Dear Tim,

    I like the concept that you put forward for a happy life or living in terms of both consistent learning and also service. Even I can reflect on it as well because when I learn something new or mastered a new skill I feel the accomplishment (although sometimes short lived) and it really motivates me. I think it is part due to my desire to learn and also to win or feel accomplished. If however, I try and do not reach a satisfactory level of accomplishment in the task I really feel upset especially if I had given up on it. As you said to each his own and that is my two cents


  16. Dear Tim,

    I have read your books and I really enjoyed them. I especially liked your bonus chapter in the 4HWW about learning any language in 3 months.

    However, I wanted to ask what you would recommend as good materials to learn Spanish?

    Thank you.

  17. You are a delightful author (read both of your books, of course) but I am seeking a recommendation for a business to business marketing book that is new enough to include social media recommendations. I am not looking for a basic book more for inspiration. Thanks

  18. John Maynard Keynes in Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren: “Thus for the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem: how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.”

  19. This is really a wonderful blog because it simply tells that learning doesn’t stop on what we already know because there are still a lot of things in life which must be learned.

    If you’re the type of person who travels a lot, then, definitely you have to learn some of the foreign languages because how can you interact with people if you don’t even know the basic terms in their language. It may be difficult but you have to try because it may help you in your travel and who knows it could make your travel experience worthwhile because you know how to talk to them in their language.

  20. To fill the void discover your passion and allow it to lead you to something new. Travel broadens our appreciation of other cultures and lifestyles and reminds us of the kindness extended to strangers and our dependence on other people to help us in times of need or crisis. I am weak at learning languages, but good at reading people’s faces and body language, and blending in with a crowd. Certain qualities are universal: humour, generosity, kindness, gratitude and respect are widely appreciated. Relationships allow an extension of your understanding about yourself and other people. Being open to different ways of “seeing” and “behaving” broadens our minds and tests our ability to adapt to situations that feel uncomfortable as they differ from what we perceive as “normal”. I agree that travel provides a push to learn and extend ourselves that is both stimulating and challenging as it forces us to question many of our basic assumptions and beliefs. Ultimately, if you can learn to laugh off the differences and annoyances along the way you are far better at accommodating to the differences you meet. One of my favourite stories is about the taxi driver in Istanbul who kept driving round in circles to increase his fare and when questioned explained that he was blind and couldn’t see the street signs. My friend was furious when we were finally dropped off at our hotel, whereas I couldn’t stop laughing. All in all it had only robbed us of eight dollars, but the experience was priceless. I guess you have to have a bent sense of humour to cope, but being cheated is part of the experience for most newcomers, as is being offered a free drink and meal and a chance to join a stranger for a chat or a family in a special occasion. Overall, the good and bad tend to balance each other out with the generosity extended far outweighing the deception. Guess it’s a case of cosmic karma… We like to learn about other people and they in turn are interested to have some variety in their lives as well. A case of win-win. If you venture out alone someone always tends to take you in or offer company. I guess that difference is fascinating and stimulating to many people: the visitor and the local. Travel sure keeps the mind sharper than staying home and forces us to question our blind-spots and what we take for granted. Above all, travel forces us to trust our gut and be flexible, sensitive, humble and patient. Mutual frustration and misunderstanding is inevitable but people generally mean well and will take care of strangers in their land as hospitality seems to be offered to those who show genuine interest in another’s country. Travel also encourages us to appreciate the massive sacrifices and courage it takes for another person to migrate to our country and change and modify their lives and language in the process. Travel teaches us about what we love and would like to change in our own home country. After travelling, home seems dull and quiet for a while until we learn to settle back into our normal routine. I guess that travel provides a momentary high but inevitably we once again come home and learn to sit quietly with ourselves and feel blessed to have some precious memories to fill our minds and hearts. Evocative memories can matter more than material things. Guess it all depends on what one values. As for being of service, learning and sharing help increase tolerance and understanding and provide a healthy sense of being needed and living a productive life. By travelling we learn to give and take and are rewarded by the process of discovering that human nature is intrinsically the same throughout the world despite external differences. Certain core qualities and traits are universally appreciated and condemned. Travel chips away at ignorance, arrogance and prejudice as we learn that our way of life is just one way among many equally viable possibilities.

  21. I want to let you know that your fourhourworkweek book has helped and inspired me more than any other book I have ever read. This post and the book really encourages and motivates me. Thank you so much Tim!

    I especially liked the following quote:

    “Don’t miss the chance to double your life experience. Gain a language and you gain a second lens through which to question and understand the world. Cursing at people when you go home is fun, too.”


  22. This hits close to home, Tim (South Florida here). Although I missed this by *just a few* years, it’s great to see the donation piece broke 100K. Thanks for trying to help preserve our oceans. I’ve donated anyway — and the shark in my profile pic was gently released. How much can you know about yourself if you’ve never wrangled a shark?

  23. It made me so happy to do this. Sometimes it feels like you can’t do any good as just one person. And now I have a new place to add to my bucket list! It will feel amazing to see this place and know I helped preserve it.

  24. “Continual learning and service.” I agree. Also, regarding “self-love,” I think it’s indispensable. If you don’t truly love yourself, how can your love for anyone or anything else be worth anything? Everything begins with love. Everything. And that includes oneself.

  25. Any updates on the Marine Protected Area (MAP)? Are you still active with it

    as I would love to contribute. Let me know if it is still active.

  26. I really liked this post, but there absolutely are qualitative and quantitive comparisons to the amount of “good” you are doing. You interviewed dr. mcaskill and spoke to him for two hours about this (great episode by the way). The example that saving a thousand people could be bad because it could lead to a drought that kills millions is just stupid.

    Obviously everyone has things they value more than others. If I don’t care about children and I love frogs than saving the frogs is what I could do to get the most satisfaction out of my efforts. However if I care about helping people and I only have 30$ to donate, why should I donate to vs a domestic organization? Because it will accomplish more giving to the person who has less. An american on welfare in the inner city is still 10, sometimes 100x richer than the poorest in the world. Meaning my limiting time or money will create dramatically more positive change in their life. I’m sure there are similar examples from the frog world.

  27. Hi Tim, wanted to share a few thoughts on karma from a wise person who shared this with me, named Darryl Bailey. I highly recommend you check out what he has to say about about the human condition. It would make a great show idea re: do we direct or design our life?


    “In Buddhism the teaching of karma is ultimately considered a fantasy. That’s how you can get off the wheel of karma. By realizing that all the stories about people making decisions and reaping the results of those decisions are a fantasy. As the Buddha stated, he no longer assessed life with the usual stories about physical form, feelings, perceptions, mental activities, or states of consciousness. He said these descriptions do not apply to what actually is. He said there is only the “unformed”, meaning an unformed happening.

    Most people don’t look at the chain of cause and effect correctly. If you look at it, you can’t just look at two points on the chain. You have to acknowledge the whole chain. You can’t just say that you cause something to happen, because, in the complete chain, you are caused by something else and that is caused by something else and that is caused by something else. You have to look at the entire chain, until you come to the first cause, which is existence itself. In the chain of cause and effect, everything happens because existence simply expresses itself the way it does. Again, there is only the big, unformed, movement.”