Please enjoy this transcript of Cal Fussman interviewing me. Cal (@calfussman) is a New York Times bestselling author and a writer-at-large for Esquire magazine, where he is best known for being a primary writer of the “What I Learned” feature. And this interview originally aired on Cal’s podcast, “Big Questions with Cal Fussman.” Transcripts may contain a few typos—with some episodes lasting 2+ hours, it’s difficult to catch some minor errors. Enjoy!
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Tim Ferriss: Hello, boys and girls. This is Tim Ferriss. Welcome to another episode of The Tim Ferriss Show. Long time no see. Long time no hear. [Speaking foreign language]. Something along those lines. A little rusty, but I digress. The Tim Ferriss Show is typically where I share the habits and routines of world-class performers, as well as try to spot and discuss the patterns amongst them. This episode is going to be a role reversal. Since I am a professional dilettante, professional amateur of sorts, I’m a little self-conscious about this.
However, recently Cal Fussman, @calfussman, F-U-S-S-M-A-N, the man who has transformed oral history into an art form. That’s not my quote and it’s not his. That’s what people say about him because he’s interviewed everyone from Clooney to Gorbachev, to Regan, to you-name-it. He’s a big deal. He is also one of the principal writers or was one of the senior writers behind the What I Learned column for Esquire magazine forever, which is how he got to kick the tires and meet many of these folks. He interviewed me for his podcast. He interviewed me in two separate interviews and in true Cal fashion, he took the conversation to places I never could have expected. He really is a master of the craft of asking questions. I love speaking with him as a friend, but I also love studying him as an interviewer.
Cal said this interview was one of his favorites he’s ever heard from me because the way he put it was “We get to learn what made Tim, Tim.” We dug into some of the childhood stories that I typically hold back. I don’t like to talk about some of the early days and childhood stuff. But Cal can pry it out of me. Cal said he wanted to build a story to understand what happened to me on my journey, how it explains where I am now, what makes me tick, and where I still hope to improve and grow. I think he was unable to unearth all of that.
If you’re looking for a true world-class performer, someone who is the best at what they do, then you should probably look for one of my other episodes. tim.blog/podcast. There are 300 other people. You can find Jamie Foxx, you can find Arnold Schwarzenegger. You can find chess prodigies like Josh Waitzkin. But if you want to hear about my somewhat odd, maybe quirky path that took me from my days as a wee lad to where I am now, then this may be an episode of interest. Cal is really a fascinating specimen and I’ve interviewed him twice.
If you want to hear Cal’s side of the story, his entire insane, meandering adventure of life, which includes taking shots with Hunter S. Thompson and working alongside Hunter for a period of time, you can hear that at tim.blog/cal. You should absolutely listen to more of Cal’s interviews, so check out his new podcast, for which I was interviewed, Big Questions with Cal Fussman. Google Big Questions with Cal Fussman, F-U-S-S-M-A-N, where he interviews all sorts of folks like Kobe Bryant, Damon John, Seth Godin, and on and on. Then there’s me, odd man out.
Without further ado and preamble – I’m kind of stalling with this intro, I apologize guys – here is my interview a/k/a being interviewed by Cal Fussman.
Cal Fussman: Just went off the springboard, brother.
Tim Ferriss: Just went off the springboard.
Cal Fussman: So, I’ve been thinking about this conversation for a long time. I basically had two ways to prepare, I thought. One, I know you. We’ve been in the sauna together.
Tim Ferriss: We have.
Cal Fussman: I’ve met your Mom.
Tim Ferriss: That’s right.
Cal Fussman: I’ve met your Dad. We’ve gone out to eat. You won’t let me pick up the check. I listen to your podcast. I’ve read your books. I do, in some ways, know you. I thought well, I could do even more research, or I could try to just wipe my memory clean and approach this in a way that I really don’t know Tim and I’m going to try and forget a little about what I know and just act like I bumped into Tim Ferriss on the train. Holy shit! It’s Tim Ferriss! How you doing?
Tim Ferriss: You’re pretty good at trains. From my memory.
Cal Fussman: There you go. I’m good at trains. It’s funny, when I went out to see you, I went on a train. I thought that would be an interesting way to go. The more I think about it, the thing that really hits me about you goes to a story about Brian Grazer and Ron Howard, okay? So, one’s a producer and the other’s a filmmaker. They’re partners. I’m interviewing them the Claridge Hotel in London. We’re talking and having a great conversation. In the middle of this interview, a fire alarm goes off and water sprouts from the ceiling.
In an instant, Ron Howard rushes to – it was sort of like a kitchen in this room, and he grabs a bucket and he puts it under the water. At the same time, Ron Howard ran to the bathroom and got the towels and had them down. I was just amazed at how they both, in a second, went in their own directions to solve the problem and together they came up with the solution while I just sat there watching this. The more I thought about it, I thought the genius of Tim Ferriss is he does both at the same time. You’re like two people. You wouldn’t ordinarily need a partner to do the things that you do, and yet you have these skills on different sides of the spectrum that reside inside you. I’m thinking, how did that happen?
So, let’s start at the beginning. I was talking yesterday to this guy, Wim Hof.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, yes. I know Wim.
Cal Fussman: Okay. Now, he goes underwater and just stays under the cold for minutes at a time. When I was asking him how this came about, he explained when he was born, he was born a twin. The second twin. He came out, basically deprived of oxygen. He didn’t know it until years later, but his whole life became a movement toward the moment he was born with. I’m wondering, at your birth, did something happen that helped make you who you are?
Tim Ferriss: It’s quite possible. I don’t remember all too much. But as I’ve been told, I was born premature and ended up in critical care. I still have scars. You can actually see one right on my wrist there. It looks like a cigarette burn. I have another one underneath my left nipple, basically. It’s in the rib area. That is from a respirator. I had, as I understand it, five full-body blood transfusions to oxygenate the blood properly. I was in really bad shape. Very, very, very tiny and under incubator lights and so on. I had a lot of, I suppose, trauma, but difficulty coming into the world. I seem to have recovered.
Cal Fussman: Way to recover, brother!
Tim Ferriss: But I was very, very, very small up until about the end of fifth grade; a very small kid, very much a runt.
Cal Fussman: So, your life has been a good part of it. Spent in search of getting the most out of your body.
Tim Ferriss: Definitely.
Cal Fussman: There’s a pretty good relation.
Tim Ferriss: There is, in some direct ways. In the sense that the experimentation and the recording of experiments started with primarily wrestling, which was the only sport I really gravitated towards or actually did well in. I was very hyperactive as a kid. There were some other mothers who recommended to my Mom to drain my batteries to put me into something called kid wrestling. I couldn’t do, or I really didn’t want to do other sports that were team sports because I was so small. I was bullied and beat up and couldn’t compete. I couldn’t hold my own with other kids. But weight classes exist in wrestling.
Cal Fussman: That makes sense.
Tim Ferriss: So, the puny, little runt could battle the other puny, little runt and then one of them could feel like a winner for a short period of time before they went back to school and got the crap kicked out of them once again. I was put into kid wrestling and there’s not much technical mastery when you’re a little kid in kid wrestling. It’s mostly just flopping around. But at some point, in high school certainly and just before high school, I began taking it seriously and I still to this day have some very serious thermoregulatory issues. I don’t respond to heat in a normal way.
Cal Fussman: How do you respond to heat?
Tim Ferriss: I appear to have, and I’ve actually done a number of experiments and been involved in experiments to try to better understand it. I’m very sensitive to heatstroke, but it doesn’t appear, because I at one point much later after college, volunteered to be a test subject – I’m going to bounce around a little bit here – at Stanford University, where they were developing a glove for cooling the body. It was being developed, or at least funded by the military. So the general experiment included wearing full military fatigues, helmet, loaded backpack, and you had an esophageal probe, as you would imagine, down your nose. I would say it’s about two feet long. It’s a plastic tube that you feed down your nose, down your esophagus so your throat can’t close or your epiglottis can’t close, down to get your core body temperature from your heart, so you get as close to the heart as possible.
Now, unfortunately for me, the military standard temperature gauge is an esophageal probe, but up the other end. So, I also had a two-foot esophageal probe up the other end.
Cal Fussman: Oh, man.
Tim Ferriss: It gets better.
Cal Fussman: I knew we were going to get deep here, but –
Tim Ferriss: I’m just jumping right into it. There’s not much foreplay in this podcast. I then had to go into a sauna, I don’t recall the exact temperature, and march on an incline treadmill in the sauna to heat exhaustion. This was done multiple times. They would track everything. What was, well, I should say in retrospect should’ve been expected, it was miserable, of course. Then I was completely non-functional for the rest of the day because my brain had effectively shut off from when you march to heat exhaustion. But I hit that heat exhaustion, shut-down point at lower temperatures than other people. So, I think it’s something in the brain. Maybe there’s some gauge in the hypothalamus or something that is off.
But suffice to say, throughout even high school, and we can come back to this, but when I was in Japan, which was a real formative moment, I was hospitalized for effectively heatstroke during a judo competition or a training in the summer because I was overheating. So, all of that is back story to say that really early on, I realized that heat was not my friend and endurance was not my strong suit. I just couldn’t last. I would overheat in these wrestling matches, so I had to develop techniques and approaches and other tricks like getting very good at cutting weight so that I could level the playing field to actually compete and win in these sports.
Cal Fussman: So, if you could figure out how to really be 15 pounds heavier than you were …
Tim Ferriss: It would give me a fair shot. It certainly is an advantage, but I had other disadvantages. But it was an area where I realized most people were not spending a lot of time analyzing anything. Or that’s a very fancy way to put it. It was just low-hanging fruit for me because I was like all right, I’m never going to be the most technical wrestler. I’m never going to be the most persistent wrestler in terms of endurance be I lack the physiology for it. But how many wrestlers are really going to sit down and try to figure out sodium and potassium and read about potassium sparing diuretics and figure out that dandelion root is something that a 15-year-old can actually get a hold of over the counter, which has the properties of certain prescription medications which should achieve the same thing, etc.
Cal Fussman: Where did that come from?
Tim Ferriss: I’ve always, at least from high school, been fascinated by nutrition. That does not come from my family.
Cal Fussman: It’s funny because one of the things when I think of your Dad, I always think of the advertising slogan he came up with, ‘Fill your belly at Big Dave’s Deli.’
Tim Ferriss: That’s right. I won’t get into the particulars of my family too much, just for privacy purposes. But yeah, I would not say that my parents are nutritional advisers to Olympians.
Cal Fussman: One other fact about your family, is that it?
Tim Ferriss: They’re taking better care of themselves, but it didn’t come from there. I honestly don’t know exactly where it came from. It could’ve been, I’ll just speculate here. I’ve never actually thought about it, which is a good sign in an interview, that I was a puny, little runt. I was born in the late ‘70s and grew up in the ‘80s. Well, who were the stars in the ‘80s? You have Schwarzenegger, Van Damme, Stallone.
Cal Fussman: Whoa, man.
Tim Ferriss: They were all these ripped – that was the golden era of action films, if you think about it.
Cal Fussman: You know what? I was out of the country then. I missed it all. This makes sense!
Tim Ferriss: Well, the plots are pretty easy to follow. If you wanted to go back. “I said I’d kill you last. I lied.” It’s very easy to digest material.
Cal Fussman: Now I understand the opening of your podcast.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, exactly. Yeah, it makes more sense.
Cal Fussman: Oh, man. So, there’s one other fact that I just like to bring out because to me, it’s very interesting. There was a salesmanship inside your Dad. Your Mom, you come into the house and “Hey, sit down. Let’s peel some shrimp and have some dinner.” There is a very welcoming quality to her.
Tim Ferriss: For sure.
Cal Fussman: Both of these you have.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, they’re very different. They’re very different people. As long as we’re talking about characteristics, I’m fine with it. I’ll give another anecdote which shows the difference. My Dad loves crossword puzzles. My Mom is just incredibly good at also crossword puzzles, but Wheel of Fortune. So their minds work very differently. I mean, she can see one letter and she’ll get it in ten milliseconds. My father also has, and you’ve experienced this, the closest thing to perfect factual recall that I’ve ever encountered up-close for extended periods of time.
I mean, he remembers where ever classmate of his sat in every class he had in elementary school. He remembers every word of fill-in-the-blank language that he learned in fifth grade. I do not have that. I also don’t have the within ten milliseconds Wheel of Fortune answer ability of my Mom, but it stands to reason that if I’m getting genetics from both sides, I’m somewhere in the middle.
Cal Fussman: But what you do have is the ability to make people feel comfortable around you, which if you’re interviewing people, you’ve got to have that.
Tim Ferriss: Seems to help.
Cal Fussman: Also, you understand how to sell what you do. Pieces are starting to come together here.
Tim Ferriss: May I add another piece?
Cal Fussman: Please do.
Tim Ferriss: I don’t think I’ve ever told you this. All right. How did I become interested in persuasion and selling and so on? I’ve always been a night owl. Always, since I was a very, very little kid, I’ve gone to bed typically 2:00, 3:00, 4:00 a.m. My Mom’s theory is that is due to being under incubator lights at night in the intensive care unit or the critical care unit in the hospital as a newborn. I was constantly under lights at night. What kind of television is on at 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning?
Cal Fussman: Infomercials!
Tim Ferriss: Ron Popeil. Infomercials.
Cal Fussman: Oh, man.
Tim Ferriss: So, I’d be up late and it’s all paid programming. I couldn’t go to sleep and there would be this Ron Popeil. It’s fill-in-the-blank. It’s Tony Robbins. I just became fascinated by and asked myself why someone would buy one of these things. At the time, of course, I’m not interested in making money. I’m not interested in building a business. I’m a little kid. But nonetheless –
Cal Fussman: Oh, this is a big piece, brother.
Tim Ferriss: – you’ve got the pocket fisherman, you’ve got the topic hair powder that you pour on your head.
Cal Fussman: And you’re remembering this like your Dad would’ve.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. I mean, I have a very visual memory. My Dad has not just visual, but also very textual, if that makes sense. I know that’s coming through the optic system, but I tend to remember anything that engages color and motion very well, which can creep people out, because they’ll be like, “Hey, we’ve met before.” Yeah, I remember meeting because we were sitting here or there and you were third chair from the left and you were wearing this and that. If it’s a woman especially, the spider sense for psycho goes off in their head, which is not well-founded in this case. It’s just the particular type of memory that I have. But yeah, lots of late nights listening to all of these people.
Cal Fussman: This Popeil guy, I don’t remember his work.
Tim Ferriss: Ron Popeil, I became later interested in going back and figuring out who these people were. You had, for instance, the Thigh Master. You probably remember the Thigh Master.
Cal Fussman: I do remember the Thigh Master.
Tim Ferriss: The whole story behind that. Then Ron Popeil, who cut his teeth at state fairs, a lot of these old-timers, these kind of groundbreakers in infomercials, cut their teeth at these various state fairs, selling to live, disinterested audiences who are walking by, so they’d have to get attention. First get a crowd and then sell the product, right? So, it was a multi-stage process and they then translated that to television, why is why almost all of these products initially were live demo products. Which Tony Robbins differed from. So that interested me. All right, everyone is doing a slice-and-dice, I can cut through a can and then I can cut through a tomato because it didn’t dull the knife. As a kid, of course, I have no desire to buy a knife, but I’m looking at the demo.
Then you have, say, a Tony Robbins or maybe a handful of others, but really not many who weren’t selling a physical product. That was interesting to me. Or like the no-money-down real estate stuff, which made even less sense to me than anything else. I’m like, well, I don’t even know where to begin understanding that conceptually, but they’re using this guy, who’s selling whatever no-money-down real estate is, is using 1,000 testimonials. Okay, so he’s only using testimonials. That’s interesting. Why is he doing that?
Cal Fussman: Oh, man. See? This, this is what fascinates me because what you just said about first get the crowd, then sell the product is very different from the way a writer or an artist thinks, where they’re saying I want to, I’ve got to do this. Somebody’s got to help me do it. Somebody give me some money and allow me to fulfill my dream. They don’t stop to think, well, let me get a crowd first and then I can do what I want to do.
Tim Ferriss: Let me add another layer to this. So, that’s my life from midnight to 3:00 in the morning. The rest of the time, I, from a very, very young age, wanted to be a comic book penciler. So, I wanted to be an artist. I literally wanted to be an artist. I wanted to be an illustrator.
Cal Fussman: You are two people!
Tim Ferriss: I spent all of my time drawing. That was my goal was to become a comic book penciler. I idolized certain artists at the time, specifically pencilers like Jim Lee, who I’ve been actually, at some point about a year ago, we were trading email hopefully to have me interview him, which would be a lot of fun. McFarlin and Erik Larsen. I could go down the list. Simon Bisley. All of these artists were the people I idolized from a career standpoint. I didn’t even think about it as a career, but as to what I wanted to do since I enjoyed drawing and seemed to have a predisposition towards it, that was what I spent the rest of my time thinking about. So, you had school, wrestling, comic book penciling, and then I can’t sleep what should I do? Infomercials.
Cal Fussman: Now, the pieces are coming here together, brother. Because I look at myself and I am missing, I am missing pieces here. I wasn’t up at 3:00 in the morning watching the infomercials.
Tim Ferriss: Now, there are downsides to that, there are. It’s not all upside.
Cal Fussman: No, but think about what that gave you. The notion of get the crowd first, then sell the product. That puts you in control.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, totally.
Cal Fussman: Which most artists, they’re out of control. They’re always looking for the manager or the publishing house or the record company to support their dream.
Tim Ferriss: From the beginning, I wanted to be – control was really important to me. I mean, very beginning. Not talking about career aspirations, but trying to control as many variables as possible. People think of me as some type of risk taker with the early-stage startups and everything else. I don’t view myself that way at all. I think about mitigating and decreasing risk all the time. For me, I like to have control, directly or indirectly over as many variables as possible. That’s not always a strength. But at least for me, up to this point, there have been a lot of benefits, certainly.
Cal Fussman: How does money fit into the equation? When you were in high school, how did you see money?
Tim Ferriss: Once you start working – I think my first job was 13 or 14. I was the floor and machine cleaner at an ice cream shop called Snowflake, which no longer exists, out on Long Island where I grew up. For people who don’t know, I grew up as a townie in the Hamptons, which is a weird place to grow up. So, to grow up as sort of the rat-tail wearing townie in a resort town anywhere in the world is pretty odd. At that time, I was getting paid, who knows, whatever it was, I think $7.00 and hour, $8.00 an hour, and actually no, I don’t know if it was per hour. I think it was per shift because that’s what got me in trouble. I got fired from this first job because I think it was per shift that I was getting paid because otherwise I wouldn’t have been incentivized to do what I’m about to tell you. If they were paying me per hour, I wouldn’t have had any interest in doing things faster.
Cal Fussman: Uh-oh, here we go.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. So, I was being told to do things in a stupid way. It was stupid. I’m not going to mince words. I was being told to do things in a very inefficient way, so that I would be kept busy for the entire period of time. This was not of great interest to me and seemed stupid. So I, for myself at least, devised what I thought was a much better way, a much faster way of cleaning the machines and floors and so on. Then I would always bring to work – God, I haven’t thought about this in a while – a copy of Blackbelt magazine, which was the only martial arts, the most widely read martial arts magazine at the time. This was before any mixed martial arts or anything had entered the scene. Then I would take my mop, like the mop handle, and just practice made-up martial arts stuff. I didn’t know what I was doing. In the back parking lot where no one would see me. I would do my work. Then I’d say, all right, my work is done. Then I’d –
Cal Fussman: Trying to be Bruce Lee.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, and then it was like, well now, given that the next whatever it is, Van Damme movie is coming out next week or I’d just seen the latest Stallone movie and I still weigh 100 pounds, I need to work on becoming Bruce Lee. Needless to say, the boss was not super fond of this and so he would tell me to do things like, I want you to clean it again. I’d say –
Cal Fussman: The 4-Hour Workweek is born.
Tim Ferriss: It’s already clean. The floor is already clean, keep in mind. That was a partnership destined to fail, I’m afraid. I was relieved of duty a few weeks or months in.
Cal Fussman: But the notion of efficiency was planted at that point.
Tim Ferriss: That was the efficiency. That was not client-facing. What I mean by that is I didn’t have any interaction with customers there. After that, my next job, and I worked many jobs as a bus boy and occasionally was given the gift of say waiting for a table. But I worked in restaurants. For people who’ve seen The Affair, which I think is a Showtime show, there is a restaurant in that show called “The Lobster Roll.” I was a busboy at The Lobster Roll, which is one of the highest volume, highest table turnover, which is a good thing in that world, restaurants on Long Island. Certainly out on the East End. No offense to The Lobster Roll. Some people from the City call it “Lunch,” because it has a big sign outside. Just FYI, anybody from Manhattan, nobody calls it “Lunch” out there. It’s The Lobster Roll.
That was brutal. I also worked, just to paint the spectrum, super low-end, well not low-end, but fast food, right? Fast, high volume. Then I worked at restaurants like The Maidstone Arms, which now has a new name and many others in between. I had a chance in those circumstances to, say at The Maidstone Arms, I remember I had to wear a pink button-up shirt with a black bow tie. Needless to say, I didn’t have either of those, so I had to work to afford –
Cal Fussman: To get dressed to go to work.
Tim Ferriss: – to get dressed to go to work. But that gave me the ability to interact with diners. Now, I can contribute to getting more tips for the table, which ultimately gets divvied up among the people who are front-of-house and maybe even back-of-house. So, the cleaning wasn’t a great fit for me, I don’t think, on several different levels.
Cal Fussman: But it actually taught you about efficiency the way you feel about efficiency.
Tim Ferriss: Or taught me how much I hate inefficiency. Or maybe reinforced how much I hated inefficiency. Because I’d already been thinking about efficiency within the context of wrestling. I just hadn’t realized that also all applied in other places. Right?
Cal Fussman: Wow. Yeah, the pieces are coming together.
Tim Ferriss: Because if I’m inefficient on the wrestling mat, what happens? Now, I’m into the second period, third period, then my body shuts down and then I lose. So, I had to think about efficiency. I never would’ve used that word, but that’s certainly –
Cal Fussman: It all comes back to your birth.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, I suppose it does.
Cal Fussman: You’ve got to be the most efficient to get the most out of yourself. You couldn’t afford to just go along like everybody else.
Tim Ferriss: No, I would lose. I don’t know where the dislike of losing came from, but I certainly have a strong dislike of losing. That just doing it following standard operating procedure just wasn’t a very attractive option to me.
Cal Fussman: Here’s one thing I do know. You went to study with John McPhee.
Tim Ferriss: I had the gift. I’m not going to say that I in any way deserved it more than other kids at Princeton. But I ended up going to Princeton for undergrad.
Cal Fussman: Take a second to describe who John McPhee is to those who might not know.
Tim Ferriss: John McPhee, this may sound like a huge overstatement but you can correct me if I’m wrong. In the minds of many non-fiction writers, John McPhee is a god.
Cal Fussman: No debate here.
Tim Ferriss: He is the consummate master of his craft. He’s a staff writer, long-time staff writer at The New Yorker. He has at least one Pulitzer Prize. I never know if it’s Pulitzer or Pulitzer, but I like saying Pulitzer, so I’ll say that. Like it has two umlauts over the u, which it does not. For Coming Into the Country specifically, which was about his time primarily in Alaska. John McPhee is so good at non-fiction writing. The class I ended up taking, which was a small seminar. So, you applied and provided writing samples. It was called “The Literature of Fact.” What a great name, right? As you would expect of John McPhee. M-C-P-H-E-E. He’s so good at exploring and dissecting different subjects, that when he writes a book about basketball, A Sense of Where You Are, related to Bill Bradley, it becomes the classic –
Cal Fussman: Right.
Tim Ferriss: – in non-fiction basketball. When he writes a book about tennis, Levels of the Game, it becomes the classic book on tennis. It goes on. He wrote an entire book about oranges. He wrote an entire book about Iraq. He’s written entire books about classically carved canoes. You would say to yourself, and you may be saying to yourself, I would never read a book about oranges.
Cal Fussman: Oh, yeah, you would.
Tim Ferriss: Yes, you would. Oh, yes, you would. Just to dive into one of the examples I just gave, Levels of the Game. It’s about one tennis match. The entire book is about one tennis match. Conceptually, it’s hard for me to imagine anything sounding more boring and yet, it is absolutely gripping as a page-turner. There’s a lot more to it, as you’d certainly expect.
Cal Fussman: What’s it like to be in a class with a god like this?
Tim Ferriss: From the first day, I felt it was just a huge gift. I had a good degree of insecurity going into it. We’re talking about someone who had David Remnick as a student. We’re talking about a teacher who has not only produced master pieces himself, but produced students, and I am not one of them.
Cal Fussman: David Remnick being the editor of The New Yorker right now.
Tim Ferriss: That’s right. Who has produced many students who have gone on to just create incredible works of art. I do not think I’m that person at all. But I could draft behind a lot of those people in the class. So, not only was it a gift to learn from Professor McPhee – I can’t call him John, it’s too weird. There are a bunch of people in my life I just can’t call by their first name. It was also a gift to hear the comments and feedback and reading aloud of other students. I do remember very clearly – all right, Princeton students, generally speaking, a pretty confident bunch. Sometimes excessively so.
The class structure, as I remember it, was I want to say one two-or-three-hour group seminar, where Professor McPhee would talk about a given subject, some aspect of structure, which he’s very well known for and very visual in his structure, which helped me because I like to draw. I recall we also had weekly writing assignments. These were short, a few pages, whatever it was, three to ten pages. I’d already done quite a bit of writing in school, so I was comfortable with that. We’d all handed in our weekly writing assignments and we were getting them back. Before he handed them back, I remember he said he would then later review our writing assignments with us, which was incredible.
He said, “Before I had these out,” this is paraphrasing, “I want you know you’re all good writers. So, I don’t want you to be thrown off by my edits. You’re all good. You got into the class.” He handed back our printed pages that we had given him, and in almost every case, certainly in my case, there was more red ink than black ink.
Cal Fussman: Than there were words. Oh, man.
Tim Ferriss: You just saw everybody go, “Holy shit.”
Cal Fussman: But you leave that class a writer.
Tim Ferriss: Well, you leave that class a better thinker because what McPhee does so well, and he has a book that recently came out called The Fourth Draft, about his writing process, which is fantastic. If you’re interested in non-fiction writing, if you’re really interested, then this book is great. If you’re kind of/sort of interested in non-fiction writing, more interested in reading non-fiction, then just get Levels of the Game or one of his other books. But he is first and foremost good at clarifying thought. If you have extraneous words; if you have sentences that are nebulous in meaning; if you have a sequence of paragraphs that logically do not make any sense as a progression, he’ll point those out.
It wasn’t providing you with a fancier set of polished words to use. It wasn’t a matter of anything that could be differentiated from clarifying your thinking and putting clear thinking on paper.
Cal Fussman: I smell efficiency.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, in a way it certainly would be. Efficiency is one thing. I think also if you look at my interest in certain martial arts, if you look at my interest in certain wrestlers, if you look at my interest in writing, I think that the corollary, or it’s not even a cousin, it’s like the twin brother or sister of efficiency is elegance. So, that’s something I think about a lot. In elegance, you also have the art. It’s not just the science. It’s not just the mechanics. It’s also the beauty of it. For me, the ability to make something more beautiful by removing the things that are adding to drag is just such a cool concept.
Cal Fussman: All the pieces are coming together here.
Tim Ferriss: It’s such a cool concept. Now that I’m thinking about it, post-hoc it’s easy for me to try to put all these things together like Kobayashi on the cup, ohmygod. You know, The Usual Suspects or whatever. The red doorknob in The Sixth Sense. I was there all along. But my interest in Japan, also, just the elegance, the minimalism of Japan, which I’ve been obsessed with – obsessed is a strong word, but I think it applies here – for so long. I think it’s just the elegance. Of course, in Japan, you have the elegance of certain artwork and the minimalism. You also have the efficiency.
We’re talking about a country that, I think it was during the Meiji Restoration, brought in workplace efficiency and manufacturing efficiency experts who had been largely ignored in the U.S. and elsewhere. The Japanese would bring them to Japan and then create the entire corporate and manufacturing and design culture of Toyota, which ultimately then displaced U.S. automotive companies then later on. They took what was ignored, incorporated it, made it better, made it their own, and then at least at that time, won. All of that was so interesting to me.
The Literature of Fact, just as a side note, and it’s not really a side note because it kind of, in my mind, proves the point. When I took that class without any perceptible additional effort, my grades in every other class went up. I think it’s because the thinking, the sharper thinking translated to every other class.
Cal Fussman: At what point is your ability to control your own journey coming in to play? Where you can start to live the way you want to live as an artist, because you had that from the drawing and the elegance, and also the ability to navigate the business side so you weren’t dependent on others? Is there a moment?
Tim Ferriss: I can tell you the moment in my life I felt the richest I have ever felt, and this will relate to everything you just said. A little back story. What were my jobs in college to help pay for expenses and everything else? Well, I had a bunch of jobs. One, I was an illustrator. I did freelance illustration work, including for Princeton University. Say there was a student orientation manual that needed illustration, so I did almost all the illustrations for that. I think there were one or two books that I also did illustrations for. Not my preferred type of illustration. It was mostly backgrounds and architecture on campus and so on, which is not terribly exciting to me. I prefer doing live-action figures and so on, humans, animals. But nonetheless, there was that.
Then for fun, this was not part of the job but relevant, I was the graphics editor at The Princeton Tiger. The primary reason I took that job – which was fun and it allowed me to just goof off and be a bit of prankster; it was a satire magazine, much like The Lampoon –was that I went to visit the offices of The Princeton Tiger and they showed me the desk of the graphic editor, okay? I didn’t realize there was a designated desk for the graphics editor. Whatever the title was at the time. I opened one of the drawers and I found a number of drunken sketches from Jim Lee, one of my comic book heroes. Who, unbeknownst to me at the time, had gone to Princeton, had had that job. After some revelry, he had come back to the office and sketched out some drawings. I said, “Yeah, I’ll take this job.” So, that was a job, but unpaid. Then I had a job in guest library.
Cal Fussman: You know, the pieces are coming together because you’ll do a blog and you won’t get paid for it, but you know there’s something good is going to come out of this.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, good for other people. Or fun for me. Or both. I had a job at guest library, which was, as I remember it, it was the attic library of the East Asian Studies department. It was terrible. It was like living in a sauna. It was so hot up there. I was getting paid whatever it was, $7.00, $8.00 an hour. By this point, I was no longer 100 pounds. I had really gotten into physical training and was whatever I was at the time. Actually, I was bigger than I am now, so I was probably 180, 190 pounds.
One of my friends said, if you want to make more money, you should safeguard. Now, safeguarding is bouncing. At Princeton, they call it safeguarding. Princeton has this very odd tradition of eating clubs, which are like co-ed social clubs. Think of them as fraternities and sororities combined. They are these co-ed eating clubs where you would, as you would expect, eat your meals where they serve lunch and dinner and so on. They’re all lined up one street called Nassau Street. At least when I was there, student would go out and party and get raucous on Thursday nights and Saturday nights. For whatever reason, those were the nights. Saturday makes sense. I’m not sure why Thursday. I’m guessing a day of recovery. So Thursday and Saturday.
Things would happen. People would get in fights. People would get overly, men would get overly aggressive with women. Whatever it would be. So, they hired security guards to help keep the peace. There were, I remember two different safeguarding agencies, as it were. I ended up working with one that paid, I think, $20.00 an hour. Which to me at the time, I’m like wow. All right.
Cal Fussman: Big time.
Tim Ferriss: I’m hitting the big time. So $20.00 an hour. Long story short, I did not enjoy that job. I was good at it but I didn’t enjoy it because you’re nobody’s friend. Nobody likes the security when they’re drunk. It doesn’t matter. Even if you’re actually helping them. One of my very good friends at the time, who was I want to say a former middle-weight, amateur boxing champion in the Soviet Union, which is a very big deal, a very, very big deal. That’s effectively a professional level boxer. He was a physics graduate student at Princeton. Imagine that, right? It makes sense on some level. A comic book character of sorts. A fantastic guy named Elias. If you’re out there, Elias, thank you for being such a good friend when we were at school.
I was off-duty. I was not working on a given night when he was. We worked together a lot. I trusted him; he trusted me. We were good at the job. Good at the job does not mean fighting people, by the way. Good at the job means you don’t fight.
Cal Fussman: You don’t fight people.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. You defuse situations that would have fights, and you handle simple logistics like there was this one eating club called Tiger Inn, which was known as being one of the more aggressive eating clubs. A lot of football players, a lot of big athletes, a very heavy drinking culture. As a safeguard, you tended to get paid the most when you worked at TI, as it was known, or some of these other, more aggressive spots. Because if you’re just saving the computer science nerds from each other, that’s a much lower risk situation, right?
Cal Fussman: Got it.
Tim Ferriss: There were at least two doors, but primarily front door, which everybody tried to come through and we would check IDs. Then there was a side door. So, you would typically have one guard at each, which were not separated by a ton of space. Elias was working with someone that night who, for whatever reason, left his post, left the side door wide open, and there were a number of throwers, meaning track athletes who were shot-putters and discus throwers and hammer throwers and so on, who were visiting for track meet that weekend. A whole gang of them. Huge guys. They had shown up at the front door and Elias had turned them away because they didn’t have IDs. That’s part of the job. They got really upset and they’re like, “We’re coming back.”
What happens is they come around the side door and one guy grabs him by the neck from behind, another guys punches him in the liver. It doesn’t matter if you’re Mike Tyson. These are like five or six, 230-plus-pound guys whaling and kicking you. He ended up in really bad shape. That’s when I stopped safeguarding. I said it’s kind of like motorcycle riding, it doesn’t matter how good you are on the motorcycle because there are other people who are bad at driving. Similarly, it doesn’t matter if you’re Bruce Lee, Mike Tyson combined, if you’re working a two-person configuration and one person leave the side door.
Cal Fussman: No control, man.
Tim Ferriss: No control. Zero, you’re done. So, I stopped safeguarding.
Cal Fussman: That’s the moment where you’re really gripping control over your life?
Tim Ferriss: No, no. I’m going to get there. I realized that I didn’t want to go back to $8.00 an hour in the sauna library. I needed money. So what could I do? I should also say simultaneously with all of this, my interest in entrepreneurship has increased. There were some entrepreneurship classes at Princeton, one of which I joined at the same time as McPhee’s class, which was later, called “High-Tech Entrepreneurship,” which had a huge impact on my life, with someone named Ed Chao, who is a real mentor. But even before that, what I’d started doing as I was making a little bit of money bussing tables and so on, is I would call the number – this is something I didn’t do as a kid – still going to sleep at 3:00 a.m., right?
So, I’d see these infomercials and I would call the numbers and I’d figured out how to take a tiny, little microcassette recorder and go to Radio Shack – I know this is probably illegal, so don’t really this at home kids – but I could connect it to record conversations, because I wanted to know what the scripts were. I knew what happened on the TV. What happens when you call? If I say no, if they try to convince me and then I say, “Oh, it’s $29.99? I can’t afford that.” What happens? What do they say? What do they do? Then if they send something to me, if I buy something, which I didn’t do until college. In college, I was like all right, let me try to order something. What’s the return process? If I send it back, what happens? If I cancel, what happens? How quickly does it get to me? Do they use first-class mail or do they use priority mail? Do they use UPS? I wanted to know the details.
Ultimately, I have something really – I don’t know how common it is. I have dyslexia. I can read fine. But I have some dysgraphia. D’s, B’s getting mixed up or P’s and B’s get mixed up. I will write letters backwards or upside down. I still do to this day, in English at least. So, I had also realized at Princeton – I have some issues with producing text. Reading text, a little less so, but the reading volume – this is going somewhere – was so high at Princeton, if you were actually going to do the classroom reading, which I’m convinced 80% of people do not, which is fine. But I at the time felt like that was a requirement for doing well in school. Now, certainly learning and becoming a better human and a liberal arts education would probably be the priority, but ultimately students wanted to do well. Anyone who’s gotten into Princeton is probably very competitive.
I was struggling to do all this reading. There was so much. Towards the end of high school and then leading into Princeton, where on my floor in Forbes, which is one of the residential colleges, I remember kids – it kind of explains a lot that goes on in our world when these people then go on to Goldman Sachs and stuff – but they were like, oh, you got 1800 on your SAT? Yeah, me too. What did you do for this? All these kids on my hallway got perfect scores on their SATs, which I did not. My SATs were much lower than the average for Princeton because I didn’t finish them. I was too much of a perfectionist. I actually never finished the test and I took it multiple times. So we could psychoanalyze that. But this is all going somewhere. I compensated in a way once I got to Princeton by continuing to look at accelerated learning and speedreading techniques.
Could you accelerate your reading speed without sacrificing comprehension? There’s a lot of voodoo and witchcraft and nonsense out there, but there are a handful of methods for increasing reading speed that make perfect sense if you’re just looking at how the eyes function and how they feed into the optic nerve and how one, through fixation points and so on, Saccadic movements, I think is how you pronounce also the jumps that reading entails, made scientific sense to me. The mechanisms were all plausible. There wasn’t any hand weighting. That just structurally makes sense to me. Yes, efficiency, again.
If your eye travels across a line and let’s say you close one eye and you try to read a line of text, you’ll notice these herky-jerky movement. Those are these Saccadic movements, jumps from fixation point to fixation point. Your eye doesn’t travel in a smooth line across a sentence on a page. It just does not. If you can then reduce the number of fixations you have per line, well, if you go from 3 to 2, you’ve just –
Cal Fussman: You’re smoothing the line.
Tim Ferriss: You’re smoothing the line and you’re just going to move a lot faster. I began doing that for myself. After my friend got his head kicked it, I said, well what if I took all this stuff that I’ve been taking notes on, because I’ve always been a compulsive notetaker, so all of the informercial stuff – another thing that I ended up doing at that time was, and I didn’t come up with this, I had heard it or read it somewhere, I started to create a three-ring binder where if I were reading a magazine or an article and I found an advertisement that made me want to buy something, I would take it out and I would put it into a three-ring binder to try to figure out why it made me want to buy it.
So, I had all of these expedition findings, kind of like the butterfly species and so on that Darwin or someone would collect to analyze later. But in my case, they were advertisements that made me want to buy something. Then I would later try to deconstruct why they made me want to buy them.
Cal Fussman: Man, you’re just looking into the whole process of the business side.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, but I hadn’t pulled the trigger. I hadn’t really tried anything. That’s not entirely true. I tried something a few years before that. I think it was in the very beginning of Princeton, which did not work, which was an audiobook on how to get into good colleges. I made a bunch of mistakes. The first of which was coming up with a product that I was convinced would sell a million copies and not testing it. Not testing it before manufacturing. So, I took all the money I’d made from being a busboy and so on and invested it in manufacturing 400 audiocassette tapes or something like that, I think one or two of which I sold. One to my Mom. I think she had bought it and then later told me. Then one to God knows who. It was a huge loss. I didn’t throw out those tapes until like ten years later. I was like some day, people will see.
Cal Fussman: People will realize!
Tim Ferriss: People will realize the gold in this! Total failure. Then I realized that I could, looking at these various advertisements and so on, do what’s called a dry test. That means you are selling something before you manufacture anything. Secondly, based on buying little things here and there and listening to the phone scripts, right? Because these operator use decision trees in scripts. If the person says no to this, do this. If they say yes to this, do this. If they say yes, then try to upsell them to this. If they say, then try to down-sell them to this. If they agree to blah blah blah, then at the very end, offer them this. If at this point they say no, I can’t do it, then you offer them payment terms. Whatever it might be. There are all these different contingency plans.
I put together, I think it was called, and this is right before the dot.com bust. So this was ’98, ’99. I think I called it Speedreading 2.0 or something like that. Or Enhanced Speedreading. I can’t remember the exact name. I put out these flyers. I printed out these colorful flyers and I promised a 300% increase in reading speed, which you can measure. Words-per-minute reading speed, in a three-hour seminar.
Cal Fussman: Man, this is The 4-Hour Workweek. This is the foundation of it.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Or you get 110% of your money back. So if it doesn’t work, you make money, right? You’re going to come out of it –
Cal Fussman: You certainly weren’t deterred by those original cassettes.
Tim Ferriss: Because I had no out-of-pocket expenses, right? So, this is a service, which ultimately is why I stopped doing it. But this is a service. I then proceeded, just so that I wouldn’t be caught with my pants down if it actually worked, which I didn’t expect it would necessarily, but my downside was so limited, that it didn’t matter. It was an asymmetrical risk/reward benefit, right? Which is always what I look for, even to this day. How can I cap my downside? If I always cap my downside, if I can really minimize the downside, eventually the upside will take care of itself, if I have enough at-bats.
I had these flyers all over the place. Then I guess I had my dorm room phone number. I don’t think I had a cellphone at that point, and my email address. But I had to find a location. I couldn’t afford a location because I wasn’t safeguarding any longer and I had $8.00 an hour. I don’t think there was any date on the flyer because I wanted the flexibility of figuring out how to finagle some type of space. I found a church in town that had I want to say it was a daycare area for kids.
Cal Fussman: Where is this going?
Tim Ferriss: That would not be used on Saturday afternoons. There was some period of time in which that was available. So, I went in. God, I haven’t thought about this in a long time. I tithed a little bit. It wasn’t very much. But I tithed some money to the church and I said, “I’ve noticed you have this space.” I was just trying to put two and two together. Is there any time when this is not used? Is there any possibility I could use it as – I’m an aspiring entrepreneur, trying this class.
I explained the whole thing. I said, “I don’t know if it’s going to work. It might not. It could be two people, it could be more. I have no idea. But would it be possible to potentially use this space for a few hours and I’ll leave it in better shape than when I found it when I leave?” Thankfully, they took mercy on me or had some empathy and they let me use the space. They said I could use the space. Then at that point, emails and calls started coming in. Now, I have to sell on the phone.
Cal Fussman: Oh, all the stuff that you learned from the infomercials.
Tim Ferriss: Guess what? I’ve already listened to a hundred operators on the phone who are backed by companies that are spending tens and hundreds of millions of dollars on ensuring that the scripts work.
Cal Fussman: Oh, man. This is beautiful.
Tim Ferriss: So I end up, my first seminar, with, I want to say it was, just for the sake of simplicity, 30 people. So, I have a full room of people. 30 people. They come with cash. They’ve got tens and twenties and fives. They come with checks. Not a single refund. I survived my first three hours. I deliver the measurables. The key performance indicator for you startup folks out there, the words-per-minute rate, with equal or better attention, at least tripled or in many cases, quintupled. I just remember walking out of that seminar with pockets full of checks and twenties and tens. I made $1,500 in three hours. Keep in mind, the most I’d made up to that point was $20.00 an hour doing something that was risking life and limb. Then I go into this church daycare room and I walk out with $1500. I couldn’t even fit them in my pockets. I remember I had to fold up checks.
Cal Fussman: Your pockets are bulging as you walk down the street.
Tim Ferriss: I had to fold them. Well, I was on a bike. I remember going straight to PNC Bank. It was my first bank account. Immediately, I had to deposit this right away. I went going straight to the bank and having money and checks pressed to the grips on the handlebars because they couldn’t fit in my pockets. So I had this death grip on my bike as I went to PNC Bank and deposited that. It really was that day where I was like, holy shit, this could actually work. You actually can do this. I did a handful more of those seminars. But ultimately realized, you have to be in one place to do this. It’s a service. So it still, one some level, is physical presence, hours in, money out. So, I stopped doing that when I graduated.
Cal Fussman: So that moment, and what might happen with money, that sounds like a springboard in itself. Up until that point, had you ever invested in anything?
Tim Ferriss: No. Actually, I had with the help of my Dad invested in one company. Man, if I think about it, my investment approach hasn’t changed that much. Pixar was my first ever investment.
Cal Fussman: Whoa, that makes sense, man. You’re the artist.
Tim Ferriss: I was the comic book artist. I loved it. I loved animation. I knew, I felt like I understood the world of comic books and animation really well. Pixar was coming out with Toy Story.
Cal Fussman: That’s your first investment?
Tim Ferriss: That was the first investment I ever made. The only investment that I recall making until much, much later, I mean, well after college. I don’t like things I can’t control, like public stocks. Later, I over-complicated investment for myself. I read a lot of books on investment and it scared me off. Whereas, in fact, my best investments to date have, whether it’s Facebook, Twitter, Uber, Alibaba, all these, because I really, I play in those sandboxes. I understood them so well and I’ve used all of them. Pixar was my only investment, a small amount of money. No, nothing up to that point in terms of external investments. I invested a lot in myself.
Cal Fussman: I came into this thinking that you were a one-man partnership but I see now that there are like five different people in there doing all these different things, having all these different talents.
Tim Ferriss: And neuroses, and difficulties, and weaknesses. Which might explain all the voices in my head.
Cal Fussman: At what point is it that The 4-Hour Workweek is going to be born? Is there a moment in your mind where – we can see where everything is leading in that direction, but is there a moment where you know, there it is?
Tim Ferriss: The lifestyle or the book?
Cal Fussman: Well, it sounds like the lifestyle led to the book.
Tim Ferriss: Well, so the lifestyle was experienced and enjoyed and then somewhat forgotten. So, I had that experience with the seminar. Then I became intoxicated by the possibility of tech millions and billions because this is, keep in mind, ’98 and ’99.
Cal Fussman: All those checks squeezed in your hand. Okay.
Tim Ferriss: This is also when a, I’m not going to say classmate, but schoolmate a few years ahead of me had sold bluemountain.com for something like $300 or $400 million. There were a number of other examples like that. This is certainly at the top of froth and right preceding the first tech boom. Those numbers were mind-boggling to me. It’s one thing to make $1,500.
Cal Fussman: $400 million.
Tim Ferriss: It’s quite another thing to make $400 million.
Cal Fussman: But something should be pointed out here. The same way you were talking about growing up in the era of Schwarzenegger and Van Damme, you’re growing up in the era of a kid in college starting something that could make $400 million.
Tim Ferriss: Those were the new heroes, right? I took this class I had mentioned earlier, High-Tech Entrepreneurship, with Ed Chao, which I had to negotiate with him to get into because I had been – this is highly relevant, so it’ll tie in – but I had gone to China and as an East Asian Studies major, I was first neuroscience. There’s a long story behind the transition. But I do actually think some animal testing is very important, but I couldn’t do it myself. It wasn’t torture, it was what they would call perfusing rats after injecting them with retroviruses and so on. I couldn’t sacrifice the animals necessary to do that to work in the lab I wanted to work in.
So, I became an East Asian Studies major. Nonetheless, taking all of these other classes like McPhee’s class and at the same time, Ed Chao enters the picture. His class, along with McPhee’s, were in, I want to say this book was something like the “Student Class Review Guide.” That’s not the right name, but it was something like that. It was similar to a registrar’s list of classes you could take, but it was an analog version of say Yelp. So, students could actually rate these classes and give feedback. Ed Chao’s class, along with McPhee’s, was way up at the very top of the heap. He was teaching people how to build businesses. How to build companies that could get sold for hundreds of millions of dollars.
But I had, as an East Asian Studies major, taken time to go to China to study at two universities. I came back and I missed the deadline. I had missed the deadline for applying. So, I wrote a letter to Professor Chao. I made my case and ultimately said, I don’t need a seat. If the room is full, I can sit on the floor. If you need me to help, I can clean the erasers after class. I will do whatever is necessary. Please let me take this class.
Cal Fussman: How could he say no?
Tim Ferriss: Eventually, he did. He let me take this class. That class led me to want to jump in to the tech world. There was one company that he had invested in called TruSAN Networks, which was a storage area networking company. At the time, what would’ve been considered mass data storage. So petabytes and petabytes of data. Ohmygod, who could imagine. Now, you can go to Frye’s Electronics and buy a terabyte for $70. But back in the day, we’re talking about systems worth hundreds of thousands of dollars or millions of dollars that you’d be selling to American Airlines or to the FBI or whoever it might be, National Geographic Survey.
In that class, we had to do a final project. There were different options for what types of final projects you could do. One was profiling a company. I decided to profile TruSAN as a way to hopefully get my foot in the door and get a job. Long story short, I did the whole final project and tried to get the job and was turned down. I graduated with no job.
Cal Fussman: After all this.
Tim Ferriss: After all this. My parents were very supportive. They’re like, take your time. Come home. But for myself even, after a month or two of no job after graduation –
Cal Fussman: You’re starting to get antsy.
Tim Ferriss: Antsy and panicky. Every maybe two weeks, I would be emailing this poor CEO, Thomas at TruSAN, to try to get my foot back in the door to get a job. I had heard all these stories of negotiation and so on from Ed also in this class, because he taught at Harvard business school and he used the case study method. So, we were looking at stories of real companies, tough decisions they had to make, and then the class, each student in the class as a whole would debate what they would do, given this decision, company, or person is facing. Then you get to read about what actually happened.
Rejection. No, no thanks. Sorry. We have an in-house human resources person. They are completely backed up. We have more applicants than we can handle. Thanks but no thanks. He was very polite about it considering how –
Cal Fussman: But no, no, no, no, no.
Tim Ferriss: Then I was going to give up. I was like, you know, let me try just one more Hail Mary. I sent him an email which was along these lines. Hi, Thomas. I realized I left out a few pages on competitive analysis in my final project – which was true – that could relate to how you compete with Network Appliance and EMC. Those were the two primary competitors. As it turns out – this was the part that wasn’t true – as it turns out, I’m going to be in the Bay Area anyway. They were based in San Jose. I have a couple of job interviews and meetings, would it be possible to swing by and give you these pages and just thank you for the time that you spent with me when I was doing the final project?
Cal Fussman: Which, of course, he could read right through.
Tim Ferriss: I would imagine so. So, he replied back, once again politely, sorry. Thanks but no thanks. Appreciate the persistence but we don’t have space. Then he had a change of heart. He said, okay, I can meet you on Tuesday. I think this was the exact time, from 1:00 to 1:15. I was like okay, great.
Cal Fussman: So you’re going to fly out.
Tim Ferriss: Great. I’ll see you there. I didn’t have the money. I’d burned through any of the savings from the speedreading stuff. I didn’t have a whole lot of money. So, I bought a standby ticket to California. On a standby ticket, you don’t at least at that time, you didn’t check luggage. So, I had carry-on only, which meant I wore my ill-fitting suit, the only suit I had. I couldn’t afford a hotel, so I stayed at a kickboxing gym which, for those of you in San Francisco, this might make sense. There was a gym called Fairtex, which was located on Clementino Street. This was in ’99 probably, ’99, 2000, between 5th and 6th, between Folsom and Howard. That’s not a good place to be. It was bad, like a really bad place. But it was cheaper than staying at a hotel, to pay for a fly-in kickboxing camp.
You got to live on the upper floor, sleeping on a bunkbed with some of the Thai instructors. Which meant I also had to clean my clothing in the sink there, which I did, and it was fine. I didn’t have any other meetings. I very much hastened to set up other meetings so that I wouldn’t feel like I had all my eggs in one basket. But now I had something real to hold onto. Hey, I have an interview in San Jose with TruSAN Networks.
Cal Fussman: 15 minutes.
Tim Ferriss: While I’m there, I would love to chat with blah blah blah. So, I was able to actually set up a couple of meetings. I got there at 1:00 and Tom was delayed. I was like, uh, 1:00 comes and goes. 1:15 comes and goes. 1:30 comes and goes. The receptionist, I think her name was Carly, she was a sweetheart. She was awesome. She was really – not a receptionist. She was really what we would call Chief of Staff now. That term didn’t exist then in startups. She was amazing. She said all right, Tom is delayed, but he would love for you to meet with Mark. So I met with Mark, who was the COO, if I remember correctly. A great guy. We chatted for 30, 40 minutes. However long it was.
Cal Fussman: Foot’s in the door.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, and eventually I met with Tom. It was a very short meeting. Nice to see you again, because he’d met me, he’d spoken at the class. He said, “So just so I’m clear, you’re not going to stop bothering me until I give you a job?” I said, “Yeah, I suppose that’s about right.” He goes, “Okay, great. You’re in sales.”
Cal Fussman: Wow.
Tim Ferriss: I found out later, I was the second-to-lowest paid employee at the company.
Cal Fussman: Who was the lowest?
Tim Ferriss: One of the part-time receptionists. Because later, one of my friends asked for his paid time off and someone sent him a spreadsheet with the other named deleted – this is not what you do, by the way, if you’re sending someone their paid time off, but it was an Excel spreadsheet and they’d forgotten to delete another tab, which had everyone else’s compensation and stock options. So, my friend is like, “Dude, you need to see this.” He’s like, “You’re the lowest on the totem pole.” But I got the job. That came later. They didn’t have space for me.
Cal Fussman: But now you’re in sales.
Tim Ferriss: I was crammed into a desk in a fire exit. Literally in that tiny doorway in a fire exit and then I had my, I think we called them system engineers who were support for technical sales, which I would be. Brian, who was a really good guy. Yeah, I got to it. That job ultimately disappeared because the company, like so many at the time, imploded. Rapid growth, 9/11 happens, financing starts to dry up.
Cal Fussman: We’ve got another piece to the puzzle here.
Tim Ferriss: Saw the death knell. Around that time, I saw the writing on the wall and I said, okay, this is going away. What else do I know? I knew the speedreading at the time. What I did is, I’ll try to keep this short. One of the things I did is I looked at my credit card statements to determine how I spent money. Where did I spend the most money? Where was I price insensitive? For the small amount of money I was making in the Bay Area, which was at that time still extremely expensive because there was still so much demand. There was less supply than demand. I had roommates and the whole nine.
What do I understand? What could I make that I use myself where I’m price insensitive so I could go high end as opposed to low end? It was sports nutrition. Athletic nutrition. Then during lunch hours, I began using the conference lines in empty rooms at TruSAN to try to lay the groundwork for this new company that I would make. I didn’t have the money or the connections for anything, but I did realize through all the cold-calling that I did to CEOs and CTOs, who were the people I needed to sell to for my job, that 9-to-5 is the worst time to make phone calls. You either want to call and/or –
Cal Fussman: 7:00 in the morning.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, 7:00 in the morning or like 6:30 at night because very often, the people who started the companies, the Presidents, the CEOs whoever, were there early or there late. The gatekeepers were not. I started connecting with people in this black box of sports nutrition who really like to keep it a black box for many reasons, because there are contract manufacturers who make different products for competing brands and so on. I started to figure it out. I had just enough neuroscience background and also certainly experience as a consumer to know what I wanted. I then asked all of my co-workers, who were also smart enough to see the writing on the wall. Like wow, all right.
If a bunch of inside salespeople have fired, rather, who because I guess in some ways they were sold to other companies, but who had been fired inside, meaning they’d book meetings for people like me. Their job is outbound phone calls, but they don’t leave the office. If a bunch of inside salespeople have been fired, it’s just a matter of time before all the outside people are fired. This is just the first round of layoffs. I asked them, I said, hey guys. I think we all know where this is going. I’m trying to start a new company. If I have to, I’ll guilt you but can you please just commit to buying one bottle each? So, what did this give me? Then I have 20 of my friends who commit to buying one bottle of something that doesn’t exist yet, which gives me just enough money –
Cal Fussman: Get the crowd before you sell the product.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, you need to get the crowd because then you’ve tested the market, right? So, are these people willing to actually spend their money to buy this thing I’m thinking about making. Ultimately, through guilt, hopefully product features and benefits, they agreed to do it. That gave me just enough money, which was like 20% of what I actually needed to do a manufacturing run, to give me the confidence that I could then go negotiate and pitch the manufacturer to have them drop their minimum to what I could afford.
I laid out the vision for what this could be and that I’d stick with them as a manufacturer and it’s a bet, but it’s low-risk bet for them. It would make a huge difference. I’m sure someone helped you when you were just getting started. There’s probably one person you can remember. Please just give me that once chance. They were very kind. They agreed and I kept true to my word. The company exploded and I stuck with them. Then they made a lot, a lot, a lot of money because of it. Ultimately, just a flash-forward. That company, what I thought was going to be a dream ended up becoming a nightmare. The company ended up running me instead of the other way around. I didn’t know how to manage. I did not know how to scale without myself remaining a bottleneck. Very different from having a seminar, which is very simple – fewer moving pieces.
I burned out and I lost a very important relationship. This girlfriend walked out I had expected to probably propose to.
Cal Fussman: Oh, man. Everything is going up in flames.
Tim Ferriss: Everything is going up in flames. Now, in the meantime, because I’m bootstrapping this, Ed Chao had invited me to give this lecture twice a year on how I was growing my company.
Cal Fussman: You’re up in flames and now you’re coming in to speak about growing your company.
Tim Ferriss: Well, keep in mind, the company itself was successful. But I felt –
Cal Fussman: But you personally –
Tim Ferriss: – unsuccessful.
Cal Fussman: Right, I got it.
Tim Ferriss: I was certainly unhappy. So, the mechanics of how to build, I could teach. But the inner workings and the contentment and so on, were a separate conversation. But I’m doing this twice a year. The talk is changing as I’m changing. In 2004, which is when all these things start melting down, I took what I thought was going to be a four-week trip, one-way ticket to London to either rethink all the systems in the business so that I could remove myself as a bottleneck, or shut it down. It ended up working. I took notes on all this because I’m constantly keeping notes, right? I started then imparting some of this in these twice-a-year lectures that I’m giving to student in high-tech entrepreneurship, this class I had taken.
Ultimately, that four-week trip turned into 18 months of traveling around the world. You know the siren song of travel.
Cal Fussman: Once you start, it’s addictive.
Tim Ferriss: I ended up with no itinerary. I’d run my whole life in 15-minute or 10-minute outlook increments for so many years. Now, I had no plans. If three people said, what are you doing here? You should go to Galloway in Ireland because they have an art festival. Okay, I’ll go to Galloway.
Cal Fussman: The 4-Hour Workweek is born!
Tim Ferriss: That’s right. So, I’m taking notes on all of this. I’m journaling. I remember where I was, exactly where I was. I was in an apartment in a place called Barrio Norte in Argentina, in Buenos Aires. I had a roommate from Sweden at the time. This really funny dude with dreadlocks, a black guy. He had given me a couple hours to do the class via Skype. I completely reformulated the class. I focused instead of on how to scale a business, I talked about what I termed “lifestyle design.” How do you start with the end in mind for how you want to spend your hours day-to-day, this finite resource, and how do you then reverse engineer that with a company or a career?
Cal Fussman: No writer would ever think like this, man.
Tim Ferriss: So, I taught this class and one thing I did for every class, and this won’t surprise you because if you’ll recall, I did all these experiments with returning products and everything, so I would send a feedback form to all the students. I would ask them for different types of feedback. One of them was other comments. Do you have any other comments or suggestions or questions? One of the students in typical Princeton-like, dickish fashion, I don’t think it was actually a real recommendation, I think it was just a snarky response, said, “I don’t understand why you’re teaching a class of 30 students. Why don’t you just write a book and be done with it?”
Cal Fussman: Oh, no.
Tim Ferriss: Well, oh, no, but oh, yes. So that meant, keep in mind –
Cal Fussman: Oh, no, but oh, yes.
Tim Ferriss: What’s my situation at the time? I have insomnia. As I did before, I can’t go to bed until 3:00 in the morning. What don’t you have in Argentina? I didn’t have TV. My mind would race and come up with potential book – I didn’t want to write a book. I had a very horrifying experience with my senior thesis in college, so I had never wanted to write. I had vowed I would not write. But to get to sleep, I had to write down these chapter ideas and what I thought were just frivolous ideas for chapter beginnings, endings, points I could make, stories I could tell about all these people I had met during my travels, who epitomized what I was talking about. Just to get to sleep, I took it out of my head and put it on paper, which is something I still do today. I finally end up back in the U.S. and I had this huge stack of paper.
Cal Fussman: Thank God for insomnia.
Tim Ferriss: Thank God for insomnia. I’ll give thanks to Jack Canfield here. Several years before, when I first moved to Silicon Valley, I had volunteered, which is the best way I think to build a network quickly in a place you don’t know. I had volunteered for an organization called The Silicon Valley Association of Startup Entrepreneurs. They did events. I started just whatever, taking out the trash. The great thing about volunteering is that most people, because they’re not getting paid, do the bare minimum or a little less than the bare minimum.
But I went in and I’m like, all right, I know I’m taking out the trash, but the ice tea isn’t refilled over there. Let me go refill the ice tea. Literally, that’s all I needed to do for the people managing the event to be like, “That kid’s a go-getter. Let’s have him do more.” I refilled the damn ice tea and within a month or two, they were inviting me to the planning meetings and then they asked if anyone would like to volunteer to spearhead the next event, which meant inviting speakers, and I raised my hand and they let me do it. I got to invite people I wanted to meet, including someone named Jack Canfield, who co-created Chicken Soup for the Soul, which has sold hundreds of millions of copies.
I get back from the U.S. I haven’t bothered Jack in any way. I haven’t asked him for anything. He’s still a friend to this day, by the way. I took some of the notes and I was back in the Bay Area. I had no idea what to do with my life. I was fine. I wasn’t upset. I was a very happy guy at that point, very content. I had cash flow from the business. I sent him a couple of the notes and I said, “Jack, this student said this. Here’s some of my ideas. What do you think I should do with this? I don’t really want to write a book, but what are your thoughts?” Before I knew it, Jack was like, “All right, I want you meet this guy, Steve. I want you to meet this person, Jillian. I want you to meet this other woman, blah blah blah.” He started making introductions. He’s like, “I think it’s great. You should do it. I can see it working on Fox and Friends.” He started, before I could say no, making introductions to potential agents and so on.
Ultimately, because I had the time, put together a proposal, which is a business plan, right?
Cal Fussman: Which you’re good at.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, which I’m good at. I’d learned how to do.
Cal Fussman: Because you’re seeing this from the bottom of the business process first.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, I could think about finding the market. Who’s the market, right?
Cal Fussman: Was it easier for you to write the proposal or the book?
Tim Ferriss: The proposal. By a thousand-fold. Because the proposal is selling. The book is teaching. Those are very different things.
Cal Fussman: See, in my case, the book is easy. The proposal just shoots fear through me.
Tim Ferriss: Sure. A lot of writers feel very uncomfortable selling themselves. But I think the easiest way or the reason that was easy for me to overcome is realizing that to sell effectively, you don’t have to over-promise. You don’t have to blow a lot of smoke. You just have to state the facts using the tools you already have, which is wordsmithing and logical progression and all this stuff that you would get from a class –
Cal Fussman: Someone like John McPhee.
Tim Ferriss: Certainly from John McPhee. Logical thinking. You’re just taking out the things that are extraneous that might hurt you. You’re not covering anything up, but you’re presenting the case like an attorney would in the most –
Cal Fussman: In the most efficient way.
Tim Ferriss: – efficient, compelling way possible. Steve Hanselman ended up, who had just moved from being a superstar editor and publisher to being an agent, ended up signing on for this wild ride.
Cal Fussman: Do you have any idea where this is going at this point?
Tim Ferriss: No, no. The book was rejected, I want to say, I lose track of the number sometimes, it was either somewhere between 26 and 29 times it was rejected by editors and publishers.
Cal Fussman: What are you feeling when these rejections come in?
Tim Ferriss: It was less –
Cal Fussman: You’re in sales, so rejection is normal.
Tim Ferriss: It’s normal. I also –
Cal Fussman: For a writer, that’s devastating.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, so what I had that they didn’t have – and this is the reason rather than feeling sad or rejected I felt angry and righteous, which also by the way is a double-edged sword; that doesn’t always work so well. But the reason I felt I knew I was right and I felt righteous and I was just pissed at these people was because I had data. I taught 20 classes. I had feedback forms. I had the experiences.
Cal Fussman: You had the goods. You knew.
Tim Ferriss: I knew it sold. I knew it could sell. I knew it worked, more importantly. It’s one thing to sell medicine, it’s quite another to go through all the trials and so on to ensure that the medicine works. I knew the medicine worked. They were, whatever. Their rejection letters – and some guys were so rude. They were too stupid, not all of them. Some people were very gracious. Looking back at the proposal, which I’ve done, quite frankly it does read a bit like the chest puffing of an overconfident at the time 29-year-old, which I was. It is a little much. I’ll be honest. I could see why someone who was a very seasoned vet who has 20 years in publishing would read it and –
Cal Fussman: Sort of roll their eyes.
Tim Ferriss: – roll their eyes. I could understand that. But many of them were too lazy or stupid to ask any questions. If they’d asked some questions, they would have realized this is a low-risk bet with a high potential return that’s been tested. If they were investors, which they are, by the way, that’s what publishers are; they are recruiting talent and investing in talent, just like a baseball team, that they should’ve taken that bet and they didn’t. Now, ultimately, Crown, which is an imprint within Random House at the time, which I guess is Random Penguin or whatever it is now, was my – I could not make this up. It sounds like a cheesy scene from a screenplay that would not get sold. Last meeting in New York. I’ve had a chance to refine the pitch through all these meetings when I’m getting rejected.
Cal Fussman: You’re still getting no, no, no, no?
Tim Ferriss: No, no, no, no, thank you. No, come back later. Very venture capital. There are a lot of similarities between publishers and venture capitalists. A lot of polite, kind of soft, nebulous no’s. Well, maybe if it’s successful, we’ll go with this guy for a second book, so I’m not going to be too rude now.
Cal Fussman: We’ll just pass on this one, yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Which is smarter than being rude. But ultimately, Heather Jackson – who was the editor/sort of talent scout, because they’re acquiring editors and they are talent scouts, they have to find authors – had been contacted by Steve and she set up a meeting where, at the time, the decider was Steve Ross. We had this meeting. There were like 20 people in the room. It’s just kind of a Death Star meeting. Much like people may have experienced at say a CAA or WME. You walk in and you’re like, wait a second. I thought I was meeting with one person, why are there 20 people here? At that point, I’m used to it though. Okay, this is just how publishing works. I went through the whole pitch, the whole nine yards.
I seemed to be getting head nods, here and there. But I didn’t feel like it was there. This date was not going to be consummated. It was close, but it wasn’t quite there. I’ve heard this now, or Steve, my agent, has heard it from other people in publishing who were at Crown at the time, that this is what made the difference. At the very end, Steve said, or it might have been Heather, it was either Steve or Heather, but they said, “All right, well, this has been a great meeting. Do you have anything else to say or ask before we wrap up?” I said, “Yeah, I do.” I said, “If you look at my track record, if you look at the things that I’ve done, I have never half-assed anything. I have an extremely high pain tolerance. If you take this small bet on this book, I will stop at nothing. I will kill myself to make this a best seller. I will do everything within my power. I will find other people who can help me with things outside of my power to make this succeed.”
Cal Fussman: Did you see it on anybody’s face, a reaction?
Tim Ferriss: I looked straight at Steve because he was the one who was going to make the decision. There was a little pause. I said, “Okay, thank you very much.” And then they bought the book. The news came I guess a few days later, a week later maybe. They bought it for a pittance which, good for them, they should. They’re in a much more leveraged negotiating position after 27 rejections. Why would you pay a premium? Boom. So that was, and I remember when the book came out and there was a lot, of course, that I’m doing to make sure that I am true to my word. I didn’t expect it to –
Cal Fussman: The other thing, as you know, get the crowd. Then do the selling.
Tim Ferriss: Then you do the selling.
Cal Fussman: So, I imagine that you were out getting the crowd in the meantime.
Tim Ferriss: Well, there are different crowds too. That is there are different sets of customers, even for a single product. In other words, I knew that to sell to readers, I first had to sell to publishers. To sell to readers, then you also have to sell through publishers to distributors. So, I knew that I had to have a story and material for all of those groups. For the book to succeed, it wasn’t enough to just sell books to the end reader. I had to know who the customers were who enabled the book to be shepherded to ideal position in a retailer.
Cal Fussman: You just broke the business cycle down piece by piece.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, yeah. Even when choosing covers, I took different covers. I went to the Borders, which no longer exists, in Palo Alto on University Avenue, and I found a book that was the same size in the new arrivals or the new non-fiction area and I wrapped it with the different covers. I did this between say 5:00 and 8:00 p.m., so prime time. I’d sit there and I’d keep track of how many times each cover was picked up. I’d give each one say 30 minutes and I’d compare which cover got picked up the most.
Cal Fussman: No writer thinks like this!
Tim Ferriss: Even the title, The 4-Hour Workweek, was not the original title. The original title was Lifestyle Hustling. None of this, we might not even be talking right now if that had been the title.
Cal Fussman: How did that title come into place?
Tim Ferriss: Actually, you know what? It was Lifestyle Hustling in the proposal, and then it was Drug Dealing for Fun and Profit, which was the tongue-in-cheek name of my class. That’s what I called the seminar because of the sport supplements. I think it was Walmart or Costco, someone did not like the title.
Cal Fussman: The drugs, right.
Tim Ferriss: So one of my customers, before the book could get to my readers, did not like the title. So, in retrospect, thank God for that. They didn’t like the title. Crown had a bunch of ideas. I don’t like making, when possible, purely emotional decisions based on some type of consensus. As they say, or I’ve heard at least, “A camel is a horse drawn by consensus.” I instead said, “All right. If we need a new title, give me some time. I’ll test it. At the time, it was the golden years of Google AdWords, which could be tested very inexpensively. I grabbed ten different domain names, URLs. Then I had combinations of different titles and subtitles.
I put those, I bid on different search terms like “retirement,” “around the world travel,” whatever it might be. Then an ad would pop up for my book that didn’t exist. It would have whatever, lifestyle hustling as the ad headline, and then the ad text would be the subtitle, and then the link, which would be the URL for that particular book title, which I had already reserved. Google mix and matches those automatically. So you don’t have to manually test all the permutations and combinations. For $200 or $300, whatever it was, maybe less. $150 to $300, within a week, I knew that by far what got the highest click-through rate, so it’s the same as people picking up a cover, and me tracking the pick-up rate.
The highest click-through rate was The 4-Hour Workweek and “escape the 9-to-5,” so on and so forth. “Live anywhere and join the new rich,” which ended up being the title and subtitle. Had by far the highest click-through rate differential and standard deviation. I took that data to the publisher and that’s what we ran with.
Cal Fussman: Man. No. 1, I’ve got to start watching infomercials. No. 2, I’m going to have to run off to interview Kobe Bryant.
Tim Ferriss: I’d say that’s important.
Cal Fussman: I would like to, if it’s okay with you, stop here. Let’s make this Tim Ferriss: The Early Years.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, Chapter One.
Cal Fussman: Chapter One. Then come back and do Chapter Two starting with the phenomenal success of that book.
Tim Ferriss: May I give people a preview of where we are now? So much like say a move, we can be in media res, and then we can flashback.
Cal Fussman: Teach me, Tim. Teach me!
Tim Ferriss: We’ll do Star Wars Episode 4, and then we can do the prequels. Well, I think what has helped me to achieve any modicum of success in these various areas, and I’ve certainly had plenty of mistakes, like the audiobooks and so on, is asking better questions. First and foremost, I’d like to thank you for helping me to learn how to ask better questions. That’s piece No. 1.
Cal Fussman: Thank you.
Tim Ferriss: Piece No. 2 is that in many ways, by reading writing by people such as yourself, I started interviewing people myself, which I was doing for the books. The 4-Hour Workweek was the first book. The latest book is Tribe of Mentors. If you look back at these people I had the absolute spectacular luck to meet, whether it’s John McPhee or Ed Chao.
Cal Fussman: I can’t wait to read this book.
Tim Ferriss: I am always asked, what can I do if I don’t have access to those people? What I did was went out and found 130 people who are the best at what they do and asked them the 11 or so questions that I’ve refined over several hundred interviews to figure out what their secrets are. Whether that relates to financial success, investing, physical wellness, training, or otherwise, it’s a compilation of profiles of people ranging from the Maria Sharapovas, and Kelly Slaters of the world, world-class athletes of all different types, to heroes of mine I wanted to reach out to like Dan Gable, who is –
Cal Fussman: The wrestling coach at Iowa, right.
Tim Ferriss: Exactly. The McPhee equivalent in the world of wrestling is Gable.
Cal Fussman: Right, I got it.
Tim Ferriss: So I interviewed Gable and so on. All the way to different types of writers. People like Steven Pinker and so on.
Cal Fussman: This sounds amazing.
Tim Ferriss: Teasing out all of their playbooks. So, for people interested in that type of cheat sheet across every possible domain you can imagine, Tribe of Mentors is the latest, which should be out by the time people hear this. So, they can find that at tribeofmentors.com and see sample chapters and the list of all the mentors and everything.
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