In this episode, Guy traces my story from the very early days to the current day, asking me about key decisions, hard times, obstacles, lessons learned, and much, much more. We had a blast, we covered a lot of new ground, and Guy was kind enough to offer me the chance to post both the audio and the transcript.
For more Guy, check out his podcasts How I Built This, Wisdom from the Top, and The Rewind. He is also the co-creator of the acclaimed podcasts TED Radio Hour and Wow in the World, a children’s program.
Transcripts may contain a few typos. With some episodes lasting 2+ hours, it can be difficult to catch minor errors. Enjoy!
DUE TO SOME HEADACHES IN THE PAST, PLEASE NOTE LEGAL CONDITIONS:
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Guy Raz: From NPR, it’s How I Built This, a show about innovators, entrepreneurs, idealists, and the stories behind the movements they built. I’m Guy Raz. And on today’s show, how Tim Ferriss, as an entrepreneur, author, investor, and podcaster turned himself into a multimillion-dollar brand.
In 2007, a completely unknown writer named Tim Ferriss published an obscure book called The 4-Hour Workweek. The book basically outlined how Tim escaped the 9:00 to 5:00 grind by outsourcing most of his job to other people. The small number of influential critics who even noticed the book were not charitable. Wired magazine called it formulaic and that was generous compared to other reviews. But none of that ever worried Tim Ferriss because he had a plan. He had spent nearly a year mapping out how he was going to get his book into the right hands and maybe turn it into a best seller with almost no marketing budget and no major push from the publisher.
Now, think about this for a moment. There are more than a million books published each year, fewer than 10 of those books sell more than a million copies. In fact, the average book sells just a few hundred copies, and yet Tim Ferriss, an unknown writer and entrepreneur who lived in a small apartment in San Jose, California, would go on to sell more than two million copies of The 4-Hour Workweek. That book sat on The New York Times Best Seller list for four years. And although Tim was a small-time entrepreneur before the book came out, after its success, he turned his attention to building a business around his own brand, a brand that is really about Tim’s own curiosities.
Tim, as a guinea pig, he spent the past 15 years trying to figure out how to master everything from starting and running a business to foreign languages, to cooking, to bodybuilding, to Chinese kickboxing, to tango dancing, and much more. He doesn’t pursue these things as a gimmick. Tim, methodically, outlines his process. He collects copious data on himself. He analyzes it and uses it to get better and more efficient at whatever he tries. He does all this because he believes that almost anyone who is reasonably motivated can master these things too.
Since 2007, Tim has written four other books and has launched a podcast, all of which focus on self-improvement and learning from the highest performers on the planet. He’s also become one of the most outspoken voices on the uses of certain hallucinogens to help treat depression and PTSD, which we’ll hear about a little later. Anyway, Tim was born in the late 1970s and he grew up in Eastern Long Island. His dad was a real estate broker and his mom was a physical therapist. And as a kid, Tim saw the contrast between his parents and neighbors who worked at the shops and farms around town and the wealthy people who came to the Hamptons for vacation.
Tim Ferriss: For me, it was normal. I didn’t realize how strange that environment was. I worked in restaurants growing up and got to see the best and the worst of Manhattanites. You’d see some great behavior. Remember Billy Joel used to tip like 20 bucks for a cup of coffee and that just blew my mind. That was just a display of generosity and wealth beyond my wildest imagination. And then you had the Duchess of such and such who would show up and just cause a huge mess with a table of 15 people and then say, “I tip very well. Better luck next time,” to the server and leave zero tip. I saw that too. Yeah. One of my first jobs was at The Lobster Roll, where they filmed a lot of The Affair, this TV series. So that was one of my jobs was a bus boy at The Lobster roll.
Guy Raz: You’ve talked about this before, but I guess you were born pretty premature. And so as a result of that, you were small when you were a kid and had a bunch of health issues. What kind of health issues?
Tim Ferriss: I had severe allergies and respiratory issues. My left lung collapsed when I was born. So I had respiratory issues growing up and was, until I hit puberty, one of the slowest smallest kids in every grade. There was a lot of bullying up until sixth grade actually I remember exactly when that stopped. But up until sixth grade-
Guy Raz: Because you were little?
Tim Ferriss: Because I was little. Yeah, I was tiny. I spent a lot of time sitting on the step by the classroom reading instead of going out to recess just because it was so tremendously unsafe for me to wander around the swing sets and stuff. It was like being let out into the prison yard-
Guy Raz: I remember that. What was the thing that changed?
Tim Ferriss: Oh, that’s easy. I remember the last day of fifth grade, I had this amazing teacher named Mrs. Talmage. I was sitting up in the front of the class, I was the last kid left in class. This was the bell right at the beginning of summer breaks. Everybody had run out and I had terrible sunburn, and these two bullies walked out and one of them goes, “Have a good summer Tim,” and slaps my back really hard with an open palm. I held it together until they got outside of the classroom. And then I just started bawling because it hurts so badly. And Mrs. Talmage, who had this raspy voice, she had a bunch to say that I couldn’t really absorb. I was crying. And then she said, “One day you’ll show them, you’ll show them, Timmy.” I was like, “Okay, okay.” I went away to camp that summer and I grew something like five inches and gained like 40 pounds of muscle because puberty hormones just flooded my system and came back and sixth grade was just my year of joyful vengeance. The bullying stopped pretty quickly in the beginning of sixth grade.
Guy Raz: And school came pretty easy for you when you were a kid?
Tim Ferriss: I did enjoy school and I don’t know how much of that is intrinsic. My parents didn’t have much budget for new toys or new bikes or anything like that. But they said to my brother and I, “We always have budget for books.” So my parents cultivated this love of reading very early on. And as a result, I did well in school and focused on school.
Guy Raz: I read that when you were 15, you went to Japan for a year as an exchange student, which is pretty cool. Those programs existed, but tell me about that year. What did that do for you?
Tim Ferriss: That year for me completely changed the trajectory of my life and the way that I looked at the world because I’d never spent any extended time outside of the United States. And went to Japan speaking very basic Japanese, and I was the Where’s Waldo American in this school of… Let’s call it a few thousand Japanese students wearing a school uniform. That year helped me to see how many of the rules that we follow are really social constructs and arbitrary, driving on the right side of the road versus the left in Japan, or bathing rituals. Even the grammar of Japanese is so different from English and the sentence structure. All of these behaviors and habits that I never questioned before became this side-by-side comparison with everything I had noticed in Japan. So when I came back, I was looking at everything in the US and in my life with very fresh eyes.
Guy Raz: It must’ve had a significant impact because I know that you went on to major in East Asian studies at Princeton for college. I know you’ve talked about this a bit in the past, but I guess college was not an easy time for you, that you struggled with depression and at times it got to a point where it was pretty crippling and even scary.
Tim Ferriss: I think it started beginning even in high school. I recall extended periods of what you might consider depression. But by the time I got to college, the symptoms worsened.
Guy Raz: What were the symptoms?
Tim Ferriss: Extreme fatigue, a certain feeling of hopelessness. Depression is really one of those experiences that for someone who has had an experience of the darkness and depression, no explanation is needed. And for somebody who hasn’t, no explanation will really suffice. But it would be like looking through sunglasses at all times and hearing everything through earmuffs, if that makes any sense, this kind of muffled slightly out of focus like sensory lens. I would say probably twice per year I would have multiple weeks of this type of depressive episode.
Guy Raz: Did you ever go see therapists or psychologists when you were in high school or in college?
Tim Ferriss: I did not and-
Guy Raz: So this was undiagnosed essentially.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, I was undiagnosed. We can talk about when it got particularly dangerous, which it did in college where I decided quite clinically, honestly, that if I was going to struggle with this for the rest of my life and this darkness was inescapable, that there was no point to continue it. And so I began not just fantasizing about suicide or having suicidal ideation, I planned it. I had dates in the calendar and I requested a book from Firestone Library on suicide. I can’t recall the exact title, and it was already checked out by some other students, so it was unavailable. But I put in a request, and the way Firestone Library alerted you your book was available is they sent you a postcard. So you’d get a postcard in the mail, and I’d forgotten to change my mailing address with the registrar. And it was still my home address with my parents.
And the postcard went home to my parents, which said, “Tim Ferriss, your book such and such and such and such on suicide is now available.” And my mom called me with a really shaky voice and asked me about it. I lied. I said that a friend from Rutgers had requested it because it wasn’t available at their library. So I did some fancy footwork to wiggle my way out of telling the truth. But the phone call from my mom snapped me out of my delirium and made it really clear that if I were to kill myself, it wasn’t just something that would affect me. It would be like strapping on a suicide vest and walking into my parents’ house and blowing everyone up. That is what led me to course correct. But if you think about the sheer chance, just the luck involved in that happening is pretty outrageous. And if that had happened today, for instance, it would have been an email alert and I wouldn’t be here.
Guy Raz: I know we talked about this when I was a guest on your show about this period in life, this like late teens to mid to late 20s, this particularly vulnerable period for a variety of reasons. There’s societal pressures and our brains are changing and there’s a bunch of things happening. Do you think for you that was why you were in that state of mind?
Tim Ferriss: Well, I think it was a combination of darkness, meaning seasonal depression, plus feeling everything has been building up prior to Princeton to getting into a school like Princeton. And now, my parents, extended family have all helped me to attend this expensive school. This has been a significant, huge commitment and sacrifice on the part of not just my parents, but other people in the family. And now, it seems like I’m going to fail. I felt just helpless and hopeless. But let me add a note on the light side, which is I have not suffered an extended depressive episode in, let’s see here, something like six to eight years now. I have found tools and approaches that really seem to mitigate a lot of this.
Guy Raz: We’re going to talk about some of those approaches a little later on. But obviously, you were obviously able to pull yourself out of depression at the time because you did graduate college, you made it through.
Tim Ferriss: I made it through. Dragging a leg behind me, I made it through.
Guy Raz: You moved to San Francisco in 2000. This was right before the dot-com crash. Did you move out there to get into that world? Is that what your ambition was?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, I did. I did. I had a tremendous professor, Ed Zschau, Z-S-C-H-A-U, this amazing polymath, former competitive ice skater, to taking a few companies public, was one of the first computer science professors, was a congressmen for a term or two. I mean, the guy had done everything. He taught a class in high tech entrepreneurship. I wrote my final project on a portfolio company of his called TrueSAN Networks, which was based in San Jose. The CEO was scarcely older than some of the students in the class. He was… I want to say 23 at the time, extremely charismatic, had spoken to the class.
Guy Raz: And this was a data storage company?
Tim Ferriss: It’s a data storage company. I ended up pitching myself to the CEO. I looked back, I want to say it was something like 26 emails and just got rejected, rejected, rejected. And the upshot was, he said, “You’re just not going to stop bothering me until I give you a job. Is that what I should take away from this?” And I said, “Yep, that’s about right.” And he goes, “Okay, great. You’re in sales. You can have a technical sales position.” That’s what I did. That’s how I got the job.
Guy Raz: Why did you want to work for this company? It sounds so boring, data storage? That’s what you were desperate to go work at after this?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. I’ll tell you it didn’t have anything to do with the industry.
Guy Raz: Okay, I got you.
Tim Ferriss: What drove that interest, number one, that someone not much older than myself was running this. Number two, and I can’t remember if it was Ed Zschau or someone else who gave me this advice, but they said, “Look for a growing industry. It doesn’t matter what it is. If it’s growing quickly and you’re able to join early, you are going to learn a tremendous amount as you watch companies grow.”
Guy Raz: Which still applies today. That’s great advice, by the way.
Tim Ferriss: Which still applies. Right. So I was employee number 15 or 25, something like that, and was able to watch it grow to somewhere between 100 and 200.
Guy Raz: So you get there, you were working for TrueSAN Networks, a sexy data storage company.
Tim Ferriss: That’s right.
Guy Raz: What were you doing there?
Tim Ferriss: I was what would be considered outside sales? We had inside sales, which was like boiler room, if you can imagine that. So inside sales is a bunch of people making phone calls, smiling and dialing to book meetings for people like me. And then I was outside sales. So I would team up with my engineer and we would go out to try to close deals. I was pretty good at it.
Guy Raz: But you didn’t actually last that long. You lasted like a year right before you were let go.
Tim Ferriss: Well, yeah. I lasted a year, but almost everyone at the company lasted about a year. They started letting go entire divisions. So they let go of-
Guy Raz: They were part of the dot-com crash?
Tim Ferriss: Oh, yeah, absolutely. So there were just large swaths of the office that would disappear from week to week towards the end and saw the writing on the wall. So I started thinking of plan B options and what I might want to do next well before I was let go, but somewhere between a year to a year and a half after joining that company.
Guy Raz: Sounds like your intention was to just use this opportunity and this experience to launch the next thing and that you almost went there with the ambition of starting something yourself. Was that the plan or was there no plan?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Yeah, that was the plan.
Guy Raz: That was the plan.
Tim Ferriss: That was the plan. I wanted to learn as much as possible to build something myself. And ultimately, the way I decided what I was going to start is I looked at my own spending because I was making… I want to say I was making 40 grand a year. I had a little bit of money, but I wasn’t rich by any stretch. I was operating on a budget. But I looked at my credit card statements and I was spending hundreds of dollars per month. I mean, probably 400 plus per month on sport supplements. I was price-insensitive, just training and sports really intensely at the time, doing kickboxing and jujitsu and some other stuff.
Guy Raz: What were you taking?
Tim Ferriss: Well, it was creatine. At the time, I was probably taking what were referred to as prohormones, protein powders, and a whole spectrum of products. So I decided to look into starting a company that would scratch my own itch. And in fact, I had cobbled together supplements for myself when I was in college. I had ordered raw materials, had ordered stuff from Europe, I had combined things myself in my dorm room, which looked very sketchy.
Guy Raz: Just powders and you just mix them up.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, various pills and powders and potions that I would get from all over the place. I had a lot of familiarity with this particular world, the landscape, the players, how things were sold, because that is where I spend money.
Guy Raz: Got it. Okay. So you’re thinking of starting a business where you’re going to sell some sports supplement, right?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Guy Raz: And so what’d you do next?
Tim Ferriss: Well, the best time to start a company is when you have a job. I knew this was a good window. When I realized I was going to get fired because everyone was getting fired, I would say about maybe a month or two before, I started using these empty conference rooms during lunch hour to make phone calls to contract manufacturers to make phone calls to biochemists who are available as contractors, reaching out to anyone and everyone to try to figure out how things were formulated, how things were made, what type of insurance was needed, what the minimum investment was, all these things while I was still employed. And so the first and ultimately only product that I made was intended to be initially a smart drug.
Guy Raz: So this was not a muscle drug. This was, well, your brain muscle, but it was not for like big muscles. It was to get-
Tim Ferriss: It was not for big muscles. I was cobbling together various ingredients to improve reaction speed.
Guy Raz: Reaction like to anything.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. So reaction speed had sports implications, it also had attentional applications and improved starting time off the blocks as sprinters and improve performance in a couple of different sports.
Guy Raz: What were the ingredients, by the way? What were the basic ingredients?
Tim Ferriss: Some of the ingredients would be things like vinpocetine, which is an extract of vinca minor and other compounds, phosphatidylserine, which inhibits cortisol release on some level. It’s actually pretty good for sleep. I still use that. So it’s important for me to just point out for a second, for the first six months or so of trying to sell this product, which was called BrainQuicken, so very on the nose name. I got all of my co-workers who were secretly cheering me on to start this company to commit to buying a few bottles upfront so that I knew I could afford them, manufacturing rights.
Guy Raz: Just for a second, I’m just imagining myself as your friend or colleague at that time, and you’re like, “Yeah, I’m working on this brain stimulant that’s going to improve reaction time. I’m experimenting with this and Vita-pren and cortisol, this and that.” I’d be like, “Tim, keep that away from me. You’re nuts. You’re just putting this stuff in your body. You’re just testing this on your body.”
Tim Ferriss: I was, sure.
Guy Raz: I would be terrified to take this stuff. Why would anybody commit to buying a bottle of this stuff? What kind of peace of mind could you give them?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, that’s a very fair question.
Guy Raz: Yeah, it’s fair question.
Tim Ferriss: Super fair, right? You just imagine me like-
Guy Raz: Like a 24-year old.
Tim Ferriss: … dumping powder into a funnel in my bathroom next to the mirror.
Guy Raz: Right.
Tim Ferriss: Right. The peace of mind came from this gentleman. I wish I could remember his name, I found during one of my lunch hour conference call sessions, who was a biochemist who worked extensively with different brands trying to get into Trader Joe’s. He was the adult supervision in terms of formulation. So everything in the product was on what’s called the GRAS list, G-R-A-S, generally recognized as safe list. I was not playing it fast and loose with selection of ingredients nor sourcing of the ingredients.
And that was the peace of mind because I was not going to be touching these products in terms of I’m not packing capsules in my living room couch. You want to have good manufacturing practices and have this done by professionals. And this is really how a lot of brands are started, whether it’s supplements, whether it’s clothing, whether it’s cosmetics. It’s not the entrepreneurs sitting down and figuring out by themselves all the specs of what these products will look like. You have an entire industry set up to assist someone in arriving at what they would consider a good product.
Guy Raz: And just to be clear, the plan was to try to make this and then try and pitch it to like Trader Joe’s and GNC and put it on the shelves there.
Tim Ferriss: The plan was initially to do actually what a lot of direct to consumer brands do now as a playbook to sell direct to consumer for better margins and to develop direct relationships with customers. And then the objective was to create enough consumer demand that people would ask at retail for this product, at which point then you sell at retail through wholesale accounts.
Guy Raz: You are at this point 23, 24, maybe close to 25 and you have no money. So what was your entry point into getting these contract manufacturers and this biochemist to even work with you?
Tim Ferriss: Ah, yeah, it’s a great question.
Guy Raz: Did they not know your age? Do they not know… Was it all over the phone? Where’d you get the confidence? Were you just putting on a deeper voice? Yeah, how were you convincing them to work with you? This is serious science.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. You have to remember that my job was selling multimillion dollar storage systems to CEOs and CTOs of sometimes major companies. I got really, really good at sales. So I bought every book you can imagine on sales, I read every biography I could find on people considered to be good salespeople like Richard Branson. I made a real study of it and I kept meticulous logs of everything that worked and didn’t work. Imagine an athlete recording every workout. I recorded what I did that worked when I was selling to CTOs and CEOs over the phone or in person. So I had scripts or openers that worked. I would keep track of times of day that worked. For instance, it turns out that almost all of my co-workers made calls between 9:00 to 5:00. Well, who else is working from 9:00 to 5:00? Every gatekeeper to the CTO or CEO.
And if you just came in an hour early and stayed an extra hour after work, your chances of getting the decision maker on the phone went up like 100 fold? So I made the bulk of my calls before the workday and after the workday.
So all of that, I used exactly to a tee to get a hold of, for instance, the president of this one contract manufacturing company. I called after hours. I called at like 7:00 PM and he picked up. But getting them on the phone is one thing. Convincing them to take you on as a client is quite something else. And I couldn’t afford their minimum orders.
So I had to pull on the heartstrings a little bit and say, “I know there are a million reasons why you should say no to me, but I’m sure when you were coming up, at some point, someone gave you a chance and opened the door, gave you an opportunity to prove yourself and that made all the difference. I’m just asking for one chance. The downside risk to you is this, this, and this. It’s very minimal, but if this works, I’m going to be a client of yours for years, and I will use you exclusively,” which, by the way, is exactly what happened. And I did make good on that.
Guy Raz: It’s interesting because at that time in your life, this is like 2004. I’m a couple of years older than you. But around that time, I was a foreign correspondent. I lived in a world of journalism. So there’s a lot of skepticism, like your natural response to something is you approach it with skepticism. And so I would have been mortified to do something like this because I was like, “God, people are going to question me and ask me my expertise, and they’re going to want to know how I know how to do this. I’m not a scientist.” Did any part of you have self-doubt?
Tim Ferriss: I didn’t have a whole lot of self-doubt about the product just because I had effectively compiled the same motley assortment of ingredients and taken them myself as a competitive athlete in college. I didn’t have a whole lot of doubts about that. Did I have doubts about the company doing well? Oh, yeah, absolutely. I was always very good about cash flow. I never took outside funding. It was all bootstrapped. But the feedback loop was really long. I was doing most of my advertising through magazines, and you’re committing to the advertising sometimes like a month before printing, then it’s printed, then it goes out, then you wait for people to buy this magazine until you think you’ve reached the tail end, and then you look at your results. It’s very slow, particularly compared to what you can do now online.
Guy Raz: So you were advertising in a lot of fitness magazines because you realized that that’s really where you’ve got to target your product. And what was the value proposition? What did it promise to do?
Tim Ferriss: The value prop was improving reaction speed and power output. So I advertised in Black Belt magazine, I advertised in Powerlifting USA. There were a handful of niche publications I worked with on a really consistent basis.
Guy Raz: All right. Presumably, you start to go to the contract manufacturer and maybe they’re sending it to you, but you’re picking up pallets of bottles of these supplements.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Initially, I was doing a lot myself. Later, we had warehouses and call centers and the whole nine yards, But in the beginning, I would pack and mail out these products, which were sealed. So I wasn’t messing with the contents of any of these bottles, but I would pack them up and ship them out priority mail.
Guy Raz: So you would get like an email or somebody would order through the website. And this is pre-Shopify.
Tim Ferriss: It was super janky.
Guy Raz: Super janky.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, it was really janky.
Guy Raz: So you would go in and see like somebody you have mail and somebody would have ordered two bottles and then you would get them and pack them into a puffy envelope and then put a label on it and send it out yourself. That’s what you did at the beginning.
Tim Ferriss: That’s what I did. I remember the day I knew things had to be outsourced when I had a larger than normal day and I had all these boxes that I needed to get to the post office and my car wasn’t working. So I put them all in a garbage bag, like a huge hefty garbage bag and got on my motorcycle and rode to the post office with this gigantic Santa Claus size sack hanging off at one of the handlebars and almost killed myself. And I was like, “Okay, that’s enough. We need to professionalize this outfit a little bit.”
Guy Raz: Let me come back in just a moment. How Tim goes on to build BrainQuicken to the point where it starts to burn him out and how his new ambition to work less and live more leads to an entirely new career. Stay with us. I’m Guy Raz and you’re listening to How I Built This from NPR.
Hey, welcome back to How I Built This from NPR. I’m Guy Raz. So it’s around 2004 and Tim Ferriss is hustling to get his sports supplement BrainQuicken into major retailers. He doesn’t really care if people like me or you or anyone are skeptical about the product as long as it’s resonating with his target audience, athletes.
Tim Ferriss: Athletes really are binary. I mean, most athletes only care if something works. That’s it. They try it. If it works, great.
Guy Raz: They’ll keep using it. Yup.
Tim Ferriss: It’s out. They’re not in it to have debates. They want to improve times or lift totals or whatever. But honestly, I concluded pretty early and this translated to a lot of things later too that there’s a difference between persuading someone to purchase a product and debating with someone who has no intention of ever changing their mind. I wasn’t making that my job, which I think a lot of people do. They make it their job to convince the world and you shouldn’t convince the world, you should convince the people who match most closely to what you’re providing. I came to believe really early on that it’s not about the number of people who don’t get it, it’s about the number of people who do get it.
Guy Raz: And at this point, were you still running the business out of your apartment in San Jose?
Tim Ferriss: At that time, I was in Mountain View and then later to San Jose and then eventually up to San Francisco. But at that point, I was out of a tiny apartment complex in Mountain View, right across the street from the Jack in the Box.
Guy Raz: Perfect. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Tim Ferriss: That’s right.
Guy Raz: Was there a turning point? Did something happen, like all of a sudden you just got a big order one day or was it like a slow burn?
Tim Ferriss: It was slow until I developed a playbook that could be repeated. It was pretty straightforward. Actually, it came down to managing cash flow. This is not going to be super surprising, but one of the benefits of this product category is that the margins are very healthy. Even if you use top tier ingredients, you can have very healthy margins.
Guy Raz: It’s like movie popcorn.
Tim Ferriss: It’s like movie popcorn, except with drugs. And secondly, if you get to a point where you can negotiate very effectively for advertising, which I did, you can sometimes buy, say, a full page advertisement for a 10th of rate card. So let’s say then that I get a page that is priced at 20K for 2K, then I go to one of the best known larger retailers or e-tailers out there. I’m making this up obviously, but let’s just say bobsupplements.com. He is a wholesale account who’s buying at 40% off of my list price. And I say, “Bob, I have a full page ad coming out in X, Y, Z magazine. Rate card is $20,000. I will make you the exclusive retailer. I’ll put your 800 number, your website in the ad if you pre-commit to $15,000 worth of product.” In that case, even before a single customer has called, I have effectively locked in $13,000 and I’ve removed a lot of risk.
Guy Raz: Tim, how did you learn to do that at such a young age? Was it from that sales job, being around those people?
Tim Ferriss: It was part of the sales job. Another thing that I did when I was really young, I had terrible insomnia when I was a kid. I would not be able to fall asleep. And when I was kid, I would stay up. If we’re thinking about early 80s, what was on television at 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning?
Guy Raz: Infomercials.
Tim Ferriss: Infomercials. Correct. So I became fascinated by infomercials, like how does this actually work? And even in high school and college, I would sometimes order products from infomercials or call their numbers to see what types of scripts they used. I had this fascination with systems and what worked and what didn’t, which is pretty easy to discern. Like if somebody advertises all the time for months or years on end, something is working, they have to pay for those ads in some fashion.
I started putting together what is sometimes called a swipe file, swipe meaning steal. Any time I was persuaded to buy through an advertisement, through phone call, through whatever it was, I would, say in the case of a magazine, tear the advertisement out, put it into a three-ring binder and collect everything that persuaded me to buy. And then I would study those ads and circle what I thought the salient points were that compelled me to buy. I would also track everything that happens.
So let’s say I bought a product, I might buy two of them and then return one to see what their return process looked like, to see what their refund process looked like. And so I collected all of these scripts. In terms of capping downside, and that was in the case of advertising and to negotiating the price down and then getting a guaranteed minimum from the retailer, that was just a discovery. And then once I figured out that it worked because I’d thrown a million things against the wall and only a few of them worked, I was like, “This is something I think I can replicate.”
Guy Raz: What’s so interesting is that calling up these infomercial called numbers and analyzing the script and taking out ads and circling them, that’s not normal like most kids and teens. It’s like the character on Homeland, like circling people and putting them on a pinboard. I’m wondering if—because I think it’s obviously really smart—you start to recognize patterns, and you were studying different approaches that would then serve you well later. But I can’t imagine you were thinking, “One day, I am going to be doing something like this. I will need to know how to do this now.” It sounds to me like you were just really interested in it. You were just like, “How does this work?”
Tim Ferriss: I think the drive to replicate it and the interest in doing it myself actually came up really early. When I was a kid, suffering from insomnia, I wasn’t thinking that I was just watching these things because they were on. My family didn’t have much money. Money was the thing. It was a point of contention, it was sometimes a point of stress, it was not really a whole lot of conflict, but it was a concern. This was a subject that came up a fair amount. I think in my mind, if you have money, all these issues and problems you might have in life for yourself or for your family just go away. That was what I concluded. So the drive to make money came in early for me.
Guy Raz: Yeah, which makes sense. And I mean, because I’m sure you were passionate about the mission of BrainQuicken, maybe you weren’t, but ultimately it was a way for you to earn a living.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. I think passionate may not be the right word, but I believed in the product and I would not have been able to do it had I been slinging God knows what. I don’t think I would have had the endurance to keep going in that case.
Guy Raz: At what point did you have to hire somebody to help you, like a year in or less?
Tim Ferriss: I didn’t do a whole lot of hiring. I had a virtual assistant. It was just me and-
Guy Raz: Were you still packing this stuff too, or was the contract manufacturer dealing with the logistics?
Tim Ferriss: There was contract manufacturing that would get shipped to a fulfillment center, which was coordinated with call centers and these people were all independent contractors. But I was still a bottleneck for a lot of decisions. Friday I would get calls from the fulfillment center. They’re like, “Hey, this Olympic athlete needs this thing overnighted to Croatia. What should we do?” Because there wasn’t a policy in place for how to handle that. I got these daily questions that just suffocated me. So I would say early mid 2004 is when I broke basically. That’s when I burned out.
Guy Raz: Because you were working all the time.
Tim Ferriss: I was working all the time. Oh, yeah. And my girlfriend at the time, who I thought I was going to get engaged to, et cetera, left. She broke up with me because I never saw her. I can’t blame her in retrospect, but she gave me this Dear John plaque. It was basically one of these three-sided photo holders from Target or someplace like that. And she had created this piece of artwork with a photo of my head cut out. It was quite elaborate and it said, “Business hours end at 5:00 PM.” Put that on my desk as a reminder, which she encouraged me to do as she exited stage left. I was like, “Okay, well, what I’m doing isn’t working.”
Guy Raz: And you’re doing pretty well, right? I think your business was doing like $40,000 in revenue a month at that point.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. It was doing like 42… I would guess 100, maybe even slightly more per month. So it was doing really well.
Guy Raz: You were making the salary of a partner at a law firm when you were 26, 27.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. I saw a path to grow that in multiples. Keeping in mind that that’s one product, the normal playbook would then have me create a whole line of products, which you can sell, guess what? To the same distributors, to the same retailers. But I was already a human bottleneck. So I was-
Guy Raz: Because it was just you.
Tim Ferriss: As far as full-time employees, yeah, just me.
Guy Raz: Were are you selling the products at retailers now, most at retailers, rather than direct to consumer?
Tim Ferriss: I don’t remember the exact split, but it was at both. It was both direct to consumer and at retailers, which was becoming a real thing and at retail and internationally. So it was also being sold internationally at this point.
Guy Raz: Did you like the operational side of it or was that the part that you didn’t like?
Tim Ferriss: I would have to say I didn’t like it just because that would have been a contributing element of having no time and I had no time. I was waking up super early to communicate with customers in Europe and so on. I would stay up extremely late to communicate with clients in other time zones. The only breaks I would take, like cannabinoids in the morning, maybe, Lean Cuisine for 45 seconds at lunch, and then thankfully some type of exercise for an hour, hour and a half, stop at Jack in the Box on the way back, take a shower and then keep working. I just never stopped working.
When that relationship ended for me, it also just put into stark relief the fact that the objective isn’t to have the money, the objective is to have whatever you trade the money for, whatever it represents to you. And I telescoped out a few years and I’m like, “What does this look like a year from now, three years from now, five years from now?” Everything gets worse. My health gets worse, my psychological well-being gets worse. So I need to change something.
Guy Raz: Yeah. But presumably, you still wanted to make money, you still wanted the business to operate. So what kind of things did you put in place to allow you to do that?
Tim Ferriss: Well, there were some really simple things, for instance, that I sent out an email to my fulfillment center and said, “From this point forward in effect, please assume that if a problem can be fixed for less than $100, just go ahead and fix it, charge it to my account,” that type of providing of guidelines for autonomous decision-making. And the fixes required a lot of hard thought. But the implementation of most of that was actually very, very simple. Firing a bunch of my high-maintenance customers, that was another thing. A handful of my 20 wholesale customers were producing like 90% of the negative emotions that I felt with my customers. But they were really lucrative.
I put up with a lot of nonsense and bad behavior and basically sending a letter to those folks saying, “Here are the policies going forward. If these terms don’t work for you and your company, we’re happy to make a referral to another company who can blah, blah, blah, blah.” And almost all of those belligerent customers did a complete 180 about face and went on best behavior. One or two cursed me out and I fired them. And just with that decision alone, the emotional experience that I had working completely changed. But what’s really important is that I had arrived at a point where I committed to either untangling the mess and extricating myself as a bottleneck or shutting down the business. I had come to a point of acceptance and a willingness to do that if I couldn’t figure it out.
Guy Raz: But you didn’t. You didn’t shut down the business. You got it to the point where you were able to travel and then you ended up traveling for like the next 18 months or so, like you started in London and then to Ireland and Berlin and then Argentina. Was that your idea to do a total reset on the way you’d been living your life up to that point?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. While I was traveling… So what I’d done up to that point is scheduled my entire life in 10 or 15 minute Outlook increments or calendar increments. Everything was extremely regimented. When I landed in London, I wanted to do the opposite of what I had done up to that point. I went to an Irish pub and liked the music and somebody said, “If you really like this, you should go to Dublin.” And then I said, “Okay.” I got on a Easy Jet flight or a Ryanair flight, landed in Dublin and went to another pub and they said, “What the hell are you doing in Dublin? Galway has the arts festival about to start, you should go to Galway.” And I said, “Okay.” I got on a bus and went to Galway, knowing nothing about Galway and bounced around like that, determined by chance encounters with people along the way.
And a friend of mine who was born in Panama invited me to Panama. I go to Panama and one of his best friends was half Argentine and said, “If you want the best wine, the most beautiful women, and the easiest ability to live like a King on dollars, you should go to Argentina.” And I said, “Good sales pitch.” And initially planned on being in Argentina for four weeks. I was not planning on being there for a long time.
Guy Raz: How long did you stay?
Tim Ferriss: Nine months.
Guy Raz: Wow. And you would go to these places and just without knowing anybody and you would start out at a youth hostel and that’s how you would start to meet people and-
Tim Ferriss: Yup. That’s exactly what I did. I would use activities to build friendships quickly. I had hurling in Ireland, I had different types… I did kickboxing and jujitsu in Berlin. I did then tango in Argentina, which I actually had a strong bias against when I first got there. I had no interest in learning tango because my impression of it was all based on True Lies and movies where it looked super cheeseball and overchoreographed, but it got so damn hot in Buenos Aires at one point. I was waiting for a friend of mine to finish a Spanish class. So I walked into this tango music shop that had air conditioning and this chain-smoking woman who was the owner got so pissed at me eventually because I was just loitering in there pretending to look at CDs and stuff that she asked—she’s like, “Hey. Hey, kid, if you’re going to hang out here all day, you might as well pay me 10 pesos and take a tango class upstairs.” And I was like, “Uh, okay.” And that was it for me. I realized tango just consumed me from that point forward.
Guy Raz: You were just following your curiosity everywhere you went, like you would just find something that was interesting and then you would just follow that.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, that’s exactly. That’s exactly what I did.
Guy Raz: But you were also not just taking tango classes, like you then eventually would compete in the tango world championships and got an entry in the Guinness Book of World Record for most consecutive tango spins. That’s like taking it to a different level, like a competitive level. What did that come from?
Tim Ferriss: It came from a few things. I wanted to get better at tango. And for me, learning skills has a blueprint. There are certain approaches that just improve your rate of learning. I collected video clips of myself dancing, of other instructors dancing, teaching certain techniques. And then each night, I would take that footage and I would put them into different folders based on the type of technique. Then based on the video, I would take notes in a tiny little notebook that I could fit in my back pocket and I would try to use these techniques in the wild, which often backfired. Then I would take notes on what went wrong. I’d practice like six hours a day. I had to take days off because my feet would get bruised, because the shoes are really, really thin. I loved it. I really loved it.
Guy Raz: It sounds almost like… I’m trying to think about this from the easing analogy as a journalist. I would have written a profile about you and I would have done all of that work. I would have looked at videos, I would have studied you, I would have followed you. But it’s almost like you did that about yourself, like you told yourself the entire time that you were studying yourself.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. The real question I was trying to answer and implement was how do you observe yourself? Because most of us are so wrapped up in our own experience that we can’t really deconstruct what went well or what went wrong. And there are some really simple fixes to that. I learned a lot of this through languages, honestly, including the fact that you’re always going to have plateaus when you try to add more difficult skills and then you’ll have another inflection point, then a plateau, maybe a dip and then inflection points. So that became something I expected rather than something that discouraged me. In the case of sports, use a video camera. It seems so obvious, but like how many people have taken tennis lessons or fill in the blank lessons and have never seen video of themselves? There are some really basic approaches to increasing your ability to see yourself.
Guy Raz: All right. So you’re having this experience and while you’re overseas you realize you can have a much richer, more fulfilling life without having to work on this all-consuming business all the time. Is this when you start to think you might write a book about this whole experience?
Tim Ferriss: The book was nowhere on my radar during the travel period, but I had taken notes along the way because I have always taken notes, and I ended up with this huge stack of material. So at one point, I emailed Jack Canfield, who was co-creator of Chicken Soup for the Soul, because I had gotten to know him by volunteering at nonprofits. I reached out to him and I was like, “Jack, here’s what’s going on. Do you think there’s anything here to chew on? Should I even look into this?” Hoping that he would just snuff it out, if that makes any sense? I didn’t really want to write a book, but it was on my mind and I was-
Guy Raz: When you wrote to Jack, you said what? Like I think I want to write a book about my experience of how to run a business, what was the elevator pitch?
Tim Ferriss: Well, the pitch was… I had mocked up a front and back cover, which I think is an excellent way to force some clarity on the book itself. So the elevator pitch was the back cover. And it really came down to creating more time, more wealth and doing it through systems and working smarter instead of working harder. But that’s what it came down to. And he introduced me to a couple of agents and they all said no. And then one who had been a very successful editor, but was only newly an agent had some follow-on conversations. He thought I had legs. And so we pursued it just to see what the hell would happen really. It started to become exciting to me.
Guy Raz: But just to clarify, to make it “sexy or interesting,” you were going to include personal anecdotes of your adventures overseas to illustrate how you could live a more fulfilling life and own your time.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. To give concrete examples of what this looks like in the wild because the abstract high-level conceptual stuff is boring.
Guy Raz: Okay. So you have this book idea and you start to shop it around to a bunch of different publishers. And what’s their response when you sent the proposal around?
Tim Ferriss: The response was mostly who the hell is this kid? No. Emphatically. Saved a few of those. So the book was turned down somewhere between 26 and 29 times. It’s turned down a lot. And my pitch got better. If you think about how I took notes on phone calls, I took notes and video on tango, I took notes and did post-mortems on every meeting we had with every publisher. So we were able to tweak and iterate and refine the pitch. By the time we got to Crown, who was the publisher, it was very polished. And they said yes and bought it at a very, very advantageous bargain basement price.
Guy Raz: But the upside, the royalties would go to you, but they got a good deal.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. I was fine with that. As they should, as they should.
Guy Raz: And the book was called The 4-Hour Workweek, that was what you called it. And the main thesis of the book is, for those who haven’t read it, essentially, is that time is the most valuable thing you have. It’s not having a lot of money, it’s having time and the freedom to choose what to do with your time.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. The thesis is time is a non-renewable resource. Money is renewable. You can always make more money later. Time, haven’t figured that out just yet. And whether you want to work 4 hours a week, or 10 or 80, there are certain principles and tactics you can use to dramatically increase your per hour output. And that was the book.
Guy Raz: And when it came time to actually launch the book, just like you’ve done with tango and BrainQuicken and so many other things, from what I understand, you basically made a systematic study of how you were going to launch it.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. And once I shipped the final manuscript to the publisher, I sat down and made a study of book launches and I interviewed bestselling authors. And one of the questions I asked was, “What type of promotion or marketing delivered much better results than you expected and which delivered much worse results than you expected?” And one of the patterns that was spotted at the time was that television was decreasing in importance, that blogs, these things called blogs, were dramatically increasing in importance and impact. So I decided to take all of the budget I had allocated for the book launch, almost all of it, and to go to in-person events to try to put myself in the path of bloggers of various types.
I wanted to achieve a surround sound effect of sorts, at least that’s what I call it, which is choosing four or five outlets that nearly every one of my target demo at the time consumed on a daily or weekly basis—Techmeme, TechCrunch, et cetera, Gizmodo, so that I would appear to be everywhere, even though in reality, that was not the case. So I had some very clear quantifiable targets to hit and ended up getting early copies of the book to many of the most influential bloggers of the time. And a few of them ended up writing about it, which provided a toehold in the tech entrepreneurial community of Silicon Valley.
Guy Raz: Given that you were an unknown writer, you did not have access to national media, you were not a celebrity, how were you going to convince these or how did you even get these outlets to cover the book at all and to cover you?
Tim Ferriss: Well, it was a progression. I think when people try to launch, oftentimes they think that the more customers I have, the more prospects, the better. So everyone’s going to be my customer. And when everyone’s your customer, no one is your customer. You don’t have any focus. For me, I thought to myself, “Well, really my first target is, let’s just call it 20 to 35 year old tech savvy males in a handful of major cities like San Francisco.” I know how to reach those people because I’m being highly specific. If I knock over that domino, then the next domino to fall will be 20 to 35 year old tech savvy females in the same cities.
So I went after the bloggers first. And what I would do is just go to these events, I’d loiter around, I’d try to end up in a small group of people who were talking, I would buy drinks when I could. And eventually, somebody in the group would say, “Who the hell are you again? You’ve been sitting here for an hour listening to everybody else. What do you do?” And I go, “Oh, I’m working on my first book. I’m here trying to learn more about blogs.” I would leave it at that. This is really important. And then if anybody followed-up and said, “Well, what’s the book about?” Then I would tell them, and then maybe give them an example.
And at the end of it, if they seemed interested, I would say, “If you’d like, I can send you an early copy and I can put a post-it note on the 5 or 10 pages that I think would be most interesting to you to take 20 minutes to check out.” And they’d say, “Sure, great.” And so I just repeated that over and over again and sent out 20 to 40 of them with post-it notes, I had to put in the work. And that set the ball in motion.
Guy Raz: Let me come back in just a moment. How a book turned into a brand and have a 4-Hour Workweek start to take over Tim’s entire workweek. Stay with us. I’m Guy Raz. And you’re listening to How I Built This from NPR.
Welcome back to How I Built This from NPR. I’m Guy Raz. It’s 2007. And after a very carefully crafted marketing campaign, Tim’s book, The 4-Hour Workweek is launched into the world. And just a short time later, it starts hitting all kinds of milestones, like The New York Times Best Seller list.
Tim Ferriss: It happened very quickly. So it happened in the first week or two, I want to say. I remember Heather Jackson, my editor, calling me and telling me, and I was so exhausted. I had just done a radio satellite tour, where you are just on the phone doing radio interviews all day long and drinking pots of coffee. I was so wiped out and it was six or seven o’clock Eastern. And she said, “Hey there, Mr. New York Times bestselling author,” something like that. I remember just saying, I was like, “Heather, please don’t f**k with me. I don’t have it in me right now.” And she’s like, “No, you hit the list. You hit the list.” I remember I was leaning against the wall and I slid down the wall on my back and just sat on the floor. I was like, “This might change things. This might change things.” And then it took until August for the book to become the monthly number one best seller in the business category.
Guy Raz: That book ended up spending four years on The New York Times Best Seller list. It’s just like this self-perpetuating phenomenon. I wonder why, why do you think… Even though you promoted it and you had this really great strategy, that only takes you so far. What was that? Why? Why do you think it became this phenomenon?
Tim Ferriss: Well, I do think that it was perfectly timed and I think that it’s appealing to fundamental desires people have and it’s also painting a really humanized picture of the pain and the struggle that people experienced, because I was telling not only my story, but I gathered case studies. I talked about lawyers who had been caught in Groundhog Day. And even though they were making money, were miserable, and then they gave it all up supposedly to start a surf school in Brazil. I gave these case studies, which were real examples of people who had passed through this gauntlet of self-doubt and criticism from colleagues, family, pushback from significant others to redefine themselves and to create these lives.
Guy Raz: When this became a phenomenon, you became famous overnight, I mean, pretty quickly, not overnight, but pretty quickly and much in demand as a speaker, as a consultant. You really became this kind of iconic figure among a certain type of Silicon Valley tech worker. Did you like that? Did you like all of a sudden becoming famous?
Tim Ferriss: I liked aspects of it. I was bewildered and flattered. It just shot so far beyond anything I could have anticipated that I was also caught very unprepared. I don’t know if you can prepare for something like that even if you knew that it was coming. But the amount of inbound that you get when a book hits The New York Times Best Seller list and stays on that list for a period of time is incredibly exciting. Speakers bureaus, interviews, foreign rights, movie rights, all of these things come in. I had no idea how to handle any of it. So there’s part of me that thought, “I finally reached escape velocity. This is what I’ve always wanted.” And quickly learned that there were a lot of downsides and compromises, privacy issues, crazy people, stalkers, death threats, nutso experiences that I would not have envisioned being part of the package.
Guy Raz: And also criticism. You got criticized, “Hey, this is tech bro,” a lot of critical negative reviews. Did you notice that? Did you ignore it? Did you internalize it? Was the positive response so overwhelming that it shielded you from the negative response?
Tim Ferriss: I wasn’t shielded. No, at that point, I wasn’t shielded and I didn’t… In the beginning, I didn’t make an attempt to shield myself from this. So I felt like it was my job to answer questions and correct misperceptions and felt very confident in the book. I think that if I look back at a lot of the mistakes I made early on, there were moments when I wanted to convert the people who shouted the loudest that they hated my work, but they weren’t actually people I admired, in general. And fortunately, on the other side of the ledger, there were tech entrepreneurs and CEOs and people I respected tremendously who found something of value in the book. They found it compelling enough that they would speak positively about it. And that offset, I think, the criticism.
Guy Raz: When this came out and the demands for speaking and interviews and consulting and appearances and all these things, at what point did it become clear to you that this for better or worse, that your business was now Tim Ferriss, Inc. and not supplements or the next thing, it was actually the you as a personality or going to be the brand?
Tim Ferriss: Well, about a year after the book came out, I realized that I had signed up for a journey I didn’t necessarily want to be a part of 100%. What I mean by that is I said yes to everything. I was traveling every three to five days to some speaking gig, God knows where. I was exhausted all the time. I was also repeating myself a lot. And then I would say about two years in, so let’s just call it 2009, I stopped doing a lot of this. I was being pulled in the direction of author, speaker, theater speaker, which is a very tried and true path. This is how a lot of authors make the majority of their income is through speaking. But the biggest risk was that I would become the 4-Hour Workweek guy and paint myself into a corner and that I would knowingly or unknowingly become this kind of talking sock puppet, regurgitating the same lessons that I already covered in the first book forever.
So I made the difficult decision, but in retrospect great decision, to stop doing almost all speaking. I really don’t do any speaking and haven’t for a very long time. I do almost none. And instead that is what took me into the world of angel investing and advising and becoming involved with startups. So that all started around 2008, 2009. It was part of diversifying my identity because I was very worried that if I went all in as the book guy, The 4-Hour Workweek, that my entire self-worth and my ups or downs, my depression or lack thereof would hinge on having a successful second break. So part of my diversification of my identity and worth was also getting into the investing.
Guy Raz: Then clearly, you did understand the value of the four-hour concept as a brand because the next two books would be around that concept. You did The 4-Hour Chef and The 4-Hour Body with all kinds of suggestions on losing weight and physical training and stuff like that.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, exactly. In an effort to give myself an entirely new domain in which I could explore my personal and professional life, I decided to sell The 4-Hour Body, which was a huge reach. We’re jumping completely out of the work category into diet and fitness. So it was about all things physical, improvement-related, modification-related, everything from breath holding to vertical jump, to ultra endurance, to fat loss, you name it. All of these mini chapters.
I also want to point out that The 4-Hour Body came out right at the birth of or just before the birth of the quantified-self movement and biohacking and self-tracking. These were effectively non-existent. That provided a few incredibly powerful, inevitable trends that were going to surge and provide a lot of rocket fuel to this book. It ended up working. And once it worked, it gave me creative license and it also gave me credibility with publishers and others to do whatever the hell I wanted as long as it had a focus on efficiency and effectiveness.
Guy Raz: This is really where you, I think, begin to… I mean, you’d always been experimenting on yourself with supplements and different things. But this is really where you become for a while known as like a human guinea pig. Did that annoy you? Did you think that that was… it wasn’t really explained describing what you do or did?
Tim Ferriss: I was all for it. I described myself that way. Also, one peculiar aspect of my hardwiring is that I enjoy figuring out the puzzle. I enjoy being the human guinea pig who tries 1,000 things and then puts together the cliff notes index card version for my friends or readers. I get a high out of that. I will say a lot of the things that I do also are just to see if it’s possible. So, for instance, I have reduced capacity in my left lung from complications when I was born premature. And the story I’ve always told myself is I can’t hold my breath as long as so-called normal people. But then I spent time with David Blaine who had learned how to hold his breath for, I want to say, 14 plus minutes and was able to get to a point combining practice and technique. I got to the point where I could hold my breath for five minutes plus.
Guy Raz: You’ve come to believe you can train the human body to do things that we think are impossible.
Tim Ferriss: That’s right. And what I think gets lost in the shuffle is that when you do something like that, or you learn how to memorize a shuffled deck of cards in like 60 seconds or 120 seconds, which is a very trainable skill that is known, like the mechanics of learning something, I don’t know, it shakes the foundation of the other stories, the other impossibles that you have in your life.
Guy Raz: Yeah. You’re a really smart guy. You were a really good student and you’ve got a good brain. Do you think that the fact that you like to learn new things and you do learn them is because you’ve got a good brain, or do you think that these are skills that anybody could acquire?
Tim Ferriss: I think these are approaches to learning that almost anyone can use, assuming they don’t have physical disabilities. Even if you were blind or deaf, I have fans who use these techniques and just adapt them. A good brain helps tremendously. But I have seen, I’ll give you a real example, at a racetrack in Northern California, I saw a McLaren supercar get beaten around the track in a race by a driving instructor in a Miata. Even in a field that you would assume is dependent entirely on horsepower and engineering of a superior vehicle, even in a discipline like that, skill can be and technique can be a real deciding factor.
So I would say that in my experience, I do think almost anyone can apply these things in the same way that you don’t need to understand how a microwave works to follow the quick-start directions in the manual to use the microwave. You don’t have to be a neuroscientist to learn how to memorize a shuffled deck of cards. You just need a system and those systems exist. I’m a collector of and a tester of these systems. That’s at the end of the day, I think, largely what I do.
Guy Raz: Well, I think what’s really remarkable about your journey is that you did actually… Like you are really not known as the 4-hour guy anymore. You’ve written other books since then and they’ve been very successful. But really, today you’re most widely known as a podcaster. And this is something you just started as a whim in 2014.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. The Tim Ferriss Show really just started out as a fun project to improve my ability to ask questions, which I was going to use in writing books later anyway if I wrote more books. The part of the process of writing books that I actually enjoy the most, which is talking to the experts, all the hardest work comes after that. But teasing out the insights and habits of these world-class performance is really what I love to do.
Guy Raz: One of the things that I think is really interesting about… There’s so many interesting things about your podcast book, but one of the things that you’ve talked a lot about is psychedelics and your use of them to help you with depression. And earlier, we talked about your time in college and we didn’t go into this, but I know that you had experimented with… Are they called mushrooms? Man, I’m not super-
Tim Ferriss: Mushrooms, yeah. Yeah, we can just call them mushrooms.
Guy Raz: Did that just continue for the rest of your life after that? Was it a regular thing or was it on and off or-
Tim Ferriss: It was on and then off because it was… at the time, this is in college and I think a fair number of people who’ve had this experience, it was not supervised, it was not methodical. It’s like a bunch of college kids reaching into the Ziploc bag and grabbing God knows how much, no scale involved. I had a number of incredibly positive experiences, and then I had a very, very terrifying experience that showed me that these things are very powerful and need to be, or should be, done in a controlled safe environment.
So I had been fascinated by the therapeutic potential of these compounds and what they might elucidate about the nature of mind and consciousness for a long time. I stopped, though, in any way, consuming psychedelics for a good stretch of time, let’s just call it 8 or 10 years. But I found someone, I was able to get a reference to someone who is highly recommended for guided mushroom experiences. I was able to surrender to the experience and to come out of it feeling completely safe. And that marked the beginning of a very, very deep study of these compounds, both experientially, but also from the research perspective. It was around the same time that I became very heavily involved in supporting the scientific research in a number of different institutions.
Guy Raz: Look, for people who are familiar with it, and I mean, I’m not, I’m boring, I’m a dad with two kids, but I’ve read enough about it to understand that actually there’s a lot for us to learn, right?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, yeah. I will say just a few things to provide a little bit of context. So the first is that psilocybin, which is the psychoactive molecule, one of them is certainly within the mushrooms we’ve been talking about, so-called magic mushrooms, has been granted breakthrough therapy designation for the treatment of depression. And there are risks. If you have a family predisposition to schizophrenia, say, and you’re taking these things in your 20s-
Guy Raz: It can trigger it.
Tim Ferriss: … there are risks. And so I should point out the legal side effects of these compounds are significant for most people listening, certainly in the United States. These are schedule one and illegal to possess or use and certainly to distribute in many, many places. So you need to be aware of that. I don’t recommend these loosely or in any cavalier way. I discourage people from psychedelics more than I encourage.
Guy Raz: I want to turn to something slightly different, and I may throw you for a little bit of a curve ball. But you’ve talked about your parents support, clearly, they were really important to you as a child, and clearly, you have a good relationship with them. Did you ever think that by this point in your life you would be a parent?
Tim Ferriss: No, I didn’t. Thinking about kids was off the table for me up until very recently. And quite frankly, I felt up until a few years ago that I was too flawed to, in good faith, bring another life into this world. So I took it off the table. I should say first and foremost, that for a long time, certainly with my close brush with suicide in college, I assumed I wouldn’t make it past 30. And then there was a point where I assumed, ah, probably not going to make it past 40, whether it’s these dangerous hobbies that I have or something else. Probably won’t make it to 40, so I should really make this time count. And it’s really only with the support of my girlfriend, who I love very dearly, that I’ve arrived at a point where I feel like that’s a possibility.
I would like to have kids. I think that I’ve taken that emergency break off only because I have reached a certain level of self-acceptance and self-love, which are things I never would have taken seriously in my 20s or maybe even in my 30s. I viewed the idea of self-love as self-indulgent, a recipe for complacency. And I’ve certainly changed my mind. I think that if you don’t love yourself completely, how are your kids going to learn to love themselves completely? So that’s a project that I certainly don’t impose on anyone else, but I take it very seriously for myself.
Guy Raz: When you think about like all of the things that you’ve packed into your 43 years, that’s a lot of stuff and you’ve got several more chapters out of you, including maybe fatherhood. How much of what’s happened to you do you think is because of how hard you worked and how smart you are and how much do you think is just because of luck?
Tim Ferriss: I wish I had enough self-awareness and perspective to give you a 17%, 35% and that’s-
Guy Raz: I’m sure you could quantify it, Tim. You’re pretty good with numbers.
Tim Ferriss: I could figure out how to quantify it, but I think there’s a tendency among people who have somewhere to come up with success when they’re asked a question like that in public to say, “Oh, it’s all luck,” or believe their own hype to the extent that they think it was all grit and determination and planning. I think it’s got to be a mixture. I do think there are a handful of things I’ve done right. And the fact of the matter is I’ve gotten a lot wrong. I have made so many mistakes and have brought myself to the brink of destruction. Not just once, but multiple times. A lot of days I would just roll out of bed and I look like Eeyore, and then I get up and somehow manage to get to a basic level of consciousness by jumping into a cold pool and eating a handful of walnuts. And then I putz around, and I’m not sure what to do for three hours, and then I spend the next three hours beating the hell out of myself in my own head because I’m so unproductive and on and on and on.
The majority of my day looks something like that. Despite that, I think that I am very good at thinking about bets and experiments that have limited downside, that have incredibly high upside if they work out. I put those in a calendar and I try a lot of things. And for that reason, I would really hope that where I’ve ended up is not all luck because there’s nothing to be learned there. There’s nothing to be learned. I don’t think it’s all luck. I guess just to keep doing what I’m doing, I have to tell myself some version of that story, but I think it’s true. I think it’s true.
Guy Raz: That’s Tim Ferriss, entrepreneur, author, investor, and host of the podcast, The Tim Ferriss Show. By the way, there are so many incredibly challenging things that Tim’s tried over the years that we didn’t even have time to get into them. Like for example, he learned a form of Japanese horseback archery. He also worked as an MTV breakdancer in Taiwan. And in less than a week, Tim learned how to play drums well enough to perform the song Hot Blooded at a sold out concert with the band Foreigner.
And thanks so much for listening to the show this week. You can subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. You can write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you want to follow us on Twitter, we’re @HowIBuiltThis or @guyraz. And on Instagram, we’re @guy.raz. This episode was produced by Casey Herman with music composed by Ramtin Arablouei. Thanks also to Liz Metzger, Dareth Gales, J.C. Howard, Julia Carney, Neva Grant, and Jeff Rogers. Our intern is Farrah Safari. I’m Guy Raz, and you’ve been listening to How I Built This.
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