[BOOK REVIEW] “The 4-Hour Workweek”: The Good, the Bad, and the Bullshit

In Bad Business Advice, Good Business Advice, Hype, Thought-Provoking, Wishful Thinking by Bullshit Curator0 Comments

The 4-Hour Workweek (4HWW) by Tim Ferriss is undeniably one of the most controversial and popular business books of the past ten years. Originally released in 2007, it has since spent four years on the New York Times Bestseller List, and has sold over a million copies worldwide.

4HWW was a book I encountered in the very early stages of my career, and I can say that it certainly opened my eyes to different ways of working. I was never drawn to corporate environments, and so the concept that I could make money while living abroad, working remotely, and being ‘my own boss’ was revolutionary.

Interestingly enough, I pretty much have the lifestyle detailed in the book. Most days, I work from home doing stuff that I enjoy, and have even executed a successful work/travel arrangement, with more planned in the future. On paper, I could be considered a ‘success story’ for this book, so you would think I have nothing bad to say about it – but that’s not the case.

Perhaps my problems with this book aren’t necessarily with the content of the book itself, but with the self-help industry it’s spawned.


The Good

Lifestyle Design

There are a lot of positive things that can be said for the concept of ‘living intentionally‘. 4HWW was one of the first books of its kind to redefines success for a new generation that can’t rely on single-company careers and comfortable pensions.

One of the biggest triumphs of 4HWW, in my opinion, is that it articulated that people now have options about how to work and how to live.

Eliminating Timewasters

Depending on who you ask, the average employee is only productive for about 3 hours per day (Inc.com, forgive me for citing Inc) or 3 days per work week (metro.co.uk).

Although ‘traditional’ jobs in office environments are mind-numbingly boring, they have an element of safety – barring extreme circumstances, you are getting a paycheque no matter what. As a result, it follows that part of getting out of that environment involves taking steps to improve your own productivity.

4HWW provides a concise set of things that anybody can do to cut down on busywork and other nonsense – for example, minimizing your exposure to “news”, and avoiding email in order to focus on more important tasks. Regardless of someone’s career path, these are valuable and effective. I have implemented several in my own life and have seen the positive effects.

Step-By-Step Guide on Starting an e-Business

Unlike a lot of business books, which are more for motivation and inspiration than execution, 4HWW provides a pretty thorough (if a bit outdated) process for how to start a business online. Ferriss also provides several case studies and hypothetical examples of how business can be conducted on the internet, including a personal one (BrainQuicken). He also features additional case studies on his blog.


Questionable

The “New Rich”

From the book:

“So, who are the New Rich?

  • The employee who rearranges his schedule and negotiates a remote work agreement to achieve 90% of the results in one-tenth of the time, which frees him to practice cross-country skiing and take road trips with his family two weeks per month.
  • The business owner who eliminates the least profitable customers and projects, outsources all operations entirely, and travels the world collecting rare documents, all while working remotely on a website to showcase her own illustration work.
  • The student who elects to risk it all – which is nothing – to establish an online video rental service that delivers $5,000 per month in income from a small niche of Blu-ray aficionados, a two-hour-per-week side project that allows him to work full-time as an animal rights lobbyist.”

– Page 23 (Revised & Updated Version)

This concept isn’t totally outrageous, which means it escapes the ‘Bad’ and ‘Bullshit’ sections of this review. However, it veers dangerously close to echoing the promises of ‘get rich quick’ gurus like Mike Vestil, Alex Becker, and Sam Ovens.

In this case, the sale is already made – you’ve bought Tim’s book, and he doesn’t offer some ridiculously priced training course. I think Tim presents various case studies of the “New Rich” from more of a journalistic angle, simply showing people what is possible when they redefine career success.

But, and this is a big but, it’s easy for readers to fall into the trap of “oh wow, I could live a lifestyle like that if I started an e-business”. Tim presents this concept alongside suggestions on how to become an ‘expert’ on a topic in four weeks, which strains his credibility on this topic significantly.

If this was just a call-to-action to get out of the corporate rat race, that would be fine – but given the context of the book, it’s more than that.


The Bad

Comfort Challenges

As part of your re-education, the book provides ways for you to step outside of your comfort zone and try things you might not consider otherwise. Becoming more entrepreneurial requires a higher-than-average risk tolerance, after all.

This is fun in theory, but the content of the ‘challenges’ are definitely skewed towards a 20-something male demographic. The ‘asking girls for their phone numbers’ exercise definitely hasn’t aged well, given what society thinks of pickup artists now. Stay away from these, and find other ways to build your assertiveness.

A ‘boring desk job’ has many benefits…

… especially if you’re young and just getting started in your career. I talk to a lot of young people now who think that they’re too good to work in a shitty entry-level role, and nothing could be farther from the truth.

I mean, why should a bright new graduate work for someone else in a a 40-hour-per-week desk job, when they could be travelling the world and working remotely instead? Well…

  • If you are under 25, you probably have no clue how business actually works. An entry-level position provides a lot of great lessons in how business is actually done.
  • Opportunities for training, mentorship, business travel, attending trade shows, and a whole bunch of other things that are expensive for solo-preneurs.
  • You can worry about other things than the bottom line. Like developing specific sets of skills that you can apply when you go out on your own. Stuff like marketing, sales, managing office politics…
  • Humility. I’m a millennial, and I think many (not all) millennials are entitled brats, especially if they weren’t raised in a blue-collar family. Entry-level positions are good for the soul.
  • Who knows? You might actually like your job. I certainly enjoyed my first ‘real’ job.

This probably doesn’t sound too compelling since readers of this website are predisposed to be more entrepreneurial, but the bottom line is that if you are planning on founding your own company and you haven’t put in at least 18 months working for someone else, you’re either a wunderkind, an idiot, and/or have rich family willing to foot the bill for you “playing business”.

Outsourcing to India

Are you really gonna trust someone in South Asia to look after important aspects of your life for $4/hour? Really? Well… to each their own.


The Bullshit

“How to Become a Top Expert in 4 Weeks”

Do you want to live the lifestyle of the “New Rich”, but don’t know what you could possibly do to make money? Don’t worry – there is a section in Tim’s book that shows you how to become a “Top Expert” in any field of your choice.

If it sounds too good to be true, that’s because it is. Saying that someone can become an expert in a field in 4 weeks undermines and profanes the concept of expertise. Furthermore, giving people a step-by-step guide to faking expertise is incredibly irresponsible. From 4HWW:

  1. Join two or three trade organizations with official-sounding names.
  2. Read the three top-selling books on your topic.
  3. Give one free seminar at the closest well-known university, and then at the branches of some well-known companies.
  4. Offer to write one or two articles for trade magazines.
  5. Join ProfNet and start getting quoted as an expert by journalists.

How would you feel if you realized that you had bought a course/book/resource from someone whose ‘expertise’ came from a few books and some clever bullshittery on the internet? Probably pretty pissed off.

But young men looking to make their mark on the world rarely stop to think such thoughts as “Am I actually qualified to give this advice?”, so 4HWW’s simple guide to becoming an ‘expert’ becomes a step-by-step guide about how to make money at the expense of other people’s gullibility.

And sure, Tim Ferriss pays lip service to this concept by warning that there’s a difference between looking like an expert and being one, but this website wouldn’t exist if people actually gave a shit about Tim’s half-hearted warning.

Tim’s Definition of Work

The title of 4HWW itself should stand out as an obvious marketing ploy, but the fact is that this book cleverly mixes together the promise of becoming part of the “New Rich” with a bullshit definition of what constitutes work.

“Work = anything that you either want to do less of or do solely for the financial benefit.”

So if you like what you do, it’s not work. There’s a blog article where a fan of Tim Ferriss elaborates on the semantics of work that you can read if you want.

Side-Effect: Becoming an Arrogant Douche

One of the mental traps you might fall into after reading this book is prioritizing yourself above everyone else… but in a bad way. Some examples:

  • Putting up one of Tim’s email autoresponders saying you’re too busy to check your email… as if everyone else also isn’t the same boat.
  • Pompously refusing to show up to meetings that don’t have an agenda, as if your colleagues love pointless meetings and need to be taught a lesson.
  • Looking down at the unenlightened sheeple, chained to their desks and doomed to a life of corporate servitude.

Also note that Penelope Trunk, an entrepreneur and writer, has provided some pretty detailed situations where Tim Ferriss has conducted himself in less-than-honorable ways.

Also see “Individualism in Overdrive” (NYT) and Tim’s own article “How to test drive friends and irritate people“.

The “Something for Nothing” Industry

Without a doubt, the worst part of this book is the way its concepts have been packaged and resold by charlatans everywhere. See: most people I have featured on this blog, and most people I will ever feature on this blog.


In my opinion, this is a must-read book for any young person wondering if there’s more to a career than sitting at a desk and pushing papers around. However, the advice in this book needs to be taken with several grains of salt.

4HWW is a book that one should read to become acquainted with the new world of work, but by no means should it be used as a bible for how to conduct yourself or build a career.

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