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Tim Ferriss on How to Stop Wasting Energy

Career Habits & Productivity
Tim Ferriss on How to Stop Wasting Energy


  • What Steve Jobs and Warren Buffet agree you should do to achieve greatness
  • Why the most successful people may experience the most fear and doubt
  • Why Tim Ferriss recommends lying down on the floor of a Starbucks

Tim Ferriss is one of Fast Company’s “Most Innovative Business People,” an early-stage tech investor/advisor in Uber, Facebook, and Twitter, and the author of four #1 New York Times bestsellers, including The 4-Hour Workweek. Srinivas Rao recently hosted him on the Unmistakable Creative Podcast, where they discussed what makes someone truly wealthy, why fear is your friend, and why it’s never too late to achieve incredible success.

Srini: One of the questions that I’ve asked many people who have accumulated wealth is, what mindset separates people who are wealthy from those who struggle?

Tim: I don’t think having a lot of money and being wealthy are the same thing. I know a lot of people who have literally hundreds of millions of dollars, and are very unhappy.

So what makes someone truly wealthy in my mind? It’s not just achievement, because it’s very easy to default to racking up more money and more feathers in the cap. The bigger challenge is balancing that with appreciating what you have. That is a necessary component, because if you don’t appreciate what you have now, you’ll never appreciate what you get later. I build in a gratitude practice, and journal [about] three things that I’m grateful for in the morning, to make a habit of present-state awareness of things that I already have.

What is the mindset that allows someone to amass [a large] amount of money? I think it’s the ability to question any assumption or best practice in any industry. Nothing is sacred. They are perfectly happy to turn everything upside down. The whole thing these days is, “Oh, you need to be warm and fuzzy as a boss.” They’re like, “Really? Steve Jobs wasn’t that way. Henry Ford wasn’t that way. They were hard-asses.”

Or they might say, “People say you have to have an office, but screw that.” Automattic, [which] powers wordpress.com, they’re worth more than a billion dollars, and they have a completely distributed workforce. Hundreds of people spread all over the world, with no central office.

Another thing that I notice: [those who make a large amount of money] are predisposed, or have trained themselves, to not waste energy. To give a very clear example, I was in Vietnam traveling, and my friends and I were playing pool, and one of them was Matt Mullenweg, the CEO of Automattic.

I saw a tweet from a well-known journalist who was not happy: “Looks like wordpress.com is really slow right now.” And I talked to Matt, and he’s like, “Yeah, one of our two data centers is down. Tell them that we’re working on it.” And he was just sipping a beer and playing pool.

I was like, “Wait a second, one of your two data centers is down. Isn’t that a big deal?” And he’s just like, “Doesn’t do me any good to get all riled up. My team is working on it. Absolutely zero point in me getting ruffled feathers about it.” And he had a sip of beer, and went back to playing pool. He was completely unfazed. I’ve noticed that in a lot of my friends here in Silicon Valley who have fortunes beyond almost anyone’s imagination.

“If you’re putting someone on a pedestal, it’s not because they deserve to be on the pedestal, it’s because you don’t want to take responsibility for the fact that the excuse that you’re giving is total BS.”

It’s important to think about not just time management, but energy and attention management. For instance, if you check your email first thing Saturday morning, and you find a bunch of problems that you can’t fix until Monday morning, your weekend’s gone. You’re not gonna have any relaxation, you’re not gonna have any productivity. So you have all the time in the world, but you have no energy, because you’re dissipating it with that preoccupation. That’s the type of thing that these guys would not do, because they understand the value of not just the time, but the attention and energy.

Srini: Why do you think we miss pivotal moments in our lives, and what we can do if we did happen to miss them?

Tim: If you missed it, I don’t think it’s too late. You can engineer these things, and that’s the entire ethos of everything I’ve done. There are too many examples of people who start multi-million dollar companies in their 50s and 60s, or who publish their first award-winning novels in their 50s, 60s, 70s.

The idea that you can’t manifest incredible success in multiple areas, or renegotiate the genetic limits you thought you had for muscle gain or endurance, [is wrong]. I’ve just seen too many outliers, too many seemingly freaks of nature do things, that it turns out you can replicate with the right recipe. If you’re putting someone on a pedestal, it’s not because they deserve to be on the pedestal, it’s because you don’t want to take responsibility for the fact that the excuse that you’re giving is total BS.

There are so many of my readers who have taken what I’ve done in, say, ultra endurance or breath holding, and destroyed my results, which people thought were crazy when they first read them. There are recipes that work and model world-class performers.

And ideally, model people who have not only the success in a given field that you want, but also holistically the life that you want. Because you find people with hundreds of millions of dollars who yell at their kids, whose wives or husbands hate them, who do a lot of drugs just to live with themselves.

You need to keep in mind what the total picture is. Do I think that Steve Jobs was an amazing creator, a visionary product guy as well as CEO? Absolutely. Do I think he was a happy guy? Probably not. Was he a pleasure to be around? No, he was not.

It’s good to look at it holistically, and not just piecemeal. There are things you can borrow from someone like Steve Jobs, of course. He said something along the lines of, “To do anything great, you have to say no to a thousand small things.” And Warren Buffett has said, “What separates the people who get good results and those who get great results is [that] the people who get great results say no to almost everything.”

Srini: I think it’s very easy, especially on the internet, to get caught up in comparison and competition with every single person out there. I can look at you and think, “Well, I didn’t accomplish what Tim did, and I’ve had a lot of awesome things happen in the last couple of weeks.” I’m interested in this idea of capitalizing on your strengths and compensating for your weaknesses. How do you figure out how to do that in your own life?

Tim: The impulse to compare yourself to others is an element of being a human being. It’s very hard to eradicate that completely, but what you can do is realize that you’re the average of the five people that you spend the most time with, physically, emotionally, financially, and so on. You need to choose that inner circle very carefully.

In any given city, you will find ballers that are doing amazing jobs. And if you have dinner with such a person, and you sit down and talk about certain problems you’re facing, you will probably have your mind blown at their perspective or how they look at the problem.

That has always been a game-changer for me, when I have dinner with these guys. My petty problems seem so trivial and ridiculous. Obsessing like, “You know what I should have said to that guy when he sent me that rude email? Fuck that guy. I should have done this.” It’s this internal conversation in my head. Matt Mullenweg would just be like, “Well, whatever. Drop it.” You spend time with some of these guys, and you realize, “Wow, that was the most egregious waste of energy imaginable.” And you start to model that person.

Srini: When you first started pitching The 4-Hour Workweek, you got rejected by 27 or 29 publishers.

Tim: Yeah, I lost count.

Srini: My question is around managing your own psychology through this process of the entrepreneurial journey. Do you think that grit is something that certain people just inherently have built into them, or is it something we can cultivate?

Tim: I would imagine there’s a genetic component. But it is also a coachable and learnable skill.

Grit can be developed by progressively exposing yourself to discomfort in different ways, and that makes you more comfortable with plowing through pain, temporary embarrassment, things like that. Which is why there are these comfort challenges in The 4-Hour Workweek, exercises to make you uncomfortable: go to Starbucks and lay down on the floor for 10 seconds, without telling anyone why you’re doing it. You’re not going to cause any harm, but it will make you very uncomfortable.

Those things seem silly, but they transfer very, very well. Grit is really a matter of practice and exposure.

Srini: In your own journey, have you ever had any dark, rock bottom moments where you felt like you could see no hope for your future?

Tim: Oh yeah, I’ve had tons. A lot of the males in my family have a predisposition to depression, so I’ve had extended bouts of depression, and feeling like there’s no hope and no options. I’ve written about that in one post called “Productivity Tricks for the Neurotic, Maniac Depressive, and Crazy (Like Me).” I talk about one of my particularly difficult depressive periods and how that affected my behavior and my self-perception.

Cus D’Amato, the trainer of Mike Tyson in his heyday, said, “The hero and the coward feel the same thing. It’s how the hero responds that is different.” I think that everyone has days where it’s like they hit “snooze” for an hour or two on a weekend. They don’t want to get up because they have these neurotic, worried thoughts in their head, and they don’t want to face the day. This is not uncommon. It’s part of the human condition.

My general coping mechanism is exercise, a kind of cure-all for a lot of biochemical reasons. [And] structural reasons—creating something in your day as a peg upon which to hang everything else. I think walking is very underrated. I try to walk an hour or two a day.

Srini: You think these depressive tendencies are just part of a hero’s journey if you’re going to do anything of great significance? Like a rite of passage?

“It’s the little things we do repeatedly that make us.”

Tim: I think so. If you’re going to do anything extraordinary, by definition, it is extraordinary, [so] you will be unaccustomed to the stresses that go along with that. The stresses can be internal, they can be external. They can be eustress, good stress that builds you up and helps you grow, like lifting weights. Or it can be distress, which is tearing you down. Oftentimes, it’s a combination of both, depending on your perspective.

Filming The Tim Ferriss Experiment, we were tackling these crazy skills every week, like professional poker—I know nothing, and then I’m gonna play against professionals for thousands of dollars in four days. Or learning a language well enough in three or four days to go on live TV for six minutes in that language. Just crazy, crazy stuff.

It became almost a running joke for my crew that every second day of filming, the night of every second day, I would basically have a nervous breakdown. I never thought of it this way, but you could probably take the hero’s journey and map it right onto every single episode, and watch me crash and burn in self-doubt and self-loathing.

That’s why it’s helpful to get into the practice of, I think Eleanor Roosevelt recommended this, doing something that you fear every day. One thing, whatever it is. Approaching a cute girl and saying hi. Laying down in Starbucks. Having that uncomfortable conversation you’ve been putting off. Calling a parent that you’ve grown a little distant from and saying I love you. It could be any of these things, but every day do one thing that makes you nervous, makes you fearful.

On top of that, I would also [add] reach out to someone and express gratitude. Say thank you to someone that you haven’t said thank you to in a long time, or ever. It could be a childhood friend, it could be somebody you went to college with you haven’t talked to in 10 years, it could be a coworker that you see every day. If you do those two things every day, those tiny microchanges can produce monsters in the best way possible. Monsters of productivity, break out successes. It’s the little things we do repeatedly that make us.


This conversation has been edited and condensed.

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