Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich (Book Review) by jgn on Sunday, August 19, 2007 in Reading and Reviews

Timothy Ferriss, The 4-Hour Workweek (2007) . $19.95. Ir?t=jgn09 20&l=as2&o=1&a=0307353133

This is a provocative book which I hereby recommend to all of my friends, colleagues, acquaintances, and students . . . especially my younger friends. The book looks like a business self-help / how-to-succeed / make-money-quick book -- the type of book my friend Paulina Borsook calls "business porn" -- but it is subtly different.

In many ways the book is yet another book of organizational trivia: How to systematize your time, life, and money better, or, specifically, how to eliminate almost all of the tedium but still make your monthly nut. On this basis a lot of people would say that it's a silly read, because there are a million books out there with all of the same stuff (e.g., all those little "getting things done" rules like don't read e-mail right when you get to work; batch it, etc., etc.).

The main way the book is different is because of its existential realism about the reason for needing to escape everyday tedium (others would call this existential realism "cynicism" or "nihilism" or possibly even "atheism"). At the end of the book, Ferriss talks about how he deals with the "big questions," such as "what is the meaning of life?" He suggests that if you (1) can't define the meaning of the question with clarity, and/or (2) can't define the consequences of what an answer would entail, then the question is pointless. With this stroke, he brackets a great deal of navel-gazing and anxiety. At the same time, he advises taking a spiritual retreat, but more to leave the world's cares behind that to get answers. I was not surprised that this section of the book is headed by a quotation from Victor Frankl. All of this is smuggled in at the end. I think I know why.

Why? Because most people who are working 80-hour weeks aren't in the position to even formulate a good philosophical question, let alone think about it or evaluate some answers. The reason to reorganize your life into a 4-hour work week is to give you the freedom to . . . do what you want, which might well include such philosophizing. As Marx said in the famous passage in the German Ideology (1845), we need a way of living that

makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic. For Ferriss, the freedom he has gained through his method is devoted to learning and service, and I suspect he will have a lot more to say about such topics in future books. I suppose the sad fact is that Ferriss's personal utopia is nestled within and enabled by what used to be called late capitalism, but at this point, that's all we've got.

OK, as for the "content" of the book. The book says: Figure out a product. Why? Because if you're in a service or consulting or wage-labor business, you're always engaged in needless communication, and you don't get the upside. The best thing about a product is that once it's done, you just sell it. (And guess what, you can pay other people to sell it.) If you can get the profit high enough, you may be able to automate the whole thing. Ferriss provides lists of resources for creating a professional profile for yourself, creating "expertise," getting a web-based presence, advertising your product, outsourcing payment and fulfillment: A 360-degree view of automating your business. (In the area of product definition and validation, the book is very much like a miniature version of Cooper's Winning at New Products, with the key difference that Ferriss is trying to set up a business that will return a relatively small monthly return -- a personal life-style business.)

After the business setup stuff, he gets into the fruits of that labor, i.e., what do you do during the rest of the week not occupied with your 4 hours of management. There are some interesting parallels here with the outsourcing argument in the business section: I.e., just as there are deals overseas to automate your business, similarly you can conduct geo-arbitrage to get deals for sitting on a beach or in a cafe.

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