#109 Tim Ferriss

Tim Ferriss (@TFerriss) joined James Altucher to talk about dealing with big organizations, meta learning, and what it takes to film a television show. This is Ferriss’s second interview with James, appearing first on episode #22.

This interview begins – and is dotted throughout – by the story about what happened on screen and behind the scenes with the Tim Ferriss Experiment, a show he describes as “Jackass meets Mythbusters.” What surprised me this story was how long this process has taken, nearly a year before Ferriss was talking about the show and promoting it. “It took a long time to make the show in the first place” Ferriss tells James. That things take time is prudence we can exercise. The overnight success is a good marketing story says Austin Kleon (episode #19) and Trip Adler (episode #61) said that companies fail because they fail they forget this.

Not only does making a show take time, but Ferriss wanted to work with Zero Point Zero Productions to film a non-fiction television show rather than a reality television show. This is a notable difference, even though it may not appear so on the surface. Real tv isn’t all real and knowing the difference is valuable. Alex Blumberg (episode #70) saw this working for This American Life. Blumberg tells James that he thought telling good stories on the radio meant he could tell good stories on television. Not so.

James notes that Ferriss must have been busy while filming, and “these episodes were not four hour work weeks.” Ferriss agrees that he was very busy, acting as co-executive producer, actor, and actually learning the things he’s attempting. He’s also quick to point out being busy fits within the 4-Hour ethos. Because he’s optimized, arranged, and organized his life around a 4-Hour type of system, he can do things like film television shows. The 4-Hour Workweek isn’t literally about only working four hours, it’s about promoting a system that lets you get the required stuff done in four hours so you can do something else. As Austin Kleon told James, “every job is still a job” meaning that each job has parts that just need to get done. Ferriss wrote the book to teach you ways to get those parts done in less time.

In this attempt to avoid a scripted product that was closer to reality than reality tv, Ferriss says that they had to plan their shoots very carefully. He tells James they had a bunch of If/Then propositions ready, like, “if Tim breaks his leg, then we do this.” It reminded me of Ramit Sethi’s (episode #36) interview with James when he mentioned his theory of preeminence. Sethi approaches his projects by trying to figure out everything that needs done ahead of time. He tries to figure out a customer’s objections and have answers, find their problems and build in solutions, and translate their misunderstandings and explain things more clearly.

Despite the work, Ferriss got through all the filming (though not unscathed). During this he was hearing rumors about unrest at Turner Productions, but was hopeful that his show would get released, and it did, on HLN. This was a bad fit Ferriss said. His audience wanted on-demand options, not appointment viewing. They wanted digital, not broadcast. They wanted portable, not televised. It was a bit of bad luck.

Lady luck plays a lot of rolls in the lives of the interviewees. Mark Cuban (episode #24) and Seth Godin (episode #86) both told James they got a bit lucky selling their companies when they did. Scott Adams (episode #47) and Kevin Kelly (episode #96) makes the strongest case for luck their lives. But we all get lucky and unlucky and rather than curse it, quit, and lick our wounds, we should just keeping going. Seth Godin told James it’s like getting up to bat over and over again and to just keep swinging. Scott Adams compared it to a slot machine that doesn’t require any money to play, just that you put forth a bit of effort to pull the handle.

Ferriss saw this programming arrangement as a bad break and took a page of freaky thinking from Stephen Dubner (episode #20) and asked himself: Did my show not do well because it’s a bad show or did it not do well because of bad luck? He reasoned that it was probably luck since all the other pieces were competent at what they were doing.

Ferriss eventually found out that the branch Turner Production that included his show was closing and he moved in to get the rights. He reasoned that the people who were now in charge of his show wouldn’t want it because it was a lose-lose situation for them. If the new executive came in and relaunched The Tim Ferriss Experiment and it worked, his predecessor would be praised for the success. And if the show failed, the new executive would bear the burden. Ferriss then began the process of buying back his show, telling James, “large organizations are often not properly incentivized to cooperate.”

The pair then get into the different experiences Ferriss has had, beginning with being a rock and roll drummer for Foreigner to learning Brazilian Jiu Jitsu from Marcelo Garcia.  Ferriss says he was connected to Garcia through mutual friend Josh Waitzkin, who ironically James met “briefly on a street corner.” (Though this is an interview I would love to hear)

The conversation moves to dating and, Ferriss tells James he worked with Neil Strauss on his cold approaches, that is, going up to someone without any reason to talk to them other than getting to know them. Ferriss tells James, “I was nervous every time I did it.” But with some tweaks from Strauss (stand laterally, don’t overthink it, don’t start with “sorry”) he was able to get over his initial fears.  In Choose Yourself Altucher writes that “rejection is probably the most powerful force in our lives.” And because we can’t avoid it, we may as well get used to it. Ben Mezrich (episode #84) for example, told James that he got 180 rejections for his writing. He probably faced a similar experience to Ferriss where the first few were hard, but it got easier. Gretchen Rubin (episode #97) told James that if we make this sort of thing a habit, it can “dampen our emotional reaction to things.” For Rubin it meant driving a car and becoming less anxious about it, for Mezrich it was writing rejections, for Ferriss it was cold shoulders on cold approaches.

Hearing all this James says that he could never approach women like Ferriss did, but Ferriss responds, “none of the rejections were that bad.” Ferriss said something similar in his first interview, noting that we often have a “nebulous fear of failure.” Instead we can ask ourselves what’s the worst that can happen, how can I minimize this thing from happening, and if it does happen, what can I do to get back to where I am now?

In his experiments Ferriss looks to deconstruct the key elements to understand them. He wants to dive deep into the details to figure out each one. James has had other guests mention this as well. Brian Koppelman (episode #98) and Carol Leifer (episode #66) both have great stories about how comedians have to figure out the chemistry between, funny, harsh, gross, brash, TMI and LOL.

Ferriss says that his systems involves a lot of experimentation and James says this is a great idea, not just for best-selling authors on television shows but anyone, “take investing in startups, almost nobody knows in advance what’s going to make a successful startup” Altucher says because each startup goes through some iteration and experimentation to be something better. Jay Jay French (episode #75) told James the same thing about playing in a band and writing songs. You just have to keep doing it, learning something, change it, and do it again.

And don’t be afraid to mess up during these experiments. “I screw up more than most people I know, but when you see the highlight reel in a bio or a book that’s the end product, you don’t see all the work that goes into it” Ferriss tells James. Ramit Sethi had similar counsel:

“If you look at someone from the outside and they have a successful business or blog and a podcast and you’re like, wow, there’s no way I could do that. Know that I felt exactly the same way.”

Another experiment for the show was to get better at poker, and Ferriss says, “your psychological state is very different when you’re playing with your real money.” Past guest Nassim Taleb writes that English bridge builders used to have to spend time under their bridges to ensure their incentives were in line with those using the bridge.

Ferriss said that some types of poker require a good player to fold a lot of hands and that can lead to boredom, “I don’t have a problem with being bored for long periods of time if I have a system that supports it.” A lot of the guests talk about letting systems guide their thinking. We need systems, argues Ramit Sethi, because we are “cognitive misers.” Chris Guillebeau (episode #46) for example, told James that “I do a lot of the same things everyday.” These aren’t boring to Guillebeau because he knows that those actions will help him get what he wants. Ditto for T. Harv Eker (episode #100) whose entire framework is built on reframing our systems and thought patterns.

Some of Ferriss’s other shows focus on urban evasion and escape (hot-wiring a car, getting out of duct tape handcuffs), open-water swimming, and golf. In all of these things Ferriss tells James that the learning got easier because he began to understand the meta learning aspects with each experiment. He also recognized his own patterns in life and began to adapt those to what was required for filming a television show. He looked at when he was getting tired and tweaked his sleeping schedule. He looked at when and how he was getting hungry and changed what and when he ate.

Near the end of the interview James tries to draw analogies between learning chess and learning anything. It sounds like Ferriss is on board with this connection, but that he doesn’t have the same understanding of chess as James. He can’t give examples to connect the two as easily as he might in one of the experiments. Ferriss does say that one key part is chunking the big aspects of something. In another clip he says that if you learn twelve basic sentences in a foreign language, you can start to cobble together a bunch of other things. He tells James, that once we build a model for doing something in our brain, we don’t need to make a lot of effort the next time. For example, look at this text. You can probably read it easy enough even though someone learning to read would have great trouble with it.

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But once we get those chunks established, it’s hard to override them, even when it’s something as simple as riding a bike.

Riding a bike that steers the opposite way is evidently really hard and Ferriss tells James that “there are definite skills that allow you to fake it sooner than others.” If you want to learn to play the guitar, you might consider learning four chords:

Ferriss says that he’s doing these things because “the skill that I’m refining is meta learning.” Ferriss is looking for the best ways to go from being at the 0 percentile and improving to the 95th percentile. He tells James that it Logistic-curve.svgonly takes about six months of constant work to do this. Learning anything, Ferriss says, progresses like the Sigmoid curve. Slow at first, then a rapid ascent of skills and then another plateau in the final stages.

James asks for specific techniques about how Ferriss has learned about meta learning and Ferriss goes back to DSSS: deconstruct, select, sequence, stakes.

Ferriss says that the show cost him “blood, sweat, tears, and money.” James says he’s going to force his children to watch it as part of their education. Ferriss ends the interview quoting Thomas Edison, “When you have exhausted all possibilities, remember this – you haven’t.”

Thanks for reading, I’m @mikedariano.

One final note: In the interview Ferriss talks about Josh Waitzkin’s book The Art of Learning and Joshua Foer’s book Moonwalking with Einstein. I’ve read both and would recommend them to anyone interested in learning. I have a newsletter where each month I share what books I’ve been reading. I’ve also created a Slack group for people to talk about what they’re reading, get help reading more, and find your next book. So many of the guests talk about reading as part of their success. James talks about reading almost all the time. Get in touch for an invitation.

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