Cal Newport on Tim Ferriss

Thursday, October 28, 2021

In a recent essay in the New Yorker, Cal Newport revisits Tim Ferriss's The 4-Hour Workweek, which was a best seller for years after its publication.

Whether you've read the book or -- like me -- never got around to it, I think the essay is worth reading.

Perhaps the most thought-provoking aspect of the essay is its argument that Ferriss's main point has suffered from a kind of pop-culture distortion. Assuming Newport's right -- and he has been pretty reliable on things I do know about -- people like me would appear to have missed out:

Tim Ferriss (Image by Olivier Ezratty , via Wikimedia Commons, license.)
When you read The 4-Hour Workweek, there's no way to avoid the conclusion that it's all about the unsustainable nature of frenetic knowledge work, but if you knew Ferriss only through his book titles, or his detailed, step-by-step blog posts, or the media coverage that highlighted his often elaborate productivity habits, it was easy to reduce him to the King of Hacks. In The Office, Darryl Philbin was using Ferriss's ideas to help get more work done so that he could get promoted to a gruelling corporate-management position. This is, of course, the opposite of everything that the book was about, but by then Ferriss's ideas had been thoroughly twisted by popular culture.

There is, however, a deeper explanation for why Ferriss's radicalism was diluted in the years following his book's release: perhaps our culture wasn't ready to hear it. The pre-recession two-thousands were an unusual time in American economic history -- a moment in which frenetic but ambiguous activity seemed to alchemize into prosperity. Everyone was busy: acquiring mortgages to be repackaged into debt instruments no one really understood, or typing furiously into suddenly ubiquitous BlackBerrys, sending a volume of messages that no one ever really requested. This energetic hustle seemed to be working -- cash was plentiful, stocks were rising, revenue was strong -- and life seemed modern and exciting. This was the context in which The 4-Hour Workweek pointed out that a lot of this exciting busyness was nonsense. If you concentrated on the efforts that actually mattered, your professional contributions could be compressed into a handful of efficiently planned weekly hours. The rest was just for show. There's a scene in Mike Judge's 1999 satire, Office Space, where a pair of efficiency consultants are interviewing a cubicle-dweller who struggles to explain the point of his job. "What would you say ... you do here?," one of the consultants finally asks in exasperation. Ferriss was asking this question of an entire economic sector, and many were not interested in trying to provide an answer. It was more comfortable to dismiss him as yet another productivity guru.
I recommend reading the whole thing, and am now myself curious about what I might be missing from among Ferriss's other works: If you have been particularly impressed or disappointed by any, feel free to comment below. Newport's retrospective paints a picture of someone who can grasp essentials in multiple domains, and who thus may, through his "hacks" be valuable at helping others get up to speed in the ones he writes about.

-- CAV

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