Ten years ago this month, I was spending a sunny Saturday morning in Barnes and Noble. In the business section, I noticed a book with a palm tree and a hammock on the cover. It boldly suggested that I could work less, earn more, and travel widely.
Free time and travel sounded great, of course, but Tim Ferriss’ book also flirted with a far more seductive and powerful idea: that the very same technologies which were making our jobs increasingly intolerable – the constant connection, the all-time-zone hours, the all-night email-checking – might be used for our own benefit.
The implication was incendiary – what if our employers had inadvertently unlocked our prison cells? And what if leaving the traditional career path was actually the best route to financial and career success?
The 4HWW wasn’t just a guide to “hacking” life and working less; it was also a critique of the standard American lifestyle – everything from long hours and career stability to fancy cars, 30-year mortgages, and retirement savings accounts.
Essentially, Tim was helping us to see these constructs for what they were – arbitrary, confining, and unnecessary. He was also asking us to imagine what our lives might look like outside of these patterns. And, best of all, he wasn’t asking for much. Just give it a shot, he urged. What’s the worst that could happen?
When I encountered Tim’s book, I was working long hours for a small company. I was stressed all the time and I felt like I had no power over my future. In that situation, it wasn’t easy for me to imagine working four hours a week and lounging under palm trees – but it also wasn’t easy to imagine continuing with the life I was living.
By page 90, I decided that I was willing to risk what little career I had. I quit my job and founded a business within a year. I haven’t had a boss since.
Since founding our podcast in 2009, Ian and I have probably heard more 4HWW success stories than anybody but Tim himself. (We’ve seen the failures, too.) Essentially, we’ve run a ten-year experiment: what happens when you try to put Tim’s vision into practice? What challenges arise? What adaptations are required? And how has technology changed the opportunities available to entrepreneurs?
For the past eight years, TropicalMBA has been asking these questions and sharing the answers. Today, our podcast, blog, and community are home to thousands of hard-working entrepreneurs.
So what have we learned? In honor of the tenth anniversary of Tim’s book, here are ten observations from the TMBA laboratory.
Initially, the single biggest source of confusion was Tim’s DEAL system. If this doesn’t ring any bells, here’s a quick refresher:
- Define. Tim encourages readers to define the future they want to build. (The first step? Creating a dreamline, here’s an episode on that process). 4HWW-style thinking demands that we become the ‘dealmakers’ in our own lives; in order to create deals with reality, you have to understand what reality you’re trying to create.
- Eliminate. Tim instructs us to delete distractions from our lives (especially media and meaningless email) in order to focus on our core goals of taking control over our time, income, and mobility.
- Automate. We also need to remove ourselves from the trivial tasks of our business or job in order to focus on being effective (as opposed to just efficient).
- Liberate. Finally, we release ourselves from society’s usual constraints – like working on the arbitrary schedules of jobs or clients – and focus on living the lives we’ve defined for ourselves.
In theory, it sounded great – but putting it into practice was a stumbling block for many readers.
This problem stems from a split in the book’s audience. Many of Tim’s principles are aimed at overworked business owners, or those who have lots of experience and career cachet. In other words, Tim is talking to people who have a lot of enterprising know-how (or other resources – like industry relationships – that allow them to make up for it).
But the book’s audience extended well beyond the well-heeled and gainfully employed. It also appealed to those of us who didn’t have businesses, established cash flows, or other traditional advantages.
In retrospect, it’s not hard to see that these two audiences – the well-educated California business owner, and his entry-level customer service rep – might hear Tim’s advice very differently. The book didn’t do enough to calibrate distinct strategies for each group.
This small oversight led to a lot of fear, frustration and criticism. It also inspired the most popular post on the TMBA blog – The 1,000 Day Principle, which argues that it usually takes three years of full-time effort to replace your professional salary with income from a business. For some, an “apprentice” phase is also necessary – the period of time when you put yourself in a position to launch your business and start your 1,000-day count. (During this phase, budding entrepreneurs often learn basic skills through formal apprenticeships, online courses, and experiments with platforms like Shopify, WordPress, and Amazon.)
In other words, it can take smart people the better part of a decade to apply Tim’s ideas. (The book could have been called The Ten-Year Career. That’s not as sexy as The 4-Hour Workweek, but it’s a much better message than most of us received growing up.)
Nonetheless, Tim still deserves credit, because he did two extremely important things: he got people to believe, and he got them started.
If you’ve read 4HWW, you’ll remember the chapter on “filling the void.” When automated income starts pouring into your bank account and you don’t have to sit behind a desk anymore, what should you do with your time? Tim talks about getting back to hobbies, taking trips to develop new skillsets, or devoting time to projects.
When I read this section, it seemed ridiculous. (What do you do with your free time? Anything you freaking want!)
Ten years later, I’m not laughing. When you aren’t working all day long, and when you don’t have to be in one place all day every day, what will your days look like? What will matter to you? How will you live? These are wide-open questions, and our community is answering them one experiment at a time.
The book suggested that readers build a cash-flow, find ways to automate it, and then help themselves to mini-retirements. What people actually did was different. They quit their jobs, began traveling, and built businesses along the way. They “baselined” in cheap locations, lowering their expenses and extending their runways. They hired remote staff in developing countries and met others who were doing the same. They leveraged business models like “productized services” so they weren’t strapped to their laptops all day. As their businesses grew, they made decisions about where to live based on time zones (and a dozen other factors that would have seemed unfathomable just a few years before).
Early 4HWW adherents assumed that their remote businesses needed to serve “real” businesses, and that being abroad (and making sales calls from resorts) was something to apologize for. Serving ‘lifestyle entrepreneurs’ as your target market was seen as small-time thinking.
2007: The book introduced a novel way of building a business and a life largely enabled by internet technologies, and coined it “lifestyle design.”
2017: Now, it simply looks like “a fun and strategic way to grow a profitable business.”
2007: People critiqued the book saying “it’s for single people who want to write blogs in Thailand.”
2017: For every blogger making money in Thailand, there are 100 other entrepreneurs succeeding in businesses you’ve never thought about. They are just less visible; they have no incentive to share their stories, so they don’t. (Unfortunately, the press has also done a terrible job of finding and profiling these folks.) I often wish we did a better job. Nonetheless, these entrepreneurs are out there by the thousands. I meet them all the time; they come to our events to meet and learn from each other.
More broadly, the power of the 4HWW lifestyle is still being unlocked. Families are joining the fray. So are people from developing countries (or countries whose passports restrict their travel).
What many had, in the early days, framed up as a book of tricks to take shortcuts in life has turned into a roadmap to interesting and dignified work for those who might not otherwise have access to it.
Over the coming years, we’re going to see many more people abandoning the corporate/career track and relying on their own entrepreneurial skills and ingenuity.
Service businesses and professional services (like lawyers and accountants) are starting to understand and serve the unique problems faced by ‘micro-multinationals’ – hyper-globalized <$10M businesses. It’s a massively growing marketplace that’s relatively easy to address.
When we started the TMBA blog, we were two broke kids with mediocre college degrees selling random ecommerce products (thank to Tim’s validation strategies and Ian’s obsession with cats). We were also perhaps the first location-independent physical goods business sharing its story via blogging and podcasting.
This felt risky. Why? Because with most business models, sharing your secret sauce doesn’t make sense. Our situation was really no different, but we did it anyway – it was fun, and we wanted to share. And it’s worked out – especially because we’ve met all of you!
When Tim’s book was published, conventionally successful people didn’t build or buy businesses like ours. But that’s changing, too. Our seven-figure business was bought by a former Hollywood executive. Why? Because she wanted to control her earnings into retirement.
That’s not unusual. People on traditional career paths have watched what Tim’s readers have accomplished, and they’re using their savings to buy in. Their motivations are as varied as ours: to spend more time with family; to live abroad; to create unlimited growth potential; and to control their own financial destinies.
Some of us boldly proclaimed that the 4HWW was a shortcut to retirement (forget mini-retirements). For many, it’s turning out that way.
Ten years on, 4HWW principles look less like a critique of the career system and more like the future of business.
As I’ve written previously, Tim’s book whispered something important to me: in addition to working less and living anywhere, I could also build wealth, take care of a family and retire well.
Now established industries and entrepreneurs are taking note. The VCs are coming. The PE firms are coming.
And why shouldn’t they? As Tim says, the four-hour workweek is about “valuing effectiveness over efficiency.” It’s about throwing out all the career nonsense and doing good work.
So if you’re reading this and wondering whether the four-hour workweek is still possible – whether there’s room for you at the table – here’s my answer:
It’s getting easier every day.
PS, like the TMBA? You can subscribe here.
PPS, did the 4HWW influence you? Got a success or failure story? I’d love to hear about it.