In March, 2007, the attendees of South by Southwest Interactive, a technology conference held in Austin, Texas, had reason to be energized. The Silicon Valley startups celebrated by this gathering were on a roll. In 2004, Google’s twenty-three-billion-dollar I.P.O. had marked the end of the Internet-business malaise brought on by the original dot-com bust. In 2006, Facebook opened its network beyond university students and was closing in on a hundred million active users, while a new, competing service named Twitter went live. And just two months before the conference, Steve Jobs had stood on a stage at San Francisco’s Moscone Convention Center to announce Apple’s latest product: the iPhone.
The culture emerging from Silicon Valley during this period celebrated overly caffeinated young hackers who were staying up into the night, moving fast and breaking stuff—all in the service of building companies that could make them sudden millionaires. In this environment, work ethic became as celebrated as vision or innovation. It was a high compliment to be dubbed a “10x engineer,” meaning that you had the kind of brain that could produce computer code ten times faster than the average programmer. At M.I.T., where I was studying for a doctorate in computer science, the undergraduates I knew used “hard-core” as a term of admiration for those able to push through overwhelming loads of school work. (Partly in response to this valorization of overwork, M.I.T. banned triple majors.)
It was against this backdrop that an unlikely speaker, a twenty-nine-year-old Princeton graduate named Tim Ferriss, was preparing to take the stage in Austin to deliver a contrary message. After college, Ferriss had moved West to take a sales job at a Bay Area digital-storage business named TrueSAN. He eventually quit to start his own company, which sold a neurotropic nutritional supplement popular among athletes. Inspired by the Silicon Valley culture that surrounded him, Ferriss worked extremely long hours. At one point, he went on a vacation to Florence with his family and ended up spending ten hours a day working out of an Internet cafe.
Ferriss became dispirited when he realized that his one-man company was never going to be sold for millions: he was stuck with it and the grind that it demanded. In response, he launched a series of nothing-left-to-lose experiments to drastically reduce the time he spent working. He culled his client list: instead of trying to maximize the number of accounts he served, he focussed on the smaller number of customers who generated the bulk of his revenue. He then built elaborate systems that allowed teams of far-flung contractors, coördinated using newly emerged Internet services, to handle most of the details of his company’s operation without his involvement.
Soon, he was checking e-mail only once every ten to fourteen days. With his streamlined schedule, he made extended visits to cities like Buenos Aires, in Argentina, where the American dollar was strong, leveraging the insight that when it comes to maximizing autonomy, it’s often better to live more cheaply than to make more money. He took intensive Spanish classes to learn the language quickly, and began dancing the tango, eventually competing at high-level contests. After delivering a series of guest lectures about these experiments to an entrepreneurship class at Princeton, Ferriss refined the lessons learned into a book titled, “The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich,” a book scheduled to be published the same spring that he arrived in Austin to tell a room full of hard-charging, aspiring 10x engineers that their professional lives were unsustainable, and that they should consider doing something more interesting with their time.
I recently called Ferriss to ask him about that speech. His memory was that the event organizer gave him a slot at the last minute after a cancellation. “I did not have a proper room,” he said. “The talk was given in an overflow room, I want to say, that also acted as a mini-cafeteria.” Ferriss says that he was calm about the risk in delivering a message about downshifting at a conference celebrating hard-core culture: “If it works, great; if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work.” His calmness was justified: the talk did work. The room filled past capacity, and the audience connected with the young entrepreneur’s call to work less. Almost immediately, Ferriss began to hear from attendees who were putting his advice into practice. Influential tech bloggers who heard about the talk wrote about Ferriss and his boldly titled book, which put it on the radar of bigger media outlets. “The 4-Hour Workweek” made it onto the Times best-seller list, where it stayed, more or less, for the next seven years. The book went on to sell millions of copies, reaching its apex of cultural relevance when it was mentioned by the character of Darryl Philbin in a 2011 episode of “The Office.”
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In recent months, as I’ve been writing for this magazine about the impact of the pandemic on our professional lives, I’ve found myself thinking about “The 4-Hour Workweek” and the unlikely speech that helped launch it. In retrospect, an overflow crowd of tech-sector enthusiasts embracing Ferriss’s message was a warning shot—an early indication that the mode of work emerging in a hyperconnected, always-on, hustling modern office had flaws. In his talk, Ferriss described his former self as someone who “checked e-mail one to two hundred times a day—Send, Receive, Send, Receive—like a rat with a cocaine-pellet dispenser.” At the three-minute mark, Ferriss poses a series of what he calls key questions. “How do your decisions and priorities change if retirement will never be an option?,” he asks, before adding, “Is your business scalable, is your career scalable, and, most important, is your life style scalable?” These are the provocations of a radical.
Given the book’s history and reception, you might assume that “The 4-Hour Workweek” would have become a popular guide for our current moment, in which the pandemic-induced Great Resignation is driving knowledge workers to ask themselves similar questions. But although Ferriss’s book never stopped selling strongly, it almost never comes up in my recent reporting on these issues. One explanation for this reality is that, in the years following the book’s publication, Ferriss became associated more with the optimization and productivity hacks he suggested than with the book’s larger message of rethinking the meaning of work. Ferriss told me that his broader interest at that time was seeking “minimum effective doses” of effort required to achieve important goals. When this mind-set was applied to the topic of work and life satisfaction, it led Ferriss to a radical rejection of digital-age office cultures. His subsequent writing, however, went in a more pragmatic direction: he followed his best-seller with “The 4-Hour Body,” which was about optimizing health and fitness.
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.
In this accounting, “The 4-Hour Workweek” delivered a prophecy that many were not yet receptive to. The pandemic has changed this reality. We’re now engaged in a national conversation about many of the same fundamental questions that Ferriss probed fifteen years earlier. Rereading Ferriss’s book today, I find that some of his points are strikingly prescient, such as his identification of remote work as being critical to giving workers more agency and freedom, and his concern that e-mail overload would become a major threat to autonomy. Other parts of the book have become humorously out of date. I joked with Ferriss about how much emphasis he puts on the once popular software program GoToMyPC. It’s also amusing, given the events of the past year and a half, how many pages he dedicates to strategies for explaining the concept of remote work to your manager. (At one point, Ferriss recommends calling in sick for two days but still working while at home, to later prove to your skeptical boss that virtual work is literally feasible. “He . . . leaves an e-mail trail of some sort for his boss to notice,” Ferriss writes, describing an engineer who successfully implemented this strategy, “and keeps quantifiable records of what he accomplished for reference during later negotiations.”)
Fortunately, we no longer need this one book from 2007 to carry the full weight of our current reckoning with work. Many thoughtful commentators have emerged to continue a deep questioning of how we structure our professional lives, introducing into the discussion an intellectual sophistication and diversity of both identity and circumstance that go well beyond what we could expect from the insights of a single twenty-nine-year-old entrepreneur, fed up with his grinding routine. Listening to Ferriss’s original talk at South by Southwest, however, I find it’s hard not to wonder that if we had been more willing to recognize the radical nature of his dissent, and the cultural flash point represented by its enthusiastic reception with an unlikely crowd, we might have been caught less off guard by the upheaval we’re experiencing today.
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