Tim Ferriss has built his career on finding the sweet spot between effort and outcome. The podcaster and bestselling author rose to fame telling people how to hack their office lives with The 4-Hour Workweek, but his followup volumes The 4-Hour Body and The 4-Hour Chef spend more time teaching readers how to be better human beings, whether it’s by drinking grapefruit juice with your coffee to maximize the caffeine, or understanding the scientific principles behind searing a perfect steak.
Tim stopped by the Upsell studios to chat with Helen about his relationship with fine dining, the twisting path that led him from tech consulting to writing a cookbook, and how to keep your cool when faced with an aggressive opening line on a dating app.
As always, you can get the Eater Upsell on iTunes, listen on Soundcloud, subscribe via RSS, or search your favorite podcast app. You can also get the entire archive of episodes — plus transcripts, behind-the-scenes photos, and more — right here on Eater.
Read the transcript of the Eater Upsell Season 3, Episode 4: Tim Ferriss, slightly edited for clarity, right here.
Helen: Welcome to yet another episode of the Eater Upsell. I'm your only host for today, Helen Rosner. Here in the studio with me is a super special guest, Timothy Ferriss. Welcome to the Eater Upsell.
Tim: Thanks for having me.
Helen: Do you like to go by Tim?
Tim: I do go by Tim or Timothy. Generally I feel somewhat scolded with Timothy.
Helen: Because that's the full name on your books.
Tim: That’s part of the reason that I segued for the first time to Tim, with the most recent [book]. But I will respond to both.
Helen: So Tim Ferriss is many things, but among other things he's the author of several bestselling books including The 4-Hour Workweek, The 4-Hour Body, The 4-Hour Chef — and his latest book, on which his name is Tim, not Timothy —
Helen: — Which is called Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines and Habits of Billionaires, Icons and World Class Performers. That's very alliterative. There are a lot of T's in there.
Tim: There's a lot of alliteration going on.
Helen: Is that intentional?
Tim: It was intentional. Gotta have fun. First thing you have to do, the rule of writing books, is make sure that you are doing things for yourself, to keep it interesting.
Helen: So, Tools of Titans — it's not a food book. We'll talk about your food books, which are ostensibly the reason we have you here on the show, in just a second, but Tools of Titans is a book that grew out of your podcast, in some ways.
Tim: It did. Yeah. I'd taken a month and set it aside to go to Paris to do a lot of eating, but also to bring my mom, she had never been, and to go through all of the notes and transcripts from the podcast, about 10,000 pages of transcripts. Covering all of these guests from different worlds who are the best at what they do. So you have Jamie Foxx, but you also have General Stanley McChrystal, chess prodigies like Josh Waitzkin, super athletes, you name it. And I wanted to put together the notebook to end all notebooks for myself because I'm a voracious reader and note taker so I have dozens at home. And I got about halfway through it and I realized, you know, this is exactly what my readers and listeners have been asking me for, so why don't I just make it a book? And it's the itch that I scratched for myself that turned into Tools of Titans.
Helen: So tell us a little bit about your podcast, which I assume most of our listeners have heard of because it is wildly successful, but —
Tim: Yeah. The, the name of the show is The Tim Ferriss Show, and it has just recently crossed a hundred million downloads. I'd say about a month and a half, two months ago it crossed a hundred million downloads.
Helen: That's a huge number.
Tim: As far as I can tell based on the reports and so on, it's the first ostensibly business interview podcast to do so, although I do a lot more than cover business folks. And the purpose of the show, every episode, is to dissect and deconstruct world-class performers, to tease out the habits, the favorite books, the routines, the rituals, the mantras they live by, et cetera, that people can immediately test.
Helen: And so that's distilled here in Tools of Titans. And it's also, as an area of focus, it's very much in sync with the thrust behind your other endeavors —
Helen: What's the word that you would use to describe this? I think of “optimization” as kind of the key.
Tim: I would say “optimization” for sure. The phrase I would probably use is "the minimum effective dose," which is borrowed from medicine. But you're looking for the Goldilocks dose. In other words, too little of something, you don't get the desired effect, too much and you have side effects. You're looking for that perfect bite-sized bullet, and whether it's The 4-Hour Workweek as it relates to business, 4-Hour Body as it relates to exercise and diet — or, in this case, three sections, “Healthy,” “Wealthy,” and “Wise.” I'm always looking for the minimum effective dose.
So if I can take, say, three hours of conversation with someone, and then dozens of hours I've had in conversation with them after the podcast — so only about, I'd say, 60 percent of this book is actually from the podcast, all the rest is brand new material — I want to distill it down to these little utilitarian espresso shots. So if we sit down with a cup of coffee, by the end of that cup of coffee you've finished, say, an entire profile [from the book] and have five or six things you could test.
Helen: So what do you think of yourself as? What's your job description?
Tim: Professional dilettante, maybe. “Human guinea pig” covers it pretty well, but I've always viewed myself more as a teacher than a writer. And I thought for a very long time I was gonna be a ninth grade teacher.
Tim: I had some very important influences around 9th and 10th grade that saved me from making some very, very bad decisions. A lot of my friends growing up ended up being alcoholics, drug addicts, a number have OD'ed, and I felt like that was a critical formation period. But it turns out that I am still teaching. I am teaching, but I'm just doing it vis-a-vis the books and the podcast, which has been a blast because it gives you the luxury in both formats to really dig into the details.
Helen: Where'd you grow up?
Tim: I grew up, believe it or not, as a townie in the Hamptons on Long Island, which is a weird place to grow up.
Tim: Well, it's ritzy if you're of the sort of Spielberg-Seinfeld set, but there are plenty of service workers. I worked as a busboy at the Lobster Roll and places like that, rat-tail and all. Back in the day. So that's where I grew up.
Helen: What was it like working in restaurants in that kind of intensely class-striated environment?
Tim: You got to see the best and the worst of human nature. For instance, self-made people were fine. Generally because they’d had shitty jobs before. And Billy Joel, for instance, would come in at the Maidstone Arms where I also bussed, and he would have a cup of coffee and tip 20 bucks, which to me at the time was like winning the Powerball. I mean that was a big deal to me.
Helen: What era are we talking about? Like mid-’80s?
Tim: Yeah, exactly.
Helen: Yeah, 20 bucks in the mid-’80s was not nothing.
Tim: 20 bucks for serving coffee was winning the lottery for me at the time, certainly. On the flip side, though, you saw the worst in terms of entitled nouveau riche folks thinking they're the cat's meow, just throwing tantrums and ruining everybody's day because they wanted to put on a show about how their coffee wasn't prepared properly, or whatever trivial nonsense they were obsessing over. So there was some really, really bad behavior. And there still is.
Helen: Did that change how you conduct yourself now that you're fairly successful?
Tim: I think it absolutely did. I knew what I didn't want to be, and I knew the type of person that I wanted to emulate. So in restaurants in particular, I'm very, very cognizant of that, because I cleaned, I bussed, occasionally I was thrown a bone by a server who wasn't supposed to let me serve, but they would say, "Hey, you know what? Big boss isn't here. Go bring the coffee to Billy Joel." That was Gavin. I remember his name. That had such a big impact on me.
Helen: Way to go, Gavin.
Tim: And that absolutely affects how I interact with people in any service industry because they're often invisible in a way, and that's just kind of ridiculous to me.
Helen: Why do you think it is that some people become such monsters when they become wealthy or successful?
Tim: I think that money is like alcohol, in the sense that it just makes you more of what you already are. And if you have joy in you but it's under wraps and you have booze, you're probably gonna be a happy drunk. If you have money, you'll probably do good things with that money. If you have — uh, cursing's kosher on this show, right?
Helen: Oh my God, yeah.
Tim: All right. So if you're an asshole, money or alcohol — either is just gonna make you a super asshole. And I think that money and success, however we define that, also shows you how people behave when they no longer feel like they have to be nice.
Helen: Yeah. That's very true.
Tim: I should say that there are within the, say, “city people,” as we called them — in that group, you have different subgroups. The self-made are fine. The old, old money are totally fine.
Helen: They have nothing to prove.
Tim: They're over the fact.
Tim: Like, they just drive a 10-year-old Volvo and don't make a scene.
Helen: Not a McLaren that's matte black.
Tim: Right. They’re not trying to flaunt the money. But then there a lot of people who go to the Hamptons to see and be seen who can't quite maybe afford the expenses they're incurring, and that's a volatile combo.
Helen: Have you been back there? Do you still go back to East Hampton?
Tim: I do, yeah. I go back and what's weird for me now is that I've realized there are actually cool people in New York City, including a lot of my very close friends, so they're not all bad. And also that I have, in some ways, a lot more in common with my close friends in New York City than I do with some of the folks that I see when I go home. Though I still have close friends from when I grew up in East Hampton, certainly.
But I have a foot in either world in a sense, which is always kind of a weird experience for me, because the locals see me as maybe a city person, although I did go to school there for a long time. And then the city folks are like, "Wait, you're a townie?” And there's a little bit of residual resentment from just being abused for so long when I worked at restaurants. So, go figure. I'll sort that out, but I'll save that for my therapy lessons.
Helen: So that time in restaurants in Long Island — Shockingly, I guess, being treated like crap by asshole patrons did not make you decide to become an avid home cook immediately, right?
Tim: No, no.
Helen: There was a bit of a lacuna there.
Tim: No it did not. It took a long, long, long time for me to come around to cooking.
Helen: So it's interesting to me, in this stage of your career as an author and a teacher, you refer to yourself as a scribe, and all sorts of these wonderful filtration and curatorial words, which I want to talk about a little bit more in a second. But this idea of finding perfection, or optimization, or a best way to do things — I read The 4-Hour Workweek, which is a fantastic reference, and then it was a couple of years between "Workweek" and "Body."
Tim: That's right.
Helen: I remember, when 4-Hour Body came out, reading it and thinking that I was surprised that it took so long to apply that ethos to consumption and the body — not just what we do, but the tool that we use to do things. Was it something that had always been on your mind? Because you came right out of that world. You were doing sports supplements —
Helen: — and thinking about things like nutrition and body building. Why not start with the body?
Tim: So, the obsessive recording and note-taking and analysis and all the OCD — enriched behaviors, let's call them — that I have, those began with competitive athletics. With wrestling specifically, because I was cutting in my final season of high school for instance.
Helen: And cutting is?
Tim: Cutting weight for weight classes, for weighing in and then competing. So I was cutting — and I do not recommend this to anyone but I was cutting from 178 pounds to 152. So 26 pounds twice a week.
Helen: My god.
Tim: And dehydrating and rehydrating. And to do that without having organ failure, — which is why they changed the rules ultimately, because people were suffering organ failure — you have to understand a lot about how the human body works and potassium-sparing diuretics and all of these other things. I think many of us have strong suits that we accidentally compartmentalize. So we're very good at one thing and we think it's limited to X, whereas in fact we could take that and play that hand all over the place in our lives. So for me, I had it in athletics, then I took a slightly different toolkit, like 80/20 analysis and so on, and applied it to business and entrepreneurship, and that was The 4-Hour Workweek. And the intervening years between 4-Hour Workweek and 4-Hour Body were really taking the time to connect those two.
And secondly, making the conscious decision not to do The 3-Hour Workweek or The 4-Hour Workweek Part 2, because I knew I could always go back to it. So I wanted to take the so-called risk to do something completely outside of business productivity, so that I wouldn't be pigeonholed or paint myself into a corner, which I think a lot of people do by limiting themselves to what they perceive as safe ground. I didn't want to do that.
And I knew I could always [do that], even if 4-Hour Body flopped — and 4-Hour Body in terms of per year sales is probably more popular than The 4-Hour Workweek. I wanted to really step into that world, and since that was received well, then I decided to see how far I could push it with The 4-Hour Chef and all of that.
But I think it's very common — and certainly in Tools of Titans when you look at the most successful people, and I don't like that word very much, “success” and “successful.” But just for the sake of simplicity, the most successful people I could find in every world, they are all flawed creatures walking around with all sorts of demons and battles they're fighting that we don't know anything about, with one or two strengths they've been able to build habits around. So for me, I had just limited those one or two strengths to one or two places, not realizing they could be applied elsewhere.
Helen: Why don't you like the word “success”?
Tim: I don't like the word “success” for the same reason that I don't like the word “happiness.” They're both used so often to have almost become meaningless. Simultaneously though, they're two primary targets for almost everyone. That is a really terrible combination. You have nebulous terms, so unclear thinking, meaning unclear goals, driving — imprecisely — many of our decisions. And in both cases, I think, it's a moving goalpost. I know a lot of people, and I've spoken with for instance, this woman named Dr. Brene Brown, who spent I want to say 15, 20 years studying shame and vulnerability and so on. She's one of the top five most-viewed TED Talks of all time —
Helen: Oh, that is fascinating.
Tim: Yeah, yeah. She's fascinating. And I asked her — just because I wanted to see how she would respond: “Who's the first person who comes to mind when you hear the word ‘successful’?” And she vetoed the word immediately. She said, "I know so many people, so many of my patients and subjects and studies that I've conducted, who are miserable precisely because they use that word and chase that word." So I just effectively disavow — or I should say disallow myself from using — those words whenever possible.
Helen: So 4-Hour Body is, broadly speaking, if you read it cover to cover, a book about hacking your body, about taking advantage of what you were saying — the minimum necessary dose.
Tim: Yeah, minimum effective dose.
Helen: Minimum effective dose. And changing yourself in big ways using small things. And yet the book is marketed primarily as a diet book. Which is a very different, much less nuanced way of thinking about what's happening inside these pages.
Tim: Yeah. I can explain that, if you'd like.
Tim: So, okay. I think that with behavioral change, especially any type of exercise or diet related recommendation, you want as a teacher to travel the path of least resistance. Economics is the study of incentives, really. And it turns out that if you look at the scientific literature, or just think about it for a second using common sense, humans respond very poorly to long term macro incentives, i.e., “You can decrease your risk of cardiovascular disease by 50 percent 20 years from now if you do X.”
Helen: Right, that's totally abstract.
Tim: Terrible reward.
Helen: That's not gonna get me anywhere.
Tim: Terrible reward. But if I'm able to say, "Your ass is gonna look great in jeans within two months," or "You're gonna have six-pack abs," or "You're going to have more sex and better sex as a result," these are the Trojan horses. And of course I have to deliver on those things, but they allow me to then feed in other types of instructions that do ultimately impact, say, fasting glucose levels, hemoglobin A1c, triglycerides — all these things that could and will very likely have an impact on all of these different common causes of mortality, right?
So the book is very, very nuanced, but my goal first and foremost with the positioning and marketing of any of these books is to just get my foot in the door with one benefit that is easy to sell. And then I feel like with any of my books, if I can get someone into the first 20 pages and to do one test related to, say, diet and fat loss — I did a Facebook Live yesterday and a fan popped up who'd lost 160 pounds.
Tim: And okay, that person will listen to any advice that I have, most likely. And of course that's an oversimplification, but if I've proved that something seemingly impossible is that possible, now we can talk about any subject with any degree of detail or nuance and I have a receptive ear. But I have to get my foot in the door first.
Helen: So you do a different Trojan horse with 4-Hour Chef, which is that the book is ostensibly a cookbook, and it's sold in the cookbook section of the bookstore, and it's full of recipes. But there are two things that it is besides just being a cookbook that adheres to the Slow-Carb Diet that you put forward in 4-Hour Body. The first is that it, it literally is cooking school. Like it teaches you how to cook if you don't know how. But I think far more interestingly, you talked about this a little bit in the intro to the book, and it's threaded throughout, but it's very subtle. You talk in the intro about how you set out to create a book about how we learn, and how brains absorb information.
Helen: And, you know, the whole time I was reading 4-Hour Chef I was thinking, "Well this, this could have been 4-Hour Brain."
Helen: So why call it 4-Hour Chef? Why pick cooking?
Tim: I think if you want to confuse everyone, then you call it The 4-Hour Chef, and say it's a book on accelerated learning which proved to be a little bit of a, like, Labrador retriever "huh” head tilt. But I felt like [using] cooking, since it was a skill that had defeated me many times in the past. I had tried repeatedly to learn to cook, and just thrown in the towel with frustration and despair. And eventually, when I figured it out for myself with a lot of help, I realized that in fact, the kitchen is the perfect dojo in which to study learning, because you're engaging all the senses.
There are very few skills that engage all the senses, so you can do a lot of cool experiments and you can elucidate a lot of principles that apply to everything from language learning to even learning how to swim. I didn't learn to swim until I was in my 30s, if you can believe it or not. That's nuts, I grew up on Long Island. Long, long story behind that, but once I had the proper instruction which tested a bunch of assumptions, I went from zero laps in a pool to doing 40 laps per workout in about 10 days. Because it was all biomechanical. It wasn't a workout per se, it was just thinking about swimming differently. So I thought that cooking, given the senses at my disposal to discuss, would be a great way to, in a visual storytelling fashion, get people excited about learning.
It turns out — and I've tested this before — everyone says they want to be smarter. They want to learn accelerated learning. There are a lot of people who make that claim, but if they try to pick up a book that is generally in the abstract about accelerated learning, it will be so dry they will put it down, no matter how excited they are when they open the book. So I needed a subject matter to wrap the principles around, and I thought cooking would be a good choice.
Helen: Why was cooking difficult for you in the time before 4-Hour Chef? Beause it seems to me — and admittedly I do this for a living — but it seems to me that as long as you are willing to just follow the instructions, you can get something passable done.
Tim: I think that that's generally true, but I always wanted to understand the principles behind it. The cheat sheet. If you talk to, say, Josh Waitzkin, the chess prodigy, whose life was the basis for Searching for Bobby Fischer — incredible guy. And when he teaches, — if he ever teaches chess, he very rarely touches a chess board these days — his first primary coach taught him chess in reverse. There's a point to this, I will get there.
Helen: I'm with you.
Tim: Everyone starts chess typically with openers. The first few moves. And if you memorize a handful of openers, you will be able to beat 90-plus percent of your friends. And it's this sugar high. But in his mind, in Josh's mind, it's the equivalent of stealing the answer key in the teacher's book for a given test or subject. You're not actually learning principles that apply throughout all of chess, so you're going to hit a ceiling very quickly.
And so when he teaches — when he was taught by his first coach, he cleared the entire board and it was king versus king and pawn. That's it, on the entire board. And you learn these macro principles. He calls it learning the macro from the micro. So you have these tiny pieces, and you learn all these principles that then allow you to be adaptable. So I took that lesson, he spent maybe 20 minutes with me, and I went to Washington Square Park and lasted, like, 10 times longer with these speed chess hustlers than I should have. And I didn't have anything in terms of openings. It was wild, just because of these principles.
So my goal, what I had sought with cooking, was to understand the basic principles that would allow me to not only create recipes but understand why certain things worked, and certain things didn't work. When I tried to find that, I came up short, generally. There are some really good cookbooks out there, don't get me wrong. But most of the time you flip to a page and you have the sort of dish du jour, and it's like, okay, I can do this in isolation, but if you wanted me to improvise with whatever's left over at a friend's house, I'd be totally screwed. I wouldn't even know where to begin.
What I sought, and what I see in the best teachers, whether it's jiu-jitsu, chess, Spanish, doesn't matter, is that they're able to lay out a logical progression where you start with fundamental building blocks, and B is dependent on A, C is dependent on B and A, and so on, so that by the time you're building through this process and you get to the end, you have a complete repertoire for making just about anything, and are able to improvise.
Helen: You understand the underlying architecture.
Tim: Yeah, exactly. So with everything that I do I want people first and foremost to understand the principles because then they can adapt, they can find their own tools. But if you're just given the tools, or the recipes for anything — cooking, programming, doesn't matter — then you'll be very stiff. You won't be adaptable.
Helen: So when you're writing these books — in particular I'm interested in 4-Hour Chef, but I think it's the case in all three of the 4-Hour books — do you think about who your audience is?
Tim: I do.
Helen: Do you know who your reader is? Who are you thinking of?
Tim: So the way I write is very simple. I write for one or two of my close friends. That's it.
Helen: Who are your close friends?
Tim: For instance, for The 4-Hour Workweek, there were two male friends. One was two years into a investment banking job. Hated his life, but felt like he had to keep doing it to cover his now bloated lifestyle. And the second friend had his own company and felt like he had created a monster of his own making. He was stuck in this job that he couldn't quit in effect.
For The 4-Hour Body, it was a few friends who had very specific physical problems. They were very often smart people who for whatever reason hadn't cracked mastery or control over their own bodies, because they felt like it was out of their control. And so I wrote it for them. I was like, "All right, these are smart people who are excellent at doing other things, but they have put certain aspects of their bodies or physical performance in the “impossible” bucket for a long time. How do I get them to take the same brainpower they have elsewhere, and apply it to something I know how to address really, really simply?"
4-Hour Chef was written for one particular friend who's always asking me about language learning, which has a lot of commonalities to cooking, actually —
Helen: Believe it or not, I actually wrote an undergrad thesis about recipes as a form of, like, code based processing.
Tim: Yeah, there you go. There's a ton of overlap. I wrote it for a friend who's very interested in accelerated learning, but needed a context. And I wrote it for another guy friend who, like me, was just like, "Someday I'll learn how to cook," but he had every excuse imaginable, just as I did, and they were the same excuses. So I was like, "All right, well, let me bite the bullet and actually put in a little labor here to try to figure it out." And that is how The 4-Hour Chef came to be.
Helen: With all three of those books — to me at least reading it, as a woman — it definitely feels like you're talking to an audience of men.
Helen: Which I think is your prerogative as the author, but I'm curious, especially with 4-Hour Chef — because of how much gender baggage there is on just the mention of home cooking, how much you were thinking about that?
Tim: I would say that as a male, I find it easiest to write as a male, so I try not to pretend that I understand the feelings or positions of people that I don't represent or maybe don't have a ton of exposure to. I'm not talking about women specifically in this case, but what I mean by that is I don't want to pretend like I know what it's like to cook having learned from your grandmother at a really young age, like my girlfriend at the time for instance. I don't know what that experience is like.
But I do know what it's like to feel like an incompetent ass, as a guy who's decently good at other stuff — to be in the kitchen and just ruin a meal and not know why it went sideways. I know that feeling. So then if you compound that with the fact that my audience, based on polling, is about 84 percent male, it makes sense that I would write from the viewpoint of a male, because I'm a male, and think about addressing a lot of their particular issues. Uh, but it then tends to bleed over into female, and it tends to also bleed in terms of age. In other words, my primary demographic, my core audience, is very heavily weighted to, say, between 25 and 45. Maybe 25 and 40, very heavily weighted.
Helen: Folks on the younger side.
Tim: Yep. But I went to a cousin's commencement not long ago, and this grandfather came over to me, and he listens to the podcast. And then I meet high school students who have read my stuff. So I do think it's important to realize whether you're — I mean, my real financial career is investing in and advising tech startups, right? That's actually where I kind of pay the bills, primarily.
Helen: And that’s another space where things are very interestingly gendered.
Tim: Yeah I would say, yeah. I mean, we could do hours on that.
Helen: We could do five more hours. This is the world's longest podcast.
Tim: No, no, no, that's okay. But the advice that I would give to a tech entrepreneur in many cases is the same advice I would give to an author, and that is: Your target is not your market. So you need to know, say, who your 1,000 mOH Gost likely true fans will be. And if that's a hundred percent female, that's fine. Like, look at Sophia Amoruso and her podcast. Like, fantastic. She's focusing on women a hundred percent.
Helen: But she bottomed out with her business.
Tim: Well hold on. There are other examples too. There's Lean In, right? The point I was gonna make, though, is your 1,000 most likely true fans — that is your target, but it's not your market. In other words, the challenges and aspirations and issues that you address will be much more universally applicable than otherwise possible to reach in a level of detail, but you have to first have in mind who you are writing for. And I think that when everyone is your market, when everyone is your reader, no one is your reader.
Tim: You end up being so plain vanilla. I would much rather polarize than have a collective "meh" response. And so everything that I write — whether it's Tools of Titans or any of these books — I intend it to be a collection of mini books, and I expect each mini book within one of these books to only really appeal to about 10 percent of my audience. And I just want 10 percent to love it. And if I approach it that way, there should be at least 10 to 20 percent of the book that each person will end up loving, but I don't expect them to like it all.
Helen: So the whole economy of optimization and lifehacking and body hacking — of which, I think, you are one of the centerpieces and one of the largest figures — the audience for that has, as it turned out, turned out to be overwhelmingly male.
Helen: Do you think there's a reason that this is a particularly alluring way of viewing the world for a male audience?
Tim: You know, this is a good question. I don't have any hard data to support any speculation, but I'll speculate.
Helen: Yeah, go for it.
Tim: I think that it's not just a question of male, it's a question of tech-involved or tech-savvy. A lot of the men in my audience are also very familiar with tech, as are the women. But for whatever reason — I don't know if this has to do with hardwiring or upbringing — but they're very analytically driven. And whether it's getting things done or using a million apps to do tracking and quantified self — I mean, if you look at the quantified self movement, I was at the very first meetup at Kevin Kelly's house in Pacifica, the founding editor of Wired magazine, it was 20-something people. Now it's in dozens of cities around the world. It's this huge movement.
Overwhelmingly you're going to find, at least in the meetings that I've attended, it's like 70, 80 percent male, at least. And dudes just seem to like to try to crunch numbers and pattern-match that way. I don't know why that's the case. I really don't. But this is actually very comparable, in some ways, to my approach to cooking and why I think it failed in the beginning. I wanted to have a master spreadsheet that would allow me to do everything perfectly, without fail.
Tim: And my girlfriend at the time was just like, "No, you're doing this, no offense, the dumb way. This is overcomplicated and this is why you're getting overwhelmed." She would take two types of herbs or spices and roll them in her fingers and say, "All right, smell this. Okay, now smell this. Do those two go together or not?"
Tim: And I could call it! And she's like, "Yeah, like, your brain already knows how to do this." Certainly there could be just hardwiring differences, but I couldn't tell you exactly. It does seem, though, particularly in Silicon Valley with guys who are extremely involved with tech, and it could be a selection bias for sure —
Tim: They’re highly, highly analytical, and there are places where that's very helpful and there are places where that just creates overwhelm.
Helen: So in all of these books you focus on this idea of optimization —
Tim: Yeah, optimizing. Depends on what you're optimizing for, for sure.
Helen: Where's the room in this — especially when it comes to food — for pleasure and emotion?
Tim: Well, you can optimize for pleasure and emotion. So in other words, I don't speed-read poetry, even though I'm a fast reader. I can do very long meals. I mean I just had a three- or four-hour dinner at Hearth couple of days ago, one of my favorite spots here in New York City. What I've realized is that achievement and optimizing for effectiveness and efficiency and so on, is at best one half of the puzzle. It's the forward-focused planning, driven, goal-achieving piece, yes. That's fine. So you have achievement as one piece, but then the appreciation is the other half — or the other 60 percent, if we're looking at self-reported wellbeing, and trying to optimize that.
I regularly schedule a lot of slack in my system for long walks. I mean I probably walk, at least when I'm at my home base in San Francisco, I would say two to three hours a day.
Helen: But you schedule the slack.
Tim: I do schedule the slack. I sometimes schedule the slack.
Helen: Where is the room in this world for spontaneity, or just sort of going with your gut?
Tim: There's plenty of room for spontaneity, but I do think that you still have to block it out, even on a macro level. So I blocked out an entire month. I went to Indonesia and I had no calendar, no phone, no e-mail for a month. To make that work though, I do think you have to block it out, whether it's a month long or it's just a two- or three-hour walk where you're making phone calls, or listening to podcasts, or just walking listening to nature. If it's not on the calendar, it's not real. And the reason I say that is that I would surmise that most of the people listening to this podcast are go-getters in some capacity, and work will swell to fill the void. If you don't have these personal projects, time with friends, long dinners blocked out, you will end up checking fucking Facebook for three hours, and then wonder where your evening went.
Helen: This is extremely real for me. So how do these things apply if you're, for example, a chef? A lot of these techniques are things that rely on exploiting inefficiencies in the system to your advantage —
Helen: —But if you're someone whose work relies on labor, or on creativity or on craft, it can be hard to say, "Okay, I'm gonna block off time for four hours of long walks in the woods,” because of the demands of my specific restaurant profession. We could definitely sidebar about the strangeness of the restaurant world as a business entity —
Helen: — but how, how do you hack your life, or optimize your life, if it's not one that you have that much inherent control over?
Tim: Well, I think it depends a lot on the unique circumstances. I would say first that people underestimate how much leverage or ability to negotiate their reality that they have. And I say that as someone who's by no means a restaurateur, but I'm reasonably involved in the food world. I'm an investor in Saison in San Francisco, which along with Benu is the first three-star Michelin restaurant in San Francisco history. Then we have Alta CA, with Daniel Patterson. I spend a ton of time with him, Central Kitchen and that whole crew, as well as Flour + Water — I know those guys and I'm an investor in their restaurant group. So I have some familiarity.
Just through The 4-Hour Chef, I’ve also spent a ton of time at places like Alinea and that whole crew. And they've really innovated, not just on the food front but, I mean — and this book was written a few years ago — but on the business front in some really fascinating ways. Grant Achatz's partner, Nick Kokonas, came out of options trading. So you have these innovations [like Tock, Kokonas’s restaurant ticketing company] coming from someone who's entirely separate from food, and then infusing it into the culinary scene. I would say that when I look at people at the higher ends of the food world — if we're looking at executive chefs who are really trying to create something new or unique, they are taking that time. You look at Noma: a lot of walks, lots of weird experiments. Many of which don't work out, some of which do. And it's like, "Oh! Ants!"
Tim: Who knew that ants stuck on a piece of jerky, or whatever it is, could have such a peculiar taste? And they are trying to, A, I think, create slack, so that they can connect dots that have not been connected before, even if that slack is just two hours on the weekend. No matter how little control you perceive to have over your professional situation, you have two hours somewhere. And secondly, they're looking to borrow from other worlds to test best practices, or other practices from outside of cooking and food in that domain. So that would be point one.
But certainly a lot of the tools in the toolkit from The 4-Hour Workweek and all the books, like The 80/20 Principle, I think apply. You know, Pareto's law applies to almost all of these. Certainly if you're trying to create a financially viable restaurant, which then in turn creates more of the ability to experiment. When you're wondering how the hell you're gonna cover next month's rent, well, you have to start sacrificing in areas. But if you have enough float or enough cashflow, and maybe decide to have a bar on the side, which is a hell of a lot easier from a cashflow perspective than top-end food — from what it appears, at least. I remember hearing at one point that the Fat Duck at its peak had something like a one- to three percent profit margin. I mean, it was so slim. And it ended up having to be a loss leader, in effect, for people like Heston [Blumenthal]. That's a harsh reality, but there are many ways to skin the cat. I really want to know where that expression came from, it's so gruesome, but there are many ways to skin the cat.
Helen: You can start at the head, you can start at the tail.
Tim: Start at the tail! I was gonna suggest people look at how to skin rabbits. It's actually fascinating. You kind of take them off like a sock, it's really unusual. Anyway, when I was doing my hunting and foraging for all my food for The 4-Hour Chef, I figured that out. Side note. End digression. For those interested in learning how to skin rabbits, there you have it.
Helen: That's fantastic. Well Tim, we have arrived at the portion of our episode that we like to call the lightning round. We're going to invite our associate producer Dan to join us, to be our special lightning round question-asker. He's got some questions for you, and then I have one to close.
Tim: Let's do it.
Helen: So Dan, welcome to the Eater Upsell!
Dan Geneen: Hi Tim.
Tim: Hi there.
Dan: I'm really excited.
Tim: Yeah! I'm excited. I like lightning.
Helen: It's fast and it's bright.
Dan: Real lightning.
Helen: Real lightning.
Tim: So you want, like, one word, one sentence?
Helen: Let's do whatever you want.
Tim: All right.
Helen: It's cool.
Tim: All right. I'll do what I can.
Dan: First one. Would you rather be able to move a single sub-one-pound object at any given time with your mind, or be able to scale walls like Spider-Man?
Tim: Move objects.
Tim: Done, yeah.
Helen: What objects would you move?
Tim: Oh, well, sub-one-pound, I could think of dozens of things I could move around. Yeah, absolutely.
Helen: Just, like, for fun? Just like, “You thought your watch was there—”
Tim: Well, I could foresee having some type of weird haptic suit that would allow me, in virtual reality or otherwise, to scale walls in the not-too-distant future, whereas the telekinesis, I think it would take more time. So, I'll take telekinesis.
Helen: I think it says a lot about me that my first thought with that was, "Oh, I could do so much crime."
Tim: Oh, you could do that with telekinesis too.
Helen: Yeah, no, exactly, with telekinesis-
Tim: Oh, oh, I thought you were talking about spider.
Helen: I'd be like, “Oh yeah, I could just get things through TSA —”
Helen: I'm not a terrorist. God, we should edit that out. Okay.
Tim: Okay. Next question!
Dan: If had to bathe and shower in a popular soup for the rest of your life, which one would it be?
Tim: Popular soup?
Tim: Tom yum soup.
Helen: That’s probably really good for your skin.
Tim: Yeah! A little coconut milk.
Helen: It's got some acids, natural exfoliants.
Tim: Yeah, got some acid.
Helen: It's a good skin care line. I'd do that.
Tim: Yeah, tom yum.
Helen: Soup bath bombs.
Dan: What does McDonald's look like in 100 years?
Tim: What does McDonald's look like in 100 years. I keep thinking of Wall-E, where that one company that makes, like, the Super Quadruple Gulps is effectively running the planet. I think with their real estate holdings that they'll still be in a decent position. A hundred years from now, maybe they'll have their own country. They'll strike a deal with the Vatican, who's the actual largest landholder in the world, as far as I know.
Dan: A common dating app opener — that actually sparked one of my best friend's relationships was, "Fuck, marry, kill: waffle, pancakes, crepes." How would you respond?
Helen: There's a lot to unpack in this question.
Tim: Was that just, was that just a nonsensical sentence?
Helen: Wait, so you are on dating apps —
Dan: No, no, no, no, no. Whoa.
Helen: Your friend. Your friend.
Tim: Your friend.
Dan: Friend, yeah.
Helen: You have a friend who is on dating apps.
Helen: And he used, as his opening line —
Dan: Actually, it was Bumble, so the girl used it as her opening line.
Helen: I don't know enough about dating apps to understand this.
Tim: What was it again?
Helen: Fuck, marry, kill —
Dan: —waffle, pancakes, crepes.
Helen: Have you played this game before? Fuck, marry, kill?
Tim: Oh yes! Okay, all right.
Dan: Lightning round fail.
Tim: Got it. No, no, no, no, no. I was hearing it incorrectly. I just thought it was a string of nonsense.
Helen: “We're just gonna say some words at you, tell us how you feel.”
Tim: What would my answer be? First, first if it was your male friend, I'd be like, "How did you get on my Bumble, because I'm not searching for men."
Tim: Let's see. Fuck, marry, kill — what were the options again?
Dan: Waffle, pancakes, crepes.
Helen: Like, literally fuck? Like, with your body?
Tim: Yeah that's a weird one.
Dan: Yeah, I think it's, like, which one do you like the best.
Tim: I think I would respond, since it's a dating app, with, "Fuck all of them."
Helen: Wow! That's an aggressive strat!
Tim: Hey, if I'm gonna have a fastball thrown at my head with that kind of opener —
Helen: I think we have the title of this episode. "Tim Ferriss Will Fuck All Your Breakfast Pastries."
Tim: Crazy SEO volume for that, by the way.
Helen: It's gonna be tremendous. It's the tweet, it's everything, we're done. Okay, wait. More questions, right?
Dan: Would you rather have 10 minutes of memorable consciousness in the womb, or on the moon?
Dan: I knew it!
Dan: I knew it!
Helen: That would be super cool.
Helen: Very soothing. Nice, warm memories.
Dan: Plus no one's been there, really.
Helen: To the womb?
Dan: Well everyone's been there, but no one really —
Tim: Has a recollection. Yeah, definitely.
Helen: You'd defeat all astronauts at dinner party conversations. "You think you're cool?"
Tim: “Check this out!” [makes heartbeat noise] You know what that is?
Helen: That was incredible! Do you practice your in utero heartbeat impression?
Tim: No. I haven't been working on my heartbeat.
Tim: No, no.
Dan: Okay. Last one. What's your favorite emoji?
Tim: My favorite emoji? Uh, I think it is the cat with the heart eyes.
Helen: I support that. Why the cat with the heart eyes rather than the circle with the heart eyes? There's a subtle and important semantic distinction.
Tim: Yeah, I don't have a good answer to why. I just really like that emoji.
Helen: I love it.
Tim: Just, yeah, it just does it for me.
Helen: So I'm gonna exercise my right as the host of the podcast, and add a final lightning round question.
Tim: Let's do it.
Helen: So in a lot of ways, you represent this sort of optimal-efficiency world. And a thing that you've also talked about a lot is that you got started on this path by thinking about how to do the opposite of whatever everybody else is doing. So, in a bizarro world, in an alternate universe —
Helen: — Where you are the opposite of Tim —
Helen: And you represent anti-optimization — What's your sales pitch for that?
Tim: Anti-optimization! Hm. My sales pitch for that would be: “You're not wasting time if you're doing it deliberately.”
Helen: That's a good line.
Tim: That would be my sales pitch for that, which I happen to believe anyway.
Helen: As long as you're doing it by choice.
Tim: Yeah. As long as you're aware you're doing it, it's deliberate choice, you're not wasting time.
Helen: Awesome. Well Tim, thanks for coming by the Eater Upsell. Where can our listeners find you, if they haven’t already found you?
Tim: I think best place right now is probably toolsoftitans.com. All sorts of sample chapters, foreword from Arnold Schwarzenegger — that's a fun spot. And they can find me at fourhourworkweek.com, all spelled out, a collection of 700-plus blog posts and 200-plus podcast episodes and so on. You can find everything there. Those would be the two primaries.
Helen: Sounds good. Well Tim, thanks for joining us.
Tim: Thank you.
The Eater Upsell is recorded at Vox Media Studios in Manhattan and Los Angeles
Hosts: Greg Morabito and Helen Rosner
Producers: Patrick Bulger and Maureen Giannone
Associate Producer/Editor: Daniel Geneen
Associate Producer: Kendra Vaculin