Tim Ferriss explains how he built a fanbase of millions
Tim Ferriss first found fame in 2007 with the massive
bestseller “The 4-Hour Workweek.”
His interview podcast, “The Tim Ferriss Show,”
has been downloaded nearly 200 million
His newest book, “Tribe of Mentors,” is a collection of
advice he gathered from some of the world’s most successful
Ferriss explained how this year was a time of
introspection and learning.
Tim Ferriss first found fame with his 2007 book “The
4-Hour Workweek.” After taking a break from writing, in 2012,
he became an accidental podcast star with “The Tim Ferriss Show,” which is
approaching 200 million downloads. He’s an investor and
self-described human guinea pig. He sat down for an interview
with Business Insider senior reporter Richard Feloni for our
How I Did It.”
This past year hasn’t been typical for him. He celebrated
the 10th anniversary of “The 4-Hour Workweek” and then decided to
leave his successful “4-Hour” brand behind him. He’s out with a
new book, “Tribe
of Mentors,” in which he collects advice from 140 successful
people, a project that was as much for him as it was for his
audience. Ferriss has spent the last year thinking a lot about
his own life. He lost some friends, he got a lot of attention for
talking about his struggle with depression in a viral TED
Talk, and he turned 40.
On this episode of “Success! How I Did It,” Ferriss spoke with
Richard Feloni about all of that and more, including how
wrestling shaped his childhood, the original title of “The 4-Hour
Workweek,” and why he hopes no one considers him a role model.
Listen to the episode:
The following is a transcript, which has been lightly edited
A year of reflection
Tim Ferriss: Turning 40 didn’t, as a number,
scare me, or throw me off, at all. I’m very comfortable being 40.
But as a thought exercise, you know, I asked myself, “If this is
the halfway point, if we’re just looking at the actuarial tables,
it’s like, all right, if I’m at 50%, right, I’m halfway through
this race called life, and when I hit the finish line, you’re
dead at 80, how might I want to rethink trajectory? How might I
want to rethink over-planning versus under-planning? Even though
I’m trying to improve my relationships with others, are they
dependent on my relationship with myself? If so, how should I
even conceptualize improving that, right? If it’s never been part
of my repertoire?
And all these questions sort of came to the surface, and, rather
than try and go at it on my own, which has been my predisposition
and my reflex for decades, I figured, why don’t I just take these
questions and, given the reach of the podcasts and books and
everything else at this point, why don’t I just reach out to 130
or 140 people and ask them all the same questions? People who are
the best at what they do, in many, many dozens of different
fields — and then just try to borrow? Why not do this the
potentially easier way?
Rich Feloni: It seems an extension of what
you’ve done that past 10 years. Even beginning with “The 4-Hour
Workweek,” which is dabbling in a bunch of different things and
seeing what works and then sharing that with an audience.
Ferriss: Yeah, it’s exactly the same. I mean,
really I view my job more almost as a field biologist or
anthropologist, where I’m collecting practices. I’m collecting
techniques. Then testing them on myself, and if I can replicate
results, and then share those with, say, six to 12 friends, and
they’re able to replicate results, then fantastic, off to
thousands or millions of people it goes.
Laying the foundation in childhood
Feloni: And did this constant love of learning
anything and everything, did it start as a kid?
Ferriss: Yeah. My parents did a great job of
raising me and my brother. Very supportive parents. Did not have
a lot of money, and the one exception they made: “We always have
a budget for books. So if you want to get a book, we will figure
out a way to get the book.” So what does that do to a child
brain? It makes you excited to figure out ways to get books. And
so we became fascinated at a very early age with books.
And I remember to this day this book called “Fishes
of the World,” I think it was, that I carried with me. This
huge hardcover — I mean I was a little runt, I was a really small
kid growing up, and it was this gigantic hardcover, beautifully
illustrated book on marine biology, and I took it with me to
school every day, because the playground was not a safe place for
me. I was born premature, I was really small and got my ass
kicked mercilessly up until about sixth grade. So I wouldn’t go
out to the playground. That was a danger zone. I would stay by
the classroom and kind of sit on the step leading out to the
playground, and I would read this book.
Feloni: Was being a small kid and someone picked
on for his size — was that an impetus for getting involved in
body experiments? As you say, you’re a human guinea pig. Is that
when it started?
Ferriss: It wasn’t a deliberate decision to
become Captain America or anything. I was really small and had a
lot of health issues growing up. I mean, not compared to some
people certainly, but I had a number full-body blood transfusions
when I was kid. Premature, so I can actually — this is audio,
most likely, so people can’t see it — if you look here, Rich, on
my wrist, it looks like a cigarette burn, and that’s actually
from being intubated. And then I have another one under my left
lung, where my lung collapsed, where my blood was being
Nonetheless, so all of these various issues, and to make my
parents’ lives more difficult, really hyperactive. And some other
mothers told my mom, “You should put him into something called
‘kiddie wrestling,’ because that’ll drain his batteries, and then
when he gets home he’ll just fall asleep.”
Wrestling is unique among sports because it’s weight-class-based.
So you could have the puny runt from Class A competing against
the puny runt from Class B. So it’s a situation which one of the
puny runts can actually win at something. And my mom inserted me
into kiddie wrestling, and I took to it, and that became my
sport, until the very end of high school effectively. But the
confidence built on the wrestling mat as a puny, little — God
knows, like 40-pound kid — is where a lot of it started.
Feloni: I’ve heard you downplay your time in
high school, like your time as a student and all of that. But you
ended up at Princeton, which doesn’t happen by accident.
Ferriss: Yeah. My brother and I were always
told, maybe not in these words, but if you get really good
grades, you can do whatever you want in life. In effect, that’s
And I transferred from a high school on Long Island to a high
school in New Hampshire, which was a much better school called
St. Paul’s. Very well known — it’s one of the older boarding
schools in the US.
Feloni: “Dead Poets Society” type of thing?
Ferris: Very — feels like “Dead Poets Society.”
So you’d have seated meals, seated dinners a few nights a week,
with suit and tie, and classes six days a week, chapel almost
every day of the week, mandatory sports. And I was encouraged to
go there — or to at least leave high school on Long Island — by
teachers who could see me getting complacent. Like “All right,
you think you’re pretty good because you’re a big fish in a small
pond, but you should go somewhere else.” Number one.
And then one of my friends — just one of my classmates,
because very few people left where I grew up in Long Island, or
relatively few people — and one of my friends had gone to a
boarding school and came back and effectively was, like, “I’ve
seen the promised land — you need to get the hell out of here,”
and so I was able to get support from my grandparents, and kind
of extended family, got a few small scholarships, and go to St.
Paul’s. And St. Paul’s really set the stage for everything else
and really opened the door, or even the possibility, of even
thinking about applying to a place like Princeton.
Finding himself in his 20s
Feloni: At Princeton you studied East Asian
studies, and you took a break as well.
Ferriss: I took a year away from school, which
was in the middle of my senior year. It was a very, very, dark,
dark, dark time for me, due to a bunch of — just a conflagration
of all sorts of heavy things hitting me at the same time.
And that is when I came close to sort of the precipice of total
self-destruction. I don’t want to belabor it here, because I’ve
spoken about it at TED and people can certainly just search “Tim
Ferriss suicide TED” and it’ll pop right up.
During that time, I saw my classmates competing, because that’s
what they were good at. I mean, you take kids who go to a school
like Princeton, they’re used to competing, and they’re used to
being No. 1, so if something seems coveted, they will compete for
it, whether or not they really want that thing. And in this case,
the thing would be, say, a job at McKinsey or a job at Goldman
And everyone was competing for these, and I ended realizing very
clearly I did not want to do either of those things. And I felt
very lost. So during that year I tried all sorts of things. I
spent six months in China, mainland China, and then went to
Taiwan, and just fell in love with Taiwan. So I had this dream of
opening a gym chain in Taiwan and went pretty far down the line
of trying to figure out all the details, this that and the other
thing, meeting with gym owners throughout Taiwan, and ultimately
you had to interact with, like, paying, in some cases, protection
money and so on, to Triads, and organized crime, and it just got
so involved, it was, like, “You know what, this is just a little
bit above my pay grade — don’t think I can handle this.” So came
back, ultimately rejoined school, and graduated a year later.
Most of my friends had already graduated. I walked away with an
illustrious degree in East Asian studies.
Feloni: And the foundation of your career over
the past 10 years was “The 4-Hour Workweek.” And key to that
coming together was your experience with BrainQuicken, the first
company that you started. And so, it’s a young guy, and he’s
selling supplements out of his house. That sounds a little
Ferriss: OK, all right — what’s your question?
Feloni: I’ve seen you refer to it as, like, you
jokingly refer to yourself as a drug dealer or something.
Ferriss: In fairness, I was actually
neuroscience before East Asian Studies and had some of the
wherewithal to determine what might make a good product, because
as someone making 40,000 pretax in Silicon Valley, in those days,
with roommates, and a hand-me-down minivan, did not have a whole
lot of disposable income, but nonetheless was spending an
absurdly high percentage of my take-home income on sports
I was, like, “All right, I have some ideas of the pain points and
needs of this market, and know what I would want to create if I
had the budget for myself,” and, which would in effect be what we
ended up labeling a “neural accelerator.” BrainQuicken was a real
learning-on-the-job MBA. I mean, it was very, very difficult.
Achieving unexpected success and creating a brand
Feloni: So “The 4-Hour Workweek” comes out in
2007. It seemed like no one really expected that to be success,
including yourself, right? Like, a massive success.
Ferriss: Nobody expected it. I mean, I had an
initial print run of 10,000 copies, which isn’t even partial
national distribution. So for those who don’t know, the premise
of “The 4-Hour Workweek” — which, by the way, was initially
titled “Drug Dealing for Fun and Profit” — is a collection of
tactics and tools and case studies of people who have designed
ideal lifestyles for themselves by thinking about this
nonrenewable resource of time and how they want to spend their
day-to-day, week-to-week, and then reverse-engineering that by
building a business, a cash flow, or a career that allows for
remote work and so on. So that’s “The 4-Hour Workweek” and those
are the basics, but nobody expected it to do anything.
Feloni: Yeah, and it led to this “4-Hour” brand
Feloni: “The 4-Hour Body,” “The 4-Hour Chef.”
Ferriss: Very accidental, but yeah.
Feloni: And I’ve seen you lately kind of be
self-deprecating about it, like, “Oh, this makes me sound like an
infomercial guy or something.” Do you actually regret the title?
Ferriss: No, no.
Feloni: Would you have changed it?
Ferriss: No, no, no. Definitely not. No, I don’t
regret it at all, but, you know, there comes a point where all
good things must come to an end. And in the beginning, you want
to be pigeon-holed, in a sense, you want to be clearly defined in
the very beginning. But past that point, and I did. You want to
diversify your identity so you don’t become a parrot who
regurgitates the same party lines over and over again.
So in the beginning, “4-Hour” this, “4-Hour” that, fantastic. But
right after “The 4-Hour Workweek,” I was heavily advised by many
people that I should do “The 3-Hour Workweek” or “The 4-Hour
Workweek Revisited” or something along those lines.
I felt, if I didn’t do something that was a complete left turn in
a different field, I would forever be thought of as “The 4-Hour
Workweek” business guy. Which is why I took the same approach and
applied it to physical performance and sort of physical
manipulation. And then with “Tools of Titans” retired the jersey
of “4-Hour.” And you know, who knows? Maybe it comes back at some
point, but probably not.
Living the Silicon Valley investor life
Feloni: At what point did investing enter the
picture? You had a public post that you essentially retired from
it in 2015, but you had deals that — most any one of them —
people would kill for. Uber, Facebook, Twitter.
Feloni: How did those happen?
Ferriss: Yeah, I’ve had a fortunate run. So in
the case of angel investing, in 2007, “4-Hour Workweek” pops and
suddenly it’s a No. 1 New York Times bestseller and so on. I’m
not so naive to think that I can just put lightning in a bottle
and do that over and over and over and over again. I thought to
myself, “Well, if this is really my moment, like the opportunity
window, what might I do with this?” And around the same time, I
was having lunches with Mike Maples.
Feloni: And Mike Maples is?
Ferriss: So Mike Maples, at the time, was a very
successful angel investor, meaning he invested his own money in
generally small-ish checks into very, very early-stage embryonic
startups. He’s now a founding partner of Floodgate, which is a
successful venture-capital firm. And at the time, we would meet
up for lunch or brunch at a place called Hobee’s in the Bay Area,
and we would very frequently talk about launch strategy or PR
angles that his startups could use. In return, I would ask him
about deal structure, about company selection. “Why did you
choose this company instead of A, B, or C companies? What are the
most important points in deal negotiation for, say, a seed round
And over the span of a few months of asking him these questions,
I had decided that, rather than go to Stanford Business School,
what if I took $120,000 of my money, which I would have spent on
Stanford Business School for two years at the time and instead
created a real-world MBA for myself where I create the “Tim
Ferriss Fund,” in quotation marks, and invest $120,000 in
startups over two years with the expectation that I’m going to
lose all of that money. In other words, every startup will fail,
but the relationships developed — that I develop and the skills
that I develop, the knowledge that I acquire, will, and so forth
and so on, will more than make up for that over time.
So I asked Mike if I could co-invest with him in a few deals and
that’s how it started.
Feloni: You had a good run.
Ferriss: I had a good run. The first one was not
a good run. The first investment I made — I won’t mention the
name. But I invested — now keep in mind, I’m looking at 120K over
two years, right? So the first investment, I want to say I put in
— it’s so stupid — I put in 50K in the very first investment,
because I got so excited. This is one of the risks of being an
angel investor who’s a former entrepreneur, is you can sometimes
get very easily excited. And Mike says — I remember Mike saying
to me, “Don’t you think 50K might be a little aggressive?” —
given that my allocation for the year is supposed to be 60. And I
was, like, “Oh man, but no, based on your description, based on
this, this, and this, no, I’m so bullish,” and it promptly just
went sideways and became walking dead.
Over time, as I started to learn, “All right, well now that I’ve
overspent my budget, I need to figure out also how to become an
adviser.” And an adviser, for those who don’t know, really just
means that I am acting as a consigliere or consultant slash
adviser, and instead of getting paid in cash, I get paid in
equity. I get paid in a portion of the company over time. And so
that — that then led to some very good decisions, and I had very
lucky timing also. Because, say, 2008, 2009, there was less
capital in the startup game, and that allowed me to invest in
some great companies, and, like you mentioned, some of them — I
mean, the Facebooks and Twitters and being an early adviser to
Uber and then later Ali Baba, and I was the first adviser to
Shopify, which had eight employees at the time and now has 2,500
to 3,000, and is a publicly traded company, and so on and so
forth. So ultimately, the portfolio ended up being, I want to
say, 60 or 70 companies, currently.
A new chapter as a podcast star
Feloni: So, Tim, you’ve had a few books at this
point, but whenever I mention your name to someone now, what
typically comes up is the podcast, and this is something that you
started a few years ago. The way you put it, it almost seems like
it came up as a lark type of thing.
Ferriss: Oh, it did. It’s not just the way I put
it — it totally was, dude. It totally did.
Feloni: How did that happen?
Ferriss: Well, after “The 4-Hour Chef,” which
was a very complex book, I was very burned out and wanted to take
a break from anything that was writing-focused. And I was
interviewed at the time on Joe Rogan’s show, Marc Maron’s “WTF,”
“Nerdist” with Chris Hardwick, which has since exploded into its
own industry unto itself, and I really enjoyed it. I really
enjoyed it because I could be myself. I could curse if it came
out, from Long Island and all, and there was very little
censuring. A and B, the format was long enough that I could get
into the details, I could dig into the nuances, and I didn’t have
to try to encapsulate everything about a 600-page book into 20
seconds of scripted time when the person I’m talking to is
reading a teleprompter over my shoulder.
And in those interviews I had so much fun, No. 1, and then, No.
2, they moved a lot of books. I was blown away by how many books
these podcasts moved. It just completely made my jaw drop
compared to a lot of other media.
And I committed to six episodes to start. I felt like that would
give me a certain critical mass, where I could develop new
skills, maybe remove a few verbal ticks and decide and assess
fairly whether I enjoyed it or not. So I committed to six
episodes. First one was a softball with my buddy Kevin Rose.
Didn’t even have a name for the podcast at that point, and we got
— or I got, I should say; I’m trying to use the royal
“we,” but it was me — I got sloppy drunk because I was nervous, I
was really nervous to interview one of my best friends, partially
because he was busting my balls the whole time, and after six
episodes I decided to keep doing it. I was having a lot of fun.
And now, 300 episodes or so later, I’m still going and it’s
become, like you mentioned, what almost anyone who comes up to me
in the street mentions.
Feloni: I’ve noticed in your podcasts, it seems
to be a common thing that you interview people across all kinds
of industries. You even have some maybe experimental episodes
where you’re talking about things like your morning routine or
things like that. When I look at the past 10 years or so of your
career, it seems that you — this a common theme — that you jump
around among things. Do you get bored with stuff easily?
Ferriss: Oh, I would say I get bored with things
easily, but the jumping around is also a protective mechanism. So
much like, I had mentioned diversifying my identity with content
by going from “4-Hour Workweek” to “4-Hour Body,” even though I’m
still … I still had interest in business stuff, but I wanted to
establish the precedent of me exploring different subject areas
with the same framework. The insertion of experimental episodes
into the podcast, say, the “drunk dial” episode, would be a good
example. So I decide, all right, what would this look like if it
were easy? Well, I would put out a note on social. I’d say, “Hey,
guys, fill out this Google form, give me your phone number or
Skype handle, and I’m just going to sit down with some gin and
soda and I’m going to start drinking and then I’m going to call
the first 15 people or 20 people and you can ask me anything you
want, and that’s going to be a podcast episode.” So it
self-selects for an audience who’s up for that type of
What it means to be Tim Ferriss
Feloni: I’ve heard you call yourself a
dilettante before. Someone —
Feloni: Dabbling in a bunch of different things.
And what is it that you specialize in?
Ferriss: I specialize in pattern recognition and
accelerated learning. So taking a subject that seems very complex
or that can be presented in a very complex way, and distilling it
down into the fewest number of moving pieces that really matter.
So the 20% that gets you 80% of the results that you want. And
then imparting that to other people.
Feloni: So with that perspective, you’ve built
up a good amount of success over the past 10 years, but something
that I find interesting about you is that, more so than a lot of
even entrepreneurs in tech, that you’re really open about your
failures, whether that was being turned down by publishers or
your TV show being dropped or just a wide variety of things. Is
that deliberate on your part? Is that as much for you as it is
for your audience?
Ferriss: It’s very deliberate. I don’t know if
it’s “for me” because it’s painful.
Feloni: Well, maybe coming to terms with the
Ferriss: No, no, I mean it’s not really a
cathartic exercise for me — I suppose it has that effect — but I
talk about my failures because I think it’s dishonest to only
talk about your successes. It’s so critical that people realize
mistakes are part of the game. Unforced errors are part of the
game and as soon as that becomes the norm or the expectation,
people can persist when they inevitably flub or drop the ball.
I’ve had a bunch of what people would consider failures, in TV,
in books, in any domain that I’ve participated in, I’ve made huge
mistakes, massive errors of judgment. And nonetheless, if you
focus on acquiring skills and relationships — acquiring —
developing skills and relationships, if that’s your focus, over
time, you will win.
Feloni: Do you see yourself as a role model at
Ferriss: I … no. “Role model” is … I
wouldn’t call myself a role model. I would call myself a teacher,
certainly. I think there are certain tool kits that I’ve
acquired, or approaches that I’ve tested that people can emulate,
certainly, and use to replicate results. I mean, that’s what I
do. But I wouldn’t anticipate, nor really want anyone to look at
me and say, “I want to be Tim Ferriss.” No, that shouldn’t be the
goal, and trust me, I mean, I talk about a lot of my demons.
Like, I don’t think you want to sign up for that necessarily.
I want to be the teacher who makes his students better than he
was. I want to give people the tools and say, “OK, look, I made
this shitty little birdhouse that people seem to be impressed by,
but you can go build a Gothic cathedral if you want with the same
set of tools, right?” That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but you
get the idea, and then send people on their way to have their own
Feloni: Well, thank you so much, Tim. I really
enjoyed talking to you.
Ferriss: Yeah, likewise.