Several people I know have mentioned Tim Ferris’ book The 4-Hour Work-Week, so I thought I’d check it out. Fortunately my library had a copy.
In this book, Ferris basically tries to sell the idea that you can, and should, re-engineer your lifestyle to involve
- Fewer hours of more focused/productive work
- Flexibility to work completely remotely
- Automation/outsourcing as much work as possible
- Marketing yourself as an expert
- A “muse” or “side gig” for earning extra income
- “Mini retirements” featuring extended travel abroad
While some of these ideas are interesting and worth pondering, I have a few complaints about the book.
I’ve never met Tim Ferris, but the tone of his writing comes across quite arrogant. He seems to look down on people who aren’t interested or willing to take risks with their careers and finances to pursue the mobile lifestyle he extols. I’m sure that lifestyle can be very liberating for some, but it’s not for everyone.
I am fortunate to have flexibility in my work. At Ballotpedia, we are a 100% remote ROWE. If I chose to, I could travel the world and work from anywhere. But for various reasons, I choose to spend most of my time in Madison - with my wife, my family, my friends, and my church community. There is something to be said for the stability and connectedness one can enjoy by planting roots in one location and having a routine.
Make no mistake, I am not saying no one should ever travel. I myself love traveling occasionally. I just think there are other ways to enjoy life too.
The Death of Experts
In chapter 9, Ferris lays out how you can market yourself as an expert in some field. He tells the story of a friend who became a “top relationship expert” featured in Glamour magazine and a counselor to executives at Fortune 500 companies in just three weeks. I call bullcrap.
An expert isn’t just someone who knows more than the average person about some domain. Reading a few books on a subject doesn’t make you an expert either. A true expert is someone who has studied, mastered, and practiced in an area for years. Pretending to be an expert is dishonest. It might land you an interview on CNN, but it won’t allow you to make a meaningful difference in the world. Our society suffers from a dearth of real experts and an unfortunate abundance of counterfeit ones. Tim Ferris is aggravating the problem by encouraging people to market themselves as experts without any legitimate credentials or experience at all.
No value added
Early in the book, Tim Ferris details (brags?) how he started a business reselling nutrition supplements, and how he quickly grew that business until he was earning $40k per month and more. Basically he urges the reader to start a drop-shipping enterprise to finance their new jet-set lifestyle.
I have a deep resentment of drop-shipping. To me, it verges on immoral. I firmly believe that people who create and sell things should significantly add value through their work. Artists create beauty that can bring joy to many. Teachers increase opportunities for others by passing on knowledge. Engineers solve problems by building systems and structures that save time and money. Managers make sure work gets done on time, and employees are happy and healthy. Even product distributors add value by servicing products and helping to deal with supply-chain issues.
But drop-shippers simply resell cheap overseas products at 2x-10x markup, and they aren’t even involved in customer service or fulfillment. It’s a dishonest get-rich-quick scam. Some may argue that value is added from curating the products drop-shippers resell, and marketing those products (usually via social media) to consumers. But I’ll counter-argue that any adult with basic computer skills is fully capable of finding these products on their own, so there’s no value added at all.
A little side story: my wife and I are remodeling our kitchen, and we wanted a nice modern light fixture to hang in the space. So naturally I went online and searched for “modern LED light fixture” and came up with a website called AllModern.com, where I found a nice-looking fixture… but it cost a whopping $800. Between the steep price and a other few details I noticed about the website, I quickly started to suspect it was a drop-shipping site. So I did a reverse Google Image search on the photo of the light fixture, and sure enough it came up with the exact same fixture on AliExpress (the Chinese version of Amazon) for only $180. Needless to say, we ordered from AliExpress and the fixture is proudly hanging in our new kitchen.
My point here is that, while you might be able to start a drop-shipping business and rip people off for hundreds of dollars, that’s not a sustainable business model, nor is it ethical. “Thou shalt not steal” and all that…
If you don’t add value in some way while making money, then find a different way to make money. At least flipping burgers nourishes someone.
Ferris writes at length about how to outsource work to India for pennies on the dollar, and hire personal assistants who will have flowers delivered to your wife while sitting in a call center in Mumbai. Specifically, Ferris says he outsourced dealing with product questions and returns for his supplement enterprise.
I’m not completely against outsourcing work, but I think there are definitely challenges that come along with it. Language barriers and cultural differences can make it difficult to get work done at the same quality level as motivated local labor can do. Also, just because you can pay someone overseas $1.50 per hour, doesn’t necessarily make it ethical to do so. We make such a fuss about minimum wage in the United States, and yet we don’t care if we’re paying a living wage to a nameless, replaceable person a few thousand miles away.
My point is that we humans are made to work, and outsourcing tasks merely reduces the work opportunities we provide for neighbors in our community. I believe in the principle of subsidiarity, which can be applied to job creation as much as to politics.
Overall, The 4-Hour Work-Week is an interesting read, but I caution readers to approach it with some skepticism. Beware of dishonesty. Don’t just “fake it till you make it.” Weigh the ideas presented in the book against your own lifestyle and experience. It’s not the Gospel according to Ferris.