Feb 6, 2015

Book Report: The Four Hour Work Week

2015 is off and rolling and I am determined to raise the bar on many aspects of my life over the next dozen months. With that in mind, I have been revisiting many books that I read at earlier times in my life (and a few new ones, too) that impacted me in some way. I am going back to these books in the spirit of returning to the river... no matter when you go back, the water is never the same. 

So, though I usually use this blog as a sort of online portfolio of my own creative work, I am opeing it up a bit to include more and more of my process. I am starting a series here on this blog called "Book Reports" and I will do my best to put down why and how these books affected me and how I am currently benefiting from them.

To start off, I pick one of the most controversial books on my shelf... Timothy Ferriss' Four Hour Work Week.


My friend Alia gave me The 4-hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Richas a gift in the summer of 2007. I had landed in NYC and stayed with her for a week and a half right after I returned from a year abroad in Hong Kong. She had already torn through the book and all she said when she handed it to me was "it's a little better than the same kind of self-help/business books because it lists actual resources, websites and plans of action..." 

Over the next few days I read over half of it sitting on her third-story patio in Green Point, Brooklyn with the Manhattan skyline rising up into view just across the river.

I ended up devouring the book twice through and then bought the audio version so I could listen to it in my car. I burned copies of it to give to friends. 

With such an endorsement, you'd think that this book became super important to me. And it did, but not in the way you might think.


Initially I fell full-crush both for the concepts in the book and for the charismatic author, Tim Ferriss. The book is about optimizing productivity to free yourself up from the cubicle. With this newfound freedom, Ferriss advises "mini-retirements" (or relocating for a few months to another country). Work can become more efficient and mobile and ideally, you'd only have to put in 4 hours any given week to earn enough to be considered a member of "the new rich." So, the promise of capability and freedom seemed like very attractive.

Ferriss himself walked the walk of his book. He seemed a good choice for modeling behavior and lifestyle... he was super smart, wealthy, very fit and had an extremely apparent gift for marketing himself. But he's not a super-speciman. He is weird looking and kind of diorky and throws off a frat-guy vibe. I believe this actually makes him seem even a bit more accessible.

Tim Ferriss

I wanted some of what he had. Even more enticing, he made it all seem incredibly accessible and possible. The message being, If he could do it, I could do it.

Earn millions, travel the world, own your time, make your mark.

I dug into the book and, like many people, learned through a series of non-starts and failures that the concepts in the 4HWW were not simple and not nearly as accessible as Ferriss had made them out to be,

I attempted starting several enterprises. Most did not get past the idea stage. Here's my list of companies that did NOT even get going...
  •  A website that sells digital versions of play scripts, because soon, I reasoned, everyone would be reading print stuff off their phones (and soon after that came tablets). This was, by far, the best idea I had of the lot. I could see the future and I could see how I could leverage that to my advantage. Unfortunately, the execution of the idea was technically way over my head. I considered hiring someone to help with the user interface part of the website itself. Then, right after I had the idea, Amazon's Kindle books started taking off and websites like StagePlays and Original Works Publishing showed up. Then traditional play publishers like Dramatists and Samuel French began to release digital versions of their collections. I missed the window. (timing fail)
  •  A website that does tutorials on well-known plays. This sounded promising when I was brain-storming, but I quickly realized anyone who would want a short cut to understanding a play would just go to SparkNotes or Cliff's Notes. SparkNotes and the like are really remedial and usually a bit off-base. My idea was to put together a real deep-dive into a play, far superior to the surface fluff offered by short-cut resources like Cliff's Notes. But, as I laid out an action plan and started researching, I realized there was very little market for this idea. Those folks who used SparkNotes obviously didn't have time or inclination to read the play itself and interpret it for themselves, so concise, better analysis was not going to be a draw. And those people who would want a deep-dive into a play would have read the work itself and would gone to the library to find their own resources. Plus, again, technically difficult to get a bunch of plays researched and get them packaged and online. Plus, it was an extraordinary amount of work for such a very small demographic (thus small chance of profit). 
  •  An improv/directing/ dramatic writing coaching/consulting business. Which is something I kind of still do, but I didn't make a full-on business out of it. Plus, it was not automated at all. For in-person service-oriented I would have to always show up to teach classes. And the only way to make it scaleable was to make multiple levels so I could have returning students several times. I considered coaching via skype, but on close investigation I realized there really wasn't a huge market for people who wanted my so-called expertise. Too much work, again, for a small chance of profit. And it didn't offer mobility, which is really what I wanted the most. This did make me think about possibly writing a book - or books - in the future on a subject I feel strongly and know a great deal about in the future. (so, mobility and scaleability fail)
  •  An online shop that sold fez hats. I was really into retro-50s/tiki stuff in 2007 and I saw that I could have fez hats manufactured in China, sell them and then drop ship them to customers in the States for cheap. I was going to make fez hats THE THING. Bulk orders for bachelorette parties, for birthdays, for insert-excuse-to-have-a-party parties. I only got to the planning stages of this. There was only one real competitior online, who made over-priced handmade fez, but the marketing behind making fez an in-demand item seemed a huge barrier. Plus, it seemed off-message for me once I started really investigating it. I don't wear a fez that often. I make art and theatre. I couldn't see being enthusiastic about selling fez hats for very long. (interest fail)
The overwhelming barricades for me using the 4HWW to create "automated income" and become "location independent" were three-fold... 

1) I wasn't super passionate about most of my ideas. And without passion I was incredibly unmotivated to do the immense amount of work to get them up and going. I realized that people who are passionate about business are not necessarily passionate about the things they sell, but are, instead, passionate about simply selling things. Period.

2.) None of my ideas played to my full-frontal strengths. There was a little bit of overlap, but launching myself full into anyone of these ideas meant I'd have to give up the things I really liked to do in order to get them off the ground. There is only so much time in the day. I wasn't willing to sacrifice the stuff I was really passionate about in order to make businesses that had, honestly, little chance of success. 

3.) When I realized I wasn't passionate about simply making money to make money (which is what business is), I had to come to terms with what I was passionate about. And I realized I was really into creating art, particularly narrative art... super-particularly theatre. This is lucky since theatre is what my degrees are in. And the thing about theatre is that it can't be digitalized. There's no way to "automate" it.

Also, upon researching Tim with a cold, impersonal eye, I realize he is fundamentally a different kind of person from me. He is hyper-analytical and obsessive about record-keeping. He is a machine. I am highly organized and to some degree a sensualist. I am not a machine. His system works for him. It would not yield the same kind of result for me, or at least not the way I would want it to.

So, I was back to square one.

I went from really digging Tim and his book to feeling like the thing was a scammy Pyramid Scheme of some sort. Or at the very least, that once again, my situation in life fell outside the normal assumptions these kinds of self-help/business books were written for.

But here's what I've come to realize... the exercise of trying and failing, thinking and evaluating would not have been part of my growth without the 4HWW. The real value of the book for me is the reframing of my points of reference. 

I underwent a paradigm shift

I began to think a lot more was possible. What did I need the income for? How much income did I truly need to make to live like I wanted? Could I travel and make things and get by without worry without getting a standard 9-to-5? Could I be both an artist and an entreprenuer? Could I put at least some of the lessons from 4HWW to work in my life and career? I also came to realize just how much work would really be needed to make my aspirations come true.

The 4HWW changed the way I thought about the world and my place in it. It shifted my mindset.

This didn't seem to be the explicit purpose of the book, but it has become, over time, a valuable take-away for me. This shifting of perspective came in 2008, about the time I was revamping Audacity Theatre Lab to be more artist-centric and getting my solo performance career off the ground in order to travel more and share my art.

That's the real reason why The 4-hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich is on my Book Report list. 

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