Tim Ferriss: ‘I’m a coyote, a merry prankster, a go-between’

With a new book of tips from billionaires and ‘world-class performers’ out now, the American self-help guru opens up about what motivates him

Tim Ferriss is one of our age’s most influential self-help gurus. The 39-year-old’s debut was the 2007 “life-hacking” bible, The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere and Join the New Rich, which was initially rejected by more than 20 publishers. He followed that with The 4-Hour Body and The 4-Hour Chef and his new book is another bestseller, Tools of Titans. In it, Ferriss distills the wisdom of 200 interviews with “world-class performers” such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jamie Foxx and Malcolm Gladwell that were originally conducted for his podcast (now at more than 100 million downloads). Away from books, he has made a fortune as an angel investor in tech startups and holds a world record in tango.

Why do you think your approach to self-help has caught the imagination of so many people?
Well, I’d say it’s because I’ve been more of an experimenter and human guinea pig than a writer. So I’m positioning myself as someone who is doing all of the heavy lifting in the messy reality of the real world to bring back the CliffsNotes of what actually works for my readers. I’m not the only person in the world who’s ever done this, of course – you have people such as Ben Franklin and more recently George Plimpton – but usually in writing and journalism it’s for comedic effect. I’m doing it because I want tactics and approaches that I can use. If I can find perhaps a non-obvious or less-known approach that saves people hundreds or thousands of hours then that’s my drug of choice.

The guinea-pig description is a good one: you have ended up in hospital with your self-experimentation and for a long time you weighed your own faeces. Are you open to anything that could improve yourself?
Just about, just about. I’m very often described as a “risk-taker” and “extreme”, and there are a few examples of that, certainly in the physical experimentation. But for the most part I’ve always viewed myself as a risk-mitigator first and foremost. Even if it’s, say, investing in early-stage technology and startups, which is really my main financial career or was for 10 years, with Uber and Facebook and Twitter and about 50 other companies. People view that as very dangerous and speculative, but I’m always thinking about capping the downside. So I will consider everything but not do everything.

As an investor, you seem to have had phenomenal success predicting which companies were going to go huge. Why stop?
I’ve had a very good stretch with startup investing and I think it’s very important to know when to hold your chips. As poker players would say: I don’t make my money by playing my hand, I make my money by sitting. Also right now it’s very challenging, because there’s a surplus of fair-weather entrepreneurs and fair-weather investors, many of whom don’t really know how to play the game well. To be effective in that environment, I’d have had to effectively hire people to help or have become full time as a venture capitalist and that would have necessitated stopping doing other things such as writing.

You are now investing heavily in academic research into psychedelics. What do you hope to come out of that?
One of these studies looks at how psilocybin can be used to treat depression that has not responded to any conventional treatment. And, for instance, I had latent anger issues for decades that affected a lot of parts of my life. After a two-day, medically supervised experience with, in this case, ayahuasca, 90% of those issues just disappeared and have not returned even three years later. The best analogy is having a software program debugged. I can’t really describe it any other way.

If someone was looking for a quick, straightforward way to improve their life, what would you advise?
I’d recommend some type of very short meditation or mindfulness practice – neither term of which I’m in love with – on a daily basis. And the daily is more important than the duration. That came up repeatedly in the interviews for the podcast, across more than 80% of these world-class performers, whether it’s someone such as Arnold Schwarzenegger or an elite athlete or otherwise. You’re helping to train yourself when it doesn’t matter (ie, sitting on your couch or in bed in the morning for five to 20 minutes) to be less emotionally reactive. Throughout the day that helps you make better decisions or to respond with less anxiety or to be more effective when it does matter. When you’re in the middle of, say, a negotiation or a debate or an uncomfortable conversation.

Where would you start with it?
There are different ways you can do it: you could use an app such as Headspace, or a guided meditation such as the 2010 Smile Meditation by Tara Brach; that specific audio came up a few times.

Sleep is also a recurring feature of the interviews. What would you suggest for improving that?
For sleep, I keep it pretty simple. Seth Roberts, who was a professor emeritus at UC Berkeley, recommended a cocktail before bed that is incredibly effective for about eight out of 10 people. I had insomnia my whole life and this is one of the things that helped fix it. Two tablespoons of apple cider vinegar, one tablespoon of raw honey and hot water, that’s it. About 15 minutes before you go to bed.

You mention in the book that, despite your outward success, you suffered from depression in 2013. Why did you want to discuss that?
That’s very important. We’ve been talking about all these highlights and you guys have read my bio on the back of the book and it all sounds like rainbows and kittens 24/7 and high-fives riding unicorns. But let’s talk about what a bad day really looks like, or a bad week or a bad month, because it’s not all just a trailer for a Disney movie. There’s a stigma very often with discussing these things and people feel unsuccessful or they think they will be unsuccessful or they will always be depressed and unhappy because it’s not discussed openly.

You made your name with The 4-Hour Workweek, but everyone says you work incredibly hard. Was that just an eye-catching title?
The objective is not to have everyone in the world work four hours a week. Of course I get my balls busted endlessly for the title of the book and rightly so – it sounds like an infomercial product that would be on at 3am – but the objective is to maximise your hourly output. Then if you do that you have quite a few options on the table. You can work four hours a week and get 40 hours of results. Or for many people, they simply want a huge competitive advantage, where they can continue to work 80 hours a week but now they’re getting 800 hours of output per week versus their competition. And they can just lay waste to all of their competitors who are stopping to eat their lunch.

Who would be a dream guest on the podcast? Donald Trump?
Sure, I’d have Donald on the podcast. But there are other people I’d say that immediately come to mind: Neil Gaiman, Oprah Winfrey and Tina Fey would be high on the list.

You ask your interviewees to name their “spirit animal”. What’s yours?
Yeah, it was such a ludicrous conversation to have with everybody, but I got some great answers. My spirit animal is the coyote. If you take a look at “trickster” mythology, Native American traditions, the coyote is a merry prankster who is a go-between between worlds. That is grossly simplified, but I feel in a lot of respects that is my job. The coyote creates a lot of things, but he also makes mistakes and gets caught in traps. With all of my physical experimentation and adventures and misadventures that’s a pretty accurate portrayal of what I’m up to a lot of the time.

Tools of Titans by Tim Ferriss is published by Vermillion (£14.99). To order a copy for £12.74 go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

Contributor

Interview by Tim Lewis

The GuardianTramp

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