The Fraud and the Four-Hour Workweek

Self-help millionaire Tim Ferriss is a fraud. But his success says a lot about modern capitalism and its discontents.

Author Tim Ferriss speaks during the Meet the Author: Tim Ferriss "The 4-Hour Body" at Apple Store Soho on May 26, 2011 in New York City. Jemal Countess / Getty

Tim Ferriss was thirty years old in 2007 when he published The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich. Now, a decade later, the book has sold over a million copies and catapulted Ferriss from mere Ivy-educated tech entrepreneur to chart-topping life-hack guru and Silicon Valley angel investor. People continue to buy what Ferriss started selling ten years ago: a one-way ticket out of interminable white-collar servitude.

Lord knows how, but the elite young author had his finger on the pulse of the average middle-aged deskbound office worker, and The 4-Hour Workweek was a clever play on their fears, frustrations, and fantasies. People don’t want to languish beneath fluorescent lights, hearing only clacking keyboards, smelling only microwaved soup. People want to master a craft, get a natural tan, watch their children grow up, and visit Rome. People want to be free, and they fear that at the end of the day, despite capitalist maxims about individual choice and liberty, they aren’t.

The genius of Ferriss’s book is that it resonates with a suspicion nearly everyone harbors deep down: that it doesn’t actually have to be like this. Surely it’s not an inviolable rule that to afford a place to live in the world today or achieve financial security in old age one has to relinquish entire decades of one’s waking life to corporate control and market discipline. Must we endure miserable commutes and repetitive stress injuries fifty weeks a year in exchange for two weeks of vacation? Says who? The 4-Hour Workweek affirms people’s intuition that the rules are arbitrary, and tilted in someone else’s favor.

Starting from this valuable insight, The 4-Hour Workweek offers a solution, consisting of a litany of shortcuts — and misguided, destructive ones at that. The truth is there are no magic techniques. The reason people feel unfree is capitalism, and the only road out runs through class struggle.

Be a Fraud, Be Very a Fraud

The 4-Hour Workweek was published in the waning days of the Bush administration, just months before the economy collapsed. Ferriss was capitalizing on the same prerecession white-collar malaise that made the The Office one of the most popular TV shows in the country. Despite skyrocketing productivity, average worker compensation had plateaued decades earlier and showed little sign of budging. More than half of all income growth had been captured by the 1 percent over the previous two decades. Meanwhile, consumer debt was mounting.

A generalized feeling of disenchantment haunted middle-income deskbound workers. The attitude was best captured by a scene in The Office when one character, a salesman, begins enthusiastically, “They might not have to downsize our branch. And I could work here for years … and years … and … years.” His face falls as it dawns on him that the trade-off for financial security is a monotonous eternity of selling paper over the phone for forty hours a week.

“How is it possible,” Tim Ferriss wrote in The 4-Hour Workweek, “that all the people in the world need exactly 8 hours to accomplish their work? It isn’t. 9-5 is arbitrary.” Ferriss’s target audience consisted of people experiencing that same sinking feeling, that sense of dread and disappointment — and he was selling them a lifeline. The book flew off the shelves. And it continued to sell after the economic collapse, with a new forward explaining that its advice was even better suited for a crumbling economy.

If you’ve picked up this book, chances are that you don’t want to sit behind a desk until you are 62. Whether your dream is escaping the rat race, real-life fantasy travel, long-term wandering, setting world records, or simply a dramatic career change, this book will give you all the tools you need to make it a reality in the here-and-now instead of in the often elusive “retirement.” There is a way to get the rewards for a life of hard work without waiting until the end.

After dozens of pages of self-help and time-management cliches (“Poisonous people do not deserve your time”; “Compile your to-do list for tomorrow no later than this evening”; “Find your focus and you’ll find your lifestyle”), Ferriss finally laid out his magic bullet solution: follow in his footsteps and become a fake expert. “Expert status can be created in less than four weeks if you understand basic credibility indicators.”

He then presented his regimen for aspiring charlatans: join two trade organizations and read three top-selling books on a topic. Paraphrase and combine the ideas you encounter in your own words, then hang posters at a nearby university inviting students to a free seminar. Use that experience to give another seminar at a corporate campus. Record the seminars. Write a couple articles for trade magazines. Put the recordings and the articles on your website. Now you’re in business.

But that’s only half the work. The other half is even more important. Once you’ve set up shop, Ferriss advises that you take all the work of promoting your bogus expertise and outsource it to “remote assistants” in the developing world for $5 an hour. These assistants will continue generating content under your banner, while managing every aspect of your brand and business. All you have to do is manage them. Then, after you’ve got that system up and running, hire a US-based head remote assistant with whom you can easily communicate — your “domestic outsourcer” — to manage your remote assistants. Now your only task is managing your domestic outsourcer.

Congratulations: having reached the stage of “full automation,” you are now working only four hours a week. You’re rich, and free to travel the world.

It’s painful to imagine some poor soul giving two weeks’ notice, working strenuously for a year to realize this dream of “full automation” — a curious way of referring to the employment of human beings — only to run out of savings, and slink back to the recession-era job market with nothing to show for it. But while it’s amazing that anyone might be gullible enough to take career advice from a man whose avowed area of expertise is his own charlatanism, our fantasies are powerful, and freedom from domination is our most enduring dream.

No Shortcuts

Capitalism works like this: a small class of people own the means of production, and everyone else has to sell their labor to survive. The cheaper the costs of labor for the capitalist, the higher the profits. A capitalist enterprise needs to keep generating profit to sustain itself, so minimizing labor costs — through suppressed wages, long work hours, and relentless job insecurity — is always one of its primary objectives.

The problems Tim Ferriss identifies with capitalist work throughout The 4-Hour Workweek are legitimate and deeply felt. We want to work, and we have to work, to keep society running. Not all those jobs will be fun. But we also want to travel, excel at a sport or an art, tend to our most valuable relationships, or just unwind. We need free time and discretionary income to properly enjoy these simple luxuries. And the reason we’re denied these things is capitalism — or more specifically, the absence of an oppositional political force dedicated to stopping capitalists from arranging society to their benefit and contrary to ours; in other words, one dedicated to class struggle.

To wrest time and money away from employers, workers will have to build that opposition. Ferriss is right, in a sense, when he promises that “there is a way to get the rewards for a life of hard work without waiting until the end.” But there are no life hacks, no magic tricks, and we can’t find the way as individuals. White- and blue-collar alike, we can only reap the full rewards of our labor if we unite to resist the capitalist wage system, democratize the economy, and organize work itself around society’s needs, not capitalist profits.