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Tim Ferriss: Why World-Class Performers Are Flawed Creatures

The surprising traits of the top 1% in any field: http://bit.ly/2hMh4GF

Today we’re here with returning guest, fellow podcaster and New York Times Bestselling Author, Tim Ferriss, to deconstruct the most transformative habits you can learn from the top-performers in the world. We’ll share wisdom from Arnold “The Governator” Schwarzenegger, our mutual mentor Derek Sivers, Richard Branson, and other modern-day renaissance men and women who might just blow your mind.

Coming up on the show, you’ll learn:

  • The surprising traits of the top 1% in any field
  • How to make a healthy habit stick this new year
  • The curious reason Tim wore the same jeans and t-shirt for a week straight
  • The power of cultivating empty space
  • Who to trust in a world of phonies and blowhards
  • And even how to save your marriage…


Abel: Many might assume that top performers are perfect, but that’s not exactly how it works. I’ll start with this quote from your new book…

“Wow, Tim Ferriss is a mess.”

So what’s going on, Tim?

The goal of the book is multifold. There are several goals. One of them is to encourage people and reassure people that we are all flawed creatures, whether you’re looking at retired generals and special operations commanders, CEOs of large companies, billionaires, or actors and actresses. Just like you and me, they all have their weaknesses and insecurities.

They all make mistakes, but they’ve learned to develop habits and routines and so on around one or two strengths. That’s it. That is enough to put you into the top 1% of whatever you want to do.

So the “Wow, Tim Ferriss is a mess. I can’t imagine how he gets anything done.” That’s from the introduction, where I talk about two chapters in particular that I put into the book just to show what my bad days looks like… and they’re bad; they’re really bad. Then I describe the coping mechanisms I use when I’m battling my own demons or in a dark phase or just cannot seem to get anything right. Where I’m just screwing one thing up after another and I have a sort of littered mess of disaster behind me and seemingly ahead of me. These are situations we all face, so that is, I suppose, the genesis of the, “Wow, Tim Ferris is messed up,” component of all that.

Abel: Right, well, that’s the interesting thing that happens when you start to bump into people at the top of their game. You find that these are all 100% real people… some more than others.

In a lot of cases, you find chinks in their armor, but they won’t worry about that because they’re busy doubling down on that extreme gift they have, that they built over the years, that brings the most value to everyone around them.

Yeah, it’s a practice of learning to try to leverage and multiply your strengths as opposed to fixing all of your many, many tiny weaknesses, which is not a high-return activity.

Now, there are what we might consider fatal weaknesses, or mission-critical competencies, that you need to have in any given field, but those are all coachable, learnable skills. So, in Tools of Titans, whether it is looking at military, venture capital, software development, competitive chess, memory champions, you do find commonalities.

What I’ve observed is that, after doing 200+ of these now, you’ll find in any given field, the people who are the best—really the best of what they do, top 1%—have more in common with people in totally different fields who are in the top 1% than they do with the B players and C players in their own field. You find a lot of common patterns.

And I should also just mention that the book is probably 60% or so lessons and my favorite tactics and so on that I have tested from these 200 guests across all domains, but 40% is all new advice from past guests, new guests, people like Jack Dorsey of Twitter and Square, and original chapters from me.

The book is a big one; as you said, it’s a doozy. It’s 704 pages. It’s not intended to be read A to Z, folks; it’s like a choose-your-own-adventure book, a buffet. So if you read 150 pages, I’ll be thrilled.


Abel: What stands out to you?

Well, some of them are weird. Most consistent is a pattern of daily mindfulness or meditative practice. That’s more than 80% of the people I interviewed. And that can take many forms, so it’s not just meditation, like sit down and “Om.” It’s not just that, because that drives a lot of people away. It drove me away for a long time. It could be listening to a single music track on repeat for focus, and using that as an external mantra. A lot of athletes do that; a lot of writers and coders do that.

And so whether you are listening to the Last of the Mohicans soundtrack as Alex Honnold, famed rock climber does, or listening to a single track as you are creating WordPress, which now powers more than 25% of the Internet, I consider that a tool of mindfulness, because it’s honing focus and making you aware of your thoughts.

For instance, Maria Popova, who is incredible and runs this highly intelligent site called Brain Pickings, a one-woman labor of love (it’s just a miracle what she is able to pull off), she listens to the same guided meditation. It’s audio; it’s free. You can find it online from Tara Brach, who I later interviewed. It’s the 2010 Smile Meditation. It’s 25 minutes, and Maria Popova credits Tara Brach with changing her life.

Maria is a hard-charging ultra-producer of high-quality writing. It is just mind-boggling. And she listens to this every morning. So if I hear that once or twice, then I’m going to follow the gingerbread trail and test it for myself.

There’s some really weird stuff, too. Kelly Starrett, along with Rick Rubin, legendary music producer, and a few other people, introduced me to the Chilly Pad. And the Chilly Pad came out of left field. I never heard of it before, and I consider myself pretty hip and on the cutting edge with a lot of this. But it is a device that allows you to put a thin sheet under your normal bed sheets, on your side. And then there’s a bedside contraption that circulates water through at an exact temperature that you set, between 55 degrees and, I want to say, 80 or 85 degrees. And that has been just a complete game-changer. I have one. Kelly actually sent me one, I think. And I never would have spotted that as a pattern had I not done this two- to three-hour interview. So, a lot of weird stuff, a lot of unusual stuff, but all very useful.

And my vetting process was looking at 10,000+ pages of transcripts, vetting it down to the things that I had tested and used that had produced unusually good returns in my life. Small input in, large output out. But it’s been a wacky journey, man. I never thought I was going to podcast longer than six episodes, but here we are.

Abel: Yeah, here we are, and you’re crushing it, man. You just passed 100 million downloads, right?

I did, yeah. I just passed 100 million, and it’s wild. It’s wild.

Abel: It’s totally wild. Let me go back to what you said before… because the Chilly Padis going to save thousands of marriages?

Totally! Yeah, if you’re fighting over, like, leg over the blanket, leg under, tearing the sheets off, opening the window, fighting over the air conditioning, all that goes away.

Abel: So the single track music phenomenon fascinated me. My first book was about music and the brain, the science behind how music can affect the brain and your mental performance. But your book was the first time I heard of other people listening to a single track as a common performance hack. I’ve been doing that for years but thought I was weird.

One of the reasons it works so well is because I don’t have to pick out music if I’m listening to the same thing to get into that state, where I’m writing, or exercising, performing in some way. It’s more like a mental cue that gets you ready to perform, more than music itself, right?

Absolutely. I think of it almost as an external mantra, like in Transcendental Meditation, which came up a lot in these interviews. Arnold Schwarzenegger, for instance, did TM for a year, and then stopped in the ’70s, but he says the benefits persisted for decades, which is kind of interesting to consider.

And just as a side note, for whatever reason, it seems that a lot of men gravitate to Transcendental Meditation. A lot of women gravitate, or end up with, Vipassana Meditation; I don’t know why that is. There are certainly exceptions: Sam Harris uses some Vipassana, and there are plenty of women who do TM. But statistically, or percentage-wise, there’s really a pretty clear split.

The mantra in TM is something you repeat in your own head. It’s a nonsense syllable or two, basically. And that allows you to override, in a sense, the monkey mind that would otherwise be ricocheting around your head with anxieties and doubts and to-do lists and petty grudges or whatever it might be. So that mantra is a focusing device, and I think you externalize that when you take a track and you play it on repeat.

The surprising traits of the top 1% in any field: bit.ly/timfrs

Abel: And then the Governator—I remember when you and Arnold Schwartzeneggar were talking on your podcast, he mentioned that once he learned mindfulness, all of a sudden he’s meditating into his biceps when he’s working out.

And he applies it to other parts of his life. So I think it’s less about what your particular mantra is, and if it’s TM, you can’t tell anyone anyway. But it’s more about teaching that mindfulness practice that you can later apply to being stuck in traffic, or when you’re actually making your to-do list, you can take deep breaths and center yourself.

Yeah. And that is how I view meditation. I do 20 minutes in the morning, typically, although sometimes I’ll do shorter. I’ll use something like Headspace and do 10 minutes with a guide, which is the easiest. And I think it’s a good place for a lot of people to start, certainly.

The way I view meditation is a limbering up and a warming up of attention to your thoughts for the rest of the day. So effectively, what’s happening is your thoughts get carried away; they drift off, and you’re thinking of God knows what, and then you reel it back into the mantra or to your breath or something else, or to a guided meditation. It’s like flicking you in the forehead and saying, “Hey, stop thinking about porn” or whatever it is.

And then the reeling in is the repetition. So you do that, and you’re doing it in a controlled environment where you’re at your house, let’s just say. So what is that like? That’s like going to the gym and warming up with 40% of your working weight, and you’re like, “Okay, just making sure my joints are working. Okay, this is just risk mitigation.” And the warmup of meditation later allows me to be less reactive when it matters.

So you’re basically practicing being aware and less reactive when you have complete control over the circumstances, when it doesn’t matter, so you can later apply it when it does matter, is how I think of it.

Abel: Yeah. I’m glad is a main lesson of your tome of a book. Meditation is so simple, and it’s something a lot of people skip right over. Like sleep, where these things are critical pillars of performance, but a lot of people are like, “Oh, that’s boring, I want the silver bullet.”

Yeah. And there are so many misconceptions that I think are reversed by this book. So, for instance, as you know, the book’s split into “Healthy,” “Wealthy,” and “Wise.” That’s how the profiles and my own chapters are gathered, because… Well, it’s two things: it’s a nod to Ben Franklin, and it’s also effectively answering the question, “What would you add to The 4-Hour Workweek if you were to write again? What would you add to The 4-Hour Body if you were to write again?” Same with The 4-Hour Chef. So it’s those three sections.

This book is basically the sequel to all three of those.

There are so many misconceptions about successful people, like, “Oh, yeah. They sleep four hours a night.” No, they don’t. There are some mutants, like Jocko Willink, and Amelia Boone… They’re the robots, they just need three or four hours of sleep a night. But the vast majority of these people are getting eight to 10 hours of sleep. And they understand how much hinges on that, as a restorative and recovery practice.

Then you, for instance, hear all of these sayings that have been said so often that we assume they’re true—about making money, for instance. “Well, you’ve got to spend money to make money. Got to take risks to make it big. To get high returns, you have to take high risks.” All nonsense. All three of those are nonsense. And if you look at say, Richard Branson—there’s a story about Richard Branson in the book—or top hedge fund managers, the first thing they do is cap the downside. They’re minimizing risk. So when Branson started his airline, he had this reputation, or image I should say, of being this kind of fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants wild adventurer, and he does all that stuff, but in business, he’s super methodical.

For instance, when he started Virgin Airlines, it originated when a flight was delayed, and this was a commercial flight, and he wasn’t going to make it to his destination in time, and he rented a charter plane. He figured out it was something like $2,500, and then he walked around the airport with a sign that said “Virgin Air seats, $250,” or whatever it was, until he had sold the seats to other people who were delayed, and got to the other side. So he realized there was a demand for something like what he could create. And then when he was considering really biting the bullet, he negotiated an agreement with Boeing so he could return the plane if it didn’t work out. Immediately looking at capping the downside and understanding the downside, and that is something you see at the highest levels of finance. This is something that billionaires talk about.

Tony Robbins is also in the book with asymmetrical bets, asymmetrical rewards, where you’re actually risking nothing in some cases and getting a lot back. Like Kyle Bass, who’s famous for, among other things, shorting or positioning himself to make an unbelievable amount of money from the subprime crisis.

One thing he did a while back was he bought nickels; he bought something like millions of dollars worth of nickels. Now why on earth would you do that? Well, he figured out that the meltdown value was higher than the face value of the nickels. So he made, like, an immediate $400,000 or whatever it was. It’s just nuts. Look, currency value fluctuates, but he knew enough about his game, that it was effectively a risk-free investment. Because what’s the worst thing that happens? You bought it at 5 cents; he can use it as 5 cents, but the meltdown value is 6.5 cents or something. It’s just really looking at things differently that is, I suppose, the biggest commonality across 100% of the people.


Abel: You’re looking around for the people who are the best in the world at what they do, and you’ve always done that. All your books are following that same pattern, but it’s hard to go straight to the top, and the world of self-improvement is littered with kind of pseudo-enlightened blowhards and phonies. So these days, how do you know who to trust?

I look at objective results, honestly. There are a lot of fluffy blowhards everywhere. That’s why, whenever I’m being introduced and someone says, like, “motivational speaker,” I’m like, “No. No, that’s not what I am.” Because the association is so negative.

Okay, here’s an example. When I was looking for a dog trainer for my own dog, this is just for me, and I recently had the person I chose on the podcast, Susan Garrett.

Why did I choose Susan Garrett? Okay, because most of the so-called expert dog trainers out there are famous for being famous. Maybe they train dogs for celebrities. What the hell do celebrities know about dog training? Zero. So why would that mean anything to me? And it doesn’t mean anything to me.

But how would you objectively evaluate a good dog trainer? Well, is there any competition? And the answer is, yes. There are agility competitions, and there are obedience competitions, but agility competitions are particularly difficult.

And Susan Garrett, despite being 20 or 25 years older than all of her competitors, is the most successful agility dog trainer of the last few decades. You can measure these things. You can look at false starts, just like sprinters out of the gate at the Olympics. And these numbers are recorded. So objectively, I’m looking at her fight card and identifying how good she is relative to other people in these competitions. And that’s it. So I know she’s not a blowhard. Just based on the data, objectively, that’s it.

Now, it’s very important that, as they say, once you’re lucky, twice you’re good. I want to find people who have replicated their success. I’m not looking for one-hit wonders because too much luck could be accounted for, or too much luck could be the causal factor, if that makes any sense. That could be dissected by some philosopher’s thought. But the point being, some of the new guests for instance—Jack Dorsey. This guy’s helped build gigantic revolutionary companies at least twice… at the same time.

Evan Williams, same story. Marc Andreessen, same story. These people, it’s not once you’re lucky, twice you’re good. It’s three, five, seven, 10 times. You know something. You know something most people don’t know. There is something you’re doing. And the other thing I will try to separate out very quickly is—and this is very important in sports, as you know—trying to separate out how much of their success is due to training versus attributes.

You can observe this in, say, competitive swimming. Okay, high school swimming, junior varsity, people look completely different. There are all sorts of body types. Every shape and size. And then as you get higher and higher, the body types get more and more similar until they all look like frickin’ bats. They’re like 6’5″ bats, like Michael Phelps, with ankles that dislocate and giant flippers. What the hell is going on there?

So there are two difficulties with going after someone like Phelps, even though objectively he is incredible. Number one, he has attributes that would make even a mediocre training method very effective. Now, he has a super-refined training method, don’t get me wrong. But for you, if you don’t know how to swim, like I didn’t know how to swim until my 30s, alright, and I discovered…

Abel: Wow, you couldn’t swim until your 30’s?

Yeah, yeah. Total immersion swimming. And I wrote to Chris Sacca, the billionaire, who I watched probably from when he was making like $100,000 a year. And then he introduced me to it, but I covered that in 4-Hour Body, so I won’t belabor it here.

The point being, if I went straight to Phelps and asked him, “Hey, could you train me?” And by whatever stroke of luck he agreed, I’m not going to understand the subtleties of what he’s doing. And number two, he’s been doing it since he was a fetus, probably. So he’s not going to remember what it was like not to know.

So I am looking also for people who have learned a lot in a short period of time. People who have, again, ideally objectively—let’s just say they appeared on (I’m making this up) the MMA scene, and they started jiu-jitsu when they were 18, 20, which is late these days, and all of a sudden they’re a phenom.

That’s interesting to me. In that short a period of time, there’s some type of training advantage, environmental advantage, behavioral advantage. Something is there and I’ll go digging.

And then if I find a place like a gym where I trained a long time ago, AKA in San Jose, California where they just produce champion after champion after champion.

If there’s a mutant factory, something’s going on. Either they’re really good at finding mutants, which is a skill in and of itself, or they’re helping to create those mutants.

So those are some of the ways I avoid the blowhards. Honestly, I find that if you just let the blowhards talk long enough, they tend to incriminate themselves. And then you’re like, “Wait a second, that doesn’t sound right at all.”

Abel: That’s true.

If someone is giving you advice about something they haven’t done themselves, I would tread very carefully.

Abel: That’s great advice. Now this kind of dovetails into that. You type a question into Google these days and it’s a complete crapshoot. It used to be pretty good. You get this old blog from a professor who wrote it and it’s still in the 1998 template with frames. But it had good information.

Now our google searches are intercepted by marketers and misinformation. So here’s an example of that, which works with the dog theme we’ve got going on.

I have a five-year-old yellow Lab, Bailey, and listeners know that well. But I was thinking about the lifespan of dogs and how big dogs tend to live a much shorter life than smaller dogs. And I thought, “Well, does that apply to people as well?” So I Googled, “Do short people live longer than tall people?”

50% of the Google results said that short people undoubtedly and conclusively live longer than taller people. And then the other half of results said the exact opposite. So where does that leave us? How do you find your information?

Well, that’s a tough one. I’m not going to say it’s easy to figure out. There’s a lot of garbage out there. Again, thinking about data, evidence, something that’s been evaluated, I would go to PubMed, probably, to look at studies. And you could search “lifespan canine extension,” and probably come up with a fair number of things. It would be interesting, whether that’s metformin or rapamycin or some type of intermittent fasting, who knows? All of those things would probably pop up. You could also look for data in, say, related mammalian models that might transfer to a canine.

But what I have realized, and this is going to sound, maybe, super simplistic and kind of silly: just call an expert and ask them.

I don’t say this in a derogatory way, but academics at universities are generally really happy to talk to you. But if you go after the bestselling author with questionable credentials around canine lifespan and you want to ask them, well, you’re going to have to go through their publicist, or you’re going to have to go through their agent, or you’re going to have to battle to be one of the 100,000 people who follow them on Twitter to get their attention. Why bother? You don’t even know if they’re qualified to begin with. They just had a bestselling book; that doesn’t mean anything necessarily. That’s a whole separate kettle of fish.

So I would just reach out to someone at a university. If I have a question about dogs, okay, I might call someone at UC Davis, a well-known veterinary school. Alright, let me try to get a hold of one of the top five specialists I think might understand this. And who knows? If it’s a really important question, a critical, important question, pay somebody. Pay somebody $100 for 15 minutes of their time to get the answer.

There are questions I want to know the answer to out of curiosity, and then there are those I hope to take some action in response to.

If it comes back that tall people live longer… I’m not a huge guy. I have to deal with the hand that I’ve been dealt. There are, I would say, a few different ways to go about it, but my first default response, if it’s an important question with some type of verifiable answer, or studies have been conducted, or there is some science to back it up, is: would any institution or person ever fund a study to look at this? The height, I don’t know, probably not.

But you never know. You could find epidemiological census data, maybe morgue reports that would give you some very, very tenuous data to play around with, so that could be one way to do it.

Whenever I’m in doubt these days, it’s incredible how often I will read 100 books on a subject and then realize, “Why didn’t I just spend $100 for 15 minutes on Skype with this person who lives, basically camps out at a university right down the street, who has a PhD or MD and knows exactly what the answer is?” That would have taken, I don’t know, three hours to set up and figure out and I’d be done.

If you’re looking on the Internet, particularly if it’s a question about how to do something, ask the following questions:

  • Number one: has this person done it?
  • Is this person where I want to be?
  • Are they doing what I want to do?
  • Have they successfully done what I want to do?

And once you’re lucky, twice you’re good. So if you’re trying to become a real estate investor and someone’s like, “Hey, I did this thing with one house and I flipped it and I made five X.” “Cool, that’s awesome, man. That sounds incredible. How many houses have you flipped?” “Well, just one so far.” “Well, okay.” Maybe not this, maybe not Dracula, but maybe time out and let’s think about this, because chance accounts for a lot of what happens in this world, so look for the dent.

Abel: Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe for your first book, you went to 30 publishers and they’re all said, “Nope.”

But now you’ve published multiple number one New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestsellers over and over again. And that’s a pattern; there’s something you’re doing there. It’s almost like the skills you’ve been building are such that no one could keep you from the top. Even those gatekeepers would eventually become irrelevant in some way. You’re going out to the fringes and looking for the people who can actually answer your questions or build those skills.

One takeaway for listeners is, if you’re just Googling something, then try going to PubMed instead. And if you don’t know how to read studies, then invest in learning that skill, because that’s a skill you can definitely build, and it will pay huge dividends down the road.

Absolutely. There’s actually an appendix in The 4-Hour Body, which is an excerpt from a book called Bad Science that talks specifically about how to read these studies, and it doesn’t have to be intimidating.

I want to touch on one thing you said, though: getting turned down by 27 publishers. Okay, so that was an error on their part. And of course, you’d expect me to say that, but I can explain what their error was. I’ll give an example of where I might pay attention to that guy who’s only flipped one house if I want to learn real estate. Let’s say this same person has had success in another area that has been duplicated, or that he or she has replicated multiple times.

So if this person is not a real estate investor, but they’re a restaurateur; they run kiosks in an airport, and they started with one and they now have 30 in different airports and they’re massively profitable, and this person did it in a short period of time. Am I going to be interested to hear how that person thinks about real estate investing, especially after their first success? Oh, yeah. I’ll listen to that person. I will just listen to multiple people.

So the mistake that the publishers made to turn me down—there were quite a few mistakes. There’s no love lost between me and them. But I saved a lot of their letters and they were rude. It’s one thing to say no to people, but it’s another to really brusquely and rudely just punch someone in the gut. It’s just not necessary.

What they missed was, I had an informed confidence, not an uninformed confidence. So a lot of people talk about, “Confidence, confidence, build confidence.” I think confidence without evidence to support it is really dangerous, actually. And sometimes you have to fake it till you make it, but generally I prefer to have an informed confidence.

I had been giving these guest lectures at the university I attended in high-tech entrepreneurship. And I was talking about a lot of this stuff that was in The 4-Hour Workweek to these Princeton students, both undergrads and graduate students, so I had an age range. And I had been doing that for, I would say, roughly six or seven years, twice a year. And the notes that formed the basis for The 4-Hour Workweek were the most popular pieces of those lectures that got a very strong response from the students. I had data to support what I wanted to put into a book form. And they just disregarded that completely. That was foolish. That was something they should have at least asked a few questions about, but they very rarely did.

And this comes back to this idea that the people who are in the top 1% in a given field have a lot in common with people in the top 1% in totally different fields. One could be investing; the other could be chess. One could be memory competitions and the other could be hospice care, honestly. They have a lot in common with each other.

So if someone has demonstrated repeated excellence in one field, I wouldn’t underestimate their ability to demonstrate excellence in a new field at all, because the habits, the routines, the belief systems, the philosophies, the ability to negotiate, persuade, all of these things, ask good questions, which is very, very learnable. All of that transfers, right?

But those are some of the ways that I think about this type of thing. And then at the end of the day, it comes down to, have I tried it? Have I been able to replicate the results? And everything in Tools of Titans, believe it or not, falls in that category. It might seem like a big book, 704 pages, but it’s intended to be a choose-your-own-adventure, dip in and out kind of thing.

I think a lot of people will like the book. I loved writing it, but I would be happy if people ended up just absolutely loving 100 pages, and they only read 200. I’m totally happy with that. And the ability to take in 10,000+ pages, distill it down to, say, 400, and then do 300-something original… The intent was to write this book for myself. I wasn’t even planning on publishing this one.

It was going to be the notebook to end all notebooks, for myself. And it’s been a really cool process, man. It’s been a really, really illuminating process for me.

I’ll tell a story for folks. So I was writing this book. I was out on Long Island, and I’d flown in a researcher to stay with me for the entire time and help with putting it together. Not writing it, just helping me with gathering certain bits and pieces. And we bumped into each other at the refrigerator one morning, because we had a very set routine, and he asked me, he said, “How can you be so calm?” And I thought about it, because I’m very rarely accused of being calm.

I’m a very hard-charging, sometimes pretty tightly wound guy—or at least, historically I have been. He was like, “How are you so calm?” We were a few weeks away from book deadline. Gigantic project. And my car had just died, my dog had just been really badly injured, we had family and friends visiting. There was a ton of stuff going on, and I was the plate spinner. I kind of had to be the emcee for a lot of it that was unrelated to the book. And I realized that as I was rereading all these short profiles and chapters, I had been absorbing a lot of the habits and routines without really trying to do it.

So I was taking cold showers, and then taking hot baths. I was doing these different temperature exposure experiments that a lot of these folks like Wim Hof and Rick Rubin did. I was meditating in the morning and listening to the 2010 Smile Meditation by Tara Brach because Maria Popova had done that. And I was responding to errors and mistakes with this good ethos of Jocko Willink, which is really very stoic. It’s similar to Seneca and a lot of the stoic philosophy that I think is just the ideal operating system for high-stress environments.

And what was so weird about this is that I’m a journaling, pro and con list, note-taking analytical machine; that’s just how I’m hard-wired. So usually, I live and die by to-do lists and task descriptions and scope of projects and all that boring stuff that I find necessary to keep my life in order, and I was calm despite the fact that I hadn’t done that with any of these things; it had just kind of seeped in.

Part of the magic is studying these examples of excellence. If you’re able to get them into a digestible form, you can absorb a lot, and that’s why when I read… These days, a lot of the times it’s biographies. I’m reading about Benjamin Franklin, I’m reading about Genghis Khan, I’m reading about Richard Feynman (in that case it’s an autobiography). There are a couple of the odd occurrences that I expected might expire that have persisted. Just like Arnold did Transcendental Meditation for one year, and then it persisted for decades, I’ve been surprised how lasting the impact has been.


The fasting, the ketogenic stuff, the gymnastics strength training, working on shoulder extension… So we have some of you who can see this video, but this type of movement, if you were to say, lean against a guardrail and grab onto it behind you and then squat down so that you’re bringing your arms straight back behind you—working on that type of weakness when we did an assessment that my thoracic bridge, a couple of things like that, were really terrible. I couldn’t believe how bad they were, and working on those literally five to 10 minutes a day for two weeks, all of these problems that had plagued me for years, just poof, gone. It’s been rad.

Some have been a little more painful. The Rumble Roller was one that came up multiple times. Amelia Boone, three-time world champion, World’s Toughest Mudder, does 100-mile races and so on, also happens to be a full-time power attorney at Apple. Just cyborg, she’s amazing, one of the toughest humans I’ve ever met. Just to give you guys an idea, 2012 World’s Toughest Mudder, it’s a 24-hour race, 1000+ competitors, 90% of whom are probably male, and she came in second place overall. She beat everyone except for one guy who beat her by eight minutes, which in a 24-hour race is not a lot, it’s like a hair’s breadth. So she introduced me to the Rumble Roller, which like you said is this monster truck tire meets foam roller, and to be honest, foam rolling had never done much for me. Maybe I was doing it incorrectly, but I never really saw a direct benefit.

With the Rumble Roller I saw immediate benefits, but my recommendation is to start light. Do it for a few minutes, because I’d seen and heard of Amelia, just, “Oh, yeah, she’ll sit there and work on different parts of her body with the Rumble Roller for, say, 30 minutes,” so I tried to do that, and then woke up the next morning and felt like I’d been put in a sleeping bag and slammed against a tree by a giant for about four hours. I was a disaster. So yeah, start light, but I now travel with one of those, and I have multiple Rumble Rollers wherever I might be, waiting at the hotels that I tend to go to, because they’re that important as a survival mechanism.

Abel: Is it the big Rumble Roller or half size? I have the big one.

I have both. So I have the big one at home, which is gigantic. And then the half size I will sometimes travel with, but those, if I’m putting them into, say, a trunk… So I practice something called travel caching, at least I call it that, where there are for me, two or three cities that I tend to go to 90% of the time when I travel. I have my go-to hotels, so I just have a trunk waiting in these cities with a week’s worth of climate-appropriate clothing, and then a few things like a Rumble Roller and a Nayoya Acupressure Mat, technically is what it’s called, or there’s another one called Bed of Nails, which is more accurately a descriptor, and it’s basically a rollout mat with cleats all over it.

This was recommended to me by Andrii Bondarenko, the one-armed handstand prodigy of Cirque du Soleil. The guy’s amazing, from the Ukraine, and his sports acrobatics coach used to have them lie on these things for up to an hour a day for back pain. It was the first device to save me when I tore my lat, which is not a good injury, and it’s the one that got me back on the horse and actually training again. And so that is another device, this Bed of Nails or the Nayoya Acupressure Mat—not as catchy—that I will either travel with or have in one of these trunks, along with some coconut oil, which woe unto you, if your coconut oil melts and leaks all over your clothing, that’s not going to be good.

But now a bunch of stuff from Tools of Titans is sitting there, so you got the exogenous ketones, the boxes of sardines, which last forever—that’s a whole different conversation— and all sorts of goodies. So yeah, it’s been fantastic.

Abel: You basically have a stash of MREs in a bunch of different cities if things go sideways. That’s great.

Yeah, if things go sideways, I don’t need a bug-out bag, because I know exactly where I’m going.


Abel: Now another big theme in your book that works with this is unplugging and deloading, and that’s one that I can absolutely vouch for. And it might not sound like something that would be a secret of the pros, because you think they’re gunning it all the time, always operating at 100% efficiency. We know that is not the case. But anyway, listeners know pretty well that my wife and I have spent the past two years just traveling to all corners of the world before we settle down and have a family. And you might say, Tim, it’s a mini-retirement.

I took a year off from email and the Internet. I was really unplugged and a lot of that was out of necessity, because we were in the woods and didn’t have Internet. And I also figured that was probably the last time I would ever get away with it, but I also took a year off from this podcast, which at the time was ranked number one in health in multiple countries, and everyone said I was absolutely crazy.

But to your point, when I came back on the map 12 months later, I’d launched a new award-winning album of original music with some of my friends and the Tim McGraw Band, launched a New York Times bestselling book, and a starring role on a primetime ABC Network TV show.

That’s how you get your mojo back – by taking time for it. It’s not always easy, but you mentioned also in a recent podcast that you had the power of cultivating empty space. So could you comment on that a little bit? You’ve got to keep that bandwidth open to recover your energy and get ideas that allow you to leapfrog.

So there are a couple of different aspects to this. The first is that a lot of type A personalities have trouble unplugging and deloading. And that phrase, deloading, is taken from athletics. You’ll have a deloading phase, and that is used for enhancing recovery and then ultimately becoming a better performer. So you could view it as recovery if “rest” doesn’t sit well with you. And a lot of it is just task switching, but what I would say is that mini-retirements for that reason and many other reasons, are absolutely a necessity for me.

Then to your point about coming back 12 months later—this is actually advice that B.J. Novak gave me. So, actor, incredible writer, producer, he was on The Office, and has had many bestselling books, is really a polymath. And the advice that he would have given to his younger self during The Office was “enjoy it,” because he was always trying to write something on the side, because he felt like he never had enough time and he couldn’t get it done.

The point he made was, if Will Smith doesn’t do a film for two years, are there people asking, “Where’s Will Smith? What is he doing? Is he irrelevant?” No, of course not. And he would say, “If you’re talented, you can get them to pay attention again if you need to,” and not to feel that type of time scarcity, that you always have to be on. And the quote you mentioned, “The cultivation of empty space as a way of life,” is actually from Josh Waitzkin.

Josh Waitzkin is super fascinating. He’s a close friend of mine. He is considered a chess prodigy, although both he and I don’t like the prodigy part of that, because he was the inspiration for Searching for Bobby Fischer, the book and the movie. He’s a master chess player, but he’s been able to take his learning framework and apply it to Tai Chi push hands.

He was a world champion; he’s the first black belt under Marcelo Garcia, who is pretty much without any dispute the best grappler to ever walk the planet. Grappling has evolved so quickly and he’s a nine-time world champion. And even people who have come in second place will tell you, they’re like, “Oh yeah,” they’re all like, “We’re all here and Marcelo is here. There is no comparison.” And he’s now onto mastering yet a new art that I don’t know if he’s talked about publicly, so I won’t get into it. But part of how he is able to distinguish himself is, in a world of unending distraction, where an online economy’s imperative is to distract you, the ability to single-task, to do one thing, for two to five hours is a superpower.

The surprising traits of the top 1% in any field: bit.ly/timfrs

It’s just sitting there in front of you. You can choose to design your schedule and your life in a way where you have that available to you and it is a superpower. So he will insist on creating a lot of slack in his life. He wants lots of empty space so he can connect ideas; he can come up with original solutions, creative augments to different things that he’s doing, and this is compatible with what a lot of the writers say that I’ve interviewed. Like, okay, you want to write for three hours a day. Well, try breaking that up into 15-minute segments where you’re doing something else for the next 15 minutes and then back to writing for 15 minutes and then you’re distracted for… It doesn’t work, at all.

You need these large uninterrupted blocks of time, and that could be on the weekend, if necessary. For a lot of people in Tools of Titans, like Noah Kagan, there are many who will, and this is an important point, put in their calendar… They’re not going to find time, that doesn’t happen. Work will swell to fill any void in your calendar, for type A personalities. They will block out a time.

For me, on Wednesdays from 9:00 to 1:00 p.m., that is creation, which means writing, recording, anything that is purely proactive—creation and production for me is nonreactive. And they will defend that and I will defend that, just as I would defend any type of conference call or a business commitment. And there is incredible power in experimenting with taking these blocks of time for pure nonreactive production or brainstorming or creative exercise. That is a huge competitive advantage, and it’s just sitting there. You just have to pick it up and implement it and actually put it in the calendar.

The surprising traits of the top 1% in any field: bit.ly/timfrs

Abel: It takes discipline, but there you build it out over time. And all of a sudden, you feel like you’re gaining energy from that time instead of your life being sucked out of you in your inbox.

Yeah, exactly. And I would say, also, that a key component of all of this is when you start a new behavior, or when you’re attempting to adopt a new behavior, make it as easy as possible.

If it’s stressful, you’re not doing it right. Make it easier. If it’s stressful at all, make it easier. Because the objective is to make it a habit.

In other words, to log at least five sessions so it becomes part of your routine, like tying your shoes or brushing your teeth. And if you want to game the system, you start off by making it very easy. This is something from B.J. Fogg from Stanford, who has done a lot of good work on this in his persuasion lab. If you want to start flossing—everybody hates floss, let’s be honest. So if you want to start flossing, how might you start flossing? Well, how could you make it as easy as possible for the first five sessions? So first week, Monday to Friday, how can you make it as easy as possible? Well, what is the minimum that might even be considered flossing? How about flossing your front teeth? That’s all you have to do. That is the threshold for success, so to speak.

And how else can we make it easy? Well, why don’t we use a Waterpik, let’s say, or the disposable floss picks that don’t require you to turn, get your fingers wrapped with dental floss, which is super uncomfortable. Make it as easy as possible.

So let’s say you don’t work out at all. You have no exercise regimen whatsoever. You get to January: New Year’s resolutions. This is where a lot of people flame out. “Okay, you know what? I’m going to do it. I’m going to do it this year. One hour a day, five days a week, that’s where I’m starting.” Okay, but 99 out of 100 people are going to stop that within three weeks. Because either it’s going to just seem completely overwhelming, which it probably will be, because they haven’t figured out how to do that scheduling dance properly yet, or they’re going to get injured.

So you start with making it as easy as possible. So what does that mean? That might mean 10 minutes at the gym, three times a week. That’s it. You get in, do 10 minutes, you’ve won for the day. Check box, gold star. If you do any more, it’s just bonus points, but you’ve already passed.

And then only at the later stages when that’s already a habit, now, okay, I’m happy to push you until you puke into a bucket. But in the beginning, that’s a mistake. When you’re established, there’s a difference between establishing a new habit and optimizing an existing habit. Those are totally different animals. The good news is, you can rig it; you can stack the deck so it’s more likely that you will win. And you do that by, whenever you feel stressed out by a new habit, asking yourself, “How can I make this easier? What is the most ridiculously small thing I could do that would qualify for, fill in the blank: flossing, exercise, whatever.”

Abel: Yeah. Then put it in your calendar.

Exactly, yeah, exactly. Then put it in your calendar. And ideally have some type of social accountability or incentive, meaning punishment or reward. One of the easiest for all this stuff is an accountability partner who’s just going to shame you if you don’t do it. People respond. I hate to say this, but it’s true. If you studied literature, it’s pretty definitive. People will work a lot harder for loss aversion or to avoid a negative incentive than they will to get an equivalent positive incentive. In other words, punishments work really well.

So, okay, you want to lose weight. You keep saying you want to lose weight, and as Derek Sivers would say—one of our mutually favorite people, who’s in the book—he would say, “If more information were the answer, we’d all be billionaires with six-pack abs.”

More information is not the answer. Everybody has some idea of doing many different things they claim they can’t currently do. And one thing you could do is find your most merciless friend. And you want to lose weight? Okay, great. Haven’t been able to do it. Don’t know why. Alright.

January 1, take some really unflattering pictures of yourself or have someone take photos of you with your phone in your tighty whiteys or in your underwear, bad lighting, bloated after a bunch of eating during the holidays. Take those photos. And then if you don’t lose, let’s just assume that you’re 20% body fat or more. Okay, you’re probably walking around with at least 20 pounds of fat on you. I think that’s safe to assume for most folks.

Okay, you have two months to lose 20 pounds. And if you don’t, these photos go directly on the Internet. And I’m going to share them on Facebook and ridicule you to no end. I guarantee you that person is going to figure out how to lose 20 pounds. And that is the genius of incentives.

So study how to create those incentives yourself. And there are a number of sites that do this pretty well. So for accountability, coach.me is one. And for creating an anti-charity, which is kind of similar. Yeah, the anti-charity, the nonprofit you would rather nuke than give money to. You put money into escrow and if you don’t accomplish your goals, there are referees on this site stickk.com and that money will go to this charity that you hate so much and then your name will be on the public record. So that is also… It sounds ludicrous, but man, is it effective.


Abel: We’re coming up on time, Tim, but there’s a quote in your book that reads, “Any useful statement about the future should at first seem ridiculous.” So what’s something that sounds ridiculous now, but might prepare us for an uncertain future?

To prepare for an uncertain future, you have to get comfortable with discomfort, and you do that two different ways.

One is by dissecting the worst-case scenario, and that’s using an exercise I call “fear setting” and really putting your fears under a microscope. And as Tony Robbins would say, the achiever word for fear is “stress.” So if you’re saying, “I’m just a little stressed. I’m just stressed.” Just substitute “afraid” or “fearful,” and fear-setting, so really looking at the worst-case scenarios and dissecting it, analyzing it in that way.

The second is through fear rehearsal, and this is really undervalued. Both of these things, by the way, are explored by the stoics, so Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, etc. Fear rehearsal would be practicing what you fear. So Seneca in, I think it’s Letter 13 of Festivals and Fasting, might be. His moral letters to Lucilius.

I have this excerpt, the entire chapter in Tools of Titans, which I was stoked about, just to sneak in some writing that’s 2,000 years old into contemporary writing and have people not notice, it’s so easy to read. But he said, and I’m paraphrasing here, “Set aside a few days each month where you will subsist on the scantest of fare, the roughest of dress, asking yourself all the while, ‘Is this the condition that I so feared?'”

Okay, what does that mean? Well, I fast for at least three consecutive days every month. I will also go through periods of time at least once a quarter where I will eat extremely cheap food, meaning rice and beans all day, oatmeal all day, and wear the same clothing, say a white t-shirt and a pair of jeans for the entire week, and I might even sleep, say—I’ve done this before, and there are other people like Kevin Kelly who have done this before—sleep on the floor in a sleeping bag, okay? Go camping for an extended period of time. Go up to the mountains, whatever it might be, and effectively subsist on less than $5 a day.

Okay. And if you come out of that experience and perhaps you are even happier than you were before you went into it—this is really weird, but it happens very consistently. You come out of it and you’re actually even happier, because you don’t have all this stuff and garbage and nonsense to keep your mind occupied. Okay, so you’ve done a week at $5 or less a day, $35 a week. How much do you have to make in a given year, then, for that existence to at least get you by for a period of time?

Very, very little is the answer.

And when you start to defang your fears in that way by practicing your worst-case scenarios, your whole world opens up and you realize that no matter how cruel fortune might be, no matter what might come your way, no matter how uncertain the future, you are prepared for most of it. You can weather the storm.

I think meditation helps, I think reading stoicism helps, I think practicing habits that you know can hold you over during difficult times—habits and routines that have become your lifelines and your life vests, I think are extremely critical. So when everything is thrown into doubt, when everything seems uncertain, there are certain things that you can control, and having those as allies and friends you can depend on is certainly a huge asset.

For me, that was the whole point. I have tough periods, man, and I’ve written about them in the book too, but it’s like I’ve had some really dark, tough moments and I want to have those allies, and I want to have that scaffolding and those frameworks and routines and so on. And that’s the whole reason that I put this little notebook together for me, myself, and I, and it just ended up turning into another book, so here we are.


Abel: Right on. Well, it’s a fantastic one, Tim, and I appreciate it. Tell us a little bit more about the book and what you’re working on next.

Cultivating some empty space. At toolsoftitans.com you can see a bunch of sample chapters of Tools of Titans as well as the forward, which was written by Arnold Schwarzenegger, which still kind of blows my mind, very surreal. As a Long Island kid raised on Commando and Predator, that’s wild.

And I can be found anywhere. So Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Indigo, Indiebound, you name it. It’s going to be everywhere. So I really encourage people to check it out, and it’s a really good gift book.

I had one friend of mine, Kamal Ravikant, Naval’s brother, who was helping me proofread this book. He was reading it and he said, “I’ve given The 4-Hour Workweek to some people who wanted to start a business. I’ve given The 4-Hour Body to some friends who have wanted to lose weight. This book I’m going to give to everyone. I’m getting copies for my mom.”

It really covers… “Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise” covers it all. So I hope people consider it for those that you care about, and if not, hey, just remember, no matter your struggles, no matter your ambitions, goals, you’re not alone. Someone else has figured it out. So go find those people and study them at the very least.

You can find Tim Ferriss on Twitter @tferriss, Instagram @timferriss, and Facebook.


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What’d you think of this interview with Tim Ferriss? Leave a comment below to share your thoughts!



  • Angela Wagner says:

    Thanks so much for this podcast! I was feeling overwhelmed with the different areas of my life needing attention if not out right overhauling. The idea of setting goals easy to attain to develop good habits is a game changer for me. Gives me hope that I can finally set and meet realistic goals. There is so much positive information here. Thanks again Abel and Tim! My first goal is getting a copy of Tools of Titans.

  • Abel James says:

    Right on Angela, thank you for listening!

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