RENEW What does the term “self-help guru” bring to your mind? How about “SF-based self-help guru”? The life coach of the Twitter execs perhaps, or HoopGirl? At any rate, it might not call up the fresh-faced man sitting next to me in a Glen Park wine bar.
Tim Ferriss is describing the least pleasant fitness experiment he performed en route to writing The 4-Hour Body, the strength and wellness guide currently No. 1 on The New York Times “hardcover advice and miscellaneous” bestseller list. The book’s fairly unconventional research claims were tested by the author on himself.
To wit: “I was taking about the amount of resveratrol that you would get from drinking 100 cases of wine a day. I wanted to look at its effects on endurance.” According to Ferriss, the pill form he was consuming to test the stuff was cut with loperamine, the active ingredient in Imodium, so he wound up using most of whatever endurance he gained toward marathon sessions in the bathroom. “That was an extremely unpleasant experience. However, now it’s available in pure, micronized form.” Hope springs eternal.
Ferriss’ bio is a bit dizzying and it’s challenging to choose which exploits to focus on in the interview. Ferriss holds the world records for most clinical injections in a day and most consecutive tango spins in a minute. He advocates for a polyphasic sleep cycle of six, 20-minute sleep intervals a day and has gone on grass-fed beef diets in Nicaragua that granted him a “10-foot radius field of hormonal impact” and left the women of San Francisco “intoxicated on pheromones.” Another thing I learned at the wine bar: he helped found Princeton’s first break-dancing club.
Of course, if Ferriss wasn’t constantly looking for new ways to torture (test!) his body and lifestyle, The 4-Hour Body, and its predecessor The 4-Hour Workweek — in which he promises business career miracles similar to Body‘s lure of lifting 500 pounds and running 100 miles — would have never sold the umpteen copies they have. He certainly would never have inspired a small universe of wannabe fitness videos and a massive fanbase that typically boosts the comment counts on his www.thefourhourbody.com blog posts into the thousands.
This is how he explains his success: “I’m not the Unabomber.” He’s certainly not given to the cryptic. He’s easy to relate to. I’m not a fitness buff or capitalist whiz kid by any stretch of the imagination, but he and I are having an imminently engaging chat over our glasses of red. For someone who challenges life from every angle, he plays the normal card well.
He could easily be your attractive, successful, buddy-old-pal — although I am going to break with Dwight Garner, who wrote The New York Times review of Ferriss’ newest book, and say that Cary Elwes would play him in the bio-pic, not Matthew McConaughy. (Perhaps this is because by the time of our interview, Ferriss had slimmed down in his pursuit of an ultramarathon. Ahem.) He’s charming, polite, and if you squint real hard, you can imagine that he leads the life he does by some stroke of odd luck.
Self-help gurus who don’t cultivate an easy-to-relate-to image won’t get far. Yet Ferriss is willing to bet can transcend mere humanity, given the right combination of organization, will power, and pharmaceuticals.
Here’s how it all happened. When he was 23, Ferriss started a nutritional supplement company. It did well. Soon enough, his old Princeton professor Ed Zschau was inviting him to give regular lectures at the alma mater on building a profitable business without outside investment. But after a few lectures, Ferriss started becoming more interested in “lifestyle design,” which were influenced by his world travels and technological research. As a result, his lectures were veering off into areas his business student audiences found too woo-woo for their tastes. On one of his feedback surveys after such a talk, Ferriss says he received the following mocking comment: “Why don’t you just write a book?”
“It was the perfect comment to fuel my chronic insomnia,” he remembers. And when something keeps this man up at night, that something can check its watch — its days are numbered. Soon Ferriss signed a publishing deal (original working title: Drug Dealing for Fun and Profit) in a shack in Belize. The book, which ended up The 4-Hour Workweek, sold out its first run and has been on the bestseller list for four years. He says he never anticipated its success, but does acknowledge that he has a knack for “spotting unmet needs in a particular demographic,” this one being tech-savvy men in the 20-35 age group who he says constitute his core audience.
Ferriss’ success depends on a concept called lifehacking, a term that at one point referred to the efficiency tricks used by computer programmers to cut through swaths of useless information and is now used in reference to anything that attempts to simplify life by messing with it. His thesis is that most of the time we are working way too hard at things that offer too little return. He recommends finding the exact weights and reps that will turn your workout into a muscle popping strength fest (he can help with this) and cutting way back on the time you spend checking e-mails.
I ask him what he thinks is the most common self-help misconception in San Francisco, where he lives and where he is Google-searched more than any other place in the world, according to Google Trends. “A commonly held belief in academic communities is that the physical is a hand you are dealt by fate. I think people mix up cause and effect.”
It is to this community that the 4-Hours are geared. “If you try to write for people you don’t initially understand, you fuck up,” Ferriss says. But 4-Hour Body, at least ostensibly, is also geared toward women — more than half the fitness models are women and all the exercise plans include variations for men and women. I take note when he tells me that among women, the most common downfall he sees is the ever-nefarious caloric bomb: peanut butter (although inside I weep). There’s a sizable chapter on the art of the 15-minute female orgasm with detailed charts of the vagina. I inquire if he’s taken any flack from women on this well-meaning, if slightly reductive take on their anatomy. “The orgasm stuff, they’re fine with that. It’s no big deal.”
“The point of the book is to become the best possible version of yourself,” he says.
Can it work? As engaging as Ferriss was during our interview, and in my binges on his expansive web universe (sample blog posts: “How to be Jason Bourne: Multiple Passports, Swiss Banking, and Crossing Borders!”; “How to Lose 20 Pounds of Fat in 30 Days … Without Doing Any Exercise!”), 4-Hour Body sat in my bedroom undisturbed for a month after I initially cruised through its “rapid sense of total well-being” action plan. But then, I am lazy. Again, if the Internet is to be believed, this man has inspired some people to make real changes in their lives.
Or perhaps Ferriss’ true appeal is, as he says, based on our ability to relate to him. His target audience lives in an information-saturated world where people can flip breathlessly from one paragon of success to another. In Ferriss, they have found the true model everyman: a guy with nice-looking websites, endless energy, and a great body who seems to succeed wherever the mouse leads him.