The 4-Hour Workweek… What Are You Running From?

‘The 4-Hour Workweek’ by Timothy Ferriss is a book that has sold truckloads of copies, and captured serious attention in the small business and entrepreneurial community. The book proposes the idea of ‘outsourcing your life’, and makes the bold promise, ‘you can have it all – really’.

I have definitely got value from reading this book. It helped me to set up systems whereby, on a recent 2 week holiday, I only needed to deal with 2 emails, and one phone call. Previous to this, I have usually spent around an hour per day while on holiday dealing with business emails and phone calls.

While ‘The 4 hour work week’ contains a number of useful insights into how to make your approach to work more efficient, how to improve your margin, and how to simplify your life in general, I question the almost religious fervour with which the underlying philosophy of this book has been adopted and trumpeted as a panacea for a successful and fulfilling life.

The pot of gold at the end of Ferriss’ rainbow is a life of leisure, travel, and ‘self growth’, punctuated by the occasional peek at your inbox or Paypal account.

Let’s imagine you attain the Holy Grail, and you’re only working four hours per week: The rest of your time is devoted to your newfound hobbies: learning Swahili, constructing a Tuscan pizza oven, or chilling in a bure on a remote Fijian archipelago (with wifi!), and firing off the occasional missive to Your Man In India. How long before your absence from the cut and thrust of business begins to blunt and isolate you? How long before the lack of practice begins to tell?

Is anyone actually living this life… other than Trustafarians? The people I’ve come across who are engaged with the ideas in Ferriss’ book appear to actually work longer hours than most. How long do you think Ferriss works per week? A lot more than four hours, I’d wager. Because, the truth is, if you find a discipline to commit to that feeds and challenges you, the desire for escape begins to evaporate.

The book is predicated on the idea that work is the problem; and by freeing yourself from work, you will transcend the source of your problems. This can be a very attractive idea if you feel stuck in a job you hate.

The idea that you can ‘outsource your life’ is worthy of scrutiny. The last 20 or thirty years has seen an enthusiastic embrace of contracting-out many of the activities we were previously responsible for, unless we were born into extreme wealth: making things, cleaning our houses, looking after our kids, cooking etc. The logic of this approach is seductive: focusing on the ‘high order’ activities, while getting someone else to take care of the mechanical processes.

But in embracing this we are in danger of becoming tourists in our own life…just visiting. Checking-in during the taxi ride to the airport to make sure that things are flowing smoothly. Perpetual motion machines journeying from one experience to the next. Flagwavers for unimpeded mobility, vying for mayorship of T3 at Sydney airport on Foursquare while cracking the plastic on a pack of takeaway sushi. Passing through terminals and tweets and meals like surfing through channels – staying only long enough to fire off a 3 megapixel picture to posterous to mark territory, like carving an initial into a tree. Consuming experience and moving on to the next one before there’s time to savour the aftertaste, or sublimate the learning.

In eliminating the minutae, the perceived mundanity, the practical demands of life i.e. the work, we stand to deny ourselves a rich vein of learning: the eureka moment that comes while you’re washing the dishes, or the sense of achievement and quiet accomplishment extracted from a day of physical labour.

Tweets from airports are legion on twitter. Filling in space before the next ride. Borne out of boredom. Symbols of mobility: Look, I’m moving.

Could it be that submitting to the very thing we are desperate to transcend could be the key to our liberation?

Maybe it’s worth spending a little more time just standing still?

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5 Responses to “The 4-Hour Workweek… What Are You Running From?”

  1. On 05/08/2010 at 9:41 AM rena responded with... #

    elegantly written Ryan.

  2. On 05/08/2010 at 1:37 PM Damian responded with... #

    Great piece. Still… you must have had a Eureka moment to achieve this: “It helped me to set up systems whereby, on a recent 2 week holiday, I only needed to deal with 2 emails, and one phone call.”. Half your luck! In eras past, that would be called Enlightenment.

  3. On 07/08/2010 at 5:56 AM ryanspanger responded with... #

    Thanks Rena. Appreciate the feedback.

    Thanks Damian. I think the enlightened bit was deliberately leaving my laptop and mobile phone at home.

  4. On 26/08/2010 at 5:49 AM Adrian Elton responded with... #

    Brilliant missive Mr.Spanger. That said I dream of having uncompromised time to focus on the ‘higher order’ activities only. Fuck washing the dishes when there’s art to be made. Not talking about opting out of life but aspiring to not have to waste time on the mundane. Sure serendipitous epiphanies can happen when washing the dishes but if you have to then hang out the washing followed by washing the dog will you ever have the chance to fully act on them.

  5. On 27/08/2010 at 12:12 AM ryanspanger responded with... #

    Cheers Adrian. Good comments. Perhaps you can integrate your artistic practice with the responsibilities of canine hygiene by workshopping a performance art piece that incorporates dog washing. 😛

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