Money for Nothing

In Why We Read What We Read, John and I discuss how many of the business/finance books of the 90s contain a spiritual element, a conviction that material success could (and should) be linked to emotional well-being. These warm ‘n’ fuzzy notions seemed to be petering out in the last several years, as evidenced by the giant sales of amoral hits such as Good to Great. Well, the success of Tim Ferriss’ The 4-Hour Workweek may be proof that America is over the touchy-feelys once and for all.

It’s not like Ferriss encourages readers to make money by kicking lepers and killing endangered frogs. But a book of good, old-fashioned values this is not. Just so you know what kind of dude we’re dealing with, here are a few of Ferriss’ more questionable suggestions:

1) Trying to dream up an online business? Ferriss says sell whatever will sell—his own fortune (around $40K a month) comes from peddling sketchy nutritional supplements.

2) Trying to make the jump from office-based to home-based (and thus sun-soaked paradise-based) employment? Just deceive your boss by looking much more productive from home, and then work about two hours a day thereafter, collecting the same salary.

3) Tired of dumb, time-slurping chores? Hire an overseas personal assistant for a few dollars an hour to make travel arrangements, buy gifts, do research—you name it.

4) Want to do something extraordinary? Exploit the technicalities. Ferriss himself won the gold medal at the Chinese Kickboxing National Championships thusly:

Using dehydration techniques I now teach to elite powerlifters, I lost 28 pounds in 18 hours, weighed in at 65 pounds, and then hyperhydrated back to 193 pounds. It’s hard to fight someone from three weight classes above you. Poor little guys…[He continues] If one combatant fell off the elevated platform three times in a single round, his opponent won by default. I decided to use this technicality as my single technique and just push people off. (29-30)

To be fair, these seedy tidbits are sprinkled throughout what seems to be pretty good advice on a number of topics. First, Ferriss takes time explaining the mentality of the “New Rich,” as he calls them—which is to enjoy life now, filling it with hobbies and learning and “mini-retirements” rather than doing endless soul-sucking work to save up money for some long-distant and vaguely conceived retirement. (Hard to argue with that one.) He also offers helpful productivity tips for both employees and entrepreneurs, including specific techniques for preventing interruptions and severely limiting time spent on meetings, phone calls, and e-mail.

But the best way to make money and free yourself to do what you wish, Ferriss says, is to own a small, automated, online business that brings in the income you need (it doesn’t have to be a ton—just enough to pay your bills and make your “dreamlines” possible, whatever those may be). For best results, this business should sell a product costing the customer $50-200 and be marketed to a very specific niche. Ferriss provides detailed instructions on how to test out the selling potential of a product, then how to automate the selling process so that the lucky business owner has to do as little as possible.

Does it work? How the hell should I know? It sounds good, but of course the magic part is coming up with the right product to create, resell, license, or manufacture. Ferriss can’t help you there; you have to rely on your own imagination and expertise. In other words, most of us are screwed.

Finally, Ferriss uses the end of the book to provide tips for long-term world travel and residence and—most unnecessarily, I suspect—how to keep that spring in your step when extraordinary wealth grows boring and angst-inducing.

The writing is sarcastic and funny, though the book is a bit scattered, since it’s basically a manual for living like a man who places a heavy premium on regular world travel—which may not be possible or even desirable for those with kids, dogs, or airplane phobias. Still, it’s easy for the reader to pick and choose the chapters that appeal. The book also provides lots of cool online resources for everything from how to register oneself as a media expert to how to rate charities.

But ultimately, I have to predict that most readers will not achieve a 4-hour workweek or anything close after reading this book, and not just because they lack the courage to think outside the box. The 4-Hour Workweek is probably most useful for true entrepreneurial spirits and those who already have successful online businesses and want to automate them. Most of us slouches, I fear, will find the ideas exciting, the fantasy tantalizing, but the brilliant products—and the resulting cold hard cash—all too elusive.

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