"It pays not to be puritanical with incentives. Shame, humiliation, peer pressure, financial loss—these things are effective."
“I’m making the call to skip the IV drip,” Tim Ferriss said when I answered the phone. “Let’s get black coffee and go for a hike.” The plan had been to meet about a half-hour north of Ferriss’s home in San Francisco, at a Marin County clinic where he was scheduled to receive a massive intravenous dose of vitamin C to test its potential to aid with fat loss and muscle recovery. But there was an accident on the approach to the Golden Gate Bridge, and Ferriss, whose 2007 surprise New York Times bestseller, The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich, railed against wasted time, was not going to idle in traffic.
Forty-five minutes later, I walk into a café in the city’s Glen Park neighborhood and find him in front of a laptop while talking on his iPhone headset. He’s wearing jeans and a green long-sleeve waffle-knit T-shirt that bulges around his weight lifter’s shoulders. At 33, he looks supremely fit and healthy—stout body, smooth skin, clear eyes—and if we’re to believe what he writes in his even better-selling follow-up, The 4-Hour Body: An Uncommon Guide to Rapid Fat-Loss, Incredible Sex, and Becoming Superhuman, published last December, you can look the same with little effort. The 571-page book is packed with shortcuts to just about everything overworked Americans wish we had more time for: trimming fat, building muscle, hitting a baseball like Babe Ruth, holding our breath longer than Houdini, sleeping better, living longer. It even claims to help non-orgasmic women achieve climax. Ferriss has divined prescriptions that, for example, enable you to lose 20 pounds in 30 days without exercise. For every objective, he consults experts (top scientists, elite athletes, porn stars), subjects himself to intensive experimentation (injections, batting cages, a meat-and-nuts diet), collects data (blood tests, scales, video), and then shares what works to see if others can replicate his results. The goal is to find what he calls the minimum effective dose—the easiest (and usually quickest) path to a desired outcome. The key to hacking your life, he argues, is closely monitoring your progress with the appropriate tools so you can be inspired to keep going or change course.
As we begin talking, Ferriss leans in and cradles his right biceps in his left hand, his index and forefinger fidgeting rhythmically. Must be the caffeine.
ROBERTS: If The 4-Hour Body is full of hard science and all kinds of serious life advice, why does it look like another six-pack-abs book?
FERRISS: Most people just want to look better naked, which is what a CEO friend said I should have called it. The book is very much a Trojan horse in that respect. I don’t think that’d be a terrible title, but there’s a lot more to it. If you look at behavioral change, selling health doesn’t work. I can sell the six-pack, and someone can come back to me and say that they’re a type 1 diabetic and have cut their insulin in half. I’m getting them where I want them to go, but it’s a very indirect sell.
But isn’t the greatest hurdle just getting people motivated in the first place?
I would actually say that motivation is not the question. The real question is: What are the incentives? Let’s say I created a gym where you pay $400 the first of the month, and for every visit I refund $25. And before you sign up, we take unflattering photos of you in your underwear, and if you don’t make a certain number of visits, we post those photos to a public website. I guarantee you that would be one fucking fit gym.
Meaning we should use cash and vanity as incentives?
Absolutely. It pays not to be puritanical with incentives. Just look at what’s effective. We like to talk about reward, positive thinking, positive reinforcement. But the sad or useful fact of the matter is that shame, humiliation, peer pressure, financial loss—those things are all more effective.
How does this work if your goals are really better health and performance? A lot of elite endurance athletes don’t exactly look good naked.
Quite frankly, I wouldn’t consider a lot of endurance athletes healthy. But then again, running ultramarathons or, say, squatting 1,000 pounds aren’t necessarily what the human body is designed to do.
Are you saying elite endurance athletes aren’t fit or that they aren’t healthy?
I dislike both words, because they’re poorly defined. Ultramarathoners are fit in the sense that they are well-adapted organisms for long-distance running. But do I think that female 100-milers won’t experience reproductive problems? Not necessarily.
So what’s the ultimate goal of exercise and nutrition?
It’s an intensely personal question and the crux of the issue. It comes down to values. There are people practicing extended caloric restriction, and the objective is to extend life span. I think that’s a Faustian bargain. For me, putting life in your years is just as important as putting years in your life. I want to see the maximum potential of my body in any number of areas.
I’m going to run an ultramarathon. And I’ve never run more than 5K at any given time. I don’t want to do it because I think it’s good for me; I think it’s absolutely bad for me physically. But will I be the same person at the end of the race that I was at the beginning? No, I won’t.
Drip, drip, drip. It’s hard not to stare at the IV bag of electric-yellow fluid above Ferriss’s right shoulder containing 40 grams of vitamin C, about the same amount as in 40 of those horse pills people swallow when they feel a cold coming on. Ferriss and I did take our hike, walking along the small creek that runs through San Francisco’s 70-acre Glen Canyon Park and discussing the many irons Ferriss has in the fire. He has no formal health-sciences training—he graduated from Princeton in 2000 with a B.A. in East Asian studies—and yet he launched a highly profitable sports-nutrition-supplements company when he was 23. Today his ambitions are increasingly diverse. Recent entries on his blog, which receives about a million visits a month, include a video interview with Daymond John—the CEO of the clothing brand FUBU—and a post about the origins of Twitter (he was an early investor and has more than 250,000 followers). He’s exploring ways to hack philanthropy and recently teamed up with the nonprofit Room to Read with the audacious goal of building 100 libraries in 100 hours in developing countries. While he says he has no plans to write another book anytime soon, his research into what he prefers to call “performance enhancement” continues.
The traffic had cleared up, so Ferriss had rescheduled his session at Mill Valley’s Clear Center of Health, which feels a lot more like a high-end yoga operation than a medical facility. Near the front desk are pamphlets for colon-hydrotherapy treatments, along with shelves featuring elixirs labeled Eskimo-3 fish oil and the Ten Mushroom Formula. It all feels like, well, bullshit—which is how many critics reacted to The 4-Hour Body. Entertaining and brilliantly marketed, they conceded, but the guy is full of it.
Ferriss, who is now wearing a blue tank top for easier vein tapping, likes to respond to such charges with research. Before one televised debate with a doctor on ABC, he brandished a stack of more than 300 references and made them available to viewers. Even here, in a space that includes a large painting of a man in the lotus position, he gets animated when talking about science.
How do you respond to critics who find some of your claims outlandish?
I think that, on both sides, when people are asserting that something works or doesn’t work, the response should be, “Show me your data.” There are people from very well established universities who criticized the book, but from what I’ve seen, it has never been “I’ve read the book and here are the issues.” It’s “Well, offhand, that just sounds ridiculous to me.”
And you counter with scientific studies.
The 4-Hour Body was very much a honeypot that I used to attract good scientists that could then do things that would go far beyond the scope of the book. Open-source clinical trials and looking at the future of medical discovery are some of my top priorities.
So you’re recruiting more lab rats? How?
That’s the puzzle. How do you organize something that produces better data than a traditional clinical trial in one-tenth the time without getting thrown in jail or hurting people? I think that will be cracked in the next 12 months. The tools are there, whether it’s using a site like CureTogether.com or PatientsLikeMe.com.
You want to crowdsource medical research?
It’s crowdsourcing with controls.
Do you really think there’s a shortcut to everything? What about a skill like surfing?
I think the term shortcut has the negative connotation of cheating or not paying your dues. I pay my dues on the front end by doing the hard analytical work rather than suffering through a learning curve rife with practices and recommendations that haven’t been vetted. There might be ten different skills that comprise surfing. Could the order in which you learn those make the difference between eight weeks and eight years? Absolutely.
So it’s just a matter of figuring out the formula?
It’s a matter of identifying dogma: What do you have to do? Build an aerobic base before you do A, B, or C? What does aerobic base mean? Are we talking about aerobic in the scientific use or aerobics as marketed and created? Then I look for anomalies—identifying the people who are good but shouldn’t be, the five-foot-six guy who’s 220 pounds but has respectable ultramarathon times. I want to know how he trains, and I’ll create a template out of that. Then I’ll see if I can replicate the results with similarly ill-suited body types.
Don’t we also need to just be OK taking our time with some things, like parenting?
Where people get lost is in applying efficiency and efficacy to something that should be appreciated. To feel successful in a given field, you have to have achievement and appreciation. With parenting, a lot of the value and joy comes from savoring the moment as opposed to minimizing the time investment. So could it be applied? Yes. Should it be applied? That’s a separate question.
It’s several hours postdrip, and we’re surrounded by barbells and strength machines in the weight-lifting zone at Mission Cliffs, a gym and indoor rock-climbing center in San Francisco’s Mission District. Ferriss comes here because he likes to boulder and because he finds the weights area gritty. “Too much chrome and ferns make me uncomfortable,” he explains. I watch as he completes his standard four quick sets of dead lifts, bending over with a wide stance to lift 585 pounds from the floor to a standing position. It’s a brief, slow motion that he initiates with a series of rapid, tight-lipped inhalations called the Valsalva maneuver, which essentially allows him to create a weight belt by increasing abdominal pressure. The scrawny climber guys gawk. Ferriss pretends not to notice.
Why powerlifting? What’s the point besides lifting more?
Well, what’s the goal of running longer distances other than running longer distances?
But increased strength translates into increased confidence elsewhere. For me, I’m getting back into jujitsu training. So from here [crouches] if I want to—boom!—lift you and throw you [explodes up at me while twisting], I need explosive hips.
People think the term “superhuman” in my subtitle is hyperbole. If you walk into a gym and you ask to work in with the biggest guy, who’s doing squats, and you take the bar and do shoulder presses,
you feel superhuman. It’s very fun to see people become the strongest people in their gyms when they think it’s not possible. I know unassuming high school girls who can pull four or five [45 pound] plates off the ground. So for me to get
a light-build male at 130 to 150 pounds
to pull 405 pounds off the ground? Two
to three months.
How does it feel to build that kind of strength?
Awesome. I leave the gym feeling ten times better than when I came in. Right now [he grits his teeth and makes fists in a parody of the adrenaline-stoked lifter—except he’s only half-kidding] I feel amped! I feel great!