Our latest Freakonomics Radio episode is called “How to Be Tim Ferriss.” (You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes or elsewhere, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above.)
Our Self-Improvement Month concludes with a man whose entire life and career are one big pile of self-improvement. Nutrition? Check. Bizarre physical activities? Check. Working less and earning more? Check. Tim Ferriss, creator of the Four-Hour universe, may at first glance look like a charlatan, but it seems more likely that he’s a wizard — and the kind of self-improvement ally we all want on our side.
Below is a transcript of the episode, modified for your reading pleasure. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post. And you’ll find credits for the music in the episode noted within the transcript.
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MUSIC: Pat Andrews, “Get Faster”
STEPHEN J. DUBNER: Let’s start with, in 60 seconds or less, what do you actually do in a given day, if you have such a thing as a given day?
TIM FERRISS: I would say: interviewing experts, tracking down eccentric weirdos who are really good at one thing or another, formulating a plan for some type of experiment involving their observations or findings, and then recording it. That is what I do most days.
Our guest today is Tim Ferriss. He is … what is he exactly?
FERRISS: I am a human guinea pig and a professional dilettante.
For our final self-improvement episode, a man whose entire life and career are one big pile of self-improvement, of accelerated self-improvement, as evidenced by his book titles: The 4-Hour Workweek, The 4-Hour Chef, The 4-Hour Body. Tim Ferriss is in fact such a poster boy for self-improvement that you might be, as I first was, a bit suspicious.
DUBNER: I’d seen your face, and I knew that you were the “4-hour-blank” guy, and, of course, I assumed that you were a total charlatan.
FERRISS: Of course. How could you not, with a title like that?
Tim Ferriss: charlatan or self-improvement wizard? You’ll be the judge. Ferriss recently stopped by our studio, with a head full of ideas and, as you’ll hear, a belly full of sardines.
MUSIC: La Fleur Fatale, “B-Side of You” (from When Darkness Falls)
FERRISS: I suppose my professional life can be split into writing books that all sound like infomercial products, most notably The 4-Hour Workweek, and then tech investing.
DUBNER: So if you had to pick a noun or maybe two to describe what you think of yourself as, what is the noun?
FERRISS: The noun would be teacher. I don’t view myself as a writer, first and foremost. I always thought I was going to end up teaching ninth grade, specifically, because I had a lot of really formative influences, I think, at that fork in the road, where a lot of crucial decisions are made by young folks. But I view my job as testing many, many different things, performing experiments and then providing the Cliff Notes to people as a teacher.
DUBNER: Not long ago, you also started a podcast, which is called The Tim Ferriss Show. Now, why did you want to go and do a thing like that, because we all know that podcasting is not where it’s at?
FERRISS: It was intended to be a break between large book projects, and I have this nasty habit of writing long books. 4-Hour Chef is—
DUBNER: Your books are big.
FERRISS: Six hundred seventy pages.
DUBNER: Your books are so weird in the best way. They’re not narrative from beginning to end. Even when they kind of feel a little bit like those self-help books with boxes and charts, you are just zany in a way that reminds me, I’ll be honest with you, of one person more than anyone else, which is my mom. My mom was this kind of Brooklyn girl who ended up in upstate New York trying to be a pioneer woman and raise eight kids, and she did it. She had to figure out all this stuff, and that’s whatstrikes me as what you have: this intense, either curiosity or need or something to figure out stuff and then tell other people about it, which is generous of you. Where does that come from? Why are you not satisfied with just being like everybody else?
FERRISS: I think the answer is two fold. So, number one, my mom always encouraged me to march to my own drummer.
DUBNER: How? How’d she do that?
FERRISS: She exposed me and my brother — I have one sibling, a younger brother — to many, many different environments. My parents didn’t have much money growing up, but they always had a budget for books. And my mom would take us to experience things firsthand, like go to the beach and take leftover chicken bones and tie them to strings and fish for crabs, which we threw back, but the list just went on and on. And if we grasped onto anything and became really passionate, then she would — and my father as well — put all their support behind that. And secondly, growing up, I was born premature and I was very, very small until about sixth grade.
DUBNER: How small?
FERRISS: Small enough to get beat up at recess until sixth grade. I mean, very much the runt of the litter in school. And I was hyperactive, so my mom was looking for a solution to this and threw me into kid wrestling. So kid wrestling is weight-class based. And I ended up embracing that as my primary sport and got to a national level towards the end of high school. And a big competitive advantage I had was that I studied the science of weight-cutting. I got very good at losing weight and then regaining it. I was cutting from, say, 178 pounds to 152 pounds.
DUBNER: Whoa. Which is how many classes? Like four or five?
FERRISS: Quite a few, yeah. So I became an amateur scientist in studying the various approaches to weight loss and understanding what I had to do to maintain performance. So using, say, potassium-sparing diuretics, even. Something available over the counter, like a dandelion root. And so I think just to provide context for people, that is where I realized the benefits and risks and nuances of experimentation.
DUBNER: You grew up in what many people know as the Hamptons, but not in a lifestyle that was what most people who think of the Hamptons think of the Hamptons lifestyle, right? You were a townie, essentially, right?
FERRISS: That’s right. Yeah. No short white shorts and tennis racquets.
DUBNER: What did your folks do for a living?
FERRISS: My dad was a real-estate broker, a local real estate broker. My mom was, and still is, a physical therapist.
DUBNER: And did you have jobs as a teenager and stuff like that?
FERRISS: Oh, yeah. I worked as a, primarily a busboy, at a place called Snowflake, which is now Bostwick’s. And then Lobster Roll, a lot of people have heard of Lobster Roll. They might call it Lunch, but no locals call it that. It’s the Lobster Roll, which is now very well-known because of the show The Affair.
DUBNER: You’re how old now?
DUBNER: And what is your spousal or partnership status?
DUBNER: Single. You do have a dog, though, right? Molly?
FERRISS: I do. I have a dependent. Molly is nine or 10 months old now.
DUBNER: She travels with you?
FERRISS: She travels with me almost all the time.
DUBNER: And I’ve heard you say that your food for her is dry kibble with sardine oil on top?
FERRISS: Drizzled over it, right. So I consume — after a conversation on my podcast with a scientist named Dominic D’Agostino, who’s a ketogenesis, a ketone expert — began consuming sardines in the mornings and found that if I’m traveling, in particular — I often give Molly dehydrated, say, bison or different wild game, when I’m at home in San Francisco — but if I’m traveling, I can get her to eat dry kibble with the sardine oil drizzled on top of it. And it solves all sorts of dermatological issues, which I assume correspond to other types of health benefits internally.
DUBNER: Right. And did you start eating sardines for the dermatological benefit yourself, or more for the other components?
FERRISS: Other benefits.
DUBNER: Do you eat them every day?
FERRISS: Almost every day.
DUBNER: I eat sardines almost every day, too!
FERRISS: To the extent that I will travel — if I’m going to be gone for weeks — I will literally buy cases of sardines. They’re the rats of the sea world, but they’re small enough that they don’t bioaccumulate as much, say, heavy metals as something like an albacore tuna.
DUBNER: I love that story. I hope it’s true.
FERRISS: Yeah, you know, I’m choosing to believe that narrative.
Ferriss majored in East Asian studies at Princeton, but he was always looking for business ideas as well. He opened some high-end gyms in Taiwan; he sold audiotapes of college-admissions advice. Neither of those worked out. He had better luck teaching speed-reading, but he got bored with that. Soon after graduation, he founded a company called BrainQuicken, which sold a nutritional supplement meant to, well, quicken your brain. And then BodyQuick, which was pitched to athletes. Ferriss says he was making a lot of money, but he was also badly overworked. So he took a leave of absence, went to Europe. He expected the company to tank in his absence. It didn’t; it did even better without him, which made him wonder if the whole notion of working 40- and 60- and 80-hour weeks might be overrated.
DUBNER: So your first book, The 4-Hour Workweek, I am curious, because I don’t know — the word I’m looking for is not “fraud,” but I’m pretty sure you work many more hours than four hours per week yourself, right? So was that a prescription? Was it a wish? Or was it a kind of metaphor for what one needs to create?
FERRISS: Well, the objective of the book — for those people who haven’t read it, and I’m sure many people have not — is to provide you with tools and principles for 10x-ing your hourly output. And the reason it’s gained, I think, a foothold in the finance world, with people like hedge-fund managers, also with people in the startup world — CEOs of very large, fast-growing companies — is that they are looking for sources of leverage to get more output for each input. The 4-Hour Workweek title was one of 12 titles that I tested on Google AdWords. So I created campaigns to test the respective titles and subtitles and then just looked at the click-through rates, which went to under-construction pages. And that performed the best of the options that I had.
DUBNER: What came in second?
FERRISS: Second was…
DUBNER: All right, better question: What was worst? Do you recall the bad ones?
FERRISS: The worst, I think — and I had a lot of bad ones — it was like, “broadband and white sand,” or something really cheeseball.
FERRISS: Like that. But to talk about my personal perspectives, that’s the first context. And the second piece is, the book is not about being idle. It’s about having control of your nonrenewable resource known as time and then applying it how you want to.
DUBNER: But the other kind of misperception of The 4-hour Workweek is that, especially because it’s got a palm tree on the cover, right?
FERRISS: Yeah. The objective is not to stare out into space rubbing cocoa butter on your belly for the rest of your life. It’s about optimizing per-hour output.
DUBNER: So the implication is, hey, you don’t have to work so hard, and you can still accomplish what you need to, financially, whatever. But the real message of the book is, the way that we think about filling up our time with, quote, “work,” which is often less work and more just, kind of, garbage, is a silly way to think about the world.
FERRISS: I think that a lot of our assumptions are erroneous and misplaced and that we don’t test them very well. So I think part of the reason that the book initially took off in the tech sphere — aside from the fact that I live in Silicon Valley, kind of right in the middle of the switch box — is that I talked about measurables. It was very much the language of startups. Like, what are your KPIs, your key performance indicators? What are the metrics that you’re trying to prove? How do you do the analysis to determine where to focus? And it’s very easy, I think, in the digital age, easier than ever, to confuse being busy with being productive, and they’re just not the same thing.
FERRISS: And doing something well does not make it important. So the sort of drive towards efficiency and doing things quickly, oftentimes not stopping to assess whether or not the things we’re doing are important in the first place.
DUBNER: So one key piece of advice that you and a lot of other people have given over time is learning to be better at saying “no” to stuff. Especially as you start to succeed a little bit at whatever you’re succeeding at — in a firm, as an entrepreneur, as a writer, whatever, more people ask you to do stuff, and it’s kind of flattering and you want to be nice and you — I think the instinct for many people is to say “yes,” and all of a sudden, you realize that, like, 80 percent of your good time is taken up by stuff that is not so good. So considering that you’re a big fan of “no,” and considering that you said not so long ago that one of your goals for the new year was to not do any media — what are you doing here, today? This seems like this should be exactly the kind of thing you should not be doing.
FERRISS: Well, the goals move around, so I’d say there are two reasons I’m doing it. The first is that I am enjoying working on my own podcast, The Tim Ferriss Show, and I think you’re extremely good at what you do. So this is an opportunity for me to observe, interact, and get better at what I’m also doing.
DUBNER: Good brown-nosing, OK.
FERRISS: So I’ll start with the flattery. And then the second reason is that when I really drilled down, I realized the vast majority of my time, which I felt was ill-spent, was being consumed by startups. And so about six months ago, I published what is, in effect, a resignation letter, a retirement letter related to startups.
DUBNER: You went celibate, really.
FERRISS: Yeah, I went startup-celibate.
DUBNER: Now, we should say, these were startups you were not participating — you were participating as an investor, primarily, correct?
FERRISS: Investor and advisor, which implies and carries with it much more responsibility in terms of being at the beck and call of various founders or otherwise people related to startups. So by stemming the flow of, say, cold introductions via email and whatnot related to startups, I was able to reclaim a large portion of the pie that represented my total work hours.
MUSIC: Patrick Coen, “Rat Pack Casino Lounge”
As an early investor in startups, Ferriss had already had a number of what he calls “lucky bets.”
DUBNER: Was Uber one of the lucky bets?
FERRISS: Definitely. Although that’s still a private company.
DUBNER: Facebook was another?
FERRISS: Facebook also did very well.
DUBNER: How early were you in?
FERRISS: Two years before the IPO. Alibaba, Twitter, about 20 or so other bets, about 70 in total, probably.
DUBNER: And why’d you want to go cold turkey on that? Was it that you had enough money? Was it that you were sick of that whole, either group of people or that kind of idea? Was it you just wanted a change? Was it that you wanted to do other things?
FERRISS: Well, I’ll give you the short version. It’s probably a ten-page, I wouldn’t call it a screed, but list of reasons.
DUBNER: It was a little screedy.
FERRISS: It was a little screedy. But the primary reasons are, number one, I realized that in today’s environment, I was in many ways replaceable as an investor. In other words, there’s such a surplus of capital that if I said “no,” there were going to be ten other people in line to say “yes,” even if the terms were outrageously unfavorable and dangerous. And if people were price shopping, meaning looking for highest valuations or taking money off the table and nothing more, it made it very difficult and unpleasant for me to do a good job as a responsible investor, even if I’m not using other people’s money and only my own. The second reason is, I think, the dynamics right now in the market are such that it’s extremely difficult for me, as a single person, doing this part-time, to filter the signal from the noise. And what I realized is, I don’t do moderation well. So it’s much more effective — in fact, required — for me to say, “I’m not doing any deals.” Period. Zero.
DUBNER: I’m curious, do you think that as a strategy would be useful to a lot of people in spheres having nothing to do with investing?
FERRISS: Hugely valuable. Absolutely. If you look at behavioral modification and you look at, say, the work of B.J. Fogg at Stanford or otherwise, I think that cold turkey is oftentimes much more effective than trying to titrate back and moderate, particularly when you’re dealing with compulsive or addictive behavior.
DUBNER: On the other hand, it may be that the people that we learn about who were successful at cold turkey are the disciplined people, and that the ones that we don’t hear about so much are the ones who try it and then backslide a little bit, and then they’re back to where they were.
FERRISS: Oh, for sure. I think there’s absolutely the risk of a survivorship bias, right? Just like mutual funds that advertise their performance in Magazine A, B, and C. You don’t hear about the losers, which is why—
DUBNER: Look at the Dow Jones. Look at the stocks that are in the Dow Jones. I mean, we should all have the ability the Dow Jones Industrial Average has to get rid of the ones that hurt our average.
FERRISS: Right. Or the people who are lionized on magazine covers for saying no to a billion-dollar acquisition offer and taking it to $20 billion. You don’t hear about the losers, because the story isn’t as interesting. It’s not going to sell as many copies.
MUSIC: Christopher Norman, “Haunting” (from Process)
Ferriss is what you might call a serial obsessionist. At the moment, one of his obsessions is lucid dreaming.
FERRISS: So lucid dreaming is very demonstrable in a lab. And it is the phenomenon of becoming conscious of the fact that you are dreaming when you are dreaming. And you can cultivate the ability to trigger this, which allows you to do some very interesting things.
DUBNER: What do you need to do, whether physiologically or chemically or whatever, to prepare for lucid dreaming?
FERRISS: Well, physiologically, having a basic understanding of sleep cycles is helpful. If you can wake yourself during a REM cycle, stay awake for, say, 10 to 15 minutes, and then go back to sleep, that will oftentimes increase the frequency of inducing lucidity. If you wanted to get a little out there, there are some people who take, for instance, Huperzine-A, which is an acetylcholine-esterase-inhibitor, prior to sleep, in the belief that it facilitates lucid dreaming.
DUBNER: Have you tried it?
FERRISS: I have. Difficult to say if that is causal or placebo or otherwise, but it seems to be a plausible mechanism.
DUBNER: If I understand correctly, you once nearly attempted suicide. I don’t know exactly what that means.
FERRISS: That’s true, yeah. At Princeton.
DUBNER: Can you tell me, or do you want to tell me a little bit about that?
FERRISS: Yeah, we can talk about it. And this experience, I should underscore, is not uncommon at a lot of these pressure-cookers, in terms of universities. There was just a confluence of what I perceive to be major negative life events all at once, including incredible difficulty with a senior thesis and thesis advisor at Princeton. And I approached the administration about taking a year off to focus on testing a few different jobs, because I felt like I was being funneled into the Goldman Sachs and McKinseys of the world, and I knew that wasn’t a fit for me. Secondarily, I was like, let me take the time necessary to do a good job on my thesis. And I was told two things. First by my senior thesis advisor, “Oh, you’re just gonna cop out? This had better be the best thesis I’ve ever seen, or, in fact, I’m going to give you a bad grade,” which is a huge percentage of your departmental G.P.A. for the entire time in your undergraduate education. And then secondly, when I went to the people I thought would be willing to help because of this purported focus on undergraduate education and health and whatnot, I was told in no uncertain terms that that tenured professor would never do such a thing. And that was the end of the conversation. So I felt really trapped in a corner.
DUBNER: Did you plan it? Did you envision it?
FERRISS: Yeah. I did.
DUBNER: Were you depressed?
FERRISS: I was, and it seems to run in the males in my family on both sides. So I’ve had extended periods of depression that I’ve become better at mitigating over time. But the most important thing that I have ever written, I think, is “Some Practical Thoughts on Suicide” — a long post on this. I really think it’s the most important thing I’ve ever written.
DUBNER: I see that you are or have crowdfunded a study about treating depression with psilocybin, right? At Johns Hopkins. Is that related to your own experience, or—?
FERRISS: Very much related. Yeah, and I’m going to be doing more at Johns Hopkins. I’ve also funded some neuroscience studies at UCSF and will be doing more at a number of different universities, most likely including NYU, in fact.
DUBNER: I’m curious, having been depressed and thinking about suicide in the past, how do you think about depression in the future? Is it something that you kind of feel you’re forestalling constantly, or is it not a feature of your daily life?
FERRISS: It’s not something I’m as fearful of anymore. I think that I’ve identified tools, including judicious supervised use of what we would typically call psychedelics, entheogens, which is the new branding, perhaps, that scientifically and just based on the preliminary data and published data have tremendous promise for addressing treatment-resistant depression. I mean, beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. That would be one tool. I also think that preventatively focusing on daily or weekly habits that prevent depression is really the ounce of prevention being worth a pound of cure. It’s very hard when your mind goes into this sort of depression logic that is self-defeating, to pull yourself out of it. So, certain types of exercise oftentimes related to balance or acrobatics — anything where you’re moving your body through space as opposed to a weight around your body. Secondly, meditation. I meditate almost every morning for 20 minutes, roughly.
DUBNER: Evening as well, or no?
FERRISS: Less so in the evenings, but I do have mindfulness practices in the evening. And then nutrition. There are a few key, sort of, cornerstone elements, if I control, will not prevent me from ever being depressed, but will mitigate it tremendously. What I’ve also come to accept is, I do think that it’s very common among people who try to create anything original. I think that it’s very hard to have the kind of manic ups that allow you to see connections between seemingly unrelated dots without having some troughs. And maybe that’s just rationalizing and accepting depression, but it’s very hard for me to find people in that type of profession who don’t have this pendulum.
DUBNER: It’s interesting, because a lot of people talk about the relationship between the two — creativity and depression — but as if the arrow was traveling in one way, which is that depressed people — people like to look at, say, look at a hundred very, very creative people and look at the incidence of depression. It seems to be higher than among the general population. But you’re suggesting, potentially, I guess, that there’s a causal arrow maybe moving in the other direction, which is: if you choose to be a creative-type person, you’re engaging in an activity of reinventing a blank page every day that inevitably might produce highs that might also be accompanied by periods of real mental drought.
FERRISS: I think so. I mean, this is just from my own personal experience and observations of friends who are also writers or songwriters or whatever it might be. The more time you spend in your own head, I think, the higher, just probabilistically, the more likely you are to latch onto some weird circular reasoning. But I don’t romanticize depression in that way that, for instance, some musicians fetishize drug use. They’re like, well, you do your best work when you’re on coke and heroin and all this stuff; it brings out the muse, and so on. I think that’s a dangerous logic.
DUBNER: Well, I appreciate your talking about it, because, you know, it strikes me as a huge paradox — suicide, particularly, but depression also — which is that, suicide is rather prominent in the West and particularly in the U.S. More people die from suicide than by murder, easily more than double, and yet, because there’s the taboo around it, we don’t talk about it much, in part, for fear of triggering it. On the other hand, the downside of that is: if you can’t poke around at something, especially empirically, it’s hard to learn about it and hard to learn what, you know, leads people to it.
FERRISS: Totally. I do think, taking kind of a left turn, that if people spend — and this is gonna sound simplistic, but the solutions don’t have to be complex to perceived complex problems — more time in nature and less reactivity from all of the notifications and push messages and so on that we’re bombarded with, it solves a lot of these problems. It really does. It’s like, go lift heavy objects and get out; walk barefoot in nature; play with the dog, and meditate in the morning.
DUBNER: And that’s why you travel with your dog.
FERRISS: One of the reasons, yeah. One of the reasons. Get my head out of my own ass and actually focus on something besides myself.
Tim Ferriss is a self-experimenter, an entrepreneur, an investor, a writer; he has a podcast called The Tim Ferriss Show; he’s tried some TV.
FERRISS: I spent a period of time in Japan for this ill-fated TV show that did not take off. And I had a week to attempt to learn Japanese horseback archery.
DUBNER: Which has to be pretty easy, right?
FERRISS: Not easy.
DUBNER: You’re just riding fast.
FERRISS: Yeah, galloping with no reins and pulling an arrow off your back and shooting at these little targets the size of dinner plates.
There was another TV show that also didn’t work out, at least as planned. It was called The Tim Ferriss Experiment. He shot a whole season, 13 episodes, for a network that later changed its mind. In each episode, Ferriss would spend just a few days trying to learn a new skill — rock-and-roll drumming, rally-car racing, golf. One episode was called “Urban Evasion and Escape.” The show was made for a new TBS platform called Upwave, which got shut down shortly after Ferriss’s show started airing.
FERRISS: Everything got put in the vault. And there was a regime change. Sayonara, you’re out of luck. But I was able to license that back and distribute it myself on iTunes, which was very successful beyond my wildest expectations. I was asked recently by a network executive, “what did you learn from your various experiences in these different media,” and my answer was, “fund it yourself.” If you don’t finance it, you don’t control it at the end of the day. And that has become easier and easier to do, with tools like Kickstarter, with options even for orphaned content.
DUBNER: All right, so, Tim, let’s tackle some of our patented FREAK-quently asked questions. Feel free to give an expansive answer; feel free to give a lightning-round answer. There’s no right or wrong way to do these. Name the handful, or maybe it’s more than a handful, of things that you do — whether it’s rituals, whether it’s diets, sleep, exercise, whatever — things that you do to kind of keep yourself functional and happy and moving forward every day.
FERRISS: Yeah. I wake up probably somewhere between 8:30 and 10 AM; I tend to stay up late. I sit down and meditate for 20 minutes. Then I brew tea, which is typically Pu-erh tea with turmeric and ginger added to it, to which I add coconut oil, which is high in medium chain triglycerides, which the brain likes very much. I consume that as I sit down and journal. There are two different journals that I’m currently using: the five-minute journal, which was created by a reader of mine, in fact. Really, really helpful for setting the tone and focus for the day. And then morning pages, which is really just a free-association exercise — good way to trap your monkey-mind on paper so it doesn’t distract you and sabotage you for the rest of the day. And between that point and lunch — these days, I’m often skipping breakfast — I will focus on creative, hopefully creative production or synthesis. So writing, recording, exploring, and if I have any type of admin or housekeeping, metaphorically, to deal with, that is done in the afternoon. I’d say that’s generally the routine. I, every night, have a very hot soaking bath. No bubbles, no jets. That’s sacrilegious.
DUBNER: What is one thing you own that you should throw out but probably never will?
FERRISS: The wooden shards of the targets that I hit when I was doing the Japanese horseback archery.
DUBNER: You have them displayed or just stuffed in a drawer?
FERRISS: They are respectively placed on a shelf, and I have no idea what I’m going to do with them. I think I might just—
DUBNER: Sounds like you’re gonna keep them.
FERRISS: I might give them away to people at some point. I just, they have such strong meaning for me. That would definitely be high on the list. I also have notebooks — just bookshelves and bookshelves of notebooks where I’ve recorded, for instance, almost all my workouts since I was about 16. I don’t think I need those.
DUBNER: What’s your favorite sport to play and favorite sport to watch?
FERRISS: Favorite sport to play — competitive sport?
DUBNER: What is an example of a noncompetitive sport? Isn’t it then not a sport?
FERRISS: That’s fair enough.
DUBNER: No, I’m curious to know.
FERRISS: Well, there’s a related—
DUBNER: Like kite flying. Although we used to have kite fights when I was a kid.
FERRISS: Yeah. No, acro yoga is something that I’m currently really delving into. It’s a combination of, in effect, yoga, acrobatics, and Cirque Du Soleil-type performances. The sports that I am best at or have been best at are generally those that I enjoy. I don’t like being really bad at things.
DUBNER: Welcome to the club.
DUBNER: You’re visiting New York now, which you do pretty regularly. It’s not uncommon to run into someone on the street asking for money. So it seems like everybody, over the course of their life, develops some kind of standard strategy for that scenario. What’s yours?
FERRISS: I do not give money, and I’ll tell you why. I at one point paid a homeless gentleman in San Francisco to give me a tour of the entire sort of homeless underground in San Francisco.
DUBNER: What did you pay him?
FERRISS: It was through a service that I think is no longer around*. I think it was called Vayable? V-a-y-a-b-l-e. It was maybe 50, a hundred bucks, something like that? And he was very explicit and he said, “You should never give homeless people money.” And he showed me exactly where they—
*CLARIFICATION: Vayable is still in business. According to their press team, they are “growing bigger than ever and now operating in more than 100 countries.”
DUBNER: Right, says the homeless guy who’s getting paid by the agency.
FERRISS: Who is getting money. So, right, you have to take that into account. But he walked me through the Tenderloin, through all these different areas, and he pointed out where to get clothing, where to get housing, where to get blankets, where to get food, where to get all these resources, and he said, anyone who is asking for money is doing so to buy drugs or alcohol.
DUBNER: Tim, what is something that you believed for a long time to be true until you found out you were wrong?
FERRISS: I believed for a very long time as an athlete that low-fat, high-carbohydrate was an optimal diet.
DUBNER: Not just you, brother.
FERRISS: Yeah. And I think there’s a decent amount of evidence, circumstantial or direct, to suggest that low-fat diets create a host of issues ranging from joint problems to amenorrhea, like the cessation of menstruation. I mean, it’s, it’s, I think entirely unnatural for sedentary people or for athletes.
DUBNER: And also when you forbid people or discourage people from consuming a thing, whether in that case it’s fat, or it could be, you know, anything that you can think of, it’s not like most people will instead consume nothing. They’ll consume more of something else. So the complement, right? And in this case, the complement was a lot of carbs and a lot of sugars that contributed to — if we believe the science that we’re reading today —contributed to all kinds of chronic and underlying problems.
FERRISS: Oh, absolutely. I mean, like, rice cakes? Might as well just inject yourself with insulin.
DUBNER: So, I’m curious, when I read The 4-Hour Chef, it strikes me that you’re a very adventurous chef and eater, but when I hear you talk about your nutrition now, I am curious what you actually would put on a plate and put in your mouth. So if we were to leave this radio studio and say, “hey, let’s go get something to eat,” where would we go and what would you eat?
FERRISS: I’m not purist about it, because I also know how to biochemically limit the damage that I might create. So if we wanted to go out and have sushi, and eat several pounds of rice, I could do that. It wouldn’t cause me any existential angst.
DUBNER: What would be your optimal meal? We’re in New York; there are many choices.
FERRISS: Yeah. Optimal meal, I would say, would be grass-fed steak with vegetables, maybe some lentils for fiber.
DUBNER: I’m down with that. No problem.
FERRISS: And I can go out, and it is not clear to anyone eating with me that I am on a strange or restrictive diet when I order at a restaurant.
DUBNER: Small question here: what is the best possible future invention or discovery for humankind?
FERRISS: The first thing that comes to mind is functional safety precautions related to artificial intelligence, which I think is very difficult.
DUBNER: Yeah, sure is.
FERRISS: How do you create sort of stop-gap ripcords for an intelligence that is by definition intended to get to the point where it can do several million hours of human computation in the span of minutes or hours?
DUBNER: I talk to people about it, I read about it, but it’s really hard for me to understand the contours of it. But the catch-22 part, it seems to me, is we want it to be good enough to be so good that we would be secondary. We would be the animals that somehow manage to create a better intelligence and therefore expendable.
FERRISS: Yeah. I mean, this is a very, very prevalent and intense conversation among technologists right now. And there are those, of course, who believe that it’s summoning the demon and so on. There are those who think it will be a panacea. And there are those who believe it could be both. I tend to fall in that latter group. I mean, I do think that artificial intelligence could solve potentially the greatest dilemmas of our time.
DUBNER: Which you would name as what? The fact that we die too early? The fact that we do stupid things?
FERRISS: Yeah. I mean, you name it. I think space colonization or some variant thereof, climate change, world hunger, warfare or elimination thereof. I mean, it’s impossible to conceive of not only the solutions that A.I. would find to known problems, but the problems it would identify that we haven’t even noticed yet.
DUBNER: I have no idea what even the next five years will bring, though, in A.I., much less 20 years from now. Maybe you do.
FERRISS: I have some guesses, most of which I probably can’t talk about. But I would say that, imagine—
DUBNER: What do you mean, you can’t talk about them? Because you know them to be true? You’ve told someone you won’t break the promise?
FERRISS: That’s right. The latter. Just proprietary information from companies. But I would say this: imagine that a nuclear bomb were bits and bytes that could be transmitted through any broadband connection.
DUBNER: Meaning replicable and scalable in a way that something physical like that is not?
FERRISS: That’s right. That is far more uncontainable than a closely tracked amount of uranium or plutonium.
DUBNER: That’s a very sobering note on which to end. So let’s not end there. All right, last question. If you had a time machine — and it sounds like you may know people who have time machines — when would you travel to and why and what would you do there?
FERRISS: So I’m tempted to say that I would travel back in time to eliminate some dictator, tyrant, or so on. But I think that—
DUBNER: Everybody would do that. Other people would take care of that.
FERRISS: Other people would take care of that. So my knee-jerk response is that I would go back in time and have a lot of drinks with Ben Franklin.
DUBNER: You do love Ben Franklin, I know, and there’s a lot of reasons to love him. But tell me why him.
FERRISS: Because he wasn’t afraid to be an amateur, and as an amateur with a beginner’s mind, I think a fresh pair of eyes, he was able to create many, many breakthroughs in multiple fields that have shaped civilization and the world as we know it today. And he was also, though, at the same time, a bit of a merry prankster and a bit of a showman. And I just really enjoy that combination. Being able to accomplish very big, serious objectives while not taking yourself too seriously is something I aspire to.
DUBNER: Well done, Tim Ferriss. Thanks for coming in.
FERRISS: Thank you.
And with that, ladies and gentlemen, Self-Improvement Month has concluded. I hope you’ve learned at least a little bit about how to be more productive, how to become great at just about anything, how to get more grit in your life, how to win games and beat people and, finally, how to be Tim Ferriss.
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