The External Startup Man
Entrepreneur|Startups Summer 2017

The key to Tim Ferriss’ never-ending quest to do everything faster, better, and more profitably: You have to know when TO STOP.

Aaron Gell

TIM FERRISS HAS PLENTY OF SOUND ADVICE for someone undertaking the grueling physical and psychological endurance test that is the miracle of modern air travel.

To avoid jet lag, book your flight on a Dreamliner if at all possible. Newer aircraft have improved pressure systems, which means the altitude takes less of a toll. Use TSA Precheck and Global Entry to evade the sock-footed Forced March of Doom, but arrive ludicrously early anyway and spend a few hours working in the airport lounge to avoid unnecessary stress. Hydrate. Use a zinc spray to bolster your immune system. Squirt saline into your nostrils. Pop one gram of vitamin C every hour and lysine every few hours for the duration of your trip. If you must check baggage containing expensive equipment, consider packing a starter pistol as well and register it at check-in so the airline authorities are extra attentive to your stuff and won’t misplace it. Hydrate some more. And at your soonest opportunity after arriving on terra firma, hop on a stationary bike for 10 minutes of vigorous pedaling.

I followed approximately zero percent of this program when I arrive bleary-eyed and a few minutes late at a Santa Monica steakhouse for an audience with the superman of self-improvement. Fortunately, as he rises to greet me—clad in a reddish V-neck T-shirt and blue sweatpants by Rhone (a sponsor of his podcast) and a pair of flip-flops by Havaianas (not a sponsor)—it’s clear he’s in good enough shape for both of us. Ferriss, 39, is the picture of vitality, a walking, talking, admirably cut advertisement for the outer limits of human potential. The wildly successful author, podcaster, blogger, tango master, and angel investor offers me a firm handshake and a ready smile. Having just come from a photo shoot, he’s lugging a giant gym bag and a backpack, which he admits make him feel a little like Bruce Banner—better known as the Incredible Hulk, one of his preschool idols.

Ferriss, who lives in San Francisco, is in Los Angeles for the week to tape a new TV series, Fear(less) with Tim Ferriss, essentially a televised version of his popular podcast. It will premiere on DirecTV sometime in 2017. This will be Ferriss’ second run at television. His first, The Tim Ferriss Experiment, featured the host striving to master a new field every week (parkour, tactical shooting, rally car driving, speaking Tagalog, drumming, etc.). Turner Broadcasting shot 13 episodes only to shelve the series before it aired following a back-office shakeup. Ferriss eventually got the digital rights and put the show on iTunes, where it topped the nonfiction series charts for weeks.

Meanwhile, he had begun the laborious process of promoting a book, Tools of Titans, a 704-page bid to extend the streak of best-sellers that began with The 4-Hour Workweek, the 2007 publishing supernova that collected 26 rejections before finally finding its way to bookshelves. He followed it up with The 4-Hour Body and The 4-Hour Chef. This new book is “a tool kit for changing your life.” It’s a compendium of actionable wisdom—“field-tested beliefs and habits”—most of them gleaned from more than 200 interviews he conducted for the podcast, featuring everyone from Gen. Stanley McChrystal to actor and musician Jamie Foxx.

The book is, frankly, a firehose of advice. So much advice that no one person could possibly find it all manageable, let alone useful. But Ferriss doesn’t expect it to be used as a bible, with every word followed. That’s not the way self improvement works, he says. And he should know: He has achieved guru status not by adopting every idea that comes his way but by leading a life of trial and error, and being willing to try new things and embrace only what suits his particular circumstances and ambitions. The critical element isn’t the improvement—it’s the openness to improvement, and the self awareness to know what’s working.

“My goal is for each reader to like 50 percent, love 25 percent, and never forget 10 percent,” he writes. As for the rest of the massive volume? Maybe use it as a kettlebell. Seriously. This is a big book.

FERRISS GREW UP in East Hampton, N.Y., the fabulously wealthy ocean side enclave on the southern fork of Long Island, famous for its graceful shingled cottages nestled behind towering hedgerows and its Veuve-soaked summertime social scene. That wasn’t the Ferrisses’ world; they were “townies.” Tim’s father was a real estate agent; his mother, a physical therapist. And he was a runt, he says. “I got my ass kicked constantly. When kids went out to recess, that was not a safe zone for me.”

Eventually, the Hulk fan had a button popping growth spurt of his own: five inches and 60 pounds of muscle. His tormentors were confused. “They were like, ‘This is the guy we always beat up.’ No, this is the guy that throws you over a desk and smashes your head into the floor.” Ferriss sips his iced tea, clearly relishing the memory. He took up wrestling, mastering the elemental combination of strength and strategy, and the benefits of working harder than the other guy. “I learned to associate discomfort with getting better,” he says. “And that transcended wrestling and applied to a lot of other things in life.”

But rather than being the end of Ferriss’ adolescent struggles, it was only the beginning of a repeating pattern: He would experience a setback, find a solution, and incorporate the lesson into his life. During high school, a newly jacked Ferriss took a series of service-industry jobs that put him in direct contact with the town’s moneyed elite. “There were people who would verbally berate you and treat you like you were at the bottom of the caste system,” he says. And here, growing up in the Hamptons with his face pressed against the glass, is where he suspects he learned to overvalue money for a time, fueling his intense drive for success. (Ferriss admits he now has more in common with those onepercenters he once despised than the salt-of-the-earth types he grew up with. “When I go back,” he says, “I don’t know which world I belong to.”)

Eventually, this intensity and focus brought him to Princeton University, where he began working on a degree in neuroscience, a field he remains obsessed with despite switching majors to East Asian studies. During his senior year, in 1999, things started to go south. His thesis wasn’t coming together. He failed to get a second interview at McKinsey & Company, the management consulting powerhouse. A longtime girlfriend broke up with him. Reeling, Ferriss decided to take a year off, but he soon found that being disconnected from school made things worse. As his feelings of anxiety and depression grew, he began to seriously contemplate suicide—a period in his life he spoke about publicly for the first time in a 2015 Reddit Ask Me Anything. “It was really just a matter of luck that I didn’t wind up erasing myself,” he says now. In typical style, he approached the idea with voluminous research, carefully considering the various methods and weighing the pros and cons of each. One of the many books on suicide he requested from the Princeton library was unavailable, so he placed a hold on it, forgetting that he had requested that mail be sent to his parents’ address during his leave. When the library sent a notice informing him of the book’s availability, his mother opened it and called him in a panic.

“Hearing my mom’s voice waver and kind of break snapped me out of my self absorbed delusion,” he says. “I still battle my demons and have ups and downs. But I’ve become better at managing them. I think, This is just the changing of the seasons. You’ve been richly rewarded for your up periods when you have these floods of ideas and endurance and you can get five weeks’ worth of stuff done in five days. This is the tax you pay.”

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