We're All Paying for Someone Else's 4-Hour Work Week
I don’t have a problem with Tim Ferriss.
Well, never mind. I do have a problem with Tim Ferriss, just like I have a problem with anyone who touts the spiritual benefits of minimalism and simplicity, while holding a net worth that floats somewhere in the tens of millions of dollars.
There’s stories floating around the internet about a waterfront mansion he owns in Florida. Ferriss has said he’s never owned property there. I’ll admit, a gaudy beach estate doesn’t really suit his persona. If you dive through his Instagram, you can find photos of what his actual place looks like. It’s a little more rustic, but still light years beyond what most people will ever get to enjoy, regardless of how hard they work.
Take a look:
Of course, it’s not just Tim Ferriss (or his house).
It’s his fan club.
It’s the people who desperately chase the dream he crafted in his book, The 4-Hour Work Week. I’ll be honest, I was disappointed when I read it. It wasn’t the book I thought it was going to be.
Here’s what I expected:
I expected a book that called out the glorification of overwork in American culture, one that cited research in creativity and productivity and then envisioned a future where everyone could work less, because right now people are literally dropping dead from their jobs. I expected a book that admitted its gimmicky title a little more candidly, and drove home the message that while an actual 4-hour work week might be impossible for most of us, we can all certainly work together to create a society where more people can support themselves doing what they love.
Instead, I got…
A bunch of humble-bragging from a Princeton grad who was making $70,000 a month selling supplements, and still wasn’t happy. So he started looking for legal cheats. As it turns out, the best cheat of all was to write a book promising the world they could live like kings while doing almost no work. That’s the g-spot for Americans. Tell them they don’t have to do anything, but they can still live a life of luxury and adventure.
We ship that all day long.
So instead of a clarion call for a new cultural paradigm, The 4-Hour Work Week enshrines entitlement, providing an instruction manual for wannabe digital nomads: If earning a million dollars is too hard, you can just jet around impoverished countries where the dollar is strong (a legacy of colonialism) while running businesses online. If you really want to work four hours a week, you have to outsource the rest of your labor to other people, who wind up working way longer and way harder. You have to be okay with exploiting people, and you can’t really think about it.
Tim Ferriss doesn’t care.
Why would he?
Tim Ferriss spends the rest of the book encouraging people not to read, to ignore the news, and to browbeat everyone into giving into their demands. He brags about interrogating college teachers for hours over bad grades instead of, you know, trying to learn something about the world. He recommends treating friends like personal assistants and tasking them with research. This is what the Tim Ferriss fan club aspires to become, an uninformed twit who puts everyone else through hell for the purpose of satisfying their personal desires. He likens his readers to the small kid who stands up to the school bully, but he doesn’t read, so he doesn’t get it.
When you act like him, you’re the bully.
The best bullies are nice.
You can entertain an audience of total strangers.
Maybe you’ve heard of Benedict Anderson, who wrote a nifty little book called Imagined Communities all the way back in 1983. Because of the printing press, we ultimately wound up with a powerful thing called “print capitalism,” an industry that allowed one person to speak to millions. Suddenly, you could create communities out of things other than religion or immediate shared living space. You could create communities around ideas and information. It was really exciting for a little while.
Then we screwed it up.
At some point, we started creating communities of selfish little monsters and internet trolls. We created Swifties and Beliebers. We created a cult around the idea of the autonomous individual.
Influencers love it.
It’s taken me until now to realize what’s going on in books like The 4-Hour Work Week, or on podcasts like The Tim Ferriss Show. They might reach millions of people, but they speak to a private audience of one. Tim Ferriss isn’t talking about building a better collective future. He’s talking about improving our solitary selves, so that we achieve our own personal goals, with no real thought about the fallout.
That’s how audiences read and interpret information these days. We only read things that promise to bring us immediate benefit. We want to know how we can influence people and make a fortune. We want to learn how to turn problems into opportunities to enrich ourselves, just like our heroes do. We think that’s the way. This kind of logic is so steeped in its own greatness, it never sees what it supplants. It doesn’t see the entire categories of people erased by the pursuit of endless personal growth.
Only seeking what you want to know…
That’s willful ignorance.
You can’t have a 4-hour work week.
Let’s get real about the actual prospects of making this plan work. We know some people pull it off. Everyone else? Not a chance. See, a global economy can’t support millions upon millions of people jetting around the world and running businesses online. There will always be a sub-class of people working constantly behind the scenes, in sweatshops and kitchens, in order to sustain this dream lifestyle for a tiny few.
The inequality is baked in.
That’s where the private, selfish audience of one becomes so dangerous. We read books like The 4-Hour Work Week as if they were made just for us, because that’s how they’re written. Their authors are so far removed from the reality of normal people, they don’t even see us anymore.
We’re rendered invisible.
That’s what should anger us. It’s not that Tim Ferriss found a new way to live and then wrote about it. It’s that now millions of “enlightened” bros all worship him and aspire to be like him, as if this is what our planet needs — more fragile white males with degrees from Princeton, and podcasts selling high speed internet. I know who winds up in the service positions that sustain the lifestyle designers and influencers.
It’s my students.
They’re the ones who work 50, 60, and 70 hours a week to make sure hospitals and restaurants are open. They’re the ones always promised a higher wage or salary, and it never happens. Some of the Tim Ferriss fan club have the audacity to mock these workers. They try and explain economics to them, and tell them they shouldn’t be protesting, or that it’s “bad for the country” that they have a little stimulus money as a cushion.
They have the audacity to tell a single mom working two jobs that what she really needs is passive income streams.
It boils my blood.
Let’s be honest about inequality.
No, I’m not trying to cancel Tim Ferris.
Let him keep his money and his podcast, and all his fame and influence. He’s not personally responsible for what’s wrong with the world. He just happens to embody those problems perfectly, and his fame only drives home how deeply this logic has burrowed into our culture. I’d just like for some of us to finally admit what we’re covering up, that most people can’t and won’t ever achieve what’s promised here— and not because it’s their fault for “failing to think outside the box.” It’s because the very lifestyle itself necessitates that other people work harder for less money in order to make the four-hour week even possible.
Don’t believe me?
Someone’s gotta run the hotels and restaurants and laundromats that serve our beloved digital nomads. Someone’s gotta run the coffee shops where they hang out. Someone’s gotta pick up their trash, and grow their food. Someone’s gotta build those mansions and pools.
Someone’s gotta run the internet they use.
Someone’s gotta make the products they advertise. Someone’s gotta ship those products all around the world.
Not everyone can have a 4-hour work week. In fact, the very people who promote 4-hour work weeks don’t seem to get it. Inequality actually serves their interests. It works for them.
They benefit from it.
So do we.
At least some of us try to change things. We donate. We educate. We work actual jobs that give back to society. We tip the people who deliver our stuff. We inform ourselves and try to do right by others. We dream of one day having enough money not to buy a mansion, but maybe make an actual difference in our communities. I’d love to have enough financial stability one day to spend part of my week building houses for the homeless. A lot of us aren’t in a position to help others as much as we want, because we’re barely out of poverty ourselves and could slip back anytime.
Here’s how we could have a 4-hour work week.
Or at least something close…
We could pass minimum income laws, along with a 35-hour cap on all positions. We could create universal basic income by reforming our tax codes and making everyone pay their fair share. We could eliminate tax breaks, because they never, ever lead to job creation. We could create a culture that values things other than luxury and exotic travel.
If you’re a member of the Tim Ferriss club, don’t waste your energy getting offended. I’m an opinionated bitch. Feel free to pursue whatever toxic dreams you want. In the end, my democratic socialist utopia probably won’t come true either, just like your fantasies won’t.
Just be honest.
For anyone who even gets close to achieving a 4-hour work week, they might want to remember that their curated lifestyle is supported and predicated on other people not having that. Achieving your dream depends on others never achieving theirs, just like Tim Ferris depends on a sea of fanboys striving to be like him, but never getting there.