Timeless Takeaways from Tools of Titans by Tim Ferriss

Tim Ferriss changed my life. I devoured The Four-Hour Body (2010), as well as his following book, The Four-Hour Chef (2012), and I remember listening to the first episode of The Tim Ferriss Show, laughing as he got drunk with Kevin Rose — #TimTimTalkTalk #GoodGood — and asked him ridiculous questions: “If you could be a breakfast cereal, what breakfast cereal would you choose and why?” I can’t thank Tim enough for all that he’s done. He’s been a role model, helped me through some dark times, and introduced me to countless useful principles.

Without further ado, here are some of my favorite lessons from his latest book, Tools of Titans (2016).

(1) Don’t Be A Donkey — Derek Sivers1 (@sivers) — “Well, I meet a lot of 30-year-olds who are trying to pursue many different directions at once, but not making progress in any, right? They get frustrated that the world wants them to pick one thing, because they want to do them all: ‘Why do I have to choose? I don’t know what to choose!’ But the problem is, if you’re thinking short-term, then [you act as though] if you don’t do them all this week, they won’t happen. The solution is to think long-term. To realize that you can do one of these things for a few years, and then do another one for a few years, and then another. You’ve probably heard the fable, I think it’s ‘Buridan’s ass,’ about a donkey who is standing halfway between a pile of hay and a bucket of water. He just keeps looking left to the hay, and right to the water, trying to decide. Hay or water, hay or water? He’s unable to decide, so he eventually falls over and dies of both hunger and thirst. A donkey can’t think of the future. If he did, he’d realize he could clearly go first to drink the water, then go eat the hay. ‘So, my advice to my 30-year-old self is, don’t be a donkey. You can do everything you want to do. You just need foresight and patience.’”

(2) Don’t Be A Dog [either], Think: “What If?” — Matt Mullenweg2 (ma.tt) — “From the early days of WordPress, we would always think: ‘Okay, if we do X today, what does that result in tomorrow, a year from now, ten years from now?’ The metaphor I think of the most—because it’s simple—is the dog chasing the car. What does the dog do if he catches the car? He doesn’t have a plan for it. So I find it just as often on the entrepreneurial side. People don’t plan for success.”

(3) Discipline Equals Freedom — Jocko Willink3  (@jockowillink) — this is Tim’s take on the concept: “I interpret this to mean, among other things, that you can use positive constraints to increase perceived free will and results. Freeform days might seem idyllic, but they are paralyzing due to continual paradox of choice (e.g.,’What should I do now?’) and decision fatigue (e.g., ‘What should I have for breakfast?’). In contrast, something as simple as pre-scheduled workouts acts as scaffolding around which you can more effectively plan and execute your day. This gives you a greater sense of agency and feeling of freedom. Jocko adds, ‘It also means that if you want freedom in life—be that financial freedom, more free time, or even freedom from sickness and poor health—you can only achieve these things through discipline.’”

(4) Am I Hunting Antelope or Field Mice? — This one’s all Tim — “I lifted this question around 2012 from former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich. I read about it in Buck Up, Suck Up… and Come Back When You Foul Up: 12 Winning Secrets from the War Room, written by James Carville and Paul Begala, the political strategists behind Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign ‘war room.’ Here’s the excerpt that stuck with me:

Newt Gingrich is one of the most successful political leaders of our time. Yes, we disagreed with virtually everything he did, but this is a book about strategy, not ideology. And we’ve got to give Newt his due. His strategic ability—his relentless focus on capturing the House of Representatives for the Republicans—led to one of the biggest political landslides in American history.

Now that he’s in the private sector, Newt uses a brilliant illustration to explain the need to focus on the big things and let the little stuff slide: the analogy of the field mice and the antelope. A lion is fully capable of capturing, killing, and eating a field mouse. But it turns out that the energy required to do so exceeds the caloric content of the mouse itself. So a lion that spent its day hunting and eating field mice would slowly starve to death. A lion can’t live on field mice. A lion needs antelope. Antelope are big animals. They take more speed and strength to capture and kill, and once killed, they provide a feast for the lion and her pride. A lion can live a long and happy life on a diet of antelope. The distinction is important. Are you spending all your time and exhausting all your energy catching field mice? In the short term it might give you a nice, rewarding feeling. But in the long run you’re going to die. So ask yourself at the end of the day, ‘Did I spend today chasing mice or hunting antelope?’

Another way I often approach this is to look at my to-do list and ask: ‘Which one of these, if done, would render all the rest either easier or completely irrelevant?’”

(5) Are You Playing Offense or Defense? — Chris Sacca4 (@sacca) — When he was an up-and-coming venture capitalist, Sacca defied conventional wisdom by moving from San Francisco to Truckee, prime skiing and hiking country near Lake Tahoe. “I wanted to go on offense. I wanted to have the time to focus, to learn the things I wanted to learn, to build the things I wanted to build, and to really invest in relationships that I wanted to grow, rather than just doing a day of coffee after coffee after coffee.”

Tim: “He no longer felt compelled to take meetings he didn’t want. There were no more early-morning coffee dates and late-night social dinners he didn’t want to attend. Rather, Chris invited specific founders to spend weekends at ‘the jam pad’ and ‘the jam tub’ (the hot tub outside). He considers the cabin the best investment he’s ever made.”

Sacca: “Everyone loves coming to the mountains. Over the years, that’s helped me build lasting friendships. Some of those have been the catalysts for my investments in Uber, Twitter, and others…

Generally, what all of this comes down to is whether you are on offense or defense. I think that as you survey the challenges in your lives, it’s just: Which of those did you assign yourself, and which of those are you doing to please someone else? Your inbox is a to-do list to which anyone in the world can add an action item. I needed to get out of my inbox and back to my own to-do list.”

(6) “BUSY” = Out of Control — here’s another one from Sivers that nicely complements Sacca’s point — “Every time people contact me, they say, ‘Look, I know you must be incredibly busy…’ and I always think, ‘No, I’m not.’ Because I’m in control of my time. I’m on top of it. ‘Busy,’ to me, seems to imply ‘out of control.’ Like, ‘Oh my God, I’m so busy. I don’t have any time for this shit!’ To me, that sounds like a person who’s got no control over their life.”

Tim elaborates: “Lack of time is lack of priorities. If I’m ‘busy,’ it is because I’ve made choices that put me in that position, so I’ve forbidden myself to reply to ‘How are you?’ with ‘Busy.’ I have no right to complain. Instead, if I’m too busy, it’s a cue to reexamine my systems and rules.”

(7) Remember the Last Three Turns — Josh Waitzkin5 (joshwaitzkin.com) — “I remember when I went skiing with Billy Kidd, who is one of the great Olympic downhill racers from back in the 1960s. He’s an awesome dude. Now he skis out in Colorado wearing a cowboy hat… and he [asked] me years ago when I first skied with him, ‘Josh, what do you think are the three most important turns of the ski run?’ I’ve asked that question to a lot of people since.

Most people will say ‘the middle because it’s the hardest’ or ‘the beginning because of momentum,’ but he describes the three most important turns of a ski run as the last three before you get on the lift. It’s a very subtle point. For those of you who are skiers, that’s when the slope is leveled off, there’s less challenge. Most people are very sloppy then… they have bad form. The problem is that on the lift ride up, unconsciously, you’re internalizing bad body mechanics.

As Billy points out, if your last three turns are precise, then what you’re internalizing on the lift ride up is precision. So I carry this on to the guys who I train in the finance world, for example: ending the work day with very high quality, which for one thing means you’re internalizing quality overnight.”

(8) Warning: Perfectionism May Lead to Paralysis — James Altucher6 (jamesaltucher.com) and Seth Godin7 (sethgodin.com) — Altucher: “What if [you] just can’t come up with 10 ideas? Here’s the magic trick: If you can’t come up with 10 ideas, come up with 20 ideas… You are putting too much pressure on yourself. Perfectionism is the ENEMY of the idea muscle… it’s your brain trying to protect you from harm, from coming up with an idea that is embarrassing and stupid and could cause you to suffer pain. The way you shut [this] off is by forcing [the brain] to come up with bad ideas.”

Godin: “If you generate enough bad ideas, a few good ones tend to show up… So the goal isn’t to get good ideas; the goal is to get bad ideas. Because once you get enough bad ideas, then some good ones have to show up.”

The best writing advice I’ve ever received parallels this point nicely. Here it is8, courtesy of my Journalism professor (Dr. Kimberly Miller, @DrMiller17) at Grove City College:

Write something, anything, even if it’s bad. Get those ideas out of your head and onto paper because if you don’t, then you’re going to drive yourself crazy. I had this friend in college, and, bless her, she wouldn’t write anything down until it was perfect. I remember her sitting there with steam coming out of her ears and a desperate look on her face, and I wanted to tell her: ‘Just write it down, for the love of God, get it out of your head.’ So that’s my advice to you. Give yourself something to work with, and don’t worry if it sucks because you can always make it better.


An Aside: Some Additional Thoughts on Perfectionism, with Tim and Rick Rubin

Rick Rubin is a legendary music producer. He’s worked with everyone from Johnny Cash to Jay Z, Shakira, the Beastie Boys, Sheryl Crow, Metallica, Neil Diamond, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and many more. In 2008, MTV called him “one the most important producers of the last 20 years.” Here’s his thought-provoking response to Tim’s question about advice for his younger self…

RICK: “To be kinder to myself, because I think I’ve beaten myself up a lot. I expect a lot from myself, I’ll be hard on myself, and I don’t know that I’m doing anyone any good by doing that.”

TIM: “Something that I struggle with is—on one hand—I don’t want to beat myself up, but on the other hand, I feel like the perfectionism that I have has enabled me to achieve whatever modicum of success I’ve had. I’ve heard stories about ZZ Top and La Futura, and how they worked on it with you from 2008 to 2012, and they realized the value of your wanting the art to be as perfect as it could be, or the best it could be, and taking whatever time and pains necessary to make that possible. I want to be easier on myself, but I worry that if I do that, I will lose whatever magic, if there is such a thing, that enables me to do what I do.”

RICK: “I think, ultimately, that’s a myth. I think that your take on things is specific to you [and not dependent on perfectionism] — it’s almost like you’ve won the war, and to accept the fact that you’ve won the war: You have an audience. People are willing to hear what you are interested in, what you’re interested in learning about, and what you want to share. You can do that without killing yourself. And killing yourself won’t be of service, neither to you nor your audience.”


(9) Employ a “Red Team” — Marc Andreessen9 (@pmarca) and General Stanley McChrystal10 (@stanmcchrystal) — Andreessen: “Whenever [Ben Horowitz, my partner] brings in a deal, I just beat the shit out of it. I might think it’s the best idea I’ve ever heard of, but I’ll just trash the crap out of it and try to get everybody else to pile on. And then, at the end of it, if he’s still pounding the table saying, ‘No, no, this is the thing…’ then we say we’re all in. We’re all behind you… It’s a ‘disagree and commit’ kind of culture. By the way, he does the same thing to me. It’s the torture test.”

McChrystal: “The concept of ‘red team’ is designed to test a plan. What happens is, as you develop a plan — you’ve got a problem and you develop a way to solve that problem — you fall in love with it. You start to dismiss the shortcomings of it… Sometimes you’re actually skipping over real challenges to it, or vulnerabilities in it, because you just want it to work. As we describe it, sometimes a plan can end up being a string of miracles, and that’s not a real solid plan. So red teaming is: You take people who aren’t wedded to the plan and [ask them,] ‘How would you disrupt this plan or how would you defeat this plan?’ If you have a very thoughtful red team, you’ll produce stunning results.”

(10) Practice Going First — Gabby Reece11 (@gabbyreece) — “I always say that I’ll go first… That means if I’m checking out at the store, I’ll say hello first. If I’m coming across somebody and make eye contact, I’ll smile first. [I wish] people would experiment with that in their life a little bit: Be first, because — not all times, but most times — it comes in your favor. The response is pretty amazing.”

Tim elaborates: “People are nicer than they look, but you have to go first. This made me think of a line from fictional character Raylan Givens in the TV series Justified: ‘If you run into an asshole in the morning, you ran into an asshole. If you run into assholes all day, you’re the asshole.’ I will often write ‘GO FIRST’ in my morning journal as a daily prompt.”

(11) The Five Chimps Theory — Naval Ravikant12 (@naval) — “There’s a theory that I call ‘the five chimps theory.’ In zoology, you can predict the mood and behavior patterns of any chimp by which five chimps they hang out with the most. Choose your five chimps carefully.” This idea is also embraced by Tim, I’ve heard him say something along the lines of you are the average of the five people you most associate with about a million times.

Finally, if you’ve read this far, then you should buy Tools of Titans. Seriously. It’s full of useful principles from (and fascinating conversations with) world-class performers, like: Jamie Foxx, Amelia Boone, Peter Diamandis, Tara Brach, Kelly Starrett, Maria Popova, Tony Robbins, Joe De Sena, Scott Adams, Laird Hamilton, the list just goes on and on. Better yet, Tim has a problem — he’s a compulsive experimenter — which means that these lessons have been put to the test.

Everything in these pages has been vetted, explored, and applied to my own life in some fashion. I’ve used dozens of these tactics and philosophies in high-stakes negotiations, high-risk environments, or large business dealings. The lessons have made me millions of dollars and saved me years of wasted effort and frustration. They work when you need them most.