In this episode of the podcast, Pete talks to multiple New York Times Best Selling Author, Angel Investor and all-round superstar Tim Ferriss. Tim’s book, The 4-Hour Chef, had just been released, and Pete talks to Tim about the book and many other marketing-related topics including:
- Tim’s take on ‘Direct Response Marketing’ and how he’s incorporated in his business.
- What percentage of success comes down to good marketing vs good content.
- How much of Tim’s publishing success was planned, and how much was an awesome surprise.
- Business Success – is it more about the right strategy or good execution ?
- Tim’s take on the “mechanics” of business.
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Conversation with Tim Ferriss
Dom Goucher: Hi, everyone, and welcome to PreneurCast. Dom here, Pete’s usual partner in crime, and I’m really excited to share something special for this week’s edition of the show. It’s an over-the-shoulder conversation between Pete and multiple New York Times best-selling author, angel investor and all-around superstar, Tim Ferriss.
Tim’s newest book, The 4-Hour Chef, comes out this week through Amazon’s new publishing arm. And being that it’s being published by the Amazon machine, a lot of the typical bricks-and-mortar bookstores (such as Barnes & Noble) are not stocking the book on their shelves. Tim and Pete talk about how to deal with the situation. Plus, you’ll hear a little of Tim’s background that hasn’t really been discussed before.
They also talk about how Tim sees direct-response marketing fitting into his brand—and obviously, they talk a lot about The 4-Hour Chef, which, if you haven’t heard much about the book yet, possibly isn’t what you’d expect given the title. So, sit back and enjoy this fly-on-the-wall style access to the best bits of a recent conversation Tim and Pete had just for our show.
[Pete's conversation with Tim starts]
Pete Williams: Tim, thanks for your time, mate. Really appreciate it.
Tim Ferriss: Are you kidding? Anything for someone in Melbourne. I love that place.
Pete: Awesome dude, awesome. You’ve spoken a whole lot about the path you took for The 4-Hour Workweek to sort of do what it did, so I don’t want to flog that dead horse or anything like that. But the two subsequent books you’ve done, The 4-Hour Body and The 4-Hour Chef (which is insanely big), I want to ask your take on what’s changed with the marketing, or even just the positioning of taking those books to market.
I guess the question I have for you is: what percentage do you think of the book’s success comes down to good marketing versus good content? The books clearly got good content because they’re huge, so what do you reckon is a breakdown from that perspective?
Tim: Yeah, so I’ll jump right into a couple of recommendations for folks. I think the best materials I’ve ever read on marketing are very short, in fact. One is 1,000 True Fans by Kevin Kelly.
Pete: Awesome article.
Tim: Founding editor of Wired magazine. Another is actually new—I think it’s called [It's Not About You:] The Truth About Social Media [Marketing] or something very generic sounding, but it’s by Tim O’Reilly who is a very smart technologist. Then lastly, The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing.
Pete: Jack Trout, yup.
Tim: And the reason I lead off with those three is that I view marketing and sales as very different; and marketing, I view as very specifically targeting who you are creating a product for. And from the very first day, Day One, ground zero—you’re creating a product with those 1,000 true fans in mind.
And the way that I’ve written my books, especially The 4-Hour Body and The 4-Hour Chef, is so that each section of the book or each chapter of the book can have (and ideally will have) 1,000 die-hard true fans, each in a different vertical.
So what I would actually say is that although, perhaps, the most public placing, a portion of me, is viewed as a marketer and I’m very flattered to be looked upon as a competent marketer, I would say that the marketing begins when I put the first word down of research for that book, and that in fact the content is the marketing.
Now, you also have to be very good at PR and ultimately sales, i.e., convincing, let’s say booksellers or even a publisher to print a certain number of copies, etcetera, and forging business developer relationships. So, for instance, any type of co-promotion would be (in my mind) under the business development umbrella. But at its heart, I think that marketing is started and finished, to a large extent, with the content.
And the reason I say that is as an author—for instance, on the advice how-to list for the New York Times—I know many, many CEOs who have their books ghost-written and then spend about a quarter million of dollars to put their book on the New York Times for one week.
So it’s possibly to game the list quite easily for one or two weeks. In my case, it would be tough if I tried it because I’m being boycotted by a lot of the retailers since I’m with Amazon Publishing and their first major book.
Pete: Which is very interesting.
Tim: Which is fascinating. But putting all that aside, The 4-Hour Workweek, for instance, was on the New York Times list for four and a half years unbroken, and I only pushed it for the first four to eight weeks, really. The 4-Hour Body actually came out of the gate and was selling four to five times the rate of The 4-Hour Workweek.
It’s actually going to pass the one million book mark on a much shorter timeframe than The 4-Hour Workweek. So they’re actually about neck and neck. If you look at Amazon, they go back and forth. And I think that the way you create that longevity is by, first and foremost, the focus on content.
Pete: I completely agree. I think that the longevity and the ‘stick’ comes from great content. But at some point, there’s got to be that tipping point where there’s plenty of people out there who are so talented, whether they’re photographers or even athletes, and they just haven’t got to that point where their longevity and their actual—I guess you’d call it their brand or their awareness—is what drives it.
It’s always interesting to see what the tipping point is. From the outside you could easily say that one of the reasons that The 4-Hour Body has done so well is because of all the history that The 4-Hour Workweek created, and they already had those exposure so the book.
Not that I’m saying it’s bad, because it’s fantastic and my wife loves it and I love it. It’s an amazing book and it sticks because of that. But it had that quick acceleration because of the brand and the history and the exposure you already built yourself off the back of the blog and obviously, the first book.
Tim: Oh, yeah, absolutely. There’s a momentum that aids it. But there are also many, many examples; for instance, you know the sophomore album, right?
Pete: Yup, huge sales first week and then drop.
Tim: Yeah, and they face plant. There are many examples of books that do not live up to the quality expectations of the readers who enjoyed a first book, for instance. Part of the reason writing books gets difficult with each book that I write is that I try to top the one that came before it. And that’s certainly true with this one—1500 photographs, illustrations, Calvin and Hobbes cartoons, supermodels. It’s got everything in there.
Pete: It’s very cool. I’ve had a good flick through it, it’s been a fantastic read. You kind of mentioned before that people acknowledge you as a great marketer. But from the conversations I have, a lot of people see you as a great content marketer, not a traditional direct-response marketer.
I know you’ve spoken before about Hopkins, Sugarman, and even Dan Kennedy to a certain extent, as being some sort of examples for you to learn by and read from. Dan actually spoke about you in his latest newsletter this month, which is kind of cool.
Tim: Oh, no kidding?
Pete: Yeah. It was about Ryan Holiday as well, who’s a good friend of both of ours. He gave Ryan a recommendation. They mentioned you in the same couple of pages. It’s very ironic and cool because I was speaking to both of you this week.
But the one thing I want to ask you though is, most people see you from the blog and the content marketing stuff. Where does it fit for you for direct-response marketing? How have you been able to apply those principles without coming off a sleazy direct-response marketer?
Tim: It’s a good question! So I actually think direct-response is everything.
Pete: You’ve done a brilliant job of having that bridge a little bit of separation from the traditional direct-response guys.
Tim: Yeah, I suppose so. I think that ultimately, at the end of the day, good teaching, good writing, certainly from nonfiction advice, how-to, is getting people to take action if you want your books to have any lasting value for your readers. What is getting people to take action?
You need either a direct or an indirect call to action. I‘ve studied the legends of direct-marketing, direct-response from Day One. I’ve looked at Ogilvy, who spanned kind of both worlds, both brand and direct-response; Sugarman, of course (how could you not?); Kennedy, Claude Hopkins. And the importance of that cannot be underestimated.
Because the way I look at it (and this was actually said to me by a gentleman from Microsoft) is that thinking is asking and answering questions, and that is reflected in language. So if you control language in the written form, you are able to control thought, right?
And that is a very peculiar notion. Then, taking that a step further, the question is: how do I convince people to take specific actions? Which, as a teacher, first and foremost, and that’s how I view myself, that’s my objective. If someone reads the book and puts it down, I view that as a failure.
So, when you look at my books, if you really dissect and analyze, whether it’s The 4-Hour Chef, The 4-Hour Body, even The 4-Hour Workweek to a lesser extent because I’d like to think I’ve gotten better at this over time, you find very short, self-contained magazine articles, beginning, middle and end, with specific calls to action at specific points.
The formatting of the text itself is even broken up so there’s a natural momentum that allows people to continue and have a sense of closure every few pages. It is, from start to finish, designed to get people to take specific actions that I think would benefit them.
And I think that’s why you can look at many diet books—and certainly, I do not have a long history of diet or fitness books. But I get people to actually implement, and that’s something I’m very proud of. I can point to thousands of people who’ve lost 20 to 150 pounds easily and they never had a personal trainer.
All they did was follow very basic advice that I was able to get them to implement and stick to. Now, the reason that I think I don’t typically get grouped into the category of sleazy direct marketer—and I think there are many different types of direct marketers, certainly even at the highest levels. If you look at any type of advertisement on television, magazines or otherwise, that has a phone number or a website…
Tim: That’s direct response. But I don’t get put into the group of fly-by-night con-artist—some people would view me as that, but that’s going to happen whenever you get enough exposure, is because I don’t follow the usual routine of, let’s say, long sales copy, yellow highlights, PS, PPS, PPPS; I don’t do that and I avoid it very deliberately.
Because, number one, it’s for the 1,000 true fans that I want, I know them well enough that I know that will decrease my conversion and hurt my credibility, so I will not get them to take action. It’s ultimately all about the CTA [call to action] and the conversion, right?
Pete: Yeah, that’s what it all comes down to.
Tim: So when I’m working with start-ups—I’m very fortunate to work with a lot of very world-class start-ups, and I’ve done that since 2007. Whether it’s Uber, Evernote, Shopify, StumbleUpon, whatever, the first place I focus is messaging, call to action and copy.
That is where you live or die, merely survive or thrive is in copy because it is crystallized thought. And that is a conversation with every single person who sees it. So yes, I have very strong opinions about it. But I think that my early studying of copywriting and direct-response—which, I want to mention, is predicated on being a good writer.
I don’t think it is possible to be a good direct-response marketer, a good advertiser, without being extremely good at communicating in the written word, which means you should be able to put together a damn-good 3,000-word magazine article. And if you can’t, you should develop that skill because it will do nothing but assist your business.
Pete: I couldn’t agree more—so Bird by Bird [by Anne Lamott]-type books and things like that?
Tim: Yeah, absolutely, I mean Bird by Bird, Simple & Direct [by Jacques Barzun] is a great book on rhetoric and negotiation writing. On Writing Well by [William] Zinsser is a fantastic book. Those are coming to a few of the top picks I would say.
In addition to that, Letters to a Fiction Writer [by Frederick Busch], which is actually a collection of letters from accomplished fiction writers to novices or beginners, address the creative process in very short letters is outstanding.
I would say Stephen King’s book, On Writing, also absolutely wonderful. Many people have an aversion to this because they’re like, “Well, I’m not a writer. I don’t want to study that stuff because I’m not a writer.” That’s not the point. What you should realize is that writing is thought that you can analyze.
Writing is thinking that you can improve and actually edit. One example that I like to bring up is when I studied nonfiction writing, I was very lucky to study nonfiction writing under John McPhee when I was at Princeton for one semester. He had a class called The Literature of Fact.
John McPhee is a staff writer for The New Yorker, has been for decades, and is also a Pulitzer Prize winner. I remember getting our first writing assignment back, and there was more red ink than black ink that I typed with. He eviscerated my writing.
And over time, the red ink became less and less because I tightened my writing, made it clearer, eliminated all this flowery bullshit that I was putting in there. The really fascinating part of it was that my grades in every other class went up because why? My thinking was clearer.
Pete: Yup, communication. Getting to the point.
Tim: Yeah, I get really passionate about this. But I think that if you’re a student of direct-response, you’re a student of good communication. And the fastest, most direct way to improve your thinking and communication is through writing.
Pete: I couldn’t agree more, absolutely. So, in terms of that, when you’re starting out, the whole 1,000 True Fans-kind of stuff was bubbling and the first book was coming out, being a student of direct-response, was your initial plans to go down the path of being “an online information marketer?”
And maybe at the end of the day, at the back of the book, you might sell a few thousand copies and you can get 1,000 true fans and sell them home-study courses and workshops? Then you suddenly, on a dime, with the success of the book, go down the more “credible path” by not doing that back-end up-sell scenario? Was it always planned to roll the dice and hope that it would work out the way it has?
Tim: You know, it seems odd for me to say this because I’ve always been fascinated by direct-response. I would order stuff from infomercials just to see where it got shipped from, what it came with, what the up-sells were, what the cross-sells were, how they would follow up. I was just fascinated by all of that.
But when I wrote The 4-Hour Workweek, I did not have any plans to have an entire back-end up-sell program coaching, etc. I really didn’t. I looked at it every once in a while because people would pitch me on it and I would get e-mails and so forth. If I took that route, the ultimate objective or one of the objectives, certainly, in that scheme, in that particular paradigm would be high income.
So how do I maximize my average revenue per user and lifetime value? But through the process of experiencing everything that went into The 4-Hour Workweek and writing The 4-Hour Workweek, it was extremely clear to me that income is something that you trade for other things.
So then the question is, “What are you trading it for?” You have objects, you have experiences. And I decided—I do like objects, I have plenty of objects. But I wanted predominately experiences. That meant that I needed access to people and resources I would not otherwise have access to, or access to people and resources that very few people have access to.
I just decided that taking the traditional direct-response route with all of the various productizations that goes along with that, at that point in time, would’ve been harmful to that objective. I had a very clear idea—that was in 2007. The book came out April.
I was moving into high-tech, I wanted to become an extremely astute investor. I knew that, for instance, the people I wanted to give me the time of day and ideally teach me on a very intermittent, part-time basis would be turned off by that. So, by putting my priorities in very strict order, I decided at that time I didn’t want to do it.
I didn’t do it for The 4-Hour Body either, but there have been opportunities to generate direct and indirect income from that. One of the examples I would give is the investing itself. The start-up investing and advising that I do, at least on paper, is worth more than all of my royalties and advances combined right now.
Pete: Oh, absolutely. Would be, for sure. I remember in my first book, the government makes more tax in Australia than the author does in royalties. It’s ridiculous.
Tim: Oh, yeah.
Pete: It’s not a moneymaker by any stretch.
Tim: It’s been a really fascinating process. I’ve been very lucky and blessed to have many friends who tried many different models, so we’ve been able to swap stories. There’s no one model that’s right. It’s a very personal decision.
Pete: Yeah, I completely agree. And that’s the beautiful thing about it. People can work and mold it. And the ‘object versus experience’ kind of goal that you had for yourself does come through in The 4-Hour Workweek when you talk about mini-retirements.
It may not be as explicitly spoken about, but that’s your modus operandi, that’s all about experiences. So you have lived that in the way that you promoted the book as well, as just teach through the book itself.
Tim: Yeah, I try to. It’s really important to walk your talk. And we all have to constantly sharpen the saw. We all constantly have to course-correct. But I really do follow everything that I talk about in my books. I do not BS it.
I take it very seriously that I need to lead by example. And it also doesn’t hurt that I live in San Francisco. So if someone sees me walking around with a gut hanging over my belt, there’d be a thousand photographs within the hour.
Pete: Very, very good positive constraint.
Tim: Yeah, exactly.
Pete: In terms of experiences, you alluded to a very unique one that we were talking about before, and that was the Amazon Publishing thing with the new book. You’re going down the path of publishing through Amazon’s publishing house now. Do you want to talk about that with the new The 4-Hour Chef book and how that’s all transpiring?
Tim: Absolutely, yeah. The reason that I jumped into a new book so quickly was simple–I had the opportunity to be the first major book out of Amazon Publishing, and that is one hell of an opportunity. You look at Amazon, number one, it’s a $100 billion company.
But quite aside from that, if you want to talk about direct response, people may not think of Amazon as a direct-response company, but they are the most sophisticated direct-response, call-to-action company on the planet.
Pete: It’s insane.
Tim: You want to talk about split-testing? Oh my God, they’re amazing. So, the main driver—well, there’s several main drivers. But the most interesting to me is that Amazon, if you think about it, is the only B to C, right? Business-to-consumer publisher on the planet in many ways, on a large scale at least. Because if you’re Random House or you’re…
Pete: Wiley …
Tim: Yeah, Wiley or you name your publisher—they are a business-to-business company. The Director of Sales, of whatever division it might be, sells to the head buyer of a category, Barnes & Noble. They call then the head buyer of the category at Books-A-Million, and so forth and so on.
They do not have the ability to communicate directly with their end-users. Amazon can do that whenever they want. And not only that, but Amazon probably knows me based on my buying behavior, they probably know me better than I know myself.
Tim: And that is just fascinating. So I’m really looking forward to continuing my experience with Amazon. They’ve been really scrappy and really aggressive in all the right ways. I’ve been very excited to work with them. But if you’re at the front line, trying to do things that are different, you’re going to take a few arrows.
The price I’m paying is that the traditional retailers are boycotting the book—many of them. There are some indies that are carrying it; but Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million—they’ve all taken a very public stance against it.
Now, I think that’s kind of silly because it’s inconveniencing their customers at the end of the day, but only time will tell. I’ve been very happy with my experience so far. This is easily the most beautiful book I’ve put together.
Pete: It’s impressive. I’ve seen the digital version of it that the team sent through to me. And I have to say, it is by far visually the most engaging book you’ve put together.
Tim: I appreciate that. Yeah, oh my Lord did we spend a lot of time on this. It was like a 40-person start-up working on this thing, and pulled out all the stops. But the verdict is out. We’ll see how things turn out. It’s inevitable that things are moving to digital. The print and digital versions are obviously available through Amazon and elsewhere.
But in this particular case, I wanted to create not only something that was very, very effective as a teaching tool and a choose-your-own-adventure for human potential from the learning standpoint—we can get into the book whenever you want, but I wanted to create a work of art, something that people would be really eager to put on their coffee table.
And to that extent, the way that you read something digitally is different from the way you read a book. For instance, what I noticed when I was going through the digital and going through the print is that I designed the print; I wrote the print book in terms of two-page spreads, the left and right working together.
You just don’t have that in digital. I really didn’t think about it that way, but I was like, “Huh.” If you have a whole page, like full-page bleed photo on the left-hand side and then some accompanying text on the right-hand side, that’s two separate pages in digital. So it’s been really fun to play around with everything.
Pete: What’s the biggest surprise that you’ve got from working with Amazon from an education standpoint that you didn’t expect? What’s the really cool takeaway you’ve had working with them?
Tim: A really good takeaway? They like testing as much as I do.
Pete: Very cool.
Tim: If we don’t have an answer, they’re like, “Okay, great. Let’s try two versions, see what converts.” That is just lovely for a person like me.
Pete: Absolutely, very, very cool. That’s the sort of stuff I love, too.
Tim: Yeah, so I’d say that was very surprising to me, but ultimately made a lot of sense. Because you look at a company that size and it could be very, very bureaucratic. But Amazon Publishing itself is a start-up, so they need to be nimble. They need to move fast. So I’ve been very reassured by how fast, and aggressive, and analytical they’ve been thus far.
Pete: Very cool, man. Let’s delve into the book. Do you want to give the set up and explain the book? It’s your new baby, it’s what you’re bringing out to the world. Do you want to give it some context?
Tim: Yeah, for sure. The subtitle is important, so The 4-Hour Chef: The Simple Path to Cooking like a Pro, Learning Anything and Living the Good Life. Very narrow scope. My readers have been asking me for a book on learning and accelerated learning, mastering skills for four or five years.
That has been the single most constant request. Because I tackle all these weird skills like learning languages, and tango world championships, and Japanese horseback archery, whatever, I’d always been searching for kind of the perfect context to create a book like that.
Because writing about learning in the abstract is actually really boring. I need stories to tell, I need experiments, like wild-ass experiments. So I was looking for the right context. At the same time, what was happening to me was I started getting this digital malaise.
I would do all this stuff in the interwebs and on computers, then I’d shut my laptop, and I just had this kind of angst about not making anything with my hands. I wanted to make physical stuff and reclaim that humanness. I had this existential problem with not making things.
I thought it was going to be woodworking; but at the end of the day, it was too inconvenient. I had to travel, I didn’t want a crappy birdhouse in my living room. I saw my girlfriend cooking one night. She learned to cook by watching her grandmother. And the light went off. I was like, “I could learn to cook.”
I could learn to cook. Then I thought, this would be really interesting because cooking had kicked my ass many times in the past that I’d quit so many times. So I thought, well, for the first time, why don’t I show my readers Tim Ferriss naked—not literally, but naked in the sense that I start from being really insecure and not knowing anything about something that’s beaten me before.
And then for, let’s say a year, trying to get as good as possible. What do I actually do? So that’s the book. But the trick is, it’s kind of like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance because it’s a cookbook for learning, disguised as a cookbook for food. So absolutely, I can teach you through very—I think—minimalist, elegant, 80-20 methods to get really good at cooking really fast. That’s in there.
As an experiment, for instance, I worked with some chefs to compress six months of culinary school into 48 hours so people can try to do that in weekend if they want. It’s absolutely doable. But the real recipe of the book is the same recipe that I think people like Da Vinci used, or Benjamin Franklin, or Nikola Tesla, or Jobs, which is this meta-learning, this skill of learning skills.
Whether it’s shooting a three-pointer in basketball, whether it’s learning Spanish in eight to 12 weeks, or learning to cook, or memorizing a deck of playing cards. Whatever it is, there is a process that you can go through that is extremely reliable, which is what I’ve applied to all these different skills in my life.
And that is, in a nutshell, The 4-Hour Chef. It’s been really fun. Because when you think about the kitchen, when you think about food, it engages all of your senses. There are very few things that do that. So in a way, the kitchen is the ultimate dojo for human potential. You can train in the kitchen for everything outside of the kitchen.
If someone gets this book and they never cook anything in it, that’s okay. I mean, I would like them to try it; but at the end of the day, even if you just learn more about food, your experience of eating three times a day will go from black and white, to like HD in a million colors. And that’s the experience that I had, which is just awesome.
Pete: Well, I’m two meals in. I’m not a cook. I don’t cook at all. I’m not a food person. If I can get my meal out of a power smoothie kind of thing, I’m that way. But I’m two meals in already, so my wife is loving it.
Pete: We moved into a new house and she was actually threatening, saying, “If we’re going to move in, I want you to start cooking. You’ve got to start learning how to cook.” Because I just don’t really enjoy food, it hasn’t been my thing. This book hit my inbox at the same time as I’m moving into the house. Alright, here’s an excuse to use a kitchen and make her happy.
Tim: Cool, yeah. Wait until you get to Sexy Time Steak, that’s a good one. That will make her happy as well.
Pete: Awesome. She’s six months pregnant, so it’s obviously interesting. The question I did have, though, is you touched on a word, you said, “mastering any skill.” Robert Greene, author of The 48 Laws of Power and all those great books, I’ve been talking a lot recently about his book.
We had him on the podcast a couple of weeks ago talking about Mastery—and that’s the topic of his new book. I’m not sure how familiar you are with his book or anything like that, but he talks quite a bit about, to master a skill, it takes a long time to do an apprenticeship.
You’ve got to go through this apprenticeship phase. What you’re talking about here is a little bit different. On the surface of it, it sounds like you’re sort of juxtaposing it in your thoughts. But you do discuss mastery and how that applies a little bit at the start of your book. Can you talk about that?
Tim: Yeah, absolutely. I actually have Robert’s books. Obviously, Robert and I have some friends in common, so I have his book right next to me, literally within arm’s reach, because I think it’s a great book. In many ways, it’s like the perfect complement to The 4-Hour Chef.
I’m not just saying that; because he goes in-depth into apprenticeship and also goes in-depth in how to choose which skills you want to learn. It just melds perfectly with The 4-Hour Chef, which is kind of more how-to nuts and bolts. Here’s step-by-step in every detail, how-to-tackle…
Now, I don’t think that Robert and I are actually juxtaposed in many ways. I would say that where a lot of confusion comes up is in defining ‘world-class’ or in defining ‘mastery.’ People have two different ways of defining it. Of course, they’re going to seem to disagree.
So I would say a few things. I do fundamentally disagree with the 10,000-hour rule. I think it is oftentimes a confusing correlation with causation. You could look at, say, the top violin players in the world and you could say, “Oh, they’re all Asian. You need to be Asian to master the violin,” and it’s not quite that simplistic.
And I get it—but there are many different reasons why someone who is predisposed to becoming very skilled at a certain thing, who is in an environment that fosters that, and/or depends on that skill, fundamentally, for their professional career, would put in 10,000 hours, no matter what.
I don’t think it necessarily determines mastery or prevents mastery, if you’re less or above that. There are certainly plenty of people who’ve put in 10,000 hours into skills who never make it to world-class. I think Robert’s book is awesome, the case studies alone are just fantastic.
Pete: The research he puts in, it’s absolutely insane. You can tell in Ryan Holiday’s book as well that obviously he’s been a studious student of Robert’s in terms of the amount of research (and you as well), putting into the book. It’s insane!
Tim: Oh yeah, he’s great. What I would say is that the way I define world-class is top 5% in the entire population of the planet. Now, if you want to be Tiger Woods or Yo-Yo Ma, I have good news and bad news. The good news is that you can get pretty close.
You can become top 5%, in golf included, I think, within six to 12 months of not just deliberate practice, but very intelligent, deconstructed practice where you test contrarian approaches (and I have a lot of thoughts on that, of course). But if you want to be Tiger Woods, the bad news is that you would’ve known it if you were six or seven years old.
Because he was drawing pictures of irons hitting golf balls at different distances and not pirate ships at that age. So I think there’s a huge different becoming world-class and dedicating your life to a single craft. Because just as in language learning, to get to the point where, for instance, let’s just say 29 out of 30 days in the month, you seem like a perfect fluent speaker, might take 12 months.
To get to the point where 20 days out of a month, living in a foreign country, you seem like a native speaker, might take eight to 12 weeks. To get to the point where 30 days out of 30, you seem like a perfectly fluent speaker, might take 30 years. There’s a diminishing point of returns also with many of these things.
You have to choose what your target is. For me, what makes life exciting to me—and I think also to generalists like Steve Jobs, and the reason he was so effective at connecting dots that other people didn’t see, was because he was world-class at several things.
That’s kind of fallen out of style. But polymaths ruled the day not all-too-long-ago. I think that there’s a lot of power in being extremely good at, but not necessarily a specialist, in one thing. So being very good at many things and not necessarily a specialist in one thing.
In my particular case, I seem to dabble in a lot and I do dabble in a lot, but that doesn’t mean I’m mediocre. It doesn’t mean you have to be mediocre at all. Tango as an example, world record, semi-finalist in the world championships after five and a half months.
I took my training very seriously, 6-8 hours a day, and it was extremely well structured and analytical. I outlined the whole process that I went through for that in the book. But to get to the point where I win the world championships, let’s say two years in a row, that’s another 20 years.
And I’m just not willing enough in that particular case to put in 20 years when I can get 99% of the way there in five and a half months. But for instance, the one thing that I am aiming to be the best at in the world is teaching meta-learning. That’s my skill. So, I don’t know, we’ll see, we’ll see. But I definitely have more in common by many magnitudes of order with Robert, I think, than we have any difference in opinion.
Pete: Oh, I completely agree. Just from the outside, it kind of does look for a lot of people, “Well, hang on, which path I follow?” There’s a couple of things you also said in the book that also talks about meta-learning and how you apply it. I’d love to dissect with you, if you don’t mind me trying to reread some stuff you wrote, and get your opinion to pull it apart a bit more if that’s okay.
Tim: Yeah, let’s do it.
Pete: You talk about failure points and you say, “I don’t care why people pick up cookbooks. I’m much more interested in why they put them down.” I think it’s a very cool way of thinking, and it’s something that does set you apart from most people, the questions you ask yourself and the things you look for. Can you explain that philosophy a little bit more and what that actually means as well?
Tim: Yeah, absolutely. The enthusiasm to start something is important. But to me, what’s most important is when people quit, because that determines how good they end up being. I had quit cooking many times in the past. I also polled 500,000 or so Twitter and Facebook followers to identify the failure points in cooking because I wanted to spot patterns.
And they’re pretty clear and you could guess most of them, where it’s time, obviously, so grocery shopping, too many ingredients, cost of gear, clean-up of gear, so forth and so on. They are very predictable failure points.
My objective then became to eliminate those failure points as much as possible throughout the entire process, but especially in the beginning when the early wins are necessary to solidify a new habit. And if you look at Nike+, for instance, they’ve identified that five sessions logged triggers people to then habitually use the service.
If people quit before that, then they tend not to start again. So my objective became to limit all of the first set of recipes in the book (I’ll explain the structure a little bit). There are a number of sections in the book. There’s Meta-Learning, which covers all of this crazy accelerated learning stuff from smart drugs, to the tango, to languages, everything.
Then there’s Domestic, which takes all the fundamental and most powerful skills of culinary school, and compresses them into four hours or total prep time. So that’s 15 or so meals, average of nine minutes of prep time each, four ingredients or less, cooking twice a week. Very low stress, really low stress.
Coming back to the Nike+, five sessions. For the first six meals, which is three weeks, I encourage people to use disposable plates. Why? No clean-up. Right? I encourage people to use a very, very minimal amount of gear. Why? Low-cost, extremely little or zero clean-up, again.
Also from the shopping perspective, it takes five minutes instead of a half-hour. So the way that I look at any skill is that someone’s success can be predicted by three things, and I’ll do these in ascending order of importance. Efficiency—doing things well, making good use of time.
That’s critical, but it’s not the most important. Next up the ladder is effectiveness—doing the right things, doing the 80-20 analysis and picking the 20% of activities, techniques that deliver 80% of the value. That’s second most important. The most important at all is adherence—are you actually going to follow the program?
Because I could say, “The most effective way to lose fat is to tape bowling balls to your hand and do wind sprints up and down a hill,” and that might be true. But nobody is going to do it after one workout, so it doesn’t make any difference. Adherence is number one.
So when people say to me, “What’s the best language learning approach?” I’m like, “I could give you my best learning-language approach. But if something is half as effective and you actually enjoy it and you’re going to use it, that’s what you should use.” The best method is the one that you use. So those are a few of the ways that I think about skills and skill acquisition. Adherence is number one.
Pete: That’s something you don’t hear a lot of people talk about, so I think that’s really cool insight there. But the other thing you could talk about in the same conversation as these failure points is this margin of error thing.
You about in real estate, you make a profit when you buy the property, not when you sell it. And in cooking, it could be that—what is it—is by picking recipes well, not following the recipes well. So, it’s about picking the right recipes, not following them well.
From that perspective, I think this is the problem people have—who do I believe? Who do I trust? Do I get and buy that New York Times bestselling book that came out last week that was paid to get on the list by the CEO of the company (using the analogy you gave earlier)? How do you find the good information to follow?
Tim: Ooh, well, I have my own approach. I’ll tell you how I do it on Amazon. I read tens of thousands of pages for this book, but there are literally millions of pages of cookbooks out there. So how do you even begin to whittle that down? The way that I did that was I polled people—and that could just as easily be done with 10 people who like cookbooks.
You don’t need 1.2 million blog readers or whatever, you can do this as an individual quite easily. Or look for Top 10 lists on websites: Top 10 Cookbooks of the Year, Top 10 Cookbooks of the Decade. It’s really easy to do the recon on that. Then I went to Amazon and identified books that were at least five years old or 10 years old.
The reason I did that is because the reviews are less likely to have been gamed. Then I looked at only books that had at least a four-star average. Then I looked at their most helpful, voted three and four-star reviews (because both the one star and the five star tend to not have all-too-much information in them) to decide which books to purchase.
Then I purchase, let’s say, of the 100 that I looked at that week, I purchase all 20 on the Kindle (and there’s a reason for that). I purchase all 20 on the Kindle, and then I would look at their most highlighted passages for each book, which only takes about 10 minutes each. And that would help me decide which books to actually dig into.
I mean, if I didn’t like the highlights, it’s kind of like not liking the preview for a movie. If you didn’t like the preview for the movie, you’re definitely not going to like the movie. And then I would dig-in. So that’s how I would take, let’s say, 100 potential books that have been recommended as good, and narrow it down to five to seven. That’s how I go about it.
Pete: Love it, very cool. One other thing that I highlighted in the book as I was reading it was this distinction that you make between cook and chef. You say—if I get this right, my memory’s correct—that someone who can cook is a cook, but someone who creates the menu and runs the kitchen is a chef. How would you apply this distinction to business?
Do you think there are too many people out there who are calling themselves marketers and business owners when all they’re really doing is kind of like the mechanical, technical stuff of the business and not actually worrying about the actual marketing and the growing of the business, they’re too distracted by the mechanics?
Tim: Oh yeah, for sure. that’s actually a really smart analogy. The point I make in the introduction of the point is that becoming a chef is about becoming self-reliant, and self-reliant because chef is from ‘hefe.’ It’s from ‘head’ in Latin and it means ‘boss.’ So it’s not just about becoming self-reliant in the kitchen, it’s about becoming sort of the director in your own life and not a spectator.
And like you said, in the cooking world, a cook is someone who can execute their task well, can produce food well, and a chef is someone who’s more like a conductor. He can do all the line order stuff, but you can do a lot more than that, he or she. So in business, I think you’re absolutely right.
As Michael Gerber of The E-myth Revisited would say, there are a lot of people who spend time ‘in’ their business and not ‘on’ their business. And those people rightfully are called “technicians.” And they may be very good at using the tool de jour, or they may be very good at say, marketing, or sales, or biz dev, but be terrible at accounting or whatever it might be.
And they are cooks in their business as opposed to the chef. They are a cook ‘in’ their business as opposed to a chef ‘of’ their business. Although it’s odd to put it that way, but yeah, the analogy is absolutely accurate.
Pete: That was one really cool distinction that I loved, it’s something that I believe and we talk about quite a bit on the show here. So, in terms of the book, it’s out this week, which is very exciting, obviously available on Amazon, because that’s the publisher.
Tim: You would hope!
Pete: Yeah, exactly! With the Amazon thing now, there’s discrepancies of people talking about Amazon sales. Do they, don’t they apply to the New York Times Best Seller list? I’m sure that’s obviously not a core objective for you with this book, but do you feel it’s actually going to affect that at all?
Tim: Oh, it absolutely could, and it’s still a target of mine. But the New York Times list is a black box, and they don’t indicate which outlets they accept reporting from. So there are some indications, of course, like Barnes & Noble does report, Amazon does report.
But for the New York Times list, it’s very important to have a variety of reporting sources. Whereas for, let’s say the Wall Street Journal list, the Wall Street Journal list is actually a better reflection of true bestsellers, because their data is pulled directly from BookScan numbers, which are all point-of-sale, and incorporate almost all of the different reporting services, not just a select handful.
Yeah, I mean, I would love to hit the New York Times Number One, of course. I’m very competitive, and I bled out my eyeballs to make this book something that can stand the test of time for many years. I want to see it win the battle, of course. I actually do have a special offer, if you’d be open to me sharing it.
Pete: I was about to ask you what cool promotional stuff you’ve got planned. Yeah, you’ve saved me a question.
Tim: I’ve got a bunch of really fun stuff coming. People should definitely check out, of course, the movie trailer for the book and everything else on 4HourChef.com. But what I’d like to offer to people—because I’ve never been more confident in a book, really ever. This thing, it’s solid. I’m really happy with it, could not be prouder.
If people buy three print copies of the book—it’s the holidays, it’s get one for yourself and two for other people. If you get three print copies of the book, send the Amazon e-mail receipt (or wherever you buy it) but three print copies to 3books [at] 4hourchef [dot] com, and I will invite you to an exclusive, live Q&A with me for one to two hours after launch week.
You can ask me whatever you want. So that’s just something fun that I thought some people might be interested in. If you buy three books, send the e-mail receipt for the print books to 3books [at] 4hourchef [dot] com and you will get an invite—and then we can have some wine and jam out.
Pete: Beautiful—good direct-response call to action.
Tim: I do what I can, I do what I can!
Pete: One final question, mate, and I’ll let you go. I know you’re busy with the launch and things like that. This is a question I ask most people we have on the show, “What’s the one question I didn’t ask you that I should have?”
Tim: Ooh, that alone is a good question. Let’s see—the question that you didn’t ask…
Pete: You’ve done plenty of PR and stuff like this. I know you’ve got to have plenty of PR with the book, particularly with the whole traditional outlets not supporting it. But are there any questions that you’ve never been asked that you think someone probably should have at some point, with all the topics of the different books you’ve written about?
Tim: You know, a good question I think that doesn’t get asked enough is, “If you hope readers take one action after reading this book, what would it be?” Something like that. In the case of The 4-Hour Chef, I’ll answer that what I want people to do is to be not only confident enough, but excited to take something that they’ve given up on.
Like in my case, I assumed I would never be able to swim and I learned to swim about two years ago. I assumed I would never be able to play basketball because I’d been humiliated by a junior varsity coach at junior high, and I finally learned how to shoot three pointers and actually have find it super relaxing.
So I want people to not only have the confidence, but to be excited to take a skill that they’ve given up on. Something long ago they wanted to try and just accepted they would never be good at, and to really go after it just to give it a shot. Try to tackle something that they’ve given up on. That’s what I want people to do.
Pete: Very, very cool, man. Did you ever do that marathon? Was it marathon that you spoke about in The 4-Hour Body that you were trying to do at some stage? Is that still on the hit list?
Tim: Yeah, the ultramarathon. I actually did not end up doing that for a few reasons, but principally because I ended up making so much progress with the deadlift. That was another one of my goals, that I wanted to go past 500 pounds and got to the point where I was actually doing, no wraps or anything, just chalk, at a body weight of about 165 from the knees.
I did five repetitions with 650, and so that was from a pre-weight maximum of about 315 pounds for one repetition. I think that’s actually a good illustration, and that is, number one, you can always be flexible in picking your targets, but also, if you have a major, major weakness, like in business, you don’t always have to focus on fixing your weaknesses.
You can focus on magnifying your strengths. Part of the benefit of trying several different skills—let’s say, attempting to become world-class, top 5% in one or two skills a year is that you very quickly see what you progress fastest at, and then you can focus on that. It’s just a very gratifying and fun way to live (I think), so I’m hoping to expose more people to that.
Pete: Love it, man. Thank you so much for your time. That call to action, again, is check out the links on the show notes, buy three copies of the book, give it to your family, and shoot that e-mail across to get that two hours with Tim because it’s definitely well worth it.
Tim: Cool, man.
Pete: Thanks for your time!
Tim: Yeah, I really appreciate it. Thanks so much!
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