“The Four Hour Work Week” and “The Happy Academic”

Several months ago, I mentioned that I was starting to read Timothy Ferriss’ “self-help” lifestyle/work/get rich (sorta) book The 4-Hour Work Week, and I finally got around to finishing it the other day/week. I should mention it’s not that I read that slow– I just have other things to do/read, and I read Ferris’ book in 20 minute or less bursts while on the bike at the gym.

The short version: I am not a Ferris convert/disciple, but it’s an entertaining book with occasionally good tips, some of which sorta/kinda connect with the happy academic lifestyle.  Much more after break.

The 4-Hour Work Week is an odd book, as much about the character that is Ferriss as it is about anything else.  As I mentioned back in February, Ferriss is sort of like the Dos Equis “Most Interesting Man in the World” dude with his various exploits– tango dancing, martial arts, world travel, you name it.  But he’s also a lot like the main character in the movie Up In the Air, the George Clooney character whose main objective in life (well, besides racking up frequent flier miles) is to have as few personal and material attachments as possible.

As I think I mentioned last February, the stated goal of The 4-Hour Work Week is the exact opposite of David Allen’s Getting Things Done:  while Allen’s book is about how to get the most work done as efficiently as possible, Ferriss’ book is about how to eliminate, ignore, cut corners, outsource, automate, and otherwise get out of as much work as possible so you can get on to doing what you really want to do.  Mind you, the advice is not that different from Allen’s– it overlaps in many ways– just the purpose of that advice.  I find that tension between purposes to be rather interesting.

Not surprisingly, the title is a significant exaggeration and a problem in several different ways.  First off, I don’t think he ever gets down to a “four hour” work week, at least not without becoming a self-made millionaire/entrepreneur.  He has some interesting ideas on how to do less and to get down to the important stuff (more on that in a bit), but four hours a week?  I think not.

But more interesting to me is Ferriss’ definition of “work.”  As best I can tell,  “work” means a job that take place in a “Dilbert-like” sort of office culture, one with felt-lined cubicles, strict hours of attendance, boredom, and only for money.  Work has nothing to do with “personal fulfillment;” instead, it is the thing you do so you can afford to engage in what he calls “lifestyle design” and thus do things that are personally fulfilling, which, in Ferriss’ case, is primarily about world travel, learning languages, and having various adventures.

Now, most academics, particularly happy ones, simply do not share this definition of “work.”  I know I don’t.  For me, “the work” I do is in itself fulfilling, intellectually stimulating, important, interesting, satisfying, etc.  For lack of a better way of putting it, much of my identity and sense of self “worth” is tied to my work as an academic.  Being an academic is a “lifestyle design.” Sure, I wouldn’t do this if I weren’t being paid, and there are plenty of boring and even “Dilbert-like” aspects to the job, and it is of course “a job.”  But it isn’t “work” the way Ferriss seems to mean work.

Second, a lot of Ferriss’ advice– also tied to his definition of work, I suppose– is how to “get away” from the boss and the grind of the office, and how to take what he calls “mini-retirements,” which are two or three or more month stints where– because you’ve effectively designed your lifestyle– you can get away on some sort of world travel adventure or whatever.  Again, that’s not an issue for most academics in that we tend to have a lot of autonomy on when and where we do things.  I started writing this a few days in a coffee shop one morning after I dropped Will off at school and before I headed home for the work of grading student projects.  I wrote some more Thursday morning before I ran a bunch of errands for a party we had Saturday, followed by some other school work.  I’m finishing this Sunday night, after a day of trying to get caught up on things and enjoying trick and/or treating.  Regardless, I have no “boss” to check in with during any of this, and no one is expecting me to show up at a particular time and place– well, except to teach, office hours, meetings, etc.  I don’t exactly know how much time that is, but it isn’t 40 hours a week.  Which, again, is not to say I’m not “working;” it’s just not Ferriss’ version of “work.”

In academia, we call mini-retirements “summer,” which again, is not to say that “the work” stops entirely.  But a) the work is already fulfilling (which is the point of the mini-retirement in the first place), b) the work and “mini-retirements” can happen almost simultaneously (I frequently find myself writing and reading more when I am on vacation and/or some kind of get-away), and c) the work is pretty much up to the individual– that is, at a certain point in an academic career (for example, where I’m at as a full professor who is most likely to be in this position until he leaves the profession at some distant point in the future), it is more than possible to announce to colleagues and department heads alike that you will be “unavailable” from May until late August and then to do whatever it is you want.  Even people (like me) who “work” during the spring and summer terms generally are taking some time off with travel, vacation, etc.

And then there’s a number of other things that Ferriss brings up that either just don’t apply or just don’t make a whole lot of sense to me– the extent to which he suggests you “outsource” your life, and his design for the “self-running/get rich quick financially independent” enterprise, for example.  Again, interesting, but besides being unethical in my view (and the ethics of a lot his practices and advice is territory that Ferriss gleefully skims over), there just are not a lot of outsourcing opportunities in the academic life. The “income autopilot” advice sounds interesting, but it hinges on a really good idea (e.g., not everyone would be able to do this, especially people like me who don’t think in terms of “what can I sell online?”), and it strikes me as one of those things that sounds to good to be true (which means it probably isn’t true).

So why is this worth reading?

First off, Ferriss is an entertaining and amusing writer.  It’s a “good read,” not in the serious, intellectual, artistic, “for the work” sort of way, but in that riding the stationary bike at the gym/in a waiting room/in a bathroom/I’ve got 15 minutes to be distracted sort of way.  Which is why it took me as long as it did to read.

Second, a lot of his advice is worth remembering, even if it is a bit cliched, and even some of the advice that isn’t directly applicable– like outsourcing and income autopiloting– are sort of applicable.  For example:

  • It’s not about the money or the power or the success; it’s about what makes you happy. There’s a big text box on the back of the book that says “WARNING: DO NOT READ THIS BOOK UNLESS YOU WANT TO QUIT YOUR JOB,” and that is very true in the sense that if you gain personal fulfillment and satisfaction from the work you do and you do not long for some other way to pay the bills in order to seek happiness, this is not the book for you. Ferriss suggests calculating a “dreamline,” which is essentially a means of figuring out what it would take– mostly in a monetary sense– to achieve various goals.  He even has a calculator for this.  Oh, and this (like many of the other exercises in both Ferriss’ book and Allen’s book) are essentially “pre-writing” and other “invention” exercises, classic stuff for planning “what you want to do” for first year students writing research papers.  It’s interesting the extent to which both Ferriss and Allen use writing as a tool in their methods. Anyway, calculating a dreamline is probably useful for the academic who is feeling overworked/overwhelmed since many of us somehow find ourselves doing way too many things that don’t ultimately synch well with our real goals and aspirations– think of those stupid committees you got yourself on, for example.  It’s also something anyone contemplating a move to academic administration ought to work out.  There might be more money and/or power than being a suit, but happiness?  I kind of doubt it.
  • The 80/20 rule and the general “less is more” principles. As Ferriss acknowledges, the idea of the 80/20 rule goes way back and isn’t really his idea.  Basically, 80% of benefits are result of 20% of causes, and vice-versa and give or take a few percentages.  So, for example, 80% of the wealth is possessed by 20% of a population; 80% of the food harvested from a garden comes from the 20% most productive plants; 80% of the profits of a store result from the top 20% of products sold.   Ferriss’ basic point in terms of applying this rule for his “elimination” and “less is more” principles is pretty straight-forward on the surface: try to eliminate the 20% of causes that accounts for 80% of your unhappiness, and try to cultivate the 20% of sources that account for 80% of your happiness.The analogy to the academic world seems pretty clear to me:  20% of my work (grading, some meetings, writing stuff like assessment reports, etc.) account for 80% of what is unpleasant about the job.  20% of the people I work with (students, staff, faculty, etc.) cause me 80% of my problems.  What is not as clear to me is the extent to which Ferriss’ solutions apply. For example, Ferriss suggests that one way to deal with those customers who cause you 80% of your problems is to “fire them,” or basically tell them they ought to find someone else to buy product ‘x’ from.  This doesn’t really work with staff and colleagues who are in the union and/or tenured and who must be dealt with, and teachers can’t just “fire” the problem students.  It is possible to apply some of what Ferriss is getting at to minimize some of these problems, though.  I have some colleagues (who will obviously remain nameless) who I categorically refuse to serve on committees with because of previous experiences.  As for problem students:  I don’t “fire” them, but I do set up course policies in a way that minimizes those 20% of problem students taking too much of my time.  I have pretty strict attendance and “late work” policies and other disincentives to head off the kind of behavior that as often as not becomes a drain on my time and resources.  And I also try to emphasize the positive, meaning I tend to spend a lot more time and effort with the 20% (or so) of my students who make for 80% of the pleasantness of teaching.
  • Effectiveness versus Efficient. Ferriss spells out two “truisms” that make a ton of sense to me: “1. Doing something unimportant well does not make it important.  2. Requiring a lot of time does not make a task important.”  This was a message that really hit home for me a few weeks ago when I was in the midst of one of those 20% of the unpleasant parts of my job, writing up some kind of report for some kind of strategic planning/assessment/initiative/outcome/whatever document. My fellow academics can use their imaginations as to the sort of document I’m talking about.  So I took Ferriss’ truisms to heart and allocated two hours one morning to start and finish this project, and while there was some follow-up on it, I think his advice here helped make one of those time sucks a little less sucky.
  • Ignore and say no: This is in many ways not unlike Allen’s advice, though Ferriss is a little more extreme and callus.  He talks about how he practices a low media/high ignorance sort of lifestyle, and his argument that ignoring the events of the day (Ferriss proudly mentions he hasn’t read anything but the front page of a newspaper in years) allows him to get that much more done.  And he has lots of examples of saying no, of getting out of meetings, and how to generally fly under the radar so no one misses you when you’re skipping out of the office for a month at a time to go tango dancing in Spain or whatever.  Well, I’m not willing to quite go there, but he has a point about picking priorities and putting on blinders to other things so that you can get to those priorities.
  • And the rest of the advice… For the most part, not very applicable, it seems to me.  Though I will say this:  if I did suddenly have a great idea for some kind of product made by someone else that I could market and sell to a select group over the internet (his two examples are a certain kind of French shirt and a DVD of Yoga methods especially useful to rock climbers, not to mention his own products of exercise supplements), I think his “income autopilot” method could probably work.  And I will also say he’s got a ton of good links and references for things like Internet advertising, outsourcing, advice on how to get the best airplane tickets, etc., etc.

Next up in this series?  I’m not sure, but I’m thinking of going to some of these books that attempt to explain motivation in the first place, books like The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People or something like that.  Or not.  I’m pretty busy with real work right now….

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