Quick note: I recently launched a podcast, The Rereadables, where I talk to interesting people about the books that have had an outsized impact on them. You can check out the first two episodes on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever else you get your podcasts.
Tim Ferriss has a lot to answer for.
Not because he spawned an army of productivity hackers, or passive income gurus, or lifestyle design-centric digital nomads and entrepreneurs.
No: the biggest charge laying at the feet of the bald-headed biohacker is that he caused a generation of people, including me, to question our default assumptions about work, and the role that work plays in our lives.
It’s often overlooked, but in the Four Hour Work Week (4HWW), published way back in 2007, Ferriss asked three questions:
How do your decisions change if retirement isn’t an option?
What if you could use a mini-retirement to sample your deferred-life plan reward before working 40 years for it?
Is it really necessary to work like a slave to live like a millionaire?
Those are big topics. Ferriss is testing the most basic assumptions of the work-life equation.
This is a topic that my friend Paul Millerd discusses extensively in his book, The Pathless Path. In the book Paul tells the story of his changing relationship with work, as he slowly transitioned away from his life as type-A-ambitious-six-figure-income strategy consultant, towards a life of freedom, autonomy, travel, indie freelance work -- and a lot less money.
Paul calls the world of full-time work, a 40 year career, and a pension, the Default Path. In contrast, his world of indie freelancing, global travel, writing and podcasting is the Pathless Path. He has no defined script, no long-term plan, no particular structure to his work life, and for the most part he’s doing what brings him joy every day. And he’s wildly happy about it.
On a recent podcast I talked toPaul about 4HWW and the impact the book had on his life. I mentioned that I was questioning how work fit into my life, and I wasn’t sure which path to choose: the ambitious full-time work path, or the pathless path that Paul has embraced.
And Paul said something wonderful:
“Stop thinking about ‘Should I do x or y?’. Decide not to do that. Then come up with your own interesting script of what you’re doing now.”
This is the first draft of that script.
As ambitious as possible, while being home by 6pm
Right now, the best version of my work story is this:
I reject type-A ambition. I have no interest in working 100 hours a week for Goldman Sachs.
I reject hustle culture. I don’t want three side gigs.
I also reject digital nomadism, indie hacking, anti-work, FAT FIRE, lean FIRE, coast FIRE, passive-income, and any other attempt to reduce work to a two-word label.
Work is a huge part of how we shape our world and make our ideas manifest. It’s how we earn a living. It’s how we demonstrate our abilities. It’s a vehicle for growth. It should be an important part of our lives.
But it shouldn’t be everything.
I want to be as ambitious and career-driven as I can be, while still getting home by 6pm every night.
I want to work, mostly in person, as part of a team where we’re striving to deliver something customers want, in a way that's profitable, sustainable, and good for the local economy.
I believe it doesn’t have to be crazy at work. You can be ambitious and have a great career, while working a fairly standard 40 hour work week. You can do this without sacrificing your health, family life, or hobbies to do it.
That’s my philosophy. It stands in contrast to typical type-A ambition, so I’m calling it Type-B ambition.
Roots of my philosophy
I don’t think I’ve ever been hardwired to be type-A ambitious.
I thought I was when I was younger. I thought I wanted to go to an elite university, and then jump on the fast track into high finance, or big corporate law.
So when I was 17, I applied to that elite university. And -- thank God -- that elite university rejected me.
Instead, I ended up at a good-but-not-world-class university, surrounded by fun people, and fun things to do.
While at that university in early 2009, I bought the Four Hour Work Week and read it for the first time.
One of Tim Ferriss’s core ideas is that of being effective, rather than being efficient. In Tim’s words:
From this moment forward, remember this: What you do is infinitely more important than how you do it.
Slow down and remember this: Most things make no difference. Being busy is a form of laziness--lazy thinking and indiscriminate action.
Being overwhelmed is often as unproductive as doing nothing, and is far more unpleasant. Being selective -- doing less -- is the path of the productive. Focus on the important few and ignore the rest.
This was an important message, and one that as a more natural type-B kinda person, really resonated.
And, crucially, I swiftly followed up 4HWW with another book that deeply internalised this lesson for me: Cal Newport’s How to be a Straight-A Student.
In that book, Cal drives home the same message that Tim mentions above. The core idea of How to be a Straight-A Student is that if you select the right study tactics and strategies, you can achieve academic success in far less time than you’d expect -- and you’ll have an abundance of free time to play sport, have an active social life, or work on other pursuits you find meaningful.
So that’s exactly what I did.
And it worked incredibly well.
In short order, I found myself succeeding academically, with a fraction of the time spent on studying as my friends.
It was wonderful. I achieved what I wanted to achieve academically -- which, crucially for a type-B ambitious person was not academic excellence, but merely good enough grades to have career options open to me after graduation. I had free time to go out with friends, play sports, work out, and have a great relationship.
My friends will tell you that when we were studying for exams, they were desperately reading textbooks and making notes, and I was on the table next to them watching torrented episodes of The Sopranos. And I still did well academically -- not because I was naturally smarter than anyone else, but because I’d learned how to prioritise what was important.
Which meant that at age 19, I internalised this core lesson:
You don’t have to work that hard to succeed. If you prioritise what’s truly important, and focus intensely on that, then you can achieve excellent results in a fraction of the time it takes most other people.
That’s a lesson I’ve carried with me into my career, which is why, at the relatively young age of 34, I find myself as CFO of a £15m/yr company, making excellent money, with enough time to write this newsletter, do a podcast, go to the gym a couple of times a week, and hang out with friends and family on the weekends. I am happy.
The flippant response to this would be to say, “well yeah, you’re working smart rather than working hard, but the true high achievers work smart and work hard. You could achieve more if you worked harder.”
My response is: yeah, that’s probably true. And that’s fine if you want to create the next billion-dollar VC-backed startup, become CEO of a giant company, or get elected President.
I don’t want those things.
They are type-A ambitious targets. None of those things seem doable while still being home by 6pm, without sacrificing your health, hobbies, or family life, so I don’t want them.
I am type-B ambitious. I want to live a great life. I’m endlessly curious. I want to travel. I want to be healthy. I want to have a wonderful relationship with my family. And I want to succeed in my career too -- but if I need to sacrifice some level of career achievement to do the other things, then that’s fine.
I know this path is possible, because I’m doing it. It requires careful prioritisation, constant focus on what’s important, and a stubborn refusal to let yourself get distracted by busywork, minutiae, or small inconsequential things that sometimes go wrong. That is a small price to pay to have everything else.
I don’t think my philosophy is right for everyone. If you are type-A ambitious and you want to work hard, make a ton of money and build an incredible business -- then great, good for you! Go for it.
If you want to throw away all your possessions, travel the world, work a series of odd jobs, and see a wider variety of the human experience in a year than most people see in a decade -- then great, good for you! Go for it.
But I’ve decided what I want. I’m type-B ambitious. And I believe that if you structure your life in the right way, you can have it all.
Thank you Jason Fried and DHH. Check out their excellent book on this topic.
Glad I connected with you. This hit the spot.