Timbo Ferriss got famous for telling us we could work 4-hour workweeks.
I’m not into the digital nomad life, so I’ll leave you to judge his philosophy. Admittedly, he says he’s matured beyond this 4-hour workweek view of the world.
Still, Tim has had plenty of wild success. The truth about influential people like him is they all have assistants.
A bromance made in heaven
Tim’s assistant Charlie had a friend named Ramit Sethi (famous for the book “I Will Teach You To Be Rich”).
At Charlie’s request Ramit introduced him to Tim. That led to Charlie getting hired by Tim as a part-time intern. His good work led to him becoming a full-time employee of the Tim Ferriss brand.
One of the biggest projects Charlie silently worked behind the scenes on with Tim was his book “The 4-Hour Body.” Other than the books, Tim had him doing pretty much any task he could come up with.
Some days it was sourcing blog posts, other days it was editing photos, and on one particular day Charlie came up with the wild idea for Tim to swallow 25 pills at once.
Tim says Charlie was obsessed with efficiency and productivity. Like a dog with a bone, he kept asking Tim for more tasks. Charlie became known by Tim’s employees for the catchphrase “What else can I do to help?”
Soon Charlie was juggling lots of Tim’s projects. He began work with Tim in a bubble of comfort. As the relationship between them grew, Charlie’s comfort zone expanded.
Tim got used to day-to-day operations run by Charlie that contained zero disasters. So Tim got addicted to these results.
The 4 days from hell
“My brain felt swollen, like it was pushing against my skull,” says Charlie.
A magic pill had him going for 60 hours straight. A new record. The pill helped Charlie’s body resist the urges to sleep.
Tim had no idea Charlie was coked up on these new pills, typically reserved for fighter pilots. Charlie just wanted to please his boss. He’d do anything for his famous master that’d he’d already given three years of his life to.
On this day Charlie was running an event for Tim called “Opening the Kimono.” It had to go perfectly. In Charlie’s mind Tim had given him three MBAs, got him access to many famous people, and helped him piece together a phenomenal portfolio of work.
The role of conference organizer is one Charlie had never done. He thought it’d be a piece of piss. Still, the terror of letting Tim down made him nervous.
The only solution: stay awake for the entire 4-day event.
He broke the promise to himself and slept a total of 6 hours in 4 days, thanks to his magic pills. The conference was a massive success. Attendees were thrilled with what they got for their $10,000 ticket.
On the way home from the conference Charlie’s body started to send emergency signals to his brain that something was wrong.
Burnout came thick and fast.
The book that nearly killed both of them (no joke)
Tim’s books are heavily built on a foundation of deep research.
Charlie helped Tim write and research his second book “The 4-Hour Body.” Days after the conference it was time for Charlie and Tim to sit down and write his third book “The 4-Hour Chef.”
Charlie hesitated to join Tim for his third book project.
Tim could see the pain in Charlie’s eyes so he did what he did best: throw money at the problem. He offered to double Charlie’s salary in return for finishing the book with him.
The temptation messed with Charlie’s brain. He’d get to work with his idol and achieve a goal most people would kill for.
Collecting another Tim Ferris achievement trophy was irresistible.
He said yes.
Things went downhill fast. Charlie became addicted to work.
“I was destroying myself.”
Charlie felt busy and important so he felt he had to stay glued to his laptop seven days a week. He felt like had to drink coffee non-stop, stay indoors, and get drunk for the entire weekend.
What didn’t help was Charlie’s friends were all workaholics too. Holidays and taking breaks were ideas Charlie’s inner circle threw darts at in their heads.
As the deadline for the 4-Hour Chef got delayed by three months, and the excruciating pain they both suffered got extended, fireworks went off in Charlie’s head.
He’d have to quit.
A death in Charlie’s family woke him up. Then a workaholic friend tried to commit suicide.
Over dinner with Tim he finally said, “I can’t do this anymore. I have to quit.”
The tragic departure of Tim’s assistant
The surprising part of this story is Tim didn’t try to stop Charlie from quitting.
They both agreed that the 4-Hour Chef nearly killed them. Tim offered to assist Charlie any way he could.
The tragic part was Charlie felt his identity was gone. Without the Tim Ferriss brand to attach his self-worth to, he felt lost for the first time in his life.
For the next three months, he didn’t work and remained unemployed.
The hard part about those three months was he felt guilty every day he wasn’t smashing career goals or earning money.
Thoughts like “have I thrown my dream away for nothing?” plagued his innocent mind. To feel Silicon-Valley-Tim-Ferriss-cool again, Charlie accepted an offer to be a co-founder of a sexy tech company.
Three months in, Charlie thought “I don’t give a flying f*ck about apps.”
Three deadly sins: status, money, guilt
Charlie knew the sins of status, money, and guilt had taken over his life. That takes immense self-awareness.
So, he quit the cool tech startup.
The guilt set in again. He was too afraid to tell anyone about his problem because of shame.
The questions that saved Charlie’s life:
— Do I feel guilty or anxious when I’m not working?
— Have I stopped playing with my friends?
— Do all of my daily activities revolve around building a more successful career?
— Am I always sleeping fewer than eight hours per night?
— Am I consuming stimulants multiple times per day to hide my exhaustion?
— Am I sitting still and staring at screens for most of my waking hours?
— Do I interact with people primarily through screens?
— Am I indoors all day long, depriving myself of fresh air and sunlight?
— Do I depend on alcohol or drugs to cope with social situations outside of work?
While reading these questions, if you said yes multiple times then it’s an early warning sign.
The unexpected breakthrough
Charlie tried everything to recover from burnout and fix his anxiety — meditation, yoga, CBT, therapy, prayer, fasting, spiritual healers.
One day Charlie had a major breakthrough. A friend introduced him to a guy called David. David suggests they catch up for coffee. But Charlie had a bizarre idea.
“You wanna play catch instead of do coffee, man?”
“Sounds like a f*cking blast dude.”
They had an awesome time. Play was exactly what Charlie needed. He didn’t do it before because play meant he wasn’t doing his work which led to guilt.
The obsession with play led Charlie to do 6 weeks of 3-hour improv classes. This became the weird cure for Charlie’s burnout and anxiety.
He says “play” allowed him to stop taking his life so freaking seriously. Instead of looking for friends, he suggests we look for playmates.
The killer choice Charlie says we have to make is: 1) Anxiety 2) Play.
Is Tim Ferriss to blame?
You could argue that Tim worked Charlie to the bone and should have been more careful. But I disagree.
Each of us is responsible for our own workload. It’s our duty to tell our bosses when we can’t handle more work. If they refuse to care, then we can always jump on LinkedIn and change jobs.
When I apply Charlie’s lessons to my own life, it makes me hyper-aware of the work schedule my business partner sticks to. I try to ensure he doesn’t work crazy hours or wear too many hats.
What this means for you
Many of you are working crazy jobs you hate.
If you look deeply you’ll see the three deadly sins of status, money or productivity guilt are likely to blame.
Ask yourself, “is this worth it?” Would you still be doing all this work if your doctor told you that you had incurable cancer and had four weeks to live?
- Stop taking on so much work
- Stop kissing the butt of a boss
- Say no a helluva lot more
- Stop people-pleasing
- Add more play to your life
The unusual happy ending
Let’s finish on a high.
After Charlie recovered from his burnout and anxiety, his now-famous anxiety cure stayed in the #1 position on google for several years. It’s still on the first page.
The story became a best-selling book and Ted Talk. Tony Robbins even endorsed it as a cure for stress.
And what happened to Tim Ferriss?
Well, after his book The 4-Hour Chef nearly killed Tim and his assistant Charlie, he changed direction. He started the Tim Ferriss Show Podcast. It’s now one of the top ten most-downloaded podcasts in the world.
From the ashes of ruin, something beautiful is always reborn.