You could do just about anything if only you had the time, right? Well, Tim Ferriss, author of the best-selling 4-Hour book series, is trying to prove that you do—if you know how to make every minute count. His new television series, The Tim Ferriss Experiment, finds him attempting to go from novice to advanced in an array of complex challenges, from learning to speak a new language and surf to playing chess and competing in Brazilian jiu-jitsu—all while spending less than a week on each one in turn. We spoke to Ferriss to get his tips for lowering your learning curve, and outsmarting your body.
Men’s Fitness: You’ve written about life-hacking and meta-learning for years. What is this new show going to teach us?
Ferriss: The show is like Mythbusters meets Jackass. The information is presented like a Trojan horse. People want to see something entertaining like me getting my ass kicked by Marcelo Garcia, the Michael Jordan of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, but meanwhile I slip in a lot accelerated learning techniques that weren’t in my previous books or weren’t the most important concepts in the books.
People are going to learn not just how to learn new skills, but what happens when you try to do it in an absurdly short time frame. It’s possible to become world-class in any skill, the top five percent on the planet, in six months or less. Now six months is one thing but when you have three to five days to try to learn poker well enough to play against professionals or learn a language well enough to be interviewed on live TV in that language, the pressure is so much greater. People will get to see me make mistakes and how to recover from those mistakes and still get what appears to be superhuman results.
My point with the show is that you don’t have to settle for normal results if you have shitty genetics or a limited budget. If you have the right tool kit you can do things that are usually limited to savants.
What exactly is the process on the show?
Each week we have a skill, and that can range from tactical shooting to surfing with Laird Hamilton. The process was deconstructing each skill because I would only have three to five days to work on it. And I underestimated how much time would be taken up by planning stuff for TV, so I really only had, oftentimes, three or four hours a day to work on it. I had to take skills and break them down into small component pieces and discard as much as possible.
I had to ask, what are the two or three pieces that get me closest to my goal? Then I had to ask what is the ideal order to work on these in? For instance, when I was doing chess, instead of looking for openings, Josh Waitzkin, who was the inspiration for the book and movie Searching For Bobby Fischer, had me take all the pieces off the board and he drilled me on pawn versus king. You have to question the order. Then it’s about cramming effectively, as with any test.
We did this every week for 16 weeks. In the parkour episode, I tore my quadriceps, ACL’s in both knees, my rotator cuff, and the list goes on. The very next week, I had to learn drumming with Stewart Copeland, who’s considered one of the greatest drummers of all time. I had to prep to play a live, sold-out show with the band Foreigner.
How much familiarity did you have with these skills beforehand?
The vast majority of them I had no familiarity with. I had never played a hand of poker before, and I had to play pros at the end of the week for money. I had no experience speaking Filipino, or racing cars, or shooting.
Is it fair to say you got proficient, and most of these experiments were a success?
I did not hit home runs with all of these. I increased my ability in all of them but I got injured a lot and had breakdowns. It became a running joke with the guys shooting that every third day Tim’s going to have a fucking meltdown. The show is full of accidents and mistakes but there are a lot of what appear to be miracles. And I show people how to deconstruct and engineer those miracles. I might not be a professional by the end of a week, but I will go from knowing nothing to knowing what should have taken six months to learn.
Have you been able to retain those skills? Have you re-tested yourself in some of them?
I’ve been able to retain some of them. The challenge with retention is when you’re doing new skills week in and week out, there’s some displacement. If I had to only shoot one of those a month, I think I would have retained twice as much but when you’re cramming in a matter of hours…
Can you talk about the surfing example? How does one get good quickly at that?
In surfing, I had to get comfortable underwater. I didn’t learn to swim till I was in my 30s. Then, as [surfing legend] Laird Hamilton says, you should call surfing paddling, because that’s what you spend 99% of your time doing. There are a lot of techniques you can apply to paddling to make it more biomechanically efficient. That ranges from your stroke—reach under the board as opposed to out to the side of the board—to using your legs to propel you forward. You bend at the knee in a hamstring curl motion to preserve the endurance of the arms.
You can be great at popping up on the board but if you don’t place yourself in the right location it doesn’t matter. Identifying where to surf is important. I had to dissect all these and put them in the right order. In swimming, people think of pulling themselves through the water, but it’s the transitions that are important. How far can you glide in the water on one stroke? Focus on stroke count per lap. If you can get it down from 30 per lap to 10, you’ll go faster.
What’s going on in the brain as you’re learning these skills?
You consolidate memory during REM sleep. So you want to increase that to as high a percentage of your sleep as possible. You can use supplements like huperzine A, which inhibits the breakdown of acetylcholine [a neurotransmitter]. It’s very powerful, so people should chat with their doctor before using it, but if you take a tiny dose before you go to bed it can help you learn something in fewer sleep cycles. Taking naps helps too.
You must face a lot of resentment from masters who have paid their dues and spent years learning a skill. What do you say to people who argue that you can’t take the fast track and be successful?
The type of practice you do matters more than the sheer number of hours. There are too many examples I can point to that disprove the 10,000-hour theory. You can waste 10,000 hours just as easily. And when you talk to the true masters, they’re an open book. They’re happy to share anything they’re doing. With Marcelo Garcia, he records all his training sessions and makes them publically available. His thinking is that if someone is watching my video to fight me, they’re entering my game and I’m going to be better at my game. It’s almost a tactic.
How can we apply some of these learning techniques to fat loss and muscle gain?
The first thing you need to do is establish a baseline of where you are. Find out your body fat. Record your food for the day and find out your breakdown of calories from protein, carbs, and fat. Just by establishing that baseline you’ll trigger behavioral change. You’ll tell yourself, “I’m trying to lose fat but here I am consuming a half a gram of protein per pound of body weight. That’s not going to work.” Optimizing one variable is another thing. Don’t try to get huge and be six percent body fat at the same time. It sends conflicting signals to the body.
Remember that you build muscle in the gym and lose fat in the kitchen. If you want to lose body fat, realize that 90% of it is going to be your diet. If you’re trying to get big, focus on getting strong first. A 5x5 program works great. My favorite program is the “Effortless Superhuman” chapter in The 4-Hour Body. Low reps, long rest intervals. Do that for a few weeks and then move to more hypertrophy [muscle size] training. Now you’ll be able to use heavier loads for more time under tension. You’ve optimized your nervous system and now you’ll pack on muscle at an absurd rate. Most people who want to gain mass do too much volume. When in doubt take a week off.
Any tips for goal-setting in general?
Most people fail because their goals are too "realistic"—in quotation marks. Look at Peter Thiel, founder of Paypal. He asks questions like “Why can’t you achieve your 10-year goal in the next six months?” This helps you set up milestones to hit. People do badly with long-term planning.
You should also set up positive and negative reinforcement. Put money on the line that you can lose. That type of accountability works. I have a friend who’s Jewish and he wanted to lose weight. He wrote a check to the American Nazi Party that would be mailed by his friend if he didn’t lose X number of pounds by a certain date. You need a reward or a punishment like that in place. There are sites that can help with this. Coach.me, dietbet.com, stickk.com. Most people fail not because they don’t have enough information but too much, and not enough incentive.
Watch The Tim Ferriss Experiment on iTunes. Visit Tim at fourhourworkweek.com.