I don’t know how else to put it. Timothy Ferris is a douche. There is, in fact, an entire genre of blog literature that explains why Timothy Ferriss is a douche. Even New York Times columnist Frank Bruni got in on the action.
Since I already heard Ferriss’ insecure egocentricity on full display during his Long Now talk, I came to this book expecting a self-obsessed hustler to peddle his “you-too-can-be-like-me” vision. But I still wanted to read the book. I wanted to understand why it became a bestseller and why Ferris, the arch-egocentic, has become so influential among ambitious American men of my generation. (If you haven’t heard of Ferriss before, you probably don’t spend much time reading tech and entrepreneurship blogs.)
What I didn’t expect was to come to feel a deep sympathy for Ferriss. Despite the fact that he’s a jerk, he isn’t a terrible writer and the biographic sections of the book are rich fodder for psychoanalysis. Like Ferris, I also grew up with an instinctive, acute resentment of authority and hierarchical structures. It is still the most defining characteristic of my personality, but I have learned to control the resentment and anger as I have matured. Like Ferriss, I too was also extremely motivated and reasonably precocious. This combination of wanting to accomplish so much while spending most of my energy rebelling against the institutions around me led to constant anxiety and insecurity. “Does not fulfill potential” was scribbled across all of my report cards, which led me to rebel against my teachers and parents even more, all the while internalizing the basic notion that I was letting people down.
Like Ferriss, I knew that I didn’t want to define my life by others’ expectations. I wanted to find my own path and define my own expectations. Part of that — like Ferriss — was to travel the world.
That is where our paths began to diverge. Ferriss embraced a deep individualism that prioritizes self-improvement as the definition of success. Among his conclusions: Don’t search for meaningful work; find a way to make as much money in as little time as possible, and spend the rest of your time having fun. There is no meaning in life; what we really want is excitement, not ‘meaning.’ Don’t let others interrupt your path toward personal perfection; if they start blabbering, cut them off and return to focusing on yourself.
Ferriss is obsessed with his own image. He constantly reminds the reader that he is a world champion of kickboxing, the winner of a tango championship in Argentina, a polyglot, a motorcycle racer, a chef, and a weight-lifter. But he is driven only by extrinsic motivation. He does not appreciate the “craftsmanship” of his pastimes; that is, in the words of Richard Sennett, “the desire to do a job well for its own sake.” For Ferriss, it’s all about winning a trophy, bragging to his friends, or checking something off his to-do list.
The collective, the individual, and the twilight of the elites
I am easily persuaded by Christopher Hayes’ argument that the rise of American meritocracy over the past fifty years has led to extreme, individualistic competition among ambitious elites at the expense of our concern for collective well being. In order to be successful in America today you have to focus on yourself. The idea of placing one’s community (or one’s work team) ahead of one’s self is passé.
David Brooks has written a lot about the individual versus collective world views. From China, he penned a column noting that Asian economies are challenging the assumption that a culture of individualism creates incentives for greater economic growth. Then, following President Obama’s second inaugural address (which he calls “among the best of the past half-century”), Brooks examines the pros and cons of the individualist versus collectivist society. It is the cultural debate that underlies almost all other contemporary political debates.
Like Ferriss, I too am deeply individualistic. The day after I graduated from high school I packed up all my belongings and drove to Alaska to spend six months by myself. I
wanted needed to disconnect from all institutions, responsibilities, and expectations. But unlike Ferriss, during my 20s I came to a deep appreciation of the satisfaction that can come from participating in a community that isn’t defined by hierarchical structures or individual achievements. I am, of course, speaking of my time with Global Voices, which finally gave me a productive channel to focus my energy toward the goals of a greater community.
There is satisfaction that comes from individual accomplishments. But, in my experience, nothing is as satisfying as building something together as a team. I fear we are losing the “craft of cooperation.” If there has one thing my generation has learned, it is self-promotion — and no one can out-self-promote Timothy Ferriss. I hope that one day he can take a break from perfecting his self in order to experience the pleasure of cultivating community.