To get big things done, let small bad things happen

July 4, 2011 · 22 comments

I’ve long believed our culture has it backwards when it comes to retirement. Why work myself to death during my youth and save all the fun until I’m old, less energetic and less mobile? Worse, what happens if I work my entire life only to drop dead at age 65, just when I’m ready to have fun? (Which makes leaving my job to backpack through Africa a no-brainer, right?)

Backwards, I tell you. So I love that Tim Ferris echoes these sentiments in his book, The 4-Hour Workweek. I had low expectations for this read because friends told me Ferris was a scam — and I see their point. The book title in itself feels scammy because there’s no way I’m going to get my workload down only work four hours a week.

But the themes in this book resonated with me. And compared with most books on this topic, which tend to be short, punchy and so general that they’re not helpful, Ferris’ book includes lots of gems that I’ve already begun to implement in my own life.

Ferris writes about the phenomenon of working for work’s sake, of putting in 40-hour (or 80-hour) weeks just because everyone else does, even if your work doesn’t require it or if — gasp — you don’t want to. Essentially, he accuses our nation of in-the-box thinking when it comes to work and making money. And I totally agree.

“Fifteen to thirty years of soul-crushing work has been accepted as the default path,” Ferris writes. “What is the pot of gold that justifies spending the best years of your life hoping for happiness in the last?”

One of his best points is the title of this post: To get big things done, let small bad things happen. That means if you’re on a roll writing a chapter, don’t interrupt yourself to return a movie to avoid a $1 fee; pay the fee and write the book. If you’re enjoying an awesome trip to China, don’t check your email obsessively because you’re worried about missing an important message; live in the moment and risk missing the note. And if you have one big priority, don’t waste your day away whittling down your to-do list; tackle the big project and let the to-do list slide. Sometimes, focusing on the things that really matter requires letting other, relatively inconsequential tasks fall to the wayside. Ferris says that’s not only okay, it’s encouraged.

Other points Ferris makes in the book that really stuck with me:

  • While we tend to put off the leaps we want to take in life because we’re paralyzed by fear, the risk-to-potential-benefit ratio is actually super low. What do you risk by doing what you really want to do? What’s the worst-case scenario? You risk having to pick back up where you left off, go back to a profession you quit or admit you failed. That sucks, of course, but it really isn’t that bad. The potential for positive, life-changing gain, however, is huge. Huge! You might find a new passion or perspective that changes the course of your life. When you put it that way, taking a leap looks like the obvious choice.
  • We’ve talked about this before, but it’s worth repeating: For all the important things in life, the timing sucks. To have a baby, change careers, follow your dream — the timing will never be right. Don’t bother waiting for the perfect storm, because it will never arrive. Accept that the timing will always suck, which makes now the right time to do what you’ve been waiting on.
  • Most of our problems are caused by a small group of people or commitments. (Ferris calls this the 80/20 rule.) In other words, a few sources are responsible for a disproportionate number of problems that lead to unhappiness. There’s a reason why you think you have to deal with those people or commitments even though they’re an energy-suck; maybe you don’t want to give up that client or you feel a moral obligation to a long-time friend — but that approach is inefficient. Cutting out the people and commitments that cause you a disproportionate amount of stress is a sure-fire way to increase your happiness.
  • The art of non-finishing = I love! I’m not one of those people who finishes a book just because I started it; in fact, I probably stop reading nearly as many books as I finish. I simply can’t justify reading a boring book when I have a dozen more reads waiting for me in a pile (literally). But Ferris reminded me that the art of non-finishing applies to other parts of my life, too — and I’ve already taken the opportunity to practice. When a free Webinar I signed up for last week turned out to be way too elementary for me, I stopped watching it rather than sticking with it until the end, hoping it would get good. In cases like this, not finishing is far more effective and efficient than finishing. So I ditched the Webinar and worked one of my projects instead.
  • I often write about how saving money makes it easier to take a leap. And one way you can save money is by living minimally. But Ferris points out that living below your means makes sense for another reason, too: it helps us take risks without fear. Living with less minimizes fear because we have fewer things we’re afraid to lose. If you already know you can go without that cup of coffee every day, it’s easier to leap into self-employment even if you might not be able to afford the morning goodness. If we don’t “need” $500 to spend on clothes each month, it’s not so scary to leave the full-time income behind to write a book. Recognizing our true needs frees us from fear, making our goals more attainable.
  • “Being busy is a form of laziness — lazy thinking and indiscriminate action.” Uh, guilty, right here. I’m always busy. This really made me ponder, Am I busy because I’m bad at identifying my priorities and sticking with them? Do I chip away at my to-do list because I need to get those things done or just to feel productive? If I made more conscious decisions about how to spend my time, would I have more of it?

Ferris also writes extensively about how to manage the beast that email has become — and since I already had a post in my queue about how email is taking over my life, I figured I’d incorporate his suggestions into that. Watch for it later this week.

If you’ve read The 4-Hour Workweek, I’d love to hear what you thought of it below.

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{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

Dalene - Hecktic Travels July 4, 2011 at 7:01 am

I have not read it yet, but it is on the “to-do” list, even more so now because everything about what you’ve written appeals to me. And by the sounds of it, I know of lots of people that could benefit from it…
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Stacy S. Jensen July 4, 2011 at 10:14 am

I think you summed it up nicely. I read the book a few years ago. I thought he had great points about managing your time and making your dreams happen, but other than that it felt a bit “scammy” as I absorbed every word.

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Chuck Sambuchino July 4, 2011 at 1:37 pm

Excellent, excellent post.

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SoVeryVienna.com July 4, 2011 at 1:50 pm

Love this post, Lex. So many gems, indeed. You really hit these points so well. I may print this post and stick it to my wall (my real wall).

And speaking of that book pile – have you read The Help yet??! :)

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Alexis Grant July 4, 2011 at 10:48 pm

It’s still in the pile! And now I want to see the movie, too…

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Robyn July 5, 2011 at 12:50 am

Thanks for this post, I’m def going to check out this book (with a grain of salt)
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Andrea James July 5, 2011 at 12:54 pm

Lexi, this is a thoroughly enjoyable post. Thank you so much!

Your first bullet, on risk-to-potential-benefit ratio, is a concept used all the time in investing. We call it the risk/reward profile. So, say a stock is trading at $22 a share. You think that in five years it could be worth $300 a share, and in one year, it will be about $50 a share.

Now say all of the company’s assets combined plus its intellectual property is worth about $19 a share. Even if the company started to flop, a competitor could come along and buy the company for $19.

Thus, your upside reward potential is about $28 (50 minus 22). Your downside risk is about $3. You want stocks with lots of upside and little downside.

(Everything had downside and risk, it’s a fact of life.)

Also, I loved the bit about the art of non-finishing. I think that I’m going to try th
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Emily July 5, 2011 at 2:38 pm

Andrea, giggle. You crack me up.

Alexis, I was nodding my head with every sentence. Perfect post. Thank you! Just posted on my blog too.
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Alexis Grant July 5, 2011 at 2:48 pm

Thanks, Emily!

And AJ — Great real-life example! Love it.

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Allison July 5, 2011 at 3:16 pm

Great thoughts – thanks for sharing.
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Peggy Frezon July 5, 2011 at 7:24 pm

I can’t imagine making a living by working only 4 hrs/week–I guess it would require a lot of changes for me to ever get there. I like the point about not finishing everything…great idea! Now I really need to read your upcoming post about email!
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Jen Zeman July 6, 2011 at 6:48 am

I LOVE Tim Ferris and have read The Four-Hour Workweek more than once (pages tagged, passages highlighted). It is my Bible! His money-making advice isn’t for me, but his advice for living in the moment is spot-on and that’s what I admire the most about him (plus I think he’s funny as hell). He’s bold and adventurous and I think some people (oh, who am I kidding, ALOT of people) are threatened by that, but I embrace it! Life is too short to waste on things that don’t matter.

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Kathleen Pooler July 6, 2011 at 3:54 pm

Hi Alexis,
I have not read Ferris’ book but your recap is excellent. The 80/20 rule and the art of non-finishing force us to be discerning about how we spend our time and talents. Thank you for these practical reminders about how to de-clutter so we can focus our energies on our priorities. Great post.
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Aimee July 6, 2011 at 7:00 pm

I loved this post, which I linked to from Emily’s site. It’s funny, because I too have thought this book sounded sort of “scammy” but you’ve definitely changed that perception, and now I really do want to read it. Thank you for sharing! I’m enjoying reading through your archives too! Awesome blog.
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Alexis Grant July 6, 2011 at 7:11 pm

Thanks, Aimee! Always nice to see new voices in the comments.

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ConsciouslyFrugal July 7, 2011 at 4:28 pm

Found this gem via Emily’s blog. Really great post! (Yes even though I didn’t finish the book and think he’s a con artist.) You really sifted through the b.s. to get to the gems. I could not understand the appeal of this book, but you’ve given me some clarity. Actually, I think you should take these gems, add some more of your own wisdom, and create your own book! These concepts are powerful and life-changing. It’s unfortunate that Ferris’s shady ways color that. Thank you for taking the funk out and giving us the best bits of advice. I may just revisit the book and give it another try. But I reserve the right to take his advice and put it down again if need be. Ha!
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Alexis Grant July 7, 2011 at 4:51 pm

Hey — Thanks! I always appreciate a comment that suggests using my wisdom to write a book :)

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Joanna Penn July 8, 2011 at 7:40 am

Hi Alexis,
I love Tim Ferriss – he is a very smart guy and I don’t think he is a scammer at all. He is just very clever and gets things done so he has achieved more than many people with normal lives, families etc can do. This book inspired me when I first started blogging. It focused my mind towards growing that side business that could eventually leave me free enough to write and travel. I highly recommend it and his great lifestyle blog. Some great evergreen posts there. He also marketed from the ground up so we can all learn a lot from him.
Thanks, Joanna
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Shawndra Russell July 18, 2011 at 7:58 pm

Great post! You have definitely made me want to pick-up Ferris’ book. Another advantage of jumping into my dream career and giving up the rat race is the realization that saving for retirement isn’t quite as desperate now that I know I could write for as long as I am alive (actually, I will have no choice to write every day now that I have taken this leap–it feels as necessary as breathing). This epiphany means that now I don’t have to stress that we aren’t saving the advised 10-15% of our gross income because I am not racing towards some magical retirement age so I can quit my job and start living the “good life.” Instead, I can mix those world travels every single year because I can write from anywhere, and every new experience will give me tons to write about too.
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Izy Berry July 25, 2012 at 9:33 am

I really enjoyed Ferris’ book, I think it is a bit of an overdramaticization, but it kind of had to be – no one would read a 21 hour work week book. The points in it are great, and helpful… I am feeling a bit uninspired so maybe I have to turn back to it and work towards my location independent dreams, again.
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Jez EMIN January 9, 2013 at 6:54 am

Great advice, so much of which resonates with me, especially the beginning (working very hard for most of your life so that you might get to enjoy some time of it at the end….).

I think that mode of thinking has been ingrained in a lot of people to create a fear based society (off the back of which is the enormous scam called the Pension’s Industry).

Anyway, I digress, I am looking to purchase Ferris’ book as I am currently in the process of a major transition in my life and could do with some great pointers in this area (loved the ‘beast that email has become’ ! – very subtle is has become that too !).

Great Blog, I’ll be a regular reader, for sure.

Kindest regards,

Jez EMIN

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