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  • Personal Branding Interview: Tim Ferriss on The 4-Hour Chef

    I recently spoke to Tim Ferriss, who is author of the #1 New York Times best sellers The 4-Hour Workweek and The 4-Hour Body. He’s been called “The Superman of Silicon Valley” by Wired, one of Fast Company’s “Most Innovative Business People” and “the world’s best guinea pig” by Newsweek, which ranked him in its top 10 “most powerful” personalities on the 2012 Digital 100 Power Index. Marco Canora, the Chef-Partner of Hearth & Terroir, says that “If you crossed Jason Bourne with Julia Child, you’d end up with Tim Ferriss.” His popular blog was named by Inc. Magazine as one of “19 Blogs You Should Bookmark Right Now.”

    Tim’s latest book is called The 4-Hour Chef: The Simple Path to Cooking Like a Pro, Learning Anything, and Living the Good Life. This book is very different from Tim’s previous books since there are more than 1,500 photographs and hundreds of illustrations throughout. The 4-Hour Chef will make for the perfect holiday gift for everyone, wannabe chef or not. For those who buy three copies of the book, Tim is going to offer them an exclusive live Q&A with him after launch week. All you have to do is purchase the books on Amazon and email the receipt to 3books@4hourchef.com.

    In this abbreviated interview (the full interview is in my Forbes column), Tim talks about the common misconceptions about learning, how to become self-sufficient in your trade, and more.

    What are the common misconceptions of learning and what new truths does your book reveal about it?

    Actually, one of the bigger misconceptions of learning is that many skills take a lifetime to get world-class at, or 10,000 hours to become world-class at. If you want to be Tiger Woods at age eight, you’re going to know you have the potential because you’ll be drawing sketches of people hitting balls with different irons, which he was, instead of pirate ships. But, if you want to be the best in your circle of friends or in the top five percent in the U.S. population at golf, swimming, Spanish, Japanese, whatever it might be, I firmly believe that you can accomplish that in most cases six months or less. I find it’s easier to disprove most of the limitations of learning, most of the really burdensome aspects of learning really, really quickly.

    To be functionally fluent in a language, for instance, in most cases you need about 1,200 words. To acquire a total of vocabulary words if you really train someone well they can acquire 200 to 300 words a day which means that in a week they can acquire the vocabulary necessary to speak a language. Now, of course, then they need practice and the basic frameworks to grammar and what not. It’s something that routinely would take someone a year or two or three or more if they use more traditional methods and it’s just not necessary and it’s not particularly effective. One great historical example, the Fosbury Flop.

    The Fosbury Flop is a high jump technique named after Dick Fosbury in the 1968 Olympics where most people were using a scissor technique or a straddle technique to get a high jump. He was the first person to go over backwards with a back arch. People laughed and people mocked the Fosbury Flop and then he won the gold medal and they stopped laughing and now everyone uses his technique. Up until that point in time, it was believed the way you performed the high jump was with a scissor kick or a straddle jump and a couple things happened; number one, Fosbury asked himself ‘why are we following these rules that are actually not rules at all, they’re just self-imposed, number one.”

    Number two, instead of a packed, hard surface the high jump was making the transition to a soft, padded landing which meant you could do things differently. And similarly now, if you’re trying to learn how to do, let’s say, a pop up on a surfboard, I learned to do a pop up on a surfboard using Skype video from a rainy apartment in Berlin communicating with Brad Gerlach, former number one ranked surfer in the world from his apartment in Los Angeles. Instead of a soft landing mat, the tool that I’m using to accelerate my progress with surfing is Skype video. A lot of the learning and teaching recommendations are still stuck a few hundred years in the past.

    Do you believe in Malcolm Gladwell’s rule of 10,000 hours to master something?

    I think it’s a very helpful sound bite. Malcolm Gladwell is an incredible storyteller. I think that correlation does not equal causation and that his message applied in certain instances can be certain to be true. You can find anomalies that violate that left and right. What I would say is I don’t personally believe the 10,000 hour rule needs to apply in most places. What my job has been is to rather than look at the averages—I’m sure you’ve heard the joke ‘Bill Gates walks into a bar and the average net worth of everyone in the bar jumps to 500 million dollars…” Averages can be very misleading and what I’ve done whether it’s with The 4-Hour BodyThe 4-Hour Workweek and now in The 4-Hour Chef is look for the anomalies. Who are the people who can learn Icelandic in seven days, who are the people who can memorize a shuffle deck of cards in less than 60 seconds? And then, can I replicate it? Do they have a method and can I replicate their results? So I don’t personally subscribe to the 10,000 hour rule.

    How do you become self-sufficient in your trade? What did you learn from some of the people you interviewed about becoming self-sufficient?

    A few things. The first thing, and this is another reason that I wrote The 4-Hour Chef and decided to focus on cooking is that I realized I really wasn’t building anything with my hands. There was a lot I was doing in the digital world of computers but I didn’t have the ability to build things with my hands and I got really kind of anxious about this. I had felt like I had lost some really important part of my humanness and originally it was going to be woodworking but for a whole host of reasons—the studio’s too far away; I have to get the material; Like what am I going to do with the crappy birdhouse that I make? I didn’t end up doing it. Food became for me a way of becoming self-sufficient with my hands to regain manual literacy which I think has been lost on our generation and certainly younger generations. Very few people can actually make things with their hands and do things with their hands.

    It’s not that one is better than the other but certainly becoming more comfortable with foraging, becoming more comfortable with hunting if I have to, becoming more comfortable with creating shelter from scratch, and learning like the six most important knots that you can use for whether its camping or jury rigging things in your house or survival. All of those I came to by wanting to re-engage my hands. I think all of those skills are very fast and easy to learn. They are really, really rewarding in a way that is hard to put into words because you’re reclaiming this fundamental humanness. Like early animal nature that I think is really undervalued in a sort of a white collar digital world but those would be a few of the places that I would focus.

    For instance, you could say well ‘why would I ever learn knife skills if I can just use a food processor?’ To that I would say, well there are a few reasons. Number one, knife skills are much more flexible and I introduce them way later than most cookbooks so you’ll never be afraid of them and you won’t cut yourself. Secondly, there is something inherently gratifying about knowing how to use a knife really well. It is so gratifying and I never expected that I would have such a strong emotional and psychological response to learning these things.

    One of my friends asked me “if you lost electricity for two years, what would you do?”

    Yes, exactly. What if you lost electricity for three days? You know, what happens to the food in your refrigerator? What happens to potable water? These are things that most people, even in a place like New York City or certainly San Francisco, where there is a history of earthquakes that have taken out power and what not for a week to ten days at a time; they’re completely unprepared for it. I get into all that stuff in the wild section of the book which is kind of the point of that section. It’s a good exercise at the very least. It makes you think about the world differently.

    What are the best ways to develop the right career related skills to become a more desirable employee? What about entrepreneur related skills?

    In terms of developing the right career related skills, and entrepreneur related skills, there are few that come to mind. One is time management; whether you want to be an entrepreneur or the best employee in a company, I think the skillset is still very similar. I would break it down to three things: time management, being both efficient and effective; then you have communication written and all; and then you have negotiation written and all. I think those three skills determine much of success in the modern professional world.

    As far as time management, being effective and efficient goes, I think The 4-Hour Work Week synthesizes a lot of what I had read and learned but there are other books that are fantastic like Peter Drucker’s The Effective ExecutiveIt’s a fantastic short read that I think is very timeless in its recommendations and choosing the right things as opposed to just getting good at doing a lot of things quickly is very, very important. The critical difference between what you do and how you do things; and what you do is more important; choosing those things; choosing the things you focus on.

    A very large part of that of being effective is large blocks of time. It’s Paul Graham’s Makers Versus Managers Schedule, where you really need two to three hour blocks of time if you’re creating things. No combination or accumulation of 20 minute breaks will ever equal a single, uninterrupted block of three hours. Then communication wise. Of course, without communication, very little gets done and I think in a business world it gets very jargon-y and very long winded very quickly. There are a few books I really like. One of them is On Writing Well by William Zinsser. There are certainly others but just really being straight and to the point without coming off as really rude is a skill.

    Learning how to craft e-mails to minimize back and forth. Like “can you make lunch at four o’clock” and then it’s like “no, when can you make lunch…oh, what about this, what about that” and you’re have seventeen back and forths instead of just saying “can you make this, this or this time” just to suggest times on this or this day. Like “if so, I’ll meet you here and here’s a link to directions” type of thing so you do the extra 30 seconds of thinking on the front-end to avoid the extra hour of back and forth and nonsense on the backend. And then from a negotiation standpoint, I’ve written pretty extensively about this kind of stuff in the past as well but the ability to become a good deal maker. Whether you’re a salesperson or a negotiator or anything in between, you have to get good at crafting deals. That could be good for job opportunities; that could be negotiating with your boss; could be negotiating with suppliers, it’s all the same skillset. I think for that, there are a few books I’ve found very helpful. One of which is Getting Past No, which is written by one of the co-authors of its predecessor Getting to Yes but I think Getting Past No is a more realistic take on what actually happens in the real world.

    What is the 80/20 rule and how do you apply it?

    The 80/20 rule is Pareto’s Law is the principle or concept that you can get 80% of your desired outcomes from 20% of the activities or inputs can be applied everywhere in cooking. So for instance, I studied chefs and looked at how they answered the question ‘if you went to a deserted island and could only take one herb or spice with you, what would it be?’ And then I looked for patterns and answers among the top chefs identifying ‘gear’. One of the most frustrating aspects of cooking to me when I tried it in the past is when I would pick up a cookbook and be like ‘sweet, these recipes look amazing’ and then in the very beginning in fine print somewhere it be like ‘okay, before we get started you’re just going to need these following things’ and it was like preparing for the Tour de France with this like $3,000 worth of gear that I didn’t have the budget for nor did I have the space for.

    I really did a very hard 80/20 analysis of different gear. It’s like alright I’m going to get you a $12 knife that no one’s ever heard of, a Microplane, a pastry scraper for cleaning crap off your cutting boards and a couple of other things and you’re off to the races. For less than $100, boom, you’re ready to go; you’re ready to make amazing food. I crammed six months of culinary school into 48 hours with the help of someone who used to teach at culinary school. So choosing all of the most powerful and versatile techniques of culinary school and compressing them into training and dishes over 48 hours was very fascinating and eye opening. That’s another exercise in choosing the highest leverage, highest impact gems; finding the needles in the haystack.

    I apply the 80/20 rule everywhere. Looking for the internal dialogue, so the questions that chefs ask themselves when they create their best dishes or their most creative dishes. I went through that with a number of the top rated chefs in the entire county and the world to identify what is their actual thought process when they’re putting together something amazing, can you break that down into five questions that you just check off; that you can literally create as an algorithm or recipe in your head to get better results and the answer is yes, you can do that. It’s pretty much reflected on every page of the book. It could’ve been called The 80/20 Chef.


    Dan Schawbel is a Gen Y career expert and the founder of Millennial Branding, a Gen Y research and consulting company. He is also the #1 international bestselling author of Me 2.0: 4 Steps to Building Your Future and was named to the Inc. Magazine 30 Under 30 list in 2010. Subscribe to my updates: Facebook.com/DanSchawbel.

    Dan Schawbel is the Managing Partner of Millennial Branding, a Gen Y research and consulting firm. He is the New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestselling author of Promote Yourself: The New Rules For Career Success (St. Martin’s Press) and the #1 international bestselling book, Me 2.0: 4 Steps to Building Your Future (Kaplan Publishing), which combined have been translated into 15 languages.

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