To this day, no book impacted my life more than The Four-Hour Workweek, by Tim Ferriss. He’s one of the world’s most influential entrepreneurs, author of five #1 New York Times bestselling books, and the host of The Tim Ferriss Show, which has been downloaded over 500 million times.
I stumbled on his book back in 2010 when I was 22, living in South Korea, and teaching English. Up until that point, I had basically lived the life everyone expected of me—but thanks to his lessons, I gained the inspiration and courage to quit my previous path, go after what I wanted, and create the life I have and love today.
Of all the lessons, here are three that made the biggest difference in how I approached life during my 20s and beyond—and I’m confident they can make a huge impact for you too:
1. “Ask for forgiveness, not permission.”
“If it isn’t going to devastate those around you, try it and then justify it. People — whether parents, partners, or bosses — deny things on an emotional basis that they can learn to accept after the fact. If the potential damage is moderate or in any way reversible, don’t give people the chance to say no. Most people are fast to stop you before you get started but hesitant to get in the way if you’re moving. Get good at being a troublemaker and saying sorry when you really screw up.”
Before I read The Four-Hour Workweek, I lived the exact life my parents wanted of me: Study hard. Get good grades in high school. Go to college. Study hard again. Get good grades again. Find a good job. Save money. Retire.
After I read it, I made the hard decision to abandon what I previously dedicated my life toward (a career in finance) and follow my heart to become a personal trainer. Once I told my parents, however, they hated everything about it—but I knew they would oppose so I purposely told them after I made my choice, not before.
That’s when I realized the best things in life happened after I did something without asking for permission. And several years of hard work later, I eventually became a fitness expert for GQ, Esquire, Under Armour, and many others and opened countless doors.
Fact: Not everyone will ever give you permission to do what you want in life. Not everyone will like all of your ideas. Not everyone will have the same goals, courage, or opinion of the world as you.
So instead of waiting for approval before trying something (approval you might never receive), just take action and handle any disapproval later. That way, you’re moving forward in life rather than standing still. You’re shooting your shot. You’re taking action and you’re not wasting time wondering what others think of you or your decisions.
Because, ultimately, if you need to make others happy, you’ll never be happy yourself.
2. Define what you actually want in life
“For all their bitching about what’s holding them back, most people have a lot of trouble coming up with the defined dreams they’re being held from.”
If you talk to most people—regardless of their age—they actually have no idea what they want in life.
They might complain about how they could do all these great things if they didn’t have a crappy job, a long commute, or a pile of bills, but if you ask them specifically what they want in life, they’ll balk or give vague, clichéd answers like “I just want to be happy” or “I just want to travel.”
But without a specific dream, there’s no direction or path. There’s no way of knowing when that dream is accomplished or what it takes to get there. (Hell, they can be happy or travel right now if they wanted to; then what would they do with the rest of their lives?)
Worse, without defining any goals, people tend to waste time doing the wrong thing or keep working and saving money just for the sake of working and saving money. As Tim explains:
“This is how most people work until death: “I’ll just work until I have X dollars and then do what I want.” If you don’t define the “what I want” alternate activities, the X figure will increase indefinitely to avoid the fear-inducing uncertainty of this void.”
Once I took the time to define what I actually wanted to do, my life improved. I was able to work backward and figure out how much money I had to earn and save; then, once I hit that number, I could scale back on my work. I even felt more productive and focused while working because I wanted to spend more time on my passions. (Trust me, if you’re trying to finish a project early so you can do something you love, you’ll work harder than ever.)
All of this was the direct result of finally defining the things that actually bring me joy in life — the things I would do every day for the rest of my life.
Here’s one of the hardest questions in Tim’s book for me:
“What would you do, day to day, if you had $100 million in the bank?”
In other words, what would you do with your life if you never had to work again?
(Take a moment to think about your answer.)
When I did this exercise, I started listing clichéd things like, “Travel the world, take classes, play sports, exercise, hang out with friends, etc.” But I can only play so much golf, do so much travel, and take so many classes — what would I do for the rest of the time? What else would I do every day until I die?
I had no clue. And that’s when I realized I had to figure out what I actually wanted to do with my life — before it was too late.
It’s surprising to think how many people live their entire lives and never ask themselves this. Then, once they stop working, they would have nothing to fill the void, and life loses its purpose and meaning.
That’s why it’s better to figure this out while you’re young—and when you have plenty of time to shape your life exactly how you want it.
3. Define your fears to overcome them
“Usually, what we most fear doing is what we most need to do. That phone call, that conversation, whatever the action might be — it is fear of unknown outcomes that prevents us from doing what we need to do. Define the worst case, accept it, and do it. I’ll repeat something you might consider tattooing on your forehead: What we fear doing most is usually what we most need to do.”
What are you avoiding in life because you’re afraid? Starting a new career? Quitting your job? Moving to a new city or country?
With each choice, there’s a lot of fear and uncertainty. What are the downsides? What happens if you run out of money? What happens if you fail?
Unfortunately, these fears usually prevent action. Even if we truly want to accomplish something, we choose not to take the leap — after all, if we keep doing what we’re doing, it won’t bring contentment, but it’ll bring certainty.
That’s why the solution isn’t to ignore your fears; it’s to be transparent about them and see them for what they are.
In The Four-Hour Workweek, Tim asks 7 questions to help you work through your fears and make the best choice. Below are excerpts of each question:
- Define your nightmare, the absolute worst that could happen if you did what you are considering. What would be the permanent impact on a scale of 1–10? How likely do you think it would actually happen?
- What steps could you take to repair the damage or get things back on track?
- What are the benefits, both temporary and permanent, of more probable scenarios? What would the impact of these outcomes be on a scale of 1–10? How likely is it that you could create a decent outcome?
- If you were fired from your job today, what would you do to get
things under financial control?
- What are you putting off out of fear?
- What is it costing you — financially, emotionally, and physically — to postpone action? Don’t only evaluate the potential downside of action. It is equally important to measure the atrocious cost of inaction.
- What are you waiting for?
Back in June 2010, I tried answering these questions for myself when I was considering moving to Taiwan after my English-teaching contract ended in South Korea. I was tentative and afraid of what my family would say or that I would “waste my life.”
30 minutes later, however, I demolished my fears and felt liberated — suddenly, something out-of-reach became attainable.
2 months later, I moved to Taiwan (without permission).
And again, it was one of the best decisions of my youth.
“Measure the cost of inaction, realize the unlikelihood and repairability of most missteps, and develop the most important habit of those who excel and enjoy doing so: action.”
It’s astonishing how much we overestimate our “nightmare situations.” Often, just by defining the actual fears, we can see how most of them are just stories and exaggerations.
- “Ask for forgiveness, not permission.” Don’t wait for approval to do the things you want in life — you’ll never get it. Instead, take action first and then handle any consequences or fallout later.
- Define what you actually want in life. Without specific dreams, you’ll keep working for the sake of work. Instead, define the things you actually want to do and the lifestyle you want to live so you can work backward and achieve them.
- Define your fears to overcome them. Most of the fears that hold us back are far from permanent and easily reversible. Define the worst-case scenario, how you would overcome it, and more importantly, what you lose by avoiding action. Remember: “What we fear doing most is usually what we most need to do.”
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