I have always been fascinated by the peculiar genre that American publishing has developed as one of its most successful product lines, perhaps second only to cookbooks. It used to be called “self-help” or “self-improvement”, yet, over time, it became less about moving on if you’re a childhood abuse survivor or learning to love your body image if you’re built like a log, and more about empowering the average reader to live a more fulfilling life.
Two of the latest chapters in this fascinating history were written respectively by Keith Ferrazzi with Tal Raz, “Never Eat Alone and Other Secrets to Success, One Relationship at a Time”, and Timothy Ferriss, “The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich”. Being an absolute sucker for this particular brand of how-to manuals, I bought and read both in quick succession.
Actually, I bought “Never Eat Alone” because its title terrified me: I’m a loner and I wanted to find out whether I could learn something useful from a guy who must be, I assume, one of the most aggressively extroverted (in the Junghian sense) people on the planet. It is, broadly speaking, a book about how you can improve your life through networking. And Ferrazzi’s is, to be fair, not an ungenerous style of networking: there is a lot of good advice about genuinely reaching out to others, making yourself available as a mentor, and not keeping score of how much help you offered. At its best, it reminds me of the advice offered by one of the best coaches I’ve ever had, Debra Benton – someone I’ve only ever met a couple of times in real life, and yet whose teachings and books have made a stellar difference in how I relate to others. Yet, Ferrazzi kicks it all into overdrive. He “pings” hundreds of people in his network via a quick call or email on a regular basis, and keeps elaborate call lists to manage his weekly, monthly and yearly pinging. “I ping in the cab, or in my car. I ping in the bathroom (BlackBerry only). When I’m bored at a conference, I ping via e-mail”. And, of course, he never eats alone – even if, by the second time he mentions how Arianna Huffington can be the life of the casual dinner parties he throws at his home, the name-dropping starts to grate on the reader. The corollary of this lifestyle, of course, is that there are no boundaries separating personal life and business: he does not compartmentalize between friends, family, colleagues, business contacts, mentors, and so on, and believes his concept of “balance” consists in creating the richest, most relationship-filled life he can live. (I’m thinking of writing a spoof sequel: “Never Sleep Alone” – how about that?)
“The 4-Hour Workweek” is a vastly different and more entertaining book. Ferriss believes that any kind of work, career or enterprise is best thought of as an enabling technology to make just enough money to pursue your passions, from kickboxing to tango, and that more work (and, presumably, more networking) is a waste. In stark contrast to Ferrazzi, he advises readers to go on a low-information diet, cultivate selective ignorance, reply to email as little as possible (start establishing a twice-a-day routine, then build up to once a week or once a month), refuse to be interrupted for chitchat or spend time at the water cooler, and master the art of disappearing from the office (the hero of one hilarious chapter is an HP tech support employee based in Palo Alto who was apparently able to spend a month in China to meet his girlfriend’s parents and marry her without anybody in the office noticing that he wasn’t at his desk). The author’s ignorance is a bit too selective for my taste (claiming that Vilfredo Pareto is a “forgotten” Italian economist is really like saying: hey, I never took one econ or stats course in college and if I did I must have slept through it, yet look at how successful I’ve become). Still, the book is full of interesting ideas: from outsourcing tasks to an personal assistant in India, to communicating as much as possible via Skype, to micro-testing on the Web whatever product or idea you want to sell for a handful of dollars in clicks (and the guy walks the talk: “How do you think I determined the best title for this book?”) On a bigger scale, he describes ways to put your income generation on autopilot and strongly advocates a career with a number of “mini-retirement” periods built in (his ideal: three of four per year, preferably abroad). For bloggers (who are routinely advised to post ten or twelve times per day if they want their readership to grow), Ferriss is a very different role model: his blog seems to be updated once every three or four days (hey, at least I’m doing something right here!)
“Never Eat Alone” is an insightful but somewhat traditional book, in the well-worn Dale Carnegie path that has defined so much of American social and business norms over the last several decades. “The 4-Hour Workweek” is innovative, fresh, and charmingly provocative. “The 4-Hour Workweek” is going to be big, and Timothy Ferriss can be the new Anthony Robbins. You, my dear readers, read it here first.