Being interested in personal development and the creation of better lives, Tim Ferriss is someone to watch.
Between the surprise success of “The 4-Hour Work-Week” and his third and latest (and highly recommendable) “The 4-Hour Chef,” in the course of which he’s been shifting towards a somewhat better understanding of life not being just about brag-worthy experiences and records, he had collected fitness/health/body advice into “The 4-Hour Body.”
The most interesting part of it to me, understandably, was the little “last-minute addition” about ultramarathon running.
Sure, it is not the most important part of the book.
However, it has turned out to be the part that most clearly shows the psychological dynamics through which this “hacker” approach to living goes astray.
One of the grand notions of the 4-hour empire is the idea that one needs to look at the outliers and deconstruct skills to find the faster, more direct – more intelligent? – ways to a goal.
Want to pleasure women? Forget about romanticism and an atmosphere of trust and warmth, try these tried-and-tested techniques!
Want six-pack abs? Go for the “minimum effective dose” of this strange trick…. oh, wait, wrong sort of text…
Now, things like the minimum effective dose, the focus on the elements of a skill that will give the greatest result for the time invested, the search for life hacks that will give early wins and, therefore, the impetus to go on, are not bad at all.
However, those outliers might not have anything much to teach, but be “freaks” for whom things really are different, without much of any import to the majority.
The vast majority of people may not find a shortcut for going from 5k to 50k by way of high-intensity training, but does rather need to go for long and slow training runs, just as common wisdom has it.
Why? Simply because there’s still a difference between improving blood levels and fitness indicators – for which HIT (high-intensity training) can do a lot – and running for hours on end. Both physically, and psychologically – and this is where it gets really interesting.
“[A]n ultrarunner’s mind is what matters more than anything. Racing ultras requires absolute confidence tempered with intense humility.” (Scott Jurek, “Eat & Run” 2012)
Could Ferriss participate in and finish a 50k ultra?
Certainly, as long as both determination and humility are there. – But would a person who wanted to go from 5k to 50k within 12 weeks, something like 100 weeks ago, who has made a name for himself through relentless self-promotion and the collection of strange records (and looking at the “Chinese national kickboxing champion” title, winning “the wrong way”) be content with walking for quite a bit of the distance and finishing somewhere at the back of the pack?
This, to me, is the driving issue: Approaching a problem intelligently is highly recommendable, of course.
When that supposed intelligence becomes all about the quick wins – quick ways to only four hours of work a week (because everything that’s fun is defined as something other than work), quick fluency in a language (because fluency is defined as the ability to participate in an everyday conversation without too many misunderstandings or embarrassing pauses and nothing more) – however, then it becomes dangerous.
Rather than being a highly recommendable experimentation with life, driven and driving at understanding and learning, it comes to support the quickly achieved successes that are nothing more than a little gaming of the usual system.
In words from “The 4-Hour Chef,”
“#4 IT DOESN’T TAKE MUCH TO BECOME IMPRESSIVE.
In the first 24 hours, I’ll take you from burning scrambled eggs to osso buco, one of the most expensive menu items in the world. If 28% of Americans can’t cook at all,‡ and if another third are on some variation of mac and cheese, having even one seemingly difficult meal up your sleeve puts you in rare company.“ [my emphasis]
Compare that to the world of something like ultrarunning:
According to Outside Online, “a record 36,000 people participated in [ultra-distance events] in the U.S. last year.”
Given a U.S. population of 313,914,040, that means that those who participated in an ultra-distance event were 0.0115% (rounded up) of the total population… or, in the terms of getting to greatness used by Tim Ferriss, mere participation makes you a part of the Top 0.0115% of Americans when it comes to ultramarathon running…
Move over, “the 1%.” Register for the next ultra, et voila, you’re “in rare company.”
Superficial symptoms of success, however, are the exact opposite to the command over and separateness from the usual ways of doing things and the usual, pedestrian, values, leading forward to something better, that intelligent hacks are meant to show.
A better life that remembers what virtues are (and actually, any kind of good life that goes beyond superficialities), is rather like an ultramarathon: It is not achievable through quick hacks, but only by slouching on even when it’s hard, taking pleasure in the grand views as well as the exhilarating descents – and the pain and doubt, as well – taking one step after another whether it is fast or slow, easy or painful.
Will you come along with me?