Tim Ferris is pretty good at a lot of things. He writes good copy and great titles--both of which are critical ingredients for any best-seller. He's got a knack for applying the 80/20 rule to a wide range of disciplines. And he's good at writing to his own demographic--let's call it 20-39 year old urban/suburban men.
However, what Tim Ferris is really good at is hype. And let's be honest: you have to be good at marketing and hype to get the 20-39 male demographic to read you. The problem, however, is that all this hype makes Ferriss's books appear more rigorous than they really are.
And as we'll soon see, what intelligent readers will mostly do while reading The 4-Hour Chef is question Tim Ferriss's credibility to write it.
Speaking of 20- and 30-something men, here's yet another thing Tim Ferriss is good at: affectation. Like hype, affectation is utterly useless to readers, but it at least produces some unintentional humor. If for some foolish reason you buy The 4-Hour Chef, prepare yourself for countless name-dropping experience brags like these:
"The Maasai warrior I bought this from was eager to talk, which we did for more than an hour."
"Marc Andreesen [ed: this is the founder of Netscape, which invented the internet browser] introduced me to a series of [whiskeys] over dinner. At the time his kitchen featured a walk-in whiskey library stocked with a fit for every palate, each scored from 1-4 (4 being the best)."
"I was once invited to a rather fancy cocktail party in San Francisco, held at a billionaire's house."
[In a section on the USA's best hunting locales] "Catskill Mountains, New York. Squirrel season: Sept. 1--Feb. 28, though I particularly like January and February."
Now, these could be the casually tossed-off comments of a garden-variety narcissist, or they're the deliberate statements of a tone-deaf young man who doesn't yet know that "eager to impress" is an oxymoron. Maybe both.
But in a huge book that's scattered, disorganized, covers too much ground too superficially, contains perhaps 300 pages of fluff, and contains all the bragging above, it suggests to me that Tim Ferriss doesn't know when he is outside his circle of competence. Reread the "squirrel brag" quote above. Are we really to believe Tim Ferris has a favorite month for hunting squirrel?
Expertise You Don't Have
Sure, okay, it's just squirrel hunting. No big deal, right? We could laugh it off and not take it seriously. But I want to focus on this quote, because it illustrates an enormously important point about author credibility.
This squirrel brag is one of dozens of examples in The 4-Hour Chef of what I'd call pretend expertise. Ferris acts as if he knows, through personal experience, which months he likes best to hunt squirrel. But the problem is this: knowing the best months would involve actually hunting in all the other months, most likely over a period of years. You'd have to do this before you could believably make the claim that you "particularly like" a given month.
Yet judging by both context and the book's production timeline, it's infinitely more likely that Ferriss simply went out and hunted for squirrels... once. It happened to be in January or February and he "particularly" liked it. Readers, do you see the distinction? In this tossed-off brag, Ferriss lays claim to expertise he doesn't actually have.
And when an author pretends to have expertise he doesn't have, he annihilates his credibility. Just one or two instances of this in a book can destroy the reader-author bond of trust. The 4-Hour Chef contains dozens. Which leaves readers unable to rely safely on all the information in this book. It's not always clear exactly when Tim is out of his depth, but you can be certain that it's more often than it should be.
Combine this credibility problem with the laughably exaggerated claims both in and on the book (e.g.: dramatically improve your sex life, or worse: speak fluent Spanish in 8 weeks), and The 4-Hour Chef starts to feel a little like talking to the pathological liar kid from your high school. Sometimes he'd say something fully true, but not often enough for anyone to trust him.
How Do You Define "Fluent"?
Consider Tim's discussion of languages (Ferriss spends several pages on the topic as part of a broader discussion of rapid learning). Admittedly, Ferriss shares some excellent techniques for efficiently learning a foreign language. But anyone with success learning languages will know instantly that Tim uses a generous-to-the-point-of-meaningless definition of the word "fluent." Which means even this particularly useful portion of the book loses credibility too.
The thing is, The 4-Hour Chef didn't have to be so bad. It actually teaches some useful things. Like how to throw a low-stress dinner party. How to manage leftovers. How to add more herbs and greens to your cooking. How to employ aggressive use of 80/20 principles to make cooking less intimidating. How to buy cooking gear cost effectively. How to modify recipes. Except that you can already find all this advice, ahem, elsewhere. And rehashing information your readers can easily find online--for free, even--doesn't really help your credibility either.
And yes, there are competent recipes in The 4-Hour Chef too: Union Square Zucchini (page 158) and Coconut Cauliflower Curry Mash (p.154) are simple, inexpensive recipes that would resonate with Casual Kitchen readers. The Eggocado (p.183) is a creative--albeit also rehashed and unoriginal--idea for a quick and easy meal.
But the rest of the book? Terrible. Filled with how-to's on getting the perfect cup of coffee, the best whiskey, the best tequila, the best slow-carb white wines, and the best tea pairings to go with dinner. Essentially, a collection of lists for people who want the "best" of something, but who don't want to work too hard to get it, find it or learn about it.
Eating Crickets and a Failed Vermonster
Worse, the entire book becomes extremely thin after about page 350. There's no reason to include a ten-page spread (complete with silly pictures) on failing to eat an entire Ben and Jerry's Vermonster. That's the kind of crappy content for a backup blog post, not for a book. The sections on coffee and sous vide cooking are incoherent and need rewriting. Likewise, the section on eating crickets needs rewriting too: it's so try-hard witty that it's impossible to take seriously.
I could go on: Tim's instructions for "coffee for lazy people" require a digital scale, a temperature probe, a handheld grinder, an Aero Press coffee maker and eight discrete steps. There's a preposterously useless liquid nitrogen-based ice cream recipe that strokes the author's ego more than it informs the reader. There are dozens of full pages in this book containing nothing but a profoundish-sounding one-sentence quote from some famous person. The outdoors section of the book contains page after page of photos of snares, slingshots, firepaste, explosives, knives and Maasai warrior swords--and it reads like Tim's personal application to be The Most Interesting Man In The World.
Remove the brags and filler, get rid of the full-page Lincoln and Da Vinci quotes in gigantic print, and this 670-page book boils down to maybe 150 pages of useful material.
Finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't address the 4-Hour Chef "Reviewgate" controversy. Anyone who looks over the Amazon reviews of this book should be aware that more than 50 separate 5-star reviews spontaneously appeared on Amazon the very same day the book came out.
Remember, the 4-Hour Chef is 670 pages long. Should we believe all these 5-star reviews came from impartial readers who had actually read the entire book? I'd say that's about as believable as... well, as Tim Ferriss having a favorite month for hunting squirrel.
Readers, what makes a writer credible? What makes us trust a writer enough to rely on what he or she teaches?
Let's return briefly to a concept we touched on above: the "circle of competence." This concept comes from none other than Warren Buffett, who was well-known for protecting his investors by avoiding investing in industries he didn't understand. Buffett made it his personal policy to know--and remain within--the boundaries of what he knew well. Tim Ferriss will probably never read Casual Kitchen, but for what it's worth, I think he should read up on Warren Buffett's circle of competence concept. It's discussed repeatedly in Buffett's free and publicly available annual letters to his shareholders. It might help Tim better define the scale and scope of his next book.
But wait! Ferriss wrote at least three blog posts about Warren Buffett, and he even goes so far as to claim that he devoured Buffett's "incredibly readable annual letters."
And yet, if the concept of the circle of competence comes up repeatedly in Buffett's annual letters, how can Tim not know about it? Did he really "devour" Buffett's shareholder letters? Or did he just skim 20% of them and confuse that with knowing the material? Does this mean Tim defines "devour" the same way he defines "fluent" and "favorite month"?
80/20 Won't Make You Credible
This gets to the fundamental problem of exclusively using 80/20 strategies to learn. It seems really cool to think you can get away with just learning the most important 20% of Spanish, the most important 20% of cooking, of hunting, of tango, of whatever. It's alluring to think you can skip 80% of the dumb stuff in any subject and yet still be an expert.
But you miss things when you skip 80% of the material. Sometimes you miss really, really important things, and it then becomes painfully obvious to your readers that you've strayed far beyond your circle of competence.
Maybe an 80/20-type approach to learning is sufficient to fake it. Maybe it's enough, even, to become a competent amateur. But if you want to author a book and have real credibility with your readers, you have to learn the whole 100%, and learn it well.
Readers: This is the harshest (and longest) book review I've written in a while. What are your thoughts?
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