The 4-Hour Work Week and the Pitfalls of Advice

The 4-Hour Workweek, a book by Timothy Ferriss, has been perched on the best-seller lists for months. The subtitle: “Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere and Join the New Rich.”

I read the first edition last year, with mixed feelings.

Ferriss does offer some useful ideas: Check email only twice per day. Choose your most important task of the day and complete it before 11 am. Focus on the 20 percent of your clients, customers, or projects that generate the most revenue. (See an overview of the book here.)

Yet I was saddened to find several common shortcomings of self-help books in Ferris’s text: A preachy tone. A dash of arrogance. An overall focus on the author rather than the reader. A reliance on anecdotes rather than research.

There’s also the “random sample of 1” syndrome. It consists of these unstated assumptions: “I made a major change in my life. I used certain techniques to make that change. If you use the same techniques, you can make the same change.”

Ah, if only life were that simple.

Advice givers blithely assume that what works for them will automatically work for everyone else. This is much easier than running some informal tests of an idea and reviewing the relevant research.

In reality, each of us constitutes a psychic whole. Our behaviors emerge from a larger context that includes our attitudes, personal history, and current circumstances. The variables are many, varied, dynamic, and staggeringly complex.

Yes, you can toss an isolated behavior change into the mix. But it’s hard to predict the results.

My favorite instructional books acknowledge our psychic complexity. Rather than offering a smorgasbord of “techniques” and “tips,” they offer a process for making a modest change in our behavior and observing the results in an objective way.

The moral of this story for writers: Don’t preach to me from on high. And don’t assume that what works for you will work for me.

Above all, test your material. Before you publish a body of instructions, find a way to see if it actually works for people.

Following this advice will be time-consuming and inconvenient.

The reward is a book that’s worth reading.

P. S.—A wonderful example of what I’m recommending is How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work by Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey.