I woke up the next morning, the dean’s voice still ringing in my
ears. By late afternoon I still couldn’t shake my gloom, so I dragged
myself to the storage closet and scanned the shelves, looking for
An orange-colored book was sticking out: The 4-Hour Workweek
by Tim Ferriss. It was the book Brandon had given me. I grabbed it
and stretched out on the floor. As I turned to the first page, it felt like
Tim Ferriss was talking just to me. His words sucked me in so deeply
that I didn’t lift my head for the next hour except to reach for a pen
to mark my favorite parts.
The opening scene was of Tim Ferriss competing in the Tango
The next page had Ferriss racing motorcycles in Europe,
kickboxing in Thailand, and scuba diving off a private island in
Two pages later I discovered a line that almost made me scream
“yes!” out loud: “If you picked up this book, chances are that you
don’t want to sit behind a desk until you are 62.”
Chapter two was called “The Rules That Change the Rules.”
Chapter three was about conquering fear.
Chapter four had a passage so powerful it felt like Tim Ferriss
whacked my “what do I want to do with my life?” crisis with a
“What do you want?” is too imprecise to produce a meaningful and
actionable answer. Forget about it.
“What are your goals?” is similarly fated for confusion and
guesswork. To rephrase the question, we need to take a step back
and look at the bigger picture…
What is the opposite of happiness? Sadness? No. Just as love and
hate are two sides of the same coin, so are happiness and
sadness…The opposite of love is indifference, and the opposite of
happiness is—here’s the clincher—boredom.
Excitement is the more practical synonym for happiness, and it is
precisely what you should strive to chase. It is the cure-all. When
people suggest you follow your “passion” or your “bliss,” I propose
that they are, in fact, referring to the same singular concept:
Three pages after that was an entire section titled “How to Get
George Bush Sr. or the CEO of Google on the Phone.”
Thank you, God!
I went to Tim Ferriss’ website and saw he’d written a second book.
I bought it immediately. If The 4-Hour Workweek was about hacking
your career then The 4-Hour Body was about hacking your health. I
flipped to a chapter called “The Slow-Carb Diet: How to Lose 20
Pounds in 30 Days Without Exercise.” It sounded as if it were written
by a snake-oil salesman, but Ferriss had used his body like a human
guinea pig to prove it worked, so what did I have to lose? The
answer: a lot—a lot of weight. Following his instructions, I shed forty
pounds over the course of the summer. Bye-bye, Fatty Banayan. My
family was shocked and jumped headfirst on the Tim Ferriss
bandwagon too. My dad lost twenty pounds; my mom, fifty pounds;
my cousin, sixty.
We were just a few of the millions of people following Tim Ferriss
online, reading his every blog post and liking his every tweet. The
Internet had changed the world, and a new world needs new
teachers. Tim Ferriss was that guy.
His name was now at the top of my list, and The 4-Hour
Workweek gave me just the clue on how to reach him.
As I was going through the book a second time, I noticed
something on the dedication page that I hadn’t caught at first.
10% of all author royalties are donated to educational not-for-profits,
Wait a minute…DonorsChoose…
I had my Inside Man.
When I’d volunteered at that business conference during my
freshman year, the one where I’d gotten Tony Hsieh’s book, I saw an
attendee wobbling on crutches, so I asked if he needed help. “No, no,
don’t worry about it,” he said. He told me his name was César and
that he was the COO of DonorsChoose. We kept running into each
other over the next few days and we had stayed in contact ever since.
César had explained that DonorsChoose.org is a site where anyone
can donate to classrooms in need. Potential donors could search
through requests from across the country—picture books for
kindergartners in Detroit or microscopes for high schoolers in
St. Louis. You pick whichever project resonates with you and donate
as little or as much money as you like.
After some Googling, I learned that Tim Ferriss and the CEO of
DonorsChoose had been on the same high school wrestling team.
Ferriss even sat on the nonprofit’s advisory board.
I emailed César and asked him to lunch. Once we got together, I
asked if there was any way he could help me reach out to Ferriss.
César said he was sure his CEO would pass along my interview
“Consider it done,” he said.
A week later, César emailed me saying his boss had sent along my
request to Ferriss. And to top it off, César also mailed me a stack of
DonorsChoose gift cards to give out as thank-yous to the people I
interviewed. They were each valued at one hundred dollars—a large
donor had put up the money—and Stephen Colbert even gave out the
same cards to all the guests on his show.
As summer rolled by, the gift cards arrived, but a response from
Tim Ferriss did not. I found the email address of Ferriss’ assistant
and sent her a note. But there was no reply. So I sent a follow-up.
I didn’t want to bother César by asking for more help, and soon
enough, I wouldn’t have to. Late one night, while clearing my inbox,
a newsletter caught my eye:
Evernote Conference: Register Now | The Evernote Trunk
Conference will feature bestselling authors Tim Ferriss and Guy
Kawasaki, and sessions for developers and users.
The event was being held in San Francisco. If I can meet Tim
Ferriss and tell him about the mission in person, I’m sure he’ll say
yes to an interview.
I used my Price Is Right money to book my plane ticket. I was so
excited I even went to Niketown and bought a jet-black duffel bag for
my travels. I packed it up the morning of the conference, and as I was
running out the door, I grabbed a DonorsChoose gift card from the
top of the stack, slipped it in my pocket, and took off.
The conference hall in San Francisco was packed. As far as I could
see, there were hundreds of young people in hoodies searching for
seats. I looked closer and saw that many of them had The 4-Hour
Workweek clutched under their arms. My insides twisted as reality
set in: I wasn’t the only one here trying to approach Tim Ferriss.
Perhaps 99 percent of the world hasn’t heard his name. But to a
certain niche, and probably everyone at this event, Tim Ferriss is
bigger than Oprah Winfrey.
Not wanting to leave anything to chance, I paced the aisles,
searching for a chair with the closest path to approach Ferriss after
his speech. There was an open seat beside the stairs that led to the
stage, on the far right. After I sat, the lights dimmed, the event began
—and Tim Ferriss stepped on stage from the far left.
My eyes frantically scanned the room again. I moved to the back of
the conference hall to get a better vantage point, and then I spotted
it: a bathroom beside the left side of the stage.
I crept toward the men’s room and slipped into a stall. Crouching
next to the toilet, I pressed my ear against the tile wall, listening to
Ferriss’ speech so I could time my exit. I continued crouching, the
smell of urine stinging my nostrils. Five minutes went by…ten…
finally, thirty minutes later, I heard applause.
I raced out the bathroom door, and there he was, two feet in front
of me, all alone. Once again, at the worst possible time, The Flinch
wired my mouth shut. Desperate to break its hold, I reached into my
pocket and shoved the gift card right at Ferriss’ face.
“Oh,” he said, stepping back. He glanced at the card.
“Awesome! How do you know DonorsChoose? I’m on their advisory
Ah, you don’t say.
The Flinch released its grip and I told Ferriss about the mission. I
said I hoped to interview everyone from Bill Gates and Lady Gaga to
Larry King and Tim Ferriss.
“Very funny,” he said at the mention of his name.
“I’m serious.” I reached into my other pocket and pulled out
printouts of the emails I’d sent him. “I’ve been emailing your
assistant about it for weeks.”
Ferriss looked at the emails and laughed, and we ended up talking
about the mission for the next few minutes. At the end, he squeezed
my shoulder and told me it sounded great. He couldn’t have been
nicer. He said he’d get back to me in a few days.
But after I got home, days turned into weeks, and there was no
word from Tim Ferriss.
What I wasn’t aware of was that Ferriss had replied to my
original interview request a month earlier, telling the DonorsChoose
CEO, “Thanks, but no thanks.” I guess the CEO didn’t have the heart
to break the news to me, so I wouldn’t learn this until years later.
I continued emailing Ferriss’ assistant, hoping to get an answer.
Business books claimed persistence is the key to success, so I kept
writing email after email, sending a total of thirty-one messages.
When brief emails didn’t get a response, I sent a nine-paragraph
message. I wrote another telling Ferriss’ assistant that doing an
interview with me “would be one of the best investments of an hour
Tim’s ever made.” I tried to remain upbeat and grateful, ending every
email with “Thanks in advance!” But no matter how thoughtfully I
tried to word my messages, they fell flat. Eventually I received an
email from Ferriss’ right-hand man saying his boss wouldn’t be
doing the interview anytime soon, if at all.
I couldn’t understand where I’d gone wrong. Ferriss had squeezed
my shoulder. I had my Inside Man.
If I can’t get to Tim Ferriss, how the hell am I going to get to Bill
I continued emailing Ferriss’ assistant, hoping something would
change. Then one day, seemingly out of the blue, Ferriss said yes.
And not only did he say yes, but he wanted to do the interview by
phone the next day. I practically leapt into the air, yelling,
“Persistence! It works!”
Much later, when it was far too late, I found out the real reason
Ferriss said yes. He had called the CEO of DonorsChoose, asking
what the hell was wrong with me. Thankfully, the executive’s
response was that, while I was rough around the edges, my heart was
in the right place. And that led Ferriss to say okay. But I didn’t know
that, so I became completely convinced that, no matter my problem,
persistence would be my answer.
Less than twenty-four hours later, I was on the phone with Tim
Ferriss. My notepad was full of questions, and not surprisingly, the
first one was about persistence. I’d read a brief mention in The 4-
Hour Workweek that Ferriss got his first job out of college by
emailing the CEO of a start-up over and over until he got a position. I
wanted to know the full story.
“It wasn’t just one-two-three and then you’re hired,” Ferriss
Toward the end of his senior year in college, Ferriss did his final
project on that start-up in an attempt to build a relationship with its
CEO, who’d been a guest speaker in one of his classes. But when he
mustered the courage to ask for a job, he was turned down. Ferriss
sent the CEO more emails. After the CEO said no a dozen times,
Ferriss decided it was time for a Hail Mary. He emailed the CEO
saying that he’d “be in the neighborhood” next week—even though he
was in New York and the CEO lived in San Francisco—and said it’d
be great to stop by. “All right,” the CEO wrote back. “I can meet you
Ferriss got a standby ticket, flew to California, and arrived at the
start-up’s office early for his meeting. One of the other executives
asked him, “So you’re not going to stop bothering us until we give
you a job, huh?”
“Sure,” Ferriss told him, “if you want to put it that way.”
He got the job—and, naturally, in sales.
“It’s important to note,” Ferriss told me, “that I was never rude. I
also didn’t push the density. It’s not like I emailed him six times a
Ferriss’ tone shifted, as if he was hinting at something, though
embarrassingly, I couldn’t figure it out. But I could sense something
was off because his tone was making my head snap back as if I was
“Where do you think that fine line is?” I asked.
“If you sense someone getting annoyed, you need to back off.” Jab.
“You need to be polite and deferential and recognize that, if you’re
emailing someone like that, you should have your hat in hand.” Jab.
“There’s a fine line between being persistent and being a hassle.”
If I had more experience interviewing, I would’ve dug deeper to
uncover what Ferriss was trying to tell me. Instead I just fled to safer
ground, looking down at my notepad in search of a different topic.
“How did you gain credibility before you were a well-known
“Well, volunteering for the right organizations is an easy way to get
some credible association,” Ferriss said.
His tone lightened and I relaxed. Ferriss explained that when he
was an entry-level employee, he volunteered at the Silicon Valley
Association of Startup Entrepreneurs where he produced large
events, giving him a credible reason to email successful people.
Rather than saying, “Hi, I’m Tim Ferriss, recent college graduate,” he
could say, “I’m Tim Ferriss, an event producer with the Silicon Valley
Association of Startup Entrepreneurs.” That legitimacy made a big
“A second step would be writing for or being featured in known
publications,” he continued. “And that could be as easy as doing a Q
and A with someone—interviewing them and publishing the answers
In other words, Ferriss didn’t build credibility out of thin air, but
borrowed it by associating himself with well-known organizations
and publications. The phrase “Borrowed Credibility” stuck in my
When Ferriss began writing The 4-Hour Workweek, he said, he
had no prior experience in publishing, so he cold-emailed authors
asking for advice. He said it worked well, so I asked for cold-email
“The general composition of my emails,” Ferriss said, “when I’m
emailing a busy person, is:
I know you’re really busy and that you get a lot of emails, so this will
only take sixty seconds to read.
[Here is where you say who you are: add one or two lines that
establish your credibility.]
[Here is where you ask your very specific question.]
I totally understand if you’re too busy to respond, but even a oneor
two-line reply would really make my day.
All the best,
Ferriss was giving me exactly the kind of advice I craved. He told
me to never email someone and ask to “jump on the phone,” “get
coffee,” or “pick your brain.”
“Put your question right in the email,” he said. “It might be as
simple as, ‘I’d like to discuss a relationship of some type that could
take this-and-this form. Would you be willing to discuss it? I think a
phone call might be faster, but if you prefer, I could throw a couple of
questions your way via email.’
“And never write lines like, ‘This is perfect for you,’ or ‘You’ll love
this because I know this-and-this about you.’ Don’t use superlative or
exaggerated words because”—he let out an almost mocking laugh
—“they don’t know you and they’ll assume, quite fairly, it’s hard for
you to determine if something’s perfect for them.
“I’d also not end with something like, ‘Thanks in advance!’ It’s
annoying and entitled. Do the opposite and say, ‘I know you’re super
busy, so if you can’t respond, I totally understand.’
“And certainly, watch your frequency of emailing. Don’t email a
lot. It really”—he let out a heavy breath—“does not make people
I wasn’t self-aware enough to see that Ferriss was trying to save me
from myself. Over a year later, when I was rummaging through old
emails, I came across the messages I’d sent Ferriss’ assistant. Only
then did I realize how much of an idiot I’d been.
“All right, man,” Ferriss said as our conversation wrapped up. “I’ve
got to go.” He said goodbye and hung up.
A part of me wishes I could go back in time and shake my teenage
self and explain what just happened. If I’d learned my lesson then,
things would have gone a lot differently when I found myself in
Omaha with Warren Buffett.