Before he became famous for his 2007 bestseller “The 4-Hour Workweek,” Tim Ferriss was an entrepreneur struggling to make sense of what he wanted from life.
There was a moment in 2004 when he reached a turning point, he said in the TED Talk he gave this April in Vancouver.
That year, a friend died of pancreatic cancer and the girlfriend Ferriss planned on marrying broke up with him. He spent virtually all of his time working on his nutritional supplement business, using stimulants to stay awake and downers to go to sleep. “It was a disaster,” he said. “I felt completely trapped.”
He came across a quote from the ancient Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca that deeply resonated with him: “We suffer more in imagination than in reality.” This led him to reading Seneca’s “Letters,” and it was there that he came across the philosopher’s exercise “premeditatio malorum,” the “pre-meditation of evils.”
Ferriss made some minor adjustments to the exercise, and gave it the more accessible name of “fear-setting,” in contrast to goal-setting. He credits it with putting himself on a path to success, and he said he’s repeated it at least once per quarter since.
He explained the current iteration of his method to the TED audience, and it involves just three pieces of paper and a pen.
1. Make your fears tangible.
• Pinpoint “What if…” decision that has been weighing on you, filling you with anxiety. When Ferriss first tried the exercise, the question was, “What if I take my first vacation in four years of my business and spend a month in London, crashing at my friend’s place?”
• Take your first sheet of paper and divide it into three columns, titled “Define,” “Prevent,” and “Repair.”
• In the Define column, write 10-20 things that you think could go wrong if you answer your question in the affirmative. For Ferriss, one of his fears was that long-term exposure to London’s weather would trigger his depressive tendencies and make him miserable.
• In the Prevent column, answer: “What could I do to prevent each of these bullets from happening, or, at the very least, decrease the likelihood even a little bit?” For the example above, Ferriss wrote that he could bring a portable light therapy machine that worked for him and use it for 15 minutes every morning.
• In the Repair column, answer for each point: “If the worst-case scenarios happen, what could I do to repair the damage even a little bit, or who could I ask for help?” Using the weather example, Ferriss wrote that he could always spend money on another flight and a hotel and end his vacation somewhere sunny in Europe, like Spain.
2. Take a conservative look at what good would come from taking a risk.
On the second piece of paper, answer the question, “What might be the benefits of an attempt or a partial success?” in regards to making a decision in the affirmative.
Ferriss used a baseball metaphor to put this step into perspective: Think of possible outcomes of a base hit, rather than a home run.
Spend 10-15 minutes jotting down ideas.
3. Determine the cost of inaction.
Use your third sheet of paper to answer the question: “If I avoid this action or decision and actions and decisions like it, what will my life life look like in say, six months, 12 months, three years?”
Think of all the long-term effects of inaction on areas like emotional, physical, and financial well-being.
Spend as much time as necessary to put your thoughts on paper, since Ferriss considers this to be the most important step of the exercise.
He said that by the time he finished the exercise for the first time, he realized that he had no choice but to extricate himself from his business, and he ultimately went on a year-and-a-half trip around the world that inspired him to write “The 4-Hour Workweek.”
Ferriss noted that sometimes our fears turn out to be well-founded rather than the product of our imagination, “But you shouldn’t conclude that without first putting them under a microscope.”
You can watch his full TED Talk at TED’s website.