Tim Ferriss’s 4-Hour Workweek as Enlightened Anarcho-Primitivism

The ethos of Tim Ferriss’s mega-best seller The 4-Hour Workweek can be easily gleaned from its subtitle: “Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich.” This is the book that made Ferriss famous, and it says we aren’t meant to live chained to a desk. So we should follow the principles explained in his book, and we’ll live a more meaningful life, while working less and living free to travel the world and roam wherever we choose.

That’s what Ferriss means by “the new rich.”

But when I read The 4-Hour Workweek, it occurred to me that the new rich is a lot like the old rich. Because the new rich live a lot like people did more than 10,000 years ago. But back then it wasn’t just the rich who lived like an archetypal Tim Ferriss hero: It was everybody. Back then nobody worked from 9-5 at a desk; nobody lived in the exact same place their whole lives; nobody was stuck inside sitting in a cubicle saving for retirement while wasting the best years of their lives.

Back then every human was a hunter-gatherer. Back then we all wandered from place to place, working only a few hours a day, traveling super light with only a few prized possession.

That’s how everybody used to live, but now it’s the stuff of self-help bestsellers.

Perhaps some of the enormous success of The Four-Hour Workweek can be explained by how it hits at such a deep, evolutionary nerve. Society has veered far from its evolutionary roots. We didn’t evolve to live in the world we live in today. Against that backdrop many of us almost still yearn to live more as our hunter-gatherer ancestors used to live. Or at least we still crave the best parts of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

There’s considerable debate about this in anthropological circles, but at least some well-reputed scholars believe that humanity’s transition away from a hunter-gather lifestyle was a horrible mistake. Marshall Sahlins first wrote about what he called “The Original Affluent Society,” which described hunter-gatherers as happy people with little to no distinction between work and play, and where most of life was dominated by leisure time. Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs, and Steel, went so far as to call the transition away from the hunter-gather lifestyle “the worst mistake in the history of the human race.”

Tim Ferriss doesn’t usually describe his philosophy in evolutionary terms, but the values he espouses are nonetheless hunter-gatherer, forager values. His description of the “new rich” feels like a well-to-do version of hunter-gathererism. It’s an indictment of traditional agricultural and industrial concepts of accumulation, and it’s a celebration of the natural, evolutionary call to movement, flexibility, and freedom. To me, that sounds like a form of enlightened anarcho-primitivism.

This isn’t meant as a critique of his work; my comments are descriptive rather than normative. But Tim Ferriss has made a lot of money and created a huge following merely by advocating a lifestyle that more closely resembles the way all human beings lived until not that long ago (on an evolutionary time scale).

He might be on to something there.