Monthly Archives: September 2015

Hacking Depression for Clues of Neoliberal Excellence; Or, On Tim Ferriss

– Image is from The Four Hour Work Week

I mentioned Tim Ferriss in my previous blog entry. Rather than delay that allusion I want to go ahead and exorcise him from this arena.

I was introduced to The Tim Ferriss Show podcast when doing research during the Fall of 2014 for my Spring 2015 English class. The theme was to be on habit formation. If you peddle in that industry long enough Ferriss will magically appear. He’s that good.

So I started listening and became fascinated by his interviews with “high performers,” as he pitches his podcast. He’s well-placed for this to work. His breakout was The 4-Hour Workweek. Some time after that book took off, he channeled those funds into the Silicon Valley startup community. From what I can tell (simply by listening to his interviews), it was as an angel investor that he made–and continues to make–most of his contacts with high performing individuals. In this sense, The Tim Ferriss Show is a kind of habit formation tool by and for the rich, humbly made available to the general public via iTunes.

For me, what’s so appealing about Tim is his unique combination of brutal honesty and self-experimentation. In fact one way of viewing his show is as a serial confessional. He doesn’t shy from digging deep into his psyche and he does so his in conversation with an expert.

Some of his blogs and email updates are even more intensely lyrical. “Here’s my life, now think about yours” is the pedagogy behind every one of his viral publications. However, beyond the consistency in style, there’s also a similar theme that is the real point of this blog post: he loves to mine his own depression for clues about success.

His 2013 productivity hack on manic-depression set a high bar for the Silicon Valley confessional mode because of how nakedly it illustrated the phenomenon of depression in that high performance arena. This blog remains one of his most popular entries.

What’s so fascinating about Tim’s depression confessions is that they fit so cleanly into the narrative that William Davies spells out for us in his 2015 book, The Happiness Industry. According to Davies, modern depression is packaged along with American capitalism’s highly competitive business culture, which isn’t so surprising. But Davies convincingly shows that depression might actually be a result of an obsessive preoccupation with wellness, fitness, happiness, and positivity. Concepts of “wellness” and “fitness” might be part of a set of managerial relations that drives the psychological opposite. 

Davies is far from alone on this. Gordon Hull (channeling Foucault) recently explained that one way of thinking about modern society is that risk and responsibility is increasingly transferred from institutions to individuals, a dynamic ripe for depression. Only the most risk-tolerant men and women thrive in competitive environments. This creates what political theorists call homo economicus (economic man), typified by the business entrepreneur. Basically, the future will be peopled with mostly Tim Ferriss disciples. Right now we assign specialized roles to entrepreneurs, but increasingly that specialized role will become a more general trait of all (surviving) citizens of the future. This is precisely what The Tim Ferriss Show podcast does: it generalizes entrepreneurial traits for the masses. It’s a kind of neoliberal apparatus par excellence. 

So I’m not just intrigued by his productivity hacks. I also tune into Ferriss because I believe he’s an oracle for modern American capitalism. These interviews are moments of revelation that provide a glimpse into where we’re heading. Where is that?

What I’m most fascinated about right now is Tim’s ongoing attempt to redefine success. Since at least 2013 he has been preoccupied with de-coupling “happiness” from “success” in an attempt to do justice to his emphasis on personal fitness. This year, the conceptual tool for carving out his own vision of happiness (or well-being) has been meditation. And any good Tim Ferriss Show listener knows that options he tinkers with most are Buddhist, Transcendental, and Stoic meditation.

On July 31, 2015 Ferriss published his Tara Brach interview. In my view, his sit-down with the guru of mindful meditation is the clearest articulation listeners can expect of how modern success is being redefined. First, Ferriss and Brach adamantly agree that success must be refuted. The second step is meditation. Why? Brach explains that her form of Buddhist meditation provides access to “greater executive functions,” and that “this training allows us to access our greater potential.” That’s the self-help part of the equation.

Third, mindful meditation allows for greater team-building, collaboration, and creates “more problem solvers.” In short, meditation done right hacks the self in order to solve social problems. Sounds beautiful really. It’s such an easy pill to swallow because it combines practical techniques with a clear social ethic. In case you missed the anti-competitive strain, Brach elaborates: “It’s not the competitive domain. It’s going towards collectivity.” Much of this language is very business self-helpy. HBR’s Idea Cast Sept. 17 interview with Tiffany Schlain offers much the same advice shorn of meditative trappings.  

However, Brach’s message is refracted by the Tim Ferriss show. She is careful to add that her advice is for “world-class teachers and learners,” that is, those that rise above and excel.

World-class excellence always lurks around the corner in a Ferriss podcast, and his self-hacking spin on excellence is perhaps his one unique contribution to neoliberal ethics. However, excellence only makes sense when a stable reference point is set, the key to the emerging entrepreneurial ethic.

So what’s the reference point? For Ferriss and Brach, the standard is no longer money. Money is so 1980s Wall Street. Silicon Valley and the Bay Area, on the other hand, are all about reach, a concept that occasionally bubbles to the surface throughout the Brach episode but remains an utterly uninterrogated goal. Reach qualifies how the listener should understand “collaboration” and team-building, Brach’s savvy marketing language that appeals to a public tired of success. The goal is not how to get rich, but how to get reach through self-hacking. That’s the new success. 

Ferriss himself consistently primes his listener to prioritize influence. He posts constantly on self-expansion, e.g.,“How to Build a Large Audience from Scratch.” In fact, according to Ferriss himself, the entire purpose of his show is to create disciples. But his very macho version of entrepreneurial self-expansionism is deftly matched by Brach’s own expansion of mindfulness into school systems, creating a generation of disciples that practice her de-mythologized version of meditation. They both practice what they preach; and make no mistake, they are first and foremost evangelists for the good news of self-expansion.

In an economic era when brand value is calculated by “Average Revenue Per User” (ARPU), redefinitions of success are trickling down from Facebook nodal influence to self-help guides.

A Problem With Harari’s Sapiens

On Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

These days I pick up book recommendations from a few different sources. The most common inspiration comes from reading–if I enjoy a book and the author alludes to or explicitly mentions another book, I’ll check it out. The other source is my Feedly blog updates, which is a mixture of academic and quasi-academic material. The final source is podcasts. Strangely enough, the one I’ve pulled a few from recently is the Tim Ferriss Show. He comes off as a self-help guru (I’ll post some more about Ferriss in the future), but he interviews some fascinating characters; and many of them offer book suggestions that stand out to me because I don’t hear about them elsewhere. In a recent podcast, when Reid Hoffman recently praised Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind for its consistent evolutionary method, I looked it up. Wikipedia tells me that Mark Zuckerberg selected this for his 2015 book club.

If you have even a vague acquaintance with world history, the middle portion of this book will disappoint. I’m not sure what purpose it actually serves other than to complete the story. However, the first and last third of Sapiens are worth chewing on. These bookend the “brief history of humankind” with a clear narrative arc: the goal of Sapiens is to show how the messy, more “natural” diversity of our human genetic history has been usurped by modernity’s penchant for channeling biology according to artificial selection. Harari’s historico-biological expertise pays off here. He succinctly lays out the evidence for the haphazard path from the multi-pronged lineages of Homo neanderthalensis, Homo rudolfensis, and Homo erectus to their violent usurpation by Homo sapiens. Then, with the final section of the book, it becomes clear that selecting for uniformity is what Homo sapiens does best, artificially selecting in a prescriptive manner. As Harari suggests, intelligent design apologists might actually turn out to be right–but only in reference to the future of human history.

For this narrative to work, however, Harari relies on a key assumption that is worth picking apart. Harari suggests that a “good rule of thumb is ‘Biology enables, Culture forbids’”. Culture seems to be his stand-in for the philosophical concept of “human negativity”. Pre-ancient human history is more biological, while modern human history is more cultural (more negative). This might seem like common sense, but it’s vaguely Freudian. It seems ironic to offer a thoroughly empirical account of human civilization that actually relies on twentieth-century psychoanalytic trope. I’m sure Harari has good reasons for relying on this dichotomy (there is indeed a political payoff, e.g., with regard to the rules governing sexuality), but those don’t appear in the book.

What if, instead of adopting a “biology enables, culture forbids” rule of thumb, Harari turned to Deleuze & Guattari’s distinction in Thousand Plateaus between life processes of hierarchical stratification (like a tree) and rigorous multiplicity (like a rhizome). Deleuze and Guattari pride themselves on thoroughgoing empiricism, which is why they locate the tension between identity (Harari’s “culture”) and difference (Harari’s “nature”) within nature. That is, Deleuze & Guattari have the virtue of not reserving seemingly negative attributes like hierarchical selection to the human species. Life is always already both driving towards diversity and assimilation. Rhizomes and Trees have “cultural” counterparts in nomadic communities vs. ancient cities.

Phrases like “artificial selection” beg a rather important question in this book. If Harari adjusted the language of Sapiens according to a more thoroughgoing empiricism, would that alter the story being told?

It might. I can see why Silicon Valley embraces Sapiens. It paints a problematic but ultimately crafty view of the human species. We come off as the Promethean hacker of natural history.