Four-Hour Guru Tim Ferriss on the Path to Perfection

Meta-learning explored through the art of the kitchen

Tim Ferriss and Acquiring the Skill of Meta Learning
Tim Ferriss and Acquiring the Skill of Meta Learning

Tim Ferriss, author of The Four Hour Work Week and The Four Hour Body, spoke at the SXSW Interactive Conference on Saturday, sharing his approach for “Acquiring the Skills of Meta-Learning” through the lens of his new book The Four Hour Chef.

Controversial off the press, The Four Hour Chef was first boycotted by several brick-and-mortar bookstores, and particularly Barnes and Noble due to their relationship to its publisher, Amazon. The obstacle only challenged him to succeed. Within a short time the book emerged as a best seller on the four big lists (New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and Publisher Weekly), by becoming the first best-selling book through BitTorrent. In an effort to combat the boycott, the site released a first look at the book by sharing a bundle including Part 1 of the text, exclusive interviews, and photos. Over 300,000 copies were downloaded on the first day. It has received several other accolades since, including Best First Cookbook by “Best in the World” Gourmand World Cookbook Awards. Sharing knowledge he has learned through personal self-experimentation and through the wisdom of others, Ferriss gave advice on attaining a number of skills from language acquisition, to chess mastery, to tango dancing, and yes, to cooking.

In the kitchen, he recommends keeping a minimal amount of gear, including (but not limited to) a hydroplane, Rada cutlery clever, digital in-oven thermometer, lint free surgical huck towel, Swiss peeler, fish spatula, sauce spoon, and cast iron pan. The whole of your cooking gear should add up to about $120. As Ferriss says, “It is best to use a few tools and use them well.”

Sequencing is also important and he encourages readers to consider the approach Josh Waitzken (subject of the book and movie Searching for Bobby Fisher) took to learning chess: try it backwards. When you are in the kitchen ask yourself two questions:

1) What if I did the opposite of best practices?

2) What if I did this in reverse?

It’s the method he applied to learning to tango, a skill he said he was not built for – “Look at me! I’m not built for dancing. I’m built for lifting rocks” – and a skill that got him to the semi-finals of the Tango World Championship. He did it by learning the female role first. Think creatively in your sequencing to acquire your new skills faster.

And adopt a no-stakes practice. The worst time to learn a skill is when you have to use it. The worst time to learn how to cook is when you need to produce a big meal. He suggests, instead, adopting no-stakes practices like flipping dry beans while kneeling on the floor, in order to learn how to flip eggs in the pan, or learn how to cut with a lettuce knife before using a sharp blade.

Lastly: With cooking, as with everything, simplify. Think of improvement in terms of subtraction, not addition. As an example, he flashed a photo of the best scone he has ever eaten in his life, made of only acorn flour and cooked in ashes. He said it was simple, elegant, and delicious. Use few ingredients and use them well. As Antoine de Saint-Exupery, author of The Little Prince says, “Perfection is achieved not when there’s nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to take away.”

The Four Hour Work Week, The Four Hour Body, The Four Hour Chef all have individual websites describing their content more fully, and Tim Ferriss keeps an interactive blog featuring his new ideas, experiments and stories. We encourage you to take an hour (or four) and explore.

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