Talking Travel with Timothy Ferriss

Serial entrepreneur and ultravagabond Timothy Ferriss has been featured by dozens of media, including The New York Times, National Geographic Traveler, NBC, and MAXIM. He speaks six languages, runs a multinational firm from wireless locations worldwide, and has been a world-record holder in tango, a national champion in Chinese kickboxing, and an actor on a hit television series in Hong Kong — all by the age of 29.

His new book, The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich, was released on April 24th, and it quickly rocketed to the #8 spot of Amazon’s best-seller list. Gadling got the chance to sit down with Tim, and discuss everything from his new book, his travels, language learning, and what it takes to scape that 9-5 job, live anywhere in the world, and join the “new rich.”

As always, Gadling has a few copies of his book to giveaway, so stick around after the interview to find out how you can get your hands on one.

How did you get started traveling?

It was thrust upon me as a sophomore in high school. I was selected to spend a year living in Japan as an exchange student, and it became my first trip outside of the U.S.. I was told I would receive “Japanese classes,” which ended up being actual classes — physics, classical Japanese, world history — alongside 5,000 Japanese students! Talk about lost in translation. I’d only had six months of Japanese in the U.S. prior to landing and couldn’t even read exit signs. Even though I had failed to learn any Spanish in two years of study in gradeschool, in Japan I went from being illiterate to writing an article for my high school’s newspaper in 11 months. Thereafter, my progression period for learning languages got shorter and shorter. The reason for this is simple: though I lacked the proper methods (the “how”), I became very good at choosing material (the “what”). This is the difference between being efficient and being effective.

From that point on, it was an addiction. In the last five years, I’ve gone through three passports and more than 25 countries.

You call yourself an “ultravagabond.” What do you mean by this?

That’s actually what other people call me because I relocate overseas for 1-3-month “mini-retirements” a few times a year. I suppose the “ultra” is tagged on because it’s not nomadic behavior out of necessity — I have a nice home near San Francisco and manage a business for a few hours a week from wireless locations around the world. I don’t sacrifice income when I take these trips. I’ve actually saved about $32,000 in the last 12 months when compared to the alternative of just sitting at home in CA! Digital lifestyle design offers some amazing options once you learn to leverage time and mobility. From overseas tax credits to outsourcing your life, there are some incredible “lifehacks” right under people’s noses.

You speak 6 languages — how does this affect how and where you travel?

Before I answer that, I just want to point out that I believe — no, I know — that adults can learn languages faster than children. It’s supported by the research in “In Other Words” by Hakuta, I’ve done the research in Chinese character (kanji) acquisition, and I learned all of my foreign languages after age 15. I think it’s possible to become conversationally fluent — being able to speak, not just listen, 30 minutes without missing a word is my benchmark — in any language within three months.

I travel, in large part, to learn languages, so I like to relocate somewhere at least once per year where I don’t speak the native tongue. Culture is shared thought patterns, and thinking in adults is largely indistiguishable from language; thus, it’s impossible to understand a culture without understanding the language. Croatia and Latvia are next on my list, though Russia and Holland are looking good as well, since the book rights have been sold in both places. For the warm and fuzzy feeling of returning home to a favorite language, I’ll settle in Tokyo or Buenos Aires for 1-3 months.

Do you believe there is a capacity on how many languages one can be fluent in?

At one time, yes. I don’t believe it is possible for someone to have near-native fluency in languages from more than three or four families at the same time. That said, there is an unlimited number of languages you can become fluent over the span of a lifetime. In my case, for example, I have conversational fluency in two or three languages at a time, usually because they bridge families. Currently, I’m most comfortable in Japanese, Argentine Spanish, and Mandarin, in that order. But, if I have a week in Berlin or Milan, for example, I can “reactivate” conversational fluency in German or Italian. Maintaining half a dozen languages would be a full-time job, even two is a huge time drain, so I depend on a specific sequence for what I call “reactivation”.

Tim sets a tango World Record on Live with Regis and Kelley

In your book, you claim that it’s possible to design a lifestyle of “fun and profit” in the here-and-now. How can this concept be applied to the traditional save-money-to-travel mindset?

Let me answer that with a story. I recently had lunch in San Francisco with a good friend and former college roommate. He will soon graduate from a top business school and return to investment banking. He hates coming home from the office at midnight but explained to me that, if he works 80-hour weeks for 6-9 years, he could become a managing director and make a cool $3-10 million per year. Then he would be “successful”.

“Dude, what on earth would you do with $3-10 million per year?” I asked. His answer? “I would take a long trip to Thailand.”

That just about sums up one of the biggest self-deceptions of our modern age: extended world travel as the domain of the uberrich. If your dream, the pot of gold at the end of the career rainbow, is to live large in Thailand, sail around the Caribbean, or ride a motorcycle through China, guess what? All of them can be done for less than $3,000. I’ve done all three.

$3,000 still seem like a lot? For $250 in Panama, I spent five days on a private Smithsonian tropical research island with three local fishermen who caught and cooked all my food and also took me on tours of the best hidden dive spots in Central America. For $150 in Mendoza wine country in Argentina, I chartered a private plane and flew over the most beautiful vineyards and snow-capped Andes with a private pilot and personal guide.

The trick, of course, is creating time. This requires separating income from traditional ass-in-seat time and moving from presence-based to performance-based work. I cover remote work negotiation at length in the book — even including actual scripts case studies have used — but it’s not as difficult as most think. There is a great sequence many lifestyle designers use, called the “hour-glass” approach because it begins with a long period out of the office, returns to a short period, then expands back to a long period. Here’s how it works:

  1. Use a pre-planned project or emergency (family issue, personal issue, relocation, home repairs, whatever) that requires you to take one or two weeks out of the office.
  2. Say that you recognize you can’t just stop working, and that you would prefer to work instead of take vacation days.
  3. Propose how you can work remotely and offer, if necessary, to take a pay cut for that period (and that period only) if performance isn’t up to par upon returning.
  4. Allow the boss to collaborate on how to do it so that he or she is invested in the process.
  5. Make the two weeks “off” the most productive period you’ve ever had at work.
  6. Show your boss the quantifiable results upon returning, and tell him or her that – without all the distractions, commute, etc. – you can get twice as much done. Suggest two or three days at home per week as a trial for two weeks.
  7. Make those remote days ultra-productive.
  8. Suggest only one or two days in the office per week.
  9. Make those days the least productive of the week.
  10. Suggest complete five-day-per-week mobility – the boss will go for it.

Thanks, Tim!

Timothy Ferriss’s The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich (Crown, $19.95) debuted in bookstores on April 24, 2007.

As promised, we have copies of the book to give away to two lucky Gadling readers! Just leave a comment below and our magical system will automatically select two random winners — but make sure you use a valid email address, as we’ll have to contact you to get your mailing address. For official rules, please click here. Comments and contest will close one week from today, May 4 at 8:00 PM.