Tim Ferriss On Why Outsiders Hold The Secret To Learning New Skills

What Contrarians, Anomalies, And Silver Medalists Taught Best-Selling Author Tim Ferriss About Learning.

Tim Ferriss On Why Outsiders Hold The Secret To Learning New Skills
[Image: Flickr user Martin Fisch]

When Tim Ferriss is launching into learning a new skill, the entrepreneur and 4 Hour Chef author looks for outsiders — the contrarians, anomalies, and silver medalists.


“Whether I’m looking at hedge funds or looking at marksmanship,” he says, “I will go onto the Google and search ‘contrarian fill-in-the-blank.'”

Tim Ferriss

Consider something like shot-put: he’ll search for “outlier shot-put coach” or “contrarian shot-put coach.” Then he looks for a silver medalist with his location.

Why the silver medalists? “Typically, they’re technically very often just as good as the gold medalist, they just had a bad day, and they’re easier to get a hold of,” he says.

“It’s far easier to back a few Olympics to find someone who perhaps is actually closer to you genetically and get spectacular advice, ” he says. “It might cost you 50 bucks for an hour-long Skype session or in person training session.” Then he asks a battery of standardized questions for unlocking nonstandard results, like:

  • Why is what you do controversial?
  • Is there anyone who hasn’t been able to replicate your results?
  • If you had eight weeks to prepare me for X and you had a million dollars on the line, what would you do?

Then all those results go into Evernote, one of the apps he can’t live without. But what’s fascinating is how the iconoclastic successes fold into Ferriss’s overall learning strategy.

How eccentricity shows what’s most valuable

Ferriss is a longtime proponent of the Pareto principle, the idea that you get 80% of your value from 20% of your activity.


From what Ferriss says, if someone has become really good at doing something in a very nonstandard way, you can infer that the standard path isn’t necessarily the best methodology for learning a skill.

The nonstandard cases also reveal the difference between what Ferriss calls techniques and attributes. Techniques are skills that are quickly learnable; attributes are physical and take time to develop.

“If you’re trying to learn parkour (an extreme type of obstacle course training), you need to figure out where you can cheat by refining technique and jumping to intermediate or advanced stuff,” he told us in an interview. “(But in the case of attributes), you have to recognize that there are challenges and obstacles like tendons snapping because you don’t have the time to develop the increased power output or strength.”

The anomalies and iconoclasts show the differences in techniques and attributes, like the whispy girl that can deadlift 405 pounds. They’re performing with techniques rather than genes.

The Bottom Line:
By doing it the “wrong” way so well, iconoclasts show you what you need to focus on. Then it’s on you to commit.


About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.