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The 4-Hour Fascist

Self-help guru Tim Ferriss’s veneration of a long-dead Italian economist has a notable precedent—in Benito Mussolini

If the contemporary reboot of the prosperity gospel can be said to have apostles, the lifestyle guru and angel investor Tim Ferriss is certainly among them. His self-help empire, which includes five bestselling books and an eponymous podcast, has touched millions of readers and listeners. Videos posted to his YouTube channel reach more than 400,000 subscribers. It is fair to say that Ferriss is a celebrity of unique prominence, particularly among entrepreneurs.

Ferriss rose to fame in 2007 when he published The 4-Hour Workweek, a self-help manual that instructs readers in the ways and means of a “quiet subculture of people called the ‘New Rich.’” This is Ferriss’s term for the category of disgruntled workers who decide to trade fat law firm salaries and C-suite perks for whimsical lifestyles as surf instructors and passport stamp–collectors. He sets the New Rich in opposition to conventional “Deferrers,” who confine leisure and pleasure to weekends and geriatric retirement.

When The 4-Hour Workweek debuted on the New York Times bestseller list, Ferriss was just another twenty-nine-year-old Princeton grad from Long Island. After several failed ventures, he’d finally started a successful sports-nutrition company—BrainQUICKEN—only to become dissatisfied with the responsibilities its management entailed. Ferriss realized the daily grind at the office would eventually turn him into the “fat man in the red BMW convertible”—his archetype for the sort of nominally successful person who is rich in possessions, poor in spirit, and downright impoverished in life experiences. To avoid this grim fate, Ferriss outsourced and automated his daily tasks at the company and took a long vacation to mull things over, checking up on things for just a few hours each week. He soon found that the business got along just fine without him, perhaps even better, and that the passive income stream could finance his dalliances indefinitely. Others might consider these results to be evidence of failed management. Ferriss saw things differently: he believed that if it were successfully marketed, his story could make him a self-help celebrity.

Ferriss’s experience in business hardly places him among the captains of industry who would later become interview subjects on The Tim Ferriss Show. His fame instead derives from a sort of exalted life-coaching he calls “Lifestyle Design.” In theory, Lifestyle Design is the method for becoming one of the New Rich, who get by on just a few hours of work each week. In practice, it entails the joyless Taylorization of everyday life: Ferriss teaches that the application of ruthless efficiency standards to work, relationships, socialization, learning, and leisure activities will liberate dozens of hours from toil and tedium each week. This allows practitioners to enjoy the wealth of the New Rich—defined as time and mobility—and begin to fill their lives with pleasurable touristic experiences.

Others might consider these results to be evidence of failed management. Ferriss saw things differently.

A life so “designed” is both minimalist and maximalist, as depth of experience and the intrinsic meaning of most tasks are exchanged for superficial knowledge and the cocktail party anecdotes of a career dilettante. (Although here we must pause to credit The 4-Hour Chef with inventing such mixological wonders as “Cigar-Infused Tequila Hot Chocolate.”) Coinciding with the rise of social media, Ferriss’s equation of the good life with easily representable consumer experiences has resonated with a progressively exhausted and debt-enslaved workforce starved of meaningful work and driven to desperation by FOMO and envy. Ferriss understood that purveying methods for acquiring life-as-experience would prove a lucrative niche.

Humility is not Ferriss’s strong suit, but he has long acknowledged that one of his most widely disseminated ideas for self-optimization is not his own. In his books, Ferris makes a concerted effort to ensure readers attribute his most treasured pearl of wisdom to another author: the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto. Since publishing The 4-Hour Workweek, Ferriss has almost single-handedly revived Pareto’s legacy through his incessant references to something called Pareto’s Law. This economic theorem is sometimes called the Pareto Principle, or the 80/20 Rule.

Ferriss candidly admits that Pareto “changed my life forever.” Indeed, Pareto’s Law forms the theoretical basis for most of Ferriss’s prescriptions for making money and getting fit; it is the guiding principle of Lifestyle Design. He mentions the Law often, and glosses Pareto’s insight in terms to which his audience of entrepreneurs can easily relate. As Ferriss explains:

Pareto’s Law can be summarized as follows: 80 percent of the outputs result from 20 percent of the inputs. Alternative ways to phrase this, depending on the context, include:

80 percent of the consequences flow from 20 percent of the causes.

80 percent of the results come from 20 percent of the effort and time.

80 percent of company profits come from 20 percent of the products and customers.

80 percent of all stock market gains are realized by 20 percent of the investors and 20 percent of an individual portfolio.

It bears mention that Ferriss was not the first business guru to reference Pareto’s Law. He might have lifted it from any number of airport-kiosk business manuals that preceded his own, such as John C. Maxwell’s Developing the Leader Within You (1993), Brian Tracy’s Eat That Frog! (2001), or Richard Koch’s straightforwardly titled book, The 80/20 Principle (1997). Or perhaps Ferriss gleaned Pareto’s Law directly from its original source. This, however, was not Vilfredo Pareto.

That is because Pareto never observed an all-powerful 80/20 productivity ratio at work in the Italian economy. Much less did he believe that the 4:1 proportion was an occult ratio hiding behind manifold biological and social phenomena, as Ferriss claims. Pareto had merely observed the well-known phenomenon of income inequality, and later speculated that in a truly free-market society, the most biologically superior citizens—namely the most intelligent—would migrate to the top end of the distribution.

Having fallen under the spell of Pareto’s writings on political economy in the 1940s, it was a Romanian-American management consultant and author Joseph Juran who invented the 80/20 Rule and posthumously attributed it to Pareto. Juran’s motives for fabricating this misleading lineage cannot be fully known. It’s possible he felt some sort of kinship with Pareto: like Juran, Pareto was initially trained as an engineer before his work in industrial management led him to questions of political economy, and later, sociology. More likely is that Juran sought an impressive academic justification for an otherwise unsubstantiated theory he deployed in his consulting pitch.

More prudent writers, such as Gary Keller and Jay Papasan, coauthors of the bestselling business book The ONE Thing (2013), have been circumspect with their appropriation of Pareto’s Law, citing Juran as the originator of the Pareto Principle and stopping short of repeating the falsified tale of its provenance. By contrast, Ferriss asks readers to imagine him breathlessly stumbling upon Pareto’s work after yet another fifteen-hour day at the office.

At this point in his life, Ferriss might actually have bothered to read obscure and long-discredited polemics by dead economists—something he would seldom do after he came across Pareto’s work. Ferriss himself explains why: the morning after his fateful “encounter” with Pareto’s work, he writes,

I began a dissection of my business and personal life through the lenses of two questions:

1. Which 20 percent of sources are causing 80 percent of my problems and unhappiness?

2. Which 20 percent of sources are resulting in 80 percent of my desired outcomes and happiness?

For the entire day, I put aside everything seemingly urgent and did the most intense truth-baring analysis possible, applying these questions to everything from my friends to customers and advertising to relaxation activities. Don’t expect to find you’re doing everything right—the truth often hurts. The goal is to find your inefficiencies in order to eliminate them and to find your strengths so you can multiply them. In the twenty-four hours that followed, I made several simple but emotionally difficult decisions that literally changed my life forever and enabled the lifestyle I now enjoy.

One of the decisions Ferriss made was to free up all the time he used to spend reading—with the exception of “results-oriented” magazines (Response and Inc.) and one hour of fiction at bedtime. Even the newspaper fell by the wayside: Ferriss explains that there’s really no need for him to follow along with current events when that’s all anyone talks about anyway. He goes as far as to brag about basing his vote in the 2004 presidential election on a straw poll he conducted among those he considered his most intelligent and well-informed friends.

Eliminating reading and testing the results of “relaxation activities” are far from the most extreme applications of Pareto’s Law that Ferriss recommends. Just a few pages later, Ferriss instructs readers to ask themselves, “Who are the 20 percent of people who produce 80 percent of your enjoyment and propel you forward, and which 20 percent cause 80 percent of your depression, anger, and second-guessing?” Clearly, Ferriss is a friend who believes in keeping score; he proceeds to offer tips for how readers can ditch their needy, depressed, and anxiety-producing relationships. He ultimately reduces the application of Pareto’s Law to interpersonal relations to a stark dichotomy: “If someone isn’t making you stronger,” Ferriss states, “they’re making you weaker.”

This stunning display of sociopathy is, ironically, something Ferriss might indeed have learned from Pareto, had he actually bothered to do his own research. During the short-lived academic fad for Pareto’s work that ensued upon the translation of his Trattato di sociologia generale (General Treatise on Sociology) in the mid-1930s, critic Max Lerner remarked on Pareto’s notorious misanthropy and scorn for humanitarianism: “Here is prodigality,” Lerner wrote, “of ideas, of learning, of spleen.”

The New Republic had tasked Lerner with evaluating the “science” presented in Pareto’s Trattato, which appeared in English translation under the more alluring title Mind and Society. This is hardly the place for an analysis of that work, which is bound in four thick volumes numbering thousands of pages. It will suffice to cite Lerner’s summary characterization of Pareto’s magnum opus: 

Take a Machiavelli, with his amazing sense of the springs of human conduct and his cynicism about ethics; soak him in the modern worship of scientific method; hard-boil him in a hatred for democracy in all its manifestations; fill him with an intense animus against proletarian movements and Marxian theory; add a few dashes of economic fundamentalism; stir it all with a poetic feeling about the ruling élite; sprinkle thoroughly with out-of-the-way erudition; season with a good deal of acuteness and homely wisdom; and serve at interminable length. If you follow this recipe you should have something that resembles Pareto’s treatise on The Mind and Society.

Put another way, Pareto was a tedious windbag, but he was also the kind of learned, principled, and bitterly contemptuous public intellectual the libertarian movement has always lacked.

To Ferriss, however, Pareto seemed less like the Dutch uncle of turn-of-the-century economics than an ideal drinking buddy. “It’s a shame I never had a chance to buy him a drink,” Ferriss eulogizes in The 4-Hour Workweek, “My dear Vilfredo died almost a hundred years ago.” He goes on to describe Pareto as a “wily and controversial economist-cum-sociologist.” 

This stunning display of sociopathy is, ironically, something Ferriss might indeed have learned from Pareto.

Benito Mussolini was wily and controversial, too, which was perhaps why he appreciated Pareto as much as Ferris does. Mussolini claimed that as a younger man, he attended Pareto’s lectures at the University of Lausanne. There, the story goes, he was struck by Pareto’s ideas, which he later came to understand might offer a respectable academic basis for Fascist economics. Believing that the luster of university credentials and scientific objectivity could be made to adhere to an ideology otherwise lacking such foundations, Mussolini selected parts of Pareto’s sociology that proved congenial to his aims, and elevated Pareto to the status of intellectual forefather of the Fascist movement. Tim Ferriss would later execute a similar maneuver, canonizing Vilfredo Pareto as the patron saint of Lifestyle Design.

Pareto, it must be said, never joined the Fascist Party, and he would have disapproved of the Fascist suppression of political liberties and phony appropriation of Catholic dogma, had he lived to witness the culmination of Mussolini’s trajectory. But before he died in August 1923, Pareto was pleased by Fascist promises to do away with the technocratic elite who for decades had dominated the Italian government through coalitions maintained by a corrupt spoils system that relied on frequent government intervention in the national economy. As Pareto’s biographer Franz Borkenau stated, “In the first years of his rule Mussolini literally executed the policy prescribed by Pareto” in matters of economic reform, “largely replacing state management by private enterprise, diminishing taxes on property, [and] favoring industrial development.” Indeed, Pareto’s estimation of early Fascist accomplishments entered the historical record: as he wrote in a letter to a junior colleague, “The victory of Italian fascism confirms splendidly the predictions of my sociology and articles.”

By the time Mussolini took power in October 1922, Pareto was less than a year from death but nonetheless accepted an appointment to the Geneva Disarmament Conference that Mussolini offered him. Il Duce continued to heap laurels on the elderly professor, who lived secluded in a Swiss villa surrounded by his numerous pet cats. He was nominated as a Senator of Italy by Mussolini’s government and named a contributor to Gerarchia, an official organ of Fascist propaganda. Pareto became known as the “Karl Marx of the bourgeoisie,” and alternately, the “Karl Marx of fascism,” among both his admirers and his detractors. (Max Lerner, less admiringly, called him the “Bentham of the irrational.”) The absurdity of these appellations is self-evident, particularly with the advantage of historical distance.

“Gerarchia” means “hierarchy” in Italian, which made it a fitting title for Mussolini’s monthly magazine and the part it played in Il Duce’s ongoing effort to flatter Pareto. For although Pareto’s writings make frequent appeals to the scientific method and empiric observation, his sociology is paradoxically based on the notion that human behavior is organized around timeless irrational desires, manifest across all societies throughout history. Prominent among these irrational compulsions is the desire to form, obey, and defend social hierarchies.

Indeed, Juran’s invention of the 80/20 Rule most likely derived from Pareto’s ambitious theory on the “circulation of elites,” a conservative alternative to both the Marxist and liberal-progressive theories of history. According to historian James Vander Zanden,

Pareto’s theory of the elites can be summarized as follows: People in any society are characterized by differentiated innate abilities, from which there arises domination of one group by another. The group which dominates possesses a special talent for ruling, a talent which is a natural, quasi-biological fact. This group is the elite. They exhibit natural, biological traits which are lacking in the masses.

It is obvious why ideas of a biologically superior dominating caste were useful to the Italian Fascists, who sought to impose a rigid social hierarchy that placed them on top. The same naturalist elitism appeals to Tim Ferriss, and for the same reasons: his particular brand of elitism requires an underclass of cheap labor that is easy to exploit.

While Ferriss’s so-called Deferrers work for themselves (at best) or for others, the author and the rest of the New Rich have “designed” their lives so that other people work for them. Outsourcing is a core component of the NR lifestyle. Ferriss insists that even workers who must answer to a boss, who have been hired to complete a set of specific tasks in an office environment, can nevertheless outsource a substantial amount of their work. He urges them to do so without delay or seeking permission. Several pages later, however, Ferriss discloses that a crucial element of successful outsourcing is forbidding one’s assistants from re-outsourcing the same labor. How this might be enforced, particularly as Ferriss strongly recommends hiring virtual assistants in India who are willing to work for as little as $4 per hour, is a question the author does not answer.

More to the point: not all work can be outsourced, and for every task outsourced, at least one more is in-sourced. A hierarchy is therefore implied. And even if Ferriss does not address it directly, he gives readers a pretty clear idea of how it functions: as he observes in The 4-Hour Workweek, “Fun things happen when you earn dollars, live on pesos, and compensate in rupees.”

It is obvious why ideas of a biologically superior dominating caste were useful to the Italian Fascists.

Curiously—and unbeknown to himself—thoughtless remarks like these are where Ferriss pays the greatest tribute to Pareto. In Pareto’s theory on the circulation of elites, the elite echelon of any society is divided into two classes that take turns wielding power: these are the rentiers and the speculators. Scholars of Pareto’s work have noted that these rival elites draw on Machiavelli’s foxes and lions: their chief difference is that while speculators arrive at their elite status through the application of their own wits, rentiers inherit their positions and are willing to resort to violent means to maintain them. Ferriss does not waste time reading books, so he couldn’t be expected to know that his idol despised one of these elites as sanctimonious, corrupt, hypocritical, and deluded by foolish humanitarian ideals intended to cast a benevolent cloak over the fact of their domination—and praised the other elite class as noble and honest about the immutable characteristics of human nature. Ferriss, a speculator par excellence, is the type of arriviste Pareto held in contempt.

It is easy to see the dangers of extrapolating from the 80/20 principle, as business school students and self-help authors have made a habit of doing: as in Pareto’s sociology, which was a product of its times, fascism is never far out of view. Minority rule based on a tautological justification of income inequality is only a few “logical” deductions away. If 80 percent of our friends are useless and undeserving of our attentions and affections, then does the same go for 80 percent of our countrymen? The first paving stone on the road to this libertarian hell has already been trod by millions of listeners to The Tim Ferriss Show. What better way to soften the ground for rule by the most economically fit than to celebrate the practice of self-efficiency at all times of day, exercising the perverse and senseless cruelty of the 80/20 Rule first upon yourself?