Is Your Job A Tim Ferriss Experiment Or A Josh Waitzkin Mastery Goal?

I’m a fan of Tim Ferriss. His book, The 4-Hour Workweek, has been on The New York Times Best Seller List for four years. His follow up book, The 4-Hour Body, is also a New York Times bestseller. Not that being a bestselling author is the basis for my respect. Nor is the idea of working only four hours a week particularly compelling.

The reason I’m a fan of Tim Ferriss is three fold: First, through his work, Ferriss has helped me clarify how I want to shape my life. His thinking introduced new possibilities with regards to my business, which ultimately culminated with my move from New Zealand to Singapore and further business expansion. Second, his writing reinforces themes that are salient in my own life. These include physical fitness and body composition through to philosophy and writing. Third, through his podcasts, Ferriss has introduced me to some great minds who, like hearing kindred souls, espoused thinking that I feel very much in tune with.

One guest that Ferriss has hosted on his podcast a few times is Josh Waitzkin. For the uninitiated, Waitzkin was a chess prodigy whose early life was portrayed in the movie Searching for Bobby Fisher.  Less well known is that Waitzkin is a World Push Hands Champion and a highly skilled black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. His book, The Art of Learning, is a must read for anyone interested in truly developing a skill from competency to mastery.

As I have become more familiar with the work and thinking of both Tim Ferriss and Josh Waitzkin, I can form a clear dichotomy between their writing. While both have an interest in attainment and skill acquisition, through Ferriss I see the embodiment of the Pareto principle to reach competency quickly, while with Waitzkin the focus is mastery. Rather than being distinct categories, these are perhaps best conceived as opposing ends of a continuum; a seven-point goal scale for supra-performance where a score of 1 is still above average and a 7 is mastery.

I have been able to incorporate this idea of the Ferriss-Waitzkin continuum for goal setting into my own coaching practice to great effect. Goal setting is at the heart of my coaching practice and is an area of motivation that formed a large part of the thinking behind my Doctorate back in 2001. While there are many ways to classify goals (proximal and distal, achievement vs mastery, the idea of being a maximiser vs a satisfier), I find the Ferriss-Waitzkin continuum to be especially useful for high achievers and coaching for supra-performance.

To be clear, both individuals are focussed on achievement beyond the norm. What Ferriss does well is to identify the quickest way to get from A to B in skill acquisition. He recognises that in all areas there is a lot of noise, or to paraphrase Arthur Jones, 90% on any subject is wrong information. However, if you can quickly adopt the right approach, time to competency is shortened. Waitzkin, on the other hand, is about moving beyond competent or even above average. His work focuses on the space between good and great and what it takes to achieve the latter. This is where time, effort, sacrifice and the capacity to get into the flow for extended periods takes over. This is what Waitzkin, who has reached mastery in multiple areas, embodies.

The distinction does not stop there. In addition to identifying how best to get from A to B quickly, Ferriss highlights the types of endeavours that are best suited to this type of thinking. As mentioned in an earlier blog, body composition is one such task. This explains why 12 week challenges to the perfect body are so readily touted. Contrast this with more challenging tasks such as Brazilian jiu-jitsu or learning a musical instrument. Competency to any decent level in these endeavours takes commitment and time. This is why you will not see a credible book on how to reach a single figure golf handicap in 12 weeks. No amount of good information can speed the process up to that extent.

This brings me to the title of this blog. One question that I now start with in executive coaching is ‘where on the scale would my coachee place their chosen profession?’ Do they see their job as a Tim Ferriss experiment or a Josh Waitzkin mastery goal – or somewhere in between? I assume that everyone who I work with wants to be proficient at work; that is a given. So the real question when dealing with high performers is to what extent is their goal truly to be masters of their craft and what are they prepared to give up to get there. This is where the Tim Ferriss-Josh Waitzkin seven-point scale comes in handy.

The scale is also helpful in distinguishing between competing goals. For example, in my own case, swimming is very much at the Ferriss end. I want to do it competently but have no desire to compete with Joseph Schooling. My martial arts are more in the middle. I’m prepared to put in the effort required to reach a personal high level, but the sacrifices I will make for training are limited. Then we get to being a psychologist – that is at the Josh Waitzkin end. I will often get into flow when writing or reading on the topic. I will stay up late and get up early to make sure that tasks are completed. I have a desire to constantly improve and be better at my craft.

A key point is that work is not a Waitzkin mastery goal for everyone. For some, work is simply an area of life to be good at and this is just fine. Those people may even want to be great at work, but mastery is not their goal. As an executive coach, I recognise this and so should employers and managers. My work is often also about getting people to admit this to themselves so that they can live more fulfilled lives with greater integrity. Where problems arise is when someone is in a role that demands a Waitzkin approach to which they respond with a Ferriss philosophy. This forces one to take on an impostor syndrome as they pretend to themselves, and those around them, that mastery is their goal but they will not make the sacrifices or commitment required to achieve to the required level.

The key is therefore to identify what type of goal work is for you. This allows you to set up a realistic psychological contract with yourself and those who may depend on you, like your peers and manager. Not having work as something you wish to master is not the problem. Pretending that work is a goal for which you will sacrifice much to attain mastery, when this is not the case, is where the problem arises. Happiness is alignment between your expectations, those who rely upon you, your actions and your output.

 So what will it be? Is your work a Tim Ferriss experiment or Josh Waitzkin mastery goal?