Health & Fitness | January 12, 2022 11:38 am

Tim Ferriss Does This Mental Exercise Every Month. Does It Actually Work?

What the hell is "fear-setting"?

Tim Ferriss says this is his most valuable mental exercise.
This man wants to know your worst nightmares.
Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for Vulture Festival

One of the best pieces of advice I read last year came by way of Jason Sudeikis … by way of Michael J. Fox. In an interview last summer, Sudeikis said: “There’s a great Michael J. Fox quote: ‘Don’t assume the worst thing’s going to happen, because on the off chance it does, you’ll have lived through it twice.’ So…why not do the inverse?”

I interpreted the philosophy as not just a rallying cry for positive thinking, but a repudiation of the “worst-case scenario” thinking that often plagues our relationships and careers. Consider: “Okay, so what do I text back if she were to text this?” Or: “What if I forgot what to say during my presentation?”

You don’t have to become a master manifester, but you should give yourself a fighting chance.

Just a couple weeks into this new year, though, here’s an opposing viewpoint from author, tech investor and all-around life shaman Tim Ferriss. In a LinkedIn post this week, he stumped for a mental exercise he’s been practicing for nearly a decade, ever since one of his companies appeared to be on the verge of failure.

At the time, Ferriss writes on his blog, he “had more money than he knew what to do with.” He was making over $70,000 a month. “[But] I was completely miserable,” Ferriss says. “Worse than ever. I had no time and was working myself to death. I had started my own company, only to realize it would be nearly impossible to sell. This turned out to be yet another self-imposed limitation and false construct … I felt trapped and stupid at the same time.”

This, apparently, is where Ferriss had his lightbulb moment. He realized he needed to take a sabbatical around the world to flush out all the stress. First, he “danced around with my shame, embarrassment, and anger for six months, all the while playing an endless loop of reasons why my cop-out fantasy trip could never work.” Then, in a bid to get his act together, he tried “fear-setting,” or, visualizing all the very worst things that could go wrong while he was away, from spoiled inventory and lawsuits to “sitting on a cold shore in Ireland, picking at my toes.”

Ferriss ended up taking the trip, and achieving a somewhat-unexplained fairy tale ending: “The business did better than ever, and I practically forgot about it as it financed my travels around the world in style for 15 months.” His adventures in Europe, and the mental anguish he put himself to actually get there, led him to a simple thesis: “Most people will choose unhappiness over uncertainty.”

Is that true? What should we make of Ferriss’ story, or his larger philosophy? For starters, as always with self-help messages, which lean heavily on anecdotes, parables and half-baked behavioral science, take everything with a giant grain of salt. It’s very possible, even likely, that what works for Ferriss, or Sudeikis, or Fox, will not apply to your life. Plus, Ferriss’ foremost advice in the blog appears to be motivating people to quit their jobs.

He writes: “Most who avoid quitting their jobs entertain the thought that their course will improve with time or increases in income … Are you better off than you were one year ago, one month ago, or one week ago? If not, things will not improve by themselves. If you are kidding yourself, it is time to stop and plan for a jump. Barring any James Dean ending, your life is going to be LONG. Nine to five for your working lifetime of 40–50 years is a long-ass time if the rescue doesn’t come. About 500 months of solid work.”

He paints a vivid illustration for an alternative — a man named Hans, afraid of A) heights and B) leaving his cushy legal office in Los Angeles, who ends up moving to Brazil to start a successful windsurfing company. Hans also meets his dream girl, a woman named Tatiana with “caramel-colored skin.” Oof. All this, from fear-setting.

Ultimately, Ferriss’ exercises are worth trying at the beginning of 2022, especially if you find yourself languishing and/or in an experimental emotional mood. His number one call to action is “Define your nightmare, the absolute worst that could happen if you did what you are considering.” You’re then supposed to weigh the outcomes and benefits, permanent or temporary, and what level of control you would have over them. That could be a worthy use of your time. You’ll only know if you try.

At the same time, though, it’s important to recognize that so many people out there don’t have the luxury of quitting their jobs, or retiring early, just for the opportunity to Europe-hop and watch their Silicon Valley investments multiply. Perhaps “fear-setting” could be applied to pursuits that don’t uproot your life entirely, or damage your access to healthcare when you need it. Use it for your fitness goals, or a creative pursuit, or a localized stressful event, like an interview or date. Some hope for the best, others prepare for the worst, the point is that you’re engaged, you’re trying and you will get through it.

Which leads me to the other best piece of advice I read last year, from the writer and lecturer Dale Carnegie: “Today is the tomorrow you were so worried about yesterday.”