Oh Tim Ferriss, you have changed my life so. Ever since I was exposed to your Four Hour Work Week, I have thought about how to automate my life and it has even made me realize the possibility of starting my own business (I’m sadly still working on this a few years after reading the inspirational book).

The 4 hour chef is the third in his ‘series’ of books – he has the four hour work week, the four hour body and when this came out, it was pretty much an automatic buy for me as the premise of the book wasn’t quite a cookbook but more so to learn cooking as a vehicle to how to learn anything.

For me, here is what I took away from the book:

Margin of safety

The principle of having a ‘margin of safety’ is that when you are doing something that involves some sort of risk, you want to focus on the activities that will give you a good outcome even if you miss by a little. For example, in cooking, he talks about the idea of braising / stewing – it’s hard to overcook something when you are braising and even if you overcook something (like a pork shoulder in the slow cooker), then you can keep going and make a chilli or ground the overcooked meat into a hamburger. On the other hand, if you fry something like a chicken and you overcook and blacken the chicken completely, it’s hard to salvage or recover from a lump of what otherwise would be charcoal. The margin of safety on braising is much higher than on frying and for those that are starting out in cooking (or anything really), you want to focus on the starting out activities that will give you success even if you screw up a little bit.

Extremes inform the norm

Smart Design and IDEO both have similar principles when designing for the masses – instead of looking at the ‘average’ consumer, they find the extremes and design for them. For example, when designing a doorknob, you should be looking at the people who are super strong and then people who are super weak (say with arthritis) or even people with no hands. When you can design for those extremes, the people in the middle will work itself out. That’s the approach that Tim took with his cookbook – he didn’t want to just learn from the best chefs, he wanted to learn from the best chefs who were limited in some way – either through space (to inform what kind of tools the chefs use), budget or other extremes. He asks for instance if the chefs could only use three to five spices, what spices / herbs would they use?


Tim’s method for learning anything is broken down into the above acronym:

  • Deconstruction – that is, what are the specific learning blocks that you should focus on when learning something – maybe it’s characters for Chinese or the anatomy for medicine.
  • Selection – once you know the learning blocks, what material will get you the 80 / 20 results to quickly get ahead? For learning a language, this means learning the most frequently used 100 – 200 words (or even 500 words) rather than trying to sift through 10,000 words to get 100% fluency.
  • Sequencing – as you learn the blocks, there’s most likely a logical sequence for learning the blocks that will help you learn future blocks – in a language, this may mean learning pronouns and then verbs that you conjugate for tense and then learning nouns – this way, you can form sentences.
  • Stakes – once you’ve got all the learning down, now you have to find a way to motivate yourself to keep learning, even when you don’t feel like it. Tim suggests here doing an anti-charity bet – if you do not meet whatever goal you set for yourself, you can set it so that you auto donate to a charity that you don’t like.
When learning languages, note the power of helper verbs

Helper verbs appear in a lot of languages – take French for example – if you say you are going to to read, you just have to conjugate the verb ‘go’ and then use the non-conjugated verb for ‘read’. Which means that you can now go through and say everything in the future tense without conjugating or knowing the conjugates for any other verb you use after (only it’s non-conjugated form). That opens up the language to you without you having to sit down and memorize every single conjugation for every single pronoun in French. It’s incredibly powerful and many languages have this same ‘helper’ verb concept.

Minimal effective dose

Tim suggests that there is something called a ‘minimal effective dose’ – that is, the minimum that you need to achieve a specific result. For example, for the longest time, I believe Tim went to the gym and only spent about 10 – 15 minutes working out – doing very specific exercises to ‘activate’ his body into generating muscle. For weight loss, Tim says that everyone should take in 30 grams of protein within the first 30 minutes of waking up and not change anything else (and many of his readers have experienced weight loss through this method).

Start with the end game first

Josh Waitzkin, is a master of learning. You may know of Josh as he was the inspiration for the movie Searching for Bobby Fisscher – he dominated chess when he was younger and his teacher taught him in a very different way than what you normally do. His teacher taught him by taking away all the pieces and leaving only the enemy king, his king and a pawn. Through this minimal battleground, Josh learned a lot of principles that takes many years for others to learn (because others focus on openings). In a number of scenarios, it helps to think about the end goal or outcome first and work backwards. Tim applied this to learning tango and making the semi-finals of the world champions about 6 months in from no knowledge of dancing. For example, he did what some male pros did later in their careers – they learned the female role. Then, he started to interview the very best dancers to see what they knew – a lot of them had explicit knowledge that they could share and there was also implicit knowledge – things that they did that they did not know they were doing and could not express (this came from years of experience).

When learning anything, frequent breaks make it easy

I learned this a little late in university but when memorizing things for exams and quizzes, you want to practice the recall rather than reading something over and over. It’s the same way with taking frequent breaks – you practice recall when you take more frequent breaks.

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