Tim Ferriss: How Can We Become Comfortable With Discomfort?

Originally published on May 1, 2018 4:42 pm

Part 1 of the TED Radio Hour episode Comfort Zone.

About Tim Ferriss's TED Talk

How can we conquer our fears? Entrepreneur Tim Ferriss says that by taking action, we can train ourselves to accept discomfort, become more resilient, and expand our horizons.

About Tim Ferriss

Tim Ferriss is a public speaker, podcaster, and early-stage tech investor in more than 50 companies.

He is the author of five #1 New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestsellers, including The 4-Hour Workweek and Tools Of Titans. His latest book is Tribe Of Mentors: Short Life Advice From The Best In The World.

His podcast, "The Tim Ferriss Show," has more than 200 million downloads.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. So have you ever done something that really made you uncomfortable, that challenged you, that pushed you in ways you hadn't been pushed before?

TIM FERRISS: I learned enough Tagalog - so Filipino - in about four to five days to be interviewed live on TV for about five minutes.

RAZ: Tim Ferriss - he has. In fact, Tim's become known as someone who puts himself through all kinds of trials and tests just to push past his comfort zone.

FERRISS: It was extremely, extremely stressful, to say the least. And certainly, doing a performance live in front of cameras...

RAZ: You did it in Tagalog. I didn't even know it's pronounced Tagalog. I thought it was Tag-a-log (ph).

FERRISS: Well, I hope I'm getting it right (laughter).

RAZ: Tim also learned Brazilian jiujitsu in a week.

FERRISS: Yeah, ended up in a late-night ER because I thought I had fractured one of my ribs.

RAZ: ...Well, kind of learned.

FERRISS: Within the first day.

RAZ: Tim's tried to become a parkour expert.

FERRISS: They have a scene in the - say, the chase sequence at the beginning of "Casino Royale" or some of the stuff in "American Ninja Warrior..."

RAZ: Kind of.

FERRISS: Well, I ended up tearing three out of my four quadriceps muscles, tearing the flexors in one arm, tearing the infraspinatus in one shoulder.

RAZ: And Tim has attempted to become a rock 'n' roll drummer.

FERRISS: Right. So rock 'n' roll drumming as an experiment - and I had a week to prepare to be the drummer for "Hot Blooded" for Foreigner to a sold-out audience in a concert.

RAZ: You had how long to do this?

FERRISS: If you really look at it, probably three to four total days.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KELLY HANSEN: Do you feel hotblooded?

(CHEERING)

RAZ: You had to learn how to drum in three or four total days to play "Hot Blooded" with Foreigner at a sold-out concert.

FERRISS: That's right.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FERRISS: And the lead singer didn't make it any easier for me. He came up and stood on the drum kit, put his foot on one of the drums, put his hand on my head. It was fun.

RAZ: Wow.

FERRISS: But it was very, very stressful.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FOREIGNER: (Singing) But I'm hotblooded. Check it and see.

RAZ: That really happened. But perhaps Tim's greatest challenge was teaching himself to swim - and not only teaching himself how to swim, but learning to do it in open water.

FERRISS: I grew up on Long Island right next to the water. I had a number of near-drowning experiences very young, and water was not my friend. And I think it was age 31 or so, a friend of mine assigned me a New Year's resolution, and I assigned him a New Year's resolution. And his to me was a 1-kilometer open-water swim. And I tried lessons. I tried everything, which failed. I quit all of these different attempts up until the very end of the year until I found something called Total Immersion taught by Terry Laughlin, and with a book and access to a small pool, trained, and then before the end of that summer went out into the ocean and swam not just a kilometer, but a mile open water parallel to shore and came out and felt like superman. It was one of the proudest moments of my entire life. It was just such a great example of how you can use a progression, find a method and certainly make an attempt to do just about anything that has plagued you in the past.

RAZ: OK, here's the big question, Tim, about all this stuff, which is, why? Why did you do all this stuff? Why did you test yourself like that?

FERRISS: Well, I think that one of the most empowering things that I've tried to systematically approach and teach is exposing oneself to discomfort so you can expand your actionable sphere of comfort. And it's relatively easy to prove to yourself or to other people that something you might think is impossible is, in fact, possible, like learning to go from discomfort with putting your face under water to open-water swimming for a quarter to a half a mile in four or five days. That is entirely possible. And once you take a previously impossible feat and make it possible in a short period of time, you start to wonder, what other impossibles in my life are entirely possible?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: On the show today, Comfort Zone - ideas about pushing ourselves in ways that may not always be comfortable or even successful, but ways that allow us to grow, from confronting our greatest fears to expanding our social circles to challenging the status quo and finding the courage to speak up. And for Tim Ferriss, pushing out of his comfort zone not only conquered his fear of swimming but also affected how he ran his business and how he lived the rest of his life.

FERRISS: Because it's very hard to achieve anything that you want to achieve - certainly, anything that you find intimidating - if you have the emergency brake on. And there are easy ways to at least take a first step.

RAZ: That step for Tim was back in the early 2000s before he made a name for himself as an entrepreneur and writer and self-experimenter. At the time, Tim was running a startup. It was a sports nutrition company, and he was taking on a lot of responsibilities.

FERRISS: I was effectively a one-man show.

RAZ: Tim was working long hours...

FERRISS: Working plus-hour days, chasing time zones.

RAZ: ...Mostly by himself.

FERRISS: I felt trapped in a machine of my own making.

RAZ: And that's when he realized something had to change.

FERRISS: I didn't know how to extricate myself from this so-called success. And I felt like I was the absolute traffic jam at every intersection of every decision. I just hated my life. I was miserable and using stimulants to wind up, using alcohol and other things to wind down. It was an all-consuming enterprise.

RAZ: Tim Ferriss picks up the story from the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

FERRISS: It was a disaster. I felt completely trapped. And I bought a book on simplicity to try to find answers. And I did find a quote that made a big difference in my life, which was we suffer more often in imagination than in reality by Seneca the Younger, who was a famous Stoic writer. That took me to his letters, which took me to the exercise premeditatio malorum, which means the premeditation of evils. And in simple terms, this is visualizing the worst-case scenarios in detail that you fear, preventing you from taking action so that you can take action, overcome that paralysis. My problem was monkey mind, super loud, very incessant. Just thinking my way through problems doesn't work. I needed to capture my thoughts on paper, so I created a written exercise that I called Fear Setting - like goal setting - for myself.

RAZ: So Tim took a notebook, and he sketched out three pages. And on that first page, he made three columns.

FERRISS: Define, prevent and repair. And the define column was really in as much detail as possible listing the worst things that I thought could happen. So at the very top, you'd have, you know, what if dot, dot, dot.

RAZ: And in this case, it was, what's the worst that could happen if he finally took a month away from his business? Something Tim hadn't done in years.

FERRISS: So I wrote down all of the worst things that could happen. And that ranged from I might miss a letter from the IRS. That would then lead to some type of audit and so on and so forth, went on and on. And the second column was the prevent column. And that means, what could you do to prevent each of these bullets from happening in the define column? But here's the thing. As soon as I put it on paper, I was like, wait a second. I could change the addresses and so on so that everything - and at the IRS - that everything goes directly to my accountant instead of my UPS store. The solution in that case was just so simple. And the last column is this repair. That is for each of these bullets in the define. If they happen, what could I do to repair the damage even a little bit? This is the damage control category. And very often, there are simple answers.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

FERRISS: So one question to keep in mind as you're doing this first page is, has anyone else in the history of time, less driven, figured this out? Chances are the answer is yes. The second page is simple. What might be the benefits of an attempt or a partial success? You can see we're playing up the fears and really taking a conservative look at the upside. So if you attempted whatever you're considering, might you build confidence, develop skills emotionally, financially, otherwise? What might be the benefits of, say, a base hit? Spend 10 to 15 minutes on this. Page 3. This might be the most important one, so don't skip it. The cost of inaction. Humans are very good at considering what might go wrong if we try something new, say, ask for a raise. What we don't often consider is the atrocious cost of the status quo, not changing anything.

So you should ask yourself, if I avoid this action or decision and actions and decisions like it, what might my life look like in, say, six months, 12 months, three years? Any further out, it starts to seem intangible. And really get detailed - again, emotionally, financially, physically, whatever. And when I did this, it painted a terrifying picture. I was self-medicating. My business was going to implode at any moment at all times if I didn't step away. My relationships were fraying or failing. And I realized that inaction was no longer an option for me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FERRISS: So I took the trip and - slated for initially four weeks in London. And I was able to extricate myself from my business. So I was able to think clearly finally for the first time in so long without these demons chasing me from behind, which were these nebulous fears I'd finally trapped on paper. And I extended that trip for somewhere between 15 and 18 months. I travelled around the world. And that entire experience led to the first book, "The 4-Hour Workweek."

RAZ: That decision, I mean, the decision to test your comfort level, to do something that was kind of risky, that turned you into Tim Ferris, I mean, essentially turned you into the person that you are known for today.

FERRISS: Yeah, that's exactly right. And this is - I should - just so I don't sound Pollyannaish, it's not a panacea. At least a handful of your fears will be well-founded, and that's fair. But you shouldn't assume that to be the case until you've put those fears under a microscope using something like Fear Setting. It is a trainable skill. You can make yourself more resilient, and you can expand your comfortable sphere of action. But I - look, we all start out the same way, naked and afraid. And I was clothed but certainly afraid and had that as a dominant driver for 20-plus years. I didn't come in with different programming from anybody else in that respect. But I've been very fortunate to find different exercises and means by which you can train yourself to be more comfortable with discomfort.

RAZ: Tim Ferriss. His latest book is called "Tribe Of Mentors." He's also the host of the podcast "The Tim Ferriss Show." You can see all of his talks at ted.com. On the show today, Comfort Zone - ideas about pushing past the things that come easy. Stay with us. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.