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Tribe of Mentors: Short Life Advice from the Best in the World BY Tim Ferriss. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Hardcover, 624 pages. $30.

The cover of Tribe of Mentors: Short Life Advice from the Best in the World

Gig-economy guru Tim Ferriss’s Tribe of Mentors: Short Life Advice from the Best in the World might be the last self-help book you’ll need. Just finishing it proves you don’t need help. You’re disciplined, motivated, open-minded. You accept chaos. It’d be easier to complete the twelve steps and implement all the habits of highly successful people than get through these six hundred pages of non sequitur life tips, offered by more than a hundred high achievers:

“Take a walk or run. Have sex. Or eat. Then . . . make lists” (Ashton Kutcher, actor).

Maybe have children, because they might change your “whole leadership style” (Linda Rottenberg, CEO).

When feeling overwhelmed, ask yourself, “What did I key into the sat-nav system of my life?” (Lord Jonathan Sacks, rabbi).

But “don’t trust the gurus, whether a marketing guru or a life guru. Anybody telling you he knows better is—more than anything—disempowering you” (Jérôme Jarre, Snapchat star).

Don’t say he didn’t warn you.

Ferriss began the book during what may have been the early stirrings of a midlife crisis. He had just turned forty, and was troubled by doubt and newly baffled. So he started bro-journaling: “Were my goals my own, or simply what I thought I should want. . . . How could I best reassess my life, my priorities, my view of the world, my place in the world, and my trajectory through the world? So many things! All the things!”

Too many things, Ferriss realizes, for one man to figure out. Luckily, he has an all-purpose remedy for any moment of resolute confusion. He asks, “What would this look like if it were easy?” Easy: You’d ask other people to think it through. He drafts a dream tribe of wise men and women and sends them each eleven questions. (His “top performers” are A-listers, mostly from the realms of business, sports, tech, nonprofits; no one from the highbrow-literary or art world made the cut.) The questions are direct and rangy, what Ferriss calls “uncommonly clear”: “What is an unusual habit or an absurd thing you love?” “How has a failure, or apparent failure, set you up for later success?” “When you feel overwhelmed or unfocused . . . what do you do?” “If you could have a gigantic billboard anywhere with anything on it . . . what would it say and why?” (We are a long way from the “Proust Questionnaire” here. Looking only for “actionable” answers, Ferriss wouldn’t dream of asking, “What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?”)

Tim Ferriss, 2015.
Tim Ferriss, 2015.

Ferriss admits you have to be selective while perusing the tribe’s solutions. But if you’re patient, you can expect up to seventeen epiphanies: “Out of roughly 140 profiles, I expect you to like 70, love 35, and have your life changed by perhaps 17. Amusingly, the 70 you dislike will be precisely the 70 someone else needs. Life would be boring if we all followed exactly the same rules.”

You let serendipity reign, like a dorm-room session with a book of ancient wisdom, or you ride the text like a wave or like the breath in meditation. Not incidentally, Ferriss has long championed meditation’s transformative power—as Mike D. of the Beastie Boys does on page 241. The fact that Ferriss’s no. 1 life hack is a 2,600-plus-year-old mainstay of religions, addiction clinics, yoga classes, and Arianna Huffington’s to-do list shows there is nothing new under the self-help sun. Anyone who’s left a footprint on the beach of personal development will hear the call of their favorite koans and affirmations:

“Think for yourself” (Kelly Slater, surfer).

“Be humble and self-aware” (Adam Fisher, investment manager).

“If you want something, you work for it” (Amelia Boone, endurance athlete).

“Hard choices make us wiser, smarter, stronger, and wealthier” (Jerzy Gregorek, Olympic weight lifter).

“I ask myself, ‘what would be the worst thing’ about that outcome not going the way I want?” (Graham Duncan, yet another investment manager).

“Adversity. Everybody spends their life trying to avoid it. Me too. But the best things that ever happened to me came during the times when the shit hit the fan and I had nothing and nobody to help me. Who are you really? What do you really want? Get out there and fail and find out” (Steven Pressfield, author).

When Ferriss was starting out, a little over a decade ago, he was an overworked, overstressed nutritional-supplement salesman hawking products like BrainQuicken. It wasn’t what he really wanted. But he noticed that the old industry of self-improvement was ready to be disrupted: Where was the Uber for winning at life? He broke through with the best sellers The 4-Hour Workweek (2007)and The 4-Hour Body (2010). The first advised checking e-mail only twice a day, outsourcing work to global freelancers, and finding a “muse,” which is his lyrical way of describing a business that mints money with little effort on your part; as for The 4-Hour Body, I’ll let the subtitle do the heavy lifting: An Uncommon Guide to Rapid Fat-Loss, Incredible Sex, and Becoming Superhuman. Ferriss was Wired magazine’s “greatest self-promoter” in 2008, back when the competition was fierce: He beat Steve Jobs, Stephen Colbert, and Richard Branson by a land-slide. He went on to host an interview podcast, with guests like Jamie Foxx, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Alice Little, the “#1 top-earning legal sex worker,” dispensing frank life tips. His own advice for success is to do what he’s done: outsource and crowdsource, market manically, and always be self-boosting. (Without fail, Margaret Thatcher’s most famous maxim, “There is no such thing as society,” is taken as a given.) Ferriss proposes technocratic enlightenment through micromanagement of the self, as if life were a series of small efficiency problems. It’s a utopian philosophy in which you see yourself as a slightly underperforming business.

As Rebecca Mead wrote in a 2011 New Yorker profile of Ferriss, “every generation gets the self-help guru it deserves,” and he fits our self-tracking, productivity-obsessed, ultracompetitive age better than most. He accomplishes this by paradoxically insisting that you can opt out of the daily grind by optimizing how you grind out a workday. But the rules of the game haven’t changed as much as Ferriss would have you believe. You still have to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps; his innovation is to ask, What’s the most efficient way to pull? What kind of leather are the best bootstraps made of? How does Jamie Foxx do it and what does he eat beforehand? This approach leads to engrossing yet mercilessly long conversations on his podcast, a medium that reinforces the myth that we are all nerds at heart, eager for expert-level information. He’s also genial: You’ll probably end up liking Ferriss, though I’d understand if you, like Mead, were put off by his new(ish) style of masculinity, an uneasy combination of the sweaty and sincere. Either way, it’s endearing how he always tells his listeners to read the Stoics, particularly Seneca.

Even if you don’t buy what Ferriss is selling, Tribe of Mentors works as a guide to what the thought leaders of the early twenty-first century really think, and, more interestingly, how they feel. It is gentler than anything the 4-Hour guy would’ve written and seems like an evolution for Ferriss, despite its reliance on high-powered crowdsourcing. It’s also a very strange document: You don’t normally encounter the successful selflessly trying to be helpful. I’ll admit I picked it up looking for a laugh. But the mentors’ earnestness disarmed me. I grew annoyed by my own weariness, my jadedness, my automatic dismissals, my razor-bladed observations about the good life. Maybe the book seems facile because there are so few elegant ways to describe feeling empowered or productive. I don’t begrudge anyone their daily routine or solace: As Frank Sinatra put it, “I’m for anything that gets you through the night.” Reading Tribe of Mentors, I was reminded that almost everyone feels—and is—endangered, despite whatever gifts or advantages they have.

Lately, Ferriss’s podcast has evidenced that sense of surprising vulnerability. In Tribe of Mentors, his anxiety about aging, which sparked the book, is plain—even if he is mostly absent from its pages. I don’t know if he’s found the answers he craves or if anyone can learn what they need to know by asking. If Ferriss experiences a chill of regret as he cruises through his forties and beyond, it won’t be about the morning-routine tweak that’s always eluded him. It might be about all the time he’s spent thinking his life was a problem: You can get a lot done if you’re not worried about solving yourself.

David O’Neill is the managing editor of Bookforum and a coeditor of The Weight of the Earth: The David Wojnarowicz Audio Journals, which will be published in April by Semiotext(e).