“Anyone who says they’re 100% certain of outcomes—right now—is either delusional or lying. At best, they are gambling with a blindfold on, not betting intelligently.” —Tim Ferriss in a February 14, 2020, blog post titled “Some Thoughts on Coronaviruses and Seatbelts”
On Valentine’s Day, best-selling author and podcaster Tim Ferriss announced that because of the unknowns surrounding COVID-19, he’d be curtailing unnecessary travel and group interactions for two to three weeks to “see how things shake out, particularly given the asymptomatic ‘incubation period’ of up to 14 days.” A few weeks later, Ferriss—who moved to Austin in 2017—pulled out of a planned speaking appearance at South by Southwest and publicly urged city officials to cancel the event, which they did three days later.
On a new episode of the National Podcast of Texas, Ferriss says his opinion at the time was informed by what he describes as an “informational advantage”—access to experts within the scientific and investment communities in China and Italy, along with epidemiologists and medical experts here who expected to be on the front lines if the virus came to America.
“I was talking to people, so it wasn’t like I was the only person to have somehow stared into the crystal ball,” Ferriss says. “But I was simply looking at the mathematics and speaking to predominantly scientists and macro investors who pay attention to such things. And tentative knowns that we had at that point related to the virus, and more importantly, the frighteningly large number of unknowns made it so that it seemed to me to make certain changes in behavior as a holding pattern until we had more concrete data make a lot of sense. And that’s consistent with many of the decisions or bets that I make in the sense that if I can’t cap downside, my decision is almost always to wait until I can in some fashion cap downside or understand the maximum downside.”
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Now that much of the downside is clearly in view, Ferriss says that across the last two weeks or so, the intensity with which he’s studied the COVID-19 news cycle and commented on it via social media has dramatically decreased. Part of it is for his own mental health and the other part is practical.
“Once a lot of smart people are paying a lot of attention to this, then my advantage and my usefulness goes down very dramatically,” he says. “So I’ve been slowly withdrawing from my information consumption because I have less to add.”
Even so, Ferriss’s influential podcast, The Tim Ferriss Show, has spent the past month or so focusing on the pandemic, exploring both the public health implications and the impact quarantine has on personal growth. The latter effect is of particular interest to Ferriss, as the bulk of his work, from his best-selling The 4-Hour Workweek to his Tribe of Mentors, which collects short, tactical life advice from a hundred-plus world-class performers, hinge heavily on techniques to improve mental and physical performance. On the podcast, recorded Wednesday afternoon by phone, he outlines his own quarantine routine, the opportunities for growth that quarantine might present, and how to look for silver linings in very uncertain times. Also discussed: balancing public health and global economics, the politics around the response to the virus, and what he misses most about pre-quarantine life.
Three takeaways from our conversation:
To combat Groundhog Day syndrome in quarantine, Ferriss and his girlfriend deliberately watch different types of films and listen to different types of music on the weekends, so that weekends are still different and special. They also eat meals in a different room of their house each night to break up the monotony.
“There has to be some kind of variance as a break from the doom and gloom. But we have reasonably consistent routines with exercise and cooking as foundational elements, which provides us with a toehold in, as imaginary as it might be, a locus of control in a world that seems completely unpredictable and out of control. And this is really an aspiration more than a reality, but to operate from a place of calm as much as possible as opposed to panic, I find it helpful to have a predictability and a certainty around certain small things within my control, which could be as simple as making the bed in the morning. It doesn’t have to be a big thing. It could just be having the same cup of coffee in the same mug. But I do find a consistent routine to be very helpful and it frees up a lot of my cognitive cycles, so that I can hopefully make better decisions.”
As much as worship services, sporting events or music festivals are good for mental health, for public health’s sake Ferriss hopes they’ll return only after very careful consideration.
“If we rush, I think it will be for economic reasons. It’ll be driven by economic incentives by political leadership. I’d say it would be for public morale and reelection purposes as opposed to public health purposes. The mental health costs of isolation are real. But if political leadership is approaching this in an intelligent way, so that we can get out of a loop of continually dealing with this month after month, because it’s fair to expect second waves, third waves, etc., they’ll be cautious. How … you minimize the economic costs of these resurgences is dependent on many factors, and one of them is how strict can we be on the front end. How smart can we be on the front end? So my hope would be that large group gatherings are one of the last things to be permitted because the contagion risk and cost of doing it prematurely is so high.”
Ferriss says his girlfriend is better at reframing challenging situations than he is and has helped him reframe the way he’s approaching quarantine.
“There’s a lot outside of your control. So given all of that, she asked what could we do so that we’ve looked back at this time really fondly as a gift that was given to us as a sacred time, not just a time that we got through? What could we do that would allow us to look at it in that way? And she said there’s a chance that this passes faster than we would expect and we realize we missed a really golden window of opportunity to do certain things, to think about certain things, pause and reflect on certain things that we just don’t allow ourselves during other times. So we’re both trying very hard to ask ourselves, what could this be, how could we make this one of the best things that has happened to us in the last … six months, year, five years, or ten years? I can’t speak for other people, but it’s very important to me that I look at things through that lens.”