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15.Filling the Void


To be engrossed by something outside ourselves is a powerful antidote for the rational mind, the mind that so frequently has its head up its own ass.

—ANNE LAMOTT, Bird by Bird

There is not enough time to do all the nothing we want to do.

—BILL WATTERSON, creator of the Calvin and Hobbes cartoon strip


I stumbled into the deli across the cobblestone street and ordered a prosciutto sandwich. It was 10:33 A.M. now, the fifth time I’d checked the time, and the twentieth time I’d asked myself, “What the &%$# am I going to do today?” The best answer I had come up with so far was: get a sandwich.

Thirty minutes earlier, I had woken up without an alarm clock for the first time in four years, fresh off arriving from JFK the night before. I had soooo been looking forward to it: awakening to musical birdsong outside, sitting up in bed with a smile, smelling the aroma of freshly brewed coffee, and stretching out overhead like a cat in the shade of a Spanish villa. Magnificent. It turned out more like this: bolt upright as if blasted with a foghorn, grab clock, curse, jump out of bed in underwear to check e-mail, remember that I was forbidden to do so, curse again, look for my host and former classmate, realize that he was off to work like the rest of the world, and proceed to have a panic attack.

I spent the rest of the day in a haze, wandering from museum to botanical garden to museum as if on rinse and repeat, avoiding Internet cafés with some vague sense of guilt. I needed a to-do list to feel productive and so put down things like “eat dinner.” This was going to be a lot harder than I had thought.

Postpartum Depression: It’s Normal

Man is so made that he can only find relaxation from one kind of labor by taking up another.

—ANATOLE FRANCE, author of The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard

I’ve Got More Money and Time Than I Ever Dreamed Possible … Why Am I Depressed?

It’s a good question with a good answer. Just be glad you’re figuring this out now and not at the end of life! The retired and ultrarich are often unfulfilled and neurotic for the same reason: too much idle time.

But wait a second … Isn’t more time what we’re after? Isn’t that what this book is all about? No, not at all. Too much free time is no more than fertilizer for self-doubt and assorted mental tail-chasing. Subtracting the bad does not create the good. It leaves a vacuum. Decreasing income-driven work isn’t the end goal. Living more—and becoming more—is.

In the beginning, the external fantasies will be enough, and there is nothing wrong with this. I cannot overemphasize the importance of this period. Go nuts and live your dreams. This is not superficial or selfish. It is critical to stop repressing yourself and get out of the postponement habit.

Let’s suppose you decide to dip your toe in dreams like relocating to the Caribbean for island-hopping or taking a safari in the Serengeti. It will be wonderful and unforgettable, and you should do it. There will come a time, however—be it three weeks or three years later—when you won’t be able to drink another piña colada or photograph another damn red-assed baboon. Self-criticism and existential panic attacks start around this time.

But This Is What I Always Wanted! How Can I Be Bored?!

Don’t freak out and fuel the fire. This is normal among all high-performers who downshift after working hard for a long time. The smarter and more goal-oriented you are, the tougher these growing pains will be. Learning to replace the perception of time famine with appreciation of time abundance is like going from triple espressos to decaf.

But there’s more! Retirees get depressed for a second reason, and you will too: social isolation.

Offices are good for some things: free bad coffee and complaining thereof, gossip and commiserating, stupid video clips via e-mail with even stupider comments, and meetings that accomplish nothing but kill a few hours with a few laughs. The job itself might be a dead end, but it’s the web of human interactions—the social environment—that keeps us there. Once liberated, this automatic tribal unit disappears, which makes the voices in your head louder.

Don’t be afraid of the existential or social challenges. Freedom is like a new sport. In the beginning, the sheer newness of it is exciting enough to keep things interesting at all times. Once you have learned the basics, though, it becomes clear that to be even a half-decent player requires some serious practice.

Don’t fret. The greatest rewards are to come, and you’re 10 feet from the finish line.

Frustrations and Doubts: You’re Not Alone

People say that what we are seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think this is what we’re really seeking. I think what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive.

—JOSEPH CAMPBELL, The Power of Myth

Once you eliminate the 9–5 and the rubber hits the road, it’s not all roses and white-sand bliss, though much of it can be. Without the distraction of deadlines and co-workers, the big questions (such as “What does it all mean?”) become harder to fend off for a later time. In a sea of infinite options, decisions also become harder—What the hell should I do with my life? It’s like senior year in college all over again.

Like all innovators ahead of the curve, you will have frightening moments of doubt. Once past the kid-in-a-candy-store phase, the comparative impulse will creep in. The rest of the world will continue with its 9–5 grind, and you’ll begin to question your decision to step off the treadmill. Common doubts and self-flagellation include the following: Am I really doing this to be more free and lead a better life, or am I just lazy?

Did I quit the rat race because it’s bad, or just because I couldn’t hack it? Did I just cop out?

Is this as good as it gets? Perhaps I was better off when I was following orders and ignorant of the possibilities. It was easier at least.

Am I really successful or just kidding myself?

Have I lowered my standards to make myself a winner? Are my friends, who are now making twice as much as three years ago, really on the right track?

Why am I not happy? I can do anything and I’m still not happy. Do I even deserve it?

Most of this can be overcome as soon as we recognize it for what it is: outdated comparisons using the more-is-better and money-as-success mind-sets that got us into trouble to begin with. Even so, there is a more profound observation to be made.

These doubts invade the mind when nothing else fills it. Think of a time when you felt 100% alive and undistracted—in the zone. Chances are that it was when you were completely focused in the moment on something external: someone or something else. Sports and sex are two great examples. Lacking an external focus, the mind turns inward on itself and creates problems to solve, even if the problems are undefined or unimportant. If you find a focus, an ambitious goal that seems impossible and forces you to grow,81 these doubts disappear.

In the process of searching for a new focus, it is almost inevitable that the “big” questions will creep in. There is pressure from pseudo-philosophers everywhere to cast aside the impertinent and answer the eternal. Two popular examples are “What is the meaning of life?” and “What is the point of it all?” There are many more, ranging from the introspective to the ontological, but I have one answer for almost all of them—I don’t answer them at all.

I’m no nihilist. In fact, I’ve spent more than a decade investigating the mind and concept of meaning, a quest that has taken me from the neuroscience laboratories of top universities to the halls of religious institutions worldwide. The conclusion after it all is surprising.

I am 100% convinced that most big questions we feel compelled to face—handed down through centuries of overthinking and mistranslation—use terms so undefined as to make attempting to answer them a complete waste of time.82 This isn’t depressing. It’s liberating.

Consider the question of questions: What is the meaning of life?

If pressed, I have but one response: It is the characteristic state or condition of a living organism. “But that’s just a definition,” the questioner will retort, “that’s not what I mean at all.” What do you mean, then? Until the question is clear—each term in it defined—there is no point in answering it. The “meaning” of “life” question is unanswerable without further elaboration.

Before spending time on a stress-inducing question, big or otherwise, ensure that the answer is “yes” to the following two questions:

Have I decided on a single meaning for each term in this question?

Can an answer to this question be acted upon to improve things?

“What is the meaning of life?” fails the first and thus the second. Questions about things beyond your sphere of influence like “What if the train is late tomorrow?” fail the second and should thus be ignored. These are not worthwhile questions. If you can’t define it or act upon it, forget it. If you take just this point from this book, it will put you in the top 1% of performers in the world and keep most philosophical distress out of your life.

Sharpening your logical and practical mental toolbox is not being an atheist or unspiritual. It’s not being crass and it’s not being superficial. It’s being smart and putting your effort where it can make the biggest difference for yourself and others.

The Point of It All: Drumroll, Please

What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.

—VIKTOR E. FRANKL, Holocaust survivor; author of Man’s Search for Meaning

I believe that life exists to be enjoyed and that the most important thing is to feel good about yourself.

Each person will have his or her own vehicles for both, and those vehicles will change over time. For some, the answer will be working with orphans, and for others, it will be composing music. I have a personal answer to both—to love, be loved, and never stop learning—but I don’t expect that to be universal.

Some criticize a focus on self-love and enjoyment as selfish or hedonistic, but it’s neither. Enjoying life and helping others—or feeling good about yourself and increasing the greater good—are no more mutually exclusive than being agnostic and leading a moral life. One does not preclude the other. Let’s assume we agree on this. It still leaves the question, “What can I do with my time to enjoy life and feel good about myself?” I can’t offer a single answer that will fit all people, but, based on the dozens of fulfilled NR I’ve interviewed, there are two components that are fundamental: continual learning and service.

Learning Unlimited: Sharpening the Saw

Americans who travel abroad for the first time are often shocked to discover that, despite all the progress that has been made in the last 30 years, many foreign people still speak in foreign languages.


To live is to learn. I see no other option. This is why I’ve felt compelled to quit or be fired from jobs within the first six months or so. The learning curve flattens out and I get bored.

Though you can upgrade your brain domestically, traveling and relocating provides unique conditions that make progress much faster. The different surroundings act as a counterpoint and mirror for your own prejudices, making weaknesses that much easier to fix. I rarely travel somewhere without deciding first how I’ll obsess on a specific skill. Here are a few examples: Connemara, Ireland: Gaelic Irish, Irish flute, and hurling, the fastest field sport in the world (imagine a mix of lacrosse and rugby played with axe handles) Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: Brazilian Portuguese and Brazilian jujitsu

Berlin, Germany: German and locking (a form of upright break-dancing)

I tend to focus on language acquisition and one kinesthetic skill, sometimes finding the latter after landing overseas. The most successful serial vagabonds tend to blend the mental and the physical. Notice that I often transport a skill I practice domestically—martial arts—to other countries where they are also practiced. Instant social life and camaraderie. It need not be a competitive sport—it could be hiking, chess, or almost anything that keeps your nose out of a textbook and you out of your apartment. Sports just happen to be excellent for avoiding foreign-language stage fright and developing lasting friendships while still sounding like Tarzan.

Language learning deserves special mention. It is, bar none, the best thing you can do to hone clear thinking.

Quite aside from the fact that it is impossible to understand a culture without understanding its language, acquiring a new language makes you aware of your own language: your own thoughts. The benefits of becoming fluent in a foreign tongue are as underestimated as the difficulty is overestimated. Thousands of theoretical linguists will disagree, but I know from research and personal experimentation with more than a dozen languages that (1) adults can learn languages much faster than children83 when constant 9–5 work is removed and that (2) it is possible to become conversationally fluent in any language in six months or less. At four hours per day, six months can be whittled down to less than three months. It is beyond the scope of this book to explain applied linguistics and the 80/20 of language learning, but resources and complete how-to guides can be found under “language” at www.fourhourblog.com. I learned six languages after failing Spanish in high school, and you can do the same with the right tools.

Gain a language and you gain a second lens through which to question and understand the world. Cursing at people when you go home is fun, too.

Don’t miss the chance to double your life experience.

Service for the Right Reasons: To Save the Whales, or Kill Them and Feed the Children?

Morality is simply the attitude we adopt toward people we personally dislike.


One would expect me to mention service in this chapter, and here it is. Like all before it, the twist is a bit different. Service to me is simple: doing something that improves life besides your own. This is not the same as philanthropy. Philanthropy is the altruistic concern for the well-being of mankind—human life. Human life has long been focused on the exclusion of the environment and the rest of the food chain, hence our current race to imminent extinction. Serves us right. The world does not exist solely for the betterment and multiplication of mankind.

Before I start chaining myself to trees and saving the dart frogs, though, I should take my own advice: Do not become a cause snob.

How can you help starving children in Africa when there are starving children in Los Angeles? How can you save the whales when homeless people are freezing to death? How does doing volunteer research on coral destruction help those people who need help now?

Children, please. Everything out there needs help, so don’t get baited into “my cause can beat up your cause” arguments with no right answer. There are no qualitative or quantitative comparisons that make sense. The truth is this: Those thousands of lives you save could contribute to a famine that kills millions, or that one bush in Bolivia that you protect could hold the cure for cancer. The downstream effects are unknown. Do your best and hope for the best. If you’re improving the world—however you define that—consider your job well done.

Service isn’t limited to saving lives or the environment either. It can also improve life. If you are a musician and put a smile on the faces of thousands or millions, I view that as service. If you are a mentor and change the life of one child for the better, the world has been improved. Improving the quality of life in the world is in no fashion inferior to adding more lives.

Service is an attitude.

Find the cause or vehicle that interests you most and make no apologies.


Adults are always asking kids what they want to be when they grow up because they are looking for ideas.


The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green earth, dwelling deeply in the present moment and feeling truly alive.


But I can’t just travel, learn languages, or fight for one cause for the rest of my life! Of course you can’t. That’s not my suggestion at all. These are just good “life hubs”—starting points that lead to opportunities and experiences that otherwise wouldn’t be found.

There is no right answer to the question “What should I do with my life?” Forget “should” altogether. The next step—and that’s all it is—is pursuing something, it matters little what, that seems fun or rewarding. Don’t be in a rush to jump into a full-time long-term commitment. Take time to find something that calls to you, not just the first acceptable form of surrogate work. That calling will, in turn, lead you to something else.

Here is a good sequence for getting started that dozens of NR have used with success.

  1. Revisit ground zero: Do nothing.

Before we can escape the goblins of the mind, we need to face them. Principal among them is speed addiction. It is hard to recalibrate your internal clock without taking a break from constant overstimulation. Travel and the impulse to see a million things can exacerbate this.

Slowing down doesn’t mean accomplishing less; it means cutting out counterproductive distractions and the perception of being rushed. Consider attending a short silence retreat of 3–7 days during which all media and speaking is prohibited.

Learn to turn down the static of the mind so you can appreciate more before doing more:

The Art of Living Foundation (Course II)—International—(www.artofliving.org)

Spirit Rock Meditation Center in California (http://www.spiritrock.org)

Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Massachusetts (http://www.kripalu.org)

Sky Lake Lodge in New York (http://www.sky-lake.org)

  1. Make an anonymous donation to the service organization of your choice.

This helps to get the juices flowing and disassociate feeling good about service with getting credit for it. It feels even better when it’s pure. Here are some good sites to get started: Charity Navigator (www.charitynavigator.org)

This independent service ranks more than 5,000 charities using criteria you select. Create a personalized page of favorites and compare them side by side, all free of charge.

Firstgiving (www.firstgiving.com)

Firstgiving.com allows you to create an online fund-raising page. Donations can be made through your personal URL. I have used Firstgiving in coordination with a nonprofit called Room to Read to build schools in both Nepal and Vietnam, with more countries pending: www.firstgiving.com/timferriss and www.firstgiving.com/timferriss2. If you specifically want to help animals, for example, you can click on a related link and access websites for hundreds of different animal charities, and then decide which one you want to donate to. The UK version of the website is http://www.justgiving.com.

Network for Good (www.networkforgood.org)

Visitors to this website will find links to charities in need of donations as well as opportunities to do volunteer work. They can also set up an automated credit card donation online.

  1. Take a learning mini-retirement in combination with local volunteering.

Take a mini-retirement—six months or more if possible—to focus on learning and serving. The longer duration will permit a language focus, which in turn enables more meaningful interaction and contribution through volunteering.

For the duration of this trip, note self-criticisms and negative self-talk in a journal. Whenever upset or anxious, ask “why” at least three times and put the answers down on paper. Describing these doubts in writing reduces their impact twofold. First, it’s often the ambiguous nature of self-doubt that hurts most. Defining and exploring it in writing—just as with forcing colleagues to e-mail—demands clarity of thought, after which most concerns are found to be baseless. Second, recording these concerns seems to somehow remove them from your head.

But where to go and what to do? There is no one right answer to either. Use the following questions and resources to brainstorm:

What makes you most angry about the state of the world?

What are you most afraid of for the next generation, whether you have children or not?

What makes you happiest in your life? How can you help others have the same?

There is no need to limit yourself to one location. Remember Robin, who traveled through South America for a year with her husband and seven-year-old son? The three of them spent one to two months doing volunteer work in each location, including building wheelchairs in Banos, Ecuador, rehabilitating exotic animals in the Bolivian rain forest, and shepherding leather-back sea turtles in Suriname.

How about doing archaeological excavation in Jordan or tsunami relief on the islands of Thailand? These are just two of the dozens of foreign relocation and volunteering case studies in each issue of Verge Magazine (www.vergemagazine.com). Reader-tested resources include: Hands on Disaster Response: www.hodr.org

Project Hope: www.projecthope.org

Relief International: www.ri.org

International Relief Teams: www.irteams.org

Airline Ambassadors International: www.airlineamb.org

Ambassadors for Children:


Relief Riders International:


Habitat for Humanity Global Village Program:


Planeta: Global Listings for Practical Ecotourism:


  1. Revisit and reset dreamlines.

Following the mini-retirement, revisit the dreamlines set in Definition and reset them as needed. The following questions will help:

What are you good at?

What could you be the best at?

What makes you happy?

What excites you?

What makes you feel accomplished and good about yourself?

What are you most proud of having accomplished in your life? Can you repeat this or further develop it?

What do you enjoy sharing or experiencing with other people?

  1. Based on the outcomes of steps 1–4, consider testing new part- or full-time vocations.

Full-time work isn’t bad if it’s what you’d rather be doing. This is where we distinguish “work” from a “vocation.”

If you have created a muse or cut your hours down to next to nothing, consider testing a part-time or full-time vocation: a true calling or dream occupation. This is what I did with this book. I can now tell people I’m a writer rather than giving them the two-hour drug dealer explanation. What did you dream of being when you were a kid? Perhaps it’s time to sign up for Space Camp or intern as an assistant to a marine biologist.

Recapturing the excitement of childhood isn’t impossible. In fact, it’s required. There are no more chains—or excuses—to hold you back.

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