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Why Tim Ferriss is Your Unofficial Nonprofit Mentor


By Will Schmidt

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Reading Time: 6 minutes

Tim Ferriss goes by many titles: author, entrepreneur, public speaker, and self-help guru. He’s so influential in helping people fulfill the best versions of themselves that some say he’s an “admirably cut advertisement for the outer limits of potential.”

While his success is associated primarily with entrepreneurial businesses and investment endeavors, there’s a lot the nonprofit world can take from studying his philosophies on life and the way he operates. Here are three massive lessons you can learn from Ferriss to apply to your nonprofit.

Don’t Hide From Fear

Most of us use fear as an indicator of things we shouldn’t do. Tim Ferriss uses it as a signifier of things he must do.

Fear is a big driver of how he built his success. When faced with a fearful situation, he often asks, “What’s the worst that could happen?” In this way Ferriss diminishes the hold fear has over him.

It was especially relevant when he faced down his crippling anxieties about water and swimming. He’s the first to admit that this fear, which spawned a subsequent inability to swim, had been the greatest humiliation and embarrassment of his life. It wasn’t until age 31 that Ferriss overcame this fear.

The most impressive part is not that he overcame his fear, but how he overcame it. He realized his fear was caused by a lack of knowledge. For two weeks, he diagramed and examined the mechanical aspects of swimming. Dedicated study took him from swimming one lap in a pool, rather poorly, up to 1 kilometer in open ocean water.

Triumph Through Analysis

Ferris overthrew his fear of water and swimming by leveraging his analytics-obsessed mind. First, he deconstructed elements involved in swimming like stroke mechanics, how to hold your breath, and buoyancy.

After disassembling the thing that scared him most in this world, Ferriss reconstructed it in a way that made sense to him. However, his first attempt wasn’t as successful as anticipated. He tried kickboards, hand paddles, and even lessons with Olympians and triathletes.

Eventually, through rigorous trial and error, Ferriss found a method of reconstructing swimming that fit in Total Immersion Swimming. This new way of swimming had him focus on the biomechanics of being in the water, and Ferriss found it adapted to his need beautifully. He tried many different options until he found one that provided the results he needed.

Let’s say your nonprofit missed a previous fundraising goal by a large margin. Naturally, there might be some trepidation heading into your next fundraising initiative.

Take your fears, analyze them, and break them down into their root causes. Then, build it back up into an action item for success. It might look like this:

  • What you say. I’m afraid my fundraising campaign won’t get any backers.
  • Analysis. This is a fear born from lack of publicity and awareness.
  • Root. Nobody will see my campaign, and it will fade away into the depths of the internet.
  • Your skills. I, or someone on my team, am very good at social media engagement and writing emails.
  • Action for success. I’ll use my, or my team’s, social media skill sets to promote this campaign in a targeted, effective way that will bring in a widespread audience of donors. Let’s first start by creating a promotions calendar.
  • Follow up. If your first strategy doesn’t succeed, keep trying out new angles of approach like Ferriss did with his swimming practice.

The fear of failure is a constant in life: it walks with you. Ferriss accepts this, and you should too. Always ask, as he does: “Even if this fails, what other benefits can I derive from it?”

Adapt Creative Solutions

When Tim Ferriss released his first book, The 4-Hour Work Week, he refused to force it on people. He didn’t brag about how awesome it was, or how many lives it would change. Instead of directly marketing the product, he decided to market around the product.

Ferriss promoted a larger idea that surrounded his book. He created a general mindset by promoting what he calls Lifestyle Design, which attracted hundreds of thousands of people.

At its core, the Lifestyle Design mindset claims that “any of us can, by following the directions in The 4-Hour Work Week, free ourselves from financial dependence on our job, develop a business that will support us while working less than a day a week, and then spend the rest of our life doing the things we love and/or we are passionate about.”

Part of what makes this an attractive marketing tactic is that Ferriss isn’t only selling a book. He’s selling a book that can provide you the autonomy and freedom to live life on your own terms: it’s so much more grand than just his words on a page.

Define Your User Experience

Take a page from Ferriss’ book the next time you have an event, initiative, or fundraising campaign. Think through what your supporters feel, see, and interact with when they come across your promotions. What specific idea, feeling, or emotion do you want your campaign to be associated with?

As you craft your communications, answer these questions so that you create an experience that takes supporters deep:

  • What are the intangibles of your promotion that people can’t get from the general description?
  • Are there specific emotions you can create through your promotions? How do you want people to react?
  • How will the campaign impact your community?
  • What about this specific initiative will draw in crowds of people?

Keep in mind that this is only half of the process as well. Part of what led Ferriss to achieve success with his book was the ability to build, sustain, and leverage a community that helped promote his work.

Build a Community

When Tim Ferriss released The 4-Hour Work Week to the public, he didn’t rely solely on his promotion efforts. Alongside those initiatives, he leveraged his blog community.

Tim Ferriss was able to create a two-way community focused around a passion for Lifestyle Design. People became part of it. Commented. Shared. Took ownership of the idea.

Through quality content creation, Ferriss inspired a small army of people who believed in his ideas and looked towards him as a leader. The community, then, did a sizeable portion of the marketing effort for The 4-Hour Work Week because they believed in its core principles so much.

Assemble a group of individuals who want to see your mission succeed, and there isn’t much that can stop you. To date, Ferriss has amassed such a large cohort of dedicated fans that it’s given birth to what Forbes author Michael Ellsberg calls “The Tim Ferriss Effect.”

The Tim Ferris Effect

The phrase was first used to describe the influence that blog posts from Ferriss’ site had on the sales of Ellsberg’s own book. The author found that one post on the Ferriss blog that gave a shout-out sold more books than a piece in The New York Times and a three-minute segment on CNN combined.

Ryan Holiday, formerly hired by Ferriss to assist with the promotion of The 4-Hour Body and The 4-Hour Chef, claims that this effect helped Holiday sell 30,000 copies of his book in the weeks following its release.

Clothing brand Mizzen+Main wrote about the effect regarding their clothing sales. As they say, one mention on his podcast boosted their exposure and sales for the brand more than a profile in The New York Times, an announcement in The Wall Street Journal, and a full page ad in Esquire.

If your nonprofit cultivates a strong community like this, it kicks open the doors for partnership opportunities with other nonprofits, thought leaders, influencers, celebrities, and notable individuals. Build your own community first, and then extend its influence to help others around you as it gains momentum.

Our Favorites from the Tim Ferriss Reddit AMA

Recently, Tim Ferriss did an Ask Me Anything (AMA) event on Reddit. To put the icing on the cake, here are a few of our favorite quotes that will further inspire you:

Tim Ferriss 1 Tim Ferriss 2 Tim Ferriss 3

While Tim Ferriss is considered by many in the for-profit sector as a paragon of success, his expertise and advice don’t have to stop there. Nonprofit leaders can learn just as much from him as top level business executives and entrepreneurs alike.

In fact, Ferriss himself is heavily involved in the nonprofit world through multiple foundations. So, the next time you come up against a seemingly unsolvable problem, ask how Tim Ferriss might tackle it.

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