Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers by Tim Ferriss is massive in so many ways. Weighing 1.1 kilograms, the 736-page book features interviews with hundreds of high-performing people from all walks of life, including household names like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jamie Foxx and Kevin Costner.
The book is full of knowledge bombs after knowledge bombs, and it took a few months for me to finish it and another extra few weeks to review what I’ve learned. I’ve summarized my top takeaways below.
1. Master the art of asking
Tony Robbins once said that “the quality of your questions determines the quality of your life.” In Tool of Titans, I’ve learned that asking the right questions and being truly curious is an important life skill regardless of what you do, what you’re trying to achieve, and where you’d like to go. In particular, if you’re learning or developing a skill, asking the right people the right questions can accelerate the process and give you the tools necessary to succeed.
Asking thought-provoking questions is an art and a skill, so how do you develop it? To start, pose the questions no one is asking yet. Alex Blumberg, cofounder of Gimlet Media, recommended asking dumb questions because doing so is the “smartest thing you can do” (pg. 304).
Author Malcolm Gladwell learned to ask good questions from his dad, who Malcolm said has “zero intellectual insecurities” and has no problem saying, “I don’t understand. Explain that to me” (pg. 573).
If you need a starting list of questions to ask, the Titans featured in the book offered these insights:
- Journalist Cal Fussman suggested asking people this more often: “What are some of the choices you’ve made that made you who you are?”
- If you’re running a business tackling incumbent companies or ideas, Eric Weinstein, managing director of Thiel Capital, recommended these questions:
- “How is their bread buttered?”
- “What is it that they can’t afford to say or think?” (pg. 524)
- Tim himself revealed the 17 questions that changed his life, including these gems:
- What if I could only subtract to solve problems?
- What would this look like if it were easy?
- How can I throw money at this problem? (Or how can I “waste” money to improve the quality of my life?) (pg. 594).
2. Lean in to your fear
“Being afraid of being wrong or making a mistake or fumbling is just not how you do something of impact. You just have to be fearless.”
– Dr. Adam Gazzeley, director of the Gazzeley Lab at UC San Francisco
Tim’s 2017 TED talk is all about defining your fears, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that this topic is prominent in his book. According to many Titans, the goal isn’t to get rid of fears; rather, it’s about being aware of your fears and managing them.
Actor Jamie Foxx said his confidence comes from knowing that there’s “nothing” on the other side of fear. “People are nervous for no reason,” he explained. “When we talk about fear…it’s in your head” (pg. 606).
Talking about encouraging girls to be less fearful, author and former firefighter Caroline Paul said it’s time to “adopt a paradigm shift of bravery instead of a paradigm of fear” (pg. 461).
To manage your fears, schedule time to do “fear-setting” (pg. 461). The idea is to explicitly define your fears, list the possible outcomes and identify how to avoid those consequences. This exercise also requires you to imagine what the status quo would result to—what’s the consequence of inaction? Check out Tim’s TED Talk for more info about this exercise.
Personally, I grew up fearing a lot of things—dogs, deep water and failure, just to name a few—so this is one takeaway that will stay with me for a while.
3. Meditate like a boss
If you listen to Tim’s podcast, you’ve probably heard him say that over 80% of the people he interviews have some form of meditation practice. And, indeed, in the book, many Titans cite meditation as one of the tools they use to thrive.
“Meditation simply helps you channel drive toward the few things that matter,” Tim wrote in the book, “rather than ever moving target and imaginary opponent that pops up” (pg. 101).
The world-class performers featured in the book have different meditation practices:
- Maria Popova of BrainPickings.org listens to Tara Brach’s Smile Guided Meditation recording from the summer of 2010 (pg. 150).
- Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull practices vipassana meditation for 30 to 60 minutes per day (pg. 312).
- Music producer Justin Boreta does 20 minutes of Transcendental Meditation every morning (pg. 358).
- Sam Harris, a best-selling author, popular podcaster and a doctor of neuroscience, does vipassana meditation, which he described as “a method of paying exquisitely close and nonjudgmental attention to whatever you’re experiencing anyway” (pg. 456).
If you’re new to meditation, these tips might help:
- Do less than you can. Avoid making your practice a burden by doing less than you’re capable of. “If you can sit in mindfulness for 5 minutes before it feels like a chore, then don’t sit for 5 minutes, just do 3 or 4 minutes,” said Chade-Meng Tan, an award-winning engineer and founder of the mindfulness course at Google called Search Inside Yourself. “If mindfulness practice feels like a chore, it’s not sustainable” (pg. 155).
- Read books about meditation. Associate professor Will MacAskill recommended Mindfulness by Mark Williams and Danny Penman because it’s an accessible introduction to the practice and includes an 8-week guided meditation course (pg. 448).
Note: For a list of guided meditations that don’t suck, feel free to peruse my own list.
4. Start your day right…
Your morning habits will often determine the course of your day, so it’s important to stick to a routine that sparks your creativity and productivity.
Tim’s morning ritual consists of what he called “small things” that add up to big things (pg. 143):
- Make your bed and count it as your first accomplishment of the day
- Meditate for 10 to 20 minutes
- Do 5 to 10 reps of something to “state prime” and wake yourself up
- Prepare a “Titanium Tea,” a combo of Pur-erh aged black tea, green tea and turmeric and ginger shavings
- Journal for 5 minutes
For Scott Adams, creator of the Dilbert comic strip, mornings are all about minimizing decisions. He wakes up, pushes a button for coffee and eats the same breakfast every day (pg. 267).
Dr. Peter H. Diamandis, founder and executive chairman of the XPRIZE Foundation, stretches and does breathing exercises (similar to Wim Hof’s exercises) during his morning shower. An affirmation mantra is also part of Peter’s routine: “I am joy. I am love. I am grateful. I see, hear, feel and know that the purpose of my life is to inspire and guide the transformation of humanity on and off the Earth” (pg. 372).
5.…And finish it on a high note
“Never go to sleep without a request to your subconscious.”
– Thomas Edison
What you do in the evening is just as important as what you do in the morning. Many world-class performers do specific evening routines to stimulate their mind, focus on the right things or to simply prepare for bed.
LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman writes down problems that he wants his mind to work on overnight. This lets his subscious offer the solution. Josh Waitzkin, a chess prodigy and martial arts world champion, has the same habit, but he does it just after dinner, not before bedtime (pg. 230).
Peter Diamandis always writes down his three “wins of the day” (pg. 373).
Tim, a self-professed “lifelong insomniac,” uses tools like a spine decompressor, a ChiliPad (a mattress pad with a cooling and heating temperature control system) and a sleep mask to get a better sleep (pg. 140).
6. Choose depth over breadth
“You can do everything you want to do. You just need foresight and patience.”
– Derek Sivers
Focus on a small number of things and focus on them. If you’re working on many different projects at once, you may not be making the progress that you need to really succeed.
Derek Sivers, creator of CD Baby, uses the “Buridan’s ass” fable to illustrate the importance of focusing:
“[It’s] about a donkey who is standing halfway between a pile of hay and a bucket of water. He just keeps looking left to the hay, and right to the water, trying to decide. Hay or water, hay or water? He’s unable to decide, so he eventually falls over and dies of both hunger and thirst. A donkey can’t think of the future. If he did, he’d realize he could clearly go first to drink the water, then go eat the hay” (pg. 188).
Focusing means saying “no”—a lot. Entrepreneur and best-selling author James Altucher said the best way to decline invitations is to not explain why you’re saying no. “I just say, ‘I can’t do it. I hope everything is well,’” he explained (pg. 249).
Tim shared his personal take on focus as well. He shared he’s come to realize that it’s important to say “no” when it matters the most, and this is why he stopped doing startup investing. “Saying yes to too much ‘cool’ will bury you alive and render you a B-player even if you have A-player skills,” he explained. “To develop your edge initially, you need to learn to set priorities; to maintain your edge, you need to defend against the priorities of others.”
To sum up this takeaway: If it’s not a “HELL YES,” it’s a “no.”
7. Escape the “busy” mentality
Many people think being busy is a fast track to success, but many Titans actually believe that creating some slack in your life is a better approach. It’s counterintuitive, but it makes sense: the less busy you are, the more time you have to work on the things that matter.
“Being busy is a form of laziness—lazy thinking and indiscriminate action,” explained Tim. “Being busy is most often used as a guise for avoiding the few critically important but uncomfortable actions” (pg. 201).
Essayist and cartoonist Tim Kreider shared his manifesto for laziness in the book, arguing that adopting the busy mindset is a “kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness.” We mistakenly equate busyness with meaning, he argued, and that in the process of busy, we miss the important things in life.
Kreider’s essay is worth reading in its entirety, but this section is particularly thought-provoking:
“The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration—it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done” (pg 493).
8. Just start
If you’re like me and you’re a neurotic, failure-fearing over-thinker, you probably find it difficult—or perhaps even intimidating—to start working on big projects. But if you want to be a Titan, you have to start sooner rather than later even if you’re not 100% sure where you’re heading. Don’t wait for inspiration.
More importantly, don’t be afraid to start small.
“Whenever possible, ask yourself: What’s the smallest possible footprint I can get away with?” offered marketer Seth Godin. To create something great, start by looking for the smallest possible projects you can find.
Seth added, “Infinity gives us a place to hide. So I want to encourage people instead to look for the small” (pg. 240).
This idea of starting small applies really well in fitness. Automattic Founder and WordPress lead developer Matt Mullenweg got in shape by committing to just one push-up before bed. Why? Because “no matter how late you’r running, no matter what’s going on in the world, you can’t argue against doing one push-up,” he explained. “There’s no excuse” (pg. 205).
If you’re trying to pick up a new habit like meditation, you should also start small. Meng Tan tells his students that all they need to commit to is one mindful breath a day. “If you commit to one breath a day, you can easily fulfill this commitment and preserve the momentum of your practice,” Meng explained in the book. “You can say you don’t have 10 minutes today to meditate, but you cannot say you have no time for one breath” (pg. 155).
9. Express your authentic self
Weird. Eccentric. Odd.
If these adjectives describe you, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t embrace them. Authenticity is part of the journey towards becoming a Titan.
Startup investor Chris Sacca said you should always “be your unapologetically weird self.” Weirdness, he added, is what brings us closer to our colleagues and what gets us hired; in many cases, weirdness also brings us happiness (pg. 169).
10. Welcome vulnerability
There’s power in being vulnerable. Dr. Brené Brown, an author and research professor most known for her TEDxHouston talk, “The Power of Vulnerability,” said being open to vulnerability is what catapulted her career and helped her reach millions of people with her message.
“Daring greatly is being vulnerable,” Brené said. “The big question I ask is, ‘When I had the opportunity, did I choose courage over comfort?’”
Vulnerability is particularly important when you’re trying to gain people’s trust. Being vulnerable leads to trust—not the other way around (pg. 588).
11. Turn up the intensity
Want to be really fit? Then stop jogging and inject more intensity into your workout.
Just like many Titans, ultra-endurance athlete Peter Attia swears by high-intensity training, especially involving high strength workouts. “Strength training aids everything from glucose disposal and metabolic health to mitochondrial density and orthopedic stability,” he told Tim (pg. 70).
12. Be comfortable with being uncomfortable
From difficult tasks to difficult conversations, the road to better health, more wealth and wisdom is full of uncomfortable bumps.
“Lean into discomfort” is an advice from Brené Brown, adding, “He or she who is willing to be the most uncomfortable is not only the bravest, but rises the fastest” (pg. 587).
Sometimes being uncomfortable means being first—even if it’s awkward or potentially embarrassing. Volleyball athlete and TV personality Gabby Reece said she intentionally smiles or says “hi” first whenever the opportunity presents itself:
“If I’m checking out at the store, I’ll say hello first. If I’m coming across somebody and make eye contact, I’ll smile first. [I wish] people would experiment with that in their life a little bit: Be first, because—not all times, but most times—it comes in your favor. The response is pretty amazing” (pg. 94).
Being uncomfortable is a tip that Tim endorses: In The 4-Hour Workweek, he wrote, “A person’s success in life can usually be measured by the number of uncomfortable conversations he or she is willing to have.”
13. Charge more, not less
Internet pioneer and venture capitalist Marc Andreessen has this advice for businesses: raise your price.
“The number-one theme that companies have when they really struggle is they are not charging enough for their products,” he said. “They don’t charge enough for their products to be able to afford the sales and marketing required to actually get anybody to buy it. Is your product any good if people won’t pay more for it?” (pg.171).
Derek Sivers has adopted a similar life rule: “Be expensive” (pg. 185).
This rule doesn’t just apply to businesses, by the way. As a recent Harvard Business Review article suggests, most freelancers should charge more than they think they should.
14. Contemplate the shortness of life
“YOU ARE GOING TO DIE.”
– Shay Carl (pg. 445)
Tim is a Stoic, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that Stoicism is all over this book.
Contemplating your mortality, counterintuitively enough, can help lead to happiness. AngelList co-founder Naval Ravikant said if you recognize the shortness of your life, you’ll make better decisions about what you do with it. “There’s no excuse for spending most of your life in misery,” he said. “You’ve only got 70 years out of the 50 billion or however long the universe is going to be around” (pg. 552).
15. Fail frequently
If you’re not failing, you’re not learning. Several Titans talked about the importance of failure and learning from it.
“If you don’t start failing at things, you will not live a full life,” said best-selling author Sebastian Junger. “You’ll be living a cautious life on a path that you know is pretty much guaranteed to more or less work. That’s not getting the most out of this amazing world we live in” (pg. 422).
Director Robert Rodriguez has had his fair share of movies that bombed, but those failures eventually led to spectacular success. “You’ve got to be able to look at your failures and know that there’s a key to success in every failure,” he told Tim. “If you look through the ashes long enough, you’ll find something” (pg. 632).
So what do you do when you fail? Simple: get better. In his essay “Good,” retired Navy SEAL Commander said the best way to deal with setbacks is to say “good” and look for the upside.
“Accept reality, but focus on the solution,” he wrote. “Take that issue, take that setback, take that problem, and turn it into something good. Go forward” (pg. 641).
16. Forget your passion
“Follow your passion” is a terrible advice, according to Doing Good Better author Will MacAskill. “It misconstrues the nature of finding a satisfying career and satisfying job, where the biggest predictor of job satisfaction is mentally engaging work,” he explained. “It’s whether the job provides a lot of variety, gives you good feedback, allows you to exercise autonomy, continues to the wider world” (pg. 447).
Brain Pickings founder Maria Popova is also not a fan of the advice “follow your dreams” because “it’s impossible to do without self-knowledge, which takes years” (pg. 410).
Sam Kass, former private chef for the Obamas, argued that “passion” is an overrated word because it’s not something innate—rather, it’s something people develop over time. “Passion comes from a combination of being open and curious,” he explained, “and of really going all-in when you find something that you’re interested in.”
17. Learn to turn it off
Titans go all in, and they work really hard, but they also know when to relax and not think about work.
In fact, turning it off for an extended period of time can help unlock creativity, productivity and quality of life, according to Tim.
“I alternate intense period of batching similar tasks (recording podcasts, clearing the inbox, writing blog posts, handling accounting, etc.) with extended periods of—for lack of poetic description—unplugging and fucking around,” he explained (pg. 583). This “deloading period” helps Tim let his mind wander and find the signal from the noise. “If you’re lucky, it might even create a signal, or connect two signals (core ideas) that have never shaken hands before.”
Another example comes from Josh Waitzkin, who does both interval training and meditation—beautiful habits that together, he believes, help “develop to cultivate the art of turning it on and turning it off (pg. 580).
18. Be grateful
Gratitude breeds happiness, and happiness leads to success.
Author Alain de Botton said he’d tell his 30-year old self to be more grateful, to “appreciate what’s good about this moment.” He explained, “Fortune can do anything with us. We are very fragile creatures…We do have to appreciate every day that goes by without a major disaster” (pg. 488).
Tim cultivates gratitude by keeping a record of things that he’s thankful for. Every time something good happens, Tim writes it down on a piece of paper and puts it in a mason jar: the Jar of Awesome. According to Tim, this jar has had a “tremendous impact” on his life, allowing him to record great things that happened. “Cultivate the habit of putting something in every day,” advised Tim (pg. 571).
Not into jars? Keeping a gratitude journal will do as well.
19. Choose your friends wisely
Tell me who your friends are and I’ll tell you who you are.
You are the average of the company you keep.
These maxims are classics for a reason: they’re enduring truths about life. And, indeed, many of the icons featured in Tools of Titans emphasize the importance of choosing the right people to keep in your life.
This explanation from Naval Ravikant explains it clearly:
“There’s a theory that I call ‘the five chimps theory.’ In zoology, you can predict the mood and behavior patterns of any chimp by which five chimps they hang out with the most. Choose your chimps carefully” (pg. 548).
Does this mean you should hang out only with successful people? Not necessarily. Naval said there’s an inherent tension between ambition and happiness—a tension that extends to your choice of friends. “If you want to be successful, surround yourself with people who are more successful than you are,” he explained, “but if you want to be happy, surround yourself with people who are less successful than you are” (pg. 547).
20. Check your ego
To be successful, you need to first practice humility.
“If you want great mentors, you have to become a great mentee,” wrote Tim. “If you want to lead, you have to first learn to follow” (pg. 334).
This advice is particularly true at work, where you may feel that you’re not always getting the credit that you deserve. In Tools of Titans, author Ryan Holiday shared what he called the “Canvas Strategy”—an approach of making someone else look good.
“Clear the path for the people above you and you will eventually create a path for yourself,” Ryan argued. Why? Because “greatness comes from humble beginnings; it comes from grunt work” (pg. 338).
Ultimately, Ryan’s point is that by clearing the path for someone else to move up, you’re also clearing the path for yourself. It’s about putting your ego aside, being genuinely helpful and enabling everyone around you to achieve more than they thought possible.
21. Embrace the cold…and the heat
Exposure to both cold and heat can improve various aspects of your health, according to many athletes, coaches and high-performing people that Tim spoke to. For example, Dr. Rhonda Perciavalle Patrick that “hyperthermic conditioning” can help endurance, increase growth level production and decrease delayed-onset muscle soreness.
“One study has demonstrated that a 30-minute sauna session twice a week for 3 weeks post-workout increased the time it took for study participants to run until exhaustion by 32% compared to baseline,” Dr. Patrick told Tim. Another study showed that two 20-minute sauna sessions followed by 30-minute cooling period elevated growth hormone levels (pg. 7).
According to Tim, cold exposure is a purifying force that can help you improve immune function, increase fat loss and elevate mood. Some of the Titans who do this regularly include 20-time world record-holder Wim Hof, surfing king Laird Hamilton and self-help guru Tony Robbins.
Music producer Rick Rubin is a fan of both cold and heat exposure. “Often, exercise will make me feel better, meditating will make me feel better, but the ice bath is the greatest of all,” he told Tim. “It’s just magic—sauna, ice, back and forth. By the end of the fourth, or fifth, or sixth round of being in an ice tub, there is nothing in the world that bothers you” (pg. 503).
22. Be a voracious reader
One question that Tim always asks his guests is this: “What’s your most gifted book?” Your reading list will grow significantly just from reading Tools of Titans.
The most-gifted books from Tim’s guests include:
- Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu
- Atlas Shrugged by Ayd Rand
- Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari
- Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse
- The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss
- The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande
Because of Tools of Titans, I’ve read two books that have left a big impression on me, and I highly recommend them: Open by André Agassi and The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin.
A massive book with actionable tips
Tools of Titans is for anyone who is in an experimental mindset. If you’re a naturally curious person, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.
If you’ve read Tools of Titans before, I would love your thoughts as well. Which Titans featured in the book made the biggest impact on you? Which tips from the books do you disagree with? What type of people do you think would benefit the most from the book?
Feel free to share your comments and reviews below.