Tim Ferriss: Why He Asks Absurd Questions on the Podcast


I’m Alex Berman and you’re watching SELLING
BREAKDOWNS. Tim Ferriss is not a man you can easily define. You might know him as one of the main Angel
Investors in technology. Or perhaps you read one of his many best-selling
self-help books. And let’s not forget about his hugely popular
podcast: The Tim Ferriss Show. However whatever project Tim tackles, there
are clear themes to how we approach any task and the best way to understand this is by
looking at the questions that he asks. Today, we’re going to see how Tim Ferriss
doesn’t ask questions like most other people, not just to his podcast guests, but to himself. This is how he can examine an idea or a process
from every possible angle, to find a way to improve it. Tim’s real success started with BrainQUICKEN,
an online supplements company which he had for nine years before selling it off. But it was the process of running the company
that gave Tim the experience to find new ways to look at productivity. He often calls himself a human guinea pig
and he drastically altered the way he worked over the years. This led to his pivotal book The Four Hour
Work Week, which laid out his philosophy for how to cut all the time people waste throughout
the working day. And he stayed pretty busy after that; he wrote
follow ups, he’s an Angel investor, he’s dipped his toe into tv presenting but it’s
probably his podcast that has brought him the widest audience, thanks to close to 100
million downloads. He has a fascinating range of guests and the
big selling point is that he manages to get insights that few interviewers are able to. Although he certainly has a natural charm,
the key is in the type of question he asks. Let’s quickly talk about questions There are 2 basic categories; open and closed. A closed question only allows a yes or no
response. We ask this type frequently, and a lot of
the time, we actually want more than a yes or no answer but the information is limited. For example; “Did you have a good day?” It’s kinda weird to just answer “yeah”
or “no” and then stop talking, you normally elaborate a little. But no one wants an essay as a response either. Open questions have multiple or infinite answers
but within these there are other kinds. Factual questions are typically what, where,
who. They normally have a right or wrong answer. Then there are divergent and evaluative questions. These require critical thinking; why did this
happen? How did you do it? So, what kind of questions do you think Tim
Ferris is going to ask? These last types, that provide more thoughtful
answers. He’s not so interested in his guest’s
biography or the things you could read off a fact sheet. He wants insight into the choices that got
them to the level of success they are at. Of course, he still needs factual questions,
since they keep the conversation flowing but he make guests evaluate choices and behaviour
far more than a regular host. This isn’t just a feeling either. Thanks to the work of a site called transcripts.io,
we’ve been able to go through the transcripts of some of his shows and see the data. Let’s look at two interviews, both with
actor Ed Norton. One is on Tim’s podcast, where they talk
for about 1 hour 10 minutes. The other is from NPR, a show called Fresh
Air with Terry Gross. They talk for about 35 minutes but there are
also quite a few clips from Norton’s films peppered throughout, so it’s shorter really. With Terry, Norton get’s 4 what-where-who
questions and only 3 how questions, zero why. On top of this there are about 15-20 closed
questions. You can hear it in Norton’s responses, he
replies “yeah” nine times, and four “no”s But with Tim Ferriss, there are 22 what-where-who’s,
7 how and whys and just three closed questions. In the entire interview, Norton replies yeah,
yes or no just three times, one of each. Just think about that for a second, think
about sitting down and talking to someone for an hour and only replying yes or no, three
times. That would hardly ever happen, right? And if you think this could just be a coincidence,
we checked another guest. When legendary record producer Rick Rubin
talks to Tim, he answers Yeah or Yes about 7 or 8 times and two no’s. But on another interview with Ben Greenfield
on his fitness podcast, that number jumps up to over 20 yeah’s and yes’s, as well
as 5 no’s. This is not a criticism of the other interviewers,
they have a different purpose than Tim, a different goal for their questions. But Tim knows the real insight comes when
he makes people really think about their answers. And if you look at when Tim is interviewed
himself, you see exactly why he adopts this tactic. The only way he was able to innovate was by
asking better questions. Just listen: “In your business and your life it’s … you
get there by improving your thinking and the shortest way to get to better thinking is
by asking better questions. And so… If people listen to a couple of episodes of
my podcast, they’re going to start to recognise certain recurring questions right” And what kind of questions Tim? “it’s those types of questions though
that force you to look for the non-obvious answers” And his favourite kind of question is a seemingly
absurd question. He’s even said that this is one of the main
similarities among the outstanding performers in all fields “The biggest commonality is asking absurd
questions” But why, what’s the point of them. Well… “So these absurd questions often produce
breakthrough answers or brainstorm sessions because you can’t use the constraints or
assumptions that you normally do.” So for example, these are some of the questions
he’s talking about, which are either his own or those of people he admires “Why can’t you accomplish your 10 year
plan in the next 6 months” “And if you talk to say Peter Diamandis,
chairman of the Xprize, he might ask the founders of companies he’s looking at as potential
investments, if you had to 10X the economics of your startup in the next..fill in the period
of time, 6 months, 3 months, how would you do it?” So now you see why he has this whole approach
to questioning. The only way you’re going to find new solutions
to existing problems is by thinking about them in a different way than before. Tim Ferriss isn’t going to be asking these
absurd questions at every step but even with his so-called “regular” questions, he’s
always looking for a better answer…from the guest, and certainly from himself as well. Let me know in the comments – what’s an
absurd question you’ve been asked, and what was your response? Wanna learn more about business theory and
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