Listening to Tim Ferriss


Let me tell you about Tim Ferriss. A few years ago, I started reading his best-selling book, The 4-Hour Body. Ferris detailed how he made himself into a one-man experiment – he’d make changes to his diet, checked his weight and his labs, maybe he even had metabolic studies done.

In a recent podcast, Tim Ferriss (above) describes a 10-day silent retreat where he used psilocybin and subsequently remembered experiencing childhood sexual abuse. Courtesy Taylor Prinsen

Tim Ferriss (above) was one of four philanthropists who donated a total of $17 million to fund the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic & Consciousness research.

He’d take these measures after soaking in hot baths, then ice baths, and while I admired his discipline, he did lose me during the chapter where he was using steroids. In the end, he advised a dairy-free, low-carbohydrate diet of green vegetables, beans or lentils, and protein for four meals a day, 6 days a week, with free-for-all eating on the 7th day. Then, there was a weight-lifting routine with kettle bells and ice packs to be placed on your shoulders for a set amount of time each day.

I may not remember the program’s details, but something about Ferris fascinated me. He brands himself as being a “human guinea pig,” about “lifestyle design,” and whatever that is, I like it. Perhaps I am attracted to the idea that we might control the trajectories of our generally uncontrollable lives.

Tim Ferriss graduated from Princeton, he’s written five best-selling books and has a popular podcast, he’s been a TED speaker, and he’s been on Fortune’s “40 under 40” list – and there’s so much more. Ferriss is brilliant, innovative, handsome, charismatic, prolific, extraordinarily athletic. I may have forgotten to mention that he was the National Chinese Kickboxing Champion and was a semifinalist in the World Champion Tango competition in Buenos Aires. He’s adventuresome and fearless, and if that isn’t enough, he speaks five languages. In the genetic dice roll, Mr. Ferriss did well, and he’s a driven and energetic hard worker who is open to new experiences.

I subscribe to the Tim Ferriss podcast – as of this writing, there are 466 episodes, with an incredible lineup of interviews with famous and successful guests. I also subscribe to his “5-Bullet Friday” email list where he mentions the interesting things he is reading, watching, learning about, or eating, and the products he is trying – single-ply toilet paper gets a thumbs down – then ends with a thought-provoking quote. This gentleman spends a tremendous amount of time searching and striving, working on himself and his own emotional growth and self-improvement, and yet he still has time for incredible explorations and experiences.

A search for psychic peace

Honestly, were it not for a few little details, I would like to be Tim Ferriss. Who wouldn’t? But what stops me from actually wanting to be Ferriss is that early on while listening to him, I realized that his drive has been fueled by intense psychic pain. He talks openly about being very close to suicide in college, about a tormenting mood disorder, demons to tame, and productivity as an antidote to a fear of failure, not always as a joy for life. There are moments that I have felt so sad for this remarkable stranger. Tim Ferriss is a searcher and what I believe he searches for most is his own psychic peace.

Dr. Miller is coauthor of “Committed: The Battle Over Involuntary Psychiatric Care” (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016), and assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore.

Dr. Dinah Miller

In a forum for psychiatrists, I wish I could write that Ferriss has found solace with our Food and Drug Administration–approved pharmaceuticals and with psychotherapy, but that’s not what he says. What Ferriss has found helpful, however, is psychedelics, and a wide variety of psychological and philosophical teachings ranging from meditation to Stoicism. And most notably, Ferriss has been an advocate for using hallucinogens as a legal medical intervention. Ferriss was one of four philanthropists who donated a total of $17 million to fund the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic & Consciousness Research. He’s helped to move this field forward and to improve its credibility.

On Sept. 14, 2020, Tim Ferriss released a podcast he recorded with his dance partner and close friend, Debbie Millman, and when he recorded it, he was not certain he would release it. None of his usual sponsors endorsed during the podcast. He starts Episode #464 with, “For me, this is the most important podcast episode I’ve ever published. In it, I describe the most life-shaping, certainly the most difficult, and certainly the most transformative journey of my 43 years on this planet. I’ve never shared it before.”

I applaud Mr. Ferriss for going through with posting the podcast, a confessional about how he was repeatedly sexually molested over a 2-year period as a young child by a babysitter’s son. He worried about how this would affect his family, if they would be left feeling guilty or devastated. He says, “Please note that I expect to be completely overwhelmed emotionally and otherwise when this is published and please understand if I’m not able to reply to any outreach.”

Ferriss and Millman had a long discussion about their sexual abuse as children. Millman was abused by her stepfather at the age of 9, and she talks about confronting him many years later. Ferriss has not confronted his perpetrator, though he has contemplated doing so.

Sexual violence and violation at any age leaves people scarred. In a recent letter to the New York Times in response to President Trump’s words of support to Ghislaine Maxwell, the woman who helped Jeffrey Epstein find his victims, Baltimore psychiatrist Robin Weiss wrote, “Thirty-eight years ago, when I was 32, I was raped. I was married, I was a doctor – you might say I was in pretty stable shape. Yet the shame and guilt I felt were overwhelming. Why didn’t I fight harder? How did I let this happen? I knew better, yet it took me years to overcome those irrational feelings.” These feelings of shame, guilt, self-doubt, and self-blame are nearly universal in survivors of sexual trauma. In children, they can be even worse, as children often don’t have an understanding that what is being done to them is wrong. They lack the language and the maturity to process the events, and ongoing abuse may be accompanied by threats to life of the child or their family members if they tell others, as was the case with Millman. She chose to process her abuse and the consequent difficulties she had by seeking psychiatric care. She took antidepressants and has been in psychoanalysis, both of which she has found to be helpful. Her treatment has tamed her demons, it is ongoing decades later and those demons have not vanished.


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