Tim Ferriss’s Scam Framework and the Rise of Fake Gurus

Pete Ross

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Picture credit: Olivier Ezratty - Creative Commons.

“Here in my garage, just bought this new Lamborghini here…”

With just 10 words, Tai Lopez cemented himself as the start of an infamous YouTube trend that is still going strong today. That video now has almost 70 million views and has inspired an entire generation of scam artists to sell bogus courses that promise people an easy ride to riches.

You’ve probably seen these scammers while watching YouTube. They’re the ones that pop up in ads promising to show you how to get rich working at home from your laptop. They’re like the Instagram influencer being pictured in a private jet which is actually rented, except these guys go the extra mile and pretend that everything you see in their video - from the Bentley to the mansion, is actually theirs.

They pretend it’s theirs because they haven’t actually done anything valuable enough to be able to buy it, and that’s where you, the sucker customer comes in. You’re going to pay for their overpriced courses on subjects that they have no expertise in because all the credibility markers they use indicate that they do have that expertise. This will net them millions and allow them to buy the things in the video for real, while you’re left with nothing more than a huge hole in your bank account.

As much as I like him and am torn about it, I have to blame Tim Ferriss and the scam framework he provided in The Four Hour Work Week for this.

I don’t do it with pleasure. He’s one of the great podcasters and interviewers of our time, and the knowledge that he’s been able to extract from his plethora of guests over the years is remarkable. I recall dozens of “aha!” moments as I listened to people who are at the top of their game or have decades of experience in their field.

As Uncle Ben famously said in Spiderman, however, “with great power, comes great responsibility.” The Four Hour Work Week was a seminal piece of work that went all around the world. It’s sold 1.3 million copies and been translated into 35 different languages. Unfortunately within the many great pages that deal with optimisation and new ways of thinking is the framework and method that one can use to build fake credibility on their way to being a scam artist.

I won’t quote the entire passage, but this particular paragraph is telling:

It took a friend of mine just three weeks to become a “top relationship expert who, as featured in Glamour and other national media, has counselled executives at Fortune 500 companies on how to improve their relationships in 24 hours or less.” How did she do it?

He then goes on to a methodology to make this happen:

  1. Join 2–3 trade related organisations with official sounding names.
  2. Read the top 3 best selling books on your topic and summarize each on one page.
  3. Give a free 1–3 hour seminar at the closest well known university.
  4. Do the same at branches of two well-known, big companies. Use the fact that you have given seminars at the university for credibility to get the booking. And so on.

He finishes by saying that he doesn’t recommend pretending to be something you’re not, and “presenting the truth in the best light, not fabricating it, is the name of the game.”

Sorry, but that’s a bunch of BS. Reading a few books and passing yourself off as an expert might not be illegal in the same way as claiming a qualification you don’t have, but it’s just as immoral and scammy. In fact, I’d sooner talk to someone at a bus stop than take relationship advice from his “expert” friend, who has gotten all her knowledge from a few books, not from actual experience.

Saying “I’ve spoken at Stanford University” because I held a free class there might be technically true, even if only one person showed up. I could even take it a step further and say the same thing just because I had a conversation with someone on campus. Hey, technically I did speak, so it’s true, right? The thing is, this isn’t just some subtle little manipulation to help push the relationship along in order to have the buyer pull the trigger on something that they actually wanted in the first place. No, it’s actually fraud, or some lesser version of it.

That’s because you’re messing with a basic and highly important human emotion: trust. We value experts because they are experts. They have devoted their lives to a subject and because of that, they advance the human race — be that through technology, medicine, whatever. So we rightly revere their knowledge, because it helps all of us. If you’re invited to speak at a university, it implies that you have high standing in a field and engenders a level of credibility and trust.

By circumventing this process and making the fact that you spoke at a university a mere technicality, you’re scamming your way to credibility, pure and simple. There is no grey area here, because if you ask 100 people what it means for someone to speak at a university, they aren’t going to respond that it could mean you held a free class. No, “speaking at a university” or holding a class there implies that you were invited by faculty to share your knowledge.

We can see this happening right now with the likes of Tai Lopez and Dan Lok appearing at TEDx events. First of all, this completely torpedoes any credibility that those events ever held. Secondly, this is right out of the 4HWW playbook — find something that makes you appear more legitimate and use it. These two guys can now tell everyone that they spoke at TEDx — the same place that Jocko Willink, Jordan Peterson, Simon Sinek and many other people who actually have credibility have spoken at.

Dan Lok’s speech wasn’t even original. It wasn’t a unique point of view or insightful in any way (which is what a TED speech is supposed to be). No, it was nothing more than repackaged garbage from other motivational speakers — he even shamelessly rips off a story (and it’s not even a good story) that Eric Thomas has used many times, changes a couple of minor details and passes it off as his own.

Even his speeches are scams.

But none of that matters. Because according to TFHWW, it’s a credibility marker when, mixed with other credibility markers, now makes him appear legit. After all, no one normal is getting invited to speak at TEDx, so he really must be good, right? Now is it possible that these guys would have scammed their way to success anyway? Sure, of course it is. There have always been scammers and there always will be scammers.

This is on another level though. These guys are amassing huge fortunes — we’re talking tens of millions of dollars here and amassing cult like power because they‘re using this psychological framework to manipulate desperate people into parting with their money. Here is where we find the second parallel with TFHWW:

The lure of an easy lifestyle.

Ferriss lays it all out in his book. Check out this paragraph, which I assure you is not taken out of context:

There are a million and one ways to make a million dollars. From franchising to freelance consulting, the list is endless. Fortunately, most of them are unsuited to our purpose. This chapter is not for people who want to run businesses but for those who want to own businesses and spend no time on them.
The response I get when I introduce this concept is more or less universal: huh?

Well, there’s a good reason for that response. It’s because no worthwhile business like that actually exists. As you can see, Ferriss not only legitimises but encourages this kind of hollow enterprise. So not only are you going to build fake credibility through manipulation, you’re now going to set up a company you don’t even have to run just to enrich yourself. Good luck with that.

With that in mind, look at any of these fake guru’s ads. Literally every single one of them offers some variation of “do you want to quit your job and earn money while you sleep?” Who the hell doesn’t want that? When you surround that promise with images that look like they’re taken out of a rap video, now you have young people who see their future as bleak decades working for “the man” ready to hand over their credit card details.

The problem is that when you provide a method for scamming people as Ferriss did, it’s only going to be the beginning. I looked around at some of these fake gurus, and the claims they are making to establish their credibility boggle the mind.

  • Dan Lok claims he’s an “international best selling author”. Funny, he hasn’t said which, if any of his ebooks selling on Amazon qualify him as “best selling.”
  • Kevin James also claims he’s an international best selling author. Despite searching numerous databases I can’t find a single one where he’s listed.
  • Tai Lopez has been out pushing the fact that he read 52 books in a single year. Firstly, he didn’t, he just skimmed them. Now he’s out there claiming that “your average CEO reads 52 books a year.”

So they begin by making these claims that increase their credibility because, who’s going to go to the trouble of checking? Get people believing in those initial claims and it’s going to be that much easier for them to believe that by paying $2000 for your course, they’re going to be able to do minimal work and earn a fortune. Now you’re filthy rich and the schmucks who believed you are in debt because there’s no regulation on this kind of fraudulence over the Internet.

The funny thing is, Robert Cialdini (professor of marketing and psychology) has written a lot about manipulation tactics in the famous book Influence. It is quite clear in his writing, however, that he is teaching people to defend themselves against these tactics as much as showing how they can be used in sales and marketing. This differs completely from Ferriss, who craps all over the idea of expertise and credibility altogether. Whereas Cialdini says “here’s how it works”, Ferriss says “experts are bullshit, here’s how to fake it to get what you want.” Then he tells you exactly how to do it.

Before you think that I’m attributing way too much blame to a passage in one book, consider Ferriss’s other early work. The blog post that put him on the map was “From Geek to Freak: How I Gained 34lbs of Muscle in 4 Weeks.” He claims that it was accomplished with a total of 4 hours of gym time. I’m not going to go into all the reasons it’s BS — that would take a post longer than this one to do, but let’s just say that no credible trainer would consider that possible without the use of anabolics. Even then, probably not possible.

I’ve wondered, considering all the good that Ferriss’s work has done, if this sort of thing keeps him up at night. It’s clear in his younger years that all he cared about was getting rich and famous, as he recently stated himself in his podcast. Obviously back then he had a “whatever it takes” attitude towards getting famous. There’s a vast disconnect between the scammy framework he espoused in TFHWW and his podcast, which is full of actual experts.

I’m sure at this point he’s put it all behind him and he doesn’t wish to be defined by a book from 13 years ago. He probably defines himself far more by his podcast and investing these days. The reality is, however, that his whatever it takes attitude to success has been the launching off point for other scammers to defraud people of huge amounts of money. There is little doubt many people’s lives have been ruined by the framework he has provided the world.

I think the message is clear: there is no easy way to wealth unless you step on other people to get it. If someone is offering you the path, no matter how credible they may seem, they’re full of it and you should run away. Fast.

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I write about career, performance, psychology, self development and business humour. I'm an author, former national competitor in judo and strongman and a former military instructor.

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