Filling the Void: Thoughts on Learning and Karma


Palmyra Atoll National Wildlife Refuge (Photo: Jim Maragos/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.
-Viktor E. Frankl, Holocaust survivor, author of Man’s Search for Meaning

I believe that life exists to be enjoyed, and that the most important thing is to feel good about yourself.

Without the latter, little else gets done.

Each person will have his or her own vehicles for achieving both, and those vehicles will change over time. For some, the answer will be working with orphans, and for others, it will be composing music. I have a personal answer to both–to love, be loved, and never stop learning–but I don’t expect that to be universal.

Some criticize a focus on self-love and enjoyment as selfish or hedonistic, but it’s neither.

Enjoying life and helping others–or feeling good about yourself and increasing the greater good–are no more mutually exclusive than being agnostic and leading a moral life. One does not preclude the other. Let’s assume we agree on this. It still leaves the question: what can I do with my time to enjoy life and feel good about myself?

I can’t offer a single answer that will fit all people, but, based on the dozens of fulfilled people I’ve interviewed, and the thousands who’ve provided feedback on this blog, there are two components that are fundamental…

Continual learning and service.

What follows is how I think of both.


Americans who travel abroad for the first time are often shocked to discover that, despite all the progress that has been made in the last 30 years, many foreign people still speak in foreign languages.
-Dave Barry, American writer and humorist

To learn is to live. I see no other option. Once the learning curve flattens out, I get bored.

Though you can upgrade your brain domestically, traveling and relocating provides unique conditions that make progress much faster. The different surroundings act as a counterpoint and mirror for your own prejudices, making addressing weaknesses that much easier. Learning is such an addiction and compulsion of mine that I rarely travel somewhere without deciding first how I’ll obsess on a specific skill.

A few examples:

Connemara, Ireland: Gaelic Irish, Irish flute, and hurling, the fastest field sport in the world, and perhaps the most amazing sport I’ve ever played (imagine a mix of lacrosse and rugby played with axe handles)

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: Brazilian Portuguese and surfing
Berlin, Germany: German and locking (a form of upright breakdancing)

I tend to focus on language acquisition and one kinesthetic skill, sometimes finding the latter after landing overseas. The most successful serial vagabonds tend to blend the mental and the physical. Notice that I often port a skill I practice domestically-—martial arts-—to other countries where they are also practiced. Instant social life and camaraderie. It need not be a competitive sport-—it could be hiking, chess, or almost anything that keeps your nose out of a textbook and you out of your apartment. Sports just happen to be excellent for avoiding foreign language stage fright and developing lasting friendships, while still sounding like Tarzan.

Language learning deserves special mention here. It is, bar none, the best thing you can do to hone clear thinking.

Quite aside from the fact that it is impossible to understand a foreign culture without understanding its language, acquiring a new language transforms the human experience and makes you aware your own language: your own thoughts.

The practical benefits of this are as underestimated as the difficulty of language learning is overestimated. I know from research and personal experience with more than a dozen languages that 1) adults can learn languages much faster than children when constant 9-5 work is removed and 2) it is possible to become conversationally-fluent in any language in six months or less. At four hours per day, six months can be whittled down to less than three months. It is beyond the scope of this post to explain applied linguistics and the 80/20 of language learning, but here are a few starting points.

Don’t miss the chance to double your life experience. Gain a language and you gain a second lens through which to question and understand the world.

Cursing at people when you go home is fun, too.


Morality is simply the attitude we adopt toward people we personally dislike.
-Oscar Wilde

Service to me is simple: doing something that improves life besides your own.

This is not the same as philanthropy. Philanthropy is the altruistic concern for the well-being of mankind–human life. Human life and comfort have long been focused on to the exclusion of the environment and the rest of the food chain, hence our current race to imminent extinction. Serves us right. The world does not exist solely for the betterment and multiplication of mankind.

Before I start chaining myself to trees and saving the dart frogs, though, I should take my own advice: do not become a cause snob.

How can you help starving children in Africa when there are starving children in Los Angeles? How can you save the whales when homeless people are freezing to death? How does doing volunteer research on coral destruction help those people who need help now?

Children, please. Everything out there needs help, so don’t get baited into “my cause can beat up your cause” arguments with no right answer. There are no qualitative or quantitative comparisons that make sense. The truth is this: those thousands of lives you save could contribute to a famine that kills millions, or that one bush in Bolivia that you protect could hold the cure for cancer. The downstream effects are unknown. Do your best and hope for the best. If you’re improving the world–however you define that–consider your job well done.

Service isn’t limited to saving lives or the environment. It can also improve life. If you are a musician and put a smile on the faces of thousands or millions, I view that as service. If you are a mentor and change the life of one child for the better, the world has been improved. Improving the quality of life in the world is in no fashion inferior to adding more lives.

Service is an attitude.

Find the cause or vehicle that interests you most and make no apologies.


Afterword: My Current Passion

I’m passionate about many things, but one of them is timely.

In one of the most ecologically diverse areas in the Bahamas, I am working with Summit Series and others to help create a Marine Protected Area (MAP). Think of it as a ocean-based national park. It would be patrolled and run by the Nature Conservancy. I am passionate about saving the oceans upon which we depend.

To get this protected area to the finish line for funding, it needs just one last nudge. I’m therefore offering a match:

For the next week, up to $25,000, I will match every dollar donated here. This means that if you donate or help raise $25,000, I will donate another $25,000 for a total of $50,000.

As a bonus, anyone who donates $10 or more is automatically entered to win one of five seats on a shark tagging trip with the University of Miami research team (all the fine print here). I did this myself, and it’s AMAZING.

Please take a look at it all here. It’s tax-deductible, and everyone who donates will get a tax receipt seconds after they donate.

If we raise less than $50,000, I’ll still match dollar-for-dollar, but I think we could raise $25,000, don’t you? Then I’ll make it $50,000.

Thank you in advance to anyone who decides to give this a shot. Thank you also to everyone who politely declines but asks themselves: how might I make my own dent in the universe?

Be the change you want to see.

Posted on: November 16, 2011.

Watch The Tim Ferriss Experiment, the new #1-rated TV show with "the world's best human guinea pig" (Newsweek), Tim Ferriss. It's Mythbusters meets Jackass. Shot and edited by the Emmy-award winning team behind Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations and Parts Unknown. Here's the trailer.

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155 comments on “Filling the Void: Thoughts on Learning and Karma

  1. Hey Tim,

    Thanks for the reminder (wake-up call) to start living life again. Much needed.

    Quick question: What kind of Yerba Mate Gourd do you use? Any favorite additives for the Cruz de Malta (honey mixed in water, whiskey?)

    Thanks for everything.


    • Hi David,

      I use a metal gourd these days for ease of cleaning and less bacteria. The purists hate it, but plenty of Argies use the metal.

      I don’t, however, use any additives — just plain “amargo” (bitter) Cruz de Malta :)




      • Thanks for the response Tim!

        I’ll get a metal gourd (hard to find a good one on Amazon) – I use a natural gourd and it’s growing mold every now and then.

        Stay awesome!



      • Hi Tim!
        I have started reading your book The 4-hour work week yersterday! I couldn´t stop reading it.
        I´m one of yours, love travelling and believe that being busy is overrated: THE KEY IS TO BE PRODUCTIVE! and enjoy your spare time in things you want to do.
        Last year I opened a company with my brother (both argentineans), to expand argentine culture around the globe and start living the dream, TODAY… I can´t wait to get my hands on your book again.

        Thanks for sharing your treasure!
        If you want to stop by to have a good asado next time in Buenos Aires, it´s on me!



  2. Hey Tim, I am in the Caribbean island of Antigua, found this article informative and also reaches out…Thus i would like to make a small contribution. Unfortunately, I just read the fine print, seems like i’m not eligible for the shark tagging affair.

    I enjoy reading your articles. Regards


  3. Great post Tim,

    I really enjoy reading your ‘filling the void’ posts & I couldn’t agree more in the fact that some people get “charity blindness” in the way that they can only see their cause and their cause only.

    A lot of the giving we do (im talking about giving money) is done on a selfish mode. some people give cause it makes them feel better about themselves, while other’s give to the starving kids in Africa cause they feel bad.

    Regardless the the cause, giving away some of our time is almost as valuable if not more than just opening our pockets.

    Just food for thought…


  4. Very well written post. I love your writing style here and I think you touch on a bunch of very important points.

    I am in total agreement with you pertaining to travel. I only wish everyone could see the world from a different perspective. I started traveling in 2010 after reading the 4HWW and subsequently Vagabonding and my life has since done a 180.

    I’ve lost over 100 lbs and spent over 6 months seeing over 14 countries and my perspective is forever changed.

    Just wanted to say thanks and keep up the good work. Your post has inspired me this morning (or night for us insomniac writers)

    All the best,

    Rick A. Griffith


  5. G’day Tim

    Thanks for the reminder to be grateful for the opportunity to serve. I’m just back from my first vagabonding jaunt and currently doing a job that feels ‘menial’ (as it was what I was doing when I was 17) whilst I build my muse.

    However, for all it’s hourly-rate drawbacks, I have the opportunity to help people with their fitness programs, their attitudes towards exercise, diet and themselves. I know that my support and respect for their efforts has a positive impact and for that opportunity, I’m grateful.

    xo, AB


  6. Tim, thank you very much for another insightful post. I especially enjoy those which are not primarily focused on financial matters. :P I am in the beginning stages of planning a jaunt to Argentina in 2013 to A) Learn Spanish and B) Ski Ski SKI. I was thinking of spending 2-3 months in Buenos Aires. The fact that I just signed into twitter and this was the first post up was an AMAZING feeling. You would be making a 4-Hour double owner very happy by addressing these questions.

    Cheers, and keep sharing your gifts :)



    • Sorry, I meant to say “spending 2-3 months in Buenos Aires learning Spanish and then heading to the mountains.” Do you have any advice in regards to language schools/programs and the best place to set up shop for the ski season?

      Thanks again



  7. A pity that nowadays it takes disease or old age to find the Feldenkrais Method. Functional Integration is clearly and by far the most important skillset a grown up human can learn. Learning is the future of our society.

    But sadly, young, prosperous, strong men are too much drawn to shiny, show-offable, fast skills. It saddens me every time I see years and years and years wasted.

    But old age and disease will come. And then it’s finally time to pick up where the teenager left off.


  8. Tim,

    Thanks for this – inspiring as ever, and finally these strange sticks some students carry around here make sense to me.

    One question: you mention that adults, when not working, will learn a language much faster than children – which goes against the theory of language acquisition taught at unis. I’m horribly keen to find out if this is research or your experience – and if it’s the former, where can I get the data?



    • This has also been my experience, and I’ve met so many adults who learn way more efficiently than children do. The only thing that’s different is that conscious effort is required, whereas children can learn it more unconsciously.

      But when you have that conscious effort, you can show-up a child in no time.

      Here is one example of research that confirms experience from Tim, myself and many many others:

      Most research that “proves” that children are better learners does not take adults’ unique advantages into account and compares them in academic or other inefficient environments.

      And in the rest of cases it’s actually a self-fulfilling prophecy. “Children learn better than me, so why even bother?”


  9. Hey Tim

    A great post! Self improvement and giving can of course easily be combined, travelling to Africa to work with children or to the Bahamas to protect coral reefs benefit both the individual and the wider world.

    For me as a runner it is easy for me to my passion for running marathons (self improvement) with raising money for charity by sponsorship (giving). It’s win win all around!

    Keep up the good work




  10. Thanks Tim, I love this post! I am taking action to make my own dent in the universe – however insignificant it may seem…. YOU can be proud knowing that you have already made such a massive dent to the world! Thanks for taking a trip to Australia recently too – it made me so happy to get to see you share your thoughts with us. You inspire me to keep my thinking cap on and to be the master of my own ideas….


  11. Hey Tim,
    Awesome pic at the top of the post! In regards to the Viktor Frankl quote: the best wine in the world is made from grapes that are denied water almost to the point of dying.Basically the winemakers “stress” the grapes almost to the point of failure.

    I am with you here, if I am not continually, learning, growing and improving I feel bored and stagnant.


  12. This snippet from Tim’s post could slip by unnoticed so I want to pull it out:
    “I believe that life exists to be enjoyed, and that the most important thing is to feel good about yourself.

    Without the latter, little else gets done.”

    Emphasis on that last sentence. Have you noticed that when you don’t feel good it’s harder to get things done? and everything just seems uphill.

    There is definitely something to be said about looking after yourself first – making sure you’re feeling good – doing what it takes to make that happen – and then you find meeting all the other goals easier.


    • Angel,
      You are right about taking care of ourselves. It is very important.

      One of my good friends once told me if we all took care of our health first there would be more healthy people. He went on to say ‘Too many people become unhealthy in the service of others and then end up in need of other people’s help.’

      So true don’t you think?



  13. Hello Tim,

    Thank you. This was a great post!

    I have a quick question as well.
    You said that some criticize a focus on self-love and enjoyment as selfish or hedonistic, but it’s neither.
    I sometimes feel that spend my time, money and energy in enjoyment as selfishness, when there are so many things to do for helping the world.

    Don’t you feel that sometimes?


  14. Hey Tim,

    Cool post. Do you still fill the void with the ould hurl from time to time? (Bit of Irish humor for you!)

    Seriously though you’ve had a huge influence on my life since I’ve read your first book and I thank you for that.

    Keep up the great work.